Two years after we initially started trying, we wondered if we would ever be able to have a second child. In June 2015, we went on vacation to the Smoky mountains and visited Dollywood. After riding a triple inversion roller coaster, I felt very off, which was unusual for me because I usually handle roller coasters very well. The next day I took a test and was thrilled to see two lines — I was finally pregnant with our second child! My pregnancy progressed smoothly and uneventfully, and our 18-week sonogram revealed a healthy baby who danced his little legs around and showed off for us. We learned our baby was a boy. Over the next few months, we painted his room and re-assembled the crib. As his due date of February 27th drew closer, I unpacked the baby gear and folded the newborn clothes neatly in his closet, including a couple of “Little Brother” sleepers I had picked out just for him. I packed a hospital bag with a newborn-sized coming home outfit. I unpacked and washed the infant car seat and ordered diapers online. We were so ready and excited to meet our baby!
On the morning of January 23rd, I didn’t wake up until it was almost time to leave for my hair appointment. I was exhausted as I had been fighting a cold and sinus infection all week. It didn’t seem like my baby had been very active that morning, but then again I hadn’t been awake very long and thought I might have just missed his activity. He was usually most active at night around bedtime. I had an anterior placenta, so it was often difficult to notice his movements unless I was paying attention. I didn’t feel him as distinctly as I had with my first child, Jaxton.
After my hair appointment, I still wasn’t feeling much, so I went home determined to monitor his movements. At home I glided the home doppler over my belly. Immediately, the sound of his strong heartbeat met my ears and I relaxed a bit. Maybe he was just having a slow day or in a different position than usual. Lying on my side in bed, I attempted to count his movements. I tried shaking my belly to get a reaction. I was getting barely anything. I decided to go eat and drink some sugary juice to see if that would perk him up. As I ate, I noticed his feet were poking out in their usual spot at the top of my belly. We often played a game in which he would poke out his feet and I would push back in on them and he would react by pushing back or moving them. On that night, his feet seemed to be pressing out with more force and they remained that way despite me pushing on them.
At that point, I was getting really worried. I checked the doppler again and his heart still sounded strong. I sat in a chair with my 3 year old son Jaxton on my lap while he was watching YouTube videos. In retrospect he should have been in bed, but I was too worried about the situation at hand to go through our bedtime routine. Usually when Jaxton would sit on my lap and lean against my belly, the baby would squirm or kick in response. My husband Phillip and I always joked it was sibling rivalry starting early. That night, there were no kicks or squirms. I thought I felt a shifting inside of me. I grabbed my doppler, hurriedly rubbed coconut oil on my belly to help it glide, and listened again. Nothing but the sounds of my own body met my ears. At that moment, I truly understood the meaning of deafening silence. My heart raced as I searched and searched, hoping and praying that he was just hiding or that my doppler wasn’t working correctly. I frantically told Phillip we needed to go to the hospital right away. We grabbed our coats, bundled up our son, and rushed out the door. I didn’t say a word the whole way there; I just prayed to God to please let my baby be ok.
At the hospital, they checked me in, asking how far along I was. 35 weeks. After taking my vitals, they told me to have a seat in the waiting room while they paged the OB floor. My son had to use the bathroom, and I remember walking into the bathroom and immediately seeing a penny on tails. My stomach churned with fear and dread. I was wheeled up to the OB floor, changed into a gown, and tried unsuccessfully to remain calm as they strapped a heart monitor to my belly. The nurses adjusted it and readjusted the monitor, but heard nothing. There was a brief glimmer of hope when the nurse said she thought she heard our baby, only to have it crashing down seconds later as she checked and realized she was hearing my racing pulse. She said she had to call a technician to come to the room with a machine so they could take a closer look. I knew things were looking grim at that point.
What seemed like an eternity later, a sono machine was wheeled into the room. Cold gel covered my belly and my baby’s profile filled the screen. His frame appeared so limp and dark, like looking into an unoccupied shell. I knew before they even zoomed in on his heart. The two sides of his heart were motionless. The sonogram technician barely met our eyes as she said, “His heart isn’t moving. I’m so sorry.” My body trembled and shook uncontrollably with shock. Ever conscious that our son was in the room, thankfully somewhat oblivious to the events unfolding in front him, I refrained from screaming and sobbing. How could this even be real life? I wanted to wake up from this nightmare I was trapped in.
