I could hear murmurs, voices, waves of light, darkness, fading in fading out. Weird pains, pressure, cold. “Anna Maria, Anna Maria.” Someone was calling me, I have no idea if I answered, I have no clue who I talked to. At one point, my sister was on the phone. “I don’t want to talk about the baby,” I said. I don’t remember much else. I wasn’t sure about the baby. I know what they had said, with all of these people around me, I imagined it must be true. I didn’t fully understand what had happened. I didn’t understand that I too was very, very sick. In fact they had lost me, and brought me back. Days had passed and I was in the ICU. The specialists would soon realize that I had HELLP syndrome, a rare complication of pregnancy that can be fatal. In fact, my son Giacomo had died shortly after he was born.
Giacomo was the world’s most desired baby. I have often said that the preceding ten years of my life were a preamble to Giacomo. Everything I had done, every choice I made during that time was with the intention of finally becoming a mother and having him. I was a midwife, and in love with motherhood. Young girls of my generation were told to dream about their weddings, but I always dreamed about my births. I had dedicated my life to maternal health. I had lived in 6 countries and worked in 10 more, spending most of my reproductive years working with other women’s reproductive processes. But I always knew my turn would come.
That said, the road to Giacomo had been full of tests. I had walked away from a pending marriage because my partner wasn’t sure if or when he would want kids. I had changed jobs to travel less. I had even changed countries, because in Italy a woman can’t legally get in-vitro if she is unpartnered. With each of these steps, I shed a lot of tears and faced a lot of criticism. But I never really felt I had any other choice. The pull towards motherhood was bigger than me. And so there I was, alone but supported by friends and family, excited and scared and ready. It felt right, the time was right for Giacomo.
Ironically, weeks before my transfer (the day the embryo is placed), I met someone. He was lovely, but I was about to become a single mother so I decided we should break up. Much to my surprise, he didn’t want to be broken up with. He accepted my choice, accepted that my embryos were formed and ready for me and thought maybe we should just see how things went. He wasn’t making any unkeepable promises, but why end it all? “Plus,” he said, “it may take months or years for it to work. Who knows how many tries it will take?”
It took one try. Three weeks later I was pregnant. I had never been so happy. And the magic continued. I had an incredibly easy pregnancy, my family and friends were elated for me, and while my relationship was untraditional, it was working.
But suddenly, my film came to a screeching halt. Giacomo was gone and I was on dialysis, unrecognizably bloated from copious blood transfusions. Those days in the hospital were endless and confusing. My being alive was a miracle. In my unconscious state, I had wanted to live and had fought against the odds to be here. As I rejoined the conscious world, I would continue to have episodes where I felt afraid I would die. In my darkest moments, I would remind myself that I had chosen to come back. If I was afraid, it was because something in me wanted to be here. Still, I wasn’t sure how he could be gone if I was here. It was impossibly painful to accept that he could not come back, too. What was most shocking about those days was the nothingness. I had no idea where I was supposed to redirect my thoughts. I didn’t understand how the rest of the world could continue outside of my hospital room even though Giacomo was gone. How was it possible that their world hadn´t stopped as well? How could the doctors and nurses be happy about my normal blood pressure, or my kidneys slowly coming back? My son was gone. What was wrong with these people? I felt guilt for having survived when he hadn’t. A close friend would bring me food every evening. She’d ask what I wanted to eat. In the nothingness that surrounded me, I didn’t even know if I wanted to eat. But I did eat, and I did get better. In weeks, I was home. Home to respond to the calls, texts and emails that I had been protected from. Some people had condolences, some people knew nothing and just wanted know when they could meet Giacomo.
It was August in Spain, which means almost everything stops for vacation. I had been set up with grief therapy, but that would not begin until September. I was left to my own devices. Left to face life and I really was not ready. I was annoyed with the people who voiced that they were glad I was alive and I felt horrible for being so annoyed.
