My phone sounds at 9:44 p.m. on Saturday evening.
It is the day after Valentine’s Day. The family was over the night before for an evening together. Our daughter-in-law, Jennifer, at 40 weeks, was having some back pain. A good sign. The first child for her and our son, Aaron, will be here soon. We are anxious to meet our baby girl.
“Mom, where are you?” It’s Aaron, and his voice is urgent. “Upstairs getting ready for bed.” “Is Dad with you?” An odd question. “He’s downstairs.”
“There’s no heartbeat and we’re on our way to the hospital. Maybe she’s in the wrong position or something. Can you meet us there?” The words tumble out in a puzzle that my mind struggles to assemble.
Jennifer, a registered nurse, has had a perfect pregnancy. I have never seen a young woman more filled with the joy of expecting a child. An appointment the day before with Claudette, her midwife, confirmed that Jennifer was in perfect health, the baby in perfect position with a strong, regular heartbeat.
“We’re on our way.” I call for my husband, Sam, to come upstairs and tell him what Aaron has said. He is gone in a flash, taking his truck. I am fumbling for clothes, grabbing keys, in the car, on the road. Praying a one-word prayer: “No. No, no, no.”
In a small room at the hospital, Jennifer is lying on the single bed, Aaron standing beside her. Tears. “I was having fairly regular contractions and Claudette came by to check on me.”
A nurse arrives with an ultrasound machine, all apology and I’m not really trained for this and it’s not the machine we really need which they are bringing down soon. She places the wand on Jennifer’s stomach. A hiss fills the room.
We are uncomprehending. Please bring the machine that will fill the room with the strong steady beat of our baby’s heart.
The nurse leaves with her machine.
We are here, Sam and me and Aaron and Jennifer and the blessed mound of the baby. “Sometimes she turns and it’s hard to hear the heartbeat.” Yes. Find words to fill the thickening silence.
Time passes. Nurses assure us the doctor will arrive soon. I can’t understand why there isn’t more urgency, medical personnel running in and out of the room like in the movies. In the deep recesses of my brain I hear the faint throb of a drum, the threat of doom.
The doctor on call appears, tall and young and pregnant. She is careful and quiet with us. A nurse arrives with the second machine, the one with the truth. She moves the clothing away from Jennifer’s belly and applies the gel.
What is this? Why are we here? Suddenly I have complete clarity and I am horrified. Is it possible there is no heartbeat?
The screen is visible to all of us as the nurse begins to move the wand with one hand while tapping buttons with the other. Images jerk into view, then disappear. More moving, more tapping. The doctor is staring intently at the flickering screen. We are suspended, all of us in that room, in a growing desperation. I hear the whoosh of planets and the rush of the stars.
The nurse. “I’m so sorry.”
A primal cry. Jennifer writhes into Aaron’s arms and there is the wracking sound of hearts breaking.
The doctor, nurses, midwife all withdraw. Our arms are around each other. How quickly life is shattered. A tiny heart is stilled and we are plunged into darkness.
Later, in the hallway, the doctor tells us how very sorry she is. And that in the majority of these cases, no cause of death is found.
Aaron leaves to call Jennifer’s parents. Frank and Cecilia are five hours away. The drive. How will they bear it? This is their first grandchild and they have been ecstatic. Blankets, beautiful little dresses, some of them Jennifer’s from when she was first born, all have been arriving over the past months to help fill the nursery. The nursery, with its soft gray walls and lavender accessories.
I call our oldest son, Nicolas. He and his wife, Dana, will come immediately. Jessica, our daughter, will stay, for now, with their sleeping children.
The children. Three-year-old Natalia has named the baby Kanga after Roo’s mother in Winnie the Pooh. As the months have gone by, when she sees her aunt she wraps her arms around Jennifer’s belly, kissing Kanga hello and goodbye. I see, in a brief instant, that we are facing a long journey of sorrows.
Nicolas and Dana arrive. Dana is also Jennifer’s birthing coach, her doula. This was to be a home birth with a midwife and calm and oils and a big tub for birthing already inflated in their living room. Sam and I wait in the hall while they go to Jennifer and Aaron. Large framed photos of babies stare at us from either side of the door. I stare back at them as though viewing beings from another world.
In the room, Aaron looks at us, his face a mask of tears. “Her name is Vanessa Marie.” This was to be a secret until she arrived. Vanessa Marie. Beautiful. It is her name.
Later, I am standing alone by the bed in the dim room. Aaron lies with his arm around Jennifer and their baby. I lay my hands on them and begin to pray. Then, Aaron’s voice, broken: “Thank you, Lord, that we had her for nine months. Thank you that we could be her parents. We praise you, Lord.” I hear Jennifer, her voice distinct between sobs: “I thank you, Lord, that I could carry our baby. Thank for the time we had with her. We trust your will.”
