“So I’ve got a date for you – September 4.” That was the first thing the doctor’s assistant said when she saw me on August 28. My heart sank. I was hoping to have a natural childbirth, or at least give it a try. But I was now past my due date of August 25, and my doctor was going to induce labor in one week. I hadn’t progressed much in the last month – my little Catherine was refusing to “drop;” in other words, move further into my pelvis, as I had explained to family and friends, and my cervix hadn’t dilated beyond 1.5 cm in almost three weeks (and how odd to give people updates on your anatomy). After a smooth pregnancy, my body seemed hesitant to do the whole labor thing. My doctor told me, “well, if nothing happens in a week, be at the hospital at 5:30 am, and September 4th will be her birthday!” I told her that my original due date according to my cycle was August 31, so maybe my baby would decide to come then. My doctor jokingly said, “well, they do sometimes hear that first date and commit to that one.” I had my own romantic notions that my first child would be born two years to the date that her father and I became engaged – September 1st. But I was very disappointed to think that I might have to be induced, increasing the likelihood of having a caesarean section. I called and told A.V. the news, then my sister, then my mom. I started off with, “I have an induction date, but the baby and I are perfectly fine.” Indeed, Catherine had been kicking most of the morning, and had a strong heartbeat of 154 bpm. My weight and blood pressure were fine; again, I just wasn’t doing the whole labor thing. My mom said that she would pray that I’d go into labor over the weekend. I said thanks, but was starting to consider that unlikely.
The next day, Saturday August 29th, I woke up having a few mild contractions every 20 minutes. When they weren’t stopping after an hour or so, I suggested to A.V. that we go and walk around the mall, having read and heard over and over again that being active can determine whether you are in false labor, or help your labor progress. We went to Lakeside Mall, ate beignets, and visited every soap shop. I was looking for something primrose scented, which my doctor had heard stimulated labor. Of course, I couldn’t resist going into Pottery Barn Kids. I saw a wand I really wanted to get Catherine that I thought would be adorable with her Halloween outfit – I had decided months ago to dress her as a butterfly for her first Halloween. I decided to wait to purchase it, but looked at the dollhouses and thought about telling my parents to get my old dollhouse out of the attic for her to play with when she was older. I did buy some antibacterial lotion and lectured A.V. over and over again that he must use it, especially when coming home from the gym, because Catherine’s immune system wouldn’t be fully developed in her first few months, and there was swine flu going around….
The contractions didn’t get stronger, but they didn’t go away either. We went grocery shopping around 6 pm, had some leftover quiche, and then got ready for bed. Around 11 pm, I was so uncomfortable with contractions every 10 minutes that I decided to go lie down on the sofa and watch some t.v. Over the next several hours, I watched the clock on the t.v. and timed my contractions – every 10 minutes, now about every 7, now about every 6 minutes. I counted out to myself – lasts 45 seconds, peaks in intensity at 20 seconds. I squeezed the medal I had started wearing on her due date – St. Gerard Majella on one side, Our Lady of Perpetual Help on the other. I had prayed to St. Gerard every night since I was about 3 months along that I would have a healthy baby who would be baptized. A.V. had prayed to the Virgin everyday, and lit two candles for her every week at Mass, also that we would have a healthy baby to take home. I liked that the ribbon the medal was on was long enough that it hung right over my very pregnant belly. That made it all the more convenient to squeeze during my contractions. Around 3 am, I got a bit concerned that I hadn’t felt Catherine move in awhile (I knew all about kick counting and ways to get the baby to move). I got up – the contractions were far worse when I moved around – and drank some orange juice. About 5 minutes later, there was her familiar fist pummeling. I lay down again and tried to sleep in the 5 minutes between contractions.
