I remember the time leading up to the birth of our eldest son. When you’re having your first child, people want to tell you so many things. Sometimes its things you don’t know, but you need to know; “when she’s yelling at you in the delivery room, and blaming you for everything, try not to take it personally”. Sometimes it’s things you don’t want to know, but people will tell you anyway… I’d tell you, but trust me, you don’t want to know (more than one of those things involved poop).
You may find yourself the willing, or unwilling, recipient of books on pregnancy, childbirth, natural childbirth, child names, name meanings, biblical name meanings, child rearing, child discipline, parenting… until you find yourself wishing you had a personal GPS transponder for someone to dig you out from under the avalanche of books.
Still, it was exciting the first time around. The anticipation leading up to the due date. Being shaken awake with “I think it’s time” in the middle of the night. The second and third times around were different every time, but just as nerve-wracking and exciting.
None of that prepared me for Jessica’s birth.
That excited anticipation was replaced by a gnawing sense of dread. The cold hard knot in the pit of my stomach grew harder and heavier as the date inexorably approached like a freight train, as lay tied to the rails. I questioned myself over and over “Did we make the right decision here? Is this what we should do?”
I’d watched my wife’s emotional state slowly become more fragile as the weeks went by. I struggled not to withdraw into myself. Each day seemed to bring the tale of some stranger or worse still, acquaintance, congratulating her on the pregnancy. Asking her how things were going? When are you due? If nothing else, this reassured me that we were doing the right thing. I honestly don’t know if she would have made it, at least emotionally, if we had gone to term.
I woke up early on the morning of the 17th of January to an appropriately overcast sky. I called the hospital at the appointed time as requested… and was asked to ring back later, as it was “right in the middle of a shift change”. Tan and I stared at each other in disbelief. We rang back 15 minutes later and were told to make our way to the hospital.
When we arrived at the hospital, we were introduced to the first of three nurses named… Jackie. Well, one was a Jacqui, and one was actually a midwife, but it was a much needed amusing moment in a day that desperately needed a little levity.
We settled into our birthing suite, and then… we waited. Just after nine o’clock the obstetrician gave Tan her first dose of medication, and we were told that it might take a few hours, or even a few days. He also reiterated to us that it was unlikely that our daughter would survive the labour.
Nothing in my life could have prepared me for the helplessness I felt watching my wife in an increasing amount of pain as that day went by. Nurses, midwives, and social workers came and went.
The day seemed endless. In that room, I felt like we were cut off from the rest of the world. I moved from uncomfortable plastic chair to the end of Tan’s bed, and back again. Occasionally wandering around the hospital while Tan dozed.
Just after 9pm, Tan knew it was time, and we called the nurse in. This was not like the birth of our other children; there was pain, and tears, but there was no excitement, no joy to mute the suffering. I cried, overwhelmed with fear, holding Tan as her unnatural labour came to it’s terrible end.
The moment I saw my daughter’s face for the first time, I knew that she hadn’t survived the labour. Her tiny, perfect face was bruised, her eyes still closed to a world she would never see. I cut her umbilical cord, and the nurse passed her to me. We took turns in holding her, bathing her in our tears and prayers.
My tears flowed again as I dressed her in a tiny outfit, smaller than her sister’s doll’s clothes; the only chance I’d have to be a daddy helping this little girl get dressed. It was donated by other parents who’d been through what we were going through; I worked with the nurse to engineer a solution to allow her tiny knitted beanie to stay on her head.
A bit later a different ob/gyn stopped by, and proceeded to explain to us how our daughter’s birth defect was a statistical anomaly, and how we shouldn’t be too worried if we wanted to try again. He went on to say that nature was constantly experimenting, and she was just an experiment that went wrong, and didn’t naturally terminate in a miscarriage when it should have, like usually happens.
As he left I thanked him through gritted teeth, and kept both hands jammed firmly in my pockets, so as to avoid providing a visual indicator of what I thought of his considerable tact and wonderful bedside manner.
We both held her tiny body for many hours over the next couple of days. I stared in wonder at her tiny, perfect hands and feet. I apologised to her that there was no way for me to save her. Our children got the chance to meet, and say goodbye to their sister.
Whereas the labour seemed to take forever, the time with her seemed to vanish, and it was suddenly time to say goodbye, knowing we’d never get the chance to see her face, or hold her in our arms again. The next few days were a blur, getting everything organised for the funeral, and suddenly it was upon us.
The Saturday morning dawned with an overcast sky, and we left early to make our way to the cemetery; it seemed a little excessive until I committed one of my classic driving blunders and turned left when I should have turned right, but we arrived on time.
There was another moment of panic when I managed to snap the CD with the songs we’d chosen for the funeral, but between an iPhone, one friend with the correct cable, and another to DJ the songs at the right time, they averted disaster (thanks again for saving my bacon, Liz and Fraser).
The service started; our eldest son carried his sister in her tiny, pink gingham-covered casket from the hearse to the grave, while I carried a flower arrangement. The early clouds had burnt off to a bright sunny day, and the service that had taken hours to organise seemed to fly by in a blur, too fast for the gravity of the situation.
As a final symbol, the five of us each had a purple balloon, with a sixth special clear and pink butterfly-printed balloon to represent Jessica. We leaned in together over her grave, and released our five balloons simultaneously. The balloons stayed together in a group and flew southwards with the breeze. As a family, we then released Jessica’s balloon together.
We watched it fly straight upwards, into the clear blue sky.
That was how we said goodbye.