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A father's story: Mourning the baby we never had

By Ian Wallach, Oprah.com
The grieving process after losing a child is long and hard, but eventually gets better with the help of friends and family.
The grieving process after losing a child is long and hard, but eventually gets better with the help of friends and family.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Losing a child, even one that has not yet been born, is devastating to the parents
  • Sometimes a grieving family simply needs to know they have friends available to them
  • Taking necessary time off work after the death of a child can help with healing
RELATED TOPICS

(OPRAH.com) -- It started perfectly. A rocking romance, magical wedding, and a decadent honeymoon. My wife stomps out of the bathroom, half-smiling, half-accusatory, holding a plastic stick with a plus sign and yelling, "Ian, you got me pregnant!"

Thirteen weeks later, we see the color flee from the face of our ob-gyn, and he tells us that this being was not meant to be.

"Specialist" was a title with which we would become too familiar. Specialist number one told us that, unless we were deeply religious, we needed a D & C (dilation and curettage -- in this case, a fancy term for ending a pregnancy). Over the next few years, more specialists explained more acronyms, like IUI (intrauterine insemination) and IVF (in vitro fertilization).

We tried to understand the science behind each procedure, made ourselves believe we did, and gave each one a shot. Money rolled out while bad news washed in. And then several specialists (and one acupuncturist) suggested we try donor eggs.

I dutifully scoured online profiles of hundreds of prospective donors. We had one shared rule: The profile had to be free of typos. When my wife realized I was looking for someone who resembled her, she asked, "What the hell are you doing? She needs shinier hair! To be thinner, taller, better than you've seen before."

She immediately took over. For a week she prowled the Net for younger, fertile women who could look as much at home in a framed family portrait as they would in a bikini, spread across a Ferrari. Had a stranger seen my wife, they might have wondered whether she was seeking out chat-room hosts or Russian mail-order brides.

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A donor gave us 11 eggs and two chances. One procedure required many injections and five eggs but brought only frustration and sadness. After the second attempt, which used the remaining six eggs, we waited for the phone call.

I promised I would take it, because my wife had answered all the others. It came late, which we decided wasn't good. But then something so unexpected happened: We did not get bad news.

Suddenly we were able to spend days, and then weeks, sharing a secret that seemed to cure an invisible injury. Weeks became months. We saw a moving head on a monitor. Later, tiny hands. We heard racing heartbeats (that I'd record on my iPhone). Three months in, we braced for the same fear-inducing test -- the "nuchal fold," or neck measurement, scan -- that had led to heartbreak once before. Somehow, still, there was no bad news.

A doctor -- a specialist, even -- said words like healthy and female. On the short drive home, we quickly agreed on a name. We began designing the baby's room and thinking how our lives would change.

We sent a global e-mail, with the subject line "Congratulations to Us." I wrote, "Yesterday we passed the three-month-now-it's-okay-to-speak-about-it deadline, so we can announce that we are expecting a healthy baby girl to arrive in early January."

Two weeks later, my wife woke me to say she was nervous and felt cramps. An ultrasound confirmed all was fine (and another, three days later, did as well). But three days after that, there was a lot of blood and a trip to the ER. Once again we were told that all was fine, shown images of the baby moving, and sent home.

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My wife's cramps worsened. The doctor on call suggested Tylenol. When the pain sharpened, the doctor asked me to locate an open pharmacy to get Vicodin. My wife went to the bathroom, came back to bed, returned to the bathroom, and screamed. I knew.

I told her not to look down (she had). Still connected to her, facing west and not moving, was the physical embodiment of what we had only ever seen onscreen. Autopilot clicked on. I looked for a container, knowing I had to save everything. A colored pint glass was by the sink, and I washed it out. My wife moved to the rim of the bathtub. I collected what had fallen and ran to call 911 .

I told the dispatcher that my wife had miscarried. He asked me to describe what happened and told me that she would probably be going into shock and I needed to cover her with blankets.

I didn't want to go where I couldn't see her, and the blankets were more than 30 feet away, down the hall. I was stuck. The dispatcher told me to give the phone to my wife and go get the blankets. When I returned, he was making my wife laugh. The pain, which she hadn't known was labor, was subsiding.

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In less than five minutes the doorbell rang, and I ran downstairs. Four paramedics rushed in, asking questions that somehow I was able to answer: "Where's your wife?"; "Where is the fetus?"; "Is it intact?"; "How far along?" One of them scooped up our panicked dog and plopped her in another bathroom.

These kind, brilliant men then flirted with my wife while simultaneously telling her that she was going into shock (explaining her jitterbug legs). They placed her on a chair and carried her down three flights of stairs. Leave it to my wife to -- at this moment -- joke about, and apologize for, her weight. Her beautiful, stunning, sexy, pregnancy weight.

Fire trucks and ambulances do little for discretion. The whole neighborhood was outside and knew what had happened. I reached the doctor on call and asked which hospital to go to. She seemed surprised and asked, "You called the paramedics?" I remember thinking, but not saying, "Yes, considering that my bloody wife is convulsing and our child's in a pint glass."

The kind man in the ambulance told us we were right to call for help, that 911 is there for situations that people can't handle on their own.

Our regular, more empathetic doctor drove from her home to meet us at the hospital and perform the surgery. Another D & C, necessary to make sure that what we knew was gone was completely so. Two hours later, my wife and I took a cab home.

