My heart is broken. It’s broken for my sister. It’s broken for my brother in law. It’s broken for my family. It’s broken for me.The loss of a child is something I had never given much in-depth thought to. It was ugly. It was yuck. It was something I found terribly uncomfortable to imagine because I immediately would put myself into those shoes. How would I feel if my child died? And then I would stop. Don’t go there. Unimaginable. Even having been so terribly close to losing our son and having experienced early term miscarriages after years of fertility treatments to try to conceive, I put those near misses in a box and reveled in the joy and feelings of good fortune being a mother brought me.
Despite this, I feel I’ve lived very close to that world through my sister’s career over the last 14 or so years. She is a nurse and has dedicated her career thus far to caring for premature babies, initially in the NICU and then as part of the Flight For Life pediatric team. I still remember the first time one of her patients passed. She was a new nurse and she was devastated. It was morning, I was driving, the sun was shining and my little sister croaked down the phone “I lost one”. I remember the feeling of pain in my heart. I felt pain for the family who had just lost their baby and I felt tremendous pain and compassion for my sister.
It didn’t get any easier for her when it happened over the ensuing years, but she learned to protect her heart and continue making the tremendous difference in so many lives.When she and her husband were married last year, it was clear to see how much joy they brought each other. She rocked his world and he, hers. He “got” her. He did the same job for the adult team, he truly understood how challenging her work was. And she, him. That reason, along with many others made theirs a perfect partnership. When they became pregnant, we all joked that their life was never going to be the same. That this baby was going to ruin their DINK lifestyle. And they agreed. And they looked forward to it. They were ready.
My sister had found it particularly hard to let her guard down about her pregnancy. At 37, she was considered “Advanced Maternal Age”, which we found kind of entertaining because many of our friends were having babies around this age, it seemed the new normal. Never the less, because she knew so much and she had cared for and saved so many premature babies – and lost some too, she felt a level of anxiety about her own pregnancy. I remember her somewhat clinical discussions of the potential outcomes of the genetic testing and I could tell she was protecting herself, emotionally, should they receive results that meant bad news.
As morning sickness beat her up (as it had with both our mother and me), as they heard the heartbeat and tests came back with positive results, I could feel her relaxing. Letting herself get a little bit excited. When 20 weeks passed she was starting to talk more about the future. When my son named the baby “Nutso Clementine” because my sister was always telling us how much the baby moved, I smiled and enjoyed the pleasure I could hear in her voice. She deserved this feeling. She deserved to enjoy the promise of good things to come.
Tuesday morning brought the shittiest, rainiest, cold and gloomy weather. I was irritated we had had to move from our lovely warm beach in Southern California to crap ass Maryland. I was shaking my head at myself that I had worn a pair of flats on my bare feet instead of socks and rain boots. I enjoyed talking with my sister on my drive, it was a good chat. We hung up and I went about doing my errands, wet feet and all. When I got back in my car about an hour or so later, she called almost immediately. I answered the call about to tell her about my frozen feet and she said ” I have bad news”. The scenarios that went through my head in the agonizingly slow minute that followed while she was crying were vast. I was trying to think of any possible terrible but somewhat “positive” outcome in comparison to what I was dreading in my heart. Lost her job? House burned down? Cat died? Dog died? I was desperately hoping her house had burned down. Anything. ANYTHING other than what I was dreading. Those four fucking words. And then I heard them “I lost my baby”. There was no heartbeat. And my own heart shattered.
You know, it’s interesting, when you say those words in “normal” life, people assume you had a miscarriage. They assume it was fairly early on, first trimester kind of stuff. They are sorry, for sure, but the dialogue is something along the lines of “oh man, that sucks, that happened to me, I understand, I’m so sorry, etc”. I’ve had miscarriages. They suck. This was not a miscarriage. This was an almost full term baby. This was a child that, had she actually been born alive, even at the 29 weeks she was, could possibly have made it. Someone with my sisters training, her years of experience, her knowledge, maybe could have kept this tiny baby alive. Oh. The. Fucking. Irony.
I booked a flight to Denver and time promptly stood still. Stationary. I feel like my first exhale was when I walked into their hospital room, passing the little “sympathy” label on the door. Here I was, in the middle of the Labor and Delivery floor, surrounded by happiness and joy and the sound of crying newborns and fetal heartbeat monitors and proud Daddy’s shaking hands and handing out cigars. Here I was, to support my little sister and my darling brother in law while they delivered their first child. Who we already knew hadn’t made it.
The level of sorrow is indescribable. I’m a fixer, a doer, a leader, I’m strong, I’m smart, I’m feisty, I’m scrappy. And I couldn’t do a goddamned thing to change any of this other than hold them and cry with them. These two people I love so very much had just received the worst news of their lives and now had to deliver a baby that wasn’t ready through a body that wasn’t ready into a world that just wasn’t ready. I feel I have witnessed two people actually in hell. I kept reminding myself that as bad as I felt, as much as my heart ached, it was absolutely nothing in comparison to what they were feeling. I would gladly have volunteered to carry their excruciating pain for the rest of my life if they could have their baby alive and healthy.
At 4:41pm on Wednesday, December 17th, Ida Clementine Hillig blessed us with her arrival. She was perfect. She looked just like her mummy and had her daddy’s mouth and chin. She had long hands and feet, she had a head of thick, dark, curly hair. She looked like she was sleeping. Her hands were tucked together under her chin, just like her mama sleeps. Her parents bathed her, they dressed her and her family held her. We talked to her, we sang to her, we prayed for her and she was baptized. She spent the whole night in the arms of her parents and she brought us so much joy, even though it felt like deep sorrow because she was already in heaven.
It’s important to me that our friends and family know that despite the dire and grim circumstances, despite the horrific reality we were in, it wasn’t chaotic and gruesome. It wasn’t an experience filled with blood curdling screams and panic. My sister and her hubs were heartbroken, without a doubt, we all were. They were terrified and their lives had changed forever. But they were peaceful. They were graceful. They were awake and aware and they were present. This is the image I want to make sure is in everyone’s mind when they think of what just happened.This is the poem my sister’s Flight Team Chaplain read at Ida’s christening that night. Just like Ida, it was perfect.
One Mother’s A Lament for Her Baby, Author Unknown
I never got to hear you laugh,
You never saw me cry.
Didn’t get a chance to say “Hello”;
You never said goodbye.
I never thought I could feel
This sad, lost, forlorn.
I dared not think that you might die
Before you were even born.
Your life was short yet special;
I shared it all exclusively.
I felt you move, I felt you kick;
You were alive inside of me.
Although we are not together,
We’re not really apart
For you’ll always occupy a space
Deep within my heart.
Time may begin to ease my pain;
For now I can only cry
When I wish I could have said “Hello”
And heard you say “Goodbye”.
My darling sister and her husband have had to do what no parent should ever have to do. And they have leaned in, they have stared hell right in the face and they will continue to do that in many different ways for the rest of their lives. They experienced their daughter with open and broken hearts and soaked up every last drop of her while they could still physically touch and hold her. They said hello and then said goodbye in the same breath.