I always wanted a large family, I wanted to be the Mom who spent my days at home with my kids, creating things and learning and filling our time with joy and laughter. We were well on our way to creating that life I had imagined with our incredible little girl, and soon after her first birthday, we decided it was time to add another piece to our puzzle. I was afraid; I had always been told it would be difficult for me to conceive. Our daughter had been a happy accident, I had no idea what actively trying for a child would bring, but we were overjoyed when I became pregnant after only a month. I will never forget that discovery.
I had been so tired, having to stop at a rest stop on my way home from visiting my mom, so I could sleep in the parking lot. I should have known then, but it wasn’t until I awoke at 2 am, from a dream about my daughter playing with a beautiful baby boy, that I knew in my heart. I got out of bed in the middle of the night and drove to a 24 hour pharmacy to pick up a test. Then I woke my poor husband up, before the sun, to tell him he was going to be a daddy all over again.
My pregnancy was easy compared to my first. I had been in a state of constant, agonizing pain with her due to a medical condition, and the general shifts in body with a first pregnancy. The crippling morning sickness I experienced with her was just the intense nausea that was managed well with the medication. I felt relatively good, all things considered. I dreamed of my son all the time, I told him how excited we were to see him, and I completed all the rituals I had developed with my daughter. Daddy gave him his baby name, “Tadpole,” just as he had done with our daughter “Peanut,” I bought him his first stuffed animal for my husband and I to sleep with until he could have it himself, we liked to “fill them with love,” and I bought him his very first outfit. I had no doubts at all, that he was a little boy.
I will never forget that day, the worst day of my life, the day of my metamorphosis from the mother I was, to the mother I became. My husband was working, and I had an appointment for my 13 week ultrasound. I was so excited, it was normal for me to attend appointments on my own, and my husband was disappointed he couldn’t make that ultrasound, but I assured him I would bring home as many pictures as I could sweet talk the technician to giving us. I told “Taddy” how much I was looking forward to seeing him, to getting that first glimpse of his face to see if he looked as much like his daddy as his sister had on her first ultrasound. Everything was fine until I laid down on that table.
The technician was silent for the most part, doing her measurements and turning knobs. I waited patiently for her to turn the screen so I could see my baby, but she never did. I think I suspected something was wrong when she asked when I saw my doctor next, but it wasn’t until she said I was finished and refused to give me a printed picture that I knew. I flew out of the building and sobbed the entire half an hour drive home. My husband was home when I walked in the door and I kept frantically trying my OBs office over and over again for the next two hours. When they called back to tell me I needed to come in immediately, I shut down. We packed up our 2 year old and made the half hour drive to find out what was happening, in silence. I will never forget sitting in the waiting room of her office, surrounded by swollen bellies, and squalling newborns, desperate to find out what was happening to my own child. It wasn’t until she brought us back and told us, in the most horrifically blasé voice, that they couldn’t find our baby’s heartbeat, that my world completely crumbled.
I was given a prescription to induce the “miscarriage” of my son’s body, and told I would experience some cramping, and to go to the hospital with excessive bleeding. Then I was sent away. We filled the prescription and returned home, to begin the process of birthing my son. The process began on August 6th, and by the early morning of August 7th, nearly twelve hours later, the cramping, I was told I’d experience, was full on labour of a second trimester baby. I was in agony, and my little girl was terrified. We hadn’t been expecting the severity of the contractions, and hadn’t made arrangements for her to be taken care of anywhere else, so my husband retreated to the basement playroom with my daughter, to keep her calm and reassured, while I laboured alone in our bedroom. By late evening, I was exhausted and unable to tolerate the pain any longer. I begged my husband to take me to the hospital and we frantically called to find someone to watch our daughter.
In the car, on the way to the hospital, I finally gave birth to my son. I wanted nothing more than to go home, to sit on the bathroom floor and see my baby, and to sleep, so we turned around. The bleeding was intense, however, and the vague warnings of “too much” left me on the phone with various medical services, trying to figure out whether or not I was in danger. Again, in the middle of the night, I awoke my husband and told him I needed to go to the hospital. He had to stay home with our daughter, and again, I drove myself the half hour back to the hospital, where I lay alone, in a bed in the emergency room, for over 24 hours, waiting for a surgeon to perform a D&C, while I haemorrhaged. I made countless phone calls, again desperately trying to find accommodations for my daughter, so I could see my husband before I had surgery, and finally, only half an hour before I was brought in to the OR, he came and reassured me.
