Trigger warning: child loss
It had been over an hour and a half since my brother had texted me to tell me that his wife, Amy, was headed in for an emergency c-section. I tried not to worry. I tried not to text Ben again. Maybe the baby had to go to the NICU. A million different scenarios ran through my head. None of which included the baby dying. Babies didn’t die during childbirth in 2020.
It was impossible not to love Amy. She was like a Disney character: she wore her emotions on the outside and her primary emotion was love. When Amy and Ben got engaged, I was jealous. The “Alanas,” as my mom liked to refer to Amy’s girl gang, made it clear that no one was supposed to wear white to Amy’s bachelorette because it was Amy’s weekend. But I showed up in Las Vegas dressed head to toe in a white jumpsuit. The Alanas all gave me judgy stares. But Amy just embraced me, screaming in her drunken exuberance, “My sister is here! Everyone, my sister is here!” Never having contemplated the possibility of referring to each other as sisters before (or being a hugger myself), I didn’t really understand how I, as the future sister-in-law, had been elevated to such a high status, but I adored Amy, so I went with it.
When Amy announced her pregnancy, I was already pregnant with my second. Amy had only let it slip once that it irked her that I was going to have two children before she had her first. Upon noticing that I wasn’t drinking at a family event, she said, “You’re not fucking pregnant again, are you?”
However, this is where our stories diverge. At 33 weeks pregnant, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Amy continued to have a normal and healthy pregnancy while I gave birth to a healthy baby girl followed by a double mastectomy, chemo and radiation.
Throughout Amy’s pregnancy, there had been a distance between us. Her unfiltered joy chafed against my depression. After all, I had been deprived of many of the greatest joys of motherhood: nursing your baby peacefully to sleep on your lap; strolling away the days of maternity leave with a sleeping newborn; and the opportunity to get completely lost inside this beautiful being. My memories of the early months of my daughter’s life stood in sharp contrast: watching videos from the chemo room of my nanny bottle feeding my daughter; the fanny pack that hid the drains from my surgery so I could walk discreetly with my daughter; and, most significantly, the feeling that I was always missing out.
As Josh and I sat shell shocked on the plane on the way to the hospital to see Amy and Ben, I muttered, “I should have been there more for her throughout her pregnancy.”
“You were fighting cancer,” he said.
We rode the 12 floors up to a miscellaneous floor in the hospital (since Amy had to be moved off the labor and delivery floor), as I continued replaying the events of the previous day.
I kept checking my phone into the wee hours of the night, waiting for that first picture of a little newborn to pop up: eyelids shiny and closed, face a little smushed, all swaddled up in one of those ubiquitous flannel blankets with the stripes. If we were lucky, we might even get to find out a name.
Finally, the screen lit up with a text from Ben. The first thing I noticed was that there was no picture attached. It read, “Amy is healthy. But the baby has no brain function. She wasn’t breathing, but they got her to breathe.”
Hours passed and I lay there wide awake. I texted my brother again, “Any updates?”
“The doctors are still working on the baby. I didn’t even get to see her.” My heart sunk. I felt like I was going to throw up.
“Hang in there. This is shitty. I love you,” I replied, careful not to say it would be okay when I didn’t know if it would be.
“I’m pretty scared,” he said. My little brother had never admitted to being scared before.
The scene when we entered Amy’s room was otherworldly. Amy was proudly holding her baby, staring into her daughter’s beautiful face, and for a second I almost forgot that the baby wasn’t alive. Amy was as pale as a sheet, her long hair matted and dishevelled, her protruding belly the only part of her tiny shape visible beneath her large open hospital gown.
“Hey Jen, hi Josh. Thanks, guys, for coming. Means so much. Do you want to see her?”
It was obvious by the slow, monotone candor of her speech that she was on a cocktail of painkillers to numb all different kinds of pain.
Curious, I tentatively approached the baby. When I saw her face, I nearly gasped. She looked just like my daughter, Lyla, except that her hat was covering the abrasions on her head, and her eyelids were a ghastly bruised color due to the brain hemorrhaging.
As Amy placed the baby back in the bassinet, she began to weep. It was the weeping of a person who had been crying for so long that she did not even notice anymore. A nurse came in to roll away the bassinet and Amy kissed the baby longingly on the forehead. “Goodbye forever,” she murmured, as the nurse once again covered the baby’s face with a blanket.
The next day, an oddball gang of fairy godmothers assembled at Amy’s and Ben’s house to disassemble any landmines that would trigger Amy.
“Did you check the living room?!” one of us would scream, as we swarmed towards it. “There is a baby swing in the living room!”
But there was no avoiding the landmines in the nursery. Amy had meticulously folded all of Lyla’s hand-me-down outfits, organizing them into drawers lined with ivory paper marked 0-3, 3-6 and 6-12. The piece de resistance was a custom halogen sign with the name “Sloane” emblazoned on it in neon pink letters. We had to snap the sign in half in order to remove it from the wall.
One day, out of the blue, Amy texted me, “Hey Jen! I’ve been so wrapped up in my own stuff that I haven’t really checked in. I’m sorry. How are you feeling about the end of treatment? It must be so nice to finally be able to focus on the kids.”
I had long ago resigned myself to the fact that I would never have a sister, but at that moment, I realized that I did. I guess that’s the thing about sisters. The relationship may be fraught at times, but no one is ever there for you like your sister.