I didn’t know this baby. I didn’t know what she looked like apart from a couple of surprisingly cute ultrasound printouts. I didn’t know her personality, except that she liked to jab me hard with her foot, a gesture that brought to mind a woman putting out a cigarette with a stiletto boot-heel and made me think she’d be sassy. I didn’t know her name, except that it might be Nina or Anjali or Eliza or Cleo, any of a list of favorites my husband, Harlan, and I were keeping private to avoid the name-wars we’d experienced with our two-year-old son, Aidan. And yet she was there.
I didn’t even know if I wanted this baby. I had sat stunned on the toilet with the pregnancy test in my hand. I liked the idea of a sibling for Aidan, but was petrified that another child would come between my son and me, between me and the writing career I still hadn’t reestablished since his birth. “My life is over” was the phrase that passed through my mind. But, even so, I believed this pregnancy was meant to be. We had conceived Aidan after almost a year of trying naturally, four rounds of insemination and two of IVF. Then, when my beautiful boy was seventeen months old, I got pregnant without even trying. I told myself it was fate.
There’s a YouTube video called “Pregnant Women Are Smug.” One woman, who is not pregnant, says, “Oh my gosh, I have so much going on! I got my novel published, I moved, I got married…” and her pregnant friend says, “Oh, everything seems so trivial now that I’m pregnant.” Pregnant women seem to walk through the world as if they are entitled, better than everyone else, as if they are goddesses. When pregnant, we whine about our leg cramps, heartburn and sciatica, but we also glide—and sometimes waddle—through space with confidence, knowing everyone is looking at us, knowing we are holding life within us, knowing we are hot enough for someone to want to knock us up. When I walked down the street with Aidan, I was even more smug. I had the miracle of life within me and the miracle of life clinging to my hand. I was going to have two kids, a boy and a girl. “Isn’t that clever?” people joked. “Well done!” I felt smug when I saw people with one kid. I felt smug when I saw people with no kids. When I was seven months pregnant and saw a woman sobbing in the waiting room at my midwives’ office, I assumed she had lost her baby and felt relieved that I was in the home stretch. I was safe, I was lucky, I was smug.
Late one night when I was eight months pregnant, I noticed the baby wasn’t moving. It occurred to me that I hadn’t noticed her moving much all day. Anxious, I called my husband, Harlan, who was shooting a movie in New York. He talked me off the ledge, suggested going to see my midwife in the morning. When I arrived at the hospital, I told the parking attendant I was just going in for a quick test. I found myself lying on a hospital bed, while the midwife on call performed an ultrasound scan on my massive abdomen.
“I’m not finding a heartbeat,” she told me.
“There’s no heartbeat,” she said. “I’m sorry, honey.”
I looked at the screen, at my daughter’s body, the ribs and spinal column perfectly formed, and I didn’t see the flicker of movement I had come to recognize as my baby’s heartbeat. But I still didn’t believe this woman trying to convince me I wasn’t having a baby anymore, even as I called my husband. When I told him, his tears bewildered me. “I’m coming home right away,” he said. I couldn’t understand why he would drop everything to come back to Cambridge. This wasn’t a baby everyone was telling me had died; it was a fetus. I hadn’t really fallen in love with my son until I delivered him, so I told myself that I wasn’t emotionally attached to this baby yet either.
I asked if I could have a C-section. I wanted to put the whole thing behind me, have another baby, which I suddenly knew I wanted more than anything in the world, and begin to forget. But my midwives wouldn’t let me. They said in cases like this, they don’t perform C-sections because there is a greater risk to the mother. Plus, they said, going through labor and delivery is an important part of the grieving process. I decided to wait until the next day, so I could spend the night at home with my husband and son. I drove myself home, perfectly calm, perfectly able. That night, as we lay in bed, Harlan said, “I just feel so bad for her. She would have had such a nice life.” I comforted him, but my eyes were dry. The next morning, the spell broke: I woke up crying and never stopped.
