Time With Charlotte: A JournalOn Sunday night, July 22, 2012, at 9:35 pm, I gave birth to a beautiful baby girl we named Charlotte Olivia. She weighed just 15.4 oz and was 10.5 inches tall. She never opened her eyes, took a breath, or made a sound in this world. I gave birth to an angel.
When I was worried, rightfully so, about my pregnancy in 2009, I bought a home doppler: a fetal heartbeat monitor. I never heard that baby's heartbeat. With Mia, now a healthy fourteen month old, I heard it starting at 9 weeks, and I listened to it almost every night for my entire pregnancy. It was never less than 140 beats per minute: loud, and strong. I found it every time I looked.
With this baby, whom we affectionately called Sweet Potato because of her due date near Thanksgiving, I heard the heartbeat starting at 7 weeks. Strong and fast: perfect. Since Mia had been so healthy, I didn't listen every day. I listened every two or three days. There was one day in the 9th week when I couldn't find it. I panicked a bit, but I knew it was early and Sweet Potato was tiny. I waited a day, tried again, and, sure enough, heard that perfect little choo-choo-train. The last time I heard her heart beat was on Thursday night, July 19th. I don't know when the train stopped.
I had a dream on Thursday night about delivering a child who had died. I remember very vividly seeing a blue hand coming out of me, and I remember screaming because I didn't want to believe it. I couldn't shake that dream. I was upset and depressed all day on Friday. I tried to blame it on being in the house all day and made plans to take Mia out on Saturday as a result, but it was really the dream.
On Saturday night, I went to check with the doppler again. All I heard was my own heart beating. I tried again. Just me, slightly faster. I took a deep breath and thought about when the last time I felt her move had been. I thought maybe that morning. I was only at 20 weeks and four days, so, while I had been feeling a lot of movement, I didn't feel consistent movement yet. I went downstairs and drank an entire, caffeinated soda in the hopes that the baby would start jumping. Only my nerves reacted. I took a warm shower and tried again. Still nothing. I looked online for answers, and saw a few anecdotal stories about 20 week old babies who lay in strange positions which hid their heartbeats. I took as much comfort in that as I could and fell asleep after an hour of meditation and breathing.
Sunday morning, I woke up, got Mia breakfast, and tried again to find the heartbeat while Mia watched Sesame Street in the family room. Still nothing. My hope started to fade. I started to feel resigned to a reality I never thought possible. For some reason, I didn't cry in that resignation. I felt an odd calm, like the moments before a hurricane. I put the doppler away.
When Mike woke up, he could tell something wasn't right with me. I tried to deny it, but he knows me better than I like to admit sometimes. When I told him, the tears finally hit, the first drops in the storm to come. Mike was scared. He asked me to try again, thinking maybe the baby would have turned and we could relax. I didn't want to try. I knew that if I couldn't find it again, I'd start to believe what I already felt in my heart. He insisted. I tried. Silence.
Mia then went down for a nap, and Mike went to take a shower. Since it was Sunday, I couldn't really call my OB except for the emergency line, and I didn't want to accept this as an emergency. I was starting to feel off, physically, though. When I stood up, it was a sense of pressure. No pain, just pressure. I didn't want to tell my doctor that I had a doppler because they all look down on patients using them for this exact reason. I didn't want to be the mom who cried wolf. As Mike finished his shower, I considered trying to find a "recreational" ultrasound place that was open on Sundays. I knew that an ultrasound would be the only thing that would tell us one way or the other.
Then I went to the bathroom. And I knew. It felt wrong. The pressure changed. Something wasn't right. I knew it, and my body knew it. I asked Mike to call my sister to watch Mia, still napping, and I asked him to call out of work for the night. I knew that I needed him. Meanwhile, I used his cell phone to finally call the emergency number. After the longest ten minutes of my life on hold, I spoke with a doctor in the practice I'd never met before. She said that, if I was truly concerned, I should go to the nearest emergency room. I was actually relieved to hear this, as I was afraid they'd tell me to go to Fair Oaks, an hour away but the base hospital for my doctors’ practice. Mike came back and said that my sister would be there in half an hour.
I took my car and drove myself, and Mike promised to be there as soon as he could. As we hugged goodbye, I couldn't help sobbing, and I woke Mia from her nap. While I felt bad at the time, in retrospect I'm glad of this, as I was able to hug and kiss her before I left. I didn't realize at the time how much I would need my Mia.
At the hospital, the ER directed me to Labor and Delivery. It was so surreal. I told the L&D nurse my situation. I was 21 weeks pregnant, and I felt a lot of strange pressure and, now, some discomfort. They took me into a room and put me in a gown. I started to cry. The poor nurse tried to reassure me that everything was probably OK, but I knew. I knew this was the beginning of the end. I got into the bed, and the registration woman came in on a mobile cart to admit me. I was grateful for the ease of the process, and it was clear that the nurses and the registrar were doing everything they could to help me through this.
Mike still hadn't arrived when they started to look for the heartbeat with the hospital’s doppler. The nurse tried again to reassure me, saying that sometimes it was hard to find babies this small. I remember telling her that I had a really bad feeling that there wasn't anything to find. She tried for about five minutes. Then the on-call doctor came in. As my doctors don't practice at this hospital, it was a doctor I had never seen before. Luckily she was very gentile and matter of fact. I needed that. She tried the doppler, too, as the ultrasound machine warmed up. Silence.
Once the machine had warmed up, she put the wand on my belly. Though I had already every piece of evidence I needed that my baby was gone, I still stared at that screen with a burning hope, desperate to see a flicker. A stir. A twitch. I saw her face first, then her spine, then the complete stillness of her chest. She was gone. The doctor didn't say anything for a few moments, but I knew. I had spent hours looking at video of ultrasound images online so that I wouldn’t have to wait to be told. I knew what I was seeing from the second the wand hit my belly. I was seeing my angel.
As she put the wand away, the nurse asked her if she wanted to order a full sono from one of the hospital’s trained technicians as a second opinion. She did. As she finished with the machine, she looked at me. She could tell I knew, so she didn't say much. I remember her saying that she didn't see a heartbeat, but that they were calling in the tech for the second opinion. I nodded. I couldn't speak. She said she wanted to check me to see if I was dilated. I knew that I was. I knew it had already begun. When she checked, she said there were already membranes through the cervix. I was right. I’d never wanted to be wrong so badly.
