I had always loved tiny things: dollhouses, miniature soaps and travel-sized toiletries. They brought me a strange joy. That is why I loved shopping for the baby so much. Everything was so small that I exploded with happiness walking into baby stores. Tiny socks were cuter than tiny sweatpants, but tiny shoes surpassed both. My husband would laugh at my purchases and tell me that the baby was my “ultimate tiny thing.” As I stayed up reading about hearts the size of grapes and hands the size of quarters, I couldn’t help but agree. At eight months pregnant, my tiny baby had already filled me with more love than anything I could ever own.
I had felt strange during the week leading up to the last ultrasound. Pregnancy is a roller coaster of sensations, but that week had been off a little. I barely noticed the ultrasound tech rubbing the cold, blue gel on my massive belly. I wanted to hear that sound: that quiet, pulsing sound of my baby racing to be born.
A minute went by. Then another. My ears were straining, but all I could hear was my own heart furiously beating in my ears.
Her eyes darted a look at me: That is when I knew.
“What? What’s going on?” I pushed myself up on my elbows and resisting the urge to throw her plastic wand across the room. She rolled back in her chair.
“I’ll be right back, Elena. Just give me one moment.” I curled up on my side in silence, my hands holding my sticky belly. I could feel my baby as a gentle nudge on my palm. This weight comforted me: I couldn’t feel what doesn’t exist. She is real. She is my baby.
A tall, older woman walked in the room. Her face was impossible to read. “Elena, hello, my name is Dr. Wong. I understand you’re at thirty-seven weeks today.”
“Yes, that’s correct,” I said, rolling onto my back. I felt relieved thinking the other tech was just a rookie. The gel went on again, and the wand searched across my belly. I caught myself holding my breath to avoid the sound of crinkling paper beneath me. There was only one sound I wanted to hear.
Dr. Wong stopped abruptly and put her hand on my arm. “You can sit up, Elena.”
“But I’d like to hear the heartbeat again if you can.” My back was glued to the paper on the table, and my hands were stuck to my belly, clutching the proof.
She sat across from me, her eyes somber. “Elena, I’m so sorry, but there is no heartbeat: Your baby has died.”
The room went silent. I wrapped my arms around my abdomen desperate to hug my daughter and tell her that it would be okay and that they were wrong. Sobs heaved out of my chest. They had to be wrong. Half-naked and hysterical, I lashed out like a caged animal. “But you only listened, for like, thirty seconds. Do either of you even know what you’re doing? Shouldn’t you be absolutely certain before you go telling a pregnant woman something so terrible?”
They looked at me with pity in their eyes.
I begged for a C-section. I could not bear the thought of delivering my dead child naturally.
“C-sections are quite risky,” my obstetrician had said.
“I don’t care. I can’t do it.” I couldn’t even think about it without feeling sick.
He was sympathetic, kind and gentle. He urged me to think about it but to think quickly. We scheduled the induction for Thursday.
I spent those two days consumed by hatred. I slept alone in the basement, as far away from the nursery as possible. I didn’t tell anyone other than my husband, and I refused to say her name aloud. It didn’t matter in any case. I carried my dead child within me everywhere I went. I walked into rooms with the weight of my grief evident for anyone to see. I found myself absent-minded and putting my hand on my belly like I used to, caressing my baby girl. I would snatch it away as if I put my hand on a hot stove, and the grief would swallow me whole. She would not let me forget her.
We walked to the labor and delivery ward in silence. My two nurses were kind and sympathetic women named Rosalie and Amanda. They wrapped a red rose around the doorknob of our private room.
“So no one comes in here and says anything stupid,” Rosalie said under her breath, eyebrows raised. They started me on an IV and said the contractions would begin in about thirty minutes. I nodded because I already knew. I had done all my homework: I had read the labor books cover to cover, I had gone to Lamaze class and I had toned my pelvic floor. I knew how long it took to induce contractions. What I didn’t know was how to push my baby out to her death certificate. I didn’t know how to breathe knowing that my body had failed her.
Labor commenced, and each contraction mercifully pushed every conscious thought from my mind. They gripped my insides and squeezed them as if trying to wring the blood from me like a rag. But, it was the in-between I couldn’t bear: the moments of calm when I could think of how different I had wanted this to be. The moments when I could hear other babies crying: babies who would share a birthday with my daughter. I couldn’t look my husband in the eye.
Soon, my body whipped into a frenzy of contractions and pushing and breathing and pain. In this state, I was more animal than woman, and I latched onto the idea that if I pushed with all my might, maybe she would live. Maybe they had indeed been wrong. During every contraction, I fantasized about hearing her first cry at the end, a high-pitched whine that was full of life: a cry that could be quieted only by my arms.
“She’s crowning,” Amanda said, more as a warning than an exclamation.
I took the deepest breath I could and pushed: My screams giving way to sobs as I felt her leave my body. I could have drowned in that silence. I know now why they call it a stillbirth. It is because the world stops moving when it happens: People stopped talking, babies stopped breathing and the person I was stopped existing. Everything was still.
They placed my still baby in my arms. She was wrapped up in a blanket. Her skin was a dusky grey, but other than that she was perfect. The nurses told me to take as much time as I needed.
“Look at every piece of her. She is yours,” Rosalie said while holding my hand. She and Amanda exited the room.
I wrapped her tiny fist around my finger and let the tears pool in my collar bone. My baby girl who almost was. My husband and I counted her fingers and toes and stroked her soft brown hair. We gently lifted her eyelids and looked into her warm brown eyes for the first and last time.
It was true. My baby girl had been real.
I wrote her letter after letter, pages of the words I wish I could have whispered into her fat, little cheeks as I kissed her face. I needed to tell her that I love her, that I had tried everything I could to give her a happy, healthy life and that we would never forget her. I tucked these letters into her casket: a box so tiny that I wanted to break it. The phone rang, but we didn’t answer.
As my stomach deflated, I began to wonder if I was ever a mother. The stretch marks snaking up my hips said yes, but the empty nursery said no. We got a letter from the bank congratulating us for opening a registered education savings plan (RESP) for our daughter who should be going off to college in eighteen years. We said her name aloud, Annabel, Annabel, Annabel. We said it so many times that the word morphed in our mouths, and it started to lose its meaning. Annabel.
My milk came in, and my whole body wept.
I dressed all in black save for a dark red lipstick. As I put it on, I recalled how I had hoped to teach my daughter how to put lipstick on properly someday. It is a strange thing to remember a memory that didn’t exist.
“Are you ready?” my husband asked as he donned his black polo shirt. He looked tired.
“I guess so. Let’s go. You drive.” We both took a deep breath and walked out to the car.
Two hours later, we were pulling into the rolling hills of the cemetery. I had wanted it far enough away that I couldn’t go every day but close enough that I could drive there in the middle of the night if I needed. As it turned out, we hadn’t been until now.
We walked along damp gravel to the smooth patch of earth that holds our baby.
Annabel Watkins March 24, 2017 To love you was an honor. Until that day again.