When Elsa wasn’t looking…
Shortly upon our return from adventures in Peru, when Elsa wan’t looking, we conceived a babe. We found out in the first week of the New Year and started adjusting our thoughts to include a new family member in September.
Unfortunately this pregnancy was wrought with nausea and fatigue, but they say each pregnancy is different and I wasn’t chasing a two year old last time around. For some reason I was more hesitant to announce it, but this could easily be my personal reluctance towards change – I can be slow to come around. I also was not getting “bigger, faster,” as people mention with their second. However, there was no denying the steady heartbeat that drummed forth from within – there would be a babe and we would be ready when the time came.
Around what we supposed to be the 21st week we went in for an ultrasound – to double check arms, legs, fingers, toes and possibly get a read on her gender. This did not go as planned. At the end of the routine scan the tech let us know that she was going to be right back with a doctor. When I asked if she could see the gender, she reiterated that there was not enough amniotic fluid to get a good look and that she’d be right back with the doctor.
While we waited, I vowed to up my water intake and get a rise on this mysteriously missing amniotic fluid.
When the doc came in, he laid out a rough scenario about giving birth in the next 2 weeks: technology left to finish nature’s works or the babe dies in the trying. Having just listened to a podcast (23 Weeks, 6 Days) about the cusp of life and death for pre-term babes, I realized this was fast becoming my current worst nightmare. We took a walk. I cried, maybe even screamed – How could this be happening? Our pre-conceived future was being was wrenched from us and I felt it in my gut.
We sought an immediate second opinion from a perinatologist the same afternoon. Here we were met with horrible, but surer news of this little life within – she would not make it. The pregnancy was deemed unviable and the little one within incompatible with life outside the womb. Both kidneys have cysts and her steady little heart is enlarged for all the work it’s doing. The cystic kidneys are responsible for the lack of amniotic fluid, which will in turn limit lung growth, cushiness, room to exercise, growing space, etc… It is neither genetic nor chromosomal, but a very random birth defect.
We were told that she might live days, at most weeks in utero. Being á la natural, we decided to wait for nature to run her course – best for both me and baby we thought. While we still didn’t know she’d be a girl, it was projected from the May 10th ultrasound that I was 21 weeks and 6 days along and that we wouldn’t be bringing her home in the traditional sense. It was also Mother’s Day weekend.
We spent the weekend in shock and processed the information. We took Monday and Tuesday off to start looking for an OB that would take our case, as suggested by our midwife. We were denied service in Jackson. We found a wonderful woman in Idaho Falls who was very compassionate.
We said good-bye in our own personal ways and together to the babe within, adding intension to each day. Asking her to let go, letting go ourselves. I can’t deny that I couldn’t give my 100% to this train of thought with her kicking, fluttering and nudging around within. It was hard.
A month later she continued to tick along seemingly grandly, though I didn’t appear to be gaining any weight. It was decided that we would get another ultrasound to see what was going on in there. Swift, as she would come to be named upon her eventual birth, had – against all odds – grown. For some reason this spurred hope amongst our enlisted caregivers. This misplaced optimism caused us a roller coaster of emotions to think that she might now somehow make it. We had been preparing for her loss for a month. Also, there were undeniably serious issues that would clearly manifest in problems after birth.
Eventually this proved too much and we decided to up the ante and seek a fourth opinion from the University of Utah in Salt Lake where it was rumored we might be granted an induction if everything was as we had originally thought. We were granted an ultrasound appointment immediately – which meant a quick departure and a midnight arrival in SLC for a 9 am appointment.
The radiologist was extremely thorough in her photos and documentation – it took a while. When we finished, we headed downstairs to meet the doctor. She was another sympathetic and compassionate soul. She confirmed the original diagnosis, but had been advised that because we were now at 26+ weeks, she didn’t understand there to be legal recourse to proceed with an induction in Utah. She also expressed that no one knew how long Swift would live in utero – she could go tomorrow or live to term – apparently the placenta is one hell of an organ.
Three more months of living in limbo, of being due at any minute, of carrying a babe who wasn’t going to live outside, of walking the cusp of life and death within – was not an ideal option for us, nor did it in any way feel like a choice. However, we would have to bare the burden or look further from home to make a move. Our doctor directed us back upstairs to meet with the genetic councilor who could provide us with any options that might be available.
