The Only Way Out is Through
"The trick is to keep exploring and not bail out, even when we find out that something is not what we thought. That’s what we are going to discover again and again and again. Nothing is what we thought. I can say that with great confidence. Emptiness is not what we thought. Neither is mindfulness or fear. Compassion – not what we thought. Love. Buddha nature. Courage. These are code words for things we don’t know in our minds, but any of us could experience them. These are the words that point to what life really is when we let things fall apart and let ourselves be nailed to the present moment."
- Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart
The exact moment when things fell apart is both obvious and hazy in my memory. It was when the prenatal cardiologist told my husband and I that it was our choice whether to continue with the pregnancy or terminate. I don’t remember exactly how she put it, but the moment that option was on the table was the moment that all my happiness left my body.
We held out hope for a few minutes, maybe, peppering her with questions about the best-case-scenario and quality of life, life expectancy, how many surgeries, what is the rate of survival for the second open-heart surgery on a month-old baby, where will we live while the baby lives in the hospital.
Walking away from the hospital, leaning into one another and crying, I knew we had already decided. We had talked about it before even getting pregnant – we talked a lot during the two years we were trying to conceive – but I asked him anyway, wanting him to say it first.
We can’t keep her.
A nurse called me a few days later to find out our decision and book the procedure. Euphemisms are de rigueur when life is too painful to talk about. Those last few days of my pregnancy, I walked around darkly amused at the irony that I finally had a nice, noticeable bump. Our neighbour came by on the last day of my pregnancy and remarked: You’re pregnant! Oh. Yup, looks like I am. I didn’t say… I won’t be, soon. I documented the way I felt that last day, the day before I went to the hospital.
People keep telling me I can try again. That God has a plan. They have to say something to console themselves. I don’t want to blame them, but it’s so much easier to lean into anger and bitterness than to reach for compassion. My anger is right there, a spark that needs very little fanning to consume me entirely.
Maybe they don’t realize that I am 21 weeks pregnant. I can feel my little girl kicking all the time. And even though the doctors used words like “terminate the pregnancy”, until I confirmed and scheduled the “procedure”, I had not been informed that I would in fact be giving birth. They are going to induce labour and I am going to give birth to my daughter early on purpose so that she does not survive. They can guarantee this by euthanizing her before I deliver, or I can wait for her to die once born. They have told me I will get her hand and footprints to take home with me. She will be named and buried. I’m not sure I want to tell anyone her name, when she won’t get to hear it.
So not only am I emotionally shattered and gutted, I am terrified. I have never felt less like I want to do anything in my whole life. The other day the geneticist called with the primary results of my amniocentesis, which will determine the likelihood of my next pregnancy resulting in another “mutation.” She asked how I was feeling about my decision. I was stunned. I had no clue who this person was. I had never even met her. And I wouldn’t even know how to answer that question for myself right now. Terrified. Nauseated. Duped. Angry. Frustrated. Sad. Why do you need to know? Finally, she said, “you don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to.” And I said great, thanks. Bye.
My friend said the word abortion the other day and it sounds so simple but also harsh... like this is just a zygote or a fetus or, what I was jokingly referring to as a space invader in my first trimester when the nausea was overwhelming and exhausting me. I could barely eat and lost five pounds, which a non-pregnant me would have been stoked about, because that is the kind of drastic weight loss that usually requires me giving up sugar and carbs for a month.
But it’s not an abortion at all, is it? I’m giving birth. I just don’t get to bring home a baby at the end of it. It seems unfair, which is such a ridiculous thing to say because what is fairness? But that is how I feel. Mad. I feel like I was passed over for a promotion again, when I deserve it, we deserve it so much because we so badly want to be parents and we are missing a key person in the equation and I knew it was a girl, in my heart, and I want her. Even knowing it’s not happening, I still want her.
I just want everyone to know what is actually happening. Because it's super fucking traumatic. And because I need to know what is happening. Because I know that the only way out of this is through.
I was so excited when I found out I was pregnant.
So I wanted some quiet time on my last day of my pregnancy to love my little girl, to connect with her one last time. To know who I am saying goodbye to. Trying to stay in the moment and not remember that when I wake up tomorrow I will cry, like every day since I found out.
My mother and I lived at Hôpital Ste-Justine for two days. She did not leave my side until I begged her to get me juice from a vending machine. She held me while I spit up into a plastic bag, while I had contractions, while I got an epidural and was bedridden for 24 hours. She helped me roll over, covered me in layer after layer of blankets as I shivered and shook from the fever and contractions, and patiently waited for my next request – my phone charger, ice water, my essential oils, my toothbrush. I can’t imagine my experience without my mother, or the world’s most compassionate nurses by my side.