How to comprehend this?
I realize in that moment: this is what it means to raise your children to know God. This young couple on the threshold of the joys of new parenthood is lying together, crushed with grief, yet without a word of why or how could this be. Without a word of bitterness. With praise and thanksgiving.
This hospital room is holy ground.
Decisions. No, Jennifer will not be induced. Yes, she will receive drugs to help with effacing. Yes, morphine for pain and, hopefully, some rest for what lies ahead.
Nicolas, Lead Pastor of our church, leaves for home. He must be up in a few hours to get to the church to prepare for the service. He will have the painful task of telling our close-knit fellowship the terrible news. Jessica arrives a short time later, her face swollen from crying.
We wait. Aaron and Jennifer sleep, their forms quiet in the dim room. Dana will sleep on a mat on the floor. The doctor urges Sam and me and Jessica to go home and rest as it will likely be many hours before the onset of hard labor.
It is 2 a.m. At home, I lie down on the bed as though in some disembodied state. My phone rings at 4:30 a.m. Jennifer’s parents have arrived and need directions. Jessica appears and says she will lead them to the hospital. I follow a short time later.
At the hospital, I open the door to their room. Jennifer is awake with mild contractions. Frank and Cecelia are seated, hunched in exhaustion and grief. I hug them. There are no words.
There is a moment in these early hours when I am standing at a window by the elevators watching the lightening sky. The hospital staff is changing shifts. Here on the 4th floor overlooking one of the parking lots, I see the small figures of nurses arriving and departing. It is such a normal, everyday thing, going to work, leaving work. Yet nothing is normal. Nothing is normal! I want to scream. There is no heartbeat, there is no heartbeat!
Instead, I turn from the new dawn to go to my precious son and his precious wife and the long, long hours ahead.
A larger room has been prepared where Jennifer will labor and deliver. It is filled with early morning light, a bit too bright. I help one of the nurses tape large squares of blue plastic over the windows. The staff is quiet and tender with us. Anything we need, anything at all.
Time passes. Jennifer, Aaron beside her, begins breathing through contractions with soft moans. I look at Cecelia wrapped in a palpable cocoon of sorrow and think that she is the living embodiment of every mother whose child has lost a child.
Aaron will not leave Jennifer’s side. At times, they seem to be together in another realm. Intense, focused, moving toward the inevitable.
There is a moment in the hallway when I am standing with Jennifer’s father. He looks at me with swollen, red-rimmed eyes and gestures in despair: “To think they throw them away. They just throw them away.”
In the late morning, Jennifer asks Dana and me to go to their home and let their dogs out. When we arrive and open the door, the stroller and car seat and big birthing tub are the first things we see. I go upstairs to open the dog’s crate, but I cannot help but walk down the hall to the nursery. The beautiful, light-filled room so lovingly prepared is peaceful. Waiting. I step back, quietly pulling the door closed.
Downstairs, I see Dana deflating the tub, another act of finality. Jessica will come by later and remove all of the baby things to a spare room.
We meet Jessica at my house. Showers. A little rest, then the girls leave for the hospital. There is a knock on the door. Our dear friends, Frank and Paula Magarino, have just come from church. Paula is Jennifer’s cousin. They arrived yesterday from Crescent City with their two girls, hoping the baby would be born while they were here. I had called them in the early morning.
“The church,” Frank says, “took it hard.”
Sam and Nicolas arrive from the church. Babysitting has been arranged for the grandchildren.
The nature of this loss is that nature will proceed. Aaron and Jennifer, within a few short hours, have had to accept that their baby will not be born alive and that she will be delivered as though she were. We deal with this reality by getting through the next minute, then the next.
We touch Jennifer, massage her back, make her as comfortable as we can, gently speak the name of the Lord over her and over Aaron. In truth, here in our extremity, I find it difficult to actually pray. Yet on a deep, interior level, I know that we are being lifted and held in the presence of God by the prayers of others. It is the very mystery of prayer. God is here. And He will not leave us.
As the contractions intensify, Jennifer rises again and again from the bed and lifts her arms around Aaron’s neck. As she breathes through the pain they rock slowly from side to side in a kind of tragic dance. The two of them, fastened together in their love and their covenant, endure the unendurable.
In the late afternoon, as the final stage of labor approaches, Jennifer is moved to the other bed to deliver. Sam, Frank, Nicolas, and Jessica wait in the hallway. Nurses bring supplies. The atmosphere intensifies. A young resident appears. He has a quiet manner and, instead of standing over Jennifer to speak with her, he kneels at eye level beside the bed.
