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Modern Love

David Hlvasa writes about the painful decision he and his wife faced once they knew the baby she was carrying, was already dead at the 20-week point of pregnancy.

We each assumed there was only one possible decision, so when we talked, we talked logistics: appointments to reschedule, job responsibilities to manage. We asked questions we might have asked the midwife, about recovery time.

Then we realized we weren't in agreement. I was talking about the D and C, while Lisa had decided to give birth. Incredulous, I asked why she would want to go through all that pain. She said she couldn't imagine just getting rid of our child by a surgical procedure; she wanted to see him

Resting on my outstretched hand, he was thin, nearly weightless, his skin pinkish-gray and translucent. He seemed to me less like a small baby than a scale model of a stripling child. I cradled his head between the ends of my middle and ring fingers, his features peaceful, perfect, blank.

I can empathize with this couple. Next January 26th marks six years since my son Daniel died 14.5 hours after he was born. Leonita and I also held our son.

In the NICU I stood with Fr. Tomasz watching Daniel's life signs dwindle to nothing on the monitor. At 7:23 a doctor put a stethoscope to m y son's chest and then said "Your son's heart had stopped." After 14.5 hours of life my son had died of septsis.

Later that day DW and I got to hold Daniel in my wife's hospital room. Friends and family came, I had called these people again after what happened this morning. I asked DW if she wanted me to buy a cheap throwaway camera to take some photos. She said no. We both regret not having done this.

Other than the moment the doctor said Daniel's heart stopped, the moment I remember most was right after the nurse took Daniel from my wife and I so the funeral home could get him. DW broke out crying louder and heavier than any time I've seen her in the 17 years we been married. She is such a wonderful and loving person, who does many kind things for other people. Leonita wanted and deserved a child so much, and all she went through to just have Daniel taken from her. Why God, why?

Ann Althouse asks in the title of her post "Would you have labor induced to deliver a 20-week old fetus that already died?" No my wife and I wouldn't but Leonita would have for her 20-week old old BABY. My son was never a fetus, he was always my and Leonita's baby. Neither of us like the word fetus, and from those parents I know who lost a small baby, these feelings from bereaved parents is quite common.

Also note, David Hlavsa at no point in the article uses the word fetus in reference to his son Benjamin. Son or baby are used.

Forgive the slight rant, I really like Professor Althouse despite her poor word choice. I frequently link to her blog. Also we share the same birthday, January 12th.

I put the entirety of the Hlavsa's story beneath the fold. God bless David, Lisa, and their son Benjamin.

HAVING waited until we were in our 30s to start a family, my wife and I were having trouble conceiving, leading to sperm tests, hormone shots and other extraordinary measures.

Over many months, the process of conception became so technical that when Lisa told me she was at last pregnant, I found it hard to know what to credit. After the first ultrasound, she came home with a black-and-white picture of a tiny curled-up creature. We put it on the refrigerator: my son, the lima bean.

At 20 weeks, we went in together for the second ultrasound. The technician made small talk and popped his gum as he dimmed the lights. Lisa lay back on the table. I shifted in my seat, jammed my hands into my pockets, and stretched out my legs like a teenager settling in to watch a movie. As the technician slid the paddle around on Lisa's belly, the image on the computer screen wheeled, dipped and blurred.

Finally my son's image popped into focus. Arms and legs folded, he seemed to be resting on his back, as if lying on the bottom of a pool, waiting to spring to the surface.

I said, "Cool."

The technician muttered something, hit a button to freeze the image and walked briskly out of the room.

A few minutes later, in walked a small man wearing a rumpled white coat and steel-rimmed glasses, his bow tie askew. He shut the door behind him.

I don't remember exactly what he said; he looked as if someone had left him out in the rain. What we had taken for a frozen image, he explained, was in fact absolute stillness.

We still refer to the man as Doctor Death, perpetually forlorn, always breaking bad news. They keep him in a closet. (A year later, pregnant with our second son, Benjamin, my wife turned a corner at the hospital and saw him at a nurses' station; she did an abrupt, involuntary about-face.)

After Doctor Death left, our midwife arrived to explain that we had a decision to make. Did we want to schedule a D and C or induce labor? Her language was very plain, but it took a while for me to understand what she was really asking: Did we want the pregnancy to end in a surgical procedure in the outpatient clinic, or in the maternity ward as a stillbirth? We asked whether there were medical advantages or disadvantages to either choice. She told us it was simply a matter of preference. No hurry. Let us know.

On the drive home, we were mostly silent. As if exchanging telegrams, Lisa and I said what we needed to and no more. We each assumed there was only one possible decision, so when we talked, we talked logistics: appointments to reschedule, job responsibilities to manage. We asked questions we might have asked the midwife, about recovery time.