At that moment, the nurse came in and said that Mike had arrived. The timing broke my heart. He didn't get that moment of hope that I did when that ultrasound started: the hope that maybe it was a mistake, that maybe Sweet Potato would be fine. It was too late for that hope.
When he walked in, he looked at my face first. I could see the worry. I think it was more for me than for the Sweet Potato in that instant, as I can only imagine how my face looked. Still, he looked at me with a question, and I could only shake my head. He didn't understand it. I don't know what he thought I meant, but as he came closer I tried to choke out words. No heartbeat. Gone. So sorry. Still love me? He looked numb. I think he was. I was.
They left us alone for a few minutes. I don't remember either of us speaking much. We both kept saying that we were so sorry. We were both so worried for the other that I think it kept us from breaking down too much, yet. I kept asking him if he still loved me. I felt such guilt that I couldn't protect our baby from this fate. I didn't know why, but I kept asking myself if I could have done something differently. What if I'd checked the heartbeat after my dream? Would I have noticed it slowing? Did it slow? Should I have called my doctor earlier? Would Mike think I could have, should have stopped it? Poor Mike. I know he wouldn't ever blame me, but my brain wouldn't process that.
I mentioned names at that point. After the miscarriage three years ago, I spent a lot of time on grief and loss websites and a message board. I knew that it was important to the healing and grieving process to name the baby. I knew I wanted to hold the baby. I knew that I needed to see her, tell her I loved her, tell her goodbye. Mike seemed surprised by this. I didn't talk to him much about my research in this area before. There hadn't been a reason. Sea Monkey, what we called our first baby, hadn't had a face. He hadn't had a name beyond our silly nickname. He hadn't been born. We'd never heard his heart beating or seen an ultrasound. When we mourned, it was for the lost idea of what was to come, the lost baby that never really got a chance. But Sea Monkey wasn't real on this scale.
Sweet Potato was REAL. I felt the baby move. I'd been listening to the heartbeat for, literally, months. We'd had an early ultrasound and seen the outline of the baby we would have. We'd seen the heart beating. We were going to find out the baby's name in just three days. The ultrasound appointment was on Tuesday at 1:15. This was our child, not the idea of one. Our child died, not just a dream.
At that moment, Mike was reluctant. He thought he wouldn't want to see it. The baby was still an it, then. He thought he'd be haunted by the memories for the rest of his life. He wasn't ready to talk about names. I didn't push it too much. I did say that I wanted to see the baby. I knew I would regret it and always wonder if I didn't. I also threw out a few names to think about. I said I would be ok with keeping the names we had agreed on the same, but I didn't think they would fit under the circumstances. The meanings were too joyful. I also mentioned the other names we had considered, including William, Charlotte, and using the middle names from our original choices. We were too numb and in shock to make the decision then, so we didn't talk about it more than that.
When the ultrasound tech came in, he introduced himself, and started to work. He didn't speak to us at all about what he saw. I don't know if Mike recognized what he was seeing, but I think he may have felt that spark of hope that I did the first time. I didn't feel it this time, though I still couldn't pull my eyes from the screen. I couldn't help but pray that it was still just a mistake. Maybe the last machine was faulty, or the doctor moved the wand too fast, or anything else...but I knew. I knew she was gone. I think, really, I'd known for hours.
After the tech left, the doctor came in and we asked what would happen next. She explained they would be moving us to an L&D room and out of L&D triage. They would start me on an IV of fluids, and then they'd give me some drugs to induce labor. She also said we had the option to go home and wait if we wanted, as labor would usually start within two weeks in these situations. By this time I was already feeling contractions. As soon as I saw the first ultrasound, they began. It was as if my conscious mind gave my body permission, and my body ran with it. They weren't that painful yet. They felt like uncomfortable cramps, maybe a 3-4 on the pain scale they always ask about. We didn't need to discuss it. We were staying.
I felt a sort of cruel irony in this moment. After Mia was born by C-section, a part of me was very bitter that I wouldn't ever get the experience of a normal delivery, of dilation, of pushing. It seemed like a horrible example of being careful what you wish for. I mentioned this to Mike at some point during the night. It seemed almost funny. Mike didn't laugh.
The doctor mentioned Cytotec, a drug I'd seen on a documentary as being dangerous in women who had C-sections in the past, and I actually questioned it. That's not something I normally do with medical professionals. She explained that, since the baby was so small and my uterus wasn't stretched as thin, the Cytotec wouldn't pose that same risk for me. Something about that explanation made my heart hurt. My poor baby was too small and frail to injure me, and yet I had failed to protect her.
Mike asked her how long it would be. She first thought he meant until they started, but he meant until we finished. The answer she gave was that she didn't know, but more than likely sometime tonight. I looked at the date on the wall. July 22. My baby's birthday would be July 22.
Mike went to make some calls after that. He went outside so he could use his cell phone more easily, and I think he also wanted to be able to be weak without upsetting me. He called my sister to let her know that we wouldn't be home any time soon. By this time it was right around 4:40, and I was worried about Mia. He also wanted to call both of our parents. He remembered from our miscarriage that I couldn't do it. My response is to shut down. I didn't have any desire to talk to or see anyone. I wouldn’t have been able to handle pity, and I knew I couldn't deal with others' emotions when I didn't even have a grasp on my own. Poor Mike became the necessary spokesperson.
While he was gone, I was alone. No nurses came in. No doctors. Just me. I talked to the baby a little bit. I don't remember what I said. There was a TV in the room, but I didn't move to turn it on. I didn't reach for my cell phone or my reader in my purse. I just sat. I listened to the happy people arriving for the birth of their child. I listened to an excited visitor asking if a baby had been born. I listened to a baby crying somewhere far away. I watched the seconds tick by and counted the pains that were coming faster. I waited for my heart to finish breaking.
Mike came back before they moved me, close to 5:30. I was a little worried they'd put me into the same room as when I had Mia, Room 5. They didn't: a small blessing. They are apparently very good at dealing with grief like ours, so they moved us around the corner to a relatively secluded area. I didn't hear happiness here, which was a relief. When the door was shut, I only saw silent footsteps pass by every ten minutes or so. We were sheltered in our sadness. As we went into the room, I noticed with another bit of irony that we were in room 8, my favorite number.
