Maybe the image that I remember the best about that day is the one where she is so perfectly perfect upon her entry into the world at 3:15 am, despite the fact that she is unceremoniously dumped into a cold metal bowl just behind the doctor.
“My sister wants you to adopt her baby,” my friend texted six years ago. I don’t recall how we came to the conclusion that we would adopt that baby, but we did. We had a lawyer and it was all going exactly as you’d expect a private adoption to go.
I know we said it was never about the baby. It was always about the family. But at least some of it was about the baby.
I went to an ultrasound with our birth mother, Charlotte, sometime in the fall. I saw my fifth child. She was moving around on the screen, heart beating strong and steady, with wisps of hair. And what a diva she was, one hand in front of her face as if to say, “No pictures please” like some kind of celebrity. She was a celebrity, at least to us. Though we didn’t yet know her, we already loved her.
My husband and I chose her name together after that day. We chose “Gwen” when we learned that it meant “blessed” because that’s exactly how we felt about being Gwen’s parents.
“Have you picked a name yet?” Charlotte texted me one night. It wasn’t unusual–we texted often. I was nervous to tell her. What if she hated it?
But she loved it as much as we did. It seemed obvious that we were on the right track. It felt like Jesus was still in this with us.
There were dinners too. And Charlotte told us about some pretty major health problems. She was on several medications to help her cope and to combat them, but I had no way to know if she was actually taking them. She wasn’t eating right, and she was living with too many people in a tiny, maybe too-dirty motel room. It should have set off alarms in our heads. But we trusted Jesus with our baby. He knew what he was doing even if we didn’t.
And if none of that set off alarms, the phone call telling me she refused to stay in the hospital even though the baby failed the non-stress test should have. I have to wonder if she would have listened to me at all. She’d already ignored sound advice from her doctor and her mother. She couldn’t be forced back to the hospital, as far as I knew. I felt helpless. I sat at home talking to my friend on the phone and wishing Jesus would just let her be born already so I could stop worrying. Charlotte wasn’t answering any of my texts. It was out of my hands now, right?
But I could have driven over there. I should have. I didn’t. There were four long texts in a row from Charlotte’s mother the morning the entire world changed. Charlotte was rushed to the ER by ambulance. They found the baby’s heartbeat, but neither one was okay. They were both close to death. I woke up my husband and cried in his arms.
When I got the official call that the baby was dead, I was trying to understand my third grader’s Chinese lesson. We learned that “soda” in Mandarin sounds very much like “cheese tray.” So if we’re ever plopped in the middle of China, we’ll be able to ask for soda, at least. It’s the only thing I remember.
“The heartbeat they found this morning wasn’t Gwen’s. It was Charlotte’s,” her mother said on the phone. She told me about complications from Charlotte’s major health issues. There could have been something about Charlotte being near death– I can’t be sure. Everything went numb after she told me that Gwen was dead.
I didn’t cry. When her mother told me that Gwen was dead, I didn’t cry. I thanked her for calling as though she’d just informed me that the party was canceled or something. It wasn’t until I called my husband that the rush of emotion poured out of me. And it barely stopped for months after that. I lived in this great lake of sadness made of my own tears. Sometimes I was drowning and the world didn’t even know. I prayed constantly and cried out to Jesus, desperate to understand why it happened.
My husband came home and my best friend brought McDonald’s for every one of my homeschooled children. She stayed with them while my husband and I went to the hospital to see Charlotte. She wasn’t actually awake, of course. But the doctors talked to us. We weren’t really family. But they talked to us. Because her mom told them we were the parents. We were Gwen’s mom and dad. It didn’t matter that she never made it out to meet us. We were her mom and dad. We still are.
So the doctors told us how she was, and it wasn’t good. She might die there in the hospital just days before Christmas.
It wasn’t ever supposed to be like this. That’s what I thought at the time. But maybe God knew all along that it would be. He put us in place so we could walk through the darkest day of Charlotte’s life right alongside her, crying and aching too. So she wasn’t alone in her pain.
We made the decision to pretend through Christmas. Somehow we had it in our heads that the kids should have a nice Christmas without the sadness and drama that was swirling all around us. You can see all the fake in the pictures from that Christmas. I bet if you look closely, you can see the deep sadness etched in my eyes. Lean in too close, and you’ll fall into those eyes, get lost in the sea of sadness where I was already drowning little by little. Don’t think about it. Pretend it isn’t there. Fake happiness for the kids’ sake.
