I found out in December that I was pregnant and we were thrilled. The 12 weeks we had to wait to tell anyone were a bit nerve wracking and I tried not to get emotionally attached to the baby so as to protect myself in case of miscarriage. I felt like I started showing right away and I was so excited to finally tell people “No, I’m not getting fat, I’m pregnant!” Once past 12 weeks, it seemed we were home free. We were going to have a baby. The ultrasound tech and I watched as she moved around, her little heart beating perfectly. Even at that stage, I could make out her body quite clearly. “I could watch them for hours, they are so cute and wonderful,” I remember the tech saying to me. “So could I,” I told her. I breathed a sigh of relief.
The pregnancy itself was fairly easy. Since I’d had gestational diabetes (GD) with my older daughter (Riley), I tested early for it this time and discovered that I had it once again. This meant I had to constantly monitor my blood sugar, take medication and keep restrictions on what I ate. As the pregnancy progressed, it became harder to keep my sugar levels down but it was never something I worried too much about. As I told everyone, “It’s a pain but if this is the worst that happens, I’ll take it.”
We found out mid-pregnancy that we were having a girl and, after some back and forth, we decided to name her Reese. Despite the fact that I would truly have been happy with a boy or girl (“As long as it is healthy with ten fingers, ten toes!”), I was secretly overjoyed that she was a girl. I wanted Riley to have a sister. I wanted two daughters. I envisioned them playing dress-up, sharing dolls and doing all the things sisters do together. I thought of them sharing a room, maybe even cuddling up in the same bed. They’d be 2.5 years apart – “a perfect age difference,” people kept telling me. “They’ll be best friends.” I would grin and say “I know, I can’t wait.” Although I was worried about how Riley would deal with the transition of having a baby take up some of her Mommy and Daddy time, I really couldn’t wait to see how it would go. We started prepping Riley with stories of Baby Reese, explaining to her that they’d go to the park together, go swimming, ride horses … all the things that Riley loved. We explained that Baby Reese was in Mommy’s tummy but would be coming out soon to play with her and she’d need to share her toys. Riley was excited and immediately accepted Reese as part of the family. She’d set up her stuffed animals to play. There were always four animals – a Mommy, Daddy, Riley and Baby Reese. Books with pictures of families would always be named after the four of us as we read them. People would ask her “Are you going to be a big sister?” and she’d exclaim, “Yes! Baby Reese is in mommy’s tummy!” She’d hug and kiss my belly at night, “Goodnight Baby Reese, I wub you.”
Reese was an active baby. She’d move around a lot. I remember being in meetings for work and wondering if people could see my belly moving as she was pushing hard with an elbow or a foot. I’d smile, as if I was sharing a secret between me and my daughter. How funny it is to be in the middle of a serious business meeting and have your kid kicking you at the same time. Sometimes she’d kick and kick and I’d think, wow, I may have another really active kid! I worried a bit about how I’d handle two “spirited” children but I knew somehow I’d figure it out.
Because I had GD, I had to go in for more ultrasounds than normal, to check her weight and growth. Each time, I’d hold my breath, nervous a bit. Each time, she’d pass with flying colors. Her weight came in right at average in the 50th percentile. The doctor was pleased since Riley had been a bigger baby at birth. Also because of the GD, I was monitored often on the non stress test machine and in the last few weeks, I had to go in weekly. I felt like it was old hat though as I had done it with Riley. It was comforting actually – to hear her heartbeat each week and know that all was progressing well. The doctor and I decided we’d schedule a c-section a week before her due date (due to the GD). I marked my calendar – August 31st.
The summer was great. I spent as much time as I could with Riley as I could to make sure I appreciated the last few weeks of our life with just the three of us. When Reese arrived, she’d demand a lot of my attention and I wanted to give Riley some focused time before that happened. We took classes at the Little Gym, we took swimming lessons and we went to the zoo, aquarium, park and petting farms more often than I can count. We were having fun and I was always keeping in mind that soon Reese would be joining us in these things.