At 6 am, when A.V. got up, I told him that I thought we should go to the hospital. I packed up the last of my toiletries, he threw some of his supplies in my hospital bag (which had been packed for 3 weeks), and I called my doctor to describe my symptoms and ask if she thought this was labor. She did, and told me to go ahead to the hospital. Honestly, I was in enough pain at that point that I would have gone to the hospital anyway. At 7 am, I remember walking down the steps of the house and looking back at the front door, thinking, the next time I’ll be here, Catherine will be coming home with us. OH MY GOD, this is really it! I had about three contractions on the way to the hospital, but didn’t feel incapacitated enough to go to the emergency room. A.V. parked the car, and we walked to the maternity ward, where I could only say, “I think I’m in labor?” to a large group of nurses sitting behind the desk. Someone said, “Okay, come this way, your doctor already called.” I walked into my labor and delivery room and was given a gown to change into. I went in the bathroom, and had a wickedly difficult time getting this gown on. I was (oddly) trying to be modest, and couldn’t figure out how to tie it without leaving my whole backside exposed. And I was having contractions the whole time.
Finally, I conquered the gown string thing, and took a seat on the bed. The nurse started asking me the usual questions – any problems with the pregnancy? Gestational diabetes, high blood pressure? Any tests come back unusual? No, no, and no. I had undergone genetic testing, glucose testing, and of course blood pressure monitoring, and everything had been completely normal. My ultrasounds at 13 and 26 weeks had indicated a perfectly healthy baby, with everything functioning just like it should. All my prenatal visits (once a week for the last six weeks) had gone smoothly – my little girl was a healthy, tough cookie. She then went to attach the fetal heartbeat monitor to me. Over one side of my belly, then the other. “When was the last time you felt the baby move?” “Around 2 am (I got the time wrong), but I just haven’t been able to tell since with the contractions.” I told her that there was usually a little bit of difficulty getting the baby’s heartbeat – she liked to be a bit difficult, and it was a little bit of a challenge for the doctor’s assistant every week too. But the nurse was distracted by also having to record all the information on me, so called in another nurse. The other nurse slid the monitor over my belly for over a minute while I answered even more questions. Yes, I wanted to try to breastfeed her. Yes, I had picked out a pediatrician, though I thought he might be out of town on vacation and one of his associates would examine her. The nurse working on my belly wasn’t having any more luck, so she got up to call in the ultrasound doctor. This doctor came in with the portable machine, and began scanning my belly. “Sorry, these things are pretty old,” she said. “When was the last time you felt the baby move?” “Um, 2 am.” She kept going, clicking the monitor here and there, then turned to the other nurse and asked, “have you called in Dr.?” I missed his name, but within two minutes, he was there too. I was getting a bit annoyed, thinking, gosh, their equipment is having trouble picking up a heartbeat. Maybe she really is positioned oddly. This new doctor scanned here and there, “When was the last time you felt the baby move?,” and I once again saw the outline of her cute little head. He moved further down, right where her heart should be, and clicked the button that had always let A.V. and me hear her heartbeat. Except this time there was no sound. No movement on the monitor. I had first seen her heart beating away on January 19, and then three more times when I’d had ultrasounds. It was always amazing – pounding away. Except this time I couldn’t see or hear anything. The doctor took a breath and turned to me and said, “I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but there’s no heartbeat. Sometimes the placenta stops providing enough nourishment.” I think he said something else, but I was zoning out at that point, Okay, they can’t find a heartbeat. So they’ll do an emergency c-section to try to save her and she’ll probably come out screaming like a normal baby. But where was their sense of urgency? I looked at the nurses, and they had started crying. Another doctor came up to me, tears in her eyes, rubbed my arm and said “I’m really sorry.” In this foggy haze, I gave her a big smile and said, “thank you.” “We’ve called your doctor; she’s on her way,” said my nurse, also crying. “I’m so so sorry.” This isn’t really happening. I need to call my family so they can pray and then Catherine will be fine. I know A.V. was hugging me and holding my hand, but I have no real memory of it. A.V. didn’t want me to talk to my family until after my doctor had arrived and examined me. She was crying too, “It’s not supposed to be this way, this is supposed to be joyous. I looked over all your charts again, your ultrasound, and everything was perfect.”
