Again, I find myself pulling from my past files for a post. As I move into the new apartment and adjust to the new job, I have struggled to find time to craft a new blog post. So, in the meanwhile, I wanted to post something. As always, I fall back on short stories.
And, as it always seems, this is far more tragic than I’d intended. The stories I post seem to be entirely depressing. Though that truly isn’t all I write. In high school theatre, I played a character who suffered through five stillbirths, and as a sixteen year-old, I had no reference for such devastating emotions. A friend of mine allowed me to interview her about her own struggles with stillbirths and miscarriages. It was a difficult hour. We both cried, and I took pages of notes. Though I didn’t write the story until years later, our conversation (and the role I’d portrayed on stage) weighed heavily on my heart. So I tried to put something together, in words, in memory of the mothers who have suffered in similar circumstances. It’s hard, but I think it’s important.
With all the love in the world, I hope this piece impacts you.
Trigger warning for stillbirth.
In honor of Rebecca and Jessie.
And women who suffer from the tragic loss of a child.
It’s a blessing and a curse, a mother’s link to her child. Because of that connection, I knew the exact moment that it happened.
The movie had just reached its climax, and Ryan was riveted. He held my hand tightly, oblivious entirely to anything but the screen. For me, on the other hand, the world stopped when her heart stopped. Everything in me had lost focus on the film and turned inward.
I placed a hand gently on my stomach. For a moment, I sat completely still, hoping I’d imagined the sinking feeling. There was no movement, no heartbeat, no sign of life. She was still connected to me, but she was gone.
My breath quickened. My lungs wouldn’t fill enough for me to be satisfied. The tears welled as every possible scenario shot through my head. A foolish hope remained that the moment was temporary, that she’d come back to me. Despite my blind denial, I felt the certainty of her loss weighing on me.
The first tears spilled silently. My desperate gasps for air accompanied the others that joined them soon after. I looked around, worried suddenly that I was making a scene. I was needlessly worried; the movie was too engaging. No one took notice of the frantic pregnant woman in aisle three.
Ryan had turned from the movie to me and placed his other hand on top of my knee. “Are you alright, Jess? Jess?” Instead of responding, I gripped his hand so tightly, my fingernails sunk into his skin.
Our gazes locked. Mine felt hollow. His looked radiant.
“Is she coming?” he asked excitedly.
My voice caught. I could get as few words out as I could breaths in. “No,” I moaned. “She’s gone.”
I clicked on the light. It chased away the shadows, but it couldn’t chase away the ghosts. This room was supposed to hold life, not reminders of death.
Ryan and I had chosen a faded yellow for the walls. The white cradle had stuffed animals hanging over the side to watch over the baby that would never sleep there. Stacks of diapers stayed hidden in the drawers of the white dresser along with the clothes and a plethora of other gifts from the baby shower. Everything in this room whispered the expectation of her arrival.
I’d embroidered a blanket with her name: Anna Bette. It lay draped across the pale blue recliner in the adjacent corner to the cradle. I lifted the cloth and held it to my face and kept it there. It smelled fresh and new and was so soft against my skin. The tears began fight their way out again, against my will.
I sank tiredly into the recliner and just let them pour over. My hand rested naturally on my swollen belly as it had for the past nine months. I moved it away immediately to the arm of the chair. It just felt wrong to rest it on Anna’s lifeless body. I didn’t want the reminder. For just a moment, I wanted to bask in what-might-have-been.
It let my head loll back and I imagined the room as if she had been born like she was supposed to be. As if she had been born alive. As if I wouldn’t give birth to a corpse any day.
I released my emotions and contorted my face, furiously holding onto the illusions of my mind: the feel of her kicking in the womb, then the cries of a newborn girl, holding my baby and rocking her in this chair. I could feel the mascara-mixed tears drying in spider’s legs across my cheeks. Some ran into my hair and dyed temporary streaks of black. My delusional vision couldn’t last against the reality of her death.
