Calla’s Story

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Told by: Julianne

I had known I wanted to have three children for a long time. After the birth of my second child, I quickly started feeling the desire to start working on a third. My husband, Titus, wasn’t quite ready, so we waited for (what felt like an eternity to me) three years before we started trying. It took us about eight months to conceive. When I finally did, we were elated. My pregnancy was very much like my other two. I experienced extreme morning sickness to the point where I could hardly eat. I lost 12 pounds in the first trimester. Some nights, I had to carry around a spit cloth because I would salivate so much (the sensation you get right before you throw up). The second trimester, the circulation in my right leg went haywire and I developed awful, painful varicose veins all up and down my leg. Calla started kicking at about 16 weeks, and she didn’t stop. I felt her all the time. By about 20 weeks, I started having Braxton-Hicks contractions with her movements. This happened with both my other pregnancies, so I wasn’t worried about it. All my checkups were normal, my ultrasounds looked great, my risk numbers were fine- we weren’t worried about anything. When we found out we were having a girl, I cried. I had always wanted a girl, and this felt perfect.

We chose the name “Calla” because of the significance of that flower to our relationship (both Titus and I love calla lilies) and “Pearl” for Titus’s paternal grandmother.

I can’t remember the specifics of what happened the week before the birth. I’ve racked my brain to try to pinpoint the day and time that something went wrong, but there are just no specifics. I remember the Friday a week before, I had gone in for a checkup, and everything was fine. I heard her strong heartbeat along with mine- all was well. After that, it’s all fuzzy. The Thursday (three days) before, I had gone out with some friends from a book club. The book we read, ironically, was about a girl whose friend delivers a stillborn baby. I remember enjoying our conversation, eating way too much, and having a stomachache as a result. Nothing out of the ordinary, though.

The next day, our family joined another family for a short trip to a cabin on a lake in the Adirondacks. We swam and lazed around for most of the day, and at one point, we went out on a motorboat. That was the first mental note I made that Calla wasn’t moving. “The water is soothing to her,” I thought. Later that night, we barbequed, and I ate way too much food, which triggered lots of BH contractions. Since for so long, I had been associating the BHs with her movements, I didn’t consciously realize anything was wrong. We left early the next morning. After we had been driving for a few minutes, it hit me- I hadn’t felt her move that whole trip. In fact, I couldn’t remember the last time I felt her move. I thought that it was probably because we had been moving rhythmically so much- the long car drive there and back, the long boat ride- maybe she was just sleepy. I spent much of the car ride trying to “wake her up” by poking and moving my belly around, but nothing. We stopped for lunch in Litchfield (a place I can’t bring myself to go to anymore). I thought that since we weren’t driving anymore, surely she’d wake up and start kicking, so I parked myself at a restaurant, and while Titus took the kids to play at a field, I worked hard at it, poking, slapping, hitting my belly. I must have looked like a fool, but I was beginning to feel desperate.

Finally, Titus came back with the kids, our food came, and we ate. I was inwardly panicking. I had my oldest son talk to her through my belly as I poked. Suddenly, there was a kick. Just one, but it was some kind of sharp movement. I felt a huge sense of relief. She just wanted to hear her brother! Little did I know that that was the last time I would feel her. I’ve often wondered if that was her last call for help, trying to get my attention. Or was it just a muscle spasm that tricked me into feeling better? We finished up there, went to ice cream, shopped at some antique stores, and just enjoyed the time with our kids. On the last stretch of the drive, I kept expecting her to move more, but there was nothing. Sleeping again?

We got home and went through the usual busyness of unpacking the car, starting the laundry, cooking dinner, taking the dog for a walk, getting the kids in bed, etc. Titus went out to get some work done in the studio, but I know he was feeling nervous too. I was alone finally, and I dedicated the evening to waking Calla up.

