The Trip Was Good
Monica’s brow is furrowed in concentration, but also worry, I see now. She has me hooked up to a fetal monitor to measure the baby’s heartbeat. I am seated upright on a faux leather examination table. Two flat sensors stretch across my belly and attach back to a machine with leads and buttons and lights. She tried the Doppler fetal monitor we normally use when we first came into the birthing room, but then switched over to this more complicated one.
“What’s wrong?” I ask tentatively.
Ballah sits on the small couch across from me, completely absorbed in his phone.
Monica frowns. “I can’t quite find the baby’s heartbeat.”
Something catches in my throat. “What?”
Monica’s eyes meet mine furtively, but I can’t begin to understand what I’m seeing. She has been one of my three primary midwives these past nine months and is a competent, warm woman, but I still don’t know her that well. She puts her small, white hand on mine. “Don’t get worried yet. She’s probably just hiding. Sometimes they need some encouragement. Let me get you some fruit juice, which should get everything moving, okay?”
I nod, because I don’t know what else to do.
Monica rushes out of the room, and suddenly everything is quiet. It is dusk, and the light through the leaves on the trees outside makes them look almost like birds’ wings through the windows. Someone in the upscale St. Paul neighborhood honks a horn down the street. I burst into tears.
“Babe?” Ballah asks.
“Didn’t you hear her?” I am trying to wipe the tears away as fast as they are falling. “They can’t find the baby’s heartbeat.”
He looks at me in confusion. I am sure he doesn’t know what this means, what it could mean.
“But . . .” He turns to look out the door, down the hallway. “Where did she go?”
I reach down and pull a Kleenex from the box on the small dresser beside me. “She went to get some fruit juice for me to drink. Hopefully, the sugar will get the baby moving more, so that it’s easier to pick up her heartbeat.”
He nods. “Okay.”
But I know he still doesn’t grasp the full implications. He isn’t worried. Not like me.
He is seated on a bright-yellow divan about two feet away from me. I grab his hand, impulsively. “It’s going to be okay, right babe?” I want him to reach out to me, to hug me and rub my back.
“Yes,” he says stiffly. He stands beside me, completely contained in his own body. The only part of him touching me is his right hand. “Yes, it will be okay.”
“Okay,” I say, squeezing his hand. Maybe this way, I can make it be true.
Monica runs back up the stairs and hands me a small bottle of apple juice. I feel nauseous and don’t want to drink it at all, but force it down. Afterwards, she turns the machine back on, and the sensors still hum softly, recording nothing.
“We’re going in,” she says to me then. “We’re going to the hospital. We don’t have an ultrasound machine here, and we need to know what’s happening. Amy’s bringing the car around.”
Amy is the head midwife at the birthing center, the woman who brought Boisey, my son, into the world at my house three and a half years ago. If Monica has called her in now, at the very beginning of labor, something must really be wrong. Hot tears sting the corners of my eyes, and I wince as a contraction comes over me.
Monica and Ballah help me down the stairs, and Amy screeches the car to a stop on the curb. “Get her in quickly,” she tells them. “There’s no time to waste.”
She drives like a maniac all the way to Regions Hospital in downtown St. Paul, swerving through turns, almost running lights. The world on the other side of the car windows goes by in a blur, and I myself do not feel real. I feel gelatinous, a bit like putty, neither solid nor liquid. Like I no longer have edges to contain me.
“Has anything like this ever happened to you before?” I ask Amy as we wait for the last light to change.
I see her grimace through her profile. “Just once before,” she says. She has delivered more than 350 healthy babies, so that is something.
“How did it turn out?” I ask carefully. I know she will not lie to me.
She grimaces again. “Honestly, not well, Shannon.”
I nod. I don’t want to know any more.
When we reach the hospital, they pull up a wheelchair and make me sit in it.
“But I can walk,” I say, but they shake their heads.
