Two mornings after Madeline was born, I was in a hospital room on the general patient floor, shivering. I’d checked out against medical advice the night before because my husband called to say our baby was dying. I’d only seen her for a second, and I couldn’t let her pass without me. She stabilized after I arrived at the hospital she’d been transferred to (the one I’d delivered at didn’t have the high-level NICU she required), and it was only then I let myself feel the physical pain that came with an emergency c-section after ten weeks of bed rest. I had to go back to the hospital for pain management and observation. Unfortunately, for reasons still unknown to me, I couldn’t return to the postpartum wing.
The nurses on the general level were not prepared for a woman in my condition. When I buzzed for pain medicine, it took them 45 minutes to respond. A nun who came to bless me (it’s a Catholic hospital) got more than she bargained for when I burst into tears and asked her to pray for my baby. Even if I hadn’t gotten the call, I knew I couldn’t stay on that floor any longer.
I was forcing myself to walk, so I could start the healing process and be well enough to go to Madeline’s hospital. My mom, who was with me, had left my room to find a nurse about those pain meds. My cell phone rang, and it was Mike:
Heather. When are you coming? The doctors said Madeline isn’t going to make it. Babies with her problems rarely come back. Are you coming?
I hung up with him and said to the emptiness, today is the day my baby dies…soon I will no longer be a mother. I decided she would be buried with my grandmother, her namesake. I finalized her funeral in those moments I was alone, the moments that felt like hours.
My OB discharged me, and as I stumbled past her she said, “if you don’t need to breast feed, bind your chest and use ice packs.” Her words were ice cold, cutting through me. So thoughtless and uncaring, but they made me feel when I had been so numb.
My memory of the four mile car ride to the hospital is lost, but I remember arriving. My mom had to drop me off to park her car, so I had to make my way to the NICU alone. It was the most I’d walked in ten weeks, but I was determined to ignore the pulling of my incision and the bleeding in my uterus. I brushed by my in-laws and walked right into the NICU to my daughter’s isolette. I stood next to my husband and took his hand. I didn’t expect to see my little daughter alive. I felt heavy. I wondered if I would sob.
She didn’t look tiny. Her body was swollen from the medications pumped into her bloodstream through what remained of her umbilical cord. I stared at her cord and cursed my body for failing her. I prayed my husband would forgive me.
The nurses and doctors spoke to me, but all I could hear was the hum of the high frequency oscillator giving her 500 breaths per minute, and the alarms. The alarms that meant she was dying. I looked around, and all I saw were faces. All looking at us, but none making eye contact. They all knew she was going to die. The other parents were told leave the NICU. Never a good sign.
The night before, I’d been told not to speak to Madeline because preemies can’t handle too much stimulus. That morning, I didn’t care. I started whispering to her, even though I was far away.
Mommy’s here, Maddie. Please be strong. You can do this. You are the bravest person I know. Please be strong for your mommy. She needs you.
Mike and I stood there for moments, hours, minutes. Her vital numbers improved. The doctors and nurses heaved sighs and sat, exhausted. The other parents trickled back in. We didn’t dare hope, we kept holding our breath. Six months later, we still haven’t exhaled.
The internet is so amazing, the endless possibilities at your fingertips. Once I had a name for the reason I was on bed rest, I spent the remainder of my pregnancy with my hands on the keyboard. I sought answers, odds, and facts before Madeline was born. After her birth, I needed stories. I needed to know how people got through it. That’s when I found a whole community of women grappling with loss and the fear of the unknown.
Many of the sites I visit have experienced the loss that slipped through our fingers. I was commenting on one today, and I was struggling to find the right words. I sat back for a moment and tried to consider why I was compelled to comment in the first place. Her words were beautiful and moving, why did I think that I, as the mother of a survivor, could say anything that would make her feel better? Yet, her story was haunting. It was almost me. But it wasn’t. By some miracle, my baby survived. Why was I the lucky one? Why not her? I realized then I have major survivor guilt.
I’m writing all this because, as time stretches on, the details of those early days and weeks get dim. I never want to relive that fear, but I never want to forget it. Not that I ever could. I also hope that revisiting this will help me deal with the guilt I feel. The world is so random. I will never know why our baby survived where others don’t. I can’t change the outcome but I hope that I can comfort those who suffer. I ache for them. I touched their loss. I briefly let it envelop me when I walked into the NICU on the day my baby was supposed to die.
I will try not to feel guilty anymore.