Sunday, November 8, 2015

Welcoming the Rain(bow)*

July 12, 2015

Dear Fyodor Rain,

Happy happy six-month birthday, Baby Boy! I can hardly believe that only a short year ago we were shocked to find out that we would be welcoming you to our family in January of 2015. After the storm of infertility, miscarriage, and losing Milo after he and your sister Matilda were born on February 8th 2013, you have been our rainbow—a glimmer of joy after a torrential downpour. In honor of your half birthday, I want to share your birth story with you. A couple of months ago I read that after giving birth, a woman’s brain actually grows and rewires, particularly in the reward circuits, those same areas that respond to things like food and drugs. The changes women experience in their brains lead to feelings of intense emotional connection between them and their babies—the sensation of physically falling in love. No wonder I wish I could relive the day you were born over and over again.

I have to be honest and tell you that preparing to give birth to you was quite the task emotionally. When I was 18-weeks pregnant with Matilda and Milo, finding out he would die either before or at birth, as a result of multicystic kidney disease, cast a shadow of fear in my heart that could never be shaken. At every ultrasound your dad Mark and I held our breath, hoping that the doctor would not tell us that your fate would be the same as Milo’s. With each appointment we got a bit more confident that you truly would make it to our arms.

With January quickly approaching, in November I realized that I really should get my act together in preparation for you. To prepare to emotionally take myself through another delivery after giving birth to Matilda and Milo and having to say goodbye to him after he lived only three hours, seemed simply too hard. I wondered how I would manage if some of the same doctors and nurses were there. How would I cope laying there waiting for you while also remembering the trauma of laying on the operating table with tears streaming down my face waiting to find out if Milo would be born dead or alive? Would you look like him? Did I want you to?

One of the many blessings of your birth was that you would be born in the brand new St. Joseph Hospital in Denver that was opening in December. In addition to getting to welcome you to the world in a new, state-of-the art birthing center, we were excited that we would not be surrounded by the same sites and sounds that were the audience of Milo’s death. However, those hallways, those walls, those rooms—those were the spaces that held our beloved boy both as he lived and as he died. Despite our joy about you getting to be born at the new hospital, part of us mourned the fact that you would not be embraced by the same building as your brother and sister on their birth day. Because of these conflicting emotions about your birthplace, we knew that in order to say hello to you, we needed to say goodbye to the old St. Joe’s Hospital.

I contacted Keri who is a social worker at the St. Joe’s NICU to see if she could set something up so we could visit the rooms we were in with Milo. She did so with grace and compassion, never once making us feel like our request was odd or too much to ask. Because having physical memories and pictures have become essential to us in our mourning, we invited our friend, your godmother, and Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep photographer, Katherine Payne, to come with us in order to document our goodbye.

Although it sounds funny to say, for weeks I looked forward to saying goodbye to St. Joe’s. I think this was because I often long for deep meaningful connections not only to Milo, but to my grief. I wish for those days when I am overwhelmed with emotion over missing him, because on those days, he doesn’t seem so far away. I couldn’t wait to experience the sights, sounds, and smells that I expected would bring me back to those first hours of what it was like to hold him and lose him and mourn him.

In the lobby of the hospital, I sat nervously anticipating what we were about to do. As I waited for Dad and Katherine to arrive, I thought about all that the walls of the hospital had witnessed since its construction in 1961—the patients who succumbed to disease and those who were cured only by the grace of a miracle, the family members who raced to bedsides only to find mere remnants of loved ones they once knew, doctors who saved lives and lost lives, nurses whose feet wore tracks in floors as they moved in and out and in and out of rooms to ensure patients were free of pain, and discomfort, and fear.

