First step – create a folder in your inbox labeled “Conception.”
Well, no. There are many, earlier, first steps, though this was the moment when the journey to have our first child began to materialize in a concrete way, changing from a future wish to a tantalizingly close prospect.
I am four years beyond the creation of that folder. Two months past the birth and death of my first child. Back then, 2010, lifetimes ago, I was anxious when I thought of how close I already was to that suddenly less-fertile age of 35, and how if I want to have a second child, I’d likely be in that nebulous, dangerous zone of 35-40.
I am a first born.
I tell you this because it was what my mother used to say to justify why I was such a perfectionist as a child, so anxious to “get it right.” I was the child always labelled “teacher’s pet,” even as a superlative in my high school yearbook. And I was the child proud of that label.
I am obedient to a fault. Jaywalking, even when the street is totally empty, makes me uncomfortable. I come to full stops at stop signs. When I have to swing my bike onto the sidewalk in places where it’s unsafe to ride in the street, I get off and walk so as not to inconvenience pedestrians, who have the right of way there. I follow rules. All. The. Time. And I’m proud of it; I call it integrity.
What this means, however, is that I also believe that I am entitled to certain things. I follow rules. Therefore, I am intelligently minimizing my risk of bad things happening to me. Therefore, good things are more likely to happen to me, and since I’ve been such a “good girl,” I deserve them. For the vast, vast majority of my life, this “rule” held true. I did well in school, attended and graduated from a good college, got a good job… you get the picture. I went to church every week and said my prayers every night.
Of course, I even followed the rules for getting pregnant: I got married, which also meant legal paperwork, since we lived in Virginia in 2011, and we wanted to ensure that our relationship would be protected. My wife, completing her PhD, applied for jobs in more gay-friendly states, and we chose Illinois. Before we even moved there, we visited a health clinic to begin the IUI process. We got a nice place to live with a room for a nursery. We saved money from our better-paying jobs for sperm and medical expenses. I started taking prenatal vitamins three months prior to conceiving. I cut out all caffeine and alcohol. I follow rules, so I never smoked or did drugs of any kind (I’ve never even been on any prescription drugs. I’ve never touched a cigarette.). I read all the baby books and followed the rules on what to eat, what not to eat, how not to lie on your back after your first trimester, how to exercise, why to see the dentist (I did, of course).
I did not get my reward.
I was determined to have a healthy, non-medicated, 100% exercise pregnancy, and a beautiful, natural birth. I was healthy and young and was going to give my baby the best possible start in life! (Exclamation added to represent the excitement I felt over having the opportunity to do this “perfectly.”) No one in my family had any history of pregnancy issues, so I expected a pregnancy similar to my mother’s – the standard morning sickness and other common pregnancy ailments, but nothing serious. I had a small bleeding incident at six weeks – just an hour of red blood – and we went to the ER, where we sat for eight hours (overnight) for them to tell us everything looked normal and the baby was doing great.
All proceeded then as normal until just after Thanksgiving (around 19 weeks). The baby was moving, all prenatal visits had gone swimmingly (A+, my midwife said; of course I expected nothing less), and we were designing our birth plan – vaginal birth, no epidural, waiting 90 seconds to cut the umbilical cord, midwife driven at the family birth center (not at the hospital), home visit 24 hours after the baby was born (they discharge you after only 12 hours so you can bond with the baby in a familiar setting). Of course, best laid plans and all that….
The day after Thanksgiving, I started feeling really bloated, like I had eaten too much and the really full feeling wouldn’t go away (I did eat a lot on Thanksgiving, but by the next day it should have subsided). I started having some brown spotting, and went to my midwife, who reassured me that it looked very minor and was “old blood,” maybe even leftover from the six week bleed. But a week later, as I was lying in bed reading around 9:30 p.m., I felt like I needed to pee very badly. I just made it to the toilet when the blood gush started, followed by a large blood clot the size of my hand. We headed to the hospital, shaking, terrified, where I was monitored overnight, given an IV, and first diagnosed with a placental abruption. Now, many times these are mild, and you only have one incident; the placenta doesn’t reattach to the uterine wall, but it doesn’t get any worse, either. I was having contractions, but I couldn’t even feel them, and they weren’t opening my cervix, so the doctors released me with the instructions that I was on pelvic rest and should go back to the hospital if I had any more bleeding, about a 50/50 chance.