I watch Jennifer as she labors to deliver her baby. How to comprehend the reserves of strength and endurance? I look at Aaron, holding her hand, his face stricken. How to fathom the devotion and the sorrow?
Our voices fill the room with encouragement: “You’re doing so well, Jen. Just little more, this time, a little more.” The faces of the doctor and nurses are grave and I see eyes brimming in these final minutes.
A cry from Jennifer, and Vanessa Marie emerges, beautifully formed, still, and silent.
A nurse is ready with a blanket as the doctor hands her our baby. She wraps her up and pulls a beanie over her tiny head.
I go out and tell Sam and Frank, Nicolas and Jessica that Vanessa has been born. As we return to the room, the curtain has been drawn as the doctor finishes post-birth with Jennifer. A nurse quietly asks, “Who would like to hold the baby?” Frank holds out his arms with an eagerness that breaks my heart all over again. His tears are the first to fall on her small bundled form.
One by one we hold her.
A pediatric neurologist appears, asking permission to take the baby and examine her. Some time later he tells us he finds no discernible cause of death.
I’m holding the baby when a nurse approaches. “I’d like to give her a bath.” Cecilia and I watch as she lays Vanessa on the other bed. There is a sacred quality in the way the nurse sponges her tiny body and washes her hair. She slips on a diaper, wraps her in a fresh blanket, and replaces the beanie.
Later, we will leave them together, Aaron and Jennifer and their daughter. When they call for the nurse an hour later, it will be the last time they see Vanessa Marie in this life.
When I arrive at 9 a.m. the next morning, Jennifer is dressed and sitting on the edge of the bed. She and Aaron are calm, wrapped in an inexpressible weariness. Her doctor was in early, staying to listen, and to answer, if possible, every question. Tests results will take a couple of weeks. They will provide no answers as to the loss of our baby.
Nurses appear, visibly moved, to say goodbye. Aaron leaves to bring the car to the front entrance.
When he returns, a social worker enters with kind condolences and a list of services available should they be needed. The necessary questions, asked ever so gently, still slice like knives into the flesh of raw emotions: Do you have a mortuary? Gravesite? Instead of bags of baby products and a pink bundle of new life, Aaron and Jennifer must deal with the details of death. It is a relief when she leaves.
A nurse enters the room with a wheelchair and Jennifer sits down. I look at her, dreading what I know is coming. Her hands rest in her lap. She lifts them briefly and lets them fall again in a small, sudden gesture of futility. As we move down the hallway to the waiting car, her face is wet with tears.
Cecelia wants to purchase a white christening-style dress for Vanessa’s burial. We drive together to a shop called Reverie Baby where the friendly owner, Kristi, greets us. “We are here,” I tell her, forcing the words out, “to purchase a dress for our granddaughter’s burial.” For the next 45 minutes we look at beautiful little gowns. Cecelia is struggling. At one point, I see her, back turned, head bowed, leaning against the counter. But she finds the perfect one with delicate daisies and tiny pleats. She adds a soft lavender blanket, a bunny, small tokens of love.
Dress & bonnet, blanket, bunny, Bible.
Kristi will not accept payment for the dress.
The day of burial dawns soft and sunny. When we arrive at Jennifer and Aaron’s home the house is filled with family members, some having arrived from many hours away. We leave together in a long line of vehicles.
At the memorial park, we pull into the cul-de-sac and step out. A large crowd of church members and friends waits at the bottom of the gentle slope. And something tiny and white. Jennifer glimpses it and turns into Aaron’s chest with a sob. A few minutes later we sit in chairs in front of the small casket adorned with flowers.
Sam speaks first. I think of the many times he has, in pastoral ministry, stood before grieving families with words of comfort. But we would never have imagined this day. Through his own tears he speaks of the gift of hope, of resurrection, of a sure reunion with this child we love so much.
Nicolas follows. “Her eyes were never open in this life,” he says. “But, just think, when she did open them, the first thing she saw was the face of Jesus.”
There are times when grief is a tide sweeping away everything before it. I see Vanessa Marie’s perfectly round face crowned with curly reddish hair. This is not all there is. The soft arch of tiny brows above eyes we would never see in this life. We see through a glass darkly. The impossible softness of her cheeks. But then face to face.
I had purchased a small pink Bible to be buried with Vanessa, inscribing a paraphrase of David’s words in II Samuel 12 after the loss of his newborn son: You cannot come to us, but we will go to you. Someday the veil between this life and the next will be torn away. Aaron and Jennifer will be reunited with their firstborn daughter. God will have wiped away all tears and banished all memory of this parting.
For now, we remember with sorrow and with thanksgiving.
The Lord gives.
The Lord takes away.
Blessed be the Name of the Lord.