Zion’s Story, Part 1

Zion Emmanuel Willcox

Stillborn December 1, 2016 12:46pm

3 ounces, 6 inches long


I specifically remember the rain that day.

It streaked the third-story floor-to-ceiling windows of the hospital, blurring my vision of the parking lot below. Or was it the tears pooling in my eyes that made it impossible to see the cars? I stood alone at the window, my arms wrapped tightly around myself in a feeble attempt to ward off the chill I felt deep in the core of my being. I was waiting for my name to be called. Waiting to be told what I already knew, but never wanted to hear.

My baby was dead.

The tears started spilling down my cheeks again, and I swiped them away, mentally reprimanding myself for crying before I knew for certain. I felt like I was in this awful limbo of knowing and yet not knowing.   The world around me operated as usual, but my whole world had just crashed to a halt.  I desperately wanted to talk to someone. I picked up my phone uncertainly. Stephen was at work. This appointment was supposed to be routine, one of dozens I have throughout the course of each pregnancy.  How could I have known it would be The One where he should be with me?  I couldn’t tell him on the phone.  That would be cruel.  I could text Sister. She would understand the haunting waiting, the ache that was beginning deep in my throat as I attempted to keep the tears at bay. They just kept falling, unbidden.

My phone vibrated in my hands, and I jumped, startled. Hannah, waiting for me to pick her up, had texted to ask when I would be ready.  I had dropped her off to get her hair done and was supposed to pick her back up when I was done with what was intended to be a short, straightforward doctor’s appointment.  Hannah was, as yet, blissfully unaware of what my tardiness meant.  I wanted her to remain in ignorance for as long as possible.  All too soon she could be walking me through the valley of the shadow of death.  My fingers moved to text my sister, three states away.  She had been down this road more than once herself.  I should tell her what I was afraid of.  But then I thought better of telling anyone anything before I was one hundred percent certain, and so I tossed my phone back into my purse. What was there to even say? I should wait.  Maybe, just maybe, there had been some horrible mistake.

I ran my hand over my rounded belly. I had just felt the baby kicking the night before. He—if it was a he—was still so small, but a few times a day, I could feel the fluttering of his little legs kicking, his miniature body rolling over and curling up into a ball somewhere deep beneath my rib cage.  But today there was nothing.  No movement.  No flutters.

No heartbeat.

This was not where I had expected to end up this morning. Waiting for an ultrasound to confirm that the little life inside of me had been prematurely snuffed out. Hannah and I were supposed to be grabbing coffee and running errands to prepare for my birthday the next day. Family and friends were joining us to celebrate Thanksgiving, and we had shopping lists and to-do lists, and with each passing hour, the preparations for birthday and Thanksgiving were growing more elaborate.

No one expected all the plans for merriment to be replaced with preparation for a stillbirth. It never occurred to me that instead of celebrating a gender reveal party, we would be attending my son’s funeral.

My midwife, Teri, and I had been laughing together just minutes before. She had delivered Adoniah, and we had formed a special bond. Stephen and I had actually run into her at a restaurant the week before, and when we saw her, we got so excited that our waitress thought we had seen a celebrity.  “Well, she is a kind of celebrity to me!” I replied, hugging Teri as she came past. The women who have delivered my babies are always extra special to me. Today, Teri and I had been talking Thanksgiving plans, guessing at whether the baby was a boy or a girl, and I had excitedly told her about plans to unveil the baby’s gender at an elaborate party the week before Christmas.

“What do you think? Boy or girl?” Teri had asked, squeezing jelly onto the Doppler.

I stretched out on the table, the white tissue paper crunching uncomfortably beneath me. I knew the drill. How many times had I laid down and listened for babies heartbeats?  At least 50 times throughout all of my pregnancies, I figured.

“I think it’s a girl. Well, okay, let me correct that. I kind of hope it’s a girl, because we only have a girl name picked out, and, I know this is trivial, but I have seriously cute baby girl clothes and I really want to use them again. But honestly, my intuition says it’s a boy. Obviously, I will be happy either way!”