On Sunday, August 23rd, we went to my parents house for dinner. My aunt and uncle were in town and wanted to see me pregnant before the big day. I remember at one point that my aunt put her hand on my belly. “Darn, I don’t feel her,” she said. “She hasn’t kicked a lot lately,” Not thinking much of it, I replied “They have less room towards the end … she’s less active now.”
The next morning I went to work but started to realize I hadn’t felt much kicking at all in the past few hours. I tried to dismiss it as just paranoia since I was normally a worrier by nature. Riley hadn’t moved a lot in the last few weeks of my pregnancy with her so I didn’t think I needed to get myself worked up. I remembered reading somewhere that towards the end of a pregnancy, babies start getting into their post-birth sleeping patterns where they could sleep for hours on end. She was probably just really sleeping a lot, I marveled.
But it started to concern me more as the day progressed. I wasn’t actually sure what it meant if I didn’t feel kicks. Would it mean the baby is in distress? I had never asked and really had never been told. I did a quick Google search. The first listing was from a discussion forum. Someone had asked the question I was wondering. The response had been urgent “call your doctor! this could result in stillbirth.” That was the very first time I’d even thought of that word while I was pregnant. Panic set in but I thought, well that would be an extreme case, I’m sure. I refused to look at any more web sites. I didn’t want to stress out – that couldn’t be good for me or the baby. I called Roger, “Do you think I should worry? Should I call the nurse?” He suggested I call the nurse so that I would feel better but reassured me I was probably worrying about nothing. The nurse told me to eat something and then rest for an hour. Within that hour I should feel 4-5 kicks. I drove home, ate something, laid on my bed and waited. “C’mon kick, kick,” I kept thinking. Was that a movement? I wasn’t sure. I was having Braxton-Hicks contractions too. Ok, I think I felt movement just then. I convinced myself that I felt movement but the rest of the evening, I was still a mess. I couldn’t sleep with worry. The word “stillborn” kept ringing in my ears but I refused to even say it out loud or mention it to Roger because it was too extreme to be something to even worry about. The hospital was at least an hour drive away so if I was panicking for nothing, it would be a huge hassle for all of us to drive down there. What would we do with Riley in the middle of the night? I forced myself not to open my computer again to Google anything as I knew that would make it worse. I’d only panic more.
The next day, Aug. 24th, I decided to call the doctor and see if they could fit me in. I told myself that I was still worrying for nothing, but I figured that I had an appointment on the 25th and if they could just move it up a day, I could stop worrying. They were able to fit me in and I asked Roger to go with me. I look back on this now and think that, somehow I must have known something was really wrong. I hadn’t asked Roger to go with me to any of my appointments with Reese but suddenly I was terrified to go alone. We dropped Riley off at my parents and headed to the doctor. The whole way, we made nervous small talk, discussing the fact that we’d need to get a new car soon so that Roger would have something he could drive the two kids in.
Once we arrived, they said they’d put me on the non stress test machine so we could hear her heartbeat. I kept thinking, once that happens, I can breathe again. This will be a story we all laugh about later – what a worry wart I am.
They strapped me in and I showed the nurse where we normally found the heartbeat on my belly so that she could find it right away. Let’s do this now, I was thinking. But she had trouble finding it. She struggled with it a bit then finally said she’d ask my doctor to come in to help, indicating that the doctor had a good technique for waking up the stubborn babies. When she left, I told Roger, “Move the machine. I can’t see it.” I could hear something but wanted to see the numbers. “It won’t move,” he said (I found out later he was trying to protect me from seeing the low numbers). So I quizzed him, “What are the numbers? Did you see fluctuation? How high did it go? I want to make sure that isn’t my heartbeat.” He gave me short responses and a reassuring, but nervous smile. “It’s ok, don’t worry,” he said. But I was starting to feel sick, “You saw it go up, right? She’s alive, right?” finally allowing myself to verbalize my ultimate concern to him. He gave a kind of nervous laugh, “Yes,” he said. “Don’t laugh, it happens,” I responded, the word stillbirth flashing in my mind. I was temporarily relieved … he thinks I’m being silly. I probably am being silly.
