Trigger warning: stillbirth, child loss
Birth stories are beautiful; They are often unexpected and surprising and almost always, never go down as planned. They are awe inspiring and at times frightening all at once. Ultimately, the outcome is typically the same. But for some, birth stories are a nightmare from which one never wakes.
I’ve waited 10 years to share mine. I don’t know if I’ll ever feel quite prepared to share these intimate details, but on the 10th anniversary of my son’s death, I felt compelled to do so. And as we have recently marked another Mother’s Day, in honor of and in solidarity with all the mothers who have experienced a neonatal loss or stillbirth, I share to create a space where this pain can be shared with those who may be struggling silently. I know how challenging this time of year is.
It’s been a decade. As I write those words my hand trembles.
Ten years ago, I was 28 years old and nine months pregnant with my first child. The night before my due date at around 1 am, I started experiencing early labor. As the sun rose, I remember thinking what a magnificent spring day it was during my favorite time of year; a beautiful day to have a baby. It was picture perfect outside; just like my entire pregnancy.
My husband suggested I eat a good breakfast before we head to the hospital so I told him to get me my favorite: an everything bagel with lox cream cheese from our local bagel joint. I was ravenous.
I labored at home for a long time at the recommendation of my doctor. My mother and sister came over to help me breathe through my contractions in my bedroom; on my bed, on a yoga mat, on a medicine ball. It was a very long and exhausting day. As the contractions intensified and the pain became so severe I could no longer breathe I knew it was time to head to the hospital. I peeked out my window as my husband haphazardly grabbed our belongings. The sun continued to shine. In that moment, I was so grateful.
The pain became excruciating. I remember thinking that although it was by far the most agonizing pain I had ever experienced, it was also really beautiful. I felt so connected to the baby and my body; it was as if we were speaking our own language. It felt very natural and like something I was absolutely born to do. By the time I got to the hospital, I jumped out of the car while it was still moving before my husband could even step on the brake at the front entrance. He yelled “wait! Let me put it in park!” There was a sensation of tremendous pressure and I swore I was going to have the baby in the car. I waddled into the hospital barely able to walk, was put in a wheelchair and made it in the nick of time for an epidural. Before we knew it, it was time to start pushing.
I pushed for a long time. Too long. A couple hours. He wouldn’t come out. The nurses said I made such a good home for him he didn’t want to leave. They were trying to be encouraging because I was getting weak and losing steam. I could not see very well because the pushing caused a neurological reaction and my vision became completely impaired. I remember I kept saying to anyone who would listen; I can’t see. I can’t see. I can’t see.
But just then I felt a wave of strength overcome me. I pushed once more and as I felt my body ripping apart and a pain that could only be explained like a ring of fire followed by a tremendous relief of pressure, there he was. All seven pounds and one ounce of him. And on his due date.
My vision was distorted and everything was blurry. I could only really make out shadows and blurred images but I could see that he looked exactly like me with a head full of beautiful brown hair. I held him on my chest and before I knew it, he was briskly ripped away from me. That was the first and the last time I would see him alive.
Hudson died an hour and a half later. And with him, a part of myself. A large crowd of doctors worked on him for what felt like an eternity, feverishly trying to resuscitate him in front of me and then privately. I remember the waiting. That was the worst part. And then they came in to tell me all sweaty in their scrubs, with their masks pulled down and eyes swollen red that there was nothing more they could do. He was gone. I was shell shocked.
I remember screaming at god why I couldn’t have died in that delivery room instead of him. It seemed like a far fairer deal and I did not want to be alive. And that fucking sun in all her glory kept shining in on that beautiful fucking spring day. I thought how ironic. I wanted it to disappear. I wanted it all to disappear. The beautiful fucking sun. I felt like she was somehow mocking me.
I will not go into details but the truth is that I needed an emergency C-section and if it had been performed that day, Hudson would be still be here, thriving I suppose.
The ugliest part of that truth is that I have had to live with that for the last ten years. And it never gets easier. You just get harder. And better at disguising how it’s literally destroyed you inside. Your skin just thickens until you don’t feel much of anything anymore. I’m full of scales.
A decade later and I can still remember every moment of that day. Every detail. Every smell. Every sound. That kind of trauma never dissipates. It stays and it haunts you. It’s called PTSD. The doctor crying; sobbing like a child in between my legs, having to be told to compose himself so he could get it together and stitch me. I tore very badly with a third-degree laceration and needed stitching. I remember the nurses crying. I remember the anesthesiologist crying. The women who brought me my food that would go untouched crying. My sister who was with me in delivery crying. I remember the face of her innocence being stripped bare from what she had witnessed. She was just 24.
