Life, loss & motherhood

Pregnancy loss at 26 weeks

We took these photos July 1st. Hiking high in the Italian Dolomites, we were in the last few days of our "babymoon" and excited to come back to real life, the third trimester, and the next chapter.

At our 20 week ultrasound on July 6th, I cried happy tears. Then the tech referred us to the radiologist. There was a mass on the baby's heart. They didn't have a diagnosis, or a prognosis. It could be nothing, or it could be Something. We were referred to the specialists, and we waited.

Looking back at the photos, I felt stupid. Naive that I assumed everything would be ok. Arrogant in my certainty that 'my body was meant to do this.' And horribly sad that what had been a beautiful, joyous pregnancy could suddenly feel so bleak and misshapen. I'd replied "healthy and happy" whenever anyone asked how my pregnancy was going. I realized I would take the worst of any possible pregnancy pain in order to assure that health and happiness for my baby.

I'm a planner. I think about the future. I rank outcomes. I had spreadsheets reviewing all-terrain strollers, our name on a daycare waitlist, and a baby sleeping bag all picked out. So I googled. Reading about surgeries, transplants and morbidity replaced my Pinterest nursery planning.

I like certainty. I wanted to know for sure whether my baby had a chance at a life, and what his life would look like. I wanted to know whether he'd be independent, whether he'd be able to experience the highs of the highs, and the lows of the lows. I wanted a guarantee that he could live the wild and adventure-filled life I dreamed of for him. But no one could give me any answers. They all offered love, and support for whatever decision I made, but I didn't want to make a decision. I wanted ignorance. I wanted bliss.

Meeting the dozens of specialists the next week, the mass was upgraded to a tumour. Rare in any case, they speculated it was the rarest of them all - a physical fluke rather than genetic indicator - but they wouldn't know for sure without a biopsy. They couldn't do a biopsy until a surgery after birth, or an autopsy after death. As my baby boy kicked in my belly, they talked to me about risks of heart surgery (high), availability of heart transplants (low), and infant palliative care (unmentionable).

In the weeks since, I've thought a lot about what it means to be a parent. Did I become a mother when I conceived, when I felt him kick, when I delivered? Or did I become a mother when I wished with every fibre of my being for the chance to protect my child and to give him the opportunity for health and happiness?

We went back to the specialists two weeks later, hoping for some clarity around which of the terrible-to-terriblest options was likeliest to pass. The conversation changed. The tumour was outpacing the growth of his heart. What had been the size of a pea in a grape-sized heart was now filling the ventricle. It was blocking blood flow. He would no longer develop normally, fighting around this lump in his heart. At 24 weeks, they told me he might survive another 4.

In those two weeks, I spent most of my days in the woods. It was a beautiful, blue-skied, gloriously warm July. Lucy and I went to the trails, where she ran with the reckless abandon only afforded by mid-week hikes in the GVRD. We waded through rivers. Discovered secret beaches. Chased endless sticks. And I talked to my baby. I told him about our cabin, and the beach there that I knew was destined to be his favourite. I talked about the hikes and the travels that made me feel alive. I told him stories about our crazy, joyful dog, and how I knew they would be best friends. And I heard him answer back. I felt him in the wind as it moved through the trees. I felt his goodbyes in the forest.

The next week, his heart stopped. I was induced, and two days later, delivered. He was perfect. We held him, blessed him, introduced him to his grandparents, and made sure he knew how much he was loved. And then we left the hospital without our baby.

I've never felt grief like I did then. Leaving a maternity hospital without a baby felt wrong. My body didn't know I'd lost a child, and with every physical reminder I had to remind myself of the truth. I wanted to pretend. To hold a suddenly shrunken belly and feel phantom kicks. To listen to neighbouring cries and pretend they were his. To close my eyes and sit in a still unused room, to fill in the gaps of what would have made it a nursery. But I talk to him. I share the adventures we're starting to have again. I tell my dog about her little brother. We make plans to take you to our favourite place, and spread your ashes on the wild beaches. And with the wind, you remind me you're still here.

We won't get the chance to excitedly show off my bump. We won't get to share photos of our son. We won't get to celebrate his birthdays with him by our side or kiss away bumps and bruises. But this is a piece of life and parenthood that doesn't get talked about, and deserves to be. To the women who shared their stories of loss with me, who brought me into this secret club of mothers without children, thank you. I feel as grateful to you as I do to my son.

RIP, Huxley. I love you, baby.