The process of grief following my son’s death was a minefield I wasn’t prepared for. I was naive, taking people’s criticisms to heart, wondering if I was, in fact, too grief stricken, or prolonging my grief by giving in to it. I felt like a freak. I had held my son’s body in the palm of my hand, but I was so afraid that really looking at him, really taking the time to “know” him, would make me twisted, that I simply sat there, with my hand against my heart. I had placed his body in a pill bottle in my freezer, knowing I wanted to bury him, but not knowing where. The comments crippled me.
I wanted to remember him, I wanted him to have been real, and I wanted everyone to know him. I wanted him to have the place he deserved in our family, and my grief was compounded by my confusion and doubt. It finally ceased when I read a book. It simply said to follow my heart. I understood it then, that my grief couldn’t be placed in a neat little column, my grief was my own. So I picked myself up off the ground and I grieved. I bought a planter to bury my son, I bought a garden stone and some flowers to decorate his grave, I listened to songs about loss, I read everything I could get my hands on, I made Christmas ornaments to hang on the tree, and most importantly, we gave our son a name. After six hours of lying in bed together pouring over baby names, I finally allowed myself to know completely that he was a boy; nearly a year after our son was born, Perrin Danner McCleary was finally allowed to exist. It means “Traveller rescued by God,” and it allowed us to finally give our son a voice, to speak his name and have people understand what it was we had lost when my 13 week pregnancy came to an end.
Perrin also gave me the spirit to fight. To defend the rights of women like me who had been lied to, neglected and left to deliver dead babies alone in their bedrooms. He was the start of my journey into this dark and terrifying world of baby loss, but he also saved me. He turned me into a mother who learned to fight, to appreciate every single precious second of life, from every division of every cell, to every tiny kick from within. Perrin was the thread that began my metamorphosis to the mother I am today, the one who knows grief and loss, but also to the one who appreciates the tiny victories, the joys and the struggles. Perrin will always be my first born son, and he will forever be heard in the sound of my voice as I comfort another mother drowning in her grief. He will always have a place on this earth.
After a successful pregnancy with our first daughter, and following our son Perrin’s death at 13 weeks gestation, I was desperate to conceive again. I needed to have the feeling of a child in my arms, I felt like it was the only way to truly heal after Perrin’s loss. Finally, after 10 long months of seemingly endless attempts and even more disappointment, I finally became pregnant again. I was overjoyed and terrified.
I was still in the early stages of accepting my process of grief, but I was determined not to let my new baby feel any of it or to get lost in the navigation. So I took a deep breath, and I went on. I bought a new stuffed animal, so my husband and I could continue our tradition of sleeping with it every night until our baby was born, and I forced myself to buy two outfits, one for a boy and one for a girl. I had less of a sense of who my baby was, than I had with my daughter Kaelin, or Perrin. I knew deeply and completely that Kaelin was a girl, and Perrin was a boy, but this new baby was more of a mystery. That baby was also a completely magical experience for me, despite the typical pain during my pregnancies and overwhelming morning sickness. I will never forget eating lunch at a restaurant and curling up in the front seat of the car afterwards, my feet propped on the dash in front of me, completely regretting that decision to eat at all when I felt it for the first time. I thought I was imagining things, it wasn’t possible to feel movement at 9 weeks, but then it happened again, the distinct feeling of that baby rolling across the front of my belly, almost as if complaining about the lack of space my position was providing.
It was intense, that relationship we developed over those first few months. The baby rolled often, and no one will ever convince me of anything else. At 12 weeks, he began to “pop” his body all the way to the top of my belly, creating a little lump with his tiny body every time I lay down. It was almost as though he looked forward to our nightly chats and the rubs he would undoubtedly get when he emerged so completely. We had an amazingly unique experience. My terror receded every time he rolled or popped up, he seemed to sense when I needed him to show me he was still okay. The pregnancy progressed normally, and my biggest point of fear, that 13 week ultrasound, was met with images of a very wiggly, very much alive baby. I cried quietly, while I watched the screen, watched that little body pop up in response to my tears. Even the technician was a little baffled at his ability to make himself known despite his size. He was truly a magical little being.