I lay down on the sofa, which was where I always would feel her, and I waited. I watched a movie. Nothing. Finally, I called the midwife. It was a Sunday night, and I hated to disturb her. I’m the type of person who will NEVER call my doctor after hours. I felt terribly guilty, but I was beginning to realize that something was really, genuinely wrong. My midwife, Elise, told me to drink something super sweet and sugary quickly, and then to lie down on my left side for 20 minutes and count kicks. The sugar rush was supposed to wake up the baby. I did what she told me to… three times. Nothing.

I can’t begin to describe the feelings of denial that happened at this point. It is really remarkable how the brain works around reality. In hindsight, I should have rushed to the hospital when we were in the Adirondacks and I had the first inclination that something was wrong. But I couldn’t begin to accept and act on a reality that I didn’t choose or want. So I kept making up reasons for why it was happening. After the third time of drinking chocolate milk and lying down for 20 minutes, I called my husband. He came home. I called Elise back and told her that nothing had happened. She told me that I should go to the hospital to get checked out, just in case. She said that it was really normal to experience something like this, and that for my peace of mind, I should go. I flipped out. Not because of fear, but because it was almost midnight, and that would mean inconveniencing more people. I was tired, and I wanted to sleep. I would have to go to the hospital and wait there forever, only to have someone smile at me patronizingly and tell me everything was fine. Couldn’t it wait until morning, I asked her? But no, she wanted me to go right then, for my peace of mind. Then she asked me who would take the kids. I told her that Titus would stay home with them, but she insisted that he go with me. So, I grudgingly called my friend Asha, who was to be my doula during the birth. Thankfully, she was awake, and she came over and hung out on my couch. We left for the hospital.

Arriving at the hospital, (and still in complete denial,) I remember noticing how empty it was. I need to make sure I go into labor at night, I told Titus, remembering how chaotic it was to get valet parking and get set up the last time I went into labor. I chit-chatted with the friendly woman who checked me in and wheeled me to the exam room. It seemed so empty, and I was sure that whoever would do my exam would be upset that I woke her up from sleeping in some on-call room. She was really friendly, though, and as I profusely apologized to her for my presence, she reassured me that she did several of these a day and that there was nothing wrong with just checking to make sure things were ok. I lay down on the bed, and she put the stethoscope on my belly. The second she did, I knew. Only one heartbeat. My heartbeat. She moved it to another spot, and another. She asked for my finger to check my pulse, to see if she was hearing my heartbeat or the baby’s.

I already knew what was unfolding.

But she wasn’t sure- at one point she told me that it was the baby’s heartbeat, but that it was really slow. I knew that it was just my own heartbeat, beating faster than it probably had ever beat. She called for the on-call OB, and within seconds, the tiny exam room I was in was full of doctors and nurses, all silent. The OB hooked up the sonogram and quickly put it up to my belly. The picture came up, and confirmed the worst.

She was completely still, no movement. No heartbeat. Gone.

Everyone left the room, and we were alone. I was bombarded with emotions. Crazy grief, denial, not even beginning to understand what lay ahead. Fear, confusion, devastation, terror. My baby is dead? I felt all of those at once. And then I realized that Titus was experiencing it too, and I felt like I needed to protect him. “We’re going to be ok, we’re going to be ok,” I told him, not knowing how NOT okay we would be for a very long time.

Maybe that was my way of dealing with that moment- to look into the distant future, as a way to calm myself in the midst of the storm that was already occurring. Then we were just silent. Elise came in next. She just held me for a long time. It then dawned on me that Calla would have to come out. She would have to be born. She talked to me about what would happen next, and we made some decisions about how the birth would happen.

I would be induced, starting immediately after the blood tests and the amnio, with a tablet on my cervix every 4 hours until labor occurred. She prepared me for what some of the things I might feel would be, physically and emotionally. She talked to me about what the body would be like at this stage in pregnancy. And, she just sat with me and cried. After that, we were moved to the delivery room. First they did an amnio, then they took a ton of blood from me to begin testing to find out what went wrong. Finally, they started the induction, and then we were alone to wait. We tried to sleep that first night, but we couldn’t stop crying. At some point, my angel nurse, Brenda, came in (one of many). She just hugged us, talked to us, and cared for us like a mother. She had all the right things to say. There are just certain people who come through your life for an instant, and they are exactly who you need to be with at that exact moment.

