Infinite Heartache - Julian's Delivery b. June 5 2009
Dedicated to the memory of Julian Brighton Bironas, the son I loved. And my wife, who wishes people would stop calling her strong.
So in case memory fades, or I somehow manage to put this behind me, I'm going to write down what happened in as much detail as possible. Usually I like to dive into the things that cause pain as quickly and deeply as possible, find the bottom, and start to climb back on top of things. In this case, there is no bottom. I'm not sure how to continue, but have faith that the way will present itself.
June 2nd 2009 - Tuesday night, Svieta was concerned again, because the baby wasn't moving much. We went to sleep telling ourselves that it was probably a combination of contractions which were becoming stronger and more frequent, and the baby moving into delivery position. We went to sleep, thinking of the week before when something similar happened, and after a couple of hours the baby started to move again. We convinced ourselves we were just being paranoid.
Wednesday morning, the baby was still not moving. Svieta called the doctors office but couldn't get through, so she left to meet them when they opened. I wished her luck, left for work, and headed off to meetings. I'd told her to text me if everything was okay, and call if it wasn't. I had two projects up for review, both went well. After the review, things were hectic, I was in hallway meetings with one group and then another, and then actually had a scheduled meeting. We were about ten minutes in when I got a call. It was Svieta. Calling. My heart pounded and adrenaline flooded my system. I exited the room quickly and picked up. Svieta was in tears. I could hear the panic in her voice. She was on her way to the hospital. I told her I'd meet her there. I bolted out of the meeting, apologized that I had to leave, and told my boss, "It's not good." I ran to my car, tore out the parking lot, and onto the freeway.
Mountain View to San Francisco was the longest drive - I drove like mad up 101 slowing only when a car was blocking me with no other way around. The entire way I was pleading with God that our baby would be safe and Svieta stayed healthy. I choked back tears and tried to ignore the mental flashes of the worst case that made it hard to see the road. I fought to keep my hands on the wheel and steady enough to make it to Svieta's side. A stalled RV on 19th avenue held up traffic. It took 20 minutes to get to San Francisco and another 30 in traffic to get to the hospital. The entire time I was shaking and fighting off anxiety.
Once I got to the hospital and found the triage room Svieta was in, I pulled back the curtain to see her in tears with her mother at her side. The pounding of anxiety in my head only let through the most muffled of sounds. My head was spinning and nothing was making sense. She told me about the doctors visit and then the ultrasound. There was no heartbeat. A few days earlier his heartbeat was healthy and strong, and now it wasn't there at all. She broke down in tears and all of the light and oxygen got sucked from the room. I fell into her, crying.
We sat holding each other, sobbing. Time stopped. I have no idea how long we held on to each other like that, but it seemed like forever and nothing at the same time. I couldn't see, hear, or breathe. The only thing I felt was her shattered heart, and an inability to control my muscles. The great sucking void in my own chest was thankfully painless at the point that I most needed to be there for my wife.
Dizzily, we spun away from our embrace. Dried our eyes, and scrambled to figure out what to do next. Plans to be made, plans, tasks, actions, coordination, timing, options, decisions. The social worker came in. "You've been through this before," she said, "Oh, but you haven't." - she looked at me, "This is going to be really bad for you." Thanks genius, you've both belittled my life experience and been condescending all in the same breath. I hated her. She was trying to make us face decisions about our dead child. I looked at Svieta, she looked back at me. I see the pain in her eyes, and fear, and a desire for flight. None of the words are clear, but the gist comes through in muffled waves. The doctors were saying it's best to get it over with right then and there, mom was, and I was too, but then I retract. I saw in her eyes she wasn't ready. Option 1 was c-section. Option 2 was natural delivery. She chose option 3 - go home and think about it, and I instantly supported her decision. Words were coming out of our mouths, unconsciously, automatically. We'll take a moment, go home, and come back the next night for an induction and natural delivery. Natural has a faster recovery time but is emotionally more difficult. C-Section has a 4 day recovery time in the hospital but you're knocked out and never have to face the painful truth. Given the crushing weight we both felt, neither of us could believe we'd make it that long. Home. Haven. Our safe spot. That was all we could think about. All of the other decisions and facts streaming out of shadowy figures around us were just noises teetering on the edge of the event horizon of the singularity that was pulling apart our shared reality.
We went home. We took two cars, so we had to get them both back somehow. I was afraid for her the entire way. It wasn't enough to bury one baby, and one step son. Now another baby? It's almost biblical in terms of degrees of pain. I watched her closely, following behind as we made our way back down the peninsula. She assured me she'd make it when I called. She had her mom in the car, so most of the time I just followed, and tried to keep my own emotions in check. The most important thing was to make it home safely, but for the life of me, I can't remember why. Neither of us really cared at that moment. We dropped her Mom off in Burlingame with her Dad, stopping only long enough to drop her off and wave. We called each other immediately and tried to make small talk. We told ourselves to stay off topic until we got home, that we'd fall apart when we got there. Once again, I can't remember why. It didn't work, the elephant in the room was too large to ignore.
