Sometimes Babies Don’t Come Home

Introducing to you all, the wonderful Celeste, who (when I suddenly pounced on her and asked if she’d write for Sisterwives) not only doesn’t take offense at you asking her to share some of the most painful moments of her life, and the aftermath it’s left her dealing with, she *jumps* at the chance. Because I get the impression that (like me) she’s out to support others who are struggling through the horror of child loss (at whatever stage) and is generous enough to share her story, most beautifully, here. I for one, was hugely affected and inspired by the telling, and her determination to gather up the pieces of her life and stick them back into a very differently shaped frame – Lizzi

Sometimes Babies Dont Come Home Image

My family never kept the reality of death away from us, mostly because they never had the opportunity. Uncles and Aunties and cousins were lost with a kind of relentless regularity. Funerals were attended, most of them held at the same mortuary nestled at the foot of Diamond Head. They were almost joyous family reunions, more reliable than weddings.

In between funerals, I tagged along with my grandmother and her sisters as they tended the graves of those who had gone before. When I was old enough to help, I filled vases with water. Brushed debris from headstones to reveal row after row of familiar names.

And there, alongside my grandfather’s, was the name of my brother.

Baby Robin died just a few moments before his birth. As my mother labored with her first baby, a nurse checked her baby’s heartbeat. Everything was fine. A few minutes later my mom asked to be checked again. Suddenly, everything was not fine.

My brother was laid to rest on top of his grandfather, his tiny casket taking up the space intended for my grandmother. His name plate was commissioned and installed, a single date marking his arrival and departure.

This is how I learned about stillbirth. About death. I learned that sometimes babies don’t come home. That going to sleep was a crap shoot to see if you woke up in the morning. And I knew that people kept having babies and going to sleep because it was better than the alternative of doing nothing at all.

So when it was time for me to have my children, I understood loss was a constant possibility. I knew, and I did what I think we all have to do in order to cling to any kind of hope at all: I distanced myself from knowing. I told myself that these things happen. If my baby died, I’d be sad but I’d go on. I would make more babies.

If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again.

I really believed this, even after my first pregnancy led to the premature birth of my son at twenty-six weeks. Even after watching my closest friend endure round after round of miscarriages. Even after all of the knowing about loss, I was still cocky and self-assured enough to barrel back into baby-making with the quaint notion of “let’s just see what happens.”

What happened was I held my dead son in my arms, and nothing has been the same ever since.

It really wasn’t until I saw him that everything changed. Even a moment before, as I pushed my son’s body out of mine, I didn’t get it. Earlier that day, when the perinatologist told me his heart had stopped beating, I was still unenlightened. Before that, when I saw my husband at the hospital, I was a little confused by his tear-streaked face . And even earlier, when I called him from work and sobbed out the words “I think I just lost the baby” I wasn’t quite sure why I was carrying on.

I didn’t understand, even during all of those dramatic, slow-motion moments, the real significance of losing a child.

I thought I got it. I thought my knowledge of loss made me a thorough and careful enough mother. I was nervous throughout the entire pregnancy, hounding my doctor for reassurance that she gave almost cheerfully. No increased risk of preterm labor, she told me. No need for additional monitoring. And because I wanted to, I believed her.

By twenty weeks, I was so sure that everything would be perfect that I invited my nine year-old son Jonas to my anatomy scan. He had been so excited to finally be a big brother, setting aside toys to pass down. Planning trips and adventures and birthday parties. When the ultrasound tech announced that the baby was a boy, he literally cheered. He asked if he could help name his brother. We said of course.

Two weeks later, my water broke.

I called my mother from the hospital. She’d picked Jonas up from school and was on her way to my brother’s birthday dinner. When I told her what happened, she whispered a rarely uttered cuss word.

“Do you want us to come there now?” she asked.
“No,” I told her. “I’m fine. Have a nice dinner and come afterwards. Tell Evans I’m sorry I’m missing his birthday party.”

A few hours later the door opened and my son peeked through. I motioned for him to come to me and he climbed into my hospital bed. As he curled his body against mine, I kissed the top of his dirt-scented head. He was a miracle, my relentlessly fighting NICU graduate. The boy who wanted so badly to be a big brother.