Brenda’s compassion and love carried us from that time between the amio and the birth. During that waiting time, it’s fuzzy. I don’t remember many specifics- just that a few important people were there. Asha, my friend and doula, and Michelle, another dear friend, came and sat with me for hours while I was in labor. And amazingly, while there were so many tears, there was also some laughter. And there was just regular girlfriend bonding. Somehow, that was exactly what I needed- to have some levity in the midst of that horrible day.

Labor was slow. I had decided with Elise that I would use any method of painkiller (drugs, epidural, etc) to not feel physical pain with this birth. As soon as I started feeling some progression of contractions, I asked for a painkiller. It made me loopy, sleepy, and nauseated, but at least the pain was better. While talking with my friends that day, I remember suddenly in the middle of the conversation grabbing the barf bucket and dry heaving, then being fine. It provided some comic relief. I got a new nurse that night- Rachel. Amazingly, she was friends with about half the people I know (including Asha and Michelle) but I had never met her. Having a nurse that knew people close to me and could personally connect with me was another incredible experience for me. It made me feel like I was being divinely cared for.

That night, nothing had progressed. I had received my 5th tablet on my cervix. After 24 hours without any real rest, I knew I needed to try to sleep. I dozed fitfully for awhile, but then I woke up somewhere in the middle of the night to the sound of the woman in the next room to me. She was moaning in the pain of labor, and shortly after I heard the cry of a living baby. A few hours later, I woke up suddenly- something was happening. I got up to use the bathroom, and it was evident that labor was starting. I woke Titus up, and he got Asha and Elise. We called for the anesthesiologist. Elise checked me, and I was dilated to 6. The contractions were moving quickly and strongly. The anesthesiologist showed up and gave me the epidural. After he left, Elise left too, telling Asha to get her if I started feeling the need to push.

Within 10 minutes (and before the epidural kicked in), I was ready to push. Elise came back and confirmed that it was time. I pushed only for a few minutes, and then she was there. Elise put her in my arms immediately. I felt the pain of childbirth completely- it wasn’t until after she was born that my legs went numb from the epidural. But I was so glad that I felt her- she deserved to be felt, and I would feel that pain over again in a heartbeat to feel her again.

Little Calla Pearl was so beautiful. She had these amazing, full, red lips. She just looked like a tiny baby who would cry any second, or open her eyes and move around. Though I knew she was dead, I felt enormously protective of her little body- she needed to be dressed and wrapped in a blanket.

First, she was weighed on the scale and measured. Then, we put her in a dress and wrapped her in the hospital blanket. After that, we just held her, talked to her, and cried over her the rest of the night. In the morning, I knew I had to start facing the world. I had asked for no visitors beside Asha and Michelle, but it was time to see people. I wanted Calla’s presence to be affirmed by as many people who were close to us as possible.

First, Titus called my parents to come and to bring the boys. This was the hardest part for me- facing my parents, knowing that they were so devastated by this loss and so worried about me. They came and held Calla for awhile in private- I couldn’t bear to be around. My mom had knitted a blanket for her, which we wrapped her in. (We sleep with that blanket every night now.) Then, we had to tell the boys what had happened. That their baby sister, who they were so excited to welcome into the world, had died. We were shocked by their level of understanding and grief. They were 3 and 5 at the time, and the depth of their grief matched ours. We let each of them hold Calla.

This was their first experience with death. We felt that it was important that they could see their sister to give them as concrete an experience as possible. I treasured those few moments when we were all together in the room- the first and last time. After they left, some more friends came. They held Calla, rocked her, and talked to her as well. Each person who held my baby holds a special place in my heart. They are the people who witnessed her being, came alongside me, and embraced the unspeakable. They cried over her, and they comforted me in their doing so. They are also the people who supported me throughout the long days, weeks and months that followed. I can’t imagine how alone I would have felt without them. Around noon, I was moved to a new room, up in the cancer ward away from all the new babies and postpartum moms. We chose to bring Calla with us- we wanted to spend as much time with her as we could before they took her away. I remember I was so physically exhausted (going on day 3 with hardly any sleep and having given birth) that I couldn’t even focus on what people were saying- I just fell asleep when doctors were trying to talk to me. So I finally was alone and slept with my baby next to me.