We talked about the plans and expectations we had just a few hours earlier, as if they were a ship broken upon the rocks and dashed into pieces. The hull of those expectations, and our hopes sank in those brief minutes between Burlingame and home. I sucked back the tears, but was unable to stop sobbing. I realized the hole in my chest was where my heart used to be. I imagined it flattened, pressed thin to the point of transparency. Cold, hard, and broken into a million tiny shards. Pedal to gas, gears meshed and somehow we made it home without a car crash. The emotional crash was already well underway.
We crawled out of our cars and into the house. It was warm and familiar. Comforting. I started putting things down and briefly fell into the routine. Laptop bag on the table, empty pockets, walk into the kitchen. Grab something to drink. The routine was comforting. Numb, brainless, autopilot. Just a few steps where the head is disconnected from the heart or body, like a chicken with it's head cut off. Then it hits. We both started crying and crawl into bed. We were on the bed and crying for an hour. We held each other tightly, clinging, in fear we'd fly apart. A while later, we plucked up our strength and committed to the path we were now on. Accepting of the reality ahead, but not really fathoming the depth of what we were about to go through. We chose the natural delivery with loads of drugs, and most importantly, the faster recovery time. Getting back home to regroup and figure out the next steps was our primary focus. Svieta made the call. Our admittance time was set.
Svieta's parents stopped by. We sat with them for a while. I don't remember what was said or where the time went. It was mostly profound sadness with a few words thrown in out of obligation. Svieta's Dad went to pick Sophie up from daycare. The fear of having to tell our four year old daughter about the death of her brother was about to be confronted. I said I'd handle it, but had no words, and no plan.
When Sophie arrived home - and after Svieta's parents left - we confronted the issue head on. I called Sophie over to sit on my lap. "Sophie, something bad has happened. Your brother has died. Julian is dead." Four year olds are awesome communicators, they let you know through facial expressions and movement, what their vocabulary is not able to convey. She got very still and looked confused. We had spent months preparing her for meeting and interacting with her new baby brother, so it was understandable when she looked at us like we'd just taken away one of her favorite toys. "Julik was sick?" "We don't know, but something happened, and he died. We have to go to the hospital tomorrow so the doctors can take him out of mommy's tummy, so he can go to heaven." "Where's heaven? Up?" "Yes, I think it's up." "So doctors can fly?" She's so awesome. As hard as this conversation was, she still found a way to make us laugh.
I don't know how we made it through that night. We watched TV, we talked, we cried at random intervals. I kept telling my wife, "We'll figure it out later, lets just make it through the next hour." And we did this minute by minute, hour by hour, and decision by decision, until it was time to go to the hospital the next day. We packed a single duffel bag with a couple of light changes of clothes, a bunch of bottled water, and a leftover piece of pizza in case there was the need to snack in the middle of the night on something other than hospital food.
Upon arrival, we didn't have to wait long to be taken to our delivery room. We went upstairs, and were left to settle in. We kept telling ourselves "just get through the next few minutes." It was like riding a rollercoaster in a tight loop. Up, down, up, down, over and over again. Our nurse came in, she was older and had a southern drawl. "I'm so sorry for your loss." she said. For me, there was something comforting about her accent. Something warm and familiar. She put in the first I.V. and taped it to my wifes arm. Complaining about the lack of proper tape in the cabinets, she wandered off, muttering something about being back after finding some proper tape. Neither my wife or I were sure what "proper tape" was, but speculated that it was clear, and not a glossy fake skin color. We laughed a little, but then felt guilty about the gravity of the situation and stopped, eyes down, pursed lips, and a deep sigh. Moments later, the nurse returned with proper tape, and the first round of cervix ripening drugs. She explained what was going to happen, the "Miso" would ripen the cervix, and depending on how that did, cramps would turn to contractions and those would progressively get stronger until delivery. If they didn't get strong and fast enough after the second or third dose, there would be an IV drip of Petosin which would really get the contractions going and induce the delivery. I asked if she was from Georgia. "I'm from South Carolina originally." She smiled as she said it, and accentuated the drawl just a bit. "That was my first guess, I was totally going to say that." and I was, but second guessed my southern instincts.
When you're in the hospital, nurses come and go. We had this one until about midnight, and she was usually busy with other things, but gave us a great deal of attention. She was great, taking the time to talk to us when needed, and helping me get the lay of the hospital so I could be better support to my wife. She even showed me where the food was hidden. Svieta and I were both surprised when she shared her very personal story with us about her first child who had been stillborn. She said she was scared to death of her next two deliveries, but those two children delivered without problems. Logically we started to realize we were the exception, not the rule. Then we wished we could have just hit the lottery instead.
