I pressed my forehead into the railing along the side of the hospital bed and began to count, drawing a deep breath in and slowly releasing it. My knees curled up toward my chest as the pain intensified. Hot tears spilled down my face. I cursed under my breath and lost track of how many seconds had passed. It didn’t matter. Every second gone was one second closer to the end. I gripped the railing even tighter, driving my forehead into the cold metal, attempting to make the pain I could control greater than the pain I could not. The contractions wracked my body—beginning in my abdomen, wrapping around my swollen belly before reaching up to my heart, threatening to stop it completely.
The day before I had cautiously stepped into the perinatologist's office for my 20 week check-up. There had been some complications early on, and after a handful of failed pregnancies, I hadn’t yet allowed myself to relax. The doctor glided the wand back and forth across my belly, confirmed that the baby was definitely a boy, and pointed out how perfect he was. All the tests he had ordered came back with the results we hoped for: our baby was developing exactly as he should. He deemed me a normal, healthy pregnant woman and sent me on my way.
My guard fell. Everything was going to be okay. I had a few more months to wait out, but the only other time I had made it this far, we ended the process with a baby in our arms—the most perfect, if not spirited, little boy any mother could wish for. My husband and I smiled at each other in the car on the way home, finally believing this would be the end of the loss that had marked our family history.
I went shopping at Costco and splurged on a set of board books for our littlest son. I added a few inspiring photos to a secret nursery Pinterest board and began to envision what life would look like with a baby. I drifted off to sleep that night with a peace I hadn't felt in months.
From the moment my eyes opened the next morning, I knew something was wrong. I could feel my baby squirming around inside of me, but he sat lower than he had the day before. And my body wasn’t cradling him; they were wrestling. By the time I got to the hospital, it was too late. The same doctor rushed to my room with his portable sonogram machine and shook his head in disbelief. They dimmed the lights and told me to rest. It would still be a few hours.
When you labor to birth a child, there’s this strength that rises up, one you never knew you had. It tempers your breathing, it fills you with resolve. You are a force; anything is possible. But when your baby has no chance of survival? Each crushing contraction stops your heart. Each breath is a battle, one you’re not even sure you care to win. Each push is a nightmare; every instinct tells you to hold on to the life inside.
Our baby was born that evening, similar to the way my four-year-old son came into the world. The pressure, the release, the warmth. My husband cut the umbilical cord, and we stared in disbelief. I wrapped him up in the indigo shibori swaddle I had made in a defiant act of hope only a few weeks before. We traced his delicate features; we marveled at his tiny fingernails. His arched top lip and pouty bottom lip immediately proved just how strong genetics are: he looked just like my husband and our son. If not for his size, he would be a newborn. But he entered the world in deafening silence; now I understand why they call it stillborn.
Later that evening a nurse knocked softly on the door and entered with a stack of papers. She told us we would need to fill out some forms before we went home. She asked if we had a name for him. We did—John Mark. Did we have a mortuary we would like them to call? We didn’t—who would? She measured him and took his footprints and fingerprints. She kept whispering how handsome he was, how sorry she was. I kissed him goodbye one final time and forced my feet to walk to the wheelchair waiting in the doorway. I told my knees to bend and my hips to sit.
She pushed me down the dark floor. We passed the closed doors that lined the hall, the ones filled with weary, new mamas and fresh newborns. Warm light glowed through the little windows and from under the cracks of the doors, but I was being pulled through a vortex of chaos toward the exit. The door swung open in front of me and the cold, dark night consumed me.
My heels sank down through the tangled grass and into the soft dirt that covered the graveyard. With each step, the ground threatened to swallow me. The piercing wind ripped through my black dress, its icy fingers grasping at my soul. Through tears, I watched my husband cradle the tiny box he’d fashioned to hold our boy. He laid it gently next to the hole in the ground and met me where I stood. This was the final act of our parenthood with John Mark, laying him to rest. The prayer of committal covered the sacred space, and we watched the box descend. Stooping down, I grabbed a handful of earth and sprinkled it into the gaping hole. It was a haunting metaphor, a void so deep any attempt to fill it on my own would be futile. Our overflowing tears watered the strip of sod as they rolled it back into place. I laid the flowers down, rubbing my fingers over the sprigs of rosemary so I would be able to smell it again later. To remember.
Sunlight peeks in through the windows, casting its golden glow on our gathering. My grandmother’s crystal goblets placed at each setting, delicious food, fresh coffee and rosé, foraged greenery mixed with rosemary. For remembrance. My due date has arrived. And so have my friends.
I am tempted, instead, to give birth to despair on this day, I’ve been laboring with it for 19 weeks now, and no intervention can remove its threat. On the cloudy, overcast days I sense it looming. When I gaze at my friend with her expectant bump, I feel its pull. With every wistful glance at a newborn tucked inside a wrap close to his mother, it calls out to me.
And so while today looks like a beautiful party, it’s much more than that. It’s really my middle finger to death, my battle cry. It's choosing to light candles and shed light where darkness would otherwise prevail. It's baking a four layer Meyer lemon cake to chase down the bile rising in my throat with the sweetness this world has to offer. It's inviting dear friends to raise a glass, as Henri Nouwen suggests. Holding a crystal goblet in reflection, recognizing the deep pain and sorrow that fills it. Raising it high as I look to those who share my table, acknowledging that we are in this together. I am not alone. Then it's drinking it down so God can refill my cup with hope, the only balm that will affect my heavy soul.
One friend shares a poem; another brings a blooming rose bush to plant in my garden. I open a simple package, a hand-sewn sachet matching my baby’s birth weight that sits heavy in my hands. The tears well up, and I choke back sobs, but as I look around the table, wet eyes with smudged mascara meet my gaze. None of them know my pain, but all of them share it. My fingers reach up to brush the gold clock that hangs around my neck. My husband gave it to me a few days after John Mark was born with a simple card, “only time separates us.”
There is hope, and for today, that is enough.
Guest post written by Holly Doden. Holly is the mama to two boys born six months apart—one homegrown and one through adoption. She believes there is always beauty in the tension of life and spends her days chasing after it. She also believes that is best done around a jar of green salsa with family and friends. Every once in a while she writes about family, miscarriage, and adoption at inthetimebetween.com.