They wheel me down several winding hallways, with bright fluorescent lights, and photos of lakes with cranes and geese. I try to steady my breathing, which I can feel is irregular. Finally, we come to the OB-GYN ward, and they hurry me into one of the patient rooms. Ballah is instructed to sit in the waiting room. An ultrasound machine, which I have been hooked up to many times before for routine checkups, sits beside the bed in my room.
“We’re just going to see what’s going on,” says a doctor, looking me carefully in the eyes. She appears be in her late thirties, like me, and her thin blonde hair is pulled to the nape of her neck in a black plastic clasp.
I don’t want to be here.
I lie down on the bed.
The doctor sits on the chair beside me. She squirts some transmission fluid on my raised stomach, and an image of a baby lying on her back, feet up, comes onto the screen. The baby is not moving. The baby has no heartbeat.
Two more doctors come into the room and stand next to Amy, who is seated in the corner.
“Okay,” says the doctor with the ultrasound probe. “So, yes. The baby has no heartbeat.” She puts the ultrasound probe down and stands up.
I look from her back to the screen, and the baby still isn’t moving. “Okay,” I say. I want to ask her how to get the heartbeat started again, but some part of my brain is telling me not to say that.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “I’m so sorry.”
I look to Amy, then each of the three doctors beside her. Discomfort drains their faces, though I can see they are trying hard to mask it. I wonder how it feels to have to tell a woman something like that and then still be expected to remain professional. It must not be easy. I ask if I can go to the bathroom.
Once inside the bathroom, I grip the sink until my knuckles are white, and stare into the spotless mirror. The woman looking back at me has dark-brown eyes that hold nothing. What was once a sharp chin is now round and plump. Her hair frizzes all over from the humidity. I turn on the faucet as high as it will go, and flush the toilet. Then I scream. The woman in the mirror screams and lets go of the sink as she does it. She wonders if she is just a copy of herself today, and if her real self is back at home, washing dishes. She does not want to go back into the patient room, because she knows they will tell her what she has to do next, and she does not want to know what she has to do next. She does not want to leave the bathroom, because she will have to say to her husband, Our baby is dead. She does not want to call her mother, because her mother will cry, and nothing will make her stop. She does not like to see or hear her mother cry. She will have to rewrite the story of the pregnancy, and the baby coming, the happy house, her young son so eager to be a brother. Now the story will center on a chapter in which the eagerly awaited baby dies in utero, never to be cuddled and warmed in her arms, never to scream and demand a diaper change, never to suckle her breast. The woman does not want that story. She is not ready for it, for what it will mean—not just now, today, tonight, but forever, for the rest of her life. The weight of that story could crush all other stories of her life and the lives of those she loves. She does not want that. She is too tired, and she wants to sleep. She wants to awaken.
I place my hand on my belly and tell my baby I love her. Then I open the door. I shuffle slowly back to the room, telling myself this is real with every step.
“What do I have to do?” I ask them, back in the room. I have just had another contraction, and the force of it stuns me into a chair beside the door. “Why did it happen?”
The head doctor, I will learn later that her name is Dr. Richardson, winces. I feel sorry for them, having to deal with this, deal with me. I am quite sure they didn’t become doctors or midwives in order to comfort and care for pregnant women with dead babies inside them. What could they possibly say or do to comfort or care for anyone in this situation?
“You’re already in labor, right?” Dr. Richardson asks me.
“She’s in the very early stages,” says Amy.
Dr. Richardson nods. “Then my recommendation would be to just let it develop and give birth to the baby vaginally.”
The rest of the doctors murmur their agreement.
I blink once, then again. I stare at Dr. Richardson, and then Amy in the eyes. “You mean I still have to go through labor? With a dead baby?” The ice on my words cuts everyone in the tiny room.
“Yes,” Amy says quietly.
“This is really hard. Really hard. But the safest way to get the baby out is still through vaginal birth,” says Dr. Richardson.
“Not safest for her,” I say quietly. “My uterus was obviously not safe.”