In our new room, Mike told me about the calls he had made. Some had comforted him, some had upset him. He didn't tell me much. I stopped him every few minutes when a contraction hit, as it made it hard to concentrate. The nurse, Lori, came in then. I really liked her. She talked us through the whole process. She said that they would encourage us to hold the baby. To name the baby. To take pictures with the baby. She talked us through our options as far as pain control. I remember her saying that the night would feel completely out of control, but that the one thing that I could control was my pain, if I wanted it. At that point I didn't know what I wanted as far as pain control or anything else.
I thought that, since she was so small, I should be able to handle it. Never mind that I hadn't prepared for it last pregnancy with Mia, as I fully anticipated an epidural. Never mind that I was prepared for a C-section with this child, and even then not for four more months. Never mind that I was aching so much emotionally that I had no ability whatsoever to stay calm and relaxed. A part of me also thought that I should feel the pain. Maybe I felt like I deserved it. Maybe I felt like it was all that I had to give to my child, since I couldn't give her true life. Maybe I wanted the pain so that I could make sure I still could feel. I didn't know, so I didn't ask for the epidural waiver at that point. I said I would let them know when and if I wanted pain medication. She left us to ourselves for a while.
After Lori left, Mike and I discussed names. I think, after thinking about what I had said I wanted and what Lori had said, he was ready to acknowledge the baby as something other than an it. We decided on William for a boy. Mike said that, since it's his middle name, it would be like a piece of him was always with the baby, even if he's gone. I liked that. He also said he liked Charlotte for a girl. He asked me if I remembered what it meant, but I didn't. He said that it made him think of Charlotte's Web...how peacefully and gracefully Charlotte died, and what a big impact she had on those around her. I thought that was perfect. It made me cry and ache, but I loved the idea. Again, I was struck by irony. Mike came up with the literary parallel of the name we chose, one that hadn't even remotely occurred to me. I suggested Olivia as a middle name. I knew it meant peace, and we all were in such desperate need of peace. Mike agreed.
I remember Mike saying that it seemed to unfair to go through labor, since there was no light at the end of the tunnel, no happy ending. I remember saying how I was grateful that this was a finite process. It has to end at some point, and then maybe we could start to heal. Neither of us seemed to really believe that this was a good thing.
I asked Mike to call again to check on Mia at that point, and he also wanted to let his work know he'd be out for at least the next night as well. When he left, I finally switched on the television. I needed something to distract myself, though I felt somehow guilty again. I think I felt that my poor baby deserved my undivided attention that night. Still, the silence was too much for me to handle any longer. I settled on Remember the Titans, which was playing on ABC Family. A part of me wondered at the time if I would be ruining this movie for myself forever by watching it right then. Time passed a little faster for a few minutes.
Mike and Lori came back in about the same time. My parents called at some point, as someone had left a message for them since they weren’t home. Lori was preparing to start my IV, and she also brought in my consent form. I was consenting to an induced labor with possible D&C to follow. Apparently, though my body seemed to understand what was going on, sometimes the placenta doesn't. If it didn't release within two hours of the baby's delivery, I would also have to go through a D&C. Lori and I both said at the same time that we hoped to avoid that route.
I remember trying to make small talk with Lori while she set up my IV. She talked about how much she like my engagement ring. I joked about the IV issues I had with Mia's birth. She complimented my veins. It seemed so normal, which was so surreal. I think my emotions had shut off for a while. I asked her how many people like us she sees. She said it varied. Sometimes there were none for months. Sometimes they came in one after the other. It's rare, but not unheard of. I apologized for making this a sad night at work for her. She smiled. She may have just been a good nurse, but I think she liked me a bit. She seemed to appreciate the effort I was making, and she was really, very sweet.
Once she left, I made Mike leave to get something to eat. It was going on 6:30 or 6:40, and he hadn't eaten all day. Neither had I, but I didn't have the option. I wasn't hungry, anyway. He seemed reluctant to go, but, again, he eventually gave in to me. He promised to be back soon.
When he left, I tried to turn off the TV and read for a bit. I thought maybe the peace of reading would help me to relax. Unfortunately, I don't know if it was the additional fluid from the IV, my body kicking into gear, or a result of trying to relax, but, as if a light switch had been flipped, my contractions jumped from a 3-4 on the pain scale to a 7-8 within five minutes of Mike walking out the door. I was alone. I tried to relax and breathe, but I was scared. I was alone. I thought that maybe Charlotte would be born before Mike came back, and I didn't want to be by myself. I should probably have hit the call button, but I didn't want to seem scared, seem like a baby.
I tried to breathe. I tried not to panic. I tried raising the head of my bed, to see if it helped bear the pain. It didn’t. I tried to lower it. No help. I tried bending my knees. No help. I tried sitting up. That was the worst idea yet. I lay back down quickly and tried to breathe. Time stood still, an endless wave of pain.
I’ve tried to think of a way to describe the pain. It’s a bit like the shock of stubbing your toe, spread throughout the entire body. That immediate feeling of air sucked out of your lungs because of that instant of searing pain. With this pain, though, the shock doesn’t recede. The shock and the pain just intensify, long past the point when you think it has to stop because it can’t get worse. Logically, like stubbing your toe, it seems like breathing and relaxing should help. They don’t. What’s more, they seem like a futile endeavor after about ten or fifteen seconds. I would assume most women can remember their babies, remember to breathe so that their babies have air. I remember thinking that it didn’t matter if I breathed. I couldn’t hurt her by depriving us both of air for a bit. The thought made me sad.
I started a text Mike, to let him know the pain was getting worse, to ask him to hurry. I wrote a four word text, but I didn't hit send right away because the doctor came back in just then. I finally asked if I could get something for the pain. I had realized that I couldn't handle the emotional and the physical at the same time. She nodded, called Lori, and ordered Demerol for my IV. She had come to start me on the induction medication, but she saw that I was struggling to breathe. She started to time my contractions. Not quite two minutes apart, lasting over a minute. She looked at me as the next contraction intensified, she rubbed my knee, told me to breathe, told me to relax, told me it was going to be alright. I just remember groaning and whining without words. When it ended, she said that she didn't think I needed medication, that my body seemed to be ready to go. She rubbed my knee one more time and left.
