It was an oppressively hot summer day on a Midwestern farm. There was no breeze and the sun was baking the corn on the stalks. We hadn’t seen rain in weeks but the humidity level felt like water should be dripping out of the air.
I was 22 weeks pregnant, just past the half way mark.
The point where mothers begin to breathe more easily because they successfully passed that first trimester mark with no complications and things should be smooth sailing from here forward.
I was all too familiar with complications, as my early married life was punctuated by several miscarriages. Some bearing the grim reality of horrible timing in grey concrete industrial restrooms with gripping pain – one at work in those circumstances. I drove myself to the hospital at the end of my shift, not wanting to tell my male supervisor what was wrong and risk losing my job. “Female problems” were one of the excuses used to justify discrimination against the hiring and to justify the firing of women – and you certainly didn’t want to give anyone ammunition.
Miscarriages in that time and place were treated pretty much like a fact of life, no different from someone getting the flu and then getting over it. You marched forward, went on, didn’t look back and never let yourself think of that child that might have been. Actually that child that was, that you carried, but just for a little bit, unable to shelter them long enough for them to enter the world as a child. You would never know why, what was wrong, but you would always wonder if there was something you could have done, should have done or might have done differently, or maybe not done.
The prevailing school of thought was that you could always “get pregnant again,” in essence depersonalizing that “individual” pregnancy and reducing “it” to a commodity that could be replaced shortly.
If pressed or if you were “too upset,” you would be patronized and told that it was simply “God’s will,” “meant to be” or that “God needed the baby” and that was supposed to comfort you and make the fact that your child died alright. If nothing else, you very clearly got the message that it was time to be “over this” now and to either get over it or shut up.
Getting past that 3 month mark, and then the half way mark of 20 weeks, gave you permission to start dreaming, to start buying baby clothes, a new bassinette, making curtains and thinking about what color to paint the baby’s room.
The baby started to move around and kick, asserting its individuality. “Hi Mom, I’m here” with little fluttery butterfly wings that made you smile to feel them.
You started to guess and attempt to divine using all of the folklore and midwife tales available whether the baby was going to be a boy or a girl. Everyone had an opinion too – and stood a 50% chance of being right! Those were happy, joyful days ripe with laughter and stories, often of family members.
That was long before parents knew the gender of the new baby, before ultrasound, back in the days when, after that first cry, the first thing you listened for the doctor to joyfully proclaim was “It’s a girl!” or “It’s a boy!”
On that sweltering summer day, with the windows wide open, the sun beating mercilessly on the landscape and no air conditioning, because it was before the days of air conditioning in homes…I was doing laundry when I felt something run down my leg…sweat probably. I looked down to see a rivulet of blood, dividing into branches on my calf, already soaking into my shoe, and I knew I was in trouble.
I began to cry and left a message for my husband at work. No cell phones then. Someone went to find him.
I called my mother and asked her to meet me at the hospital. She was coming from the opposite side of the county. The hospital was between us. I was hopeful that if I got to the hospital quickly, that child could somehow be saved.
Maybe I was further along than I thought.
Maybe the child would live.
Maybe they could get the bleeding stopped.
Maybe it wasn’t as bad as it seemed.
Hope against all odds.
I remember in the emergency room, laying on the table when my mother walked into the room. She looked at me and began to cry. I didn’t realize how badly I was bleeding by that time, but she did. She knew. When I saw her face, I knew too.
They took me to delivery, because that baby was going to be born. I was hemorrhaging. I vaguely remember someone talking to my mother about blood types and transfusions. I remember seeing my mother standing in the hallway, clutching her purse and mine, sobbing, but trying not to, as they wheeled me inside and the doors closed behind the gurney, separating us…and how utterly terrified I was. I desperately wanted to reach out to her. But that was before the days of “family birthing” and even before the days of fathers being allowed in the delivery room. So, I was alone in the room with a doctor and nurses and deathly silence except for the noises the equipment and I made.
The baby was born alive, but barely, a fraction of an ounce less than a pound. The doctor was anything but joyful when he said to me, “It’s a girl. She’s alive.” There was no cry. No sound at all. In the brief glimpse I caught of her, she was grey. The team of nurses was working frantically.
They immediately gave her oxygen and put her in an incubator. They took me to a recovery room and another doctor explained the situation. This child was too small to survive. The only extremely slight chance that she had was to be put in a 100% oxygen environment with the hope that her undeveloped lungs would function enough with the assistance of a ventilator.
The result of that environment were she to survive? She would be blind and probably severely “retarded,” in the vernacular of that time. Regardless of what they called it, the meaning was very clear. The chances of her surviving at all were extremely minimal – or in the stark reality of the doctor’s painful words that felt like anvils on my heart as he spoke each one – “this child will not survive.”
