May 6, 2016 9 minute read
It’s the middle of the night. 3:00 AM to be precise. This hour brings me back to when I spent the most time bonding with my daughter, Liv. It seemed she thought this was the perfect hour for practicing her karate kicks. One kick after another – most often to her favourite spot to my right rib cage – I silently basked in pride over how strong she was getting and what a great little karate-ka she would make outside the womb. I pictured her as a powerful black belt one day, proudly demonstrating the katas I had taught her, showcasing the same grace and strength in movements demonstrated by all the black belt women in my family (my mother, my sister). In the morning, I would proudly express to my husband about how long she kept me up that night with her practice, often 3-4 hours! During this time in bed, a slit of light coming from the window would beam down, as I sat in bed for hours with my earphones plugged in watching the Gilmore Girls on my iPad, fascinated with the mother-daughter dynamic in that show, wondering if Rory and Lorelai’s relationship would be similar to ours. The thought that I would never get to meet her alive outside the womb never crossed my mind. Now I reflect, at this same hour of the night, on how truly blessed I feel for having experienced these special moments with my daughter, these moments I will never forget for the rest of my days.
It is therefore not surprising that my journey of loss would begin in the middle of the night during my 37th week of pregnancy. I woke up that night at 1:00 AM in a true feeling of panic. Not the kind of brief, short-lived panic that you wake up from after a nightmare and then breathe that sigh of relief over the realization that the bad dream had all just been in your head. It was a feeling of true terror that my worst nightmare was about to begin and that this time it was in real life. The panic emanated from the realization that I had slept past her usual active kicking hour, and I knew immediately in my heart that something was wrong. I shook my husband awake and told him we needed to go to the labour room right away. Something was wrong. I just knew it. But once at the labour room, the Doppler was placed on my belly and her heart beat was strong and constant – Liv even had hiccups during this hour, likely from all the sugary juices I had been drinking to try to incite movement on her part. They monitored me for an hour and the young medical resident felt confident that we could be discharged, that nothing appeared to me wrong with Liv. I told her that I felt as if Liv was in a coma, that although her heart may be beating strong, her spirit seemed to be gone. I couldn’t explain it. But medically speaking, her heartbeat was steady and I was told it was common towards the end of a pregnancy that the movements of a baby could decrease due to lack of space in the uterus. I left feeling relieved by the probable medical explanation. But my heart knew better. I had my OB appointment on the Tuesday morning, just a few short days later, so I told myself that I would discuss my concern with her then and hopefully she would contribute a likely explanation.
That weekend was extremely busy as it was Canadian Thanksgiving. We went from feast to feast celebrating thanks for everything we had been given and everything life would offer us in the future. I don’t think I’d ever felt so thankful for the position I was in. After facing some challenges with conceiving, and a previous loss early on during a first pregnancy, my husband and I were glowing. We had never felt so grateful for the beautiful gift that life would hand us in approximately two weeks time. On thanksgiving Monday, October 12th, we attended a beautiful Thanksgiving BBQ on an unseasonably warm day. I shared with several mamas at the BBQ my reason for my recent visit at the hospital. I saw the grave concern in their eyes, the same concern I felt in my heart, that something was wrong, but everyone agreed that the normal standard of care at the hospital was to monitor the heartbeat – a healthy heartbeat meant a healthy baby. That evening, when we arrived at home, I started feeling intense cramping in my belly. Little did I know, I was feeling my first contractions. We called the labour room and were told not to bother to come in, that they were likely Braxton Hicks contractions, and to call back if the cramps came in regular intervals. During this time, I tried again to get Liv to move by drinking several sugary juice boxes and lying down to focus on the slightest movement. By that time, the pain from the recurring cramps prevented me from lying down comfortably. It hadn’t even occurred to me that I could be going into labour, I was so focused on concentrating on Liv’s movements. After an hour, I told my husband that I didn’t care what they had told us, that we would show up at the labour room. He agreed that we wouldn’t get any peace of mind until we heard her heartbeat again.
At the hospital, the Doppler was placed on my belly and all of us breathed a huge sigh of relief when the Doppler picked up a strong heartbeat of 120 beats per minute, consistent with the rapid heartbeat of a baby in utero. As soon as we all smiled to one another, about to acknowledge that we were all worried for nothing, the heartbeat dropped to around 80 beats per minute. We suddenly realized the Doppler had picked up my anxious heartbeat beating at an abnormally high rate for an adult. The nurse nervously travelled the Doppler from one side of my belly to the other. Nothing.