Once, a food service worker came into my room to bring me a meal, and she saw Calla next to me in the blanket. She looked so confused, and said, “is that a baby?” and I answered that it was. She said, “oh, how cute!” and walked away.

I remember sleeping, and I remember visitors. At one point, there were about 5 friends in the room with me, and a friend who is a surgeon at the hospital came in. She cracked some crass joke that had me laughing so hard, I cried. I was so thankful for that joke. I had the opportunity to share genuine laughter with my baby. Thank you, Tamara. By the time evening came, I knew it was getting close to the time to say goodbye to Calla. Her little body wasn’t strong enough to be held much longer. Titus had spent several hours with the boys, and was supposed to head back to the hospital once a sitter came. I called him to speed the process. He finally came back, and we spent another hour or so with her, holding her and crying over her. And then came the agonizing moment when we handed her over to the nurse. We said goodbye to our precious baby, and then collapsed in grief on the bed. I spent two more nights in that room. I could have gone home, but I didn’t feel like I could face the real world yet.

I knew that life was going on without me, and that I would have to go back to all the things that needed to get done, and yet I felt so unable to step out of that room. I lay in bed, cried a ton, watched the panoramic sunsets over the city from my 14th floor window, and tried to find a place of safety and peace there. Elise came several times, and just sat with me and talked with me for long periods of time. She was so amazing- she had arranged to be with me through the whole labor and birth process, and then she just kept coming back to check in on me. She is one of the superheroes of my story. I had asked my mom to get me a tight sports bra to help with compression for when my milk came in. After I had been wearing it for a few hours, I suddenly realized that I didn’t want to stop my milk from coming in.

I had read in a book about these women who had donated their breastmilk to a baby whose mother had died in childbirth. I knew breastmilk donation was something that happened, but I had absolutely no idea how it worked. So, I called Elise to help me find out what to do. She contacted the lactation consultant, who found a milk bank near Boston. I learned that you can donate your breastmilk to prematurely born babies, whose digestive tracts cannot handle formula. I learned that doing so saves babies’ lives, and that there is a constant shortage of breastmilk. Since nursing was easy with my first two babies and I was a pro at pumping, I knew that this was going to be the redemption for my story. I would donate Calla’s milk to help save some other babies’ lives.

I did finally leave the hospital, and it was hard. And so was every other little thing that I had to do after that. I found solace in donating my milk- it provided some connection to Calla for me. But most everything else sucked. I tried really hard to put on a normal face and go about daily life. But I felt like I was living life just barely above the surface of water, and that any little second I could go under and be down there for a long time. The autopsy results didn’t come back until November. They were inconclusive, meaning that there was nothing they found that could have caused her death.

I’m a different person now. Maybe not for the better. I’m still in the grieving process, and I have really bad days. When I’m down, I’m really down. I obsess over things like food and chemicals that never bothered me before. But what I can say is that in Calla’s birth, I experienced a depth of emotion that changed me. I experienced the care and compassion of strangers and dear friends in a way that I am so grateful for, and that is an example for me to follow. I don’t want to go back to being the person I was before, because I feel things more deeply now, and I am connected to a whole new world of people through this event who have made my life more meaningful. And, I am so much closer to my husband and children because of this. I’m putting this story out there in the world because it helps me. I think about my baby every minute of every waking hour- she is ingrained in all of my thoughts.

Everyone handles grief differently- Titus has a much harder time talking about her. But for me, she is ever-present, and to NOT talk about her is worse. I want to affirm her existence on earth, her existence as my daughter. I want people to know about her. We continue to hold out hope for another baby in our family. But whether or not that happens, Calla will always be cherished as our daughter, as a sister, as granddaughter. We miss her so much.

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