A little over two years ago a doctor sat down with me and my husband in Charlie’s hospital room and explained that an ultrasound had revealed wide-spread bleeding in his brain. The bleeding was a side-effect of being placed on ECMO–a heart/lung bypass machine. His little heart had beat too fast for too long and had just given out. When the machine that’s saving your life is also killing you, the future becomes very grim indeed. I’ve read up on it since, and I’d say that Charlie’s chances of making it through the first week of life were probably less that 10%–really, probably more like 5%. To say that was the worst day of my entire life still understates the magnitude of the feeling. To know that your child is sick is one thing–to know that nothing can be done is another. I think it would be more accurate to say that on that day, June 8th, I fell through the looking glass and have since been navigating a strange, wacky world full of white coats and scrubs.
They told us that they’d be running a test to be sure, but they suspected he was already gone–brain dead. They told us that we should be considering options for “withdrawing support,” which is doctor speak for turn off the machines and let your baby die. Then they put us in a small room with a priest and a social worker.
It was a hard day.
Charlie and I were in two different hospitals–he needed a level III NICU and there was only one in the area. I’d had a C-section the morning before and still had an IV in my arm so I was limited in the amount of time I was allowed to visit. Eventually I had to go back to my hospital room. My husband went home to change his clothes and there I was alone.
News like that makes you hollow. The part of you that feels stuff has been amputated and the rest of your brain and body are still ticking away. I wondered about thank you notes for the baby shower I’d been given five days earlier. What would we do with all the toys and baby furniture? I tried to recall the grief advice that’s printed in the back of What to Expect When You’re Expecting.
I wasn’t prepared to plan a funeral, but I eventually decided that I should call some people and tell them what was going on. I called my Arkansas friends, apologized for making them sad, and then hung up.
I knew then that I had to call my friends from college. I’d had them each send me their contact info so I could call them when my son was born and my husband had printed everything out for me the day before.
But I didn’t want to do it.
When, for whatever reason, a pregnancy doesn’t go according to plan, you blame yourself. Even if rationally you know that sometimes stuff just happens, you can’t help but feel that you’ve fallen down on the job. That some way, some how, you could have done something differently and your baby would be fine.
So I didn’t want to call my friends and tell them that I’d failed. That’s I’d gone through thirty-seven weeks of pregnancy and now there would be no baby. It was like running a marathon and then breaking your leg in sight of the finish line.
I finally called the girl who had stood in my wedding as Matron of Honor. I told her the news and explained that I just couldn’t’ call anyone else–it was too hard. After she discerned twice that I was in no physical danger, we hung up. A few minutes later my phone rang and each time I hung up, it rang again. Each time it was a familiar voice calling from a faraway state in the middle of a work day–and they were hopeful and reassuring and exactly what I needed at that moment. Just typing these words–hell, just thinking about it–brings tears to my eyes every. single. time.
When I was released from the hospital two days later, a beautiful bouquet of flowers awaited me at my house–the card read simply “thinking of you.”
I had the opportunity to spend this weekend with most of these women. The social butterfly of the group arranged a birthday weekend in New Orleans for herself and she and others who have moved out of state flew in. We shared hotel rooms, ate fattening food, drank, danced, and talked and talked and talked. It was a wonderful, tiring time. It nice to know that every once and a while you can slip back over to the other side of that looking glass and just be.