I called my parents. My father answered. “I went to the hospital because I’m in labor, but they couldn’t find a heartbeat.” “Huh? They couldn’t find a heartbeat?” “Yeah, I don’t know…” “Well, how couldn’t they find a heartbeat?” And then my cell phone lost its signal. I called my sister. “Are you in labor?” she asked. (For the past week and a half, every time we talked, she began the conversation with, “are you in labor?”) “I was in labor so I went to the hospital but they weren’t able to find a heartbeat.” “What?” “They said they couldn’t find a heartbeat, and that they were sorry….” “Okay, I’ll be over right away.” I may have said more, she may have said more, but I don’t remember that either. I remember everyone wanting to make me as comfortable as possible – I had an epidural; they were speeding up labor as much as they could. My sister fed me ice chips as if I were a baby bird. There was a “Golden Girls” marathon on t.v. A.V. ate dried cherries and cheddar and sour cream chips. I asked, “Once I’m well, can we have another baby?” “Okay,” he said. I fell asleep a couple of times. My nurse brought in a folder with some literature about stillbirths, grieving, and support groups. This isn’t really happening, so why is she bringing me this?
Finally, it was time for me to push and deliver her. I couldn’t move my legs, couldn’t feel my lower half at that point. “I think it’s going to be really hard for me to push – I don’t feel anything.” But I was still doing a “great job” according to my doctor and nurse. Delivery was easy – it lasted about 15 minutes. In the back of my mind, I still thought Maybe when she’s born she’ll be okay. Maybe there was some type of error. Maybe it’ll be like that little baby who they thought had died, but started crying in the morgue. But when she passed out of me, and I saw the nurse’s face, I knew that a miracle hadn’t happened. “I watched her come out of you – dead,” A.V, would tell me the next day, sitting in her nursery. I had told the doctor that no, I didn’t want her placed on my chest when she was born; no, I didn’t want to give her a bath (her first and last); yes, I would like to hold her for awhile once she was cleaned up. My doctor said the placenta was a little smaller than she expected for the size of the baby, and ordered cultures and more blood tests. (These didn’t provide any clues as to what had happened.) After delivery, I started shaking uncontrollably. A.V. asked me if I was okay, and I told him that I was just a little cold, but the truth is I was in such an extreme state of anxiety that my whole body was shaking. I knew the nurses were bathing her, dressing her up, taking pictures with her so that I would have keepsakes. It seemed like it was taking forever. At times I wanted to yell, “Just please, bring her here so I can at least see her.” Instead I waited 45 minutes before she was placed in my arms.
When I held her, I was surprised at how heavy she felt. A.V., the two nurses, and my doctor stood over me, watching these first few moments of me holding my daughter. My arm movement was limited by my i.v. and blood pressure cuff, and it was hard to hold her the way I wanted too. I really wanted to see her hands and feet, but couldn’t seem to unwrap the blanket. Six hands reached out to help me. I rubbed her little nose, tried to open her eyes, kissed her little head and hands. The blood had accumulated in her head and torso, making her face look strangely red with anger, while her hands and lower legs were very pale white. While in labor, I had had an awful thought. I love the name Catherine so much. Maybe I should name this baby something else so that I can name another daughter Catherine. But Catherine had always been Catherine, even before I knew I was having her, and she didn’t deserve to be robbed of her name.
A.V. held her. My parents and sister came in and held her. As macabre as it might have seemed, I asked my sister to take pictures of me and Catherine together. My sister had gotten us a digital camera, to make sure that we took lots of pictures. It had been one of the things I had placed in my hospital bag earlier that morning. (She’d later tell me that she had bought a camcorder, to record part of my labor and the whole lifetime of important moments with her first niece and goddaughter.) I said goodbye. My father placed her in her little basket. Someone asked if we wanted an autopsy done. While I wanted answers, I couldn’t imagine letting some stranger cut into that perfect little body. My body was all that she had known; I had protected her, kept her healthy. I loved that little body. I couldn’t let some stranger examine her that way, cut into her. I know she was healthy. Whatever went wrong may have happened in a matter of hours. A.V. and I agreed that we did not want an autopsy. My nurse brought me Catherine’s keepsake box – the dress they had put her in to take pictures, the teddy bear and blanket in the pictures, even the small bottles of shampoo and baby soap they used to wash her.
