Letter to Sylvia
It was the dead of winter, February 1980, when I first became aware of your movements. So subtle, at first, like a fish swimming in my belly. I felt growing excitement and the peacefulness of familiarity. The pregnancy, my third, was settling in and unfolding as it should…nothing unusual, I remember thinking.
Several months had passed and brought us to May, the month that promises summer to come and can still surprise with a dose of winter’s stinging cold. On one chilly morning, after my husband and two sons had scrambled through breakfast and left together for nursery school, grade school and work, I decided, on a whim, to turn on the television with no particular plan in mind. A program was airing about a mother’s experience with her son, who had been diagnosed with autism. It was a harrowing story of her disappointing search for the limited resources available to help with his development. She shrank from some of the methods she encountered for working with autistic children, from the harshness and insensitivity she observed there. Eventually, she decided that she would work with her son at home and so began to develop her own approach to joining him in his world and encouraging him to venture out into hers.
I found myself deeply touched by this mother’s journey, saddened by her disappointment and inspired by her determination and her dedication to provide for her son’s needs. It was the first dawning of a concrete awareness that a baby’s development can take an unexpected turn during pregnancy, bringing unanticipated challenges, and I realized that I had taken for granted your normal development and birth, based on my experience to date with your two healthy, normal brothers. God’s preparatory whisper, reaching my ear?
Later that same month, I received a phone inquiry from a mother whose baby had died during birth and who wanted to donate her breast milk to a milk bank. At that time I was a volunteer Leader with La Leche League, offering support to nursing mothers, and I had never encountered this mother’s particular situation before. I listened, with growing sorrow, to her story and then, after researching the issue, got back to her, little knowing that I might need this information again. I had also been reading about mother/infant bonding and knew the importance of grieving the attachment to a baby who does not survive.
In June, our family took a farm vacation with an Ontario farming family as hosts. My memories of this time are still acute: the boys, then aged 4 and 8 years, enjoyed endlessly exploring an old, disused truck in the farmyard, spent hours playing tennis in the barn with Dad and especially loved to play in the sand of an overgrown sandpit they discovered on one of our walks. Strangely there were no farming activities, like egg collecting or milking, to involve ourselves in at this particular farm since this was a beef cattle farm. I clearly remember, at the 6-month mark in my pregnancy, feeling ponderous and slow-moving when we were out walking and, at the same time, wanting to be with the boys because I knew we were on borrowed time. With a new baby coming, things were going to change and my time and attention would be focused on the newest member of the family.
Returning from vacation, we settled into a relaxed summer routine and began to put the finishing touches on your room. It was a joyful time and the attending to these details seemed important, a signifier for how much you were already loved, welcomed and eagerly anticipated.
On the day of your birth, August 11th, contractions began late in the day. They came regularly and with gradually decreasing intervals between them. I was managing them well and yet had strong feelings that all was not well, that I had studied hard for the final examination but was going to fail the test. These feelings were not based on anything concrete that was happening to me but were intuitive and strangely compelling nonetheless. We decided to go to the hospital and we let my mother-in-law know that we needed her to stay with our sons, as she had agreed to do.
Our experience with the nurses who admitted me to the labour and delivery ward was immensely frustrating. I was in labour and focused on breathing through increasingly intense contractions…not the time when one wants to be subjected to a barrage of intrusive questions. We noticed later that the nurses were having whispered conversations with one another, while not communicating directly with us. The measures for finding your heartbeat were also becoming more intrusive. I wanted to shout at them because I knew something was wrong and they weren’t talking to us. Finally they told us that they could not find a heartbeat, that you were gone already. Then there was an awful silence, while we took in their words, shock and disbelief prevailing before the storm of tears began.
I don’t know when it happened. I can’t pinpoint it, the moment when your arm pinched off the flow of cord blood, when you, still cradled within, left me without a goodbye, without a hello. Gone.
I chose the epidural, losing the heart to work with my labour, despairing and in retreat. I did and do thank God for your father, my faithful husband, who stayed beside me throughout your birth and shared, an equal partner, in the shock and dismay of these hours of heartbreak. You arrived silently, with no crying, no “pinking up”, your features so like your brothers’ but tinged with blue, looking blue. We took turns to hold you, feeling more sorrowful than at any time in our lives, shocked by the crushing weight of our disbelief, our disappointment, expecting a celebration and receiving a cause for grieving. We missed you in those moments so keenly, even though we had no chance to get to know you.
People can unwittingly say the most unhelpful things, in an effort to be helpful. One of the nurses, offering a tidy solution, suggested you could be disposed of by the hospital. My heart rebelled, knew there was a better way, knew our family needed to honor and acknowledge you as having been a reality among us. I needed this acknowledgment. Your father said, “Thank you but, no. We need to take her home and say our Goodbyes.”
Our boys needed to know you were their sister, lost but no less real or part of our family for that. Telling them you had died was so painful but answering their questions helped us to stay present for them. They were so sad to lose you and yet they kept us and our friends and neighbors connected with reality. A week after your birth, 4-year old Graham was stationed on the front steps waiting for our next-door-neighbor to return from his vacation. We didn’t know that he had appointed himself “Announcer of Family News” until we heard him say, “Our baby died,” in his matter-of-fact, 4-year-old voice, with shocking impact on our neighbor, who then needed to be filled in with some context.
