TEL AVIV — One of the doctors walked into the delivery room taking the last bite of his sandwich. During my 18 hours in room six, many people came and went, but most of them kept quiet. That's what it's like with a stillbirth. Even the doctors are silent meeting death where they expect to find life.
The doctor with the sandwich apologized politely. He was on a long shift and it was the first chance he had to grab something to eat. I thought how lucky he was to have the taste of food still lingering in his mouth, how lucky his life hadn't collapsed in the blink of an eye and he was able to feel hunger. And then I thought of that sandwich, and how I identified with it — lying there in room number six with the epidural drip and being chewed on by life.
Are you here by yourself?
Five out of every one thousand births is a stillbirth. The common term in Hebrew, translated "silent birth," suggests what's missing: the cry of a healthy baby. When something happens to the fetus before week 22, the fetus is aborted, but after week 22, you have to give birth. It's a birth in every sense: induction, contractions, delivery room. Sometimes the fetus dies in utero because of a defect or an umbilical cord obstruction, but in the majority of cases, as it was in ours, the cause remains unknown.
A few hours earlier, we were on our way to the hospital, an excited, loving couple, 39 weeks pregnant with twin boys. In a few more hours, we would become a family. During the past few months we had done everything we were supposed to. We ordered a layette, moved from a one room apartment above a sandwich shop swarming with singles, to a quiet, more upscale neighborhood filled with people pushing strollers. We were ready.
My husband, Yuval dropped me at the entrance of the ER, and went to park the car. I went on my own to the maternity ward for the fetal monitor. With twins it's always hard to locate the heartbeat at first, but I knew where each of the boys nestled inside me; the three of us had already spent a long time together. The right one was a real-action hero, his brother on the left was more easygoing, but no less present. I instructed the midwife where to search for them, and suggested that she start with the one on the left. "His heartbeat is always located first, he's just more cooperative," I joked. "His brother is a different story."
I remember her fumbling there for long minutes while I speculated that it must be her first shift straight out of nursing school. "Are you here by yourself or is someone with you?" she asked and stepped into the hall to call Yuval, knowing that these were our final seconds before our universe collapsed.
Yuval came in with a worried look. My love, always the worrier. Right behind him was the midwife and a doctor, both of them explaining, very cautiously, that we would need an ultra-sound to locate the heartbeats. Yuval held my hand as he had through every ultrasound. The doctor stared at the screen, put down the probe, and told us that the life within me had ended.
What kind of a mother doesn't want to see her babies?
It was my second pregnancy. The first one ended after 22 weeks. At the time we felt unlucky and grief-stricken, feeling the full blow of parting with our fantasy.
Four months after we said goodbye to our first daughter, when the gynecologist identified two heartbeats, I thought this was God's compensation. There was poetic justice in these two who had come to console my womb: I would have two children — one for that loss, and the other for a brother. Apparently there was some grand scheme to this world after all. What a privilege to be able to get pregnant so easily.
The pregnancy itself, wasn't easy. But after we passed the amniocentesis — surpassing the point when the last pregnancy ended, and with no signs of any scary genetic defects — we felt we had beaten the system.
At some point I was instructed to stay in bed, simply because my small frame couldn't handle the weight. I would stretch my arms all the way out in front of me, and feel my belly end at the tips of my fingers. I spent my time mostly obsessing over the chances I had of going back to my pre-pregnancy jeans after this alien experience. But my main concern was to reach week 36 like the doctor ordered, to steer clear of the dangers of a premature delivery. And truly, I watched over the pregnancy grandly, and it watched over me. Until someone up there fell asleep on his watch.
How do you come to terms with such a thing? The truth is, you don't. For an hour and a half I screamed at the heavens and wailed in a voice I didn't know I had. When my eyelids felt swollen beyond recognition, I finally understood the meaning of the phrase "my tears have all dried up." Then I realized the hardest was still to come: I had to give birth. And before that, we had to convey the news to our family — to call my concerned and loving dad, and Yuval's parents who had been on "twin alert" for days and tell them that their dream of grandchildren had been shattered. My father was in the delivery room within half an hour. I'd seen him cry only a few times in my life, but this was the hardest time of all.
There are no special wards or delivery rooms for stillbirths. We went into a regular delivery room and our parents waited outside in the company of jubilant grandparents reporting on their cellphones about full dilation and congratulations, and what a perfect grandchild, what a brave mother. When my father hugged me, all I could say was, "I'm so sorry Dad, I'm so sorry." I was sorry for the disappointment I caused them, for their pain and sadness. For not being able to fulfill that one simple expectation of giving them grandkids.