Eventually that night I was brought to another part of the maternity ward. They asked me if I wanted to go to another part of the hospital, but knowing hospitals, I was concerned that I would get less treatment there – I was starting to experience some pain – than in the maternity ward. I was rolled in a wheelchair to my new room, with a sign “Congratulations on your new baby” right next to the door. Congratulations on your new baby. I read that sign over and over again over the next 16 hours. I didn’t feel angry or bitter reading it. I felt fascination. Women come here, and they give birth to babies that they take home. How odd. For me, my experience had become normative; all the other healthy labors and deliveries were unusual. I listened to Brahms’ Lullaby, which the ward plays every time a baby is delivered – though not for Catherine – with the same fascination. Wow, there’s another woman having a healthy baby. That’s so strange. I heard that song four times during the 30 hours I spent at the hospital.
When my doctor came in the next morning, she said that I could leave the hospital around noon that day, if I wanted. “Yes.” She told me I had done a “superb job.” I’ll probably cling to those words for the rest of my life. My new nurse brought me more literature on grieving, along with Catherine’s footprints. Along with the literature were papers on organ donation. I looked on the last page: “Stillborn – unknown causes. Organs not suitable for donation.” I threw it in the wastebasket.
After what seemed like forever, I got my final instructions and prescriptions. My sister left to pick up my pain medications. A.V. helped me get dressed and packed up our stuff. My father said he was starting to look into making arrangements for a burial. I was wheeled back into the parking lot, and got into the car. I sobbed leaving the hospital – I was leaving without my baby.
Catherine’s car seat was still in the backseat, like I had attached it two weeks earlier. Her car seat was one of the first items we had gotten for her, after my friend sent a duck outfit for her. A.V.’s cousin had given it to us, and I’d gotten head supports and put those in along with a duck-shaped pull toy for her. I had bought and attached one of those safety mirrors so that I would be able to see her face when I was sitting up front. When we arrived back at the house, I opened the back door of the car and began taking it all out. “We can do it later,” A.V. said. “No, I don’t want it here!” For two weeks, I had seen that car seat every time I got into and out of the car, waiting for her. I’d told her that everything was ready for her, that we had set things up to be able to take her home from the hospital. Now she was never going to use it, and I didn’t want it there.
In fact, I didn’t want anything of hers out in the house. I walked into the house like a tornado, looking for anything and everything Catherine-related. Baptism documents (she was going to be baptized on September 20th)? In the trash. The schedule for sign-and-play classes (I was going to take classes with her so that we could learn basic sign language for babies and communicate that way before she could talk)? Also in the trash, along with the notes on pediatricians and the “Care for Your Newborn” pamphlet the pediatrician I had chosen had given me. What to Expect When You’re Expecting? Removed from my nightstand to the nursery. Ditto with What to Expect: the First Year that A.V. and I had been reading that week. Best Baby Gear, the book I had used when surfing the internet for exactly the right – and safe – crib and diapers and clothes and pacifiers and thermometers and bedding, also disappeared into a cabinet in the nursery. Even the laundry detergent and spray wash I had bought especially for her – pediatrician recommended – out of sight. I unpacked my hospital bag: the nightgowns I had bought just a couple of weeks earlier for my hospital stay, the nursing bras, the nursing pads. I unpacked her diaper bag, the two outfits I had packed for her: one pink onesie covered with strawberries, the other a purple polka-doted nightgown. Her little socks. Her newborn disposable diapers with Sesame Street characters on them. Her baby Tylenol drops, the diaper wipes. My mom and sister hovered. “She’ll never use any of this stuff, so I just want to put it away!” Her baby book. I had brought it to the hospital, wanting to make sure that I got her footprints inked into it at the same time that they took them for records. Now the “Welcome Home!” section would be filled in with memories of her burial, pictures of her gravesite at a cemetery. A.V. and I sat on the floor of her nursery and cried.
Two days later, I woke up and began putting stuff in her nursery away. I took her crib bedding apart. I had spent a week and a half picking out that bedding, wanting to make sure it had lots of colors and textures for her. I took her mobile apart – the one with leaves and tropical birds that moved. It played songs and had lights. I took the batteries out of all her toys – the bear she’d gotten at her baby shower, the pink seahorse with a glowing belly that I had seen online and knew I had to get for her. Her changing table, the one I had carefully selected and then made sure I had all the recommended supplies for. I thought about taking down the Winnie the Pooh curtains my parents had bought and hung up for her, but decided not to. Back into the box went her AngelCare Monitor, which would alert me, with some irony considering her death, if she stopped moving for longer than 20 seconds. I put away all the larger toys that my parents’ neighbors had given us, even her stroller. But I couldn’t stop thinking – was any of this ever really hers? It had been bought for her, but she would never use it. Was she never meant to use it?
