Lost and Found
The monitors beeped beside my head, their constant, even intervals offering no reprieve. What I felt, when allowed the luxury of feeling, was a sort of numbed down anxiety among waves of hopelessness. I guess there should have been some reassurance in the soothing chug-chug pattern filling the air, or at the very least, the fact that none of this was like it had been before, and yet, even that, that feeling, that sense of walking into uncharted territory was not enough to coax my mind out from cowering in the dark shadows of doubt.
Like a soldier returning home changed by war, this process, this place, had left me battered and torn, walking blindly down familiar streets. I had been here before, in this gown, in this room. All those many months ago, a former version of me, young, smiling, innocent, had settled in, anxiously awaiting certain happiness and change. The wait had been short. The happiness was fleeting. The smile had run quickly from my face, and the lack of change left me veiled in a grief so unflinching I was sure I would not survive. I had walked these streets before, yet like those soldiers, I no longer knew my way.
“How are you feeling?” a nurse asked adjusting the lines that connected my body to a tangle of IVs and monitors overhead. I recognized her immediately, recalling the way tears had pooled just below her blue-gray irises and sank beneath the weight that had found its way to my chest. She had been the one to hold my hand, to stroke my back through guttural sobs of anger and desperation. She had been the one to break the news that there was nothing left to do. Staring up at her, into the eyes that had haunted my dreams these last two years, I felt another wave of hopelessness crash down.
She crossed the room, her rubber shoes squeaking against the tiled floor, and reaching the window, raised the blinds. Gray light broke through rain soaked clouds, casting willowy shadows across my body.
“Would you like some ice water?”
I swallowed hard against my dry tongue and shook my head.
“Well, if I can make you any more comfortable just let me know.”
My shoulders tingled with a pain, dull and familiar, that traveled down my arms to my fingertips and back up again. This was nothing new, this pain. It had become predictable, gripping me so often that I had memorized its path and anticipated each triggered nerve before it hit. I leaned over to the nightstand and grabbed a tissue, ripping and twisting and fingering it nervously, trying to work the pain out, until nothing remained but a pile of gray-white lint against the muted rose of the hospital blanket. It was a fruitless effort. The aching, I had come to realize, would never leave me.
“The doctor should be along shortly. You just sit tight.”
I wish they had warned me the last time, about the aching that would come after letting go. About the way it would haunt me nightly, and the unrelenting nature of its attacks. I wish someone had told me that I would spend hours, days at a time, just staring at my arms in disbelief, trying to process their emptiness. I wish somehow they would have prepared me, but they hadn’t. Instead I was handed a packet of discharge papers and a prescription for Xanax, left to seek out relief from the intense aching on my own.
My husband, Henry, had tried to help. He carted me around to appointments with specialists, acupuncturists and therapists who prescribed exercise routines, painkillers, and sleeping pills. None of these brought relief. With the avenues for exploration exhausted I simply accepted the permanence of my situation and coped.
“It won’t be long now,” the nurse offered, her smile forced. “Just let me know when you feel ready.”
I flashed back to that last time, to that moment that had raped me of my innocence. I could hear my own cries, desperate and pleading at the news of all that had already been lost. The images and sounds of that day felt so clear, so present, that were it not for the sudden contraction of muscles in my lower back, and the spasm radiating forward to my abdomen, I may have been lost in them.
“They are coming more quickly now. Would you like an epidural?”
Unlike last time, there would be no call to the anesthesiologist today. There was no reason for it. My body had become acclimated to coping with pain.
Henry reached out, taking hold of my hand.
“He’s perfect for you,” a friend had urged one day over coffee. She scrawled his name and number onto a piece of paper, and slid it across the table to me. “You have to meet him. I won’t take no for an answer.”
And that was that. Within the week I had called the number. Within the month, we were engaged. With Henry the fall was hard and fast. Ours was a near chemical reaction. A magnetic yearning. He proposed during a hike to the Ithaca Gorge.
“Grow old with me,” was all he had to say. I nodded, knowing he was my soul mate.
And then things were as they should have been. We were married and bought our first home, a little white cape on Cayuga Lake, with a red door and a flat yard. As soon as the boxes were unpacked, we went to work on starting our family. By September, we were pregnant.
The months that followed were full of joy, spent in hopeful anticipation of our first child, a girl, who was to be called Georgie after Henry’s grandmother, Georgina. Life was simpler then. Before that last time. Our views of the world were cast through naive and optimistic eyes, and the future felt exciting and secure. Henry even talked about opening a small restaurant. Now, nearly two years later and without any children filling the silence that had grown around us, our home had shifted from a place of promise to a monument of loss, and, in the acrid pain of that reality, Henry and I lost the heart to form expectations at all, and his dreams for the restaurant were waylaid by the more pressing need to take a second job so that he could support his shattered wife.