Teri and I laughed about the silliness of wanting a girl based on clothing styles, and then I quieted down as she pressed the Doppler into my belly and slid it back and forth, back and forth. I didn’t want to miss the first quick “whoosh whoosh whoosh” of the baby’s heartbeat. It was always so unbelievably fast. Sometimes the Doppler would pick up my heartbeat, and I knew it was mine because it was so much slower than the baby’s.  And sometimes it would even pick up both of our heartbeats at the same time—mine slow and steady, and the baby’s next to it, thundering like a team of galloping horses. That was my favorite. When we could hear both of our hearts beating at the same time.

Teri pushed and jabbed with the Doppler, pressing deeper and deeper into my stomach. A minute passed. Then two. The room was unnervingly quiet.  Why hadn’t she found the heartbeat yet? I was so skinny that it never took long to find a heartbeat—or at least receive a swift kick from a stubborn baby avoiding the Doppler!  Teri found the baby’s form with her hands and prodded it toward the surface, hoping that might help the Doppler pick up the heartbeat.

Still, nothing.

I suddenly felt hot and cold all at once, my chest tightening and my throat closing as dread seized me. I nearly rocketed off the table in a full-fledged panic. What if…?? But just as quickly, I swallowed the scream forming in my throat and mentally talked myself down.  How could she find a heartbeat if I was running away and screaming? I forced myself to stay as still as humanly possible, not even daring to breathe for fear that might obscure the tiny heartbeat.

Then, suddenly, there was something coming through the Doppler. A heartbeat! But no—it wasn’t the baby’s. It was mine. A lower pitch than the baby’s would be, and so much slower. The Doppler continued to pick up my own heartbeat as she pressed the wand here and there, searching, searching. In the monitor, I could hear the thump-thump of my own heart growing steadily faster, as the panic continued to mount.  She should have found a heartbeat by now. She should have found it a long time ago.  Something was desperately wrong.   A deep sense of foreboding swallowed me, and my chest felt so tight I could barely breathe as Teri slowly lifted the Doppler away.

Tears pooled in my eyes and began streaming down the sides of my face, dripping into my ears as I lay on the table, waiting for Teri to say something–anything. She rested her hand on my arm, and I dared to look at her, my eyes wide and fearful.  Her face was sober, her eyes unreadable.

“Don’t panic. I am going to get the ultrasound machine so we can figure out why this baby is being a little naughty this morning.”  And then she disappeared.

Don’t panic. Too late for that.  I was gasping in shallow breaths, my whole body beginning to shake. I lay there, staring at the ceiling, tears streaming down my face unchecked. This can’t be happening, I thought over and over again as the minutes ticked by waiting for Teri to return. How many times had I imagined what it would feel like to walk into the doctor’s office and not find a heartbeat? Every single time I set foot in the doctor’s office, I did. Ever since I miscarried our second baby, I was acutely aware of the fragile nature of life—especially life in the womb. I didn’t take any of it for granted.

But today? The day before my birthday? It couldn’t happen now.  Not this far along. Not when everything was going so well, and baby always looked so perfect and healthy before. Not when I had just felt him doing somersaults the night before. What awful thing could have happened in such a short span of time?

And then Teri was back, wheeling the machine behind her. Surely when the baby popped up on the screen, we would see that heartbeat, see the little one squirming around inside, like always. I craned my neck around on the pillow to see the screen. I just needed to see my baby.  Even while I feared what I might see.

That familiar image appeared on the screen. There he was, curled up into a little ball, tucked safely into the circle of my uterus. Teri hovered over Baby and we both watched the screen intently, hoping beyond hope that just willing the baby to move could make it so.

But Baby didn’t move. He was utterly and devastatingly still.

There was no pulsating throbbing in his tiny chest, indicating a beating heart. There was no motion whatsoever. There was a little hand. Two tiny feet. A perfect, round head. I could see the blue and red colors indicating blood flow in my surrounding uterine wall. But Baby was completely still. No blood flow skittered across his heart.

Teri flipped off the monitor and placed her hand on my arm again. Her face was grave, her brow creased, her eyes deeply sad. “I am very concerned,” was all she said. She reached for my hand and helped me sit up. “I am going to send you downstairs for a thorough ultrasound with the technicians, but you need to know, it doesn’t look good.”

