Today marks 27 years since the stillbirth of my first-born son, Spencer. I have shared his story in the past on a one-to-one basis. Others were there wading in the grief with me and know from their witnessing. Today, I share an excerpt from my book, "It's Hard to Cry When You're Singing: A Memoir(ish)" (c) .
These are my first-hand memories surrounding Spencer's birth. I am not graphic in my telling, but I am frank. If your heart is unable to bear reading it, I understand. If you have endured the same loss as I have, I promise you are not alone. ~H.
Saturday, August 31, 1996. I had been married to my second husband for a year and a half, my eldest daughter had just started kindergarten, and I was nesting, as I approached the end of my pregnancy. I was out shopping with my mother and realized I had not felt the baby move for a while.
He moved like clockwork every day. So, I started watching the clock and reaching internally with my nervous system trying to feel him…
willing him to move…
I convinced myself I was over-thinking everything. (He is nestling in for the final weeks. Did this happen with my first pregnancy?) Decided to rest up at home that night and go to church in the morning.
We were newly attendees at this church, and we sat in the front row that Sunday. I do not remember the sermon, but I remember singing hymns and cradling my belly. If I play back my internal soundtrack from that Sunday, all I can hear is organ music and my own internal harmony full of pleading.
Please, God… please…
We headed to the maternity ward at the local hospital right after service. We were met with a sonographer and taken to a side room for a quick ultrasound. I am sure they thought they were going to alleviate the unfounded fears of a young mom.
The goop on my big, baby belly. The transducer pressed into the goop against my skin.
I used to joke the transducer was the microphone for the baby to sing into. His heartbeat would WHOOSH! straight to the transducer like it was magnetized… but not this time.
There was no heartbeat. Just the sound of the wand moving through the goop like a wanna be DJ failing a mix class.
And on the screen? A still image of a baby. My baby. My son. There was no fluttering of his heart on the screen.
The sonographer started crying and trying to comfort me. I was not crying in this moment because the shocking truth of it all was still sinking in. I remember being soundly annoyed by her in that moment. (“Now Me” understands her humanity in that moment, but I can still feel my annoyance if I open myself to it.)
My small, side room was invaded by more medical personnel and their voices were coming from under the water. The pressure in my ears was immense. (Am I drowning?) Their voices were audible but unintelligible. (I am drowning…) They were making decisions for me, about me, about my son. BREATHE!
Someone was firm and loud by my head and the pressure in my chest eased as I sucked in oxygen. My hands were tightly bound fists. (Was I going to punch someone?)
Then, a nurse was directly in front of me, looking me square in the eye, saying my name over and over again.
“I am sorry, but your baby has died.”
They say people who suffer the death of a loved one won’t believe it if you do not use the actual words. Our minds want so much to believe it is not true we can convince ourselves otherwise.
A decision was made that we would go home and come back the next day to be induced. If my body would not begin labor after his passing, it would be forced into it.
There is a horrible, medical benefit to the in-utero death of your child: you are given a morphine drip with a magic button to accompany the induction meds. A literal lifeline of narcotics to knock you out while your body delivers your already deceased son.
What results is a phantom state of being awake…
Sobbing so hard you cannot breathe.
Feel the contractions.
Wake up sobbing.
Pass out again.
The dreams are more like nightmares as your subconscious begins to try and help you process.
Feel the contractions and the weight of what is about to come.
Hear others in the room who are there to visit you and your husband and support you both. He doesn’t get a morphine drip.
The burden of labor is not equal.
Pretend to be asleep
Don’t cry out loud…
Until I can finally push the button…
Can I push the button now? How 'bout now?
Repeat until a nurse is in front of me once again, giving me directions. Urging me to keep my eyes open. "It’s time to push."
If you have ever been privileged to witness a mother giving birth, or have given birth yourself, you know the first thing everyone wants to hear after the baby is fully delivered is that little gasping, gurgling, raw cry of a newborn. Oh! That cry is a delicious joy!
That night, as I pushed my son into this world, I was keeping my eyes slammed shut. Squishing up my face and refusing to look as I pushed.
Then, he was out and a flicker of hope within me blinked my eyes open as my maternal heart reached for his…
…and all I saw was his little mouth agape… bathed in eternal silence.
I remember his little mouth every moment I close my eyes and think of him, no matter how many years later. No cries came from him ever. Silenced forever.
I burst into renewed tears I was convinced would never ever stop, and I reached for my morphine button once more. (Would I ever stop pushing that button for the rest of my life?) I know my nurse allowed me one last reprieve as I pushed that button.
As I sank beneath the waves once again, I heard her whispering into my ear,
"You had a son."