The question quickly became one of her comfort in the time she had before death. We discussed options. There weren’t many.
In order to provide the neonatal environment she would need to attempt survival, she would have to be taken to the children’s hospital in another city, and I could not go with her. So, in essence, she would go alone and she would die alone after some number of painful medical procedures. The doctor held out no hope beyond a few hours or days. She was just too small. The future was horribly bleak, a life sentence or a death sentence, one or the other.
I could not condemn her to that fate. I knew without any doubt that if she stayed with me, she would pass over, but she would pass over being held by her mother who loved her and not alone. She was so tiny and fragile.
Today, some babies of about that size do survive, or at least have a fighting chance, but that just wasn’t possible then, and everyone knew it. I chose to accept the inevitable with as much grace as I could muster and do what was best for her.
I held her. My mother held her. We kept her comfortable. We loved her. We cuddled her. We talked and sang to her. She died, quietly, peacefully, without any needles or struggles…just slipped away and passed over wrapped in a soft blanket where she could hear and feel her mother’s heartbeat, surrounded by love. That was all I had to offer her.
I was grief-stricken that she died, but I had and have no regrets about my decision, although to this day, I can barely even write about it. I made the right choice for her, but it’s one of the most difficult, if not the most difficult decision I’ve ever made.
Oddly, I remember snippets of that time vividly, like they are burned in my memory for eternity, but much of the rest is extremely blurry.
After she died, they took me to a non-maternity floor of the hospital, thankfully. The nurses tried to be extra nice to me, bringing me books, flowers, boxes and boxes of tissues, and medicine. I fell into a fitful, medicated sleep.
The next day, I asked about funeral arrangements to be made for the baby. The nurse looked at me strangely, said she didn’t know and would ask. The doctor visited and I asked him. He said he would check, but I was unclear who he was checking with, or why.
He left and returned, telling me that the baby had already “been taken care of.”
“Been taken care of????”
What did that mean?
They told me that because the baby was under a pound, she never officially “lived” so she never “died” so the body didn’t need to be buried and has already been “taken care of.” They tried to explain it in a way that inferred “this is really for the best, you know.”
No, I didn’t know.
I became hysterical. They gave me a shot of some kind. I was still hysterical but in a slow motion blurry dream.
I screamed and wailed.
“NO, NO, NOOOOOoooo.”
It was bad enough that my child was born too early and died. It was bad enough that I held her in death. It was bad enough already. But now this too?
They disposed of her like trash – never even thinking to ask me or anyone else in the family? Really???? How could they do that???
I was insistent that they find my child, again hysterical. My mother told me it was “too late,” whatever that meant. They had what, already emptied the trash and couldn’t go through the dumpster?
They gave me another shot of something. They gave mother, who was also very upset, a pill. My husband had gone back to work, or someplace, leaving me and my mother to deal with the aftermath. It was over as far as he was concerned and this was all “women’s drama.” He was soon-to-be an x-husband.
As far as the medical community was concerned, I was the problem, and I needed to be sedated. I should have gotten up and walked out to search for my child, but I had lost too much blood and was too weak and ill and traumatized – not to mention, I was already sedated and hooked up to IVs.
I went home a few days later. My doctor’s final words to me were to wait 3 months to get pregnant again. Just like nothing had happened.
There was no birth certificate.
There was no death certificate.
No funeral or graveside services or comfort of any kind. She somehow had slipped into never-never land – a purgatorial hell between miscarriage and live baby.
No validation of pain or loss of either her life or her body afterwards.
And somehow, I had become “the problem.”
“It” wasn’t a child, just a medical procedure. Under a pound was just another miscarriage of sorts. I should be used to this by now, right? Right???
Going home and seeing the baby clothes for the baby who would never come home and the half-finished nursery. Used to this?
I never got to bury that child. I never got to properly grieve, to say goodbye, to set a gravestone to visit at holidays or to honor her existence. I didn’t know when the nurse gently took her tiny body wrapped in the blanket after her death that I would never see her again and that she would unceremoniously be tossed away, in the garbage. Did they even leave her in her blanket or did they strip her of that too?
Maybe no one else needed to grieve, but I did. She was a part of my body. She was alive inside of me, until the unthinkable happened, followed by the unimaginable. She was and is my child, ripped from my heart and life way too soon.
Nothing eased the pain, made her death “alright” or compensated in any way for what happened. No one at the hospital even said, “I’m sorry.” The problem in their eyes was clearly “me,” not what they had done with her tiny body.
I felt then and still feel that their disposal of her was at best betrayal of trust and in reality a horrible dehumanizing violation of that child’s remains about which they did nothing when they still could. They could have found or recovered her body had they made the effort. They didn’t.
I named her in my mind and heart – the name I had selected for her, only to discover that my x-husband would one day name another child the same name – as if she had never existed. So, she got robbed of that too.
