I gave birth to a dead baby boy on October 12, 1996. He was 16 weeks old gestationally. I was 18 years old, a recent high school graduate who’d just lost access to free college tuition. My father didn’t want me attending the college where my stepmother worked for fear that I would embarrass her as an unwed knocked-up teen.
So he told me I couldn’t keep going to that college. I didn’t have money to go to any other college, so I moved back in with my mother while preparing to become a mother myself.
On October 10, 1996, I learned that my baby had acrania and anencephaly, which meant that there was no skull or brain, just a brain stem keeping my baby alive. As soon as my baby was delivered and not receiving nourishment from body, my baby would die.
The doctor was kind but very matter-of-fact. I was asking questions I could think of, like what had I done wrong?
“You didn’t do anything wrong,” the specialist said. “This happens in about 3% of pregnancies, and so far, we don’t have any idea why.”
He went on to tell me that he and my OB/GYN, Dr. Desai, felt like it would be better for them to induce labor and let me deliver my baby at this stage of pregnancy rather than making me endure the entire pregnancy, only to lose my child in the end. And what was most important was that if there were already these types of complications, what if I developed some other type of complication that could risk my life, too? That was the deciding factor for my doctors to encourage me to say goodbye so early.
I asked if there was any chance of my baby developing a skull and brain later in the pregnancy. He sadly shook his head and said no. In a word, I was devastated. Utterly heartbroken that my tiny darling would not survive outside of my body. I had gotten so attached already. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to the what ifs and the hopes and dreams I’d already built up for us in my head. I already knew for sure that we were going to dance in meadows to Van Morrison, hike every mountain in North Georgia, fill empty vintage glass bottles with wildflowers and read for hours under big oak trees.
An appointment was made for me the following morning at Athens Regional. My mother accompanied me. I was given a heavy dose of a variety of drugs, including something to make my body go into early labor. Very early labor. We started that process at 8 a.m. on a Friday. The more pain I felt, the more drugs went into my IV. They didn’t have to worry about harming my child. He wasn’t going to make it.
The next day around lunch I finally was dilated enough to start pushing. I have zero recollection if my water ever broke or if I was 10 cm dilated. Either they don’t tell you these things when your baby is going to die or I just can’t reach that corner of my memory. So I can’t share those details with you here and now. What I can tell you is that I pushed. I sweated. I gripped my mother’s hand so hard I thought I was going to break it. I was in full-on labor.
With one final push, Dr. Desai was able to pull my baby out, look at me with sweet big brown eyes and tell me that I had had a boy. My son was taken to a table in the room where he was cleaned up for me while I delivered the placenta.
Then the nurses brought me Benjamin Matthew, swaddled with care. So teeny tiny was he. My darling boy weighed in at 3.2 ounces, and he was 6-and-a-half inches long. He had a tiny button nose, and was, quite factually, light as air.
I pulled him in tight and with tears in my eyes, I whispered into his ultra soft pink skin, “I love you, Benjamin.”
The hospital minister, a man I knew from my church with bright blue eyes and a kind smile, came by at my request, and prayed with me and Benjamin. Then he baptized my son, who was wearing a teeny tiny white baptismal gown made by ladies from the community. It was tied with a silky white ribbon on the back, and I still have it in Benjamin’s box. It’s lightly pink around the neck, where some of his blood had rubbed.
My father cradled my son and posed for photos. Neither of us realizing that he would not be alive the next time I gave birth. Two of my grandmothers, both my mother’s stepmother and my stepfather’s mother, were there to pay their respects. My father’s mother called me from New Jersey to tell me she loved me and to tell me a tragic story about a baby she’d lost in childbirth in the 1940s, who was thrown into a trashcan right in front of her. She was glad that my experience was so full of love, all things considered.
I have a lot of regrets in my life, and two of them occurred on that day. First, that when they asked me if I wanted time alone with Benjamin, I said no. I was 18, stupid, and I didn’t know what else to say. Oh, if I could have those moments back. I would have so much to share with my darling first born. My second regret is not having him buried or at least getting him cremated. I didn’t have a dime to my name, and it was free to have him cremated by the hospital, but I wouldn’t get the ashes back. I felt like I’d already put my parents through hell, and I didn’t want to ask for any more assistance. So I gave the hospital permission to cremate him.
The hospital nurses heaped upon me literature to read that emphasized embracing your child as a real child, no matter how undeveloped or sick she was, to make sure to name him and to find comfort that God would hold him in His arms for you.
No matter where I float in my spiritual journey as a sometimes atheist and sometimes devout believer in something greater, I always find comfort in the idea that someone up above has my darling little son in their arms.
Every year on October 12, I light a candle for my son who I lost. No matter what circumstances he was created under, he was real and he was loved.