I finally sent my text once she left, at about 7:15. Around 7:25 he got back. He had his food from Wawa, but he didn't eat it. I think he was scared for me. Lori came in when he did and said that she hadn't forgotten me, but that the Demerol wasn't stocked in the pharmacy. They were bringing some up from wherever they keep excess drugs in the hospital. Mike was anxious. He didn't seem to know what to do with himself. I tried to tell him to eat, but that was a stupid request, knowing him. I knew that seeing me like that must have hurt him. I wanted to be strong for him, but I just couldn’t do it.
Mike told me, between contractions, that when he was in the academy it had helped him deal with pain to imagine he was somewhere else. I tried to do that, but my brain was too clouded, too foggy. I asked Mike to hold my hand, to stroke my hair. I wanted him to feel like he could make me feel better. I tried to make myself believe that it did make me feel better. I tried to find a way to not give up hope, to not believe that the pain would go on forever.
At this point, I was whimpering with each contraction, gripping the bed rails for dear life, and arching my back as though I could get farther away from the pain. Since I already had passed membranes through my cervix, each contraction also brought an unbearable pressure. When Lori finally came in with the Demerol, I was beyond clear thought. I remember saying please over and over again, but I have no real conscious thought of what I was asking for. The Demerol helped a bit, but not much. The pressure didn’t ebb. The pain dipped maybe 0.5 out of ten. She asked me then if I wanted to try to continue without an epidural, and I said, emphatically, no. She asked if I wanted an epidural right away, and I just nodded. I don’t think I could have formed words.
The anesthesiologist came in fairly quickly, and Lori brought me the consent form. I should have signed it earlier, when she had offered. My hands were shaking by this point, and I wasn’t sure I could even hold the pen. Then it was time to start. I knew, from all of those stupid reality shows I watched, that to get an epidural you have to sit up, curl your back, and hold still. This seemed utterly impossible. The contractions were happening almost every minute now, a minute on, and a minute off. I was terrified.
I sat up between contractions. It hurt. Then the contraction started. It was unbearable. To not move was physically impossible. I remember putting my hands on the bed and gripping with all my strength. Lori tried to get me to grip her instead, to keep me in the right position, but I couldn’t. I remember gripping her, then the pillow, then the bed again. I was shaking. My left hand, the one with the IV, was bent at a 90 degree angle. Lori tried to get me to move that hand so I wouldn’t injure myself with the IV needle. I couldn’t do it. I was crying. Sitting here days later, my left wrist aches from where I think the needle was. I wonder if it hit the wrist bone. I remember flexing and curling my toes repeatedly. I wiggled my feet. I moved every body part that I could since I couldn’t move anything that would help. I felt like such a weakling.
The anesthesiologist was patient. He tried not to do too much while the contractions were on me. Unfortunately, this means that it took longer. The process lasted through four or five contractions. The jolt of the numbing medication before the catheter was inserted seemed like adding insult to injury. The catheter itself was fine, but the taping seemed to last forever. When he was done, I was afraid to lie back down. I was exhausted in every way possible, and my body felt paralyzed. I was sure that any move would send me spiraling past my pain tolerance and I’d actually lose my mind. It took both Lori and the anesthesiologist to forcibly lie me back down.
Thankfully, the pain receded over the next two or three contractions. My vision and brain started to clear. When I looked at the clock it was about 8:30. I could breathe again. I made Mike eat his sandwich.
The next hour was again a blur. I don’t remember talking much. We didn’t turn the TV back on. We breathed in and out. Without the physical pain to distract us, I think we were both thinking about what was to come. Mike told me that he thought it was a girl. Mia had said she wanted a sister. She had no idea what that meant, of course, but for some reason, Mike was sure, suddenly, that she was right. I believed him.
Around 9:15, something felt different. Rather, I actually felt something for the first time since the pain left. After the epidural, the pain had gone, and I felt nothing for a while. Then suddenly the pressure was back. I wasn’t aware I was having a contraction until I felt that pressure return. Mike asked if I wanted him to get Lori. I said I didn’t know. Lori came in, and Mike told her what I was feeling. He again slipped into the role of spokesperson. Lori called the doctor.
The doctor checked me again, and said I was about to deliver. I remember that word choice. I wasn’t giving birth; I was delivering. I was about to meet my child and tell my child goodbye in the same breath. It was all so quiet. Lori called the nurses’ station to ask for something, but she asked for a particular nurse to bring it. I somehow knew that this was the nurse they called for people like us, for babies like mine. My heart hurt.
They laid me back and had me push. It was just like all the shows on TV, except no one counted to ten. No one reminded me to take a deep breath. My baby didn’t need the oxygen. No one was excited or happy. Mike held my right leg, Lori my left. I pushed. I cried. I looked at Mike’s face, and my heart cracked a little more. I could see so much love for me, so much heartbreak for our baby, so much desperation. I wanted to close my eyes and make it stop. I pushed.
She was born at 9:35 to absolute silence. There were no cries, no frantic moves to clear the airways, no words. I felt her leave my body all at once: a tiny little being that had no business being out in the world on her own. I watched Mike’s face, saw the spasm of emotion, the tears. I shut down.
Lori took the baby into the attached room with the other nurse, the death nurse. I feel bad now calling her that, as she was a very sweet woman, but I knew she was only there with us because my child was dead. We still didn’t know if the baby was a boy or a girl. I hadn’t seen her. The doctor was working on me. The placenta hadn’t budged, and she was checking on my blood loss. Time seemed to stand still for a while. No one talked. The silence stretched.
When Lori came back out, she told us the baby was a girl. I looked at Mike. He was right. She was Charlotte. That seemed somehow like the only thing that was right about all of this.
She then told us that the baby had gastroschisis. That’s a defect where the abdominal wall doesn’t form correctly, and the baby’s intestines grow outside of its body. Lori said she’d show us once she’d cleaned and dressed Charlotte. Gastroschisis is not usually fatal. Usually, they catch it at the anatomy ultrasound, and it can be repaired either before birth if it’s severe or after birth if it’s not. They said they didn’t know if that’s what caused her death, but that it was almost certainly a large part of it.