The next day, September 3rd, was her funeral and burial. A.V. was the last person to see her. He placed a stuffed animal, a rosary, the medal I had worn, and some prayer cards to St. Gerard Majella in her pretty pink coffin, and then closed it forever. “When we have another baby, we need new saints to pray to. The saints we prayed to do some jacked-up s---,” A.V. had said. Through the generosity of the abbot, Catherine was buried in the same plot that my parents will one day be buried in at St. Joseph’s Abbey, so they’ll be able to take care of her at the Resurrection. A statue of St. Joseph is only a few paces away from her, and the next section of the cemetery is where the priests and monks are buried. I noticed when we visited there recently that there’s a park bench underneath the trees nearby. “Look Catherine, you can play and have picnics underneath the tree, and all the priests nearby will say what a lovely and adorable little girl you are!” I like to believe that the rainbows we have been seeing recently, the lovebugs that surrounded our car, are her gifts to us from a much happier place. So many people were excited about her, couldn’t wait to meet her – they were so many people, and so much love at her baby shower - , and prayed for her, that I like to think that the Virgin and saints just wanted her even more than all of us did, so they decided to keep her for themselves.
So that’s what happened. When you tell someone that you had a stillborn baby, they think that there were all sorts of things wrong, with the pregnancy or with your health (you try to avoid the people who are so callous as to actually ask you to your face). Nope. I was perfectly healthy; she was by every measure she had perfectly healthy also. I gained the exact amount of recommended weight, I ate fish once (and only once) a week, I ate small meals with lots of fruits and vegetables, I had fast food no more than once a month, I started drinking lots of water a day (and I hate drinking water) and didn’t touch diet drinks or anything with caffeine, I didn’t even eat lunch meat because of the risk of bacteria. I have my suspicions about problems with my placenta once labor began, but with no autopsy these will most likely never be confirmed, and that doesn’t bother me. In 50% of cases, the cause of a stillborn birth cannot be determined. And it occurs once in every two hundred births.
Now I have a desire to tell every woman who tells me she is pregnant, “Oh, I had a great, healthy pregnancy. And I gave birth to a dead baby. Just something to consider.” I’m not trying to be mean, or add to their anxiety. It’s more like managing expectations. Because honestly, once I hit 37 weeks, I thought the worst that could happen is that I would need an emergency c-section but still have a healthy baby. I knew all the things to watch out for – lack of movement, bright red bleeding. I read books and internet sites; I went to my childbirth classes. Catherine’s lack of discernible movement while I was in labor was no different than in other moments of my pregnancy when I was active and couldn’t feel her as much. Not that there is ever a way to prepare oneself for this sort of tragedy, but a stillbirth had never even entered my mind. That’s something that happened to women 50 years ago without modern medical care, I thought. I had no idea.
Along with my desire to warn every pregnant woman I come across, there’s the discomfort of certain questions and moments. “Do you have children?” I was asked recently. I don’t want to say no – I was and always will be a Mommy to Catherine. But I’m guessing that most people mean currently living children, and I’ve decided that it’s extremely insensitive to assume that all children must be living. I have similar feelings about Mother’s Day now. Do I get to celebrate Mother’s Day, or am I bumped back into childlessness because I had a dead baby? (By the way, the Mother’s Day card my own mom gave me this past year, from Catherine, that read how she couldn’t wait to meet me and play with me, is the only thing that still gets me choked up at this point.)
So now I’ve talked all about my dead baby. But I don’t think of Catherine as dead – the vast majority of the memories I have of her are of her alive. And so even though I know people are more interested in her death, I’d prefer they remember her alive. And since I knew her better than anyone, here’s what my Catherine was like.
Catherine Marie was born at 5:26 pm on August 30th, 2009. She was 19 inches long and weighed 7 lbs, 5 oz. She had dark, fine hair like A.V., with slight curls like mine. She had dark eyes. She had pouty lips, like me. She had baby jowls, like A.V. did as a baby. Her fingers were ridiculously long – way longer than anyone in our immediate families’. Great for the piano, but as my sister pointed out, those big, short legs may not have been long enough to reach the pedals! She had sturdy Mexican peasant legs, and rather large feet.