The funeral was the final reality check. It seemed surreal, being in the church with your tiny white coffin and with so many people there to comfort us. One friend, in particular, came to the burial site, sharing her understanding, gained through her own miscarriages. I was overwhelmed with gratitude for all the support we received. I believe that because we were open about our grief, others could give freely to us. What a blessing that was. Our grief was in direct proportion to the love with which you would have been received. I felt so sad that I did not have the opportunity to welcome you into the world, or to hold you while you left us. Your life was over before you were even born, Sylvia.
I was literally dripping with milk for you and felt your absence so acutely in those early days. Losing you taught me how grateful I felt for the children I already had. If I could feel so much sadness for the baby I did not yet know, how much more sorrow would I have felt for the boys I knew and loved so well. Many friends came to visit, people who knew the power of attachment and understood how profoundly we felt your absence.
In September, one month after your birth, my parents came from England for a visit. They truly wanted to support us both and didn’t know, always, what to say or how to help. On one occasion, I heard my Dad saying to my husband: “You’d better get her over this…it could ruin her life,” meaning that he should try harder to distract me from my sadness, one month after losing you. I let Dad know that I needed to weep and let my sadness have a voice now, not months or years from now, when the next loss might happen. Giving myself permission to honor my feelings now, I told him, would allow me to move on, through and past the sadness of this unique loss, at my own pace.
Later in the evening, he confessed that his mother had died in childbirth when he was a small boy and his own fear and sadness from that time had been reactivated by our loss. I had never heard this part of my Dad’s family history before and it showed me how powerful unresolved grief can be, as a barrier to supporting others in their mourning.
September was also “back to school” month and towards the end of the month I felt ready to walk Eugene to his classroom and to meet his new teacher. Her well-intentioned words of greeting to me were: “It probably was for the best that this baby died. You can always have another baby.” But I can never have another you, another Sylvia. You were one of a kind and you are gone. So many people don’t know what to say, how to help. You taught me again that each one of my children is unique, not replaceable, and that each loss is unique because of that.
Later that fall, in October, one of my husband’s colleagues based in Toronto, kindly offered us the use of his apartment for a long weekend getaway. We took our boys, not wanting to be apart from them, and it was good to have a change of scene. The zoo was a particular highlight. I also remember being ambushed by grief in a subway station, when we encountered another family with a very young baby. Suddenly I was back at the centre of the sorrow, as though “it” had just happened. I could function in the world but every now and then something would take me back there so vividly…to you, Sylvia, to the core of my grief.
Then, as I moved a little further through my preoccupying mourning, I noticed that some of my neighbors, who had seen me walking around the community during the months of my pregnancy, had never said a word to either myself or Tony about this great loss. I found myself wondering, are they being considerate or self-interested, unsure if they might precipitate difficult feelings in us or themselves or are they so unimaginative that they can’t think of anything appropriate to say in the circumstances? I remember feeling angry about this absence too and questioning what is missing in a culture that fails to address this universal issue. Often we are not taught, as we grow to adulthood, how to navigate or support each other through loss and grieving and so we avoid it.
As I write this letter, I am remembering that physical closeness was difficult for a while after your birth. Somehow it reminded me of the joy of creating you and the sadness of your passage through that life channel. And I realize, with surprise as I look back, that I did become pregnant again only five months after you arrived and departed. Was I subconsciously trying to replace you? I knew I could not and yet I don’t remember a decision to try again. Perhaps we decided to let nature take its course. I do remember feeling fearful about a new pregnancy; thinking that I would have to wait through the entire nine months to eradicate the fear of losing another baby.
Forgive me for moving on from you, Sylvia, perhaps more quickly than I would have thought possible. I did not and will not ever forget you or the life lessons our short relationship taught me. Even the new pregnancy reflected your passage through our lives, marked as it was with non-stress tests to check on that new little one’s vitality and charts to record her movements. In safeguarding her we were remembering you and protecting ourselves from another painful loss. We remember how great that pain was.
It was July 1981 and I was seven months into my next pregnancy when a friend asked me if I would talk to her neighbor. She had also had a stillbirth and was having a very difficult time moving on from it. I agreed to meet her and, as we talked, I recognized how similar her story was to mine. She was “stuck” because she could not forgive herself for not knowing exactly when her baby had died. Her belief was that, if she had been perfectly “in sync” with him, she would have known about and been able to relieve his distress. Our discussions were far-ranging and my pregnancy became an emblem for her of the possibility of delivering a healthy child. If my child arrived safely, she would allow herself to believe that she too could deliver a healthy living child. Our daughter, Meg, arrived safely and peacefully on October 1st, with none of the misgivings that had accompanied your arrival, Sylvia, and I later heard that this woman, a soul-sister, whose life touched mine briefly, also delivered a healthy baby some months later. The miracle of new birth marked a happy ending or, more properly, a happy beginning, for us both.
Sylvia, you are a soul-sister to Meg, who speaks of your passing as a sacrifice made so that she could live. You will live on in my heart and memory as long as I draw breath.