By Halina Newberry Grant
My husband followed the sound of my screams. That’s how he found me — by picking up the bread crumbs of profanities I was throwing at doctors and nurses. While he parked the car, I had been put into a scratchy gown and then onto a hospital bed lying on my back while a nurse tried to get my baby’s heart rate with a ridiculous belt contraption, all while experiencing excruciating back labor. He ran to meet me, because, after laboring at home for 16 hours, this baby was coming now. There was no time for vitals. Two pushes later, my water broke, and after two more, I was holding my girl.
I sang to my baby, the same lullaby I’d sung to her and her twin brother nine months before. I wanted the first thing she heard in this world to be sweet because even though she was only a few minutes old, she had already lost so much. Her twin brother died beside her in my 21st week of pregnancy and I was certain she already knew loneliness.
When you are an old lady over 35 and you have tried to get pregnant for four years on your own without luck (There were complications: Cysts! Polyps! Money!), you are likely referred to a specialist who might, as mine did, suggest in vitro fertilization (IVF). I knew it would probably come to this and so I don’t pay much attention to the accompanying slough of statistics and warnings about possibly never getting pregnant (fifty-fifty), getting pregnant with multiples (1 in 4), high chances of miscarriage (increases with age of the mother and with thawing of embryos), or encountering congenital and chromosomal deficiencies (the older the eggs, the greater the chances). I was going to try anyway. These things seem unreal and insignificant when compared to the soaring potential for joy.
Our success was — despite the odds — immediate. After one round of IVF and the transfer of three healthy embryos, we were pregnant with twins. We celebrated our great double fortune shaking with euphoric, nervous laughter.
Because of my age and the two humans I was carrying, I was classified as “high-risk” — a label that I hated. But the upside of being called “high-risk” was getting to peek into their shadowy water world once a week with very fancy equipment — 3-D ultrasounds projected their tiny bodies onto wall-size flat screen TVs. We were handed videos and printed portraits of our babies. As the weeks and months passed, they rooted themselves in our lives.
I knew my twins by heart; I knew their noses, fists, bellies, and chins. They were active, practicing mixed martial arts against my insides. Our collection of in-utero three-dimensional portraits showed us that Baby A had my husband’s nose, and Baby B my high forehead. Week after week, month after month, we were voyeurs — eavesdropping on their chirping heartbeats, a tiny chorus content in their mysterious cavern.
At our 20-week appointment, we were to find out the sexes of our twins. The big reveal was one we had excitedly contemplated from the beginning with names picked out for each potential pairing. But when the doctor entered the room, the silence was too big, and there was not enough eye contact. There was no lilting musicality in his tone — that only came with good news. He told us we had a boy and a girl, and I wept, my face strained with an enormous joy I had never felt.
He told us enthusiastically about Baby A — our girl! Her measurements and vitals and functions were all perfect. Then he took off his glasses, clasped his hands and told us about Baby B — our boy. He explained that his heart wasn’t properly formed. He had a congenital heart defect. He told us he was certain that with further tests, which we would begin that day, we would learn that our Baby B also had extreme chromosomal abnormalities.
We were moved from the ultrasound room into a waiting room with other pregnant women who were sitting smugly in maternal bliss. I was sobbing with my husband’s limp arm trying to pull me close to shield me from both the curious, intrusive glances and the wrecking ball that might swing back. Our families, who were waiting anxiously to find out if we were having boys or girls or both, instead got tearful calls with fragments of information. I was a brew of heart and head, feelings and thoughts and questions: Why? Why? WHY?
In the 21st week of my pregnancy, our boy’s fragile heart fluttered to a stop and his delicate body ceased developing. I thought about how that heartbeat chorus had become a solo. Would our girl miss the harmony? Would she feel lonely? I wondered if she could hear my moans of agony. And what of the love I had for Baby B? A lingering, tangible thread remained tied to my heart on one end and dangled in the void on the other.
In the weeks to come, I entered a bewildering dual reality: I was carrying a healthy baby girl who was growing and thriving while also carrying the calcified remains of her brother. I pushed thoughts of her approaching birth to the back of my brain. I understood the logistics — when my time to deliver came a few months later, I would give birth to both a healthy baby and the remains of her twin. I wasn’t afraid of giving birth, but I was terrified that I would be so trapped by grief over the loss that I would miss out on the joy of holding my daughter in my arms for the first time.
A week after losing Baby B, I was supposed to fly to Seattle from our home in L.A. for my baby shower. It had been planned for months, and canceling or postponing just didn’t feel right. My husband, my life raft, could not travel with me. My heartbroken family understood that I was trudging forward, and I longed to be surrounded by their love and support. Without my asking, my sister changed my gift registry from two of everything to one and she and my mom notified our guests in the simplest of terms that we had lost a baby and wanted only to focus on what we had, not on what we had lost.
With my upcoming shower as a deadline, I gave myself that week to mourn my loss as loudly and dramatically as each passing thought and feeling required. I gave in to my emotions. I may not have been fully ready to accept reality, but I didn’t want to feel this way a day longer than I had to. For one week, I would wallow.
Cry alone if I felt like it. Let myself be held while staring into space. Ignore phone calls. Stay in bed with the blinds closed, not knowing if it was day or night.
At the end of that week, I turned my attention to the healthy baby who needed me to be whole, happy, healthy and walking upright. I was her mom, and she needed me. Moms have feelings, fears, trauma, and all the trappings of life, but they don’t have the luxury of dwelling on them. My daughter needed to experience what bravery and courage felt like in her cells, and this was my first motherly teaching moment.
At my shower, the tulips, cake, and the loving messages written to my baby girl dangling delicately from the chandelier were a pleasant diversion from the feeling that I was attending a funeral at a wedding. There was a hole in my heart that everyone could see. My oldest friends and family telegraphed compassion and solidarity with their eyes when I was able to meet their gazes. My joy was genuine, but my churning emotions made me a liar, looking around for the next subject so I didn’t reveal too much truth. I juggled gifts and emotions, careful not to drop anything too heavy. This day was not mine — it was my daughter’s, and she deserved to be celebrated and honored for her strength.
In July of 2013, the universe that had previously sucker-punched me rewarded me with a fast and drug-free birth, and I arrived at the hospital barely in time to deliver our extraordinary daughter. The wonder of her scrawny, red, wiggling body bouncing and rooting on my chest skin-to-skin eclipsed the tangled mass of afterbirth and placenta and the remains of her twin lying within my periphery, just a few feet away.
My sister — who was also my doula — asked me if I wanted to see the remains of Baby B, and I said no without taking my eyes off my girl. That mass of cells was an old dream to me, one that started out bright then turned dark. This sweet girl in my arms was a miraculous reality and tangible, and I couldn’t wait to find out who she was. I had finished my mourning long ago, and I didn’t dare tear my gaze from this fragile gift that life had placed in my flawed and incapable hands.
Today the agony of that time is just a memory, but one that fuels our anxiousness to have more babies using IVF or whatever means we must to replace the loss with love. I still carry the weight of that loss with me, but it is light compared to the depth of my love for what I have. And my heart, which grew to twice its size to carry enough love for two, didn’t contract; it only continues to expand.