I forgot to remember this year. February 27 came and went and I didn’t think of her once. Seven years later, and I didn’t cry in the shower or eat gobs of peanut butter out of the jar before bed. I didn’t replay that icy morning in my mind, speeding up Park Avenue, my head in my husband’s lap, trying to lay flat and take the pressure off my cervix.
“Please hurry!” he urged the cab driver, as each pothole left me cringing, my head bouncing, my feet and hands dusty blue cold. When we were close enough, we opted to walk the two blocks to Lenox Hill instead of sit in traffic. A mistake, I feared. As soon as my slippered feet hit the concrete I felt a warm rush down my legs. I leaned heavily on my husband, trying to render myself weightless, to will my baby to stay put.
“We will get through this,” he whispered.
The hospital doors slid open with a rush of antiseptic, old-person air, and a nurse slowly walked us to the maternity floor.
“Lay down here,” she motioned, directing me to a high, white paper-covered table. She pulled a curtain closed, like in the shower, the metal rings screaming.
“I can see the baby’s head,” she told another nurse. “Call her doctor. Now! And move her to a delivery room.”
My doctor arrived sooner than I expected, looking un-doctorly in jeans and a cardigan, his right pant leg held against his ankle with a thick rubber band. I couldn’t imagine him riding a bike, his lanky limbs and long, cold fingers grasping anything but a speculum.
He pulled up a rolling stool, its wheels hissing across the speckled linoleum.
“Your cervix is completely dilated,” he said. “Unfortunately, 21 weeks is just not viable. Twenty-two, twenty-three, the odds start to improve, but even babies at these gestational ages rarely survive, and the ones who do don’t fare well.”
I cleared my throat and the baby moved, a small but visible flutter beneath the sheet.
“I’m terribly sorry,” he said, glancing from my husband to me.
He held my hand between his for a few moments, then told the nurse to start Pitocin and Demerol drips and left the room. Two nurses, their heads bowed, helped me into a gown.
It was quick and so quiet. A few small pushes and she slipped from me easily, a slick, still fish pulled from the water against its will. I shivered from the medication or the room or both. My husband, pale and rocking slightly, held his head in his hands.
“Do you want to see her?” the nurse asked. I had considered whether to have a doula and settled on periwinkle for her room, but I had never considered whether I would want to see my baby’s body.
“Yes, I want to hold her,” I said.
The nurse placed a small cap on her head and brought her over in a pink plastic washbasin. She felt even lighter than I expected and was still warm.
I studied her face, her ear buds no more than knots of red licorice on either side of her head. Her skin was as thin as cellophane, tightly covering pink flesh; her body like a tiny bird — tender, red, too delicate to touch. You had to look closely, but she had eyebrows, tiny hairs sprouting above her closed lids.
The nurses gave us a few minutes alone with her. When they returned, they handed me a bereavement pamphlet.
“Do you want to have her buried, or should we take care of her for you?”
A burial? A funeral?
“I don’t know,” I searched their faces for an answer. “What do people do?”
“We can take care of her,” they said.
I looked to my husband, who nodded.
“Ok,” I said.
They placed her body in the pink washbasin and covered her with a receiving blanket. And then they were gone. And so was she.
Living in my body afterwards was unbearable. My milk came in and Parents Magazine arrived in the mail. My husband and I zombie-walked through the streets of Chelsea, eating silent lunches at Eisenberg’s Deli, each bite a struggle. I resented pregnant women and my hot, heavy breasts.
“Place cold cabbage leaves in your bra, one in each cup,” the nurses had written on my discharge instructions.
Sympathy cards arrived. Some friends showed up for us. Others disappeared. When I ran into an acquaintance on the street with her newborn, she looked stricken by my news and hurried off as if she’d been exposed to a horrible contagion.
People said all sorts of things that people say. “It was meant to be.” “God doesn’t give us anything we can’t handle.” “It wasn’t her time.” “You can always try again.”
Six months later, somehow we did muster the courage to start trying again. Soon enough I found myself holding a Clearblue Easy pregnancy test with a window reading +. I showed it to my husband.
“Here we go,” he said with a reserved smile.