It is impossible to know what to say when a baby dies. It is normal to inadvertently say the wrong thing. I joked that I was going to make a list of the 25 most wrong things, because well-meaning people really did say some shocking things. By far the worst was when I was told that it was better that Giacomo died right away – before I could become too attached him. That comment sent me off on weeks of mind games regarding how long would he have had to survive for me to deserve to feel attached, to deserve to feel… like a mother? This feeling was made worse by the (now changed) Spanish law that considered any baby that lived less than 24 hours to be a miscarriage. When he died they threw away the birth certificate they had started for Giacomo. He hadn’t lived long enough to earn a death certificate, or to be entered into my legal “libro de familia” (family book). To this day, my hospital record does not reflect his birth. I felt ashamed and sad. Even if he was here for only an hour, how could this most precious person not count?
The man I had become involved with just before my pregnancy continued with me. He had been amazing and had stepped up as though Giacomo was his own when they weren’t sure I would make it. He dedicated himself fully to my recovery, in an exceptional show of love and strength. I felt guilty for all the pain I had brought him. We were both traumatized, and I was completely incapable of comforting anyone. Today I see that his pain was not fully recognized by me, by the therapists or by friends and family. I have come to understand this is regrettably common with the partner in these situations.
I read and reread the journal that I had begun for Giacomo. I had written him starting the night before in-vitro. Throughout the pregnancy I would write him funny anecdotes, pearls of wisdom, motivational messages, stories that I was afraid I would forget to tell him and reflections on how he came to be. I imagined giving him the book when he was older, maybe as a teen when he had questions about his origins. How was it even possible that he would never read this book? What was I supposed to do with all of the love I had for this person? Where was I supposed to put all of the mothering I still had inside me? I couldn’t just pack it into boxes like I had his baby clothes or the crib that I carefully deconstructed just weeks after putting it together.
My only solace was reading books and articles by women who had lost babies. Their pain matched mine. They knew what to say. They knew how crazy and wrong this was. I wanted to hear their stories, the only thing they had left of their children. I wanted to remember and honor their children and needed so badly to figure out how to honor mine. Additionally, people who write books seem to feel obligated to end on a note of hope. Even if the books fell short of having happy endings, they led me to believe that at some point these women did feel happiness again. At some point, maybe I would as well.
And I do. It has been over two years and I do and have felt happiness again. It is not the same innocent happiness I felt before. It is a happiness that comes from somewhere deeper, and I admit it is tinged with longing. But I somehow did survive and I do try to make it count. I think if Giacomo can see me from somewhere, he would probably rather see me happy. Grief is a process and it may never really go away. I still dream about what happened. I go back in my head, I blame myself, I cry, and I still feel nervous when I see toddlers his age, especially little boys. It is normal, and with time the pain gets wrapped in a pillow. Some days the pillow provides good cushioning, and some days it needs re-plumping.
I have not found my way to “everything happens for a reason” and I hate when people tell me that if Giacomo had survived I would not have the baby girl I have now. That sort of “Sophie’s Choice” logic frustrates and angers me. I have never found a “good” reason for what happened, and my children are not an “either or” scenario. But I have chosen to learn things from losing Giacomo. He is not physically here, but I have tried to make sure he is present in every way I can. I have pictures of him in my home. I am not afraid to talk in plural about “my pregnancies” and “having kids.” When people ask how many I have I say “I have a son who died and I have a daughter.” I am matter of fact and transparent. I don’t want to make people uncomfortable and I am not looking for sympathy, but I try not to omit him for anyone else’s comfort. In our house his birthday is celebrated as “International Giacomo Day;” on July 12, everyone gets gifts. I know other moms like me may choose to be more private about their losses and I think that is perfect. There is no right way to handle this. Giacomo was my long-awaited first baby and that period of my life felt heaven sent. I sometimes read the journal that I wrote for him and I let myself go back and try to recapture all of the excitement and love that filled me when I first wrote it. It is bitter-sweet, but it makes me happy to think that he was there experiencing the anticipation and gratitude that I felt, hearing me laugh at my own jokes as I wrote him and sensing that I had a life full of love planned for him.
AM Speciale is a former midwife, now dedicated to working in international reproductive health in Sub-Saharan Africa. She has degrees in midwifery, epidemiology, a PhD in demography and has been published in several clinical journals. She is currently studying counseling so that she may serve as a greater resource to women facing infertility and perinatal grief. She spends her spare time traveling, writing and having very long mediterranean lunches with family and friends. She is a mother to angel baby Giacomo, a preemie rainbow baby Gioia and a not-so-evil stepmother to a Tik-Toking tween named Claudia. She currently resides in Barcelona, Spain.
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