Sunday, May 16, 2004

Good Morning, Dad

Good Morning, Dad!
A Story of Reproductive Grief and Loss

Mother’s Day, 2004, was one of the happiest days of my life.  My husband, Charles, woke me just after midnight with a surprise Mother’s Day gift: a baby jogger with thick wheels that were perfect for the trails and paths near our home.  I was about 14 weeks pregnant and we’d been joyfully telling people about it for about six weeks.  We’d had a scare at about six weeks, when I stood up after a luncheon meeting to feel blood gushing down my legs in such quantities that it quickly soaked through my skirt.  I’d rushed to the bathroom and then to the doctor, where she shared my certainty that I had lost the pregnancy.  A sonogram to confirm the loss brought astonishingly good news; though the cause of the sudden blood loss would never be known, our child showed a healthy heart beat.  I called Charles, who was to pick me up, saying only, “we’re ready to go!”  He quickly caught on to the use of “we” and we celebrated with great joy, certain then and in the weeks ahead that we’d been spared the loss of our first born child.  This scare, and our subsequent relief, made our Mother’s Day celebration especially wonderful.

Unfortunately, by Father’s Day, we would experience great loss.  Just before my pregnancy reached 15 weeks, I started to feel cramping, which I mentioned to my doctor.  She suggested that it could be indigestion, which seemed reasonable as I expected some discomfort as our child grew.  Two days later I called her back, however, because the pain had increased and felt a lot more clearly like the uterine pain I associate with menstrual cramping, which intuitively seemed of concern.  She scheduled me for an ultrasound and I got to see our child – clearly our son! – moving quickly around and around within my uterus.  I was very excited, but also concerned, as the ultrasound

physician indicated that the cervical length was surprisingly short.  “What about the placenta?” I asked, for I’d read that the placenta can get torn and the symptoms in such cases seem to reflect those that I was having.  But the concern of the doctor and the technician was focused on the cervical length; the fact that I’d begun to bleed and was cramping was remarked upon, but with no conclusion or explanation.

Three days later, the pain became very difficult to bear.  I called the on-call physician and he was very nice, but told me that there was little that he could do.  “Call again if you start bleeding so much that you soak through a maxi-pad an hour for more than three hours.”  Up until the point that our son was born I never did, but I did call back two days later, reporting to my primary ob-gyn that the pain had gotten agonizing.  She did not call back.  For one eight hour period, from 8AM until 4AM, I had excruciating contractions every two to three minutes and I could do nothing except lay and watch the clock, timing each one.  This continued for three more days, with several hours of pain followed by hours where I had no contractions.  In the meantime, I continued to bleed heavily, though not as heavily as the doctor had described as being the point of concern.  I blindly hung onto the hope that it would stop and our baby would be okay since the bleeding didn’t reach the stage that the doctor indicated was most worrisome. 

Sunday came and with it, a celebration at our house for a friend’s birthday.  During the party, I remained reclined on a couch until the pain became unbearable, at which point I went to our bedroom.  Not long after, I moved into the bathroom, now doubled over in pain and with an urge to push.  With that push came gushes of blood… and our son, Xavier Peter.  I was sobbing now and reached for him, as he was still connected to me through the umbilical cord.  His eyes couldn’t open yet, but his mouth moved, as did his left arm as he felt my hands on his body.  I started screaming, “What do I do, what do I do” through my tears, but no one heard me.  Still holding our child, who was still connected to me, I staggered to the bathroom door and shouted for my husband.  Amazingly, he – and no one else – heard me and he came quickly upstairs.  As soon as he saw me, he called emergency services, who arrived almost immediately.  I cradled our baby, who was still moving, in my hands as they wrapped me in sheets, put me on a gurney, and carried me into an ambulance.  In the ambulance, they cut the umbilical cord and I no longer felt movement from Xavier, who had died lying against me.

At the hospital, it occurred to me that nothing in my life or my imagination had prepared me for this; I had simply never imagined losing a child in this way.  However, my horror and grief were met with the care of angels, who took the form of hospital staff at Marin General Hospital, just north of San Francisco.  This designation may appear to be an exaggeration, but I have found no more appropriate way to describe care that went so far beyond what I would expect from the best staff imaginable.  Nearly everyone we met hugged us and expressed their condolences and in addition, the staff took pictures of our son, made a plaster cast of his feet, and gave us a treasure box to hold these and other mementos they had created for us.  The on-call ob-gyn likewise spent hours with us, eventually bringing us the body of our baby to hold.  We were touched by how much he cared, for our tears affected him to the degree that he began crying himself and had to leave the room.

Xavier was a perfect baby, a near exact replica of his father though just shy of 16 weeks from conception.  His hands and feet were huge, with long fingers and toes that looked exactly like smaller versions of his father’s.  His nose was likewise Charles’, though his lips appeared to me more like mine.  Every detail of his tiny body was perfect, including tiny collarbones and achilles tendons.  We were awed by his perfection and even amidst our grief felt enormously blessed for the gift of his short life.

We also felt very blessed by the support that we received from family and friends, who sent cards and flowers, called, and, most importantly, dropped by to spend time with us.  Inevitably, there were the callous and stupid comments, hurtful even though they are likely said without such intent.  A colleague at work said, “We debated whether you had actually lost a child.  Clearly you thought that you did.  But not everyone agrees with you.”  I spent the day in a cold, unexpressed rage, silently questioning everyone I saw, wondering angrily if they were one of the ones who had expressed such a hurtful and horrific thought. 

 Since our loss, I have felt honored and been awed by the numbers of women who have shared unsolicited stories of their own grief with me.  I am humbled by their tears and startled to realize that I am surrounded by women who carry their dead children with them every day, grieving a terrible loss that always remains.  About a month after Xavier died, I began lactating, which appeared to be a cruel and odd twist.  When that happened, I thought again of the many other women who have cradled life within their bodies, only to have it taken away and I felt both great sympathy for the hidden sorrows that surrounds us and great honor to have had that love shared with me by so many women who have experienced such great loss.

Other children will never replace our first-born son, but we do hope and pray for little brothers and sisters for Xavier.  Recently, after rising in the early hours of the morning to exercise and prepare for work, I returned instead to my husband’s side of the bed.  I’d taken a pregnancy test and I woke him to tell him the results, saying simply, “Good morning, Dad.”  His eyes shot open with a question that I silently answered with tears of joy.