We were left to our own devices for large chunks of time in between the nurses visits. Still on a strict regime of focusing on the moment to moment stuff, I wound up making a lot of runs for apple juice, ice, and also grabbed a couple of sandwiches. The overall mood was surreal. We were going through the motions of attending to our needs, but it all seemed disconnected. As the sun went down and night settled in, we talked, which usually lead us to break down in tears. We mourned the loss of the future we had planned, and the baby boy we'd planned it with. We made some awkward jokes, and there were a lot of cynical remarks peppered with sharp doses of sarcasm. We spewed anger and frustration, got pretty uncomfortable after stepping way over the line a couple of times, and then drew limits around the things we were and were not willing to say, or who we were willing to say them about. We watched TV. A lot. The season premier of one of my favorite shows was on and we managed to catch some other show that was premiering as well. It was all an attempt to distract ourselves from the pain and fear of what was inevitably barreling down on us. We wound up drowning the sorrow and numbing the thoughts with flickering lights and sounds from the idiot box. We were never so grateful for the device as we were that night.
At midnight came the changing of the guard. Our southern belle was relieved by a little skater chick of a nurse. She was not as warm and comforting, but took her job very seriously, and she was good at it. More drugs at midnight. They were pushing Ambien on Svieta but she didn't want to take anything for sleeping. We were emotionally exhausted anyway so sleep wasn't too difficult despite the uncomfortable circumstances and beds. Hospitals are all about the people that need care, not the people that are there to support the people that need care. I had a crappy little cot with some thin sheets, a thin blanket, and a couple of plastic pillows that were essentially flat. It's not a complaint, it's just reality. I didn't care what the bed was like or if my head were comfortable enough as long as I was with my wife. I'd have slept on a bed of broken glass that night if I'd had to. As I'm looking at my wife, all comfy in her bed, and trying to get comfortable on my own cot, she looks over at me and says, "I hate this bed." We compared the cot versus the hospital bed briefly and I said, "Do you want to swap?" "Well, yeah, let me see..." So we swapped bunks. "This one is so much softer," she said. I couldn't really believe the cot was more comfortable, but if that's what she wanted, I had no objections. We stayed that way, I in the hospital bed, and her in the cot, and we both finally drifted off to sleep.
At about 2:30 a.m. Svieta wakes me up. "I think my water just broke." I call the nurse. "Um. Hey, my wife's water just broke." A few minutes later she arrives to look at the pool of dark brown yellowish fluid laying in the cot. "Yep, it broke alright." she confirms.
There was a lot of meconium in the fluid. Meconium is basically the fetal fecal matter. In general it's not in the fluid in such large quantities unless something is very wrong. We already knew things were very wrong, so the shock on the nurses face was more reinforcement than surprise. The panic must have been instinctive. She snapped out of it quickly, and quietly cleaned up the fluid to remake the cot. Svieta and I switched back since the hospital bed was more suited to having tubes running in and out of bodies.
Around 4 a.m., Svieta woke me up saying the contractions were getting strong enough to rock her out of sleep. I rang the nurse again who came at the call. It was time to bring on the drugs. Svieta asked for the epidural immediately, but the doctor was still in delivery. Apparently there was a c-section for twins going on, it would be about 45 minutes. I stayed by Svieta's side for a while, talking her through contractions until the nurse came in and offered Fentonol as a pain reliever until the anesthesiologist could get there. It worked well, the relief was quick and profound, but would only last about an hour. We turned on the morning news and tried to relax while we waited... and waited... and waited. The shot started to wear off, so Svieta asked for another if we were going to have to wait longer. As luck would have it, not long after the second dose of Fentonol, the doctor arrived and set up for the epidural.
For those who have never been through one, an epidural is an IV plugged directly into the spine which drips a liquid block that prevents pain signals from the lower body from reaching the brain. It's apparently difficult to get in, and placement is key because the blocking effect can cause problematic side effects. At about 5 a.m., it took our doctor four different attempts to insert the catheter needle into Svieta's spine. He'd mentioned on a couple of separate occasions that the drug works by gravity, and that it can sometimes cause the sensation of not being able to breathe. Then he left. Since we still had time, and the contractions were under control, we went back to sleep for a bit. I was solidly asleep, and only vaguely remember the nurses coming in and out. I have some vague flashes of memory where people were standing over me but paying attention to Svieta. She wasn't as lucky since there seemed to be a constant stream of interruptions by various nurses and doctors. Apparently they miscalculated the drip rate because epidural was wearing off intermittently.