Decisions had to be made, but it was 2:00 am or so at that point so nothing happened quickly. My options were to either be induced, or to wait for labor to begin on its own, which could take up to two weeks. The nurse said I could even go home if I wanted, which seemed bizarre to me. What was I going to do at home, sleep? There is a dead body inside of me! My baby is dead! We had planned to deliver at a different hospital, so we tried to call my doctor and they said they would have her paged. When she finally called, there was a lot of apologies and silence on the line. She said she would let the hospital I wanted to deliver at know about the situation so they were ready when we got there. I then had to be discharged from the hospital I was at. We arranged for Jaxton to be picked up by my sister-in-law. As I got dressed and pulled my maternity shirt on over my large baby bump, I wondered in a haze of shock how my belly could still look so full of life when my baby was dead inside of it. I was wheeled back down to the ER to be discharged. Within a couple of hours of discovering there was no heartbeat, my belly had started to feel different. Heavier, literally like dead weight. The discharge room had a rocking chair, and I sat there in the dim light, rocking my baby for the last time in the womb.
When we walked outside, the bitter chill of the icy winter wind bit against my skin. I normally hate the cold, but that night I welcomed its cold, numbing deadness, a numbness that resonated with the deadness of my baby’s body inside of me, and the overwhelming shock that had frozen me. We drove to the birth center mostly in silence. I remember at some point on the drive there, Phillip mentioned that this meant we would have to decide what would happen with our baby’s body. I couldn’t even wrap my mind around that concept. I had heard stories of photographers who took pictures of babies who had passed away and I remember hoping that someone would come take pictures of our baby at the hospital.
We arrived at the birth center and a nurse took us to our room. I took in the room, a typical maternity room with a hospital bed and rocking recliner. It was hard to believe I’d soon be bringing our baby into the world. The early hours were a blur. After three tries resulting in an ugly bruise on my left arm, I was hooked up to an IV. We called our parents and told them the news. They all live four hours away and hurriedly packed to drive to the hospital. A technician came in to do a sonogram. He worked without saying a word, moving the wand and taking various measurements. I stared at the limp profile of my baby, not wanting to watch, yet unable to take my eyes away from the screen. I searched for any clue as to why his heart was no longer beating. Afterward, the nurse checked me and said I was dilated to a 2 and my cervix was still about 90% thick.
At 7:50 am, they started the induction process with a low dose of pitocin in my IV. The nurse mentioned there was a TV and remote in the room, but I stared at it blankly, not even comprehending how there could still be normal shows on TV. At 10:21 am, a doctor came in to break my water. At that point, I was breathing through contractions. The physical pain of them provided a welcome distraction from the emotional reality of the situation. About an hour later, when I was dilated to a 4, I told the nurse I was ready for an epidural. At that point, I had been awake for about a day and a half, and I knew I needed to rest so I could have strength remaining when my baby was born.
While I imagined that I would have been a sobbing, shaking, inconsolable heap on the floor in that situation, knowing my baby was dead, in reality I was mostly numb with shock. I felt like a big cloud hung over me, and I could barely even cry. I was thinking logically about the task at hand, giving birth. Despite the fact that he wouldn’t be born alive, I was excited to see my baby’s face and what features he would have. Most of the time after the epidural was placed was spent trying to rest, and calling and texting family and friends to tell them the news and ask for prayer. Our family and friends came to the hospital to wait and pray. Around the same time everyone arrived, the nurse was about check how dilated I was. I was lying on my right side, and as the nurse was leading everyone out to the waiting room, I shifted my leg and felt a big pressure that I hadn’t before. When the nurse came in, I told her it felt like the baby just moved down into position. She checked me and confirmed I was dilated to a 10 and ready to push.