He lingered a while in the doorway and, though I could feel him watching, I did not move. His grief equaled mine, but I knew he struggled to understand how torturous it was to lose the person who is physically part of you. After a while, I opened my eyes. The lashes, soaked with mascara, clung to each other and the last of my imaginings that were slipping away.
“I should have washed my face,” I said, sheepishly. I gave him an unconvincing grin. My bottom lip was quivering too much for it to come across real. “Mascara does funky things when it gets wet.”
“I’m sure it wasn’t the first thing on your mind.”
I frowned. I’d expected him to take my uneasy joke as a hint: ignore the pain. “Yeah, I was pretty bummed about missing the end of the movie.”
Ryan moved to stand next to the recliner. I stubbornly averted my gaze.
“Jessica, we have to talk about this.”
“What’s there to talk about?” I pursed my lips tightly. “She’s dead. Seems pretty final to me.”
He took my hand. He smelled faintly of cigarette smoke. That was his one vice when he felt he couldn’t handle something. The last time I’d smelled it on him was when I miscarried two years ago. “We have a lot of decisions to make.”
“Do we have to make them right now?”
I allowed myself to look up at him. “I don’t want to. I want to sit. And not move. Maybe never again. I can’t keep putting myself through this. I was such a fool to hope, Ryan. I don’t know why we even tried.”
“Because she would have been worth it.” He traced my fingernails lightly with his own fingers. “We had to hope for Anna’s sake.”
“What does it matter now? She won’t ever know.”
“I wish I had an answer, Jess. I just can’t wish away the hope I had. For a couple months, it was the most precious thing.” His mouth was tight. His eyes looked five years older. I reminded myself to watch my mood. He was hurting too.
“Do you really wish you hadn’t hoped?” Ryan whispered.
I considered for a minute. “I wish she were breathing.”
“I wish that too.”
Silence spread maliciously between us and we fell into it, separated entirely by the sadness, connected still by our fingertips. So many emotions warred within me, tormenting my thoughts, hardening my heart, and suffocating my soul.
“I ordered pizza,” Ryan murmured.
“I’m not hungry.”
“I’m not either.”
“We need to eat.” It was simple fact. I wasn’t sure what good it did to state it. I just did.
He sighed. “We need to eat, we need sleep, we need to move. Jess, we need to keep living.”
“If she can’t, why should I?”
“Because I need you to. I can’t live if you don’t live, so, Jess, I need you to live.” He was pleading with me. His voice had gotten higher pitched. His fingers trembled where they still rested against mine. There was desperation in him – desperation and pain. But, selfishly, I didn’t want to do what he asked of me. Not even for him. I wanted to waste away in this chair where there was still a hallucination of her presence.
“I don’t want to, Ryan,” I protested.
“I don’t either,” he said simply. His honesty raised my eyes.
He couldn’t live without me. He didn’t want to live anymore, just as I didn’t, but if I didn’t stand up and continue on, he would waste away with me. I couldn’t have that responsibility on my hands. And I realized I couldn’t live without him.
I needed him to go on too. Neither of us would get through this alone. The silence would damn us to the depths, leaving us wasting in the desperate company of death. I didn’t want any more death. Not mine and certainly not Ryan’s. I couldn’t be at fault for that.
If neither of us wanted to live, at least we could struggle through the days together.
“Pizza sounds nice,” I acknowledged. I only shot him a sideways glance; I couldn’t bear to add his sadness to mine yet.
He helped me up. His arm circled me, and I appreciated the closer connection. If I was going to rely on him, fingertips were not nearly enough of him to cling to. The doorbell rang. We’d been sitting in the nursery longer than I’d realized. We’d wasted more time than I’d realized. I needed to step away, shut the door, wake up from my daze, and force myself to function. For myself. For Ryan. For our friends and family. For our future.
I clicked off the light upon my exit, daring myself to keep looking forward and not back at Anna’s empty cradle in an empty nursery. In fact, it wasn’t even Anna’s cradle.
No, Anna’s only cradle would be her grave.