Well. There are some things outside of the control of even the most controlling of control freaks. That next Friday night I started bleeding again, and we got a bit of a stern talking to by the doctor, who told me to go home and stay there – and “be prepared for the likelihood of a miscarriage.” By this time I was so close to the magic, viable 24 weeks, so we prepared to heed her advice. Over the next two weeks, I was in the hospital four additional times for heavy bleeding, only permitted to go home for Christmas and New Year’s, though the holidays were celebrated over Skype instead of at my parents’ home in Connecticut as planned.
I went into labor on January 3, 2014. I was 23 weeks and six days pregnant.
I was taken to Labor & Delivery, where a neonatologist met us to talk to us about the baby’s viability options before 24 weeks. We were warned that he would likely not survive and we were asked what lifesaving methods we wanted them to take, since they could cause permanent damage. I was given indomethacin to stop the contractions, but told there was only a 50% chance it would work, and I was started on a course of steroids to help mature the baby’s lungs should he happen to come that weekend.
He came that weekend, in a blur of sudden contractions, running nurses, a jammed OR door, my wife sodden and sweating in her snow gear, my anxieties still powerful enough to ensure my belongings (sentimental teddy bear, glasses, cell phone) were still with me. My son was born kicking and screaming, but neither of us saw it. I needed two pints of blood and I guess it was a messy procedure, and the placenta was all in tatters. I drifted in a Demerol-induced haze in recovery for over four hours, not quite believing that I had just had a baby. I didn’t see it, after all; there is an element of the surreal in being told you have just given birth, but not remembering any of it.
I was lucky – as soon as I was alert enough, before they took me to my room, they wheeled my gurney to the NICU so I could see the baby. I couldn’t sit up yet, and his isolette was a bit high, so I didn’t see much of him that day – but it was enough to know that he was alive and stable and perfectly okay for now. The first thing I said was, “he’s so big!” Of course, 1 lb 9 oz, 12 3/4 inches isn’t that big, but to me, he was huge! I couldn’t believe he had fit in my stomach. The second thing was looking at my wife, and then at the nurse, and confirming that his name is Anderson.
Ander slept so peacefully, with his hands under his chin or on his cheeks. But his heart and lungs were struggling from his first breath, 16 weeks before he was supposed to need them. We cupped his head and sang him Christmas carols, hoping to get his oxygen levels to improve. We had a “honeymoon period” the first week, and we held him. But then: he needed heart surgery, as his heart hadn’t finished forming properly. His lungs weren’t getting enough oxygen to his developing organs, and the doctors played a “game” of ventilator roulette trying to find the best combination of pressure, suction, ventilation, and oxygenation. The threat of pneumothorax loomed. Our doctors discussed with us our options for treatment, and started putting some of the aggressive treatment options in frames of quality of life and expected outcomes. Our son’s chronic lung disease kept getting worse, so they put him on a go-big-or-go-home drug that was, one doctor explained, “like hunting for an antelope with a torpedo.” A few days later, he went into cardiac arrest, but was revived. The next day, it happened again. The third day, we chose to take him off of life support so he could die in our arms. We informed our family: “Anderson is a Scandinavian name that means brave and strong,” we told them. “And our little boy fought like hell to give us 26 days together.”
The feeling of bitterness, the vast expanse of unfairness, is not altogether different from that you felt as a child when you didn’t get something you wanted, even though you behaved. But then, perhaps you could blame your parents, a teacher. When you lose a baby, who can you blame? You could blame yourself, but when you know you did nothing wrong (a fact confirmed by several doctors), it feels hollow. You are left, then, blaming intangibles. Life. Often, God. With Ander’s death, the structural support upon which I had built my perfectly constructed life came crashing down.
I am still waiting for our first “permanent” child to arrive. They have a name. They have parents who love them, who have planned, literally for years, for their arrival. They have grandparents already debating who gets first visitation rights and what they want to be called.They have cousins stashing aside hand-me-down clothes and promising not to steal “our” name. I know this, because our angel boy had all of these things, and he still did not survive. I know this, because they are on the way, due to arrive this August. So, I’ll keep following the rules, because they protect me from guilt and are a subtle but present barrier to some of my anxieties.