In the days surrounding the Fourth, I’ve had some pretty damn repetitive conversations.
“Any fun plans for the Fourth?!?!”
“I don’t think so…”
“Are you sure? Nothing fun?”
“Are you going to watch fireworks?”
“Are you going to shoot fireworks?”
“Are you going to your local community parade?”
Cue puzzled stare.
“The Fourth is still tough for us. It’s the last time we were ever truly happy.”
Cue uncomfortable silence.
And then, after the Fourth, similar conversations ensued with some of the same people…
“Did you do anything fun? Watch fireworks? Shoot fireworks? Go to a parade? Why? The parade is like right down the street from you.”
“Well, the sight of happy, complete families dressed in matching patriotic outfits in seemingly celebratory moods on the two year anniversary of the last time I felt unbridled joy kind of makes me want to set myself on fire, sooooo…”
Cue uncomfortable silence. Again.
Apparently it’s a difficult concept for some to wrap their heads around if they’ve not been there themselves. If they’ve never experienced a life divided into the before and after. Oh, and the division happens to correspond with a major holiday.
In many ways the days leading up to July 13 are more difficult than the day itself. As a fellow baby loss mom recently so appropriately described it, I picture myself in early July 2015, and all I can see now is a lamb headed for slaughter. And the lamb is me. Or us. And it’s the saddest image in the world. I also comb those final days for opportunities that I may have missed. Instances when, had I acted differently, I might have been able to change the course of everything. Instances when I might have been able to save him.
I didn’t remember it until mid-June. Perhaps my brain had repressed the memory until then, because had I remembered sooner, it might have been too much to bear.
It was Thursday July 2, and we were getting ready to head to Grand Island, Nebraska for a weekend with Mark’s sister Kathryn and her husband Harvey. I was exactly 31 weeks pregnant.
I’d planned to work just a half day at work, because our flight was either later that evening or the next morning. (The exact flight time I actually still can’t remember.) But I remember sitting in my office around 10:30am feeling suddenly concerned that I hadn’t felt Matthew move as much as I’d like to have. In fact, maybe I hadn’t felt him at all for an hour or two. I drank some cold water. And some more. And some more. And I remember feeling so concerned that I called Mark, and I also told my boss that I might need to leave to go get checked out, and I came home like half an hour later, because I was so scared.
When I arrived home, Mark was already there, supervising some men who were fixing our back patio doors, which were still under manufacturer warranty. And I sat at our kitchen island, and I ate a sandwich and some blueberries and some strawberries. Much to my relief Matthew started moving again, and I decided I didn’t need to get checked out.
I don’t understand why I made this decision. Because I’m a total hypochondriac.
In a parallel universe, I go to the doctor, and they perform a non-stress test, and just as he did at home, Matthew starts moving, and, just as they like to do, the doctors reassure me, and they try to send me home. And maybe I actually agree to go home. But I also flip the fuck out, and my fears spiral out of control, and I research “decreased fetal movement” for hours, and I become obsessed with it, and I find that the cause of it can be cord entanglement, and I find Dr. Collins, and we contact him, and he tells me to go get some images of the cord (prophylactically at this point), and I do, because I’ve heard of cord accidents, and I know that babies can die – I know that my baby can die. So I get the images, and they find the knot and the two nuchal wraps, and Dr. Collins tells me to go into the hospital for continuous monitoring, because this particular entanglement is pretty ominous. One week later, when he flips in the night and goes into distress, everyone sees it, and they get him out in time. He’s 32 weeks, 3 days gestation by this point. He spends a few days in the NICU. But he’s a strong 5 pounds 8 ounces. So he comes home happy and healthy one week later.
It seems far-fetched, but, in my mind, this scenario and my reality are equally likely. And I simply chose the wrong course. My one potential clue that something could be amiss, I basically ignored. And I will never, ever understand why. How could I have known that my baby could die and feared this happening to us, but, at the same time, also wholeheartedly believed that this wouldn’t happen to us? It’s nonsensical.
But instead I became reassured by the number of kicks I was feeling, and we flew out to Nebraska as planned, without a second thought.
