Published on February 18th, 2016 | by Nina Capelli Oppenheim9
QUIET PLEASE: A (Still) Birth Story by Nina Capelli Oppenheim
Later I thought of it as the walk of shame. A nurse led Tommy and me from a hospital observation area to a baby delivery room at the end of the hall.
When we walked into NYU hospital that day I was terrified. But something in me held on to the hope of an emergency c-section, after which we would meet our child. Instead we were ushered into a room where a nurse said they would reassure us by showing us the heartbeat. She looked for it with a doppler stick, but, having trouble, switched to the larger sonogram wand. Tommy and I watched, suspended in the not knowing.
Nearby there was a loud, solid, thumping of another baby’s heart on the monitor. Our nurse asked for the volume to be turned down as she searched for ours.
It took three nurses and a staff doctor. After searching for the heartbeat, they each went to find someone else to have a look and we waited silently, dreadfully, hopefully. But it was gone. I didn’t know you could lose a baby so late in a pregnancy, after the due date, after 40 weeks.
Later my husband confided that, in addition to the bewilderment of grief, he felt shame. Shame that we couldn’t do what so many of our friends had just done—bring a baby into the world. At this, too, we had failed.
We walked down the linoleum hallway and I looked at my pregnant belly. It suddenly seemed deflated, diminished. We were shown into a delivery room. We would be induced. As Tommy said, we would begin to re-write the narrative of our lives without a child in it. The door was closed behind us. it wasn’t until much later that we saw the sign outside that said, “Quiet please. The family in this room has lost a baby.”
I was bewildered and had no idea what to expect, despite the fact that our doctor and nurses talked us through what was coming. Through medically-induced labor we would deliver the baby within a day. At that point perhaps we would have some answers about the loss, but so far the blood tests indicated no known cause. We were told that we could see the baby and hold it if we wanted to.
Around 4 o’clock in the afternoon I was given pitocin, the drug that would bring on labor and contractions, and an epidural for the pain. Tommy and I made some phone calls to our families and then waited out the night. Neither of us could sleep. To be fair, the doctor offered me sleep medication, but I didn’t like the idea of taking it and leaving Tommy on his own, wide awake on the hospital reclining chair.
The night seemed endless. The dark city through the large picture window, the dull pain I felt through the epidural, the confusion and the waiting all made it feel like Sartre’s play No Exit.
At some point we turned on the TV. There was a marathon of Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates Jr. on PBS. We watched strangers learn about their ancestors and backgrounds. There were branches on their family trees that ended abruptly when someone died in war or of tuberculosis or when a marriage didn’t include children. We both thought of those branches in our own families—my great-uncles who died in World War I, Tommy’s great-cousins who died in pogroms in Russia before his family came to the US.
I watched and felt surprised that I managed to have been born into the world at all. My maternal grandmother had three children but also had two known losses. Her mother’s mother lost three of her six sons in the war. My paternal grandmother spent ten years trying to conceive each of her two children. Her mother buried three babies before they reached the age of three. How had I been delivered awake and alive from these two lines?A few days before my due date, I had discovered Ina May Gaskin, thanks to the recommendation of a friend. I read two of her books voraciously, in a matter of hours. I loved reading the details of births. It was like an initiation into a sisterhood. I couldn’t wait to know what my birth story be. Would it be an adrenaline rush like one woman described? How would I respond in the height of the pain? I felt curious and opened up to the possibility of the experience in a way I hadn’t been able to before.
But when the staff doctor told us that there was no heart beat, a dichotomy of understanding broke inside of me. Some things became very clear and others became blurred and distorted. I had almost immediate clarity that Tommy and I would come together in the loss or risk breaking up completely. I also had an instant feeling of connection with all of humankind and thought of all of the women and parents in all of human history who had experienced such a loss. But I couldn’t assemble my thoughts when it came to other things. Birth and delivery fell into that category. I knew people who had lost pregnancies early on. But as far as I knew those losses resulted in anonymous bleeding, terribly sad and psychologically painful, but different from delivering a newborn infant. So I could not understand that I would go into labor and push and breathe and use the things that we learned in our birthing class. But we did.
The pushing lasted almost an hour. Before it was done we had an answer. The baby had gotten tangled up in the umbilical cord. We weren’t sure at first if we would want to see the baby. In my fractured mind, anything could have happened—a car accident in my womb that left the body bloodied and mangled, for example. Thankfully, rationality took root and we decided that we did want to see her.
A nurse walked gazing into the swaddled baby’s face. Later Tommy said the nurse was like a great actress, endowing the baby with life. She handed the baby to me. I stared into my daughter’s face, trying to memorize it and trying to figure out who she was, what kind of person she would have been. Tommy held her and told her he loved her. We named her Emily.
I thought I would cry more and there was, of course, unspeakable grief. But there was something else too. There was the sense of awe that parents feel when they see their child for the first time. Seeing how whole and healthy she was helped to verify that losing her was a freak accident and nothing more. Seeing her face and feeling the weight of her—nearly nine pounds—and having a photograph of her also helped me through the next weeks and months in moments of total bewilderment when I needed something to prove that I was a mother after all, but that my child had slipped away.
We said hello and goodbye in those moments. We left the hospital just a few hours later. We walked out of the hospital on to First Avenue holding hands and into the unknown ahead…