The ride to the hospital seemed to last a hundred years. I couldn’t stop shaking, couldn’t stop the tears from streaming down my face. I shifted uncomfortably in my seat, afraid to move, every pothole and train track wracking me to my core. It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. My baby was perfect. Everything had been perfect. Until about half an hour ago, when my water broke four months early.
As my husband dodged stand-still traffic and road blocks, I stared out the window, watching the city lights flash by beneath the blanket of midnight. It was quiet in the car except for my sobs. Outside, people went about their lives – slept, came home from work, lived up the nightlife – without a concern for a woman who could, at any moment, lose her baby.
When we got to the hospital, I was wheeled up to an exam room where it was confirmed that I had lost all my amniotic fluid, though I wasn’t having contractions. I spent the night hooked up to beeping machines with my bed elevated at my feet and lowered at my head, in an attempt to fight gravity and “keep the baby in.” I felt so alone. I still hadn’t stopped shaking uncontrollably.
In the darkness of my room, to the sound of the beeping blood pressure machine, I prayed. “God,” I said. “I want so much for this baby to be okay. I want her to be whole, and healthy. Whether that’s in my arms, or in yours.”
I still don’t know how I had the strength to pray that. But as soon as I did, the shaking stopped. Somehow, that first night in the hospital, I slept.
I was in the hospital for two weeks, most of the time on strict bed rest – no showers, no bathroom (I had a catheter), no nothing. It was difficult to even roll onto my side with all the monitors and fluid bags attached to my arms and chest, not to mention the round-the-clock every- 4-hour visits from nurses to check my vitals. I had some visits from friends and family, some gifts to keep my hands and mind busy when I couldn’t do anything else, and I got to read and play on the computer a lot. But none of this really even touched the fear and dread that lurked in the back of my brain.
I tried to block it out, supress it, compartmentalize it. I laughed and joked with the nurses, I smiled. People called me pleasant, said that I was handling it well. But I think I really wasn’t. Sure, my baby was still alive. She was still perfect. Except for the fact that the lack of amniotic fluid meant that her lungs were no longer developing properly. I hadn’t even hit the 24-week mark, which is when the medical world considers a fetus “viable.” There was a very good chance that my sweet little girl would die. And I didn’t want to admit that, even though I knew it. Somewhere, deep down in the pit of my soul, I knew that she would die. And that knowledge was what I was trying desperately to keep out, like a homesteader closing a creaky wooden door against a sudden blizzard.
Our anniversary sort of crept up on us that year. But my husband begged my doctors to let me out of my room for a few hours so we could celebrate. They conceded. My husband helped bundle me up in my days-old pajamas and a blanket, and he wheeled me through the chilly halls and down the elevator to the not-so-glamorous hospital cafeteria, where we ate a very simple anniversary dinner. Considering the circumstances, I was grateful just to be out of my room. While it was a far cry from a romantic, candle-lit dinner, it was beautiful to forget – or attempt to forget – for a little while, and just be with my husband.
The happy bubble burst the next morning, when I noticed some spotting. An ultrasound showed that my daughter’s foot had slipped through my cervix. My doctor came in and told me the news: she would have to be delivered within the next 24 hours, no matter what. Even though I still hadn’t reached 24 weeks, they decided to try steroid shots to help along the development of the lungs. As the day progressed, though, I could feel that my daughter had moved further down the birth canal. Slowly, she was slipping away from me.
My nurses moved me from the antepartum ward to labor and delivery. I called my mom, who lived 7 hours away, fearing that she wouldn’t make it in time to meet her first granddaughter. And then I called my dad, whom I had told just the day before that everything would be fine and he didn’t have to take time off work to come visit, that he needed to turn his truck around and get here as soon as possible. And then I cried. Because I knew for a fact my dad would never get to hold her.
We had decided on the name Genesis Aria. Genesis, for beginning. First. The origins of our story as parents. We called her Genna for short. Our sweet little Genna.
Her daddy wrote a song for her, which he recorded onto a cassette tape and performed to my belly in the hospital room. “Genna, please hold on,” he sang. But we both knew that she wouldn’t. That she couldn’t.
I began to feel her tiny feet kicking around, like she was struggling to come out. Like she just wanted to be done with it, because even she knew this was all wrong.
I never went into labor. Not a single contraction.
Finally, in the late afternoon of Tuesday May 20th, I was brought into a delivery room, and my obstetrician, along with his assistants and a neonatology team that waited in the corner, helped birth my first child.
Upon the last push, there was no wail from tiny lungs filled for the first time with oxygen. There was only stony silence as my doctor deftly cut the cord and the neonatologists raced our tiny Genna across the room to begin hooking her up to machines that would hopefully, please-God, maybe, help her breathe.
My husband stood with the neonatologists, across the room. And for a moment, I was alone, still releasing the afterbirth, and sobbing my despair to the overhead lighting. My doctor came and stood next to me and, without saying anything, gently took my hand in his and covered it with his other hand. When I looked up at him, his eyes glistened with tears.
My husband walked back over to me, his face ashen. I’d never seen him look that way before.
“They said they’ve done almost everything they can possibly do. But she won’t respond to the ventilators. Her lungs aren’t developed enough. There may be something else they can try, but—”
“No,” I cut him off, shaking my head. “I don’t want to hurt her. I just want her to be as comfortable as possible in our arms.” He nodded as I wiped snot and tears from my face and then he returned to deliver our decision to the neonatologists.
For one hour and forty-three minutes, our Genna lived with us, in our arms, in that delivery room where she was born. For one hour and forty-three minutes, her heart beat slowly, her tiny mouth opened only once every several minutes as she gasped, desperate, for precious air. Her still-unopened eyes never focused on mine in that first mother-child moment of recognition.
But when I placed my pinky finger next to her tiny hand, her miniscule doll-sized fingers wrapped slowly around my finger and squeezed, as hard as they could. It felt like a butterfly had landed on my finger. But it was the only embrace I ever got from my sweet daughter. And I will remember it vividly forever.
In the days that followed, I felt numb. Family came into town and friends helped with meals as we prepared for a funeral instead of a welcome home party. The memorial service at our church was packed to standing room only, and it was only then that I realized how many people in this world cared about us.
After the funeral service was over, the funeral director asked if we wanted to leave now or stay for the lowering of the casket.
I had to stay.
I had to stay.
Because, as crazy as it may sound, there was still a part of me that clung to hope. I had to know the finality of her body being swallowed into the earth to know that I was not going to get to hold her again. And so they lowered the casket, and at the first thuds of clodded earth hitting the casket, I exhaled. It may have been the first time in days. I exhaled because I knew that meant I would have to breathe in again. I’d have to start life again. I’d have to move. I’d have to be.
Somehow I had to exist in this world without a piece of my soul.