December 17, 2017 I’ve wanted to write about this day, and Lila’s birth story, for years. I’ve given myself every excuse to wait for the perfect moment and let inspiration hit. I started writing this a few years ago, but quit before I could finish. I never went back to that draft. There will never be a perfect moment to share this story because life is imperfect. This experience proves exactly that. The foundation of the Sad Dads Club community is rooted in vulnerability and encouraging others to share their story – in whatever form they are able to get it out of themselves. My hope, in all of this, is that we can support one another and feel a little less alone as we navigate new and existing pain. Hope you’ll join me if this is something that you need. Welcome to Sad Dads Club.
Wednesday, December 13, 2017.
Snow was on the ground. It was one of those brilliantly bright and cold days in Portland, Maine. Not a cloud in the sky as the sun shot off the snow creating a (near) blinding effect. My wife was pregnant with our daughter, our first child, and had reached full term. On this exact day, she was 37.5 weeks along. December 30 was our predicted due date. We had a ton of fun wondering if Lila would arrive before, on, or just after her due date. “Maybe she’ll be the first child born in Maine in 2018!” Time was becoming, more so, an elusive concept – we were so excited to welcome our daughter into the world and couldn’t believe that we were so close to meeting her. Getting pregnant had not been the easiest feat for us. Receiving that phone call from my wife, in my office, is a moment I’ll never forget. I was so happy. Elated, ecstatic, buoyant. Those are better words to describe how I remember feeling when she told me that her pregnancy test came back positive, and that we were expecting a baby at the end of the year. I was so excited to become a father.
Back to that bright, mid-December day: you couldn’t be outside without squinting – for whatever reason, I can’t shake the power of the sun from that day. It was so, so bright outside when we got into the car for our regularly scheduled weekly check-up appointment with the doctor. My wife and I got into some trite spat about whether or not the recycling needed to be put out before we left for our appointment. I, the more stressed out and anxious one about these things, was certain that we’d miss getting our recyclables picked up if I didn’t cart out the bin before we left. My wife, more acutely observant as to when the truck actually arrived each week, was promising me that it’d be fine if we put them out once we got back. For whatever reason, I let this trivial disagreement linger within me. I carried that energy with me in the car, and even let it follow me into our appointment. My wife was being weighed and having her blood pressure checked as I kept my gaze on nothing in particular in the distance with my arms crossed.
We were then escorted into a room where the nurse or technician – to be honest, I’m not sure of her official professional title, and I feel like a dick for saying that – would observe Lila’s heartbeat using one of those wands with a rolling ball at the end of it. My sour mood, catalyzed by the recycling bin ridiculousness, was starting to lift as I realized I’d hear the sweet music of my daughter’s heartbeat momentarily. I loved hearing that sound. It was like a deep vibrating oceanic rhythm that felt so soothing, so promising, and so pure. As my wife lifted her shirt to expose her belly, the wand began to search for Lila’s heart. I was familiar with that static silence before it caught the heartbeat and my eyes were locked on the device that would soon bring my daughter’s, Lila’s, heartbeat to our ears. Suddenly, my heart sank. I didn’t hear anything and too much time had passed. From experience, I knew it could take a few seconds, but this was extending into an alarming lapse with no heartbeat to be heard. The technician/nurse seemed slightly concerned, though not panicked. She said they were going to conduct an ultrasound, so we’d need to move to another room. My wife looked at me with a bit of concern and felt around her belly with her right hand – she said something in that moment about being able to feel Lila move, which, looking back, was likely a defense mechanism to keep us both from freaking out. My eyes were wide and I couldn’t swallow. My wife sensed my deep, deep fear.
We switched rooms, and my wife lifted her shirt again. Our doctor joined us to to conduct the ultrasound. She applied the gel and started going across my wife’s belly, again. No sound. A deafening absence of that beautiful rhythmic heartbeat. The technician’s color was gone from her face as she looked at our doctor and shook her head. That was the moment that changed everything for us: Lila had died. She had no heartbeat. She was gone. I saw our doctor grab my wife’s hand and remember my wife screaming and bursting into tears. My hands went to my face, and I wanted to keep them there. There and then, I could hide behind a self-created darkness, at least for a moment, and escape what had happened – rather, what was happening. This was really happening. In that moment, my heart broke. It really, really broke. My wife was still sobbing on the table with the doctor tightly holding her hand. I removed my hands from my eyes, and suddenly we were getting into our car How did we exit the building? How did we get through the waiting room of the doctor’s office? Did they clear out that space? Had anyone else been there? Did anyone see us or hear us? I always think back and wonder about those transitional moments I can’t remember. I held onto my wife in the parking lot as I helped her in the car. She could barely stand.
It was a ten-minute drive back to our house and I’ll be damned if I have any idea how the fuck I was able to drive. I was laser focused on the road squinting through the brightness of the sun and repeating to my wife “we are going to get through this, we are going to get through this” – truthfully, I don’t know what possessed me to say that because I wasn’t sure I believed the words coming out of my mouth. I didn’t know at that moment how I, or we, could ever be happy again. Our daughter was still in utero, unalive. The weight of what we had to go through next was crushing. How could we do this? How could my wife deliver our daughter? How could we hold her? How could her eyes never open? Those questions invited a deep darkness that I could feel spreading inside of me. Suddenly, a canyon of pain opened up and went on endlessly. We got home and aimlessly started packing our bags for the hospital. This was actually happening. My wife called a friend on the phone to tell her what had happened. My mind and body continued to pack our bags for the upcoming hospital stay, but I couldn’t physically feel anything: the shirts, the socks, the sweatpants, the toothbrush, the toothpaste, and whatever else I thought we’d need. I called my mom somewhere around this time – could have been my dad. I don’t remember, but I am pretty sure I called my parents and spoke to one of them as I dropped items into a duffle bag. We had to bring Lila into the world even though she’d never get to see it, or us. Darkness grew. The closer we got to that “next step,” the more excruciating the pain became. “Our daughter is dead inside of my wife,” I kept thinking. I was nauseated. Meeting my daughter, Lila, was something I had been so excited for. Now, I was dreading it.