That daughter I generally think of as “the baby” would be approaching middle age today, had she lived. I think of her often in a positive light with a tinge of melancholy, of course, and wonder what life path she would have taken, given a chance. I wonder what she would have looked like and what her voice and laugh would have sounded like. Would she have married? Had children?
I think of all my children playing together in the warm sun of my parent’s farm, chasing in the sunlight and shadows of years now long gone. She is with my parents now. She is not now and never was invisible to me although she “never existed” to others.
There were no grief support groups then, no grief counseling…nothing. You simply went on. The bills had to be paid, the barn had to be cleaned, the crops had to be planted and harvested, someone or something always needed to be fed…there wasn’t time for anything else. Time for or “wallowing in” grief, as it was perceived, was a luxury no one could afford. One foot in front of the other…day after day. In time, it became less smothering, but it never went away.
Today, every funeral home has booklets and flyers about the stages of grief, how to handle grief and what to expect. Perhaps we were stoic then or simply in denial. Everyone seemed terribly uncomfortable with the topic. It wasn’t until then that I learned that my own mother had lost a child too at about the same stage of pregnancy. When I asked her what happened to that baby’s body, she didn’t know and I don’t think she had ever thought about it. Or maybe she was haunted by it and no one ever knew. Women suffered these tragedies in isolated cocoons of silence.
Every time I see a “missing” child on a census, that blank space of 4 years between children that silently screams of pain and loss, I think of the mother whose child died. And when I see 3 or 4 or 5 of those spaces, my heart grieves so for that woman. How did she survive that kind of devastation? How do you lose half your children and remain sane? Maybe for the sake of the other half, you just keep putting one foot in front of the other and go numbly on, fumbling through the haze of grief, going through the motions of life through rote memory because you can’t do anything more. After all, someone else is hungry and there is always laundry to do…
Today, there are local support groups everyplace. Even on Facebook, there are groups for everyone to find a kindred spirit. People grieve publicly, through articles, blogs and social media – sometimes too publicly. If anything, we’re awash in “help” today. Maybe the pendulum has swung the other direction.
The only kindred spirits then were the whispered voices of older women, more experienced, urging you on, to forget, to get pregnant again because “you’ll feel better.” They shrugged and said, “It happens,” and that was that. And to not accept that edict was to rebuke or question “God’s choice.” Not something one did in the Bible belt. So the grief became lonely, silent and unspoken, but never gone.
In a way, because I never buried her and she doesn’t have a known final resting place in a normal cemetery for me to visit, I have always kind of felt that she “went along with me.” Kind of like ashes I don’t carry but would if I could. In an odd sort of way, it made it easier to leave and make a life elsewhere, because there is nothing to tie any part of my heart there.
I’m glad that today women don’t have to go through such a dehumanizing victimizing experience when a premature child dies. The grief over her death was exacerbated and magnified exponentially by what happened afterwards. I’m still haunted by the thought of what happened to her tiny body and stunned at the inhumanity of that choice that I was never allowed to make, especially given how warm and caring the nursing staff was to me. It was just so shocking and unexpected. Who would imagine even for a minute your baby that had lived would be or even could be thrown away? And worse yet, it wasn’t a mistake and no one was willing to address the issue. Nightmare on top of nightmare.
I suspect that the employees in the hospital morgue simply looked at the birthweight or weighed the corpse and checked the appropriate box on the paper and did what they did under those circumstances – which was not to call the mortician. Nothing more or less. No thought at all. Just routine. Less than a pound = trash can. If they thought about it at all, it was probably that they were doing us a favor so we didn’t have to spend the money on a funeral and burial. I don’t believe that anyone’s acts were malicious in intent, just an unthinking and uncaring system in total with a devastating outcome for an already grief-stricken young mother. There was no compassion or humanity built into that system. And no one cared.
I can’t change any of that, today, but I can still do one thing.
That child existed. She lived, even if not legally or for very long. She lived for a few hours. She deserves a permanent name, her own name, not one stolen by someone else later.
So, I’ve named her.
Her name is Rachel Barbara Estes.
Rachel because I’ve always had an affinity for that name and I was pleased to discover that it’s ancestral. Rachel Hill on my mother’s side would have been her great-great-grandmother, a woman who lost many children and understands grief. Perhaps she comforted baby Rachel after her too-early arrival on the other side.
Barbara for my mother who was named after her mother, Edith Barbara Lore, and her mother’s grandmother, Barbara Drechsel and two great-grandmothers, Barbara Mehlheimer and Katharina Barbara Lemmert. Mother was always my anchor, always there, until she wasn’t anymore.
Estes because Rachel is my child and Estes is my birthright name.
Rachel Barbara Estes is no longer invisible. This is the story of her life, no matter how short, and her name. She will live until at least my death.
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