It was late December, a sunny morning and I was taking a shower with my eyes overlooking the cosy back garden as I often do, drinking in a new day. But this day was more extraordinary than I could ever have imagined. As the water ran through my raised palms, splashed onto my chest and ran over my swollen breasts and belly, I had the vision of that first page. My immediate interpretation was that the death referred to, was my grandmother’s. Even though I was conceived about a year after she passed away, I have become increasingly aware of my intimate connection with her. I know how fundamentally her death changed my mother’s life and in turn has impacted on mine, in less obvious ways. That Tuesday morning in the shower I could not have known that those very words were more significantly meant for me.
I was seven months pregnant and wasn’t sure when last I’d felt my baby move inside me. Two days before I had sat on a bright check blanket at a friend’s two-year-old daughter’s birthday party, trying to be present but floating a little outside myself. I watched my own two-year-old son and his buddies dig their fingers into the red jelly birthday cake, decorated with smarties and marshmallows. Occasionally I made a feeble attempt at small talk with the moms I knew wandering about and the two proud grannies, patrolling the busy swarm of little people. Only in retrospect could I see that this was when the dawning of the truth began. The truth that by the following Wednesday, New Years’ Day, my baby daughter would not have moved for three whole days already.
Finally I called the midwife and felt her go cold when I told her this. She reminded me that at this stage of pregnancy, there should be at least ten movements from the baby, within a twenty-four hour period. Then, in a very even tone, she told me to make my way to her rooms immediately. She would meet me there and we’d “have a look at what was going on.”
Instead of losing it, of calling our or crying, “Help!” I had started this telephone conversation with Festive season greetings and apologies.
“Happy new year to you and your family! I am so sorry to disturb you on a day like this and I don’t want to overreact or anything, but I haven’t felt any real movement for about two or three days now.” I felt my tongue grow sluggish. “I mean, that’s as far back as I can remember when last baby really kicked, but maybe it’s just me not taking notice. There’ve been all these parties and family visits, so many distractions that I…”
She cut me off midway this rambling and soon after, my husband, our son and I were off to her clinic, a fifteen-minute drive away. After examining me and finding no foetal heartbeat, she referred me to the specialist obstetrician I’d seen only once on a routine visit in the early stages of this third pregnancy.
Soon we were back in the car taking another short drive across the city and over the mountainside. Cape Town was sunny and still, free of its unsettling South Easter. We drove without speeding, holding ourselves in the present somehow, making small talk and listening to our two and a half year-old son chattering in the backseat. Our inner thoughts were unspoken, yet undoubtedly along the same lines, both imagining that this doctor would miraculously tell us a reasonable explanation for that silence from my womb and that in fact, all was well.
No foetal heartbeat. Although I’d heard the words and picked up the concern in Joy, my midwife’s voice and eyes as she’d calmly said earlier, “This sometimes happens around thirty weeks,” her hands gently, persistently probing my slightly deflated belly. Still, the meaning did not sink in. Not until I got up from the examination table in that tiny room, where the obstetrician Dr. Dhansay did that final ultrasound scan, quietly pointing out the visible absence of life. My baby girl had stopped growing, stopped breathing, her tiny heart had stopped beating some time ago already. We are never and can never be prepared for the moments of birth and of death, even though we know both have their inevitability. No wonder the brain takes a while to translate the facts, the physical details, let alone the heaving tides of the emotion.
The inevitable path
To her burial
The breaking day
Of her birth
After three days
And two nights
This was written
There was no other
In a single moment
A single push
A single heartbeat
A single girlchild
A single dream