The nurses at the hospital became family over the course of those two days, holding my hand, laughing at our jokes, insisting I ask for anything and everything I could possibly need, suggesting heating pads, extra pillows and blankets, stronger meds, something for the nausea, helping roll me onto my side and changing the sheets when I bloodied them. Every shift change, I tried not to cry, worried that my next nurse couldn’t possibly be as sincere and generous as Madeleine, as funny, optimistic, and encouraging as Sandra, or as deeply compassionate, intuitive, and genuine as Nathalie.
Sandra, who nursed me through two of her shifts, delivered my daughter at 5:06pm on Tuesday, March 20, 2018. Even though I had been in labour since the day before, the last two hours of it were the busiest and seemed to fly by. There was the fake water break, where you pee all over the bed – and thank you Kristen Bell for normalizing that – followed by the real water break. Then a leg, and another big push and I felt her leave my body, just wanting it to be over.
It’s so painful to picture her little face, her tiny fingers and toes. I’ll never know what colour her eyes would have been, something Adrien and I talked about all the time. I felt her tiny body, 409 grams, not even a pound, growing colder against my skin. Her perfect form, interrupted – that’s what they call it in French, an interruption. When we decided to terminate the pregnancy we had no idea what that meant. I thought I would be totally out of it, drugged out of awareness, and that the doctors would do all the work. I told them I wouldn’t want to see the baby when she came out of me. But when I realized I was going to actually deliver her, and that she might be alive when she came out of me, I knew I could not abandon her. I held my baby on my chest as her malformed heart slowly stopped beating. I wanted to say something to her but I had no words except I’m sorry. I wanted her. Even as I pushed, forcing her out of the cozy nest my body had built for her, I wanted her.
I had a lot of trouble looking at her at first. At 21 weeks, she hadn’t had time to fully form and when she came out of me my first thought was what the fuck because she looked like a little alien. But I did look at her, and her tiny, perfect mouth, the smallest tongue visible through her parted lips. I hadn’t expected to love her so quickly, I had heard that was a myth and I told myself I was doing the right thing and saving both me and my husband a world of emotional hurt by choosing to lose her early. But in the short hour I held her, and in the interminable days that have followed, I love her more and more each moment. Everyone asks me how I am feeling, so here is the truth: it feels like my heart is breaking over and over. It feels like every time I thought I was in love I was wrong.
When all was said and done, when I had held my tiny daughter skin-to-skin, terrified to look at her but forcing myself to be nailed to the moment, willing her departure to be peaceful, if not for me than at least for her, I just kept thinking how much I wished it wasn’t over. When the doctor on duty came by my room later that evening, I told her that even though I had chosen this, I really wanted her. After all this, I wished I could have kept her. I still want her. And maybe that was why I stayed one last night at Sainte-Justine, wanting one more night in the room where I laughed and cried for two days with a tribe of women who were in the foxhole with me, where I delivered my daughter, where I held her for one sacred hour.
In the hospital, waiting for the treatment that forced my early delivery to take effect, a psychologist came into the room and talked at me for ten minutes while I stared her down, willing her to leave. I hadn’t at any point invited her into the room, she hadn’t asked before she started laying advice on me, trying to get me to buy some book she thought would help me. I have books, I said, pushing the paper away. She told me I could only see a therapist who speaks English by travelling to the CLSC in Vaudreuil-Dorion, a two-hour commute for me. I pursed my lips and gave her my best get the fuck out of my room eyes, and eventually she left, but not before telling me that most women think the delivery will be the hardest part of the process, but that they all realize afterwards that getting the bad news was the hardest part.
Dr. Spooner, you could not have been more wrong. I don’t know what the hardest part of this process will be, but I can say this for sure. I did not know how much I loved my daughter until the moment I said goodbye to her. And even though she is gone, I love her more as time passes, not less. I worried a lot, leading up to the worst day of my life, that I had made a selfish choice, that I should have given her a chance at a life, that maybe I was supposed to be the mom who lives by her child’s hospital bed. But loving her as I do now, I know it would have broken me and my husband even worse to see her suffer throughout her short life, to force her into surgery after surgery just to be able to keep her alive, though she wouldn’t really be living.
It isn’t easy or obvious how I’m supposed to proceed. I take it breath by breath, I let myself be distracted into the pain and back out, easily moving from tears to laughter, from laughter to silence, every moment passing bringing me that much further away from the moment of hurt and into the moment where this is part of our history. I’m opening myself up to the rawness of the present moment, living it without hiding it or lying about it, without minimizing it. And I’m allowing myself to feel grateful for the tribe that is supporting me through this – the nurses of Sainte-Justine’s GARE, my mother, my sisters, my friends, my husband – and looking at my pain with curiosity and kindness, noticing how it waxes and wanes. Letting tears happen, even meltdowns, and accepting that happiness will return, all the while acknowledging the uncertainty that lies ahead.
i carry your heart with me (i carry it in my heart)
i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)
no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you
here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that's keeping the stars apart
i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)
- e.e. cummings