A Review of Ghostbelly: A Memoir
Elizabeth Heineman’s description of her son’s birth reads—at first—like the jumble of elation, confusion, and anxiety that accompanies many births. There were mild contractions and calls to the midwife, a strong heartbeat, and a tiny bit of blood. There were stronger contractions, plans to set up the aqua doula, and more blood. Suddenly there was too much blood, meconium, oxygen tanks, and the EMT. There were bright lights over the kitchen counter, then the hospital, the “swarms of medical personnel” and, finally, the social worker.
“I knew what social worker meant,” Heineman writes, “it meant death.”
However, for Heineman, her husband, Glenn, and even their stillborn son, Thor, death does not mean the end. His name, a “silly fetal name,” was meant to be temporary, and Thor died before he was born, yet Heineman refuses to let his life come and go so quickly.
A professor of history and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at the University of Iowa, Heineman has published several books and many academic papers that bridge these fields. The researcher in her strives to explain what happened between “strong heartbeat” and “social worker.” She needs to understand Thor’s death. But the mother in Heineman needs to understand—to experience—Thor’s life: “Who was Thor? Or, what was Thor?” she writes. “No. Who is he? What is he?” These questions guide Heineman through the next few years and the remainder of her book.
Heineman revisits the many decisions that shaped Thor’s birth and asks, over and over, if those same decisions shaped his death. At age 45, Heineman and her partner chose to have a child. She didn’t need the “AMA” (advanced maternal age) stamped on her doctor’s chart to realize that giving birth at 46 lay outside the norm. But she knew age itself did not render a pregnancy high risk and felt confident about her health. Heineman and Glenn chose Deirdre as their midwife; she had 20 years of experience with no “bad outcomes.” They also chose to have minimal interventions during the pregnancy and a home birth. These choices grew from conscientious thought and research, not from inclination or whimsy: “I chose home birth because I believe in evidence-based medicine,” she writes. “Because I believe in scientific method.” She does not, in other words, believe in the unquestioned authority and the assumed omniscience of doctors in hospitals.
Yet Thor died.
Heineman spends time with him that morning in the hospital and convinces the staff to give not one, but six hours, between the pronouncement of his death and the autopsy:
Once upon a time, stillborn babies were whisked away and the parents didn’t even see them. But now hospitals have changed their practice, and parents can have and hold their stillborn babies, to say goodbye. No one seems to have thought of the fact that first the parents have to say hello…. This is what I want to do in those six hours. To take that moment, in which Thor will not grow six hours older, and inhabit it fully. To fully absorb Thor, because this will be our only chance.
But it is not her only chance. Once again, Heineman refuses to accept six hours as the entirety of Thor’s existence. He is transferred to a funeral home and Heineman visits, as many parents would. The director, Uncle Mike as she comes to call him, informs her that it is perfectly legal, if not perfectly conventional, to bring Thor home overnight. “This was when I understood: Thor was our baby. He did not belong to the hospital. He did not belong to the funeral home. He was ours. We could bring him home.”
The scenes of Heineman at home with Thor are startling and perhaps, for some readers, disturbing. They are also exquisitely sensitive, courageous, and revealing. They are Heineman’s way to ensure Thor’s existence, to create memories, and answer her question: Who is he? She sleeps next to him, dresses him, and takes him for walks, his stiff body huddled under her coat. With Glenn, she shows Thor his burial site where, in the spring, they will plant flowers and install a bird feeder so he will have company: “We prepare Thor to go out into his world. Isn’t that what you do with your children?”
If not satisfied—how could a grieving mother be satisfied?—Heineman seems at least consoled that her brief time with Thor was spent on her terms. She has created a presence and the memories she needed. But the researcher’s questions remain. Why did this happen? Could it have been prevented? In her writing and her actions, Heineman is unflinching. She lets no one off the hook: not herself, not Glenn, not Deirdre, not the hospitals, the midwife practices, the insurance companies, the entire social and political system. And she finds her answers. In a beautiful series of paragraphs all starting with “I believe,” she reckons Thor’s life and his death. In these spare yet pivotal assertions she stands her ground and finds the will to move forward.