I remember the look on my parents’ face. The look you only know when you yourself becomes a parent. The look you get when your child is in pain. I remember my mother’s stillness and her strength. She was a maternity nurse for many years so she had to experience carrying dead babies to their devastated mothers before. It was not new to her.
But this time it was her daughter and it was gut wrenching.
I remember the look of defeat in my father’s eyes. The kind of look a dad gets when there is a problem he can’t fix. I remember the look of fear in my father-in-law’s face. I remember my mother-in-law’s composure. She was stoic and ready to spring into action. Everybody was fucking crying.
There were other sounds too. Moaning and screaming; I remember lots of screaming. Some family members threw things. And then there was silence.
And my husband. My poor husband. He was white. All the color was gone. And he looked terrified. I had never seen him look so scared.
Life as we knew it was no more. That day changed us all.
The next hours were a blur. There were a lot of doctors and nurses coming in. It was a revolving door. There was a neurologist to check my vision. I was poked at and prodded and poked some more. Blood was taken, again and again. I had no idea what for and I didn’t ask because quite frankly I didn’t fucking care. I was numb. I literally could not feel a thing.
Grief counselors and social workers tiptoed in. I was given parent bereavement group information. I didn’t utter a word and I told them all to leave. I didn’t want to be touched. I didn’t want to be held. I didn’t want to be fed. I didn’t want to be bathed. I didn’t want my laceration dressing to be changed.
I didn’t want to be consoled. By anyone. I wanted everyone to get the fuck out.
I was asked if I wanted to spend some time with Hudson. At first, I said no, I was too frightened. But somehow, I knew I had to see him. I knew I would regret it if I didn’t.
They went to get him. I was terrified. I remember feeling like I would vomit. I turned to my mom, “I’m scared. Does he look okay? Mom, I’m so scared.” My mother looked me directly in my eyes and said, “Melissa, he is beautiful. He is absolutely perfect. Do not be scared.” And so, they brought him into my arms. He was dressed in a onesie with a knit blue hat. I held him and inhaled him and kissed him for what felt like an eternity, yet not nearly long enough. Until I was told it was time to say goodbye.
He didn’t look scary.
He didn’t look sick.
He didn’t look small.
He didn’t look pale.
He didn’t look deformed.
He didn’t look dead.
He was perfection.
Breathtakingly, painstakingly, gut wrenchingly beautiful.
His cheeks were flushed and his color was perfect. He looked like a spitting image of me. And I think the fact that he looked so healthy and so perfect made it even worse. If it could get any worse. It was unfathomable.
I don’t know exactly how long I was with him but at some point, I was told it was time to say goodbye. They took him away. The next time I was with him was when his coffin was being lowered into the ground.
I chose not to see him in his coffin. I couldn’t bear it. My husband did, and they spent some time privately. He read him a story; Goodnight Moon.
Despite my trauma. Despite the severe PTSD. Despite the depression. Despite the incapacitating anxiety. Despite all the medication that made me numb and unable to shed a tear. Despite the loneliness. Despite the emptiness. Despite the despair. Despite the anger. Despite the rage. Despite the deep hate that I felt towards those that had failed me; including myself.
Despite the sadness. Despite the isolation. Despite the fear. Despite it all, I would go on to get pregnant four more times.
One I would miscarry. One would be a high-risk pregnancy. They would discover a birth defect with my second son. They would prepare for a highly anticipated premature delivery in which I would spend the majority of my pregnancy in and out of hospitals. My third would make a very dramatic entrance after a routine sonogram would reveal the umbilical cord wrapped around my daughter’s neck three times and where I would be told I needed to deliver her immediately. And one would end in stillbirth at 34 weeks with my second daughter a day after a maternity photo shoot when her heart stopped.
You can blink and exhale. You can say no fucking way. Yes, it happened again. I had to bury another child.
Yet here I am today. I have two living children. They are the oxygen from which I breathe. I am still standing. I am on a precipice and always feel like I am going to fall. But I am still standing. They are my reason. They are all my reasons.
I am not strong.
I am not a soldier.
I am not a warrior.
I do not have superpowers.
I am not exceptionally resilient.
But I am a captain. And I steer the ship.
I am a mother.
I am a bereaved mother.
