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My husband and I were ecstatic when we got pregnant. I was 25, but with David's family history of miscarriages and fertility problems, we were surprised that it happened so quickly. We spent the autumn of 2011 choosing names, deciding on a gender-neutral color scheme and impatiently waiting for April 15, when our baby was scheduled to arrive. On December 6 an ultrasound showed us our perfectly normal baby, growing slightly ahead of schedule. We wanted to find out the sex, but the technician said our doctor could reveal it at our next appointment, in January. We were disappointed, but like all parents-to-be we were just happy our kidlet was healthy. Besides, if we found out before Christmas, we would probably blurt it out to our relatives, and they wanted it to be a surprise.
When my headache began I didn't think too much of it. We live near a mountain range where winds gust at near-hurricane strength, so a wintertime "chinook migraine" isn't out of the ordinary. But as Christmas approached, something else felt wrong. I had a weird crampy feeling that kept me in bed for most of December 21.
I tried napping and stretching, but nothing made it better. At 1 a.m., after poring over What to Expect When You're Expecting and Google searches, I decided I should get it checked. I figured I was being one of those over-anxious people who go to the ER for nothing. I even left the Christmas tree lights on at home since I didn't think we'd be gone that long.
We were taken to Labor and Delivery immediately. I thought, "Wow, that was quick," but my cheery state of mind didn't last long. Two different nurses tried to find the baby's heartbeat. Still, I wasn't really concerned since at my last appointment my doctor had tried to do the same for a minute or two while my baby squirmed around trying to avoid the little machine. "When was the last time you felt any movement?" a nurse asked. I thought about it. We had been so busy with Christmas parties, decorating and gift wrapping that I couldn't recall the last time I'd felt the baby kick. "This morning, I think. I haven't really been paying attention," I said, feeling like a bad mom. She told me that my doctor was on his way to the hospital. Someone took blood and asked for a urine sample. Then my doctor arrived, pressed on my abdomen, tried to find the heartbeat and left to call the lab. Finally, it hit me that this was serious -- and I started to worry.
When he returned, the doctor had a grim look on his face. "I'm sorry, Jenna. We think your baby has died," he said. "Your blood pressure is elevated, and our first priority is to keep it from getting any higher, because right now your health is very much at risk."
David looked as shocked as I felt. He grabbed my hand and held it. Neither of us had expected to hear that, and I immediately went into denial mode. I asked if the blood-pressure medication they were about to give me was safe for pregnancy. David asked me if he should call our parents. I didn't want him to, thinking that there was still some hope because until I had an ultrasound we didn't know for sure. Besides, it was 4 a.m. and I felt bad about waking them up. But he broke the news to my parents anyway, and to his mom and dad, and they all insisted on coming. A little later, so did my brother and his fiancée.
My denial ended when they wheeled me back into my room after the ultrasound. My parents looked at me with hope, and all I could do was shake my head and sob. Our baby was dead and we were all heartbroken.
We asked the nurse to look in the file and tell us the sex of the baby. I had always thought I was having a boy, and I was right. But it didn't seem to matter anymore. Nothing did -- not even the reassurance from the doctors and nurses that if I had come in earlier, there was still nothing we could have done.
Later that afternoon I was trying to rest and stay calm since my blood pressure was threatening to kill me. I got sicker and sicker with preeclampsia-type symptoms, and I was lying there with my mom and mother-in-law on either side, each of them holding one of my hands, which was not easy considering I was hooked up to a lot of machines. The door had been left open, and we could hear the sound of a woman in labor, and then the sounds of a newborn and the joy of everyone else in that room.
It suddenly hit me that that would not be me. I would have to be induced, go through all the work of delivering my baby and I would never hear those sounds. I would never get to take him home and hold him or love him or fight with David about whose turn it was to get up in the middle of the night. I was devastated. The rest of that day was a blur of family members coming to visit while I mostly apologized for not being able to give them a grandson or a nephew. Part of me felt guilty.
At 10:23 the next morning I delivered our son. David held my hand the whole way through. My mom was there, too. Yes, labor sucked, especially knowing that I was going through all that pain and work for nothing. What sucked even more was entering the hospital nearly 24 weeks pregnant and leaving with funeral-home brochures. Our child was considered stillborn, and as much as David and I would have liked to ignore the situation and move on by pretending it never happened, we had to make arrangements.
We named him Nathan Wayne Herbert, his middle names those of my grandfather and David's grandfather. It was almost unbearably difficult, but I'm glad now we did it. I'm also happy that the nurse talked us into seeing him, holding him and spending time with him. I was so worried about how he would look that my parents saw him first. My dad was right: He was small but perfect. We went home on Christmas Eve, and that was hard. You don't realize how many carols are about newborn baby boys until it's too late and you're sobbing in church.
Losing a child is an odd phenomenon. People avoid talking to you -- they just don't know what to say. There are moments when I find myself crying unexpectedly, but with time it becomes less frequent. I will always mourn the little boy we didn't get to bring home. I'll never get to see Nathan's face light up at the first snowfall or help him hang ornaments on the tree. But I will always cherish the memory of holding him in my arms, a little half-smile on his tiny face, sleeping in heavenly peace.
Jenna Gabert is a substitute teacher in southern Alberta, Canada. She and David are looking forward to a joyful holiday season because she's pregnant again. Her baby is due on January 23, 2013.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, December 2012.