Illustration by Morgan Maurer, 2011
We brought Ben’s ashes home on a sweltering Thursday in July, six and a half months after his sudden death on a bleak midwinter’s day.
As with many days of that year, Simon and I were quiet on the drive to and from the funeral home, lost in grief for our stillborn child. The unspoken question between us—what now?—would remain unanswered for months, long after we placed Ben’s ashes in the room that would have been his, closed the door and tried to leave the pain inside.
The night he died we fought over a small, stupid thing that had been festering for months. I went to bed angry; Simon went to the basement to resolve the problem – a utility sink blocked up with accumulated household detritus. We woke up mad the next day, too proud to apologize or admit how silly we’d been. It was the day before New Year’s Eve, 2003.
Thirty-nine weeks and four days into pregnancy, I was tired, ready to bring my baby home and be done with aching hips and heartburn. I wanted to meet this new little wonder who was coming to change my life. Outside, it was cold and gray, mirroring my exhaustion; inside, Charlotte, our three-year-old, had an ear infection and fever, and, much as we wanted Ben, we were nervous about bringing a second child into our lives.
That last morning, I stewed in the doctor’s office, angry with Simon, annoyed by the doctor’s slight delay, wishing my regular OB weren’t on vacation. I didn’t notice that my boy wasn’t moving. Blind to everything but myself own self-righteous annoyance, I was confident Ben wasn’t going to arrive anytime soon.
When I finally got to the exam room and on the table, Dr. Todd, a doctor new to me and my pregnancy, rolls out the Doppler heartbeat monitor. He smears cold jelly on my stomach and places the microphone on my belly. Static. He tries again, and still, nothing. He asks where we usually hear the heartbeat, and I indicate the right side of my belly. He tries again. Nothing. My heart starts to beat a little faster.
Dr. Todd remains calm and tells me he thinks the Doppler machine has been dropped on the floor a few too many times, and runs off to retrieve another. We try again. We wait. And nothing.
But then, very faint, is a rapid heartbeat. Dr. Todd says he thinks it might be my heartbeat, and checks my pulse. It is, indeed, my heart racing with fear.
I look at him and say, “Please tell me not to panic.”
He says nothing.
Dr. Todd keeps trying with the Doppler, then says, “I’m going to send you over for an ultrasound to see what’s going on.”
I think that’s when I knew that Ben was dead. I don’t let myself believe it; I tell myself I’m going to have an emergency C-section after the ultrasound and start planning a phone call to Simon.
As I walk out of the office, the receptionist calls out, “Have a Happy New Year.” I think, “If you only knew.”
In the ultrasound room, I lie down yet again while a technologist puts gel on my belly and runs her wand over my protruding stomach. I hold my breath and stare at the ultrasound screen, at my perfect little boy, looking desperately for something, anything, to help me decipher what is happening.
Another doctor enters the room; Dr. Baird is young, with long brown hair, about my age. She briefly looks at the screen and reaches out to grasp my hand. “How are you feeling right now?” she asks.
“I’m feeling pretty scared.”
“I’m sorry to tell you,” she says softly, “but he’s gone.”
And this is when my world stopped.
Minutes later, someone leads me down the hall to a small room used for moments like this. There is a box of tissues on a coffee table, some pamphlets on grief, a sofa and two standard medical office armchairs, a side table and telephone. One window looks out onto a cloudy December day, traffic moving past, people bundled up against the cold waiting for the bus. I cannot fathom the world that is carrying on outside this place when I need to tell my husband Ben is dead.
I dial our phone number, wipe away my tears and tell Simon, calmly enough, that I have bad news.
But I don’t know how to tell him the next thing I must say. I gulp for air like a fish on dry land and gasp it out: “The baby died,” and burst into tears once more.
Normally unflappable Simon falters. “What should I do? What should I do?” I instruct him to phone our neighbor and ask her to watch Charlotte. I tell him where to find me in the hospital, begging him to get here soon.
Sobbing, collapsed on the floor, I phone my friend Patty. She’s not at work, but doesn’t answer at home. I phone my friend Sandy at her job. No answer. In desperation, I phone Patty again. Miraculously, she answers. She is home with her children and parents-in-law, and after I say hello, my voice breaks again.
“Patty, the baby died.”
And I cry. She insists on coming to me immediately, her composure a brief respite from the agony of unrelenting sorrow.
Unable to make more calls, I wonder why I didn’t know that Ben was dead. Dr. Todd and Dr. Baird come check on me, help me up from the floor and into an armchair. I ask them how I could not have known Ben was gone, but they have no answers. “I don’t care what you think you did or didn’t do,” says Dr. Baird, “Whether you missed a prenatal vitamin once or ate something you shouldn’t have: you did nothing wrong.” It doesn’t help. For now, I am too stunned to be rational; my heart is twisting itself into knots. It was my job to keep Ben safe, and I failed.