We continued our routine of backrubs and talks, and I relaxed in knowing he was safe and healthy. It wasn’t until Thanksgiving weekend, at 18 weeks, after a hectic two days of hosting a baby shower for my sister in law, and my family from out of town that I realized something wasn’t right. I laid down on the floor and called out to my “Baby Smudge”, as named by my three year old daughter. He didn’t respond immediately, like he normally did, so I began to massage and wiggle my belly, hoping he was simply asleep. After a while, he kicked slightly, so I relaxed a bit, but still felt uneasy. My midwife appointment was the following day, so I could discuss it with her during the appointment.
My husband was working, so I packed my little girl up and we headed to the midwives office. And again, my world was shattered. She tried for what seemed like an hour, but she couldn’t find that little heartbeat. She tried to reassure me, but I knew in my heart that it was over. I had felt my baby dying the day before, and I had done nothing, ignored my instincts and now it was over. She made me an appointment for an ultrasound, which wasn’t going to be until the following day, but I couldn’t wait that long to know for sure. My husband and I dropped our daughter off at his sister’s house and we went to the ER.
Thus began, the most horrific experiences of my life. We sat in the ER for close to six hours before we finally saw a doctor, me prodding my belly and quietly begging Baby Smudge to move, to show me I was wrong, and the phantom movements I convinced myself I was feeling confused me and gave me hope that I was wrong, that this wasn’t happening all over again. The bedside ultrasound was crude, but gave us a preliminary glimpse to the stillness of our baby’s heart. We were told to go home, and return in the morning for a more in-depth ultrasound to confirm that our baby was in fact, dead. I begged them to do it that night. I couldn’t go home and try and sleep, knowing that my child was no longer alive inside me. I couldn’t lay down, with the knowledge that he wouldn’t be popping up for his backrub, but there was no way they could perform the scan that night, so we drove home and I wandered the house until morning, refusing to lay down.
We returned to the ER the following morning for the appointment, and sat across the hall from a young mother and her newborn baby, cooing quietly to each other, and subsequently stabbing me in the heart. I was enraged at the injustice, again. Everywhere babies were born and discarded like garbage, abused and neglected and my babies were being torn from life, a life in which they were cherished and loved and so very wanted.
The technician finished with the ultrasound, and told me to go back to the ER. I begged for a picture, for something to prove my baby had been real. She refused at first, but I assured her I already knew he was gone; I just needed to see his face. She relented, and I got the first look at my beautiful little Smudge. We returned to the ER, where we sat for another 8 hours, waiting for a doctor to confirm what we already knew. I closed myself off, stared at my knees, at the floor, my hands, anything but the elderly women who came and went across from us, smiling at the protrusion of my swollen belly, not knowing the baby inside it was still. It was the greatest form of torture I have ever experienced, the waiting. When we were finally brought in, close to 7 PM, our baby’s death was confirmed and we were once again sent home, to return the following morning. I broke down completely at that point, grabbing the doctor’s hand and begging him not to make me go. It had been days since I had slept, I needed it to be over, I needed to stop feeling the firmness of the baby’s body inside me, I needed to see his face, to hold him in my arms, and to say goodbye.
They once again refused, and we returned home, where I paced the halls for another night. When we returned the following morning, we were sent to the clinic to discuss the induction and our wishes for the delivery and procedure following our baby’s birth. I, again, chose to deliver my baby. It felt like the one act of mothering I could still do, to experience him passing through me. They advised us to be roomed on the delivery ward, where the nurses were more experienced with labour and delivery, than the surgical floor, so we agreed. We chose to forgo an autopsy, and requested our baby’s body be released to us, so we could bring him home to be buried with his brother. They assured us that was acceptable, it was before 20 weeks, his death didn’t need to be registered, so we were led to a room and the process began. When the only sounds we could hear, were the cries of newborns, we discovered that we had been placed in the postpartum unit; I was surrounded by new mothers, by their happiness and joy, while I attempted to give birth to a dead child. We closed the door and sequestered ourselves, walking circles around a dark room, rather than the halls, to avoid being faced with what we were not going to have. The nurses that we were assured to be more experienced, left us alone, in the fifteen hours of labour, we never saw any of them more than a handful of times. The pain was excruciating and I begged for an epidural, for something to help, but was refused every time, with no explanation.