We decided to accept that as the reason and were actually grateful that there was an obvious problem that we could blame. We had the option of requesting an autopsy, but I couldn’t bear the thought of them cutting into my poor little girl. Later, I read that they only find a cause of death in this situation about fifty percent of the time. I’m glad we made the choice that we did.
They cleaned me up a bit then. They started a Pitocin drip in hopes that my body would do what it needed to do. It seemed like hours passed. In reality, I think it was about 15 minutes or so. Lori and Roberta, the death nurse, went out and then returned with blankets, a hat, and a little outfit. They went into the side room to attend to Charlotte.
When they brought her in, I couldn’t see her at first. I was struck by the way Lori was holding her. So tiny. Not in the crook of the arm, like a normal baby. Just hands. Even in blankets and an outfit and a hat, she fit easily in two hands. Two handfuls of tiny baby. Lori put her in my arms, and I saw her face.
My first, knee-jerk reaction was that this couldn’t be my child. I couldn’t wrap my head around it at first. Then I looked again, and I saw Mia. My poor, little baby Charlotte looked just like her big sister. Same nose. Same chin. Same brow line. Just so much smaller. Her mouth was open. It looked for a second like she was about to cry. Her fragile little body was so delicate.
She hadn’t had a chance to form real skin yet for most of her body. She was a dark pinkish red color. I was afraid to touch her at first, almost as if I would hurt her. I tried to stroke her cheek, but my finger didn’t slide like it does on real skin. I touched more gently still. She was too cold. I wished that I could make her feel warm.
Lori opened her little gown to show us the gastroschisis. It was painfully obvious. I couldn’t imagine her surviving with it. My heart ached for my poor little baby. She was wearing the tiniest diaper I’d ever seen, though it was still far too big for her. A far away part of my mind wondered why she needed a diaper, but I supposed it was for decency’s sake. We closed the gown again.
After dressing her, they had wrapped her in a small purple blanket. Over that purple blanket, they wrapped a tiny afghan. Out of this context I would have thought it was an oversized potholder, based on its size. It enveloped her. She wore a tiny purple and white crocheted hat with a small brim. It was enormous on her. Lori said she thought we’d like the purple.
They left us alone with her for a while after that. I didn’t know when they would take her from us, how much time we had, so the first hour with her felt frantic. There was the promise of pictures to be taken at some point, and I had in my head that, once they took the pictures, they would take Charlotte, too. Mike and I both talked to her. We told her we loved her. We wondered if she knew. We talked about all the wishes we had for her that would never have a chance of coming true. We cried. Lori and Roberta came in occasionally to check on me, but for the most part they gave us time to say hello. To say goodbye.
Since I had an epidural, I still didn’t feel things normally. They asked me to let them know if I felt pressure again, in the hopes that the placenta would have detached on its own. If not, I would have the D&C. I didn’t know what I felt. Sometimes I felt like I was gushing blood, even though I wasn’t. I felt a sort of pressure, but not the same as before Charlotte was born. I had no idea what I was supposed to feel. I told Roberta that I felt something, but that I didn’t know what. She checked, said maybe it felt looser, and called the doctor to check.
Mike held Charlotte and sat in a chair across the room. I was glad he wasn’t right there next to me because there was so much blood. They tried pulling on what was left of the cord, but nothing really happened. The doctor went to examine me, and I don’t know what exactly she did. I was still blessedly numb from the epidural. They asked me to push. I felt a huge pressure, which was a wave of blood. I felt a little sick when I saw the women’s gloves covered in the blood I didn’t realize had left my body. The placenta didn’t budge. They scheduled the D&C.
Mike brought Charlotte over for me to see one more time before they took me to the operating room. I suggested he call my parents again while I was gone. They had taken over for my sister and were staying the night with Mia, and I knew they were waiting for an update. I gave him my glasses to hold, and they put a blue cap over my hair. The anesthesiologist came in and put something else through my epidural catheter. The numbness multiplied. They told Mike we would be back in about fifteen minutes. He sat in the room with Charlotte, alone as they wheeled me out around midnight.
As they wheeled me down the hall, the anesthesiologist asked me to wiggle my toes. I did. He said something to the nurse about it being not enough and gave me another numbing dose. I was still sitting somewhat upright at that point, so nothing felt different at first. One of the nurses asked someone walking with us about his family. I was struck by how normal a night this must have been for them, while my life felt turned upside down and ripped apart.
The operating room was cold, at least twenty degrees colder than the hallway or my room. Lori said they would get me a blanket once they’d moved me to the operating table. The lights were so bright, and, without my glasses, I couldn’t see anything or anyone clearly. I had the vague notion that I was about to be dissected by aliens. Everything was grotesquely white and bright.
They laid me back flat, then rolled me onto the table. The table was cold, too. They strapped my arms out to the side as they had for my C-section. The only difference was that Mike wasn’t there to hold my hand. They scooted me up, then down, trying to find the right position. I told them that it was like the worst amusement park ride I’d ever been on. Someone humored me with a weak laugh.
Once flat, the numbness started to trickle up my torso, reaching the bottom of my chest. The anesthesiologist told me it works partly on gravity, which is why it was spreading that way. He seemed unconcerned but put an oxygen tube in my nose to help me breathe more easily. It was scary to not feel myself breathe, and I worried that if I didn’t consciously think about breathing I would just stop. I wondered if anyone would notice. There was a pulse-oxygen meter on my finger, and I could hear my heart beating too fast on the machine behind me.
My legs were lifted and strapped onto hooks on either side of the table. I couldn’t really feel them, but I had some vague idea of where they were in space. My right leg didn’t want to be on that hook. It kept bending in, getting in the doctor’s way. It eventually became one of the nurse’s jobs to just hold my right leg. I remember apologizing for my leg’s trouble, as though I had any control over its movement.
They turned on the machine. I didn’t know what it was called, and I didn’t know what it looked like. I didn’t open my eyes much once I was strapped down. Somehow, in my head, the machine was huge, taking up an entire wall. It was white, with large, spinning cylinders in it. It was attached to a long hose, as on a vacuum cleaner. I don’t know where this vision came from, and I’m entirely sure it was wrong, but that’s what I pictured during the entire procedure. The noise from the machine was close to a roar.
