By Sara Tickanen
The apartment felt empty.
It wasn’t that it was empty, per say. It was that any items that spoke of babies had been removed. There was no Winnie the Pooh wallpaper. No toys. No onesies. No crib. Gone.
It was my condition for coming home.
There were, however, brownies: three pans of them. Their pans lined the breakfast bar side by silver side, as if their mere presence could replace what had been lost. Apparently, it was now a custom in America to bring brownies when somebody died. Who knew? What people didn’t understand was that no amount of gooey chocolate was ever going to bring my baby back. It would be better if they stopped trying.
But trying to stop the memories was like trying to stop a torrent of rain—impossible.
Four in the morning, two days earlier.
There was something wrapped around my arm that felt heavy and completely out of the ordinary. I opened my eyes, but the Ambien they had pumped into me turned everything into a strange purple haze.
“Sorry,” said the nurse, removing a blood pressure cuff I didn’t remember her putting on. “I was trying to be careful.”
I closed my eyes. Sleeping was easier.
“We need to talk about something anyway.”
Curse her; real world be damned. I opened my eyes again.
She asked if we wanted to do an autopsy. I heard the words, and I understood the words at their basic level, but I couldn’t wrap myself around them. An autopsy. Crap. It was too much. I opened my mouth to answer, but no sound would come out.
An autopsy was what you did when somebody died.
I looked across the room. Max—the husband—wasn’t awake. This was on me; we’d put it off as long as we could. I shook my head vehemently.
You can’t cut him up. Not my son.
Max looked at the stick in my hand and then back at me.
I shook my head and leaned against the doorframe, slapping the test against my hand. I was three months along. Max was right; it was way sooner than we thought we could get pregnant.
“Yes,” I said back. I didn’t think it would happen this quickly either.
“Our marriage isn’t great to begin with. I don’t really know that this will fix that. I don’t know.”
“You don’t want this.” It wasn’t a question.
“Do you? Want this?”
I couldn’t show him how much I did, indeed, want this. This was a baby. Not a thing. I felt a deep bond already, like the baby belonged to only me. I nodded; silence was the only way I could hold back my emotions.
“Are we ready for this?”
“Who’s ever ready to have a baby?”
Max got up, his eyes locked on mine. His hand slammed into the wall next to my head, and I shrank back. He had just missed, but that was intentional; he was in control and he wanted me to know. “Might be better if it hadn’t happened. If you’d never gotten pregnant at all.”
It. It was a person. I bit the inside of my cheek, trying not to cry. I put my hand over my belly to shield our baby from the harsh words. “The baby can hear you. What if something happens?”
He turned back to his computer, signaling the end of the conversation. I left his office, went to the bathroom, and turned the shower on full blast. And then I cried