Dad and Katherine arrived. We chit chatted and then met Keri and she showed us to the recovery room, Room 14, where we were after Matilda and Milo’s c-section. Here I learned to breastfeed Matilda. Here I held her as she screamed goodbye to her twin brother when he died. On this day Dad and I brought with us a picture of Milo and our 2 pound, 14 ounce (the weight he was when he was born)-stuffed heart. We set up the picture and took turns holding the heart as we walked around the room, grasping for memories and for Milo’s presence to wash over us. The room was smaller but warmer color-wise than I remembered (likely the result of our black and white photos). I stood in the space in the room where Milo took his last breath. Dad sat in the chair where he had rested, broken, Milo dead in his arms. We took some time at the sink and counter where Dad gave Milo his first and last bath and where our nurse Jen and one of the NICU nurses, Erin, stood for what seemed like hours in order to get perfect impressions of Matilda and Milo’s feet so they could be turned into molds we could treasure forever. We also visited Room 224 on the Mother and Baby Unit where we stayed with Matilda and spent our last hours with Milo. I was reminded how foolish I felt at one point when we were there. We kept Milo with us for about 24 hours. We wanted to keep him warm because our thought was that if he didn’t get cold, he wouldn’t get stiff. One of our nurses graciously brought in a warmer for him. When it wouldn’t stop beeping, another nurse came in and told us that keeping him warm actually speeds up the decaying process. I felt ashamed that I didn’t know what was best for my (dead) baby. Today, the room was so tidy, so seemingly counter to those days we were there when the joy of our Matilda was muddied with the death of our Milo.

Saying goodbye to the room where Milo died (Copyright Katherine Payne Photography)
Unexpectedly, throughout our goodbye visit I felt myself detaching from the experience. I cried some, but stopped myself from completely coming undone. After all, the day was unfinished, I had things left to do, and I didn’t want to look like a mess picking Matilda up from school. Perhaps out of survival, I began to come out of myself in order to make it through this goodbye that I had so wanted and needed. I felt angry that I didn’t let myself “go there.” In some ways I regret remaining guarded, but as I make sense of this experience today, I try my best to be gentle on myself. Sometimes we must discipline our grief in order to survive.

Maternity Photo (copyright Katherine Payne Photography)

Once we were able to get through saying goodbye to the old St. Joe’s, I was able to get my brain and heart around preparing for your birth. Katherine took beautiful maternity photos of us near the columbarium where Milo’s ashes are buried. I decided I needed to get your birth plan together. I returned to our plan for Matilda and Milo’s birth so I would have a template. Doing so activated my grief and my fear of losing you. I ached as I read the words I had written two years before:

We would like to speak to the neonatal team before birth to communicate our preferences for resuscitating Baby B….Given that Baby B is not likely to survive, we prefer that our doula be present in the operating room to provide us with support and that our photographer be present to capture the few moments we will have together…. Based on our current knowledge of Baby B’s predicted limited lung capacity, we prefer that he receive low levels of intervention to sustain him after birth. Given his exact condition is unknown, we would appreciate an explanation of what is happening as it occurs so that we can make informed decisions. Ideally, he will die in my or my husband’s arms.

I wept for the mother who had written these words. How could she have gone through such an experience without dying of heartbreak herself? I felt ill recounting that indeed the mother who wrote this plan was me.

I desperately wanted to give birth to you naturally. Partly as a result of all our struggles with infertility, I have always wanted to experience a natural birth, to feel the empowerment of working with my baby to bring him or her into the world. I also wanted a different experience than I had with Matilda and Milo, who were born via c-section because they were breech. I did not want the reminders of the fear I experienced during their birth to tarnish yours. But, despite my own wishes, about a month before you were born we learned that like your brother and sister, you too were choosing to be breech. We scheduled a c-section for your due date, January 27th, with hopes that you would turn before then so that we could have a vaginal birth. I tried lots of awkward exercises and meditations to get you to turn, but you seemed to be comfortable where you were. I was sure that you would come on or very near to your due date. Given the miraculous way you came to us, I had no reason to assume that you would be nothing but perfectly predictable, despite others telling me you might come early given you were my second birth.