Around 7 a.m. I woke up, climbed off the cot, and stretched. Svieta told me she hadn't slept much, and we briefly wondered if the reason they were pushing Ambien so hard the night before was so she would sleep-walk through all the nurse and doctor visits over the course of the night. I got up, brushed the teeth, washed the face, and changed clothes. Things were still moving kind of slowly so when my stomach rumbled a bit, my mind turned to food. There was a left over piece of pizza in our overnight bag still, so I grabbed it as a morning snack. There wasn't much to say since we were both tired and not very talkative. I tried to make some cute and entertaining faces for Svieta for a little emotional bolster during a situation that obviously sucked, and as I took the first bite of pizza, she lovingly looks me in the eye and tells me, "I can't breath." I froze, the words shock me but don't really register. "No, seriously, I'm having a hard time breathing." That snaps me back to consciousness, I call the nurse.
The first thing the nurse asked when she came through the door was, "Have you been laying down?" "Yes," they quickly move the bed to a more upright position. Pulse and Oxygen levels are okay, but my wife had a look of anguish on her face and said over and over, "It feels really bad, I can't breathe." We're all trying to talk her into relaxing, the nurse says, "It's the epidural, it works by gravity, so when you were laying down, it probably crept up a bit. Just sit up and it should get better." Then about five minutes after the bed was raised, Svieta exclaims, "I feel pressure!" I didn't know what that was supposed to mean, but apparently that's code for, "The baby is coming. Right now!!!" Things go into a sort of blurry chaotic slow motion at this point. The anastheologist came in to fix the epidural drip, one nurse was trying to explain what was going on, the doctor came, started prepping for the birth, another nurse was scurrying around doing something - my wife was groaning and panting, and I'm standing there like an idiot. I move to her side, and clutch her hand, trying to be careful of the IV. It's the moment we've waited nine months for, but warped and heartbreaking. Svieta pushes several times, and over the course of probably ten or maybe fifteen minutes, Julian is out.
At some point during the chaos our new nurse came in. She would be with us through the most difficult part of the journey. Tina was probably about 5'4", and of asian decent. I kept thinking she might be Thai for some reason, but I'm not really familiar enough to tell accurately. She had an almost unnaturally cheerful disposition, and smiled nearly every time we saw her. I tend to lean toward cynical and jaded as a general rule, and was a bit disgusted by the smile and demeanor at first, given the context of our situation. Later I started to let go and it was soon comforting to hear her calm and quiet voice, and see the smile through the pain Svieta and I were feeling.
Doctors bustled about and nurses cleaned up after delivery. There were fluids, placenta, and afterbirth to deal with. They turned off the epidural drip. Once the mess was cleared, they packed a bunch of pads under Svieta's butt and start monitoring the amount of bleeding. The first few pokes were pretty innocuous. The doctor pressed on her uterus to see if it was contracting and firming, which would be normal. It seemed to me like a lot of blood came out, but the doctors didn't seem concerned, so I didn't think any more of it. The pads were cleaned, the uterus pressed, and we were left alone for a bit. I told my wife how good she'd done through the delivery and stared deeply into her eyes. We gazed at each other, tired, shaken. The resounding silence hit us for the first time. The most unsettling thing about having a stillborn baby is the post birth silence. It's not natural and instinctively you go into a heighten state of panic, no matter how prepared you are. Your brain does not know what to do with the information it's gathering at this point (or lack thereof).
A few minutes after the room returned to a relative calm, Svieta complained that she felt like she was shaking and couldn't stop. I asked her to hold out her hand so I could see, but couldn't really tell if she was shaking or not. Regardless, she complained that it was getting worse. By then I could see her shivering, so I closed the windows, and put a blanket on her. Nothing helped. When the doctor came back in, she asked about it. The doctor said it was part of the bodies reaction to the delivery, Demerol should help. Moments after the drug was pushed through her IV, the shakes stopped and the room was calm again.
We didn't have a lot of time to rationalize the quietude before diving headlong into another scare. In some percentage of pregnancies with a stillbirth (I think I remember the value of 10% or something like that) there is a chance of abnormal bleeding and clotting with the mother. Our nurse, Tina, came in for a uterus check. She pressed firmly on Svietas abdomen and then the preternatural smile turned to a frown, and the calm demeanor turned to one of directed and hurried action. "Everything's okay," she said on the way out the door, "I just want to get the doctor in here to see what she thinks." And with that the chaos was back. The doctor comes in, and then another nurse, and another doctor, and the anesthesiologist. Svieta was loosing a fairly large amount of blood.
"I'm just going to check your uterus and see if there's anything left in there," the doctor said, as she snapped on a latex glove. My wife is maneuvered back into the delivery position and the doctor reaches far deeper into her vagina than should be humanly possible. She's squirming and writhing in pain, calling out for the probing to stop. I take a step forward, but the doctor withdraws with a bewildered look, almost disappointed. "There's nothing there." The doctors and nurses confer in a huddle for a moment and one of the nurses asks if some drug has been administered. Everyone seems to agree it's the right place to start. They will give said drug. And before the huddle has a chance to break up, a nurse jabs a hypo into Svieta's leg.