Tears were running down my cheeks, one right after the other, as Teri pulled me into a hug. A sob caught in my throat. Was it okay to cry? Or not. What if? Just what if it was all a mistake?

I walked the familiar path out of the office, into the elevator, and downstairs, tears still streaming down my cheeks. I didn’t even try to wipe them away. I knew I looked pathetic, but I didn’t care. The last time I had been here, I had seen a pregnant woman weeping as she rushed to her car, and my heart had broken for her because I didn’t need to guess why she was crying.  Right now I wished I had been the crazy stranger who ran up to her and gave her a hug. I wished someone would give me a hug, even if I had never met them in my life. My insides felt as if they were falling apart, and I needed someone to hold me together.

The rain was falling harder now, as I stared out the hospital window, waiting for the final ultrasound. I could see it pooling in uneven places of the parking lot below. My eyes searched the gray sky. The dreary day and gentle rainfall seemed so perfectly appropriate. The lyrics from one of my favorite songs came to mind, “Is it true that for every tear I cry, You cry a thousand more? You weep with those who weep.” It felt as if God were weeping with me, raining His own sorrow at the brokenness of this world into puddles on the sidewalks. And somehow, that gave me a small measure of comfort.  God saw me. He was near.

I heard my name and turned to see a nurse holding a door open for me. Her face was somber, her eyes sad. She knew. She knew this wasn’t just an ordinary ultrasound. I wondered how often she had led mothers to the room where they would be told their baby was gone.

I walked into the room. It was dark, and two technicians stood by the bed, waiting silently. It was all so quiet, so suffocatingly silent.

I laid down once again, and the warm gel went back onto my belly. My baby’s quiet form flashed onto the screen in front of me. This one was much clearer, much bigger than the last one. The technician never said a word. She just measured quietly, clicking pictures as she went.  She measured his arms. His legs. His head. His spine.  She had no difficulty getting the measurements, since the baby never moved once. Not even the slightest bit.

And then, that little heart filled the screen. I have seen enough ultrasounds by now to immediately recognize a baby’s heart, with its four chambers. Usually its rapid pulsing would make it appear somewhat fuzzy until she would freeze frame it and outline each chamber of the heart.

But today there was nothing fuzzy on the screen. His heart and all four chambers were as perfectly clear when she was looking at it in motion as when she freeze-framed it. Click. She froze the shot to take a picture and typed HEART above it. Then she switched it back into live mode. There was no difference between the picture and the live ultrasound. There was, very clearly, no heartbeat. Which meant my baby truly was gone.

And yet I just desperately needed someone to tell me that.  I needed to hear it from her. I needed someone to confirm that every mother’s worst nightmare had in fact become my reality.

The tears were pooling into my ears again as I barely choked out, “Can you please just tell me if there is a heartbeat?”

“I’m not finding one, no. I’m sorry.”

There. She said it. There was no more denying it.  I began nodding dumbly, my head bobbing up and down, up and down in affirmation that I understood, but in reality, I was attempting to cover the sobs that I could no longer hold back.  The technician flipped off the machine, and I sat up, covering my face with my hands. Teri walked in and wrapped me in a warm hug, rubbing her hands across my back.

“I’m so, so sorry,” she said quietly.

“It’s okay,” I shuddered out, my instincts always to comfort others even when I am the one who needs it.

“No, it’s not, I know, and it’s okay that it’s not. I wish I could just take it all away for you.” Some minutes passed as she rubbed my back. “And tomorrow is your birthday,” she said sadly. The tenderness in her voice was my undoing.

Yes, I wept into her scrubs. Yes, November 23 was supposed to be a celebration of the day I was born. But on November 22, I learned that I would never get to celebrate my son’s birthday. November 22 became the day I tried to listen as my midwife explained that, sometime in the next week, I would be admitted to labor and delivery and give birth, yes, but not to life. I would have to give birth to death.

Part 2

Part 3


One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Mary Disterhoft on February 22, 2017 at 5:27 am

    I am so sorry you went thru this. My heart aches for you.


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