Eighteen hours later I pushed and my firstborn was out. I was sure that the right one would be first: He had the characteristics of a firstborn. He probably cut his brother some slack, I thought. A few minutes later and he joined his older brother.
Photo: Phalinn Ooi
The medical team insists that I hold them, say goodbye, kiss them a first and final time. One of the midwives tells me how beautiful they are, my dead babies, and how important it is for the grieving process to say goodbye. But I know that seeing them will make me lose my mind. Deep inside I know that the little life I still have left in me will be gone if I hug my dead children. "What kind of a mother doesn't want to see her babies?" I think as I'm being stitched up. Everything is a painful blur, but the certainty that I must save myself is as sharp as a needle. Just like Lot's wife, I know that I mustn't look back. That if I look back I will turn into a pillar of salt. So in order to survive I choose to be the mother who leaves behind her dead children. On March 7, 1999, in delivery room Number 6, I choose life.
Silence and children don't go together
In 1999, a connection was established between the medication commonly used for preventing lactation and a higher incidence of heart attacks and strokes. The drug was banned, and so I found myself standing in my shower at home, my body wounded, my stitches painful, milk dripping from my breasts. It was a horrific shower. How I had longed to shower in the comfort of my own home! But no one had warned me about this cruel moment when my milk would come and remind me I had no one to feed with it. I sat on the floor of the shower, the water running, tears and milk washing over me. The birth was behind me, but the rest of my life lay ahead.
"Mazel tov!" cheered the grocer, the barber, the sweet neighbor next door, and the other kind people who had no idea of our misfortune. Mostly, I squirmed knowing how uncomfortable my reply to their most natural greeting was going to make them. I stared at myself in the mirror and stepped into the street, completely whole on the outside but shattered and broken on the inside. Staring at the passersby, I wondered which of them was as crushed as I was. It was obviously a lie: this whole camouflage of clothes, a smile, make-up, a stroll. If only the world's shattered people carried a sign, a small mark of Cain so that we could be gentler with them, maybe smile a bit more – not to pity them, but to console. So that we could identify one another, meet each other's internal devastation and know that under the external shell there are bleeding wounds of loss.
After two weeks back at home, it all becomes clear. Life is short, so we choose joy. We love each other and we hang on to that love because it's the only life-preserver provided to us. We fly to New York because it's far from here and from the pitying looks of kind people. Maybe there, we'll be able to not feel sorry for ourselves and remember the most important thing: that we are stronger than this, that our union can bring us great happiness, that great happiness is a choice and that we choose it every day anew. In the sadness that engulfed us, we were hungry for joy.
For three weeks we walked a strange country, spending money and love. The joy came back to my body, and it chose to do with it what it knows to do best: get pregnant. On March 9, one year later, in a different hospital, I gave birth to Eyal, 7 pounds and 3 ounces of life. When I held him for the first time in my arms, squirming and whining, I held them too. I greeted Eyal and said goodbye to my twins. I cried for the joy of this meeting, I cried for that separation, I cried because I won and I cried for what I had lost, and mostly I cried because Eyal was crying, and what a joy it is to hear a baby's cries in the delivery room.
The term "silent birth" is misleading. The silence in the absence of a crying baby is deafening. Inside the soul of a mother who is grieving for a dead dream, for her vacant arms, for a meeting that will never transpire, there are many things, but not silence. I don't know why it happened to me, but I know what happened to me because it happened to me. I know that my marriage forged a new alliance of which a new love was born, a love that withstood some of the worst pain life has to offer a couple who is just 28 years old. A couple who lost a dream at the end of a full-term pregnancy, lost the names agreed-upon in late-night debates and which had already taken hold in their imaginations, lost the belly strokes which will not be repeated in later pregnancies, a couple who lost its innocence.
Today I know that we gained life, that we gained perspective, faith and will, and that the disaster which struck us then, made us the parents we are today. I know that the two babies who perished in my womb turned me into a different kind of mother to my five children. I know that because of them, when I face the daily difficulties of motherhood, I am grateful for every "regular problem" life throws my way. I know I have been blessed with the privilege to appreciate a crying baby, because I have been where babies don't cry.
That experience has gone to dwell in another place within me, a place of honor, which reminds me to be contented with my lot, a faraway painful place, homesick for the babies I never met – but accepting and whole. And sometimes, when I see a mother pushing a stroller with twins, I remember the broken dream and smile to myself. And when I get home, I dance in the kitchen with my kids, joyful dancing, to the sound of very loud music. Because silence and children don't go together.
Einat Nathan surrounded by her family — Photo: Personal files
Einat Nathan is an Israeli parenting coach, lecturer and media personality. She writes a bi-weekly column in Mako magazine, is a frequent guest on national television, and a radio host. Her book, Mother Tongue will be published in fall 2017.
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