I don’t tell this story. It’s one of those things that you keep in the deep parts of your mind but never forget. I was at the hospital about to give birth to my son. It was day three and my amniotic fluid was running low, Jamon’s movements were starting to hurt. The contractions were moderate but I wasn’t dilating. I would end up having a C-section with my doctor doing two things—delivering my baby and removing a dermoid cyst that might have been there since I was born. But this story isn’t about me or my son.
I wasn’t alone in the birthing suite, there were two of us. She and I were separated by curtains and because it was so quiet I could hear everything. Heart monitors were humming and beeping in the background, but there was nothing from the other side. The woman was young, she sounded young, and she was sobbing.
Every now and then nurses and doctors would come to check on her and talk about a drip, probably oxytocin. I heard her talk on the phone and I remember what she said, “The first time it was fine so I don’t know what happened. Suddenly there was just nothing.” A nurse later told me that this mother was about 8-months pregnant but her baby had lost its heartbeat. She was there to give birth to a lifeless child.
I sat on my side, relieved that my baby was alright. But also deeply moved by the suffering that was unfolding just a curtain away. Fully aware now of the situation in the room, I became quiet and remember having to tell my husband and my parents (who were there for my son’s birth) to “keep it down” when they came to check on me. The woman had a visitor who didn’t stay long, he meant well I’m sure, he kept telling her in a jolly voice, “Be positive! Be positive.” And I felt like telling him, “Seriously? How about you try giving birth to a dead child?”
Emily Rapp, whose son Ronan died from Tay-Sachs disease, wrote, “Parenting advice is, by its nature, future-directed. I know. I read all the parenting magazines. During my pregnancy, I devoured every parenting guide I could find. My husband and I thought about a lot of questions they raised: will breast-feeding enhance his brain function? Will music class improve his cognitive skills? Will the right preschool help him get into the right college? I made lists. I planned and plotted and hoped. Future, future, future. We never thought about how we might parent a child for whom there is no future.”
I regret not getting up and talking to her when she was right there. I didn’t even get her name. I wanted to hug her. But I was worried that she would feel worse, seeing that my baby was alive inside me as the monitors showed. I thought that she would probably hate the sound of it. That the fact that her baby’s monitors were silent would hit harder. As if it could hit any harder.
My C-section was surreal and at times terrifying. When you can’t move most of your body, feel trapped, and there’s a lot of tugging here and there. But the doctors were great. My son was out in two minutes, removing the cyst took much longer. But soon I was in the recovery room and an anesthesiologist took a peek and told me “Wiggle your toes, right, left, good. You’re ok.” And that was that.
After my son’s birth, I had to be brought around in a wheel chair at first. I was a bit groggy, the drugs were wearing off and the pain was kicking in, and I was getting ready to breastfeed. I felt like a human train wreck, but my baby was alive.
A nurse wheeled me into an elevator on our way to the nursery. A woman walked in, and I started to notice because she wept, leaning in a corner near the elevator door with her back towards us. She wept with her hand covering her mouth. It was her. I never saw her face but it was her. I remember the sound of her crying. The door opened and she walked out, and that was the last that I saw of her.
The nurses later told me that she had to go through the entire birthing process. That it was a natural birth. I could not, for the life of me, wrap my head around the fact that this woman had to go through all of that, and not have her baby be alive in the end. An autopsy was suggested, but I was told that she and her husband wanted none of that.
I would spend a total of 5 days in the hospital. I took home my healthy baby and went through all the joys and challenges of postpartum life. I was in limbo most of the next two weeks at home waiting for the cyst biopsy but that turned out to be “unremarkable”.
My son is 8 now. It’s been 8 years and what happened still haunts me. Mostly because I didn’t do anything. Yes I was in labor, I had a cyst and then a C-section, we were strangers to each other but I could have done something, anything. I could have said something to this woman and I didn’t. No it wouldn’t have made a difference. It wouldn’t change anything. But in a world full of strangers and where children die, I could have helped make her feel less alone.
I try to imagine her life sometimes. Maybe she’s had more kids, maybe she’s alright. I’ve learned, you never say “It’s ok, you’ll have more kids” to a mother or father who’s lost a child. It doesn’t make it better. THAT child is gone, and can’t be replaced. The memory remains no matter how many new ones are made. Maybe she’s ok now, but I know she is not the same.
The world needs a lot of kindness these days. The world needs a lot of kindness, period. You need it, I need it, and because of this we are never strangers. If you’re reading this and have a chance to make a difference in anyone’s suffering, don’t wait.
*Photo by Annie Spratt