We knew that we were in for a long ride. There’s no cure for an incompetent cervix, and most women don’t know they have one until they lose their first child. By 18 to 20 weeks, the baby’s weight puts pressure on the cervix, triggering the preterm birth of an otherwise healthy baby.
At 12 weeks, we learned that my cervix had completed effaced, the first stage before dilation and labor. I was immediately scheduled for a cerclage, an operation to sew my cervix shut, and put on strict bed rest in Trendelenberg, a delightful position in which you lay on your back with your feet 15 to 30 degrees higher than your head.
While I Trendelenberged the weeks away, the TV became my best friend, Fresh Direct my savior. Once a week I could leave the apartment to drive to the Bronx hospital where my new, world-renowned, super-specialist doctor practices. I’d get an ultrasound, a McDonald’s drive-thru cheeseburger and enjoy sitting upright. At home, I began to feel the baby move, kept my fingers crossed and lurked on the Yahoo! Incompetent Cervix Support board.
Women on the board were at all different stages of “this journey” and identified themselves with short-hand for their losses and condition: Regina (34), DH (aka Dear Husband) (39), Angel Baby Devon in heaven since 3/4/04, 18 weeks, TAC (aka transabdominal cerclage) placed at 12 weeks, partial bed rest. Sabrina (28) signed her posts with the same message each time: ~ Daisy baby Claire born still September 15, 2005. Cerclage placed January 4, 2006, hoping to beat IC and bring our rainbow baby home! “It just takes some time, little girl, you’re in the middle of the ride. Everything, everything will be alright . . .” The Middle by Jimmy Eat World.
One woman included in her signature a photo of her baby boy in a white lacquered casket. He was dressed in a black tuxedo, his tiny face like a veiny baby gerbil before its hair has come in. She carried this photo with her everywhere she said. And she visited baby Andre’s gravesite every Sunday. I was at once horrified and ashamed. How could she post such a disturbing image? But, what about my baby? Where was her tiny body now? And how could I not have given her a proper burial? How could I not know where she is?
One day, I caught an episode of Oprah. At first I rolled my eyes and reached for the remote, but the topic got my attention. A rabbi was comforting a mother who lost a young child. He talked about all forms of life being connected, about life as energy that takes the form of physical matter. He told her that her lost child was a manifestation of energy that was with her in the form of her son for a short time.
“The energy comes and goes, just as the water flows down a stream,” he explained.
“At times, the water slows, pools, and stays put. But other times, it rushes by and new water flows in.”
“Your lost child was just that,” he added, “A form of energy that was with you for a short time. He came and he went, and you and many others are changed because of him. After him, new energy will come — maybe in the form of another child, maybe in another form. New energy will fill your life.”
She began to weep and I cried with her. Every pore of me sobbed. Great wails came to the surface and spilled out of me. And when I was good and wrung out, dried up, I held my growing belly and slept.
The bed rest continued and the weeks progressed. We passed the 23-week mark, when survival rates climb from 10 percent to 40 percent. At 29 weeks, I got steroid injections to jumpstart the baby’s lung development. We felt that we could breathe a little. We found out it was a boy. The idea grew on us.
Today, seven years later, boy energy fills our lives. Our son bounds into our bedroom too early, too loud, pushing his blonde curls from his face and asking for my iPad. He towers over his first grade classmates, this 4 lb., 31-week preemie who spent his first eight weeks in the NICU.
We always wanted one child, and not having him is unimaginable. How could we not have him? This cherubic prankster who hides rocks and Lego men in my purse? Who tells me that Batman’s sidekick is called Boy Wonder because he doesn’t know much.
How could I live without seeing his sweet sleeping self each night, without hearing “Mommy, you are so sweet,” as he butterfly kisses my eyelids?
People see us and say all sorts of things that people say. “He must have been a big baby.” “Isn’t it about time for another?” “You better get going on your second soon.”
One day, Mary, the old woman and neighborhood fixture who sits outside our favorite Brooklyn bakery, grabbed my hand tight and pulled me in close to her.
She pointed to my son and said, “He needs a brother! One kid; it’s no good. My Nicky, my boy,” she pulled a photo from her purse, “He died at 42. Forty-two. Dead before his mother, and my husband before him. You need another.”
She paused and gazed at my sweet boy.
“To lose a child,” she said. “You can’t even imagine.”
“I know,” I said. “I know.”