My head was spinning. At that point, I'd seen more blood gush than I thought capable, and the pool forming in the bed pads was horrifying. I was truely afraid for my wife's safety. She'd said something to me the night before, "I'm scared. I don't want to die." I tried to comfort her as best I could, and tell her she was being paranoid. At the time, the words seemed way too close to what we told ourselves the week before finding out Julian had no heartbeat, when we managed to convince ourselves everything was fine. I'm not sure how I would get through this, or anything else, without her. I was on the borderline between a massive panic attack and a total freak-out when the chaos subsided and the doctors came out of their huddle, deciding that a wait-and-see approach was appropriate. "The drug we gave you will help the uterus to clamp down, if there's any residual bleeding going on that should help it clamp down and stop," and with that they left.
I stayed next to my wife. Holding her hand, brushing her hair away from her face. She looked pale, and scared. "I don't want to die," she said. "You're not going to," I told her, "Everything is going to be fine." But in my heart of hearts I was terrified. I didn't know, I'm no doctor, I don't know how much blood was lost, or could be lost, before it caused serious problems. It didn't matter though. I knew I had a dead baby in one side of the room, and a wife who was in danger of going the same route if left unattended. You couldn't have pried me away from her side.
Tina came back to check on the bleeding every five minutes or so. The first couple of checks uncovered some pretty massive bleeding from my layman's perspective. There was a point where the doctor came in and asked for some labs to be run. This meant another blood draw, I made some crude joke about where they were going to get it from, and Svieta laughed a little. The blood came out very slowly. The doctor explained that they were looking for clotting factor in the blood and making sure the red blood count stayed high enough. I have no idea what "high enough" was, but they mentioned waiting on the lab results to decide if any "product" was necessary. By "product", they meant platlets or plasma - platlets to help with clotting, and plasma just to provide extra volume. Svieta's heart rate was hovering around 125-135 beats per minute, and the doctors were clearly nervous. Her heart was having to work harder to get blood through her viens than normal. Her blood pressure normally runs on the low side, but now it was really low.
It was a pretty tense hour as the sensation and ability to breathe slowly returned. As a consequence, Svieta's stress level decreased a bit. I was watching the blood pressure cuff and pulse/ox monitor like a hawk, letting our nurse know what was going on when she would check in, which was still pretty frequent. There were more uterus pressing sessions, and more squirts of pooling blood, along with more bed pad changes. But the frequency and volume were decreasing over time, which made me just a bit more comfortable. It must have made the doctors more comfortable too as they eventually stopped coming into the room all together.
As the tension wound down, I had my first chance to see our baby. I was petrified. For the last hour, he was the white elephant in the room as the chaos swirled around us. But now there was nothing left to distract, and I had to face the awful truth. Our baby was swaddled on the other side of the room. Quiet as a clam. Still as death. I walked over, peered into the bin, and looked at my son's face for the first time. He was beautiful. He had a little button nose, and my wife's cheekbones. I broke down immediately, tears streaming from my eyes, and moans of agony involuntarily passing my lips. I saw a look of fear and concern on my wife's face. "Does he look okay?" she asked. "He's gorgeous." I'm floating across the room, but have no recollection of walking. I fall into my wife as she lay on the hospital bed and bury my head deep in her neck. Sobbing. She wraps her arms around me and we cry. That moment is lost in time. I'll never forget it.
It's difficult to write about. How do you put the flood of emotion and torment in a linear form when it stands outside of wall time? Clocks stop functioning, the sun no longer moves in the sky. It started off with feelings of fear and trepidation. But then changed into feelings of a cold comfort, and bittersweet joy for the perfect little man my wife and I had created. He was beautiful. Little heart shaped lips. Too dark to be natural. His jaw was slack with a lifeless lack of muscle control, exposing a little red tongue and toothless gums. Svieta was quick to unwrap him -I was still too afraid to think of such a thing- and with the swaddling off, you could pull out his feet and see his cute little toes. He had a thick mane of curly black hair, taking after his momma. We compared features, momma's eyes, my lips and chin, Svieta's hair... he was gorgeous. In all respects he should have been a little healthy baby boy.
We took turns holding him. Caressing his lifeless cheeks and kissing his lifeless nose. We held him tucked away in the crook of our arms like he was alive, like there was a spark of something whole and spiritual that we weren't ready to let go of yet. And we cried. Alot. We put him back in the little baby cart while we cried. He was such a good boy, laying there quietly. Patiently waiting while we broke down in sobbing tears. I dried my eyes and looked over at him. His nostrils would flare and his chest would move as if he were breathing. I knew it was impossible, but the mind is a powerful thing. It's so difficult to wrap your head around the concept of a stillborn child your eyes tell your brain things that are not real. My wife and I both recognized this hallucination and for a few minutes were afraid to say anything about it for fear of going crazy. But I couldn't contain it, and the fear of being crazy, at a crazy time, seemed crazy. So I told her what I saw. It was only slightly comforting when she confirmed she was seeing it too. I hated the tricks my eyes were playing. The irony served to emphasis the unbearable nature of the moment.