“I’m sorry,” I mouthed.
Henry pretended not to notice, instead turning his attention toward the monitors. Under the fluorescent lights, watching the streaks of gray hair above his temples catch their glow and tracing the wrinkles that had wrapped around his eyes, he appeared much older than his thirty one years. In the unforgiving brightness of the room he seemed to have aged twenty two years since that last time, rather than just twenty two months.
“It’s going to be all right,” Henry whispered, as my water broke. “You’re doing great.”
I grabbed for him, and he took my hand, pressing it to his lips. I always loved when he did that. It made me feel safe. Henry offered me a reassuring squeeze and together we braced for the next wave of contractions.
At this point last time, when the sedatives had been administered, and the arduous process of birthing a child already gone from this world had begun, I struggled through contractions and the exhaustion of grief to push her out. I had wanted more than anything to keep Georgie with me, safely inside of me, for as long as possible. I had thought that if she was still in me, her heart might somehow restart itself. That she might not actually be dead. No cry marked Georgie’s entrance into this world; no sign of life at all, and in the deafening silence that was her stillbirth, I felt a piece of me fall quiet as well. The happiest, most hopeful piece; gone in grief with the undrawn first breath of my child.
“When you feel ready…” The nurse reminded me, but I couldn’t hear her.
I was lost in the past with the images of my child wrapped delicately in a white blanket. I was lost remembering the way we held her, ever so briefly and cried, my tears landing on her cheek, an animated trail that glistened against the backdrop of stillness. I was lost in the memory of holding her in my arms, wondering how something so beautiful, so warm, looking so much like my sweet Henry, could be gone. I was her mother. I had carried her. How had I not known?
I remembered how it felt when the time had come to hand her over, the way I had fought back holding her against my chest and refusing to let go.
“It’s for the best,” the nurse with the blue-gray irises had whispered, taking Georgie from my arms. It was at that moment that the first twinges of pain entered my arms. Something that had been explained away to us as a possible side effect of the anesthesia.
It’s amazing how blinded one can be by the obvious. After months of searching for a cure for the pain in my arms, I finally realized that there was no remedy to be found. My arms ached for the child I couldn’t hold. The child I never saw breathe. The child born but never born at all. Somehow, even though I had come to discover the cause of the pain, the knowing still wasn’t enough to quell it.
My eyes flicked back to the monitor, to the tiny train chug-chugging in the top right corner, blowing puffs of animated smoke with each beat of this baby’s heart. I watched for the numbers to fall from the screen, for the white coats to return with low voices and down-turned eyes, for the familiar stroke of a nurse’s hand on my back as Henry collapsed sobbing into my lap. I watched and I waited, but that train kept chugging along, unflinching.
“Here comes a good strong one. When you feel the urge I want you to bear down and count back from ten.” The voice, slow and methodical, was that of our perinatologist. He had entered the room and was checking my progress through bespectacled eyes on the bits of paper that were spitting out on printer spools below the monitors. He walked to the end of the bed, drew a stool from beneath it, and readied himself for the catch.
The pain spiked, and I held my breath, blocking out everything that surrounded me. The chugging of the train fell off, somewhere distant, and I braced myself in anticipation of the moment when it would all fall apart once again. I wondered what words the doctor would use this time, to tell me my child was dead.
“Ten, nine, eight…” Henry counted, “you are doing so good.”
He reached for a cold cloth and dabbed at the sweat breaking across my forehead. His voice was encouraging and calm, but his eyes betrayed him. Henry was scared. His eyes were his confessor as they stared into mine. He leaned in, and whispered into my ear. “It’s different this time. This one is coming home.”
I drew a long breath into my chest, and began counting down again, pushing every ounce of air from my body as I watched the puffs of steam roll off the train on the monitor. Again, an epidural was offered, but I declined. I wanted to feel every moment of this child’s life. I wanted to experience every second that we would have together. Loss had taught me not to expect anything beyond this second. This moment. That was where we had gone so wrong last time. We had expected so much. Too much. We had set up a nursery for Georgie in the room closest to ours; we had lined up the car seat to transport her home.
This time there had been no preparation. No room set aside and prepared. No layette washed in anticipation. This time we hadn’t assembled the swing. Or the bassinet. Or the crib. Even the car seat had been left home. This time we had come empty handed, half expecting to leave the same way.
