Mom to Noah Patrick, Jonah Emmanuel and 6 Siblings
May 18, 1996 – August 10, 1997 and May 14, 1998
Portsmouth, Rhode Island
Andy kissed me awake early. I drew in my breath, realizing my contractions were getting more uncomfortable. “I hope these are working,” I said. “That nurse better check my dilation today, or you’ll have to.”
“Gladly,” he said, grinning.
Easing out of bed, I followed him to the kitchen. After months of bed rest, waiting and worrying, I was ready to have this baby. “Have a great day,” I said, kissing Hannah and Christiana. “Maybe today we’ll have a baby.” For the first time in ages, I watched them skip off to school. The sun reflected off their blond hair and the dew in the grass, the spring air sparkling with new growth and possibility.
Andy and I headed back down the hall—I to shower, he to dress Micah—and soon I heard them arguing. “Pleeeeze, you only have to wear them for an hour.” Micah skipped in, dressed in the corduroy pants he hated. “See, Mom? They swish when I move. Are you coming to my music?”
“I wouldn’t miss it.” I laughed. I’d missed so many of my kids’ milestones over the past months and today was his final performance of the year. My appointment with the nurse was at 10 and his program at 9; I’d stay for half and go directly from there.
Andy drove us right up to the front door of my neighbor’s house and Micah and I eased our way down the basement stairs to where Joanne was busy setting up. “I hope my water doesn’t break on your couch,” I joked.
“Oh, it’s an old couch,” she said.
My friend bustled over and sat next to me, excitedly asking, “So, do you think today’s the day?”
“I sure hope so, fingers crossed,” I said, rubbing my belly. I’d already arranged for Micah to go home with her to play after the program.
The recital began with the kids singing a few songs before Joanne
said, “Now grab a partner for the circle dance.”
“Come on, Mom!” Micah said, pulling my hand to help me up. All the parents were joining their kids, so I waddled over a few steps to take our place in the circle. The song began, and we all shuffled around like a large, undulating amoeba in a small petri dish. Whenever the music paused, we followed the instructions, clapping our hands or standing on one foot. I moved only my upper body, happy to simply stand and hold Micah’s hand while the other parents touched their noses to the carpet.
Andy arrived soon after and caught my eye, gesturing from the stairs. I rose and was taking the handful of steps to meet him when I felt a gush between my legs and thought, Oh my God, my water has broken! Scooting into a bedroom at the bottom of the stairs, I whispered, “Quick, get me a towel!” He tossed me a hand towel from the adjoining bathroom, and I stuffed it between my legs. Leaning forward, I pulled the front edge of the towel away, tentatively, expecting to see the telltale wetness of my baby’s bathwater.
The white towel was bright red with blood.
Andy and I exchanged wide-eyed looks of panic. I managed to get off the bed and up the stairs without creating an incident, our crisis unfolding to the sweet voices of five-year-olds singing “Slow Poke Fred.” Nobody missed a note as we made it out the door and into Andy’s red Blazer, speeding off to the hospital while Andy phoned the doctor on his cell phone. Inside, I was screaming, but “Hurry” was all I managed to say as I clenched my legs together and tried to seal my leaking cells with my fingers, pressing firmly against my baby’s lifeblood, now ebbing into a towel.
We arrived in about ten minutes—an eternity—and parked at the entrance. I was just starting to tell the admissions gal what was happening when I spotted our favorite nurse. “The Kittels are here,” she
sang out with glee.
“Terri, I’m bleeding,” I said, wiping the smile right off her face. She rushed me into the nearest room, handed me a Johnnie, and pushed me into the bathroom to change.
I hope I haven’t ruined Joanne’s towel, I thought, pulling it from between my legs and tossing it in the sink. What am I doing in here? Hurry, hurry, please God, hurry, hurry, I chanted to myself, pulling the gown closed behind my back but not bothering to tie it.
“Get on the bed,” Terri instructed. She climbed right up, kneeling over me and palpating my stomach while peppering me with so many questions. “How long have you been bleeding like this? How long has your tummy been hard like this? When was the last time you felt your baby move?”