They had some sort of problem with the machine. I don’t think my brain was working particularly well at that point, because I wasn’t easily able to follow what they were saying. The suction was supposed to be better. They kept mentioning numbers. They talked about pulling in the machine from another room. After a while, someone flipped a switch somewhere and it got better. They all were excited that it was working.
I tried using Mike’s visualization suggestion from earlier. It didn’t work for me during contractions, but maybe I could distance myself from the cold and morbidly absurd situation I found myself in. I tried to imagine Mia on the beach. I tried to picture the sun. I tried to imagine heat. I made her run toward the water with a bucket and a laugh. Then I opened my eyes, and the cold light was nothing like the sun. My image washed away like Mia’s footprints in the waves, and I was again alone, surrounded by faceless people who didn’t feel what my numbed heart did.
The placenta came out in ten pieces. My body let Charlotte go, but it wasn’t able to understand that it didn’t need to take care of her any more. It didn’t want to let go of her life support, even though there was no life to support. The sound of each piece leaving my body was horrible. I didn’t feel them leave, because I couldn’t feel anything. Really, I think they were just normal sounds, but my hearing was the only one of my senses to perceive the loss, so it received all of my emotional projection.
As they finished, they went to collect all of the pieces. I didn’t know why. I still don’t. Like a dark comedy, they couldn’t find them all. They kept counting over and over, but they could only get to nine. I started to think of the Sesame Street episode I had watched with Mia that morning, before my world stopped. In my head, the Count was in the operating room with us, joyfully counting out pieces of placenta. One, one piece of placenta. Two, two pieces…From a faraway place I began to wonder objectively if I had lost my mind.
When they finally found the tenth piece, apparently forgotten in a bucket, they started to ready me to return to my room. They unstrapped my arms, and I realized that I was shaking badly. My teeth started to chatter, and my entire upper body convulsed. Someone told me that they would get me more warm blankets once they had finished. To do that, they rolled me completely onto my side, telling me to keep my arms folded over my chest. I had no idea what they were doing to me. I think maybe they were removing the epidural catheter. I knew arms kept me from falling, but I couldn’t feel them. My half-blind eyes could only see a gloved hand near my shoulder, and I felt that at any second I was going to topple onto the floor with no way for my numbed limbs to break my fall.
Suddenly I was on my back again and being pulled and shoved back onto my bed. They changed my gown under the promised warm blankets which had suddenly appeared. I was still shaking badly. I was told that something else would be given to me once we were back in the room, and plastic sheeting was taped to my gown at my shoulder line. They rolled me back down the hall and into my room. It was around 1:00.
Back in the room, Mike looked relieved to see me. He was still holding Charlotte, and I was comforted to see that. We had such a short time with her; I didn’t want her to be put down. I wanted her to be enveloped in our love for as long as we were able to be with her.
Once they wheeled the bed back into place, Roberta attached a hose to the plastic sheeting, and the sheet filled with warm air. I looked at the little machine causing it: Bair Hugs. While I wasn’t in a mood to laugh or smile, I appreciated the pun in an objective way. The shaking finally started to ebb. I was finally allowed something to drink, so I asked for ginger ale.
Mike tried to bring Charlotte over for me to hold her, but my hands were trapped under the blankets and Bair Hug sheet. He sat on the side of the bed, instead, and we held her between us. I asked him what he had done while I was gone. He had called my parents, and then he just spent some quiet time with Charlotte. He talked to her, and sang to her, and held her close. That made me happy. We had such a short time with her. I was glad he understood how she needed as much love as we could give. Mike held my cup to my lips so that I could drink. I was so thirsty.
I told Mike then that I was afraid to ask what would happen next. I didn’t know what would happen to Charlotte once she was out of our arms forever. Would she go to the morgue? Would she be naked in a freezer somewhere with no one who knew her name? Would she be put in a bin of medical waste with my placenta pieces? Would they give us choices? After little discussion, we decided that we wanted her to be cremated. I wanted her remains to stay with us. Mike said he would ask to see what we needed to do to make that happen.
After a while I was able to extricate my arms from the Bair Hug sheet, and Mike let me hold Charlotte again. Her left hand was curled into a light fist, but her right was open. I kept holding that right hand. Her fingers were long and skinny, like her daddy and her sister. Certainly not like me. Her nails were so incredibly tiny and yet also so unbelievably long. The tips of her fingers were closer to a normal color. Her skin there was more developed. I remember thinking that I wouldn’t ever be able to let her go. Mike was getting sleepy, but he tried his hardest to stay awake until we could take her picture.
Around 2:00, Roberta came in. I asked for more to drink. I was still so thirsty. After getting me more ginger ale, Roberta told us that another nurse had a camera we could use, but she needed the Bair Hug machine. It was a trade. I was happy for that, as by this point I was feeling too warm. I remember thinking that I wished I could make Charlotte feel warm, too. I wished for my own camera at that moment, but it hadn’t occurred to me when I left for the hospital that I would have any memories that I would want to capture.
Roberta said she’d be happy to take any pictures that we wanted, and they would transfer them to a USB drive for us. She said we could take pictures of Charlotte alone or with us with Charlotte or both. I wanted everything. I wanted to capture every inch, every emotion, everything. I wished that I could have called that organization of professional photographers who do shoots like this for free. My brain wasn’t clear enough to think of it, and Roberta did fairly well.
She took pictures of me with Charlotte. She took pictures of our hands together. She took pictures of her resting on my legs. Mike came over, and she took pictures of us together. Our hands together. Holding each other. It was reminiscent of the photo shoot with the newborn Mia a year ago. Roberta had some problems with the flash, and she didn’t really seem to understand the camera, but I looked forward to using Photoshop to improve the quality. She left the camera on the stand with my monitors, and I stole it a few times throughout the night to take some of the extra pictures that I wanted.
After the pictures were taken, I learned that they wouldn’t make us give her up until we were discharged. A part of me started to relax. I knew I’d never want to put her down and walk away, but I breathed a bit more easily knowing that it wouldn’t have to be right then. Mike asked Roberta about cremation. She said that they couldn’t give us the ashes if she was cremated at the hospital, as they do it in groups. The concept horrified me. She said we could call a funeral home that could accommodate our wishes, and she would bring us some names later.