I remember the first time I saw her on an ultrasound. I had gone to the doctor to confirm that I was pregnant, and she looked like a little tadpole then, with her heart beating away. She was a little miracle. In her next three ultrasounds, as she grew bigger and bigger – and looked more obviously like a baby – I noticed that she loved to hold her right hand above her head. Both A.V. and I do this when we are sleeping, and it was amazing to realize we’d somehow passed this down to our child!
When picking up A.V. from work, she would always get really active, and I’d tell her, “vroom vroom,” (because I’m a notorious speeder who wants other cars to get out of the way) and she’d kick her little legs like crazy. At her burial, the hearse she was placed in – with 3 motorcycle police escorts no less – was going ridiculously slowly at 25 mph. I know she was yelling and kicking, “vroom vroom, Mommy, vroom vroom!”
I also always listen to music in the car – A.V. got a kick out of the fact that I invoked St. John Vianney to fix my car’s cd player – and she loved…Aerosmith. Completely loved them. Whenever Aerosmith would come on, she would practically start somersaulting. OMG, she wants to be a stripper. I might have been the first Mommy to have to go into a toy store and ask, “Um, do you sell stripper poles for toddlers?”
She was also stubborn! She and I had a deal: if I’d drink some orange or pomegranate juice, then rub my tummy, she’d do a flurry of kicks for me. But she could be moving like crazy, and when her dad put his hands on my tummy, she’d completely stop. Two seconds after he’d move his hand away, she’d start up again. Even though A.V. called her “little sweetie,” I think she was planning on being quite the handful for him!
She had quite the relationship with our cat, Sadie, too. Sadie likes to sit on me, and loved to put her paws on my big belly. Catherine hated this. She’d hit back. I think, “Get off, Sadie!” would have been her first phrase, especially since Sadie would have loved nothing more than to cuddle up with her little warm body.
She had really strong hiccups. I first felt her hiccuping in my sixth month, and in that last month, her hiccups were so strong that you could see my whole belly pulsing! I like to think that she was practicing her breathing for her big arrival in the world, though I was a little nervous about what type of screamer she would have turned out to be.
Catherine was such a tenacious little girl. In the middle of my pregnancy, A.V. and I moved halfway across the country. In preparing to leave our old apartment, I spent an afternoon crawling around on the floor, crouching behind an oven, and using strong cleaning supplies. I was so worried that I’d go to the doctor the next day and find out that something was wrong. But no, her heartbeat was as strong as ever.
I also got nervous during those few days that we were driving from California to Louisiana, especially since my visit with my new doctor was a few weeks away. I had had to sit in a car for many hours and hadn’t been drinking as much water as I would have liked. I was so scared that there would be problems. But no, in her ultrasound everything was functioning perfectly. That’s when we also found out for sure that she was a girl, and I couldn’t help telling her, “You’re one tough cookie, Catherine!” Considering my mental state at times, she overcame some real obstacles because I know that as much as so many people were excited about meeting her, she really wanted to be here too. I like to think that it’s that fighting spirit that made Someone want her even more, where she could be a part of even bigger and better things.
And then there are the moments I will never get with her, the dreams that I had for her. Of dressing her as a butterfly this Halloween, of taking care of her at the dinner table for Thanksgiving this year, of putting up the Christmas tree, buying “Baby’s First Christmas” ornaments for her and even making a few. Of getting her a Christmas dress and an Easter outfit. Bringing her to the park this coming spring, right when she would have been old enough to be interested in the outdoor world and excited about all the new life that appears.
I know that for those who didn’t know Catherine as well as I did, the dreams they had of her and for her are even more vivid, and probably feel like all they will ever have of her. I don’t really have any words to say that would comfort them, other than to have written this to let them know, “This is what Catherine was like, and is like. She died unexpectedly for reasons that none of us will ever know in this lifetime, but in her own way, she led a very full life while here on earth. And she knew how many people loved her, and she wanted to be with you, too. God just wanted her even more.”