Spencer Alexander Martell was born on September 2, 1996 at 32 weeks along, and he was over 4 pounds in size when he was stillborn. He had a head of dark hair, and he was bigger than the two-pound preemie born the same night.
My then six-year-old daughter came to the hospital the next day and met her baby brother. She held him and spoke to us about him like it was an everyday occurrence. We all held him during the two days I was an in-patient. My favorite pink baby lotion was tucked behind Spencer’s ears during our snuggles.
Our time at the hospital was spent lovingly buffered by the perinatal grief program. There was a sign on our door that was insignificant to any guest walking the halls. Yet, its green leaf dropping onto water was a critical communication to all staff who entered our room that ours was not a happy birth. (Green leaves don’t commonly fall from trees.)
That symbol insured no staff member would come into our room full of boundless joy, happily asking about our newborn. It meant they were prepared to wade into our grief filled waters and buoy us when they entered.
Part of the perinatal grief program support included taking pictures of our son, gathering extra memorabilia for us to hold onto and remember him. Our primary nurse later delivered the developed photos and memory pieces to our home, and she continued to check in with me over the next few weeks, too. She lovingly grounded me in such a way I was able to openly grieve in her presence while also finding literal relief for my heart. (Equal parts remembering and letting go.) We are still friends to this day.
Spencer had turned twice in-utero and effectively strangled himself with his own umbilical cord. He had died well before the time I realized I hadn’t felt him move. Even if I had raced to the hospital that Saturday, it was already too late. There was nothing I could have done differently.
Spencer’s casket was the shiniest shade of pale blue. To me, it shimmered under all the lights in the sanctuary as if his energy was still in the room. It was so small and cool to the touch. I was 23 and never thought I would have to arrange a funeral at this point in my life. (Whoever does?)
I know there were conversations about what to do, what to say, and decisions were made. While I remember the loving care of the funeral director, I don’t remember the details of any conversation. Just that it happened…
Overwhelming sadness was my cloak, and I wore it everywhere I went. It was tightly wrapped around me during my son’s funeral. Everyone spoke from under the water once again and I clung to my cloak to stay afloat in my sea of misery.
The trauma only solidified my billboard, and I lost the song in my heart. There was only crying and if the world told me that it was not the right time to cry? Billboard up. The emotional aftermath of the death of my son was never-ending.
Everyone was kind and caring, and as they hugged me, it felt like I was being stabbed from the inside out. On the day of his funeral, one hour before the ceremony, my breast milk came in. I had been so under water; I had failed to take the medication given to stop the milk’s arrival. While the meds could only postpone, the inevitable arrived in time to feel sheer agony against everyone’s well-intentioned embrace.
I could hear the muffled voices of those who came to offer condolences and comfort. (There were so many people…) Every hug was meant to offer comfort. The pain in my heart was overflowing threatening to drown me further. (Where was my daughter?)
I can still remember the luncheon put on by the loveliest of church ladies. It was the first real food I had eaten since the day my son was born. I can remember the talks I had with my friends. I hold those friends and memories deep in my heart. My soul sisters were there caring for my heart and soul.
After his funeral, we co-founded a non-profit group as a way to gather and distribute needed memorial items for the local perinatal grief program. We named the group The S.A.M. Foundation (that’s Spencer Alexander Martell) and gathered items using monies gifted at the funeral.
We purchased preemie baby clothes, photo albums, keepsake boxes, and more to be given to grieving families as a way of honoring and remembering their lost, littlest loved ones. The grief program gifted us with many items by which our son is still remembered to this day, and if an ounce of comfort could be given to another grieving parent then our efforts would be worth it all.
In the years after Spencer’s passing, there would be cause for me to visit the hospital. Special trips on his birthday, trips to visit my friends and their newborns, the birth of my next son and daughter… many reasons to visit the maternity floor again. While there, I would deliver memorial items to the grief program in honor of my friends’ little loved ones, or to simply remember Spencer.
There were plenty of visits and on more than one occasion, I passed the familiar green, falling leaf symbol on another family’s door.
Each time, I would pause just beyond that door, squeeze my eyes tightly shut while clenching my fists, and send every ounce of strength I could from my maternal heart to the mama’s heart breaking behind that door. Willing her to hang on. Silently screaming to her: You are not alone! I am here with you under the waves! I promise they will not crush you forever! You are not alone!!!
And each time, as I opened my tear-filled eyes in the hospital corridor, and rise above the water’s surface once again…
…the air around me fills with the scent of pink baby lotion.
Excerpt from: "It's Hard to Cry When You're Singing: A Memoir(ish)" (c) .