This story moved me very much when I first read it, as all the story’s shared with me do. This story echoed the feelings from my time with Finley – the understanding that perhaps there is s greater plan at work, that sometimes our angels come into our lives for a reason. I share this story on today, 15th October 2012, for International Wave of Light. I think it is a fitting post to be shared on that day, to give all the angel families hope.
‘There is no fear of death because there is no death. It’s just a transformation, an illusion’
I had worked as a midwife for many years in both hospitals and in the homes of women and their families before I thought about having children myself.
I remember the first time I supported a woman through her birth; the birth of a beautiful, full-term baby girl. She looked so perfect, this angel, that the term ‘born asleep’ was really true. Asleep, never to wake. As I went off shift, I wondered how a mother or father could ever survive the loss of a child. Later on, as a community midwife I had an intense and supportive relationship with May and her partner Gerard. Their Tim* was born at 32 weeks with multiple congenital abnormalities and did not survive. I remember the rawness of their grief and the deep intensity of their joy when, 15 months later, I helped May to birth a second son, Danny. It occurred to me then that despair and joy were closely related.
Getting pregnant was much less easy for me than I had hoped it would be and, given my age (I was already 35) I quickly found myself embroiled in hospital visits, tests, and investigations. Becoming pregnant was beginning to look like an impossible dream when, following a ‘last ditch’ insemination, I had a positive pregnancy test. I was over the moon: I was going to be privileged to experience pregnancy and childbirth and I was going to be a mum at last! Happy days!
My pregnancy was easy with none of the ‘minor’ ailments often associated with expecting a baby. I bloomed, looked and felt great and continued to be busy at work. By this time, I was teaching midwifery and students often stopped me in the corridors to follow my progress.
In September 2006 I was 23 weeks pregnant. New student midwives started their training and in one session, I was asked to talk about ‘new beginnings’. I related their ‘new beginning’ to the new beginning stirring in me and I cheerily told them that I would get back to them when my ‘new beginning’ was in my arms. Whilst I trusted the process of pregnancy and birth, I found myself thinking about babies born prematurely, how vulnerable they were.
A few days later, cystitis kicks in and starts causing premature contractions. My husband takes me to the hospital where they tell me that the cervix (neck of the womb) is a little open. Drugs are hastily arranged to try to suppress the contractions. This seems to work and I settle in on the high-risk antenatal ward with a copy of ‘The Lord of the Rings’, intending to read this opus during this period of enforced bed rest.
Contractions start again and I am moved back to the labour ward. More drugs and contractions stop. There is hope again, hope that my body can buy precious time to continue nurturing my baby. Then I sneeze and my waters break. Hope becomes despair, which becomes hope again when a scan reveals adequate amounts of water around my baby. I lie still in my bed on the labour ward, waiting and hoping. The staff know I am a midwife and they concur to my requests: a Doppler at odd times of the day so I can listen to my baby’s heartbeat. Listening to the heartbeat with my husband gives me a sense of connection and reassurance, which helps as I am tossed between hope and despair.
The contractions start again, this time with an intensity that is different. Different drugs in higher doses are given and day becomes night. That night it becomes clear to me that tomorrow my baby will be born. That night I am visited by a ‘presence’: I can’t describe it any other way. I sensed a woman who came to reassure me that things were as they were meant to be; that all would be well, that I should go with it and let things be. I knew that the next day my baby would be born.
20th September 2006. A warm day, the last day of summer, the light is golden outside. Inside, in the labour ward, I have hope again. Contractions through the night seem to have been resolved by the administration of a cheap, old-fashioned remedy for high blood pressure. Again I hope but the doctor has been clear that, if this doesn’t work, all treatment options have been exhausted.