Then we realized we weren't in agreement. I was talking about the D and C, while Lisa had decided to give birth. Incredulous, I asked why she would want to go through all that pain. She said she couldn't imagine just getting rid of our child by a surgical procedure; she wanted to see him.

So I had to ask myself: Why didn't I want to meet my own son? Clearly, it wasn't Lisa's pain I was worried about. We pulled into the driveway, phoned the hospital, turned around and drove back.

Going to the hospital for a stillbirth is the photographic negative of going for a live birth. You carry the overnight bag, check into a room in the maternity ward and so on. But they put a marker on your door to alert the nurse-midwives that, in this room, things are different.

As a means of inducing labor in a body that is not yet ripe, Pitocin is brutally effective. But it can take a while to kick in. After an hour of flipping through magazines, Lisa and I decided to take a walk. The nurse said it might speed things along.

Wandering about in the midwinter dusk, Seattle sinking to the bottom of the gray scale, we were about a quarter mile from the hospital, just about to turn around, when the drug took hold, doubling Lisa over. We considered calling a cab, but she decided she could make it, so we stumbled back with her arm around my shoulders for support.

By the time we reached Lisa's room, her contractions were frequent and prolonged -- much more so than they would have been at the early stages of a natural labor -- and each surge of pain seemed to levitate her body above the sheets.

When at last the anesthesiologist gave her an epidural, Lisa sighed and fell back into the pillows. Within an hour, she was asleep, and shortly after that, I dozed off as well, like a Lab curled up in the armchair at the foot of her bed.

My first son was born some time in the gray dawn. In such cases, there is no rupturing of waters. The birth sac slips out whole and unbroken. The bag was a little bigger than my fist. The midwife put it on a towel and, with a small pair of scissors, carefully snipped it open.

She unfolded our son's limbs, disentangling one from the other, unfurling him like a new leaf, talking softly to us all the while, describing him. He was about five inches long, she said. He was anacephalic, which means his brain and nervous system had failed to develop. He had probably died about a week earlier.

Gingerly, she handed him to Lisa, and though it was clear that Lisa wanted to hold him longer, it was only a minute or two before she passed him to me. Later, she told me she was afraid he would come apart in her hands.

Resting on my outstretched hand, he was thin, nearly weightless, his skin pinkish-gray and translucent. He seemed to me less like a small baby than a scale model of a stripling child. I cradled his head between the ends of my middle and ring fingers, his features peaceful, perfect, blank. His feet reaching nearly to my wrist, his toes were like mine and my father's, the second toe longer than the big toe.

When we got back from the hospital, the epidural had not quite worn off, so Lisa did not have full use of her legs and clung to me as we staggered up the front steps. Thinking of ourselves as a public spectacle (How must we look to the neighbors? Drunk again!), we burst out laughing. Once inside, the bleak humor continued: Anacephalic? All right, so he won't go to Harvard.

It wasn't until I had settled Lisa onto the couch that my own legs quit working. I was in midsentence -- something about an errand -- teakettle in hand, halfway between the tap and the stove. A spasm went through me, I doubled over and I heard my own voice howling from far off, the full-throated cry of a child.

On the day I went back to the small college where I work, I felt myself in another kind of altered state, not above the flow of daily life but just below its surface, heavy, settled, still. I had been thinking about how to tell people: my colleagues, my students. Some knew that Lisa and I had been expecting a child; clearly I had to tell them what happened.

Others didn't know about the pregnancy, though. Should I spring the whole story on them all at once? When a parent dies or a partner -- when we lose someone who has lived in the world -- there are customs, worn paths to follow, ways to talk about it. But I didn't see any path with this. Was I supposed to keep quiet and pretend nothing had happened? I couldn't accept that.

So I typed out an e-mail message, brief and plain, explaining: Lisa had been pregnant, the child had died and we took some comfort from the belief that all he had ever known was love. I stared at the screen for a long time.

Then I clicked on the top of the e-mail program and addressed the message to everyone at the college: faculty members, students, staff, people I knew well, people I didn't know at all. I had a fleeting thought that this might be inappropriate, but then I pressed "send." It felt like a form of protest.

I wasn't really looking for a response. I wanted just to get the news out; I couldn't bear to repeat it over and over. And although my department's administrative assistant did field a few complaints about receiving something so personal by a general message ("Who is this guy?"), most apparently understood or at least excused my gesture.

AND then came the outpouring: for weeks after, people I barely knew would come into my office, gently shut the door and burst into tears. I heard stories of single and serial miscarriages, pregnancies carried nearly to full term, stillbirths -- all the lost, lost children. Grief hauled about, and nowhere to put it down. Some said they had never told anyone; who would understand?

My first son is like the faintest scar on my skin now, nearly hidden. Over time, will the mark disappear as my skin becomes mottled and wrinkled?