Aidan’s birth had been a three-day ordeal. This time, after eight hours of drugged-out sleep, while medication caused my cervix to dilate, and a few minutes of excruciating contractions, the baby flowed out of me, like the sudden gush of water that follows the breaking of a dam. I didn’t have to push a single time. The nurse cleaned and dressed her and brought her back to us. She was beautiful: four pounds with strawberry blond hair under her little knit cap. She had dainty, feminine cranberry-colored lips and the most beautiful nose I’d ever seen. Her fingers were long and delicate like her father’s and brother’s. Harlan and I took turns holding her. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, baby,” I told her, as my tears fell onto her cool skin. Harlan cradled her, whispering how much he loved her, being her father while he still could. The nurse took pictures, in case we began to forget her face or needed proof of her existence. We rocked her and sang, “Now it’s time to say goodnight. Goodnight, sleep tight,” a lullaby we’d sung to Aidan since he was the one in my belly.
We named her Nina.
When we were alone that day, Harlan in a cot next to my bed, he said, “This is the saddest I’ve ever felt.”
A few days after the delivery, my milk came in and my breasts became two leaking, throbbing boulders stuck to my chest—a cruel reminder that there was supposed to be a baby to feed. Some days I wanted to pull the covers over my head and wail, “I want her, I want her.” But there was Aidan, so I dragged myself out of bed to feed and bathe him and change his diapers. Aidan made me smile and laugh, even in those unbearable early days. He seemed to know when to lie in my lap and play with my hair, when to hug me.
Overnight he began to speak in full sentences, as if he’d been saving this trick for a time when I would need something to delight me. When we told him the baby wouldn’t be coming home, he listened attentively, then sang “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” He never touched my belly or called it “baby” again.
During those first days, I kept thinking: This is our life going back to normal. Nothing had changed, really. I once believed our family was perfect, so much so, in fact, that I worried having a second child might ruin things. So, after Nina died, I imagined life would go back to the way it was before. But I wasn’t able to find normal again.
In the weeks that followed, I started to believe that I could bring her back. Even as I went through the motions of telling people, I went over and over the details looking for a loophole, a way to fix it. I didn’t really believe she had died. Even as the evidence amassed, the phone calls to friends and family, their tears, her pale body in my arms. Even as “Sorry, honey” played over and over in my head. I began to obsess about the days leading up to her death, trying, I think, to undo them, to find an alternative version of the story because this one was unacceptable. I thought about that night when she wouldn’t move. I kept pleading, “Move baby, please move, move baby, please,” but she wouldn’t. I called Harlan and he said it would all be okay, and I believed him. We had no reason to panic. I’d seen my midwife just the day before and everything had been fine, and I was only five and a half weeks away. But what if I had gone to the hospital that very instant? Grabbed my sleeping son and jumped in the car. Would she have lived? Or was it already too late?
I picture myself rushing into the maternity ward, sliding across the floor and coming to a screeching, breathless halt at the nurses’ station. “Emergency C-section now!” I command. “Trust me on this one.” My daughter cries as she leaves my body. She latches on to my breast and Harlan arrives and Aidan climbs onto the bed to meet his new sister, then she grows and learns to smile, then laugh and she keeps us up with her cries and I wrap my body around hers and feel her tiny heart beating against mine and she is warm and alive and we are a family.
But the emergency C-section will never come, the blood-drenched, screaming child. She is gone, her tiny body turned to ash. Nobody can even tell us why. “It might have been a cord incident,” they said. Code for: “We have no idea.”