Hudson changed me in the most profound ways a person can be changed. Yes, he made me a mother. But there are so many more layers. I continue to peel them back each day, month, year that passes. I have had a lot of time to reflect in this last decade. When you can’t sleep, the blackness and stillness of the night become your companion. I have a lot of time to spend with just my thoughts. I have replayed every single moment of every single minute of that day leading up to his death thousands of times. I have thought about all I have lost and everything I have gained. I am still angry yet I am grateful. I am joyful yet at times, joyless. I am hopeful. I am bitter. I am happy. I am resentful. I still have anxiety. I still struggle with PTSD. I still feel isolated. I still want to run and hide. I still have days I wish the sun would never rise. I still question my beliefs in god and religion and spirituality. I still sometimes feel like I am going to faint when I hear the news of another’s pregnancy. Birth announcements still make me cry.
But I can hold a baby in my arms now and I’m okay. So, there’s that. I still see beauty. I still laugh. I still find joy. The simple things hold the deepest meaning.
I still struggle. I always will. I am a fragment of who I used to be. It is what it is.
I am a contradiction. And that is okay. It’s called grief. And it’s cyclical. Some may ask how I can share such private pain. It’s taken me ten years to share the intimate details of Hudson’s birth story on such a public platform. I haven’t done so until this day. But the answer is simple. Because I have to. For me. For my children. For all those that came before. And for all the women that will come after. They say to write about what you know. And I know loss. I have a PhD in it.
Hudson, I often think about what could have been. What should have been. I think about who you would have gone on to become. How you would have changed the world and made it better. I often look at other children your age when I’m in the park with your brother and sister or at the pickup line at school and it breaks my heart. Just as my heart first broke on the day I lost you. And then it hurts all over again; and then it’s raw and fresh.
I think about your siblings who will never get to know you. But I know you know them and I find that gives me comfort. I think about the emptiness. I feel your loss physically in the pain in my bones when my whole body aches. I know it’s not residual damage from having had Covid twice or my back long persisting back issues. There is a much simpler explanation. It is the grief speaking to me.
Sometimes it’s debilitating. Sometimes it takes all the energy I can muster to get through the day and it’s so depleting. I think about the facade I put on as the world keeps turning and the days keep coming and the grief never stops. I think a lot about the dichotomy of life and death. All its beauty and ugliness. I think about how one person could have so much love and hate in their heart at the same time. I think about what defines us. I think about miracles. And destiny. And beshert. I think a lot about trauma and how it envelopes around your body and remains, always.
I think about Harper. I think about our bond and how it continues to strengthen even with you not here. It is the invisible string.
And I don’t store you in a memory box or bury you in a place far, far away hidden from the rest of the world because I don’t want you to be seen. Or because the pain is too private. Or too damaging to share. Or too uncomfortable for others to hear. I talk about you. I talk to you. We talk to the kids about you and your sister. I want people to know. Because you were here and because your short life had meaning. Because your imprint changed the world.
I will always yearn for you. I will always wait for you in my dreams. I will always keep you close. Neither two nor ten nor twenty more children could replace you. You are an unfinished chapter in my story. Neither the days nor months nor years can erase you from my mind.
I can still see you.
I see you in your sister. Everyone tells me how she looks exactly like me.
She is a spitting image of you.
I see you in the sun.
And in the moon.
And in every twinkle in the night sky.
And in the blue jays that circle my house.
And in every sunset and every sunrise.
And in the crashing waves.
And after the first snowfall of the season. And in the fog after it gently rises.
I can still hear you.
I hear you in the howling of the wind.
And in the pitter patter of the raindrops on my window.
And in the stream that trickles through my backyard.
And in the thunder when the sky blackens and claps back with anger and disdain.
I can still smell you.
In the flowers when they bloom.
And in the crisp autumn air.
And in the salt water.
And when a fire burns.
And in the smell of summer.
And when I close my eyes and inhale you. It all brings me back.
I still feel you. In every part of me. In every fiber of my being. And I still call to you in the night. You’re like the wind. I can’t see you but you are always there.
How do you commemorate a decade? How do you measure the years? How do you right past wrongs? How do you find peace when there is no resolution? These are all questions I have asked myself many times. I have learned to find it in the present. It is certainly not in the past. Nor is it when I dwell too much into the future. It is in the here and now. That is all I have. It’s all any of us really have.
So here I am today, on what would be your 10th birthday, Hudson Shea. Wherever you are, I am with you. Wherever I go, I carry your heart. I wish it could have been different for us. I so wish you could have stayed. But maybe in letting you go, I’ve been able to let go of the part of myself that expects too much. And when you don’t expect much of anything, life is a little simpler. Maybe that is my lesson.
So, there it is. I’ve played all my cards.
My hand is on the table.