The neonatologist comes to meet me. They would rather not treat babies at 24 weeks gestation, as their long-term outcomes are so poor. I remember the neonatal intensive care unit from my midwifery training and decide that this is not what I want for my baby. I have followed the story of a seriously handicapped baby in the press, doctors and parents fighting in the high courts and I know this is not what I want for my baby. I want cuddles, love, peace and quality of life, however long that may be. My husband agrees with me and we opt for ‘conservative’ (i.e. no treatment) should our baby be born.
My body gives me an hour of peace before the contractions return, more intense than before. My baby will be born today and I set about coping with labour. Having seen many, many births, the pain of contractions surprised me. The visceral intensity of the pain taking over my whole existence, before ebbing away. A tide of energy, coming and going, building up and getting stronger and stronger as the birth approached.
I am ready to push and am determined to deliver my baby normally, with no intervention. I push and feel my baby’s head, then shoulders and body as he leaves the safety of me. My baby is a boy: Joachim.
Joachim cries, just once. He is then still; wrapped in warm cloths and placed in my arms so that his father and I can wonder at this child we’ve created. Some oxygen is arranged so that he can be comfortable during whatever time on earth he may have. A feast of recognition follows: your eyebrows, my lips, your nose, my hands, your knees. Your eyes or my eyes? Joachim’s eyes never open.
Time is precious. This is the only time we will have together. We cuddle, talk, take photos and tell our boy how wonderful he is, how much we love him and how welcome he is. We need to make memories.
Ninety minutes after birth, my boy leaves on his journey elsewhere.
Time passes. New faces appear in the labour ward. A kindly faced nurse offers condolences. I turn on her, tell her I gave birth this afternoon and would like to be congratulated first. Aren’t I a mother?
We spend a night in the hospital, the three of us. The next day I want to go home and I want to take my boy with me. The hospital staff concurs and we drive home, as a family. Again, the sun is shining and golden. Colours seem intense. I am seeing the world through different eyes. I am a mother and I feel I have been inducted into some sacred and mystical union of women.
The next day, the sun rises as usual. Time has stopped for me but times goes on. My boy was born and died yesterday already.
We go home and arrange a funeral. All the while, Joachim is at home, in a Moses basket provided by my mother. I washed and dried and cared for my Joachim’s body, both our families came to spend time with him. Even our cats got to spend some time with him as it was clear to them that all was not as it was. We served Beschuit met muisjes (a much favoured sweet treat, traditionally eaten in Holland when a baby is born) to every person who crossed our threshold. Our house was filled with his presence, which seemed to grow by the day. Never was such a tiny baby so large. Our home was full of grace.
The funeral was as much about saying ‘hello’ as ‘goodbye’ to Joachim. Many people came and each one was a comfort to us in some way. After the funeral, my husband and I went home alone and opened a bottle of champagne. The bottle we had bought months earlier, to celebrate the birth of our first child. We drank it and wept. Wept for our lost boy.
Time passes yet for me it stands still. My boy is still dead. It takes a long time to really ‘get’ this fact. My story is like something from a magazine; maybe it’s happening to someone else and not me. Is it a movie? Can I re-wind and get another ending? I have ashes, maybe I can clone him? This is a dream and any minute now I will wake up and find the cat cuddled up to my bump, snug and warm under the duvet.
I remember reading about the ‘stages of grief’ as a student midwife and I try and fit in with them (now I’m in denial, bargaining etc.). I decide to take a few months off to deal with my grief before returning to work.
Grief cannot to compartmentalized, I learned. It comes and goes like the sea. One time a Tsunami that sweeps me along and casts me far away, bruised and battered; another time, no more than a gentle lapping of the sea on the shore.
I hoped to assuage my grief by having another child. Joachim cannot be replaced but another child would help the healing. It was not to be. I remain a mother of one, an only child, invisible to others. When strangers ask me if I have children, I sometimes say ‘no’. Sometimes I share the story of my son. It all depends on how I feel, what I want.