The first time I left the house alone, I ran into a guy I barely knew and blurted out, before I even said hi, that I had lost the baby. He jerked backwards as if I had stabbed him and I spent the rest of the conversation feeling guilty for ruining his day. I avoided the playground, where I might have to face a mom I knew with the baby she’d just delivered, or the gym where my trainer might ask about mine. Losing a baby that late in a pregnancy is a tragedy nobody knows how to deal with. One day I was pregnant, the next day I wasn’t, but there was no newborn strapped to my chest. Instead, I wore my loss like a sad fat suit I couldn’t take off. I felt like a woman left at the altar: publicly humiliated and ashamed for letting everyone down. I had a Tourette’s-like desire to shout out to strangers what had happened—to warn them and to explain both my sadness and the 25 extra pounds that had no business clinging to my body. I imagined that happy moms and moms-to-be would recoil from me. I was their worst nightmare, a hideous possibility they want locked in the attic, where they can pretend it doesn’t exist.
Nina’s death made me question everything I ever believed and rage at the universe in which I have always, stupidly, put my faith. I raged at my body for letting her die. At myself for not realizing how much I loved her until she was gone. I was enraged that I got all the crap of the pregnancy—the stretch marks, the hemorrhoids, the sleepless nights—and none of the reward. That every time Aidan coughs or bumps his head I think he’s going to die, because I know now that bad things happen and they happen to me.
We wanted to be out of town for my due date, so a friend arranged for us to rent a cottage on the coast of Maine. On June 3rd, the day Nina was supposed to be born, Harlan and I wrote letters to her, then gathered wildflowers from the yard and brought them down to the rocky beach just a short staircase from the house. While Harlan jumped cautiously from rock to rock to place our bouquet on a moss-covered boulder off the coast, Aidan threw stones into the water. I found one I wanted to save and showed it to him. He said, “Throw in lala?” I held onto the perfectly smooth, gray stone with tense, stubborn fingers, then loosened my grip. Aidan grabbed it, scrambled to the shore and tossed it hard into the glassy water. Without even waiting for its satisfying “plop,” he turned, grinning, to find another.
We blew bubbles into the mist and read poems. One of them was “In Blackwater Woods” by Mary Oliver, which teaches us that being alive depends on our capacity to love those we love fiercely, all the while knowing they are mortal and one day will die. Opening our hearts completely, with abandon, the way we do when we have children, we risk everything. My voice trembled as I read Oliver’s words standing there on the rocky shore. I was urging myself to let go of the daughter I still felt in my bones, to acknowledge that she was gone, to let her go. I wasn’t ready.
When we met with a perinatologist several weeks after Nina’s death, he was unable to explain why she had died. He told us something that everyone knows but no one really believes until they’ve lost a child: “Pregnancy is a hope, not a promise.” We left the appointment frustrated. But the doctor mentioned a study in which autopsies were done on old women. He said that in these women’s organs, cells were found from all the babies they had ever carried, decades after those children were born. Even when they were in their 80s, traces of their babies still existed within them. I never got to nurse my baby girl. I never got to hear her voice or see her smile. I will never cover her feet in bed so she doesn’t get cold. I’ll never build a sand castle so she can knock it down or watch as she gazes up at her father’s face. And yet she is literally, physically, forever a part of me.
On our last day in Maine, car packed and ready to go, I wanted to visit the beach one last time. I took slow steps toward the stairway that led to the rocky shore. When Harlan asked me if he and Aidan could come along, I was crying too hard to respond. Why should this place be special to me? I thought. It is not my house, my beach. I’ve only been here for a few days. But saying goodbye felt like saying goodbye to Nina. I looked at the sand and noticed a heart-shaped stone with a perfect ring around it. I had a sudden impulse to run and toss it into the water, but I fought it because I wanted to keep a token of our time on that beach, something to remind me of Nina, Nina, who had lived inside me for eight months, whose cells existed within me that day and who exists within me still, at this very moment. As I heard Aidan and Harlan on the steps behind me, I held the stone tightly in the palm of my hand. I held it, held onto it, as if my life depended upon it.
Image: “ann 4” by Agnieszka, licensed under CC 2.0.
- Her Name Was Nina - October 3, 2020