“We still don’t know what happened. And unfortunately, the truth is that we may never know,” says Dr. Richardson. Later, I will learn that close to half of all stillbirths in the United States are never accounted for. No one knows why the baby died. “But this doesn’t mean that your uterus isn’t safe. Or at least as safe as anyone else’s.” She looks away from me for a moment and then settles her dark-brown eyes back on mine. “But yes, I meant safest for you.” She fiddles with her hair clasp, and I feel a pang of guilt for making her answer things that cannot be answered, to direct anger that has no place to go. Still, I cannot help myself.
“How long will it take?” I ask. “For her to come out?”
“It’s hard to know,” says Amy. “Sometimes it goes faster in situations like this, sometimes it’s the same amount of time.”
“Okay,” I say. I want to awaken. “Can I tell my husband what’s going on?”
The doctors and Amy nod. They tell me they’re going to move me upstairs to a birthing room.
When I walk into the waiting room, Ballah is seated by the door, staring into space. Kathleen, my dear friend and doula, sits beside him.
“It’s dead,” I say when I am about twenty feet away from them. I am not shouting, but I am definitely talking louder than I need to. I want everyone in the waiting room and at the nurses’ station to hear. “The baby inside me is dead.”
Ballah doesn’t say anything.
“What? I don’t understand,” Kathleen says. She stands up and walks to hug me, and I allow it, though I am stiff.
The hospital staff rush behind me with the wheelchair and start to wheel me down the hall. I get the feeling that they want me out of there as fast as possible. It would be bad if innocent and unsuspecting pregnant women knew exactly what could happen to their beloved babies, no matter how unlikely.
Once I am in the birthing room, everyone is called: my parents, my friends, Ballah’s family. Amy and Monica stay with me while I pace between contractions that seem to blissfully wipe out my consciousness every few minutes, in tsunami after tsunami of pain. A nurse comes in to monitor my vitals from time to time, quietly and expertly tending to me, her patient.
“Will I be able to have another baby after this?” I ask Monica, between clenched teeth.
She nods, sadly. Her pale face is streaked with red, and I realize that she must have been crying one of those times that she stepped out of the room. “Yes,” she says. “You can definitely have another baby.”
I nod back at her. But the knowledge does not even give me the semblance of peace. “Oh!” I shudder, as another contraction reverberates through me. I run into the bathroom, a blinding need to defecate pulling me.
I stand over the toilet, contemplating something—anything—coming out to relieve the pressure. The two female doctors who were in the ultrasound room suddenly rush in, asking me what’s wrong. “I think I have to take a shit!” I sob. Something like fire is bearing down on my bottom and my vagina simultaneously. I think that if I do not expel it now, I will explode.
“Well, it’s probably your baby!” exclaims one doctor.
The other one maneuvers around me so that my right foot is perched on the toilet flusher. Then the first doctor crouches below my vagina, as I start to push.
Later, Ballah will tell me that he wept, outside in the hallway, hearing me scream as I pushed her out of me. “All that pain,” he will say, stroking my hair at home in our bed. “All of it for nothing.”
But he is wrong, because when she comes out, she is perfect. Long and thin and mopped with curly brown hair just like her brother, I can see that there is nothing wrong with her, that there could never be anything wrong with my perfect, silent daughter. We named her “Sianneh,” which means “The Trip Was Good,” in Loma, the language of Ballah’s ethnic group back home in Liberia. “Sianneh, the trip was good,” Kathleen will say to me later, stroking my arm delicately as a small group of close friends surround me. “The trip is always good.” A tear will escape from the side of my eye before I can stop it, and I will wipe it away quickly with the back of my hand. But right now, the doctors delicately lead me to the hospital bed, holding her carefully, as if she is breathing. When I lie down, pillows propped against the back of me so I can sit up, they hand her to me. I cradle her in my arms and gaze at her, so exhausted. So elated. So destroyed.