The doctor came in and tried to find her heartbeat. I watched her face closely, trying to read what she was thinking. She couldn’t find her heartbeat either. “Why don’t we cheat and hook you up to the ultrasound machine – it’ll be faster,” she said. The lump in my throat start to grow larger. It seemed odd that I’d have to get on the ultrasound machine but she the doctor still seemed fairly calm. Maybe this was something that happened all the time. We moved to the ultrasound room and she started looking again. I looked at the machine but couldn’t tell what to look at or what I was seeing. My vision was getting blurry. I looked at her instead and I began praying, over and over. Please God. Please God. In a manner of just a few seconds, she turned to me and in a very soft voice said, “I’m sorry. I can’t find a heartbeat. But let me get another doctor to come in to make sure. I want her to double-check.” The second doctor came in and confirmed that Reese had died.
That was the moment that I went into complete shock. I should have been crying, I should have been screaming. But I was just numb. Why is this happening? What does this mean? She died? What do I do now? I don’t remember anything that she said except for one thing, “This is so rare and sometimes we never find out what happened. It’s possible, that if it happens one in 200 times, you are just that one unlucky one.“ I have recently learned that I may have an auto immune disease (possibly Lupus) which could have caused micro blood clots in the placenta. Why don’t they test for these things before every pregnancy? I don’t know. Perhaps it could have prevented her death.
Looking back, I can’t remember all the options they gave us for delivery. Most of the conversations I had during that time were a blur. But since we were planning on a c-section anyway, I opted to deliver her via c-section that night. I couldn’t imagine waiting. Walking out of the doctor’s office, I felt everyone’s eyes on me. The nurses, the staff, they all seemed to know and were all quiet. This is the first moment that pregnancy ever felt lonely to me.
We had to wait a few hours so we decided to go home and pack. We stopped by my parents house along the way to tell them and to make sure they had what they needed to watch Riley. They were devastated and shocked but I was like a robot, going through motions. Once home, I gathered everything I had brought out for Reese and put it away downstairs where I couldn’t see it. I was terrified of how I would react to seeing her things when we got home from the hospital. I had to erase any potential trigger. I packed my bag, the whole time thinking that instead of this being an exciting and joyous occasion, I was packing to go deliver my dead baby. No need for baby clothes, no need for nursing supplies or any of the nursing shirts I’d bought. I threw them all into a box to hide for now. I was coming home alone.
We arrived early to the hospital so we waited downstairs in the main lobby. It was torture. I was struggling to understand what was going on and suddenly, I was in tears. I’d catch people looking at me. I wondered what they thought – probably strange to see a woman who is nine months pregnant crying. I should be excited. I should be beaming.
Finally we were admitted and I recall thinking that this hospital, although the same, was not at all like the one I had been at with Riley. It was so gloomy. I had loved my experience with Riley. I had loved the hospital, the nurses and the doctor. It was a warm and happy memory. But that night, the same hospital felt cold and sad. Across the room from me I could see the bassinet and equipment for the new babies. I saw warming blankets. These were all set up for a live baby, not a dead one. I remember wishing they’d remove all of it so I wouldn’t have to look at it. How cruel that they left it in the room … but I also couldn’t stop staring at it. They hooked me up to the monitor and gave me an IV. I kept waiting for them to put something on my belly so they could monitor the baby, but there was no need. Without the constant rhythm of her heartbeat coming through the machines, the room was quiet. For a minute, I let myself wonder “what if” they are wrong, what if it’s just a terrible mistake and they’ll be surprised when she starts crying after she’s born. The moment was fleeting because I knew it wasn’t going to happen.
Every moment of the process I compared to giving birth to Riley. As the anesthesiologist came in to prep me, as Roger suited up to go into the operating room with me, as the nurses asked me questions and rolled me to the operating room. It was the same but couldn’t be more different. No one was smiling, no one was laughing. And the operating room was so small, so much smaller than when I had given birth to Riley. Somehow, it felt appropriate to the situation.