We spent almost three hours like this, alternating back and forth between holding him and crying. Emotions fluctuated between love and sorrow to fear and revulsion. My brain was simply not accepting the reality that was evolving, and at the same time, not wanting to sink further into the madness of the situation. The conflict gave me a stomach twisting headache. Neither of us was ready to let him go, but we had no choice in the matter. We called the nurse in to take him away.
It was difficult watching Tina wheel Julian out of the room for the last time. My heart left with him, and I immediately regretted sending him on his way. My head told me it was for the best, but every other fiber of my being screamed, "Bring him back to me, that's my little boy." That moment of conflict between desire and rationalization was the most painful and unbearable instant of my life.
It was an odd moment when we found ourselves alone together for the first time since our son came and went. We sobbed for a long time, and when the tears passed, there was a mournful calm. Was it really over?
Nurses came and went quietly, but we ignored them. The anxiety of the delivery was over and as we settled down from the emotional roller-coaster, the anesthesiologist came to remove the epidural catheter. When they inserted it, the doctor had used a ton of tape to keep the tubes from getting caught and twisted. He had taken his time and was incredibly careful and thorough in order to be sure it wouldn't move. It was perfect, almost art. When this guy came to take it off, he slowly and carefully peeled one corner of the tape loose, and then proceeded to rip it as quickly and assertively off of my wife's back as was humanly possible - taking skin, hair, and everything else along with it. I watched my wife groan in pain, and hurried to her side. Before we could ask him, "What the fuck?", he'd already left, presumably to avoid the inevitable confrontation. I'm pretty sure we cursed him several times and I threatened to punch him at least twice.
It was only a matter of time before they would need the delivery room for another delivery. They promised to move us to another room on another floor, reasonably far enough away from the regular delivery ward that we wouldn't hear babies crying all night. I remember wondering if the babies would mind hearing us crying all night, but didn't want to share the thought out loud.
At around 8 in the evening they moved us to another floor into a single occupancy room that must have been geared toward a prolonged hospital stay. It was decked out with all of the industrial medical feel of a typical hospital room, a stark contrast from the soft colors and lights of the delivery room. With all of the sharp angles, and cables, and tubes, it was difficult to maneuver in the cramped space. But we managed to fit in a cot and one of the chairs, beside the bulky hospital bed, after pushing some furniture out into the hallway.
It didn't really matter that things were cramped and we couldn't move around the room. We were both emotionally and physically exhausted. We were incapable of doing anything more than sitting and watching TV. I don't remember what was on, or what -if anything- we talked about. Since there wasn't room on the bed, and there were still tubes hanging out of my wife's body, I stayed on the chair. The lack of any human contact accentuated the isolation and I'd been feeling. It was a long and sleepless night. There was a dull, but growing sense of anxiety. The events of the past several days were wearing me down and the nagging buzz of anxiety was a clue that I was bordering on the edge of rationality.
Eventually I passed out and slept through the night. When I woke up the nurse was with my wife and they were removing the IV. The nurse said something about checking about meds and dismissal papers, then left. We ordered breakfast. The food was not completely inedible. We watched television, and waited. Talked, and waited. Held each other, and waited. At least Svieta could wear her street clothes, so we were both relatively comfortable. We talked about how dazed we were from the lack of sleep, and the stress of the whole situation. We were on auto pilot and in a time warp of emotional vortex suckage, but the morning passed uneventfully. Eventually the doctor came in and told us we could go home.
We were packed and ready. We bolted the fuck out of there as quickly as possible. I drove home as quickly as we could safely make it, and we barricaded ourselves in the house for the next three days.
At first, we were afraid to go outside. But eventually, a lack of groceries added with the desire to eat overcame us, and we tentatively ventured out. Very briefly. Seriously the first trip to get carry-out was more than we could handle, and both my wife and I talked about how weird and over stimulating it was on the way home. From picking up the food. We were gone for a total of about 24 minutes, and I'm pretty sure we cried when we got home. The next day, food was brought to us, so we didn't have to go out at all. Talking to my sister was still labored, but having my niece to distract our daughter, Sophie, was good. Neither my wife or I were in shape to entertain her. Fortunately it was a quick visit and we were able to go back to our daze quickly. There was definitely a comfort in the silence and calm we were creating. Having people over was labored and painful. A meal was provided on Sunday as well, and once again we relished the fact that we wouldn't have to go out into the world to face real life or real people.