My previous birth ended in a c-section, so the pushing experience was new to me. After getting me into position, the nurse had me try pushing with a contraction. After seeing how much progress I made with one push, she had me hold off with pushing for a few minutes until the doctor arrived in the room. I pushed through three more contractions. Finn was born January 24th, 2016 at 5:50 pm, exactly 10 hours after labor was induced. He was 3 lbs, 11 oz and 16 3/4 inches long. I watched as the doctor gripped his head as she pulled him from me and placed him on my chest. Although we both thought we would start sobbing when Finn was born, the peace surrounding him was indescribable. We were overwhelmed with love for him just like any other parents gazing upon their child for the first time. We stared in awe at his sleeping face. His thick dark hair was plastered to his head, and he was still warm and pink from my body. He was beautiful, still, and silent. I touched him, studied his features and just marveled at how he looked so peaceful and perfectly formed. He looked as though he was only sleeping and could wake up at any moment.
The doctor asked if I wanted to cut his umbilical cord. That took me by surprise because I hadn’t really thought about it beforehand, but I agreed. I took the scissors into my hand and made the cut, setting him free into a world where he would never breathe the air. We stroked his little hands and feet and marveled over his dark hair. Using the corner of the towel that covered him, I tried to clean his delicate skin. For about an hour, it was just us with him as he rested on my chest. When I was pregnant we had picked out a few potential names, and as we studied him, we decided he should be called Finn Liam.
After we had some time with Finn by ourselves, the nurse took Finn to the sink to wash his hair with baby shampoo and wipe him off as best as she could. She had to be careful with his skin since a stillborn baby’s skin is prone to tearing and peeling, so we were never able to clean him up completely. We chose a blanket to wrap him in. The nurse helped me to the bathroom so I could get dressed. After I was dressed, Finn’s big brother Jaxton, his grandparents, and our friends came in to see us. Phillip was sitting in the rocking chair holding Finn. Jaxton came over to stroke Finn’s head and give him a kiss. He put his finger over his mouth and said “Shh!” because he thought Finn was sleeping. I didn’t get a picture of that moment but I will never forget it. A photographer from “Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep” came to take pictures of the whole family with Finn. By the time we finished with photos, it was getting late on Sunday night and we were running on no sleep. As much as I wanted to stay awake and keep holding Finn, I knew I needed to get some sleep so I could keep functioning and remember my time with him.
Around midnight, I let the nurse take Finn to the nursery to take measurements and to allow a volunteer to sketch a picture of him. I sat awake looking at photos of him on my phone to remind myself he was still real, fearing the dreams that might come once I feel asleep. Finally at 1:00 am I set my alarm for 5:00 am. I reasoned I had the rest of my life to sleep and just wanted enough sleep to function for what little time I had left with Finn. I slept heavily and I didn’t remember my dreams at all. I woke to my alarm at 5 am, and in the ten seconds it took for me to realize where I was at and what was happening, I began to shake uncontrollably. I paged the nurse to turn down the air conditioning and asked if Finn could be brought back to our room.
When the nurse brought Finn back to our room in a bassinet, I saw they had put a blue cooling blanket called a Cuddle Cot underneath him. He was cold to the touch, and his face was increasingly purple. I could feel his skull plates shift as I lifted him from his bassinet. Phillip was still sleeping, so I carried Finn over and lied down next to him holding Finn between us, just as we had done so many times when Jaxton was a baby. I cried for the days and years ahead without him. Breakfast was brought in and I put him down in the bassinet while we ate. I thought about how strangely normal it seemed that I was eating breakfast in a maternity ward room while my baby was lying in the bassinet nearby. Normal, except no nurses came to ask about feedings, diaper changes, or to take his temperature. He never moved or made a sound.
During my labor with Finn, my prayers for strength were met with words from a Newsboys song, “Lord I Don’t Know“.
Lord I don’t know where all this is going
Or how it all works out
Give me a peace that surpasses understanding
A peace beyond all doubt
I hadn’t heard that song in years, yet it was the very song that came to mind. I looked that song up on my phone and played it as I sat rocking Finn in the rocking chair. We were curious what color his eyes were, so we raised his eyelids and saw his eyes were a grayish-blue, much like Jaxton’s eyes were as a newborn. We held him up to the window so he could “see” the light and “feel” the sunshine on his face. Outside the window, life continued as usual, and it seemed so strange when our world was standing still. In the parking lot, cars drove around taking care of Monday business, oblivious to our pain. The world and everything we knew would never be known to our son. We would never take him outside or take him home.