It’s funny how when you are in a crisis situation, how strange, little details can occur to you. I remember sitting on the operating table as the anesthesiologist began giving me the epidural. I was in a sitting positing, bending forward so he could put the needle in my back. I remember looking down at my toes and thinking about how I had planned on getting a pedicure before Reese’s birth but now it was too late. One of the nurse commented on the current (weeks old polish), “Pretty nails,” she said. How odd, I thought, that she would say that since they look so horrible. Small talk. I guess they didn’t know what to say to me either. No one, even nurses, are prepared for dead babies.
Once on my back, I looked at Roger and I looked at the table where they were going to put Reese. Those were the only two things I could see. They were prepping the table, gathering blankets and other things for her. The drugs were kicking in and I felt almost sleepy. I wanted to close my eyes and just sleep. I wanted this all to be a dream. God, make it go away. But every time I would close my eyes, Roger would squeeze my hand. Look at me, he seemed to say with his eyes. He didn’t even need to speak. I realize now, he needed me to be strong, just as much as I needed him. During the surgery, I looked at Roger, I felt the movement as they performed the surgery and I listened. The room was completely quiet. Except for the sound of my doctor and the nurses crying as they delivered my baby. I’ll never forget that sound.
They’d pulled her out of me and moved her to the table to my left. I could only see the side of her. Looking at her, I felt a strange sense of calm. I hadn’t known what to expect. What does a dead baby look like? From what I could tell, she looked beautiful. But she was still. So still. She was gone. I heard the nurse whisper to Roger that she had died a couple of days earlier. She didn’t need to tell me. I already knew.
They wheeled me back to the recovery room. I looked at faces as we passed them in the hallway, wondering if they knew. She is the woman with the dead baby. There was a sign on the door to warn people of our situation. I just wanted to hide. Go home. I was shaking terribly from the epidural. They brought in Reese and I could see her from across the room. They asked us if were ready to see her, if wanted to hold her.
The only word I can think of to describe how I felt at that moment was completely terrified. I was too terrified to hold my own baby. I was even scared to look at her. Scared because I knew that the moment I’d see her, she would be real. This would be real. They brought her to us and I looked at my baby for the first and very last time. Immediately, I thought of how beautiful she was. How much she looked like Riley when Riley was a newborn. How her lips were perfect. In a perfect little pucker. She looked like she was sleeping. So peaceful. So quiet. I let out a cry and then had to look away. “Do you want to hold her?” they asked me. “I can’t, I can’t, I can’t,” I cried. I was overcome with emotion. I was shaking from the epidural and I was afraid. “That’s okay,” they said and then they took her away.
But there is absolutely no way to prepare for the death of your baby. It completely blindsided us. I marvel at the strength that many families have when faced with this situation. I hope that this experience has made me stronger.
Although she and I never spoke, Reese has taught me a lot. She was taken from me, but she was also given to me. A gift that is bittersweet, but still sweet. We shared love for 38 weeks and she became mine and a part of me, a part of our family. She, in turn, showed me that love reaches beyond what we can see or touch to what we can only experience through faith. She taught me the truth about living with joy in each moment and never becoming too comfortable with your gifts, lest you should take them for granted. She taught me how to appreciate the compassion of others and also how to give it. She made my life richer than I could have ever anticipated.
In the beginning, I thought that my life would never be the same. My innocence was instantly gone. There was now a Before Reese and an After Reese and it was utterly catastrophic. As a piece of paper that is ripped into two can never be pristine again, my two worlds would never be whole. As Before Reese fluttered to the ground, I was left with only After Reese, a much smaller, tattered and thin piece of paper.
Now that I have had a little bit of time to grieve and reflect, I realize that life is actually more like a collage. A collection of many, many pieces of paper all put together to create something larger. The sum of all of your parts. Yes, there is a Before Reese and an After Reese but there are many other before’s and after’s which I must not discount. There is a Before Roger and an After Roger. There is a Before Riley and an After Riley. And so many more. These moments also changed my life.
I know pain and I know grief. These are my new companions. But I also know love.