I have no idea where we parked at the hospital. My wife was escorted in a wheelchair with her head down as tears fell into her lap. The hospital lights were too bright. Voices crashed together and created a piercing hum. Surrounded by doctors, nurses, and strangers I felt myself disconnect. I was drifting. I don’t remember anything about getting settled into our hospital room, or what instructions they gave us, if any. Life was moving and progressing, but I was removed from the momentum. All I could feel was the weight of dread, darkness, and sorrow inside of me. Was this how the world would feel forever? I had to get ready to meet my daughter. And then say goodbye. Could I bring myself to do that? How could I possibly bring myself to do that?
We were in our hospital room for hours. Lila’s delivery kept getting moved back. I understood: there was no immediate risk for us. Who knows how many lives were being saved in those hours while we waited. The life we wanted to welcome, nurture, and watch grow was already gone. Piercing silence, anxiety, and tears filled our hospital room. It was palpable. Somewhere around the late afternoon, I had my first-ever panic attack. I didn’t know what was happening. I couldn’t breathe, and I couldn’t stop crying. My wife was holding me as I rested against her belly. I wanted my daughter back. No one entered the room, but I’m sure they heard me. That’s where everything became too real for me. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to my daughter. Evening fell and around 10pm they were ready to deliver Lila. My wife was taken to the delivery room and I was left to put on scrubs and wait until they called me. A nurse sat with me and asked me questions – one of which was whether or not our daughter had a name. “Lila” I remember saying, barely audible. “Lila” she repeated back to me. My gaze remained fixed on the floor. I tried to count the lines in the floor. Part of me tried to escape the moment and a bigger part of me struggled to remain present. I sat in silence with the nurse until it was time for us to join my wife in the delivery room. And to meet Lila.
“Maybe she’s fine. Maybe they’ve made a mistake and she’ll come out just fine. Alive. They’ll be able to help her once they see her. Maybe.” Through subsequent years of therapy and grief counseling, and recounting that internal narrative, I’m told that my body and mind were defending themselves against the toughest part of this traumatic day as it approached. I had to believe that there was a glimmer of hope and that she might be ok. My wife opted to deliver Lila via c-section. I walked into the delivery room and saw my wife’s gaze locked on the ceiling. I settled next to her and put my hand on my wife’s head and stroked her hair. We talked and she told me she wanted to have sex. That made me smile and laugh. Clearly the medication was working to calm, soothe, and remove her, somewhat, through this unbearable process. I told her we couldn’t right then, but assured her we would later. There was commotion on the other side of the curtain as they worked to bring Lila into the world. I focused on keeping my wife engaged in our conversation. Telling her how proud I was of her, and how in awe of her strength I always have been.
Then, Lila joined us. The doctors and nurses gave a prompt that they were delivering her, and I looked up. That glimmer of hope was immediately shattered. I saw her beautiful face, her perfect new-born body, but I didn’t hear a sound come from her. The medical staff held her so carefully and she looked so absolutely angelic. My eyes stayed on her as they carefully brought her to be weighed. I was called over to cut her umbilical cord. There was my daughter. My sweet, beautiful, perfect daughter. My first born. I started telling her how much I loved her and how excited I was to meet her, finally. She was finally here, just not in the way we expected. The feeling of cutting her cord was so bizarre. All my life I’ve known I wanted to be a father. That moment in the delivery room of cutting my child’s cord was supposed to be so joyous and memorable. It was one of those things, but not both. They wrapped up my daughter and placed her on my wife’s chest. In that moment, likely due to the medication, I watched my wife forget that Lila wasn’t alive. My wife smiled widely, closed her eyes, and kissed Lila’s head while repeating “my baby, my baby.” It was one of the more difficult things I’ve seen in my life. There was beauty, but there was pain. Lila was delivered at 10:49pm on Wednesday, December 13, 2017, stillborn.
The three of us went back to our hospital room. My wife asked to hold our daughter while she slept that night. I don’t remember falling asleep, but I remember waking up the next day, next to my girls. I’ll always marvel at my wife’s resilience. We had been bonded before this, but now we were fused. There is so much more of this story to tell: the proceeding days in the hospital, returning home, and eventually welcoming Lila’s (healthy) baby brother, Dallas, into the world. That will take time and energy to convey, but I am up for it.
The night before I woke up on December 13, 2017, I had a vivid dream. I was trying to hold Lila, but I couldn’t. My arms were positioned to cradle my newborn baby. But she was floating away, she wouldn’t settle into my arms no matter how much I moved my body to try and hold her. At that moment, I believe, Lila left us. I never told my wife about that dream. A lot of dreams I forget hours after I wake up, but I’ll live with the memory of this one for the rest of my life. No details have faded. No brightness surrounding her has dimmed. Every single day, I talk to her – out loud. I start every day by saying the same thing, but I want to start writing it more: “I love you, Lila.”