We talked with a bereavement nurse and after being given information about area funeral homes, we decided on a funeral home. We had no family buried nearby, so we decided we wanted him to be cremated so we could take him home with us in a sense, instead of leaving him in the hard frozen ground of a cemetery both physically far from us and full of strangers. The children’s hospital in our city also offered free autopsies for stillborn babies, so we chose to have an autopsy performed in hopes of finding a cause.
The hospital let us decide how long we wanted to stay with Finn. The nurse said the time after birth is usually devoted to infant care, reminding me how much we had missed already. We were advised that most bereaved parents don’t stay with their babies more than 24 hours because the physical changes of decomposition start to become more apparent and it is heartbreaking to watch that process. They were correct in that observation. We were caught between a reluctance to say goodbye and the difficulty of watching our son wasting away before our eyes. My body had spent months growing and nurturing this perfect little body to live in an outside world that it would never see. His little eyes would never see our faces, his little nose would never breathe, his little hands would never reach for us, his little feet would never walk, and his little mouth would never eat or smile.
We made the difficult decision to say goodbye around 2:30 pm. We sat holding Finn in our room while waiting for a person from the children’s hospital to come get him. We unwrapped his blanket one last time to study every detail of his tiny body. The nurses had put a little newborn diaper on him while he was in the nursery and it was huge on his small frame. His skinny little legs hung limply from his torso. The skin on the rest of his body was still in good shape in stark contrast to the darkness of his face. We carefully wrapped him back up in his blanket.
Our nurse entered with the man who had come to transport Finn. She said they went to church together. I was comforted that she knew him. It felt so wrong to allow a stranger take our baby away. They told us to take all the time we needed to say our goodbyes. I held him close, memorizing his weight in my arms, then slowly lowered him down into the bassinet, fixing the blanket wrapped around him. I stroked his soft hair. I kissed his sweet little head, as my hand lingered on his body, knowing I was touching him for the last time. I reluctantly pulled my hand away, and we said they could take him away. We watched helplessly as he was wheeled out of the room and around the corner until we could see him no more, the last glimpse of him we would have for the rest of our lives. Phillip and I stood sobbing in each other’s arms, and I had never been so thankful that we had each other.
We quickly packed up our things onto a cart and left our room — the room that had contained our every experience with our baby and now felt glaringly empty without him. I refused to be wheeled out like a mother leaving with her baby; I wanted to walk. The walk down the maternity ward hallway seemed to stretch for miles. We passed rooms full of other families experiencing the best days of their lives, their time with their babies just beginning down the hallway from the room in which our time with our baby had just abruptly ended. Through one of the open doors, the cries of a newborn baby filled the hallway, and I was crushed.
At the entrance, Phillip went to get the car while I waited by the doors with my nurse. I looked back into the birth center lobby and could see another mom waiting in a wheelchair, with balloons of congratulations and a baby carrier on the cart. They seemed to be hanging back out of respect for me, but I could see them watching us while her nurse was likely explaining our situation. The proud smiling father and big sister walked past me on their way to go get the car. I stood there awkwardly holding a vase of flowers. Phillip came around in our car and we loaded our things into it, the backseat hauntingly empty without a car seat.
Before we left the hospital campus, we stopped by my OBGYN office to pick up some paperwork, the same office where my 35-week appointment had been scheduled for that afternoon. A couple weeks before, I had walked in there a glowing pregnant woman and left thinking my baby was growing and thriving. Now I entered a postpartum mother, still sore and bleeding from birth with no baby to show for it. Nobody would know I had just given birth, or congratulate me on the new addition to our family. Few would mention our new baby. An empty nursery awaited me at home that I couldn’t fill with my empty arms. I was an invisible mother with an invisible child, learning to navigate a life I had never anticipated or asked for. At the same time, I knew I would do it all over again for the joy of calling Finn my son, and myself, his mommy.