My birthday is coming, and I’m dreading it. I can’t celebrate; I’d like to go to bed and wake up twenty-four hours later. It’s not because I’m a year older. It’s because it’s the anniversary of the death of my second child, Jules.
My experience is nothing unique. Death anniversaries haunt most people: the anniversary of the death of a parent; the anniversary of a friend’s suicide, the day a father or husband died in battle. My nightmare began on the morning of my birthday, three years ago. I was beginning my 38th week of pregnancy, and I felt great. All signs pointed to a normal, healthy baby. I woke up early the morning of July 30 and my water broke. With great excitement, I grabbed my overnight bag and headed to the hospital with my husband and my (then) 4 1/2 year old son, Miles.
Although I’m not religious, I baptized Jules with my tears and told him how much I loved him. Then I did the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life: I put him down, and I left.
We checked into the obstetric intake bay, and the nurse began to hook me up to a fetal monitor. She couldn’t get it to work and remarked that it must be malfunctioning. She brought in another monitor, and she couldn’t pick up the baby’s heartbeat on that one either. Then she brought in an MD with an ultrasound. I looked at the image of my beautiful son on the screen. There was no pulsing heart in his rib cage. He was dead.
I went into the kind of shock that people describe as “a bad movie.” Everything slowed down and became tunnel-like. I felt removed from the situation, almost observing the scene from a distance as the staff wheeled me to a room at the end of the maternity ward to deliver my stillborn child. I remember the rose a nurse placed on the outside of the door to mark that this room was different. She closed the door when the sounds of newborns drifted down the hall to my room. She was extremely compassionate and held me through some of my labor pains. I asked for Pitocin to speed the birth, and Jules was born quickly. His death was ruled a cord accident.
Jules was so beautiful, so perfect and so still that at first I was afraid to hold him. The staff wrapped him in a hospital blanket and put him in the baby gurney. A pediatrician came to give him a newborn exam with a mix of horror and grief on his face. Cautiously, I picked Jules up and held him and rocked him for a very long time. I desperately didn’t want to leave him there, and I desperately wanted to hold my living son, Miles, who was at a friend’s house. Although I’m not religious, I baptized Jules with my tears and told him how much I loved him. Then I did the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life: I put him down, and I left.
My husband and I went through a special kind of hell in the weeks and months that followed. My milk came in, and I had to bind my swollen breasts and ice them for days. I couldn’t sleep, and when I did, I had nightmares. Worst of all, we had to explain to our son Miles that baby Jules was not coming home from the hospital. Sweet Miles began our healing when he thought about this for a few moments, and said, “So, Jules is now a twinkle in Papa’s eye.”
The community wrapped its arms around our family. Our house filled with flowers, and we had more food than we knew what to do with. What surprised me the most was how many women reached out to me to share their own stories of stillbirth. In the first 24 hours after we got home, our neighbors came over to talk to us about their baby dying in-utero near term. Over the course of the next few months, I spoke to many women who had lost babies, mainly by stillbirth, but not exclusively. I had no idea that in this age of medical advancement 1 in every 167 babies in the United States is stillborn (.pdf). Just over half a percent (.6 percent) doesn’t sound like a lot - until it’s you. Statistically, this has probably happened to someone you know, but they probably don’t talk about it. I know of three people - either in my circle or once removed - who have had stillbirths since mine.
I describe the initial weeks after Jules’ death in military terms: It felt like our family took a direct hit. Over time, I became skilled in answering people when they asked, “So, how’s your baby?” Those questions lasted for a year and a half. I sought counseling with health professionals who had experienced stillbirth or infant death. I’m not Jewish, but I went to talk to a Rabbi. She helped me to understand a beautiful philosophy: that we owe it to the dead to try and live well and fully. I’m still here, and I shouldn’t squander my time. It’s not always easy, especially when someone asks, “So, you have just the one?” But I work hard to live well and fully every day, especially on the anniversary of what would have been a joint birthday for Jules and me.
Polly Stryker works as a producer and editor at KQED Radio, an NPR affiliate in San Francisco, where she lives with her family. She is writing a book called “Losing Jules” for her son, Miles.
Previously: A call to “break the silence of stillbirth”
Image of Jules' footprints in featured entry box courtesy of Polly Stryker