I have heard some fathers express to me that they didn’t feel particularly connected to their first child during the pregnancy, when the tiny person could only be experienced through light kicks, second hand recounting of movements from their wife, and blurry ultrasound photos where a head is only slightly distinguishable from a butt. It’s only after they hold their newborn in their hands that lightning strikes and they feel that powerful, almost spiritual experience of becoming a father. It makes sense but for me I am one of those weird ones who felt that feeling right from the beginning as soon as I learned my wife was pregnant.
I was overjoyed and felt far less anxiety over the prospect of raising a child than I would have thought I would. Every day I would place my head near my wife’s belly and sing to my daughter, and I went to every appointment excited to see if we would learn something new. I learned, somewhat even to my own surprise, that not only was I ready to be a father it was what I wanted, really really wanted.
Unfortunately though, sometimes bad things happen.
After an otherwise remarkably smooth pregnancy, at 41 weeks my daughter passed. At this late stage my wife began to feel something was wrong and we went to the hospital 3 times over the course of about a week and each time were sent home because nothing was wrong (supposedly anyway), a day after the third dismissal my wife started bleeding heavily and after we returned we learned our baby had passed.
I remember the first time I felt what can only be described as a sensation similar to that of a knife being slowly pushed into my gut when moments before a problem was announced the two ultrasound techs working on my wife suddenly went from cheery and talkative to dead silent while casting nervous glances at each other, the image they were viewing having disquieted them.
That was the first arrival of the gut knife, but over the next few days it was my constant, unseen but hated companion that would twist itself painfully at each new stage of horror and grief.
I remember one of the things that got repeated over and over again in the pregnancy classes we went to was the following idea: “Pregnancy and child birth are hard, sometimes really hard, but it’s all worth it when you are holding your child in your arms at the end.”
Unfortunately we had to go through the labor process with no hope of this reward and even worse, it was not a smooth process. What the doctors didn’t know at the time was 1. my wife has a very narrow birth canal and 2. our baby was over nine pounds.
The birth lasted for hours, and despite both an epidural and additional pain killers my wife was in agony. During the process the doctors used forceps to try and remove my daughter but it did not go well, not well at all. At one point a doctor took me aside and, tears in her eyes started talking to me about a long string of what to my confused mind seemed unrelated facts: The forceps create great pressure when used in a situation like this. That my child had essentially been deceased awhile and her body held in liquid which softens the flesh.
What are you trying to tell me? I eventually mumbled even as I realized the answer: That my child’s body might come apart during this ordeal…..wonderful…another knife twist.
Eventually after realizing they where making no progress they offered me a choice of how to precede: one way or another they would have to put my wife under because she was both in too much pain and was also losing strength. But they could either try to deliver vaginally in which case my child’s body may be destroyed or they could do a cesarean but that had vastly increased health risks to my wife because of the circumstances. I told them to deliver vaginally if they could as I would rather have a healthy wife than a pretty child’s body.
They took her away and left me in the room, telling me they would inform me as things progressed. The place had been trashed by the high volume of traffic that had gone through it in the past few hours as doctors and nurses had worked to do what they could and there was what I considered at the time to be a frighteningly large amount of blood on the floor.
At this point I was extremely frightened for my wife’s well being and was afraid she would die and leave me alone, an irrational fear perhaps but events had already gone from normal life to scary horror movie in a shockingly short amount of time so it seemed not only possible, but likely in those moments. I sat for a long time on a couch in the room staring off into space.
I’m honestly not even sure how to explain how I felt at that time; fear, grief, rage and every other black emotion swirling like toxic sludge through my heart and brain, and of course my good friend the razor sharp blade worming its way deeper into my guts.
Eventually I stood and started pacing around the room mumbling to myself and crying softly. An hour passed and still no word, so I rang a nurse and demanded an update, and also that they clean the blood off the floor, and also some other things that I don’t think made sense and I can’t quite remember. She was very accommodating to my half mad ramblings and soon a doctor came to tell me that my wife was all right and the baby was delivered, they had done a pretty extreme episiotomy and it was just taking a while to stitch it up.
My relief was immense.
A woman came in and asked if I would like to see my baby in the meantime while waiting for my wife. I said yes. She warned me that it may be a bit gruesome but I said I still wanted to hold her. The brought her in a crib, fully dressed and with a little hat on her head. Her features were soft and beautiful and her body was warm but there was no mistaking her for a live baby. Her cheeks had fresh wounds in them and her body was limp, one arm had been badly broken and hung at an angle when I unwrapped the blanket she was in and inspected her body. I remember having the bizarre thought. “What I wanted was a beautiful baby girl. What I got was a beautiful baby girl who looks like she was savaged by wolves before they gave her to me.”
At this point something broke inside me and I let out a long mournful wail that, even to my own ears, didn’t sound like anything I’d ever heard a human throat make, this was followed by hysterical sobbing the likes of which not only had I never made before but I didn’t even know I could make.
Ah…at this point the memories are too painful for me to easily recount so I’m afraid a will have to skip ahead a bit.
A day and a half later my wife and I are in the recovery room resting and talking. We watch the little mermaid and my all time favorite movie, one I had wished to share with my daughter, Kung Fu panda. Perhaps it is just the product of an over active imagination but I believe I feel my daughter in the room with us and I periodically tell her I love her.
My wife tells me she feels like a failure having lost our daughter and that she fears I will leave her in disgust. I tell her (to paraphrase a long conversation) to lock that shit in a box and dump it in the deepest trench of the ocean she can find. She is my one true love and I will never leave her. I will love her until long after the last of the stars in the sky have burnt out.
The recovery time to mourn my daughter is long and slow. My wife is prone to collapsing in tears at the slightest memory of my daughter and I deal with my grief by flying into rages about inconsequential annoyances, rarely addressing the true source of my pain as it is safer and more cathartic to tear apart straw targets than address a tragedy I cannot make right and can do nothing about.
I learn a different way of coping with my grief than what I classically do. Normally after a hard trauma I become sullen and withdrawn, I sleep a lot, shutting down like a computer that lags too much and needs to be rebooted for a fresh start. Here though I realize I cannot withdraw and must face my pain as straightforwardly as possible so that when my wife needs my emotional support I can be there for her.
The gut dagger is my constant companion, and sometimes it feels like I am bleeding out, hissing and spitting angrily as my life leaves me a drop at a time, But every day I tell my wife I love her and show her its true in every way I can. She is my rock and I need her.
Time passes, the wound doesn’t heal, but it becomes less all consuming. I find joy in small things again, I look forward to having a rainbow baby. I will always miss my daughter and will likely think about her until the day I die.
I guess that’s all I really have to say.
I love my sweet daughter Grace and my wonderful wife Sara is my whole world, top to bottom.
You’re my girls, forever.