Lisa was planning to bury his ashes, about a teaspoonful, in the garden, part of which was to be his. Instead, she kept his ashes in the bedside table drawer, right next to her, as if afraid he would wake in the night and need her. She felt him close to her, a wisp of spirit, the smallest presence.

But he's gone now, she says. Offhand, I don't know where she keeps his ashes. But not in the garden. The garden is hers and Benjamin's.

When Benjamin was very young, just beginning to speak in sentences, he asked if he had a brother once. Lisa paused a moment before answering, but by the time she started to speak, he had moved on to something else.


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Comments (6)

OMG Bill. . . I want... (Below threshold)

OMG Bill. . . I wanted to cry, again.

My wife was working as a pediatric nurse aid. She wanted to gain experience and we needed the money. She was a full time BSN student and eventually graduated as an RN, BSN. She now works as an RN in Mother/Baby at a hospital that delivers nearly 2500 babies a year.

A baby was born that did not have the ability to live. Since almost every Nurse in the Department gets emotionally torn up when a baby is born in that condition, the head of the department walked in to do the job that had to be done.

She stopped at the door and just watched my wife work with the baby and mother. As this Department Head wrote in her later comendation for my wife, there is a procedure to be followed when a baby cannot be saved. And she noted that my wife, who had never read the procedures as yet, was doing it by the book and more, from the heart.

As she washed the baby and prepped him, my wife was discribed as loving and gentle and careful, as if the baby would live. She presented the baby to the mother and stood by as the mother and father said goodbye to their son. She did so with dignity and care and emotional support for the grieving parents. I can tell you that my wife did a job that tore her up emotionally, but she did it because that is who she is.

And when this story was told at a staff meeting later on in the week, there wasn't a dry eye to be seen. Me too Bill.

I tell you this story because I wanted you know that there are those out here who have felt your loss up close and personal and we understand. And our hearts go out to you and your wife because we do, understand.

I just wanted to say two th... (Below threshold)

I just wanted to say two things. First, as painful as it is, if a couple has joyfully notified friends and family of their pregnancy, then they really ought to notify the same people if it ends prematurely. I've never lost a pregnancy, but I have had so many friends and relatives who did. It is a terrible feeling to ask someone "How's the baby doing?" only to have them say, "Oh, didn't anyone tell you? We had a miscarriage." It's hard I know, but I think it saves you more pain and awkward conversations like that in the long run. Hlavsa did the right thing.

Two, I had mentioned on Wizbang before that my own mother was fighting pancreatic cancer. She passed away on September 12, 1 year and 17 days after she was diagnosed. My mother was 51 years old and my 2-year-old daughter was her only granddaughter. She had reached the point of her life where the only thing she wanted was to be a nana and spoil grandchildren, and for a long portion of her illness she lamented how that was being taken from her.

I don't pretend to know how every aspect of the afterlife works and what happens to the souls of babies who die so young, but I like to think that people like my mom are getting to be Nana to lost babies like Bill's and Hlavsa's right now. And if it's true, trust me, right now they're in the care of the best mother and Nana in the world.

Just a big thankyou to Bill... (Below threshold)

Just a big thankyou to Bill for sharing this tender and beautiful story.
I've worked with counseling women about carrying their babies to term.
I've known women who have miscarried and the great sorrow they feel...often people don't realize the upheaval of their lives is hormonal and emotional, spiritual and intellectual. And the daddies grieve alongside.
I brought a friend in to deliver her little one who couldn't make it into our world alive. Her husband who loved her dearly couldn't make it back on time. Although I was a poor substitute for him, I was glad to be there with her.
I honor this woman who chose to go through the unbelievable pain of a pitocin early delivery to hold her little one intact.
I am so glad they were able to have Benjamin.

We just had our second chil... (Below threshold)

We just had our second child Aug. 25th, and were in the hospital checking symptoms last week, but he's ok.

I read Bill's post last year about his son, and I, too, was very moved. I thought about it alot during my wife's second pregnancy--what I would do and feel in the same position, wondering if he would be healthy, or if we would get bad news along the way.

We feel very fortunate to have had two healthy kids, but we think alot about our friends and those who were not so lucky, and all the lost love and time with their little ones.

I have a great regard for you guys who can be strong and pull through something like this. It would be awfully hard for me, and my wife, I think, to do so. Your approach to honoring your child's memory is terrific.

God bless you.

My first was born with some... (Below threshold)

My first was born with some defects and spent quantity time in the PICU. Although her case was fairly straightforward to fix, I did see some heart-wrenching scenes in that ward. I can sympathize with everyone whose ever faced such an issue.

I too would just like to co... (Below threshold)

I too would just like to comment a little on this post. I have had two miscarriages in the past year, and the second one I had to induce at home. My baby was only the size of a gummy bear, but I too held him(her?) and mourned. You're right: the word "fetus" never entered my mind.






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