Lying on the ultrasound exam table, my husband at my side clutching my hand, I watched with excitement as two babies squirmed in my womb, each one fighting for just a little more leg room in my belly. It was my twenty-week check-up, and each baby was being measured and examined from head to toe. I closed my eyes, when necessary so as not to find out the sex of each baby, clamping my hand over my face so I wouldn’t be tempted to peek. As Baby A yawned and Baby B rolled over, my husband and I were overcome with awe that we had created these two perfect beings and looked forward to a future of coaching little league and helping with homework.
“Well, we just measured your cervix two weeks ago, but let’s check it again, just to be safe,” the ultrasound tech said as she was finishing my exam. The room suddenly grew silent as the tech stared at the computer screen. Turning to us, she asked, “You’re seeing the doctor after this, right?” A small knot of fear appeared in my stomach as the tech finished and sent us next door to meet with my physician.
My doctor walked into the exam room with a worried look on her face. “We have a problem,” she said. “You’re three centimeters dilated.” With our hearts in our throats, my husband and I raced to the hospital, where we were greeted at the entrance and rushed to the high-risk obstetrics unit.
In the blink of an eye, I was lying in a hospital bed, my feet higher than my head, a monitor strapped around my belly and I.V. and catheter tubes draped across my bed. A million questions swam through my mind. Would my children survive? How can I have contractions without feeling them? How could anything be wrong when I had just seen my babies heartily kicking around on an ultrasound screen?
A swirl of people came and went. Nurses materialized to offer words of encouragement and to administer first one drug, then another, in hopes of calming my contractions. A neonatologist popped in to scare us with doom-and-gloom predictions (“Your children won’t live until at least week twenty-three, and then there’s risk of brain damage, blindness, learning disabilities…”). A maternal/fetal specialist appeared to discuss a cerclage, a stitch that could be placed in my cervix in hopes of saving my pregnancy. We nervously watched charts and printouts and physicians’ faces for signs that my labor had slowed and my cerclage could be placed.
Through drugs that made me see double and too weak to roll over in bed, my labor was stopped and I was taken to surgery the next morning to get my cerclage. Through a fog of pain and drugs, I heard the doctor saying things had gone well, and now we should just hope for the best. I settled into my hospital room, ate popsicles, threw up popsicles, and greeted my mother and sister (or two mothers and two sisters; I was still seeing double), who rushed to town to accompany my husband in his bedside vigil.
That day blended into the next day into the next. Life became a nervous routine of medications and blood pressure checks and ultrasounds. I watched hours of television, not really following the programs as my mind drifted to the countless best-case and worst-case scenarios that played through my head. I knew now that I had a son and a daughter, having caved in during one of my post-surgery ultrasounds and asking to learn the babies’ genders. No more were they generic babies I was trying to save; I had a little girl and little boy whose lives depended on me. Instead of praying, I found myself silently talking to my children, as if I could will them to stay in my body.
After five days in the hospital, a glimmer of hope surfaced; I had stabilized and was doing well enough to go home. As my family struggled to remember all our parting instructions—How often to I take my antibiotics? Do we check my temperature in the morning or evening or both?—we were cautiously optimistic as we arrived home and turned my bedroom into a makeshift medical ward. We celebrated with ice cream and allowed ourselves to think that maybe we’d be one of the lucky families, telling our son and daughter stores one day about the scared they gave their mom and dad.
But then, on my second night at home, I noticed blood. My husband blew through red lights as he and my mother sped me back to the hospital. My husband and I were ushered into an exam room, where we silently watched cartoons, not wanting to speak, as if speaking about our situation would suddenly make it real. Finally, a young intern came in to confirm our fears. The cerclage was failing, and I would have to deliver. Our children would not survive.
As dawn broke, my husband and I practiced saying the names we had hastily agreed upon for our children. “Sam and Emilie.” “Emilie and Sam.” I struggled to realized that I would read these names on a tombstone instead of birthday cards and letters to Santa. The day went on forever and ever, each tick of the clock slowly bringing us to a conclusion that we didn’t want to face.
The delivery was quiet, almost reverential for my tiny son and daughter who would not be with us for long. There were no shouts for me to push, no excited snapping of photos. Sam came first, giving a small cry that immediately shattered my heart into a million pieces. Blinking back tears, my husband cradled his son, whispering, “Hi, Sam,” and my mother and sister counted his ten perfect fingers and toes. Emilie soon followed, her sweet face bruised from her delivery. As the doctors and nurses gingerly administered my postpartum care, I wanted to scream at them to leave me alone and didn’t they realize that my children were dying and couldn’t they come back later? I tried to burn images in my brain of my husband with his children and my mother with her grandchildren and my sister with her niece and nephew, knowing there would be no family pictures in the years to come. My husband stared in amazement as his daughter clasped her finger, and we all said our good-byes as quickly as we had said our hellos. Finally, my son and daughter were gently placed on my chest, and through their translucent skin I watched their hearts slow down and ultimately be still.
As swiftly as Sam and Emilie entered my life they were taken away. I had dreamt of baby showers and birth announcements but was instead given funerals and obituaries. Yet these tiny people and their brief lives had an impact on my life that no one else could ever duplicate. Sam and Emilie had made me a mother.