In the morning, I retrieved the two-week-old celebratory e-mail, cut and pasted the names of the recipients, and informed everyone that the pregnancy had ended and we needed some private time. And then we witnessed different forms of the art of consolation.

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The first wave was simply brilliant. Friends tiptoed up to our door, set down plates of macaroni and cheese, lasagna, sandwiches, or fruit, rang the bell -- and left. How did I not know of this amazing practice? It was exactly what we needed: a combination of nourishment, respect, privacy, and love (unfortunately, a mere month later, we'd realize we had gained a combined weight of almost 60 pounds).

The second wave was floral -- very traditional. My wife loved that our house looked and smelled beautiful, but I thought it looked and smelled like a funeral home. I will never forget one arrangement, from a dear friend. The florist had the inspired idea of putting it in a "treasure chest."

I was a bit taken aback when I opened my door to see a deliveryman holding a dark wood box, 14 by eight inches, with a rounded top flipped open to display orchids and lilies. "Really?" I wondered. "A baby casket?" I thought I was paranoid. But out of caution, I hid it in the kitchen, barely visible behind other arrangements.

My wife walked downstairs, passed the kitchen, and stopped suddenly to ask, "Is that a baby casket?" For the first time in ten days, we laughed.

The third wave of consolation came from friends who wanted to touch base, see if we needed anything. These offers were well intentioned and tiring. They required a response when neither of us had much strength. But sometimes we'd read a message, something like "We don't know what to say. We love you. We're here." And that was perfect.

We eventually started to respond to e-mails and calls and venture outside where we encountered the fourth wave, the most infuriating. It was the unsolicited mention of "God's plan."

I don't know if this evoked rage or was the random place where my rage happened to fall, but when I'd hear someone say, "God's plan," I would immediately think, Asshole.

My wife wasn't bothered by it. She'd explain that the concept of God's plan -- or its less Catholic/Christian version, "Everything happens for a reason" -- brings people comfort, which is what they are trying to provide. To me, it suggests there's an explanation for your pain, but you don't get to know it. It's brutal.

A person can get headaches and lose sleep trying to remember the actor whose voice is in an animated movie or the name of the woman who slept with Gary Hart (don't google; it's Donna Rice). So imagine the suffering affixed to the unanswered question, "Why did this happen?"

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On my worst days, I would remind myself that in the grander scheme, I was quite lucky. I had a beautiful wife, a lovely home, a good job, a great dog, and solid friends. I also had the freedom to take a two-month leave from the office, and though I knew this was a tremendous luxury, it was also necessary.

A psychiatrist had written the accurate yet unsettling words that, in her opinion, I was "not prepared to return to work and won't be for some time."

The doctor was right. My thoughts weren't clear. I had three fender benders in a week. I wasn't sleeping well. I was having memories (that, I expected). And visions (not expected).

Too many times I recalled the images and textures I saw and felt that night in the bathroom. A few times I dreamed I was rocking a newborn baby swaddled in a red blanket -- just that image.

Once I woke in the night and walked around the house. I stopped climbing the stairs back to my bedroom to sit and, for about two minutes, speak to a 2- year-old girl with black bangs. I was cognizant enough to know she wasn't a ghost or anything supernatural but rather my mind's way of burning off steam. I told her I was so sorry that I couldn't protect her. She said that she forgave me, and I went back to bed.

Another night, hours after taking a sleeping pill, I woke to use the bathroom, only to walk quickly into a wall and fall backward. On more than one occasion I slept for 17 hours straight. The doctor said that was normal. My wife and I tried to make love, but, in her words, it was the "scene of the crime."

A shrink suggested I ask a friend to drag me out of the house on a regular basis. We surfed the chilling waters of Zuma or Venice and I'd talk incessantly (to him, the seals, anything that seemed to listen) about how much it hurt.

I was a broken record. Yet he continued to regularly invite me out. Compassion breeds an amazing amount of tolerance.

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My brother flew across the country for a night. We had drinks, and he joked with my surfing friend. I felt several seconds behind every conversation. I went downstairs pretending to get a bottle of wine but really trying to collect myself, and my brother found me there.

I apologized for being slow, and then began to cry. Hard. Uncontrollably. My baby brother held me up, supporting me completely, squeezing me as hard as he could, telling me it was okay. He meant the crying.

A month after the loss, I remembered each hushed backstory or confession of every male I knew who had experienced something similar, and I called them. A colleague whose wife had delivered a stillborn child offered to hang out and have a drink. A friend admitted that he felt embarrassed telling a coworker that he didn't want to attend a baby shower.

Another, who lost his son in the 35th week, told me that they'd moved apartments to escape the baby's room they had created. He said he took no time off from work -- not a single day -- yet still didn't understand why he'd misplace things or get lost in midsentence. After a pause, he asked me to keep a secret and said they were pregnant again but too frightened to tell anyone.

My wife and I started taking some short trips, little adventures to get our lives back in motion. A short time later, her period arrived. It was as if her body were saying, "Hey, let's move on." And we are. It's been almost ten months. Time helped. We are working. We've lost the weight and are making love.

In a parallel universe, I'm changing diapers and craving sleep, but in this one, the adoption process is under way, so somewhere there is, or is about to be, a child who will find his or her way to us, and we will all catch and protect each other.

In due time, I'll rock back and forth, holding a swaddled child. In a whirlwind of joy, embarrassment, and hypocrisy, I may even shamelessly think that everything happens for a reason.

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