A 15 minute wait yielded eventual gratitude when the sweet genetic councilor apologized for the previous information she had dispelled to the doctor and let us know that each case is reviewed individually and obviously weighed heavily. After review, our case had been granted the option of induction. This obviously caused a flood of emotions – relief, fear, grief, loss of innocence, acceptance, wishfulness, fatigue, total loss and gratitude.
The stress on the baby, myself, our family and friends during this time and that potentially prolonged time seemed undue. We had already been saying good-bye for over a month and were as ready as we’d ever be to take the next eventual step of labor and birth – which would unfold with the same terminal result regardless. We signed the paper work and were given 72 hours to go home, prepare and return to SLC. Wheels were suddenly in motion.
We brought Granny Bird to watch our 2 year old and were graced with the hospitality of dear friends in Ogden. We checked in to the U of Utah Hospital first thing on Monday morning and spent the day waiting, thumbing through the bereavement folder and handouts of what to expect. After Elsa’s all-natural, birth center delivery, this was, in so many ways, not the birth we had planned.
We hung the string of beads we had gathered from friends and family for support, in addition to a couple of prayer ties I made for the occasion – one for us to keep and one to send on with Swift. Staff administered three doses of cytotec – one every 4 hours – to ripen my cervix. Luckily this was enough to push me into labor without adding pitocin, etc.
As the drumbeats of labor began to strengthen, Luke noticed tell-tale signs from our only other labor together. Things were on the march. He did his best to distract me as he walked us through adventures we’ve had together and I concentrated on my breath. And just like the time before, when I reached the seemingly impossible zone of discomfort, we were at the crescendo.
Swift Spirit Neraas was born at 11:01 pm on June 17th. At 27 weeks, she was 2 lbs 9 oz. and 15″ long.
She was born breech – unable to turn without amniotic fluid. She was little, sweet, peaceful and perfect. She graced us with her live presence for a little more than an hour. I held her against my breast and Luke crawled into bed next to us. We drank her in, loved her up and tried to memorize her perfect features as we held her hand and petted her soft head. If only the inside of her packaging matched the outside in proportion and perfection.
At 12:19 am on June 18th, the stethoscope – absurdly large on Swift’s small frame – came away with silence. She had come and gone.
We lightly washed her small frame in a basin they provided on the bed. A generous photographer from Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, voluntarily came to our room when we were ready and took some photographs – part of our limited keepsakes that will forever document this unforeseen chapter of our lives.
We held Swift, rocked her, talked to her, loved on her as best we could until our inevitable departure. There was no easy way out of this final step. We swaddled her once more with her prayer tie and a small cloth bag of mementos. We hugged and kissed her.
I’ll forever be grateful for the nurse who delivered her and later received her in our departure. She lovingly took her, held her and sat down, looking at her as we left. She in no way made a move to go on, as we were forced to take those first steps away from our offspring.
The next day we returned to pick up tear-jerking 3-d molds they made of Swift’s hands and feet – you can slip your finger into the tiny hand mold, as if she’s grasping it. A stop by the mortuary to solidify her cremation and we were back on the road home.
We were able to take the week off for recovery on all fronts. We planted a cherry tree with Swift’s super placenta near our fire ring – so she can easily join our campfires in spirit. We hung out with Elsa – a shining light in all of this. I belatedly made Swift a quilt that made it to her before and for her cremation.
We are processing, we are writing, we are thinking, we are talking, we are healing.
It’s hard to tease reason out of an intense and difficult experience like this. In light of the number of stillbirths that take place today, it seems important to share our story. In the US it’s as high as 1 in 200 births. I found this to be incredibly ‘common’ for something I might have previously associated with a homesteading novel. In sharing our family’s story, I hope to provide what others did for me in sharing their stories – proof that life goes on; that we are strong enough; that life, as we luckily know it, is a miracle; that pregnancies successfully persist before and after such chaos and loss.
It’s been hard and will no doubt continue to take time to heal. We have to thank our family, friends, and employers for their continued support and help through these difficult times.