Shortly after Simon and Patty arrive, Dr. Baird returns to talk about what happens next. Our options are few: Doing a caesarean on a mother whose baby has died is too risky, she tells us. Labor can be induced, however, and she suggests we go home, get some rest and come back in the morning. There is no way I can go home and sleep while my baby lies dead in my belly, so we arrange to return that evening, after we’ve found someone to look after our daughter. Once our plan is set, we get up to leave.
Walking down the white hallway in the glare of fluorescent lights, in some bit of cosmic cruelty, all we hear are the heartbeats of other women’s babies. There are doors on either side of us, with other pregnant women, unknowing, unconcerned, bathed in the joy of their particular miracles. Patty and Simon, on either side of me, keep me from dropping to my knees and succumbing permanently to my grief.
Just before six o’clock that night, Patty drives us to the hospital. I remember strange and ordinary things from that night: I picture Patty in her winter hat and coat, hugging us goodbye, watching her minivan pull away. The night sky is beautiful, deep and dark. Before I turn to go inside, I catch a glimpse of stars and wonder if Ben is up there too.
On the building’s second floor we try to remember where to check in. A young resident sees our confusion and points us toward the Labor and Delivery doors. Thankfully, he doesn’t make any of the polite exchanges many might in this situation: “Good luck” or “Congratulations.” Maybe he sees the sadness on our faces, maybe he knows.
Once we are settled in our room, we are assured that we will be given as much privacy as possible for as long as we are there. A nurse asks me an extensive list of questions to help pinpoint why our baby died: do we have a cat, and did I clean out the litterbox while pregnant? Did I eat rare meat or raw seafood? Is there any family history of birth defects? The answer to all is no. We can think of no reason why our son is dead.
Later, the nurse takes twelve vials of blood from me, which will be tested for various disorders. I have an IV of Pitocin, an IV for fluids, an IV of antibiotics to treat a strep B infection. Another needle is inserted into my spine for an epidural, which helps the physical pain, but there is nothing to be done for my mental anguish. The epidural, however, doesn’t completely take, and they kindly give me another narcotic drug, one I would ordinarily have refused. It eases my fear and anxiety, but can’t cut the ache in my heart.
Throughout the night, Simon and I alternately sleep (another blessing of the epidural is that the numbing of the contractions allows me to rest), read, and cry. And I think, maybe, just maybe, Ben isn’t really dead.
Around 5 a.m., someone tells me it’s time to push. The doctor is called, the nurses return to hold my legs and Simon holds my hand. It is quiet in the delivery room, somber. Through the night I’ve heard other women down the hall, shouting as they push their babies into the world. I am scared of what we might find when Ben is born. Is he deformed? What will he look like? Why did he die?
Unlike a regular delivery, no one offers me a mirror to watch the baby arrive. They don’t ask me to hold my legs, nor do they have Simon help. I am positioned so that I cannot see whatever might emerge below. And I am grateful for that.
I push when I am told, and, at 6:01 a.m., Ben is – what? What should I call this process of birthing, his delivery into the world? There is no word for this. How, I will later wonder, can we be given a death certificate for someone never, officially, born?
Minutes after his birth, I push out the placenta and the doctor cries, “Look at that. There’s a knot in his umbilical cord.” Dr. Todd shows us a perfect knot, pulled tight. “He must have wriggled himself around, probably weeks ago, and then last night pulled on his cord and died.”
“Did it hurt him?” I ask.
“No,” he says. “He wouldn’t have felt a thing.”
I burst into tears, and wail out to the room, “I want my son. I want my son.”
Simon pulls me close, and we cry.
Sometimes it feels like Ben was just a dream, a shadow that passed across my life, like the shadow of an airplane over my backyard on a bright summer’s afternoon. But the effect of a shadow never lasts as long as the effect of this child in my world. I will spend the rest of my life longing to go back to him, to the day he was born.
My world turned to ash that day seven years ago; all I knew, all that I held on to, flaked away and crumbled into dust. I built that world up again, but the solid core has weakened, the edges are soft. Those ashes I hold in my hand and heart; my son’s ashes, in an urn, sit now in my living room. Neither is palpable, but they hover invisibly, like wisps of smoke after a candle has been extinguished.
My world has not ended, but I have learned how much can be lost, and how quickly. The question—what now?—no longer lingers in the air. The answer was in what we were doing all along: we just go on. Slowly, the pain recedes, changes us, and becomes forever part of who we are.
Virginia Williams’ essay “What No One Tells You” was published in the anthology They Were Still Born: Personal Stories About Stillbirth, in November 2010 by Rowman & Littlefield. She has worked as a columnist for ClubMom.com, an online community with over two million members, contributed articles to the Absolute Write e-newsletter, the web site WeddingChickie.com and worked as a Buzz Blogger for Prevention.com. Williams blogs about parenting after a loss at http://www.landofbrokenhearts.blogspot.com, and is currently at work on her first book.
Read our interview with Virginia here.