About two weeks before you were due, I frantically worked to mark things off of my to-do list at work. My plan was to give myself a two-week break to prepare myself and rest before your arrival. I felt good physically, despite being uncomfortable and tired. I was having lots of Braxton Hicks contractions, which was normal throughout Matilda and Milo’s pregnancy and yours. On this Friday, January 9th, I got through all of my work tasks except for giving one of my advisees feedback on a draft of her dissertation. I felt like I was in pretty good shape and looked forward to crossing it off of my list on Monday after the weekend. In the middle of the night Saturday at about midnight though, I started having strong contractions. I used the app on my phone to begin keeping track of them. They were occurring every five to ten minutes and lasting about 30 seconds. We called Dorotha, our doula, to let her know what was happening and decided that we would see how the contractions progressed. They went on and then around 3:00 a.m., they finally started dissipating and going back to intermittent Braxton Hicks. In the morning I woke up early and frantically started cleaning the house and finishing up Matilda’s instructions for care for Leah and Nivea who would be watching her if you came before Nana arrived in a week. We went to church and then continued to get everything organized in case the contractions returned.

I thought I might be in the clear, but that night the contractions came back at about 2:00 in the morning. Around 3:30 I called Dorotha to let her know that they again were around five minutes apart and lasting about fifteen to 30 seconds. We decided that we would give it an hour. I let Nivea and Leah know that this might be the day. The contractions got worse, coming about every three minutes and lasting 30 to 50 seconds. We called Dorotha again; breathing through the contractions I told her we needed to go. I called Nivea and Leah and they started on their way to be there when Matilda woke up. I got up and got dressed and managed to put on some make-up. I know it sounds silly, but I felt so ugly during Matilda and Milo’s birth, that I wanted to feel different this time. I was proud that I only yelled at your dad once as we got ourselves together. I was trying to breath through a painful contraction seemingly unsuccessfully and he said, “Maybe you should…,” to which I snapped, “Don’t talk to me!” Thankfully Matilda slept soundly through all our hurrying. Porter Dog sat uncharacteristically calm and looked worried as we raced around. Nivea arrived and told me I looked beautiful. This made me feel ready. She and Mark worked on getting Matilda’s car seat hooked up into Nivea’s car and I tried to manage the pain as best I could. At 5:30 a.m. we were finally ready to pull away from the house (Dad couldn’t find his wallet, surprise, surprise. Good thing it was already in his backpack!).

We got to the hospital and at that point the pain was excruciating. The contractions were relentless as I told the receptionist that I believed I was ready to have you. Dad and I were taken to a triage room so that a nurse could check to see if it was indeed time and if you were still breech. I already knew the answers to both of those questions. Indeed, I was already five centimeters dilated, which means you were just about ready to make your entrance. And yes you were still ready to enter the world feet first. Because I was progressing so quickly as the contractions got stronger and closer together, members of the healthcare team raced in and out of the room to prepare me for a c-section. If they could not get me prepped for surgery and the spinal epidural in quickly enough, they would have to give me general anesthesia, which would not allow me to be awake during your birth. I remember saying to Dad, “If they put me under, get him on your chest immediately.” I wanted you skin-to-skin, not only because of the medical benefits, but because I didn’t want you to be alone; I didn’t want you to think I had left you. I breathed through the pain as best I could as the contractions happened one right after the other. I believe that I was in what is called transition, right before babies make their way through the birth canal. Just before it seemed as if I might not make it through one more contraction, the team got my epidural in place and the pain began to dissipate.

Dorotha was allowed in the operating room just in time. Before we knew it, the doctors began the surgery, tugging away to birth you from me. With Dad and Dorotha next to me, I felt my eyes well, but not like they did that day Matilda and Milo were born. I pushed the scary sights of that day as far away as I could, but they still stood in the shadows, creeping just a bit. Then at 6:21 a.m. that January 12th day, you were born! Dorotha commented on what a big boy you were. Several minutes seemed to pass. A nurse later told me that you were not breathing right away. Dorotha assured me you were okay. I held my breath and prayed, “please let him live, please let him live,” and then finally, you let out your sweet, sweet cry. You made it, my big little bundle of perfectly healthy miracle.