“I don’t know,” I repeated. “I don’t know. I don’t know.” I didn’t even know my tummy was hard. All I knew was that I was bleeding. A lot. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t answer her questions. My mind spun away from my body in panic.
“How long has your tummy been hard like this? How long has it been hard?” she demanded over and over.
I kept saying, “I don’t know I don’t know I don’t know.” It was all happening so fast and yet so slow.
“When was the last time you felt your baby move?”
Finally my brain recognized a word. “Baby?”
“Yes, when was the last time you felt the baby move?” Terri repeated, saying the magic word again: baby.
My mind snapped to attention, flashing to the night before, me reclining in my Lazy Girl chair, the three kids settling down, ready for bed. The baby was doing its nightly gymnastics inside of me, flipping around, throwing out a knee or elbow. We all felt my belly, laughing and playing with the pointy protrusions. Hannah said, “Mom, I think this is a heel!”
Christiana and Micah danced around until they each grew tired, leaning over to kiss both me and the baby’s bumps, saying “Good night, baby. Good night, moon.”
“When was the last time you felt your baby move?” Terri’s voice demanded, interrupting my reverie.
My adrenaline-filled brain managed to stop the video filling its screen, directing my mouth to answer, “Last night?”
While I was busy with my flashback, an ultrasound technician had arrived by my side and hooked up her machine. She had a student shadowing her, who stood at the foot of my bed next to Andy. As her mentor set to work, she turned to Andy, smiling, and crooned, “Sooo, is this your first baby?”
Maybe I should have answered her, explaining that no, in fact this was our fifth baby; we buried our fourth nine months ago. But neither of us said a word.
The tech squirted her bluish gel and I felt the coldness spreading in concentric circles around my distended belly while she searched and searched with her ultrasound wand. I prayed it was a magic wand. She paused to turn the screen away from me, then continued examining my baby in its watery world, pushing harder to carve her pattern like an ice skater drawing compulsory circles around the frozen surface of my skin, but selfishly keeping her figure eights all to herself.
I held my breath, waiting for her to exhale a sigh of relief. Waiting for her to say something. Her silence was deafening. I examined her face, her eyes, her hands like it was my job, not hers, waiting for her to smile, begging her silently—keep looking, keep skating, don’t stop. I beseeched God to get in here. Paging God to my room, now. And I repeated over and over to myself, This cannot be happening to me, this cannot be happening, this can not be…
Silence filled the room. No tiny foot kicked her magic wand away. Nothing moved beneath the stretched skin and clenched fist of my belly, once so lovely to touch, now as hard as ice, an icy oligotrophic lake—nothing living in it.
I lay there, waiting. Waiting for the inevitable pronouncement while slamming my ears shut and blocking them to keep my baby in the present tense. Don’t you say anything, don’t you dare say a word, I warned everyone wordlessly while I waited impatiently for someone to do something. Whisk me off to surgery, cut me open, save my baby, take my life if you must, but just do something!
Instead, everyone seemed to move even slower, like we suddenly had all the time in the world. Slowly, slowly, they unplugged and wheeled their machines out of the room, asking no more questions, and leaving me lying there with my protruding belly exposed, a dead end covered in cold gel.
While I was holding Micah’s hand and shuffling around in a circle, or maybe while I was changing into my Johnnie and trying to find answers for too many questions, my baby was dying. My baby had drowned.
Now, Dr. H entered the room and dared to break the silence. Abruption, she’d explain later. For now, she kept it simple. “There’s no heartbeat. There’s nothing we can do.”
I wanted to plug my ears like a child and scream to keep from hearing her terrible words. They had given up. But I hadn’t. I was stubborn. I was desperate. I was Irish! But I didn’t know how to save this baby. I didn’t know what to do. My mind reeled: No way, no way, no way, this can not be happening.
“I’m so sorry,” she concluded.
I closed my eyes and thought, Not again.
(This is an edited excerpt from Kelly’s book, Breathe: a Memoir of Motherhood, Grief, and Family Conflict. It was also featured in the anthology, Three Minus One.)