We spent the weekend happily touring Kathryn and Harvey’s town – Kathryn’s school where she taught (at the time), Harvey’s place of employment (at the time) where he drove heavy machinery. We drove through cornfields on dusty gravel roads, and we ate at their favorite restaurants and attended their church and purchased fireworks, and more fireworks, and we set them off in their driveway, and one of our fireworks almost burned down the house across the street, and then we went to the community fireworks show, and I wondered if Matthew could hear the fireworks. It seemed like he could. On Sunday Kathryn and Harvey drove us to the airport and I played a reality TV trivia game in the backseat against strangers on the internet, and I kicked ass and took names, and we ate at Chipotle in Omaha before flying home.
Matthew moved consistently for the entire weekend and into the following week, so I continued to be completely reassured.
I worked a full week, eating lunch with my crazy co-workers each day. On Wednesday, Mark and I went to our first new parent class at the hospital, and it was at 6:00pm, so we didn’t have time to eat dinner, so I just ate a bunch or strawberries and felt superior to the woman next to me who was eating a bacon double cheeseburger and a large order of fries. I kind of felt superior to everyone in the class, come to think of it, as some of the people seemed surprised when the instructor mentioned basic facts about anatomy.
On Saturday July 11 we visited Mark’s grandparents. Mark’s grandfather has an elaborate trainset in his basement, and he wanted to show it to Mark to see if we might want it for Matthew. We concluded that we only wanted a small piece of it, as this trainset in totality is enormous. For part of our visit I sat alone upstairs in the kitchen and listened to 99.1 Joy FM (our local Christian music station) as it played on the radio. At one point there was a break in the music, and the broadcasters were discussing baby loss – miscarriage, stillbirth, neonatal loss… I actually gasped audibly, and I paused and thought to myself, “Oh my God. How sad. I am so glad nothing like this is going to happen to me.”
Less than 24 hours later, by Sunday morning, Matthew would be dead, though still with a heartbeat. I’m convinced he flipped from breech to vertex overnight, causing the knot to tighten and his oxygen to be cut off (which explains his lack of movement and concerning heartbeat later that day). Somehow his heart continued to beat for ~24 more hours, even though I know he was already gone, as, unbeknownst to me at this point, I’d already felt him move for the last time around 11:30pm the night of July 11.
That day we cleaned our basement, and then we decided to start readying Matthew’s room. It feels so idiotic now – that we were getting his room ready, oblivious to the fact that he was already likely braindead. We purchased a rustic looking mirror for above his dresser and some yellow spray paint to make a bronze lamp look more kiddish. During that week, on that day, we were happier than we’d ever been in our lives.
By about 3:00pm I started to suspect that something was wrong. By 6:00pm, I’d arrived at the hospital. By 7:00pm, I was sure Matthew was just fine. After all, he had a strong heartbeat and everyone was telling me as much. By 11:00pm, I’d been admitted overnight. I was worried. But still, everyone reassured me that Matthew would be fine – his heart tones were only mildly concerning. So I emailed my boss, “I’m in the hospital for the night, so I may not be in tomorrow, but don’t worry – everything should be fine.” By 7:00am the next morning Mark was calling my boss to tell her I wouldn’t be in for a very long time.
Our son was dead.
Such began the most devastating days of our lives. These past nearly two years, though fraught with an array of emotions, have been above all else crushing and exhausting, if I’m being honest.
Last year was different in that I was in the throes of a traumatic subsequent pregnancy, and this year is different still – there is a handsome 11-month-old here to distract us as he learns to walk, which, as he does so, I can’t help but think this is exactly what Matthew would have been doing last year. I don’t think much about what two-year-old Matthew would be doing now – it’s too painful. But just as it’s happened this year, next year I’ll have a very clear image of what this year could have been, and the joy and the devastation will overwhelm yet again.
We will celebrate the Fourth with Joel someday, and I hope that when we do the intensity of these memories soften, even if just a bit, to make it feel less impossible. But this year they’re still very clear, and my feelings, whether irrational or not, of how I could have potentially changed course are weighing too heavily on my heart.
I just hope that Matthew knows that if love could have saved him, he would have lived forever.