My experience I so wished for, to experience the birth of my baby, was quickly becoming a nightmare I couldn’t escape from. I was exhausted, it had been close to four days since I had slept last, and nearing the end of the delivery I was delirious with pain and exhaustion. I began to slip in and out of consciousness when the contractions eased up, but my conversations in sleep blurred into the conversations of awake and I was confused and afraid. In the midst of it all, a doctor I had never met before came in and began to forcibly pull my child from my body. The pain was surreal, and I lost my ability to distinguish between the real and the imagined. Finally, at 5am, on October 17th, my son quietly emerged and I succumbed to my exhaustion.
I awoke a few hours later, desperate to hold my baby, to get the chance to memorize him and give my husband and I the chance to begin the process of saying goodbye. I was horrified to discover a plastic pail filled with water on the table of our room, my son’s body floating inside. I cried as I lifted him out and held him in my hands. Everything about him was perfect, his impossibly small fingers and toes, his incredible little ears and even the curvature of his teeny little bum. I took it all in. We took pictures of him, conversed together who he looked more like and chose a name from the list we had compiled the day before, during the labour. He was named, Matteson Grey McCleary, which meant “God’s quiet gift.” We stayed that way, holding Matteson, until a swarm of doctors emerged on us and told us we couldn’t leave with our baby.
Policies were spouted and my husband yelled while I sobbed uncontrollably on the bed, my son still in my hands. They left and I frantically began making phone calls to funeral homes, searching for answers the doctors wouldn’t give. An incredible man at the first home I called, told me he would come and retrieve Matteson’s body, and release him to us himself. Mark and I were forced to hand Matteson over to a nurse, who covered him up with a blanket and marched him down the hall, hiding him from the new mothers who wouldn’t want to see.
We went home, and picked up our confused three year old daughter, after a three day long absence. We curled up in bed together and watched cartoons, waiting for a phone call to say we could return and pick Matteson’s body up, which came later that evening. I was given a room, and a few quiet moments to say goodbye, and I was devastated all over again, when I saw what the hospital had done to my beautiful baby’s tiny little body. They had performed the autopsy we had refused, and he was beyond destroyed. Dark stitches covered his chest, and the lack of care in which they had handled him was evident. They broke his body completely and they destroyed my spirit. That moment was when I finally experienced the complete devastation. My son, my perfect, beautiful, magical baby son, was so totally abused by the system, so disrespected and I was infuriated.
I vowed that no parents, ever again, would feel as helpless, neglected and mistreated as we were those three days. I drove home with Matteson’s body in my lap, and my husband and I lovingly placed him beside Perrin in the grave we built for them.
It took me close to a year to be able to write a letter to the hospital Matteson was born at, to explain to them what they had done to us, to our son, and how desperately they needed to change. They failed to understand that we were going through two separate events, the death of our son, and the birth of our son. The only way to change the horrifying event of our son’s death was to create a beautiful and positive experience from his birth, and they took that from us. They made it ugly and I was furious.
My anger at Matteson’s loss subsided eventually, when I had something of an epiphany, I guess you could say. It was almost as if hearing the voice of God telling me why. It changed my thinking and it changed my life. I knew then, that Perrin and Matteson weren’t taken from us; they were given to us, a gift that wasn’t meant to be beyond what it was. I was given the opportunity to love and nurture two amazing baby boys who knew nothing but the deepest love for the short time they had with us. They are still beyond loved, still very much a part of our family, and they will never be forgotten.
My anger at the process of stillbirth and pregnancy loss is what drives me today. I don’t want any woman to ever doubt her grief, her needs and herself. I don’t want any parents to mourn silently, the only ones who will remember their babies’ names; I want them to share in what could be their joy. This is why I am here today. Perrin and Matteson gave me a gift, a gift of understanding and the ability to listen, to hear the beautiful stories of precious lives lost too soon, and the heartache and love their families will always have for them. One of the greatest joys of my life, aside from my daughter Kaelin, and my four sons, Perrin, Matteson and their rainbow brothers Cohen and Dashiell, is to volunteer with PAIL. I have a purpose now; I can help guide families like ours, who were lost and alone in our own sea of grief. I can help others to see that there is another side to their pain, that the sharpness of it won’t last forever.
Most of all, I can fight. I will fight. Some day, I hope, we can speak the names of our babies without fear of judgement that I can proudly say I have five children, instead of only the three that are surviving, in fear of making others uncomfortable. Until then, I will listen.