On Thursday Joel will turn one. Soon I’ll start cleaning the house in preparation for his party on Saturday. We’ll attempt to make Joel what will probably, at best, be a pathetic-yet-tasty version of a “Howie cake.” We’ll pick out Joel’s outfit, and I’ll stress about our still grassless yard and about whether we’re celebrating Joel’s birthday appropriately, because I don’t know, as I haven’t been to an event like this in ages, as I still don’t interact regularly with society. We’ll finalize our menu filled with Joel’s favorite foods… Pulled pork sandwiches, green beans, some other sides, watermelon, cantaloupe, perhaps fruits in all the colors, displayed (tritely) in the shape of a rainbow on a giant fruit platter, a subtle reminder of just how brutal our journey was to get him here.
You see, at least on some level, I never thought this day would come. I wished for it, sure. But, on a good day my confidence level was not too far above a coin’s flip. On a bad day, it was zero. Over and over I carefully crafted the blog post in my mind, “It’s with the heaviest of hearts that we inform you…”
I only announced my pregnancy here. To the rest of the world, it was a secret. I told my boss, out of necessity, at twenty eight weeks. Each time a new person learned of my news, it only seemed to increase my odds of losing him.
They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing again, expecting a different result. By this definition, pregnancy after loss is unequivocally one the most insane things anyone could ever do. Because why would I expect any of my babies to live when it took a mere split second for Matthew’s heart to suddenly, inexplicably stop?
It takes some bravery and equal amounts grit, and also some insanity, to love your child with your entire being and then endure the pure devastation that is his sudden, tragic loss and then walk straight back into the fire, reliving a trauma only few can imagine, opening yourself up to the exact same heartbreak, all the while knowing that should history repeat, it will surely kill you this time. You know you cannot, and will not, survive. And yet, you also know that you might, because, you’ve already learned that no other choice exists. And this is perhaps the most terrifying part.
For thirty weeks I maintained my relative calm, but the final seven were different.
All waking hours were devoted to preventing his death, guaranteeing his survival, as if this were possible. There were over twenty-thousand kicks logged and graphed and analyzed ad nauseam, hospital trips contemplated for reasons of low movement or high movement. Or normal movement. I’d drive to work but end up in the hospital parking lot instead, “Should I wait? Go in? Again? For the seventeenth time?”
“I don’t know when I’ll be in…” I’d email my boss. And I’d sit some more. Contemplating. Agonizing. It resembled a hostage situation, someone holding a gun to my head, “One wrong move and he dies.”
There were 47 ultrasounds to monitor for prior cause of death and a rash on my belly resulting from Doppler overuse, four overnight hospital stays, each eerily reminiscent of the one that ended in my son being ripped away, my world being ripped apart. Irreparably damaged. Forever.
Seconds ticked by as I watched miles upon miles of fetal heart rate strips print onto floors of rooms resembling the one in which I sat nearly one year prior – the room symbolizing the beginning of the end. It was as though I were the subject of a novel – the kind in which a character is almost murdered, or maybe someone she loves is, and, by the end, her attacker’s kidnapped her to take her “back to where it all began” to finish the job.
I listened acutely for the next beep, my mind projecting the exact desired timing of it. I noticed the spike in my own heart rate upon even the slightest deviation from expectation, “It’s happening again. He’s dying! Go get someone!!”
I cross-examined maternal fetal medicine specialists, “Is this deceleration too low, too long, indicative of a mild cord compression, or a more sinister one? Is this enough variability? Reactivity? Are you sure? Shouldn’t there have been three, fifteen beat accelerations that held for at least ten seconds each during this thirty minute span?” By the end they jokingly offered, “Do you want to come work here? You and Mark can read these with the best of ‘em…” Mark, the one who, by the end of it, I no longer recognized as my husband rather solely my medical school lab partner.
I wore compression tights at night because someone told me it could fractionally raise my blood pressure, which might marginally lower my baby’s chances of dying from a cord accident. Nighttime… My enemy. I fought valiantly against my overwhelming fatigue, against sleep. I wouldn’t allow myself to sleep, at least not voluntarily. Not with the knowledge that nighttime was when my first slipped away from me.
Each night I settled into bed with the most interesting reading material I could find. I listened, sometimes resentfully, as Mark snoozed beside me. Sometime between the hours of two and four AM, I’d doze off against my will. But by seven AM I’d awaken and see the kicks logged into my phone that I hadn’t remembered counting. Even in my sleep my subconscious willed me to continue these extraordinary measures, almost chanting, “Don’t you dare let him die this time.”
On the Sunday before Joel was born I checked into the hospital with concerns over increased fetal movement. Joel was found to have an elevated heart rate, and no one could explain why. By Monday morning his heart rate had come down, so they attempted to discharge me, and I politely informed them that my pregnancy after loss journey had reached its end – I would not be leaving the hospital without my living baby in my arms. So they agreed to let me stay and moved my C-section to Wednesday, July 27 to more quickly put everyone involved out of their misery. Until then I’d endure one final marathon of continuous monitoring.
This brought me so much comfort, and yet, none at all.
Because I’d already learned one of life’s most cruel lessons… There are never, ever any guarantees. Not upon reaching pregnancy’s “safe zone.” Not upon reaching the third trimester. Not upon reaching the final stages of labor or reaching the operating room. And never in life.
Since the day Joel was born, I’ve struggled with the “never in life” concept each and every day.
None of his days or milestones have felt like a guarantee, and yet, here we are… Like that, he’s one. And there are moments I have surely taken for granted much like anyone relatively untouched by tragedy. But usually, at the end of the day, I can step back and remind myself that this minute, this hour, this day, this smile, this first step… This life that, once upon a time, I could only really dream of as I walked down this hope and terror filled path of insanity…
None of it was ever guaranteed.
And through bleary eyes for the enormity of what I’m missing, I can also smile at this beautiful being in front of me, this precious gift who’s been our light, our miracle through our darkness.
Because nothing is guaranteed beyond this moment either.
Happy birthday week to our dear Joel.