I have this idea for a short story.
Okay, this woman is sitting in the Perinatal Evaluation and Treatment Unit (PETU). Her husband is holding her hand. She keeps holding her belly and talking to it.
Be alive. She thinks, or maybe she says it out loud. She doesn't remember.
The couple trembles. They are on the verge of giggles. It embarrasses them both that anxiety reacts in them in this similar way. The nurse just listened to her belly with a heartbeat monitor and couldn't detect the heartbeat. She said, "This machine must be broken. I will get an ultrasound machine." The couple want to believe her, but something gnaws at them. It seems an unlikely coincidence that they would come in to find out if their baby died and the heartbeat monitor died instead, especially since they could hear the mother's fast, desperate heartbeat reverberating through the room.
The parents overhear the nurse ushering out the pregnant lady in the other bed. They tell her she will go to another room. The other pregnant lady had been arguing in Spanish on a cellular phone, but even she is quiet now. In the quiet without the woman and nurses, they both realize that the baby is dead, perhaps, or maybe their thoughts aren't quite that developed. But they both have the same impulse to protect the other, so they say nothing just yet about how the baby died and wait for a doctor. The mother's insides get all agitated, empty, nauseated. All turned upside down. Something is happening, her body tells her. It is something bad. It is something scary. Let's run. Let's go back home. They seem to think at the same time. Let's forget this ever happened. Let's yell at someone. Let's hit something. Let's scream.
The ultrasound machine is rolled in followed by a doctor, a midwife and two other doctors. It could still be alright, they seem to want to believe. Usually they don't need a team to hear a heartbeat, but when her baby's small form is shown to her on the small screen, curled in position, she can see there is nothing happening in her chest. It is still. So fucking still.
The mother says, "There is no heartbeat."
And the doctor says, "Yes. I'm sorry your baby passed away." And the mother will think later that is not a phrase that should be used on a baby. Babies die. Old men pass away. In their sleep. Because they are old and lived a good life. The life of this baby was ripped away from her body too early, too heart-fucking-breakingly early. She should have said your daughter has been murdered by Fate.
The medical team leaves them to process this information.
I know you know this story already, but hear me out. It is different this time. This short story I want to write. It is different.
They keen and howl and hold each other. The mother grabs her husband by the shoulders and says, "I'm sorry, but I am never having another baby again." Then a nurse walks in to take them to the labor and delivery floor. The woman wonders if she can die now.
Can I just let go and die? I don't want to birth a dead baby. That is about the worst thing I can imagine. I never should have to go through this much physical and emotional pain at the same time. Just kill me, God, please just kill me.
"You cannot die right now, mama," the nurse whispers into her ear. It startles the mother to have her thoughts read so easily. She wonder if she has been speaking out loud, though she knows she would never speak those words aloud. The nurse is older, kindly, has a long salt and pepper braid running down her back. She looks familiar. So familiar. Then she realizes that the nurse is her. The nurse is the mother many years later, decades perhaps. She takes in this fact calmly. Clearly, she is in a nightmare. Or she is dead. Both of which is preferable to what is actually going down in the PETU. She turns forward again in the wheelchair.
Yep, that is me pushing me in a wheelchair about to give birth to my dead fucking daughter. It is so fucking cruel.
It is cruel, mother. All of this is cruel. It doesn't get easier, but it will become bearable.
Yes. But like a bruise, it will always be tender, and it can easily become unbearable if you push on the hurt long enough, if you focus on the pain. But for the first eighteen months, you can do nothing but focus on the pain. That is right and good. Your daughter died. It deserves all your attention. Just don't try to die. Your family needs you. And you won't. You won't try to die. Just don't drink so dang much.
Yes, I know you are right. I don't want to kill myself, I just want to stop living.
That's normal. You won't feel like that forever. I promise.
The nurse rolls her into the room. The nurse is her, so technically, she is rolling herself into the labor and delivery room. It is like all L&D rooms. The mother wonders how on earth she will bear to hear other women labor.
"We have you separated. You won't hear anyone else. All new mothers are taken to the other wing. Unless we fill up. But we do fill up tonight. You hear a baby being born at 5 in the morning. You actually feel joy the one time you hear a mother birth a screaming baby. You are happy for them. Don't worry. We have marked your door with a lily. It is so others will know that there is to be quiet in this room, solemnity, respect. We are all mourning with you here."
"I just wondered what happened with that."
"I know. I know everything that is going to occur to you. What you are thinking, what you are feeling, what will happen. I am here to guide you through this birth. To help you know what the future looks like under your own devices. I am the Ghost of Birthing Dead Baby Past."
"I think you need a new name."
"You will think it is funny in a couple of years."
And through the night and next day of delivery, the nurse tells her about what her life will be like. She says, "Have your mother come to hospital. Ask her to bring your daughter. It is important. It seems like too much right now to deal with a twenty-one month old, but it keeps you up at night that you denied your daughter the privilege of meeting her sister. It is too much to bear that they never met."
Later, the nurse rubs her feet through fleece hospital footies during the earliest pangs of pitocin-induced contractions. "Don't be afraid of seeing your daughter. You are so terribly afraid of that through all of your labor and you forget about those fears the second you see her. She is beautiful. You see her bruises and it disturbs you, but you also see only her beauty, your nose, your hair. Take off all her clothes, kiss her feet. Take many more pictures than you think. Call Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep. I will find the number."
When the mother begins reading the grief packet, the nurse walks in with ice chips. "When you write the email entitled "Some Sad News," you ask people not to send flowers, or call for a week because a grief therapist told you to write that. Don't. Just tell your news. Don't tell people how to honor your loss. Because people read that as you never want them to call or give you any meals, or send any flowers, and they don't. Not ever again."
Later, after the mother rings for another pillow, the nurse leans in and whispers, "Don't tell anyone in real life about your blog. Ever." She fluffs the pillow and kisses her forehead.
As she is reaching the point of being fully dilated, when her husband and sister go out for some food, and leave her with the television, the nurse walks in. She sits on the edge of the bed and grabs her hand. "You are much more vulnerable than you admit or than anyone thinks. But you are also as strong as everyone believes, and so I must be honest right now. In the next year, you will feel abandoned. Your friends will walk away. You will feel righteous indignation at the injustice of it and you won't call them. Be the bigger person. I'm sorry to tell you that your daughter's death entitled you nothing, not even space to be an asshole. Some people, people you like, will never forgive you for not reaching out to them. You will miss them."
When the baby is born, the nurse cries with the mother. She holds the baby and kisses her again and again. She weeps and screams. More than the mother who is staid and uncrying. The nurse baptizes the baby and the mother in tears. But the nurse is also full of joy. The mother watches in amazement and silent admiration at how she can so easily move between these emotions. The mother feels absolutely numb, just numb.
"Lucia," the nurse says to the mother, "is always missed, mama. Smell her up. Hold her. Talk to her. Be her mama in the next few hours. This is all you get. You can't fully process that right now, but mother this baby." She hands the baby back to the woman. Solemnly, the nurse leaves the room.
The mother holds her baby for a few more hours, doing all the things the nurse advised. Some time later, the woman walks out of the hospital without ever seeing herself again. Not ever.
Okay, maybe it is a novel.
If you were rewriting your story after finding out your child died, what would you change? What advice would you give yourself? What kind of peace do you think that would bring? Would you even want a future you to advise past you on your own grief experience? Would it be easier to hear it from a future you or a stranger?