Was it really the right choice for them?
My husband and I still had to dive into that swirling storm at the hospital with Charlotte that evening. The doctors decided it was the perfect day for induction.
“We’ll probably induce on Sunday,” the doctor told me days earlier.
“So Christmas,” I said. It wasn’t actually a question. It probably sounded like an accusation. Because it was. Didn’t he know how inconvenient that was? Apparently my comfort and convenience were still too important to me. Even then. Even when my baby floated dead in Charlotte’s barely conscious body.
How could I be so very selfish?
Charlotte was sitting up, joking with the nurses when we got to the hospital. I’d cried the whole way there, praying that Jesus would work some sort of miracle and our sweet girl would be okay after all. That it was all a huge mistake. And there sat Charlotte smiling, laughing, like this was no big deal.
I was so upset and hurt and angry at her for a long time about that. But she was just coping. She was trying to laugh the pain away. Don’t let anyone see her down because she’ll get kicked and run down while she’s on the ground bawling her eyes out. At least that’s what I’m telling myself. It makes sense with her traumatic, semi-latchkey background. Maybe it’s true.
The tone of the room changed when a new nurse came on duty and had the appalling job of preparing us for the worst. Gwen had been dead at least three days by that point, after all. The dead always begin to decompose as soon as life ceases. Even inside a living womb.
“Her head could-” the nurse started.
“Please don’t finish that sentence,” I interrupted, eyes closed and tears pooling.
“I know it’s hard to hear,” she assured me. You could see the sadness and pity in her eyes. She had no choice. “But I have to prepare you. Just in case.”
She went on to tell us that any number of things could happen during delivery. Dead or not, Gwen was 30 weeks along and had to be delivered the way any baby would be. And sometimes, thanks to the pressure and force of labor alongside the decomposition process, the baby came out less than whole. Sometimes the head came off.
I left the room after that. I don’t remember everything because how do you keep all of that devastation inside of you for all time and still function like a real human? I do remember crying all over my husband and telling him that this needed to be over so it was all just a horrible memory. I told him that I couldn’t live inside this nightmare anymore. And I begged Jesus to please just let her be born whole. Even if she wasn’t alive. Because perspective changes everything and knowing that my dead baby could be born decapitated changed my prayers.
Gwen slipped silently into the world at 3:15 am on December 26, 2011. She weighed just 4 pounds and she was perfectly perfect. She had blond hair on her head and the tiniest little toes you’ve ever seen. I loved her the moment I saw her despite the fact that I would never really know her at all. Jesus answered my prayers about her being born whole even though he didn’t make her live again.
The doctor took my sweet girl from between Charlotte’s legs and slid her into a waiting metal bowl just behind him. He didn’t even look at her. He turned back to Charlotte and finished all that needed doing there. And my heart broke a little more. I didn’t think there were any whole pieces left, but I was wrong. When I looked at that baby, I saw all the hopes and dreams that we had for Gwen and the little sister that she’d never get to be. It’s possible the doctor saw none of that. Maybe for him, she was a piece of medical waste. Or perhaps he’d done this so many times, he was now numb. I imagine he could have been crying on the inside but acting strong on the outside for all of us. Or maybe he couldn’t because if he did, he would break too. No one wants a broken doctor, I guess.
We took pictures with Gwen. I have tons of them. They reside in a book I keep closed.
I sent my husband home for the children hours after her birth. I didn’t think I’d want them there, but then I changed my mind. They needed closure too. It wasn’t fair for me to hoard it all and so I sent him. While he was gone, my very pregnant best friend came to the hospital. She held Gwen against her belly and our daughters had their one and only play date.
When the kids arrived, my best friend went home, prayers and tears on her lips. The older kids were sad and hesitant to come in but curious. Only the youngest was excited to meet Gwen because he was two and death didn’t register with him. He smiled and talked to her like she was really there. He’s still the only person who’s ever shown any excitement about her arrival.
The birth of a new baby is supposed to be this exciting time. Everyone is supposed to rejoice with the new parents at the new life that graced the earth. But what happens when it isn’t life at all but the shadow of a life? I’m so thankful that my son was happy to see her that day because he’s the only one that ever gave her that gift. It was priceless.
More than six years have passed and I no longer live in that memory. But it still lives in me.
Kristi Stokes lives in Palmyra, PA with her husband and four children. She is a nontraditional (aka old!) student in her junior year at Penn State Harrisburg where is majoring in English.