My son taught me a number of lessons. Do death well. Especially the death of a baby. It can’t be done again and it is important to have things just as you would wish. Health care providers want to do their best but often don’t know what to do best to help. Help them. Tell them what you need, what you want, what works for you.
He also taught me that grief is not something that can be scheduled; it comes and goes, as it will. Sit with it, let it in and go with it. Grief is a guest that resents being shut out. Ignore grief and it becomes bitter, twisted and angry. Put it off and it comes back, tenfold. Nowadays, I pull up a chair and sit with it. We spend some time and then it leaves again. Joachim taught me to celebrate life. Life is short and the human condition is fragile. I drank champagne after his birth and I shop for the most extravagant birthdays cakes to celebrate his life on his birthday.
Time passes and time does not necessarily heal all wounds, as the proverb says. Do I ‘accept’ the death of my boy almost 6 years on? No.
I accept the facts of his life and death. I know that he is out there in the cosmos, dancing between the stars. I have leaned to live with the fact. I learn to live with grief as an (often) uninvited guest that comes, stays and then leaves again. I have learned to live with feelings of resentment and jealousy towards fertile (but blameless) family and friends.
I have learned to treasure a life so short, but well lived. I try to follow my son’s example in the art of living gracefully. I do not fear death because Joachim taught me that death is a transformation, an illusion.
There is a weird period of time in the timescale of grief. I don’t know if it arrives for everybody at the same time, but I would bet money on the fact that it appears for all. When your baby or child dies the world can become a very dark place. It can seem like you are fighting just to stay alive, there can seem to be no point to the day.
I discovered the battle of organising the funeral and volunteered for this. In the war zone that had become my life I spent hours each day searching music, readings, flowers. We had tasks to do, even if they were incredibly hard. There were missions out into enemy territory – the real world. The real world where everything seems too bright, too loud, too happy and full of traps to catch you. Booby traps like shelves of nappies in unexpected places in shops, or the screaming baby around every corner. The venture into the most dangerous place of all Mothercare, where instead of being on R&R with our family we were facing large numbers of enemy troops and booby traps trying to find an outfit for our newborn to wear in his forever bed, before we buried him.
The battle of the funeral ended in a stalemate, with no ground won or lost. And the hours after the funeral, when my mind debriefed suddenly became quiet. The shock and realisation hit me that all of the other soldiers, my comrades were going on R&R tomorrow.
A few weeks after Finley was born and my life looked like a no man’s land on a misty morning. I woke up one day and suddenly I was on my own in a barren, burnt and blackened piece of land. The mist had come down and I could not see anybody. I knew they must be there because the war is over, but to find them I had to find the courage to walk out in a world that looked different. A world with different landmarks and slightly hazy, dim views. On the other side of that patch of land life is green and bright, life has carried on for other people. I am surrounded by the letters that were left, all of them saying if you need anything just ask. But the people that left those letters are long gone.
I picked up the phone but the line is burnt and they can’t hear me, my voice was shaken and I couldn’t hear. After a while I began to venture into the wasteland, always heading back because it just seemed to far to get across that No Man’s Land of my Grief.
It’s a very lonely, scary walk to find your way across that land, when you have become accustomed to being alone and in the greyness. Sometimes a friendly hand, or word in that space of time from maybe 2-6 months is when it is most needed.
As the time goes by, I am 2 and half years After Finley, the interactions have changed. The emotion is not so raw and I get a simple kind of pleasure and pride about hearing people say how Finley has stayed in their hearts, how their lives have changed, how when they heard the news they held their child, imagining what it would be like to not lose that. If one person appreciates their life more because of Finley then his life has not been wasted. He lives on through their smiles.
People are able to remember their baby, or a baby that they know in two ways through my work. They can fundraise and dedicate a cold cot in memory of their baby to a hospital. They can also donate £30 and a butterfly box will be supplied to a hospital, with a letter in explaining who it is supplied in memory of. Specific items can also be donated to us, to be included in butterfly boxes.