Mike lay down to sleep then, and Charlotte and I spent some more time together. I sat up with my feet together and lay her down between my legs. I spent an hour just trying to memorize her. I looked at the gastroschisis again. It made me thankful that her little heart had stopped before she had to suffer. It looked so impossibly wrong on her tiny, perfect body. That was when I started to realize how lucky we were, how grateful I was to Charlotte for knowing when it was time for her to go. I wouldn’t realize for a few days the true extent of this blessing, but it started in that moment.
I also looked through my cell phone to see pictures of Mia as a newborn. My memory was right; they did look just alike. I held the photo next to Charlotte’s face, and I cried that Mia wouldn’t get to meet her little twin. I took a photo with the camera of Charlotte and Mia together. Mia might not ever meet her sister, but they were together in that moment.
I spent that whole hour just looking and touching. I pulled out my cell phone and took a few additional pictures. It would turn out that these were the only pictures I would have for the first days, as they would mail home the pictures Roberta had taken. Another bit of luck. I untied her gown to look at her feet. I played “This Little Piggy” with her, as I had with her sister when she was first born. I wanted to fit as many experiences into the night as I could, since this was all we would have together.
Around three, Roberta came in again. She brought all of the resources the hospital had to provide us: information on support groups, books on grieving, and even a children’s book about bringing home an angel instead of a baby. It was clear that the hospital was very prepared to attend to people like us. In a way I really appreciated it, but there was actually a moment when I resented it. It was as though we were a checklist. Pictures? Check. Self-help books? Check. Pity and condolences? Check. I didn’t really resent them for trying to help us, but this moment made me realize that we weren’t special. I felt like the world had stopped, flipped, imploded. Roberta was going down a checklist, another day on the job. Luckily, this feeling passed quickly.
She also brought materials to take hand and foot prints of Charlotte. First she did a mold of Charlotte’s feet in some clay in a seashell. They were so perfect and tiny. She told me it had to dry at least overnight, and I became suddenly very protective of that little shell. She took Charlotte into the alcove to weigh and measure her and take more prints. She also changed her outfit so that we could take the first outfit home with us as a memento. She rinsed the gown in the bathroom sink, as it had a fair amount of blood on it. I almost asked her not to rinse it. I almost wanted to preserve the gown just as it was, even it if was a bit gory and off-putting. I didn’t ask. Preserving Charlotte’s dignity became more important that preserving her blood.
I learned that Charlotte weighed 15.4 oz. Not quite one pound. I couldn’t seem to understand how she could be so small and so perfect at the same time. She was 10.5 inches tall: half her sister’s height. Roberta filled out the information card attached to the footprints, dressed Charlotte again, and brought her back to me. I showed her the picture of Mia. I needed someone to agree with me that they looked the same. She did.
I asked for more to drink, again. No amount of fluid seemed to soothe my parched throat. She brought in more ginger ale and a pitcher of water, and she unhooked my IV. I didn’t need it any more. They left the needle in my hand, just in case, but I could move my hands easily for the first time in hours.
After she left, I didn’t move for a long time. Roberta had laid Charlotte down with her head on my right hand. She was wrapped tightly so that only her little face was visible. Something about how she was placed made it look almost as if she was smiling. I took a few more pictures, left handed, with my cell phone. I didn’t want to disturb the peace she seemed to have.
I began to measure time by the blood pressure cuff on my arm. Every thirty minutes, it squeezed. 3:35. 4:05. 4:35. 5:05. I didn’t sleep. I couldn’t sleep. Something in me couldn’t fathom the thought of missing a second of my time with her. It was so short to begin with. I sang to her, the same songs I sang to Mia. I talked to her. I asked her to look after us. I told her that I would tell Mia about her little sister. I told her I would ask Mia to remember her when good things happened in her life, all her life. It seemed like a way that we could always remember and appreciate her in a positive way. That seemed important.
Roberta came in one final time around 5:30. She wanted to draw blood to check my levels. I didn’t know what levels, but this would apparently tell them if I had any kind of infection developing. The doctor hadn’t yet ordered this test, but she was sure it would be ordered before long, and she didn’t want it to hold up my discharge when the time came. She left again, and time passed slowly by.
I don’t remember anyone else coming in for the rest of the night. Charlotte and I were alone. It was a peaceful time. I don’t remember any specific thoughts, just love and grief and a sense of almost acceptance. I finally moved her after a few hours. I unwrapped her from the blankets. I picked her up and leaned her against my chest. Her little cheek felt so cold on my skin. Impossibly, my heart broke a little more.
Around 7:30, there was a shift change for the nurses. Roberta left us and Monica took over. Monica was the nurse who had checked me in when I arrived the afternoon before. Monica had a nursing student with her, who would handle most of my care in the final hours in the hospital. This was, perhaps, the only misstep the hospital made in being caring and understanding of our grief.
The doctor also came in one final time, checked my blood test results, and told me that I would be fine physically. She told me I could even order breakfast if I wanted to. I should have been hungry. It had been over thirty hours since I had eaten anything. I didn’t want to eat. The doctor reminded me to follow up with my own doctor once I was released. I thanked her for her compassion as she left.
I woke Mike around 9:00. I didn’t know when I would be discharged, but I wanted him to have some more time with Charlotte before we had to say goodbye. The nursing student came in to help me to get out of bed. I finally wanted to use the restroom. She took Charlotte from me and was going to put her in the bassinet. I asked her to give Charlotte to Mike. I still didn’t want to put her down.
When I got out of bed, my head swam. I still had the remnants of three or four different pain killers in my system, and the epidural hadn’t completely faded. I worried briefly that I would pass out or simply fall over, but I was able to make my way, slowly, to the bathroom. I brushed my teeth with the cheap toothbrush the hospital had provided and pulled my hair back as best I could without a brush.
When I came back out, the nursing student told me I could get dressed in my own clothes. I was going to be discharged soon. I was to call her when I was done, and she would come and take out my IV. Suddenly time sped up, for the first time since Charlotte had been born. My eyes filled with tears. I couldn’t imagine putting her down and walking away. I chose to ignore that rapidly impending moment and went to get dressed. Mike continued to hold our daughter.