The first week was really difficult. It was pretty much the same routine of crying, watching TV, figuring out what to eat, sleeping, shitting, facing soul crushing grief, and trying to figure out how to pick up and move on. Once we'd settled down from the trauma of the hospital, the whirlwind of grief came back. They tell you about 5 stages of grief and social workers have been clinging to this model of grief therapy for decades - Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. Its presenting in a linear form, but they don't tell you that it really comes in a rapid and chaotic fashion. There's another one they don't tell you about, Anxiety. We had a hard time going to sleep, staying up until 2 or 3 in the morning, which is not typical for us at all, and still not being able to really sleep. We'd be down for two or three hours, and then up again. Night after night. I couldn't take it any more and started taking Valarian to help relax, which seemed to help.
Shortly after returning home, I had a conversation with my Mom. She was planning on coming out to help with the baby once he was born, but she called and asked if she should change her flight to come out early. She wanted to come help out around the house and let us pick up the pieces now that our baby plans were disrupted. At first I told her everything was okay, that it wouldn't be good for her to come out because we're just sitting on the couch and crying, but something she said really effected me. "You know, we're all mourning too." and she broke down into tears over the phone. I thought back to when I was a kid, when I would get hurt, and how she used to comfort me. I told my wife, and she said I should call her back. I still cry when I think of it. That was really the first moment of my life that I felt something bigger than the sum of my family connections. It was what people always mean when they say blood is thicker than water. I had no right to try and block my family even though I was just trying to spare their feelings, that's what family is for. So I called Mom back and told her that it was a good idea, and she should come out. She landed three days later, and truth be told, she was an immense help. It was awkward, and emotional, and generally uncomfortable at times, but I wouldn't change the love and support my family gave us at that moment for anything.
You don't really get much time to make arrangements for the body. We were told that after 30 days, the hospital would cremate and we wouldn't get the remains. Or - we could make our own arrangements. There's not much to do for a little body, and without cemetery plots or any other kind of pre-arrangement, we'd settled on cremation. There was a bit of gallows humor the day we went to the funeral home. I've never done anything like it, so the idea was overwhelming before we even walked through the door. Floods of memories of every funeral I've ever been to came to mind, and I shuddered thinking about what was likely to come. It turns out, the guy working with us was a long time family friend who knew the family history. After quickly offering us condolences, he got down to business. Here are the options, here are the costs, paperwork, signatures. He pulled out a couple of catalogs of urns and other memorials, and flipped through to find the children and infant items. There are not a lot of selections in the newborn mortality market. It really came down to a couple of urns that had either an angel or a teddy bear, or a plain bronze cube. None of these suited our taste, and all of them were over-priced. We opted to find our own container. The funeral director seemed to agree with our choice, and we got down to finalizing the paperwork. Where will the remains be contained, something about state laws and blah blah blah... I wasn't really listening and offered up initials and signatures when requested. We were told they would call us at the beginning of the following week about picking up the remains. Overall the experience was expertly guided, it seemed like we were on rails. Not having to spend a lot of energy thinking about choices was good because we both talked about the strangeness of being out in the world again most of the way home. We were grateful that task was done as painlessly as could be.
During one of the visits from Svieta's Dad, he'd made the suggestion of planting a tree in Julian's honor. At first it seemed a bit odd, but we quickly warmed to the idea. That day, we were driving over to my sisters and stumbled across a gorgeous tree with purple flowers in full bloom. It had delicate fern-like leaves, and big blooms that covered almost every inch. Svieta and I were in awe. "That's the tree we should get," I said. She quickly responded, "I was just thinking the same thing!" It was settled. Now we just had to figure out what it was. Fortunately for us, Google makes it easy to find things when you have relatively vague search terms. I did a search for "tree with purple flowers" and after a little poking around on various sites, found it - a Jacaranda tree. Apparently they are native to South America, and bloom in June, oh, and are found all over southern and northern California. Sold! Next was the mission to find one for sale. This was not the kind of thing you could just head over to Home Depot for apparently, so we failed a couple of times, and then remembered this nursery over in Redwood City. They had a lot of trees last time we were there, maybe they would have one. Sure enough, we found a little one with small spindly branches. Very young, but in overall good health. We asked a few questions about our tree, and about general tree keeping. Neither of us really know anything about keeping plants or gardening, but the answers were not complicated. We bought it and some enriched soil, packed it all in the car, and headed home.
A few days later, I was in our front yard with a shovel, a 2D diagram of how to plant a tree, and my Dad asking, "Do you need help?" Part of me wanted to dig, and dig, and dig until my muscles ached as bad as my heart. I felt a kind of catharsis digging, putting that bit of Julian onto the ground, and planting something that will hopefully grow. It was a risk, like having a child was a risk. Maybe it would take off, or maybe it would die in the hole I'd dug for it. That whole thought process developed a strange mental connection between Julian and the tree, at least for me. It wasn't long before the parents and grand parents showed up. When everyone had settled into a ring around the hole, I brought out the tree and put it in place, then started filling in the hole. Dad helped, and we traded off shoveling dirt and holding the tree upright. After tamping down the dirt, and watering the soil into place, it was silent again. We all stood for a moment, and everyone started saying a bit of eulogy, and a bit of prayer about the delicate soul we missed so much. It turned out to be a beautiful tribute.