“What if the baby dies?” He asked softly.

“Well,” I told him bravely, “we’ll still have each other.”

I believed myself when I said that. I felt calm and prepared in the face of whatever would happen over the next few hours. There were paths laid out that I just needed to follow: the NICU Warrior Mom if my son survived, and trying again if he didn’t.

Fifty-three hours after his membranes prematurely ruptured, I grasped my husband’s hand and gave birth to my son. His tiny, lifeless body slid out of mine and my pregnancy was officially, horribly, over. The doctor congratulated me on doing such a good job and I winced. I had done the worst job. The very worst. There was nothing good in any of this.

The nurse took my son to the warming table where she measured and weighed him, and did most of the things that they do with a live baby. Finally, she turned.

“Do you want to see your son?” she asked. I answered immediately. Of course I wanted to see him. Hold him. Be with him in the only moments I could be with my precious boy. After wrapping him in a blanket, she laid him in my arms. That tiny breathless bundle became the gravity that shifted my entire reality.

I saw in my son’s mottled, dead baby face, the nose I had inherited from my grandmother. The cleft of my husband’s distinctively handsome chin. Through his parted lips, I spied the most darling tongue I have ever seen. And I knew I would never see any of it again.

The nurse let us know we were being moved to a different room. She had to take our baby for the move, she said, though we could get him back whenever we wanted. Just call, and they’ll bring him right to us. As long as we wanted. As often as we wanted. Just ask. Let them know whatever we needed. Anything at all. I knew she couldn’t make good on that promise.

We gathered our stuff and the nurse helped wheel me to my new room. Away from the labor and delivery unit, she said gently, to spare us in our shock and heartache. We knew that was only half of it. Wailing away in their own birthing rooms, other laboring mothers also needed to be spared. From the sight of nurses shuttling our son back and forth between my room and the morgue. From me and my dead baby.

I hated the mothers who got to be spared.

The next day I handed a nurse my son’s corpse for the very last time. I took the single wrongest walk I have ever taken, and I left my son behind. I went to a funeral home and I picked out an urn. I signed paperwork giving my consent to have his body cremated.

I requested a death certificate.

I did all of these things while still bleeding and cramping and awkwardly shuffling in the aftermath of delivery. When my milk came in, my unsuckled breasts seemed to gloat over my broken, empty belly. “We can do our job”, they said. “Why can’t you?”

I rented a pump to extract ounce after ounce of pale yellow liquid and donated all of it in a stubborn attempt to give my son’s life meaning. I scheduled the pickup for October 15th; Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Day. I thought it would make the day somehow bearable.

Of course it didn’t.

The days went on and life tried desperately to return to normal. There were dinners to make, and Math worksheets to check, and all manner of minutia to tend for the living. But I was hunched over by grief, pressed beneath a deafening, bone-chilling weight that made every single action slow and confusing. When the string of sympathy dinners stopped and I tried to cook again, I turned angry, distracted circles in the kitchen. I stared at the knobs in the shower trying to remember how they worked. I had Jonas read a permission slip and point to the place for me to sign it because the words on the page were a haphazard jumble.

Nothing made sense, and I did not understand why.

I had seen death before. I had grown up knowing its pragmatic reality. These things happen. We will all lose everyone. Nobody, nothing, is permanent. All you can do is pick yourself up and carry on. But when I tried to do just that, the way I had done so many times before, it didn’t work.

So now I have to relearn everything. From scratch. Revisit every old ache, every loss, and heal from them anew. Maybe heal for the very first time. Most of the time, I don’t know how to do it. All of the time, I wish I didn’t have to.

I always knew that sometimes babies don’t come home, but when mine didn’t I realized that there is no knowledge of this kind of grieving. No knowledge of loss you haven’t actually touched. Just a deep down, life changing action when you finally do.

And maybe, if you’re lucky, and work very, very hard, an eventual and unwilling sort of acceptance.

Five years later, I am still trying to find it.


Celeste Headshot

Celeste McLean is the woman behind, where she writes about grief, mental health, and her Pacific Islander ancestry. She left her home in paradise twenty years ago and has been trying to figure out how to get back ever since. She currently lives in Seattle with her husband where they raise two children and tolerate one very demanding cat.

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