A year ago today, I was 35 weeks pregnant and the placenta was ripping off the wall of my uterus. I didn’t know that. Nobody did, not even the doctor I’d seen just hours earlier for a regular check up. I had some unremarkable symptoms and felt restless. After talking with my family, I went to the hospital and told the triage nurse apologetically, “I know I’m being a paranoid pregnant lady, but I just want to know the baby is okay.”
I was hooked up to a fetal monitor and texted my husband to say the baby’s heart rate was good. At first, it was. Then, it wasn’t. Minutes after they’d hooked me up, the placenta separated, cutting off Charlie’s oxygen supply and causing bleeding that was trapped inside due to the position of the placenta. In medical terms, I was suffering a severe placental abruption. I felt, only, a little light-headed. Had I been at home, I would not have known that Charlie was suffocating inside of me.
Incredibly, I was at the hospital. The constellation of machines around my head beeped. A medical flash mob appeared. Somebody kicked off the breaks on my bed and the mob ran it to the OR. There was indescribable confusion, amidst which I felt extremely tiny, like the thimble in a Monopoly game. I asked to call my husband. Somebody took my phone and never gave it back.
The OR was a bizarre place, a kind of parallel universe. In the few minutes I was there, as they punched my skin with needles, I felt the presence of a friend who would die from ovarian cancer several hours later. In quick succession, I saw Nick’s grandfather, who had passed away weeks earlier, standing in the corner in faded navy blue pants. From my spot on the shiny table, I felt glad they were there.
Unlike many babies, who come into the world (somewhat) smoothly, Charlie came through a crack in my stomach, a crack in the universe.
I woke up to the sound of my husband’s voice and knew that I had been pregnant but wasn’t any more, and with my eyes still clamped shut I also knew the baby was not in the room. There are no words for that realization.
All I know about Charlie’s actual birth comes from several dozen pages of clinical-sounding medical records. Those pages say he was born blue and unresponsive, with an initial APGAR score of 2.
They resuscitated him while they sewed me up. Just like an ER montage. The hole in my abdomen was closing, my organs sinking back into me like quicksand, while a machine breathed for my baby one floor below me.
He was here, though. Inside the shell of Charlie’s incubator, tubes criss-crossed him. He looked as though he’d been swimming in the ocean and someone had caught him in a fishing net.
That little fish was lucky. We were lucky. Every doctor and nurse we saw told us so. They asked me how I’d known to come in, and I struggled to respond. I hadn’t known; forces from both sides of this life and the next pulled me from the couch and into the car.
And then, there we were, me in compression socks, our lives neatly divided into a before and after.
I first saw Charlie 12 hours after he was born. I couldn’t post the moment of our meeting on because nobody took a picture. We were lost in a mosaic of awe and terror and the breathless feeling that we’d just outrun a predator of some sort. I was still in a wheelchair and covered in bruises and IVs, and Charlie’s tiny, perfect face was barely visible beneath the spider web of cords.
With wonder, I watched his pink chest rise and fall.
Processing a traumatic birth is complicated. Most days I feel overwhelming gratitude; I think of those who have lost a child and those unable to have one. This was, decidedly, not that kind of heartbreak.
Yet, after Charlie was born, the earth felt different beneath my feet. The soil felt looser. I couldn’t un-know what arriving at the hospital minutes later would have meant for Charlie, or for me. I couldn’t un-see the almost imperceptible line between life and death.
Pregnant women look different to me now. I see their swollen bellies and I hold my breath.
Still, the world turns. Charlie is one. How can this be? He is here and he is an entire year old. Fat spills over the waistband of his pants and he kisses my face with a wide-open mouth. His fingernails are as small as a ladybug’s wing.
Sometimes, I think about that missing first picture of the two of us. And then I go get him after his nap. He raises one hand to the side of his pack-n-play and waits for me to place my hand against it on the other side. His palm is little and warm and reminds me of God, and I no longer need a picture.