I don’t have to describe to you the following series of events: the portable ultrasound machine showing Liv’s profile but no heartbeat, wheeling me into the dark ultrasound room where the on-call gynecologist confirmed with the more advanced ultrasound machine that Liv had died. At this point my contractions were coming in regularly and I was 4 cm dilated. I was told I would likely give birth that day. The rest is a blur. Somehow my sister appeared by my side. Then my sister-in-law. From then on, they were permanently by my side along with my husband – my patron saints of labour. Their incredible strength gave me what I needed to travel the mental and physical ordeal of birth – the unthinkable kind – where the beautiful baby that was meant to greet us with a screaming burst, emerged silent into this world. From that moment, I would never again feel emotions in a linear sense – joy, sadness, pleasure, pain, hope, fear – all of these would forever feel intertwined. We got to do everything loving parents would do at the birth of their first child: we held her, sang to her, told her we loved her. We giggled at those obvious family resemblances. His nose and cheeks, my eyes and hair. In those moments, we felt our hearts permanently break and yet become so much fuller in that one instant.
In the days after, we received beautiful condolence messages from friends and family. Some shared deep losses they had experienced in their lives. A common thread that my husband and I observed in their messages was that with the deep pain and sorrow of losing someone, a new, different appreciation of life would appear after loss. I’ve read it in so many different forms, but essentially, a universal truth seemed to often emerge after loss: during a time of deep and jagged emotions, heartbreak offers an opening, a crack – and this crack has the power to let in the light and see with a new clarity. Some referred to it as the gift of grief. When I first read such messages, days after our loss, I couldn’t imagine this ever feeling true for me, although I felt a twinge of familiarity with this contradictory feeling of loss. We felt it so vividly the moment we were forced to say both hello and goodbye to our darling Liv – the pride and the sorrow, the love and the pain. But as it would be, we did begin to experience this opening, this transformation that lets you transform the fear, sadness, anger, heartache and despair into hope, gratitude, love, strength, courage. Whereby we’ve never felt lonelier in our lives, we’ve also never felt each other’s love as strongly as we do now. Although we know how cruel life can be, we’ve never been so grateful for what we have. How could it be possible that thinking of Liv could bring a smile to our faces before a tear in our eyes? It seems impossible. But the truth is, our tiny little Liv would give us the greatest gift there is, one that will leave us with a grand new perspective of the world.
In those weeks following our loss, when the emotional pain feels so strong you feel as if you’ve been cut wide open, questions about life endlessly repeated themselves in my head. Why did life take our Liv away, 2 weeks from her birthday, for no comprehensible reason? Why did life bring me this sadness, this fear for the future, this unending grief? The questions kept coming. Will this forever change who I am? Will I always be a sad person from now on? Will I think of Liv every day and cry? With time, as I would write and speak Liv’s name, I began to reflect upon and remember why we had decided to name our daughter Liv. Based on the ancient Japanese classic the Hagakure, we wanted to teach her that life is special, it is a gift:
Existence is but a dream within a dream.
Human life lasts but an instant.
We should spend it doing what is pleasant.
Enjoying every minute, never losing a moment’s essence,
Or the beauty of a single sun that sets before our eyes,
Never wasting the experience of even a single delicious strawberry.
My father would read these poems to his students in his dojo, poems that inspired samurai thousands of years ago. The authentic samurai understood that if he shall die tomorrow, he has lived today. As I reflect upon this, I realize that the answer to that question is up to me: will I wake up every day and cry, cursing at life, or do I choose to take the gift that Liv has given me, that I had first imagined giving her? Do I choose to give each moment of my life special meaning, of my own power, of my own will? I would much rather think of Liv and smile. And so it will go every day of my life that Liv will remind me that the real fight is within. It is up to me to learn to savour every single sun that sets and every single delicious strawberry. I will choose to Liv.
This will always be my favourite picture of pregnant me with Liv, at 34 weeks, 1 month before her passing. There is so much symbolism of looking up at the lights hanging above me, like stars in the sky. I remember asking my husband to capture this moment – I wanted to remember the deep calm I felt during those moments I had with Liv, simply sitting outside in the hot summer air, feeling her, responding to her movements – it felt so special to be truly LIVing in the moment, something I’ve always found so challenging, yet felt so natural with her inside my belly. In her legacy, I strive to continue to Liv in the moment, appreciate the beauty surrounding me. For even if she is no longer with me, she will always be like a star in the sky, glowing in the darkness, always present, always shining.
-Melina uses her Instagram account as an online journal, sharing the waves of her thoughts through this journey. You can follow her here.