As I dressed, I realized that, somehow, I had worn a black tank top and black pants to the hospital the day before. I didn’t wear all black ever, and yet somehow, after the death of my child, I was dressed for mourning. Getting dressed was difficult, as my head was still swimming and my legs still felt somewhat numb. I was weak and unsteady, physically and emotionally.
I returned to bed and pressed the call button, and the student nurse came in to remove my IV. I didn’t think, as I watched her work, that she had done it often before, if at all. She forgot to wear gloves. She only had one piece of gauze to staunch the bleeding. She didn’t have a bandage. She seemed genuinely surprised that my hand bled so much. I became a bit bitter that I was missing time with my daughter because she didn’t know what to do. I held my tongue.
As she finished, Monica came in with my discharge papers. I knew that we were supposed to put Charlotte down, but neither Mike nor I could seem to do it. Monica told us she’d give us some more time. She asked us to call her when we were ready. I didn’t know that I’d ever be ready.
Mike and I held each other for a while, Charlotte between us. We talked about how she would be our guardian angel. We talked about how we were glad she felt no pain. We talked about how we would never forget her, would always love her, would always treasure her memory. We kissed her cheeks. We kissed them again. We stroked her hands. We hugged her to us. We sang her one last song. We cried. We held each other. We held Charlotte.
I let Mike hold her for a few minutes while I packed up my things, Charlotte’s things. I packed up the grief books, the footprints, the discharge papers, my personal things. Once I called the nurse, I wanted to be able to leave quickly. I thought of it a bit like ripping off a Band-Aid: finish breaking my heart neatly and swiftly.
I asked Mike if he thought we should take her hat. They told us that we could take her blankets, her hat, as mementos of our time with our daughter. They had given her a second gown so we could have the first gown. There was no second hat to replace the one we would take. I knew where she was going it was cold and lonely, and I couldn’t quite stand the idea of her going without her little hat. Her tiny little head and body already seemed so fragile. We left the hat where it belonged.
Mike gave her back to me. I unwrapped her from the blankets. Without the blankets to hold her, she seemed even more fragile. Her little body was so light, so weak. I worried that she would slide through my hands like sand if I wasn’t careful. I wanted to hold her forever. I put the blankets in my bag, and hugged her one last time. Mike came over and held us both. We said again the things we’d said so many times that night. Love, sorrow, grief, hope. So many emotions in such a small time. I took a deep breath and pressed the call button. It was time.
We each kissed her again, and I laid my baby in the bassinette. Aside from being weighed, this was the first time she was out of our arms since she was born. I wrapped the edges of the bassinette’s blanket around her tiny body. I leaned down one more time and kissed her cheek. Mike did the same. We stood on either side of the bassinette and joined hands over our baby. We each reached out to stroke her with our free hands. When Monica came in, I leaned down and gave her one last, final kiss, told her how much I loved her, and turned to get my things.
As I stood up with my bag, Monica was walking with Charlotte out the door. I had an urge to scream at her to wait, to run for one last look, one last kiss. I knew that it would never be enough. A lifetime isn’t enough time to spend with a child. How could twelve hours possibly be enough? I hugged the mold of her footprints to my shattered heart and I let her go.
When Monica came back, she asked if I wanted a wheelchair to take me out. I refused. The last time I had been in a wheelchair was when I was leaving that same hospital with my beautiful Mia. I couldn’t leave the same way without my beautiful Charlotte. Monica walked us out. I held my beautiful daughter’s tiny, perfect footprints and I walked away.
In the days since Charlotte’s birth and death, I’ve searched for peace. Though my heart is still in pieces, and I’m still grieving the loss of my daughter, I’ve realized how lucky we were that things happened the way they did, and I’ve tried to be grateful for that luck.
If Charlotte had died just one week earlier, it would have been classified as a miscarriage. We might not have been able to hold her. We might not have been able to cremate her and keep her remains. We might not have pictures. I might not know what she looked like. I might not even know that she was a girl. There would be no birth certificate, no record of her name.
If she had died a week later, we would have had our anatomy ultrasound. We would have named her Lucy, a name which just didn’t fit her. We would have bought her all kinds of clothes and things to celebrate finding out her gender, all of which would have had to be packed away.
If she had died two weeks later, it would have happened on a planned trip to the beach. We wouldn’t have had family there to watch Mia, so I would have been alone. Mike wouldn’t have met his daughter. I wouldn’t have known what hospital to go to, and the hospital might not have been equipped to help us in our grief. We would have had to deal with transporting her body back to Virginia.
If she had lived, we would have learned about the gastroschisis at the ultrasound. We would have been so worried about her, and we wouldn’t have the joy that a baby is supposed to get, the joy a baby deserves. She would have had to suffer. As a newborn, she would have had to have surgeries to deal with the problem, and she would have struggled with medical problems throughout her life. Mia wouldn’t have gotten the same attention and love from us because we would have to spend so much of it on a sick child.
Charlotte really is like her literary namesake. She brought joy and hope to the people she touched. She never hurt anyone. She knew when it was time for her to go, and she went without a fuss, without feeling or causing undue pain. We’ve decided to see a purpose in the pain we do feel. We choose to believe that Charlotte is going to be a guardian angel for us, for Mia, for our next child. We believe that Charlotte will watch over Mia, and we’re going to teach Mia about her baby sister. We hope that, when good and lucky things happen in Mia’s life, she’ll remember and thank baby Charlotte. In that way, our thoughts and memories of her will be happy and joyful, not just the pain of loss.
We also believe that, when we have our next child, Charlotte will watch and protect her. In addition, we believe Charlotte will send a piece of her spirit into that child. We will get a piece of Charlotte back to love and cherish on earth, in addition to the angel watching us and waiting for us somewhere. We will know that Charlotte remembers us and our love. We can be grateful to Charlotte for her sacrifice.
The moments we spent with Charlotte were precious. We will never forget her. We will always love her. She will always be our daughter. No parent should have to say goodbye to a child. I would give anything to have Charlotte alive in my life, but I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to celebrate who my daughter was and who and what she is now.
The future of my family feels a little emptier without Charlotte, but I know in my heart that she’ll never really be gone. I loved her before she was born, I loved her on the day of her birth, and I will love her for every beat of my heart for the rest of my life.
In loving memory of
Charlotte Olivia LaPlant
July 22, 2012