Not too many people know this about me, but I think daily about a baby who was born tiny and perfect and beautiful, but still and without a breath. She is not my baby. Her name is Charlotte Amelia.
I have been thinking a lot about how to express what Charlotte means to me, or if I should even bring her up on my blog. Her mama writes about her here. I should preface my comments by saying that I don’t wish to upset Charlotte’s family in any way, because they are dear, loving people. My intention is to honor Charlotte’s memory and try to explain how I, a mother who has not lost a baby (that is, not babylost), could be so moved and compelled to think about Charlotte so much, and weep at her untimely death, and feel so much sorrow to witness the suffering of families whose babies have died.
It would be impossible for me to write about Charlotte without writing about the birth of my daughter, Lily. Lily was born on April 2, 2007 by emergency cesarean. I was not expecting to give birth that day. I was not in labor. Most of the day was remarkably normal, and I was looking forward to having another two weeks until my due date to prepare for the baby. I had been diagnosed with gestational diabetes and was going to the hospital twice a week for monitoring, and this was one of the monitoring times.
How good to hear that little heart beating. Until I couldn’t hear it anymore. There it was, and suddenly, there it wasn’t. It wasn’t.
It seemed like instantly, all hell broke loose. I still can’t remember everything clearly, but it seemed the room was full of medical personnel, there was urgency and panic in the air, and my body was not my own. I know I was crying uncontrollably. My pants came off, there was a needle in my arm? my hand? misplaced, blood spurting, someone swearing. Ultrasound. Papers that needed to be signed immediately. No time to lose. Someone put an oxygen mask on my face and I freaked out even more. My mother in the corner, hyperventilating herself, terrified, me somehow managing to tell her to call Tom and have him come right now. And all I could think was, my baby is dying, my baby is dying, and my being was seized by an enormous NO. NO NO NO NO NO!
And not long after, in a haze of trauma and terror, Lily was lifted from my body, alive and crying.
Can you see how this event might change a person? Might be a defining event, or even THE defining event, of a person’s life? And how that person might forever imagine how things could have gone differently?
I was haunted by thoughts that I had put Lily’s life in danger, that the GD was my fault. (This despite following the diet from hell and losing a lot of weight while pregnant and fearing that the baby would be starved. I certainly felt starved. Not to mention feeling like a human pincushion from testing my blood sugar four times a day and giving myself insulin injections.) I also felt a profound sense of failure that I had had a cesarean, that I should have somehow prevented it. Some people told me that I was incredibly lucky to be in the right place at the right time. I also felt the weight of judgment from others who suggested, variously, that I should never have even been tested for GD, that I should not have chosen a hospital birth, and that Lily would have been fine, regardless.
Well, we’ll never know, will we?
Over and over, I asked my father, an obstetrician, to review the clinical facts with me. Yes, he said, we will never know if Lily would have been okay even without a cesarean. But who would take that chance? Any OB in the country would have made the same decision that day. It was clear.
But I still wasn’t clear, and I felt awful.
Months went by and still I felt haunted and unresolved and battered and guilty. And then I found Charlotte, or rather, I found Charlotte’s mama telling Charlotte’s story, and I was able to look at things quite differently.
Reading about the death of a baby, even when it is the baby of someone I had never met, was a powerful experience in grieving. Charlotte’s mama has a way with words and is able to articulate the profundity of pain and grief she experiences, and integrates this into her daily life which is also full of great joy and two living children. It’s hard for me to fully express the impact of reading Charlotte’s mama’s blog; how can I do it justice?
The first part, which you have probably figured out, was a renewed appreciation for Lily’s life. Charlotte allowed me to fully contemplate an alternate scenario, one in which Lily didn’t survive. It was painful to go there, but I had to go there– I needed to fully accept the fragility of life, the reality of death, and the unpredictability of birth. Mothers of babies who die do not have this choice, I know, and this is the part that always seizes me up with guilt: it feels completely unfair and almost cruel that I should value my baby’s life even more in contrast with another baby’s death. It’s as if I am getting a benefit at someone else’s expense, and I don’t like that one bit.
But I realized that it’s actually far more complex than that. It’s also about being given an opportunity to grieve for Charlotte, to participate in missing her and longing for her presence. It’s about recognizing that Charlotte lived and was beautiful and is not forgotten. It’s about the fierce love and commitment I see in her mama that is stronger than death.
I am grateful that Charlotte’s life and death were not shunted aside, ignored, buried. I am genuinely horrified at how the larger culture treats death, especially of babies born still, or miscarriages. These children need to be recognized and honored, and their parents, families, and friends need the utmost in loving support. We owe it to one another as human beings to offer love and bear witness to great pain.
In the process of focusing on love and compassion, I have started to ease up on myself. I have stopped questioning my every last decision around my pregnancy and Lily’s birth. I decided that I made the best decisions I could, and that I would probably make the same decisions again if I were in the same situation. Although it wasn’t an easy birth, I’m at peace with it. I’m allowing myself to feel both the trauma and the joy. I had so wanted a normal birth; I was psyching myself up for pushing out my baby, for foregoing pain meds, for nursing her immediately, for the rush of happiness. I expected it to be challenging but I didn’t anticipate what happened. The terror that she was dying; the profound dissociation from my body; the subsequent pain of recovery from surgery, the haze of percocet and oxycontin, the tremendous difficulties in breastfeeding at first. It was one of the hardest trials I’ve ever been through, and I would do it again for Lily.
I have never been an advocate for blissful unawareness. I would rather carry both the dark and the light in my field of vision. This is a mode of seeing that Charlotte is well-equipped to point out. Charlotte’s story brought back to me every death I’ve ever grieved, every loss, every period of suffering, and I’m grateful to have those at the forefront of my memory, as well as the beauty and joy.
Ultimately Charlotte reminds me of the necessity for deep, honest, human relationships, the absolute necessity for creating a culture of remembrance for those who have died, the integration of joy and loss, the recognition that we are all mortal, every moment of every day.
Charlotte, you are so missed. As a friend you never knew, I will always love and remember you. May your spirit continue to guide us.