I got to hold you skin-to-skin on my chest as requested, which isn’t always possible with c-sections. You were red and scrumptious and mine. You had more hair than Matilda but not as much as Milo. You looked a little like me, but did not have the mane of curly hair that I had imagined. You weren’t yet quite the replica of Dad and Matilda that you are today. After I was sewn up, we were off to the recovery room. I remember our stay in recovery being so short, so counter to the hours and hours we were there with Matilda and Milo, preparing for him to die. Even more than the short time, the feeling of pure and simple happiness that filled the air was something I could not quite fathom. Dad texted a picture of you to our family members. You immediately nursed like it was indeed your first supper. I remember thinking, “Wow, this, this is what most people feel after having a baby. Who knew?”

We moved to the Mother-Baby Unit where we set up our picture of Milo so he could be present. Later in the day Katherine came to photograph Matilda meeting you. I decided at the last minute that I did not want Katherine to take pictures at the birth. I had a sudden fear that having her do so would feel too much like Matilda and Milo’s birth and that I would feel an incredible sense of loss over having pictures of your birth that reminded me too much of theirs. So Leah and Nivea brought Matilda to the hospital to meet you. She was hesitant as she walked in the room, Wrinkles the stuffed dog under her arm ready to give to you and her bow with Milo’s special symbol on it in her hair. She climbed in bed with me and shyly but forcefully shoved Wrinkles in your face as you lay in your bassinet. I thought she might remain reluctant; after all, Mommy was in a strange bed and gown, there was an audience, and a camera was following her. But all of a sudden, it was if the pure joy of what it means to get a sibling registered in her little mind, and she could not control her elation. She hugged and kissed you, all the while grinning from ear to ear. She squeezed you tightly as if she wanted, like all of us, to hold you and never let go. We posed with our picture of Milo. His presence in the room at that time was stronger than I had felt in so long. I reveled in the feeling of having you and Matilda and him so close to me. I didn’t want it to end. And that is really how I felt for the rest of our hospital stay. It all felt so magical. So counter to our stay two years ago.

Posing with all three kids (copyright Katherine Payne Photography)

Welcoming you was truly like learning to walk in the rain while a rainbow beams overhead. I was not surprised when I read that a mother’s brain changes after birth. The emotional connection and bond I established with you so quickly in those first hours and days was truly palpable. To feel that kind of love, wow, I feel breathless thinking about it today. The weeks following your birth were hard though as I came to grips with how truly blissful it was. I grappled with the fact that I did not rightly understand the emotional pain I had been through when Milo died on his birth day until I felt it contrasted with the elation of yours. At times I felt an undeniable sadness over knowing even more clearly how much pain we had suffered. Because it was challenging for me to allow myself to feel the excitement of welcoming you that I had not ever before experienced, I felt myself grasping for the pain that was more familiar to me. I wept over the thought of not knowing if you will be my last baby—that after six years of trying to get pregnant, of losing babies, and profound grief, it all might be coming to a close. What will I do with myself if there are no more ultrasounds, if there is no more hope of actually getting to experience that natural birth, and if there is no more feeling what it is to fall deeply in love at first sight?

These questions will linger for me as I move from birthing you to raising you and Matilda, as I continue to learn what it means to be a mother to Milo without physically holding him ever again. Part of me reads this letter wondering whether I should protect you from the honesty with which I have written your birth story. I want you to know that I share these truths with you so that you might grow to learn the profound love that accompanied you here. Often times the world will expect you to keep your pain hidden, to highlight only those moments that are rid of shame, and sadness, and heartbreak. However, my hope for you my dear Fyo, today and always, is that you will learn that these feelings are just as precious, just as beautiful, and just as true as that love that came falling out of me and into you on the day you were born.

All of my love, Mommy

Fyo five days old (copyright Katherine Payne Photography)

*A modified version of this article was published originally in Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep's 10th Anniversary Magazine.