By Judith O’Reilly –
I love my children. All four of them: there is one I cannot hold. Not true. I hold him in my heart. I just cannot hold his hand in mine. He would be eight today.
Two days before he was due to be born, he stopped moving. I did the things you do, ate vanilla ice cream for which I had no appetite, climbed awkwardly into a hot bath, dribbled water onto my still belly, fell silent, thought: “Fuck and buggery.”
My husband drove me to hospital. I spoke. “I’m sure it’s fine, but I can’t feel the baby move.” The midwife took me in, laid me down, wired me up, turned off the light. She cold-gelled and swept the veined mound with ultrasound. I thought: “Now’s the time to wave, baby.” No wave. She could not find a pulsing beat in the grainy black and white. I thought: “I shan’t ask for a picture then this time.” She said: “I’m going to get someone else to have a look.” I thought: “That’s not what you’d call a good sign,” as the door shush closed behind her.
A brief pause before an older woman came in. Kind. Experienced with bad news. Sweep and look again to find death, tragedy, horror, and desolation. She leant in towards me, said her prayers for the dead: “I am very sorry to have to tell you . . . ” My husband and I clung together as if our world had ended. Our world had ended. I can tell you the exact sound a heart makes when it breaks. It sounds like a wolf. Both of us heard it.
If you have a stillbirth, they do not cut you up, rip out the babe, sew you up, and send you away, almost whole again. Lick split. Instead, they say, “Don’t swallow this,” and hand you a torpedo; connect you to a drip and “start you off.” They say: “This isn’t going to hurt,” and lie. “We’ll break your waters,” and take up a crochet hook but not to make a table mat. “Let’s give you morphine. Usually, we don’t do this.” The morphine helps but not enough. “Not long now” and “Push” and “Stop” and sixty hours later: “Well done,” and you see how your life could have been.
My baby boy was beautiful. These babies often are. My baby boy was dead. Stillbirth can be like that. Lying on a paper blanket, the bones in his skull all pushed around, misshapen. The dead, they do decay. Yet, when I felt his head push out from me, he had felt wet, warm, and wonderful. Don’t look now. The skin, already flayed from his neck, came off at a too tender touch. I do not know the colour of his eyes but his fingers, tips tinted in scarlet, folded to hold my finger. The first and last time I held his hand in mine.
My hand splayed on his chest, his left hand curled round my little finger; my thumb tucked in the other. I felt along the romper for his feet, the curve of his calf, the better to remember his body. We had time with him, but not enough; I kissed his rosebud mouth, but not enough; I showered him in tears, too many.
I know how death smells. We lit candles in tins. One for vitality. It did not work. We took endless photos of a subject who never moved. As my husband slept for an hour through the London night, I sat with my baby, told him about Christmas and birthdays and jungle animals and Northumberland which his father loved and where we holidayed each New Year. I swear he heard me. Then the smell got too much and we buried him. I have the bill yet. Keepsakes are hard to come by when a baby dies.
Supply of a small white coffin and transport:
Extra mileage: £80
They were toothless. The gravediggers, standing too close and anxious to get on with the job, leaning on their spades as we buried our future. In his coffin we put a teddy bear (cruel of us to bury a teddy), photo of a kiss, crucifix (I have its mate), tulip, and a letter. Hardly room in there for the baby. We printed the letter on the order of service for the funeral. It said: “We knew you before you were born and we wouldn’t have missed a moment of our time together as a family. Wherever we go in life, you will be with us and part of us. You will always be the little blond-haired boy running alongside us on a Northumberland beach and the sound of your laughter will always fill our home. ”
No reason for the death. As the hospital report said: “No malformations or obvious infection.” Often the way. His heart weighed 19g. Not a heavy heart. Mine weighed more. No medic in rubbered hands can weigh a mother’s love though. The fact my husband touches me reminds me not to die and he pulls me through the anguish of the days and nights and days. And we whisper a promise to each other that we will not compromise; we will think differently; do what it takes to strive for happiness together.
From the book Wife in the North by Judith O’Reilly. Reprinted by arrangement with PublicAffairs (www.publicaffairsbooks.com), a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2008.
Judith O’Reilly was the education correspondent for The Sunday Times of London, where she also reported on politics and news, and worked undercover on education, social, and criminal justice investigations. She is a former political producer for ITV’s Channel 4 News and BBC2’s Newsnight. A freelance journalist, she started her blog, www.wifeinthenorth.com in 2006. She lives in England.