After planting the tree, the whole event felt closed. I wasn't over it by any stretch of the imagination, but I suppose drawing the parallel between planting the tree, and burying our baby served as some sort of closure. It was almost a shock when days later the funeral home called and said the ashes were ready to be picked up. We had spent a few days looking for a receptacle we liked and could agree on. Eventually we settled on a nice little decorative wood box with an inlay on a slightly arched top. It had a rectangle area on the top that was the perfect size for an engraving. As difficult as it is to find something fitting for the occasion, we were pretty happy with the end result. There's not much to say about it other than, we picked up the ashes, and went home. There were really no profound feelings until we transfered the ashes from the container given by the mortuary to our memorial box. It's a bit disturbing when you distill all of a human life into a small bag full of ashes. The body we'd held, regardless of being lifeless, was at least a body. Now all that was left was about a cup of ash. It was real. We were done. There were no more tasks to be performed, no more milestones to cross. Where do we go from here? What do we do now?
The funny thing about being "done" was the grief just kept going. You're never really done grieving for someone close. Just when we had pulled ourselves together enough to start functioning like human beings again, that's when the post pregnancy hormones hit Svieta. The depression lasted about two weeks, and it was rocky and emotional. My wife blamed herself, and she kept imagining scenarios where, if only we'd done something different. To be fair, my wife is incredible. Throughout the emotional volatility, she held up amazingly well. I couldn't blame her for the emotions or questions, I was going through my version of the same issues and had to work to rationalize them. But it was hell watching her go through this adjustment. The breasts swelling, starting to produce milk for a child that would never suckle. The uterus clamping down, producing cramps and bleeding. Ice packs, and more ice packs, to both comfort and soothe the glands that were ramping up for food production, as well as try to shut them down before it turned into a medical problem. Everything was just a reminder of those expectations and plans we'd had just a few weeks before, and rubbed salt into fresh wounds.
So where are we now? It's been a couple of months. My wife and I are doing better. Going back to work was difficult. People don't really know how to talk to you beyond offering their condolences, and frankly it took a while before I could sanely talk to people. I wasn't ready to go back, but having limited time off plus limited vacation time, there wasn't much of a choice. My boss has been accommodating though. I'm fortunate. People find out, or approach at different times though so it seems like a steady stream of people offering condolences and sympathies, which had the effect of keeping my nerves raw. I was a right grumpy bastard that first week back, probably longer than that even. The first couple of weeks, I was still helping my wife through the postpartum issues, so it wasn't until I was back for a few weeks that the exhaustion and irritability converged into the perfect storm of grumpiness.
Svieta and I still get asked how we're doing frequently, and we don't have a better answer than "alright." Most people generally aren't ready or capable of wrapping their heads around the real raw story, or don't want to hear the real answer to the question. You can see it on their faces the first few times you offer a sincere answer. Honestly, I hope they never have to understand what it's like. I find it shocking now that we have this experience, how many people suffer through similar stories. My heart goes out to each and every one of them. When my wife and I were going through it, we felt so isolated and alone. Fortunately we had each other through it all. I can't imagine what it would have been like if we were not as close as we are.
I've asked myself several times while writing this, "What's the goal?" If anything, I would like people going through this to know, you are not alone. I've never been through something so painful that I couldn't get back up on my own. This time it took family, and friends, and a really good relationship with my wife to pull out if it. You can get to the other side, where it doesn't hurt so damned much - even if the scars will always be a part of you. Hopefully you can learn to live with it for the sake of those family and friends that love and support you. I hope our story can communicate what the social workers, and therapists, and the clergy can't, won't, or don't. You're going to feel everything all at once, it's going to be messy and non-linear. You're going to feel it physically as well as emotionally. In fact, time quite possibly will not feel like it's flowing in the right direction for a while. But it's normal. The five stages of grief? Feeling denial, and anger, and bargaining over and over in rapid succession, or randomly, or all at once - is normal. The depression lingers after you've accepted your new reality, it's normal. You don't feel safe, or sane, or even remotely sociable. It's normal. That baby, the one that you'd planned your life around, for however long you had the privilege of carrying it, was as much a part of your life as any family member. Feeling a great sense of loss is normal, and necessary. We still think of Julian and cry. I still hate being around people and going outside, and I still have more general free floating anxiety than I had before. But it will get better, slowly. As much as I loved Julian, I know my wife, and daughter, family, and friends, love me. And that makes it better. Slowly.