“You’re nearly there,” the nurse whispered, staring directly into my eyes. “Just a few more pushes and this little one will be out.” There was something different and encouraging in her tone now, her words dripped with sing-songy optimism. She leaned her body into my bent leg, pushing my knee cap until it nearly met my throat, holding her station at my right; Henry, his, at my left.
“I love you,” he whispered into my ear. “Do you know how very proud of you I am?”
The pain was rolling in its intensity, finally reaching a fevered pitch. When I felt I could take no more, equilibrium with numbness was reached, and I began to bear down, embracing the newness of each feeling rushing through my body. With Georgie I felt nothing much below my chest, the doctors advising me to take sedatives and an epidural so as to “not make this any harder than it has to be.” With Georgie I had wanted to feel her more. What if she hadn’t really been dead? What if she was moving and they just couldn’t pick up on it? With Georgie I wanted to rip the needle from my back and prove that we still were connected. With Georgie I had wanted so many things.
A smile spread across Henry’s face, and I felt anger and disappointment in myself, in my own heart for not being in it. No, I still didn’t believe that this time could end differently, but I held my breath anyway when instructed, and continued bearing down. Bearing down through exhaustion, and sweat, and grief. Bearing down through anguish for the child I had lost, and the one I anticipated losing. Bearing down through painful memories of these past twenty two months, as the tears fell and the pain radiated through my arms. Bearing down, as in horror, I watched the numbers once again fall from the screen.
“One more push,” The doctor said, or maybe it was Henry, or the nurse. My mind was lost on where the numbers had gone, and I readied myself for the announcement of yet another loss.
“You can do it,” Henry whispered, “Everything is going to be okay.”
“Ten, nine, eight…” came the nurse.
I felt something stinging, and focused on this long push, knowing it was going to be my last. I felt the stretching, slight tearing; the necessary burn of my child descending through the birth canal. These were feelings that had been lost in despair and drugs during Georgie’s birth. Feelings that I had needed to experience with her, and had always regretted missing. There were so many regrets.
I counted off the last few beats with the nurse as scenes from Georgie’s birth flashed before my eyes. That wild tuft of hair on her otherwise bald head. The way she fell open in my arms. Her soft skin. I counted and cried and pushed until finally, through the noise of the doctor’s yells for towels, and the scrambles of personnel across the room, I heard a sound that I had waited a lifetime to hear, the sound of my child’s first and beautiful little cry.
“My God… he… he’s amazing!” Henry screamed. He pressed his face against mine. Tears, warm and salty, trailed down his cheeks. I could sense a change in them. These weren’t the tears of the last twenty two months, the bitter tears that had come with holding our dead child, or escorting her tiny white coffin down the aisle at our church. These were the tears reserved for moments of pure joy, for a man witnessing the birth of his beautiful, living son.
The nurse whisked our boy away and over to a table, calling out measurements across the space in the room. “You did it mom!” she shouted with a backward glance, “six pounds, thirteen ounces… nineteen and a half inches.”
“Please, please let me see him.” I cried, panicking. “Before he stops breathing…” I reached out with arms that throbbed relentlessly, “please!”
The nurse, noting my fear, wiped his face and body with a cloth, and swaddled him quickly as she rushed to my side. “Here you are,” she smiled, her blue-gray irises sparkling as they met mine, “say hello to your son.”
The boy, soft and alert, fell into the crook of my elbow, his hand up to his mouth, eyes wide. A blanket was secured loosely around his body, and I ripped it open, needing to see him breathe. I ran my hand across his exposed chest, and felt for its rise and fall.
With each little inhalation, I could feel something shifting within me. I, too, was drawing a breath, of hope and faith in the future once again. This child had arrived; our family had been spared further loss. With each slight exhalation, I allowed myself to let go, to free another layer of mourning from my soul. Losing Georgie had taken me to such a dark place; I had felt so much hurt and so much hopelessness, but now, as I watched my perfect, healthy son breathe, I could no longer draw upon it.
“Do you see?” Henry asked, pointing. “Did you notice?”
“I know,” I nodded, smiling through tears at the sweet reminder of my first child. At the way her little brother’s fingers were long like hers had been, and how they shared the same tuft of wild hair.
We stayed like this a while, admiring and tracing each sweet similarity and difference between the daughter we had loved so much and lost too soon, and the son we had just gained, and as we did, a sense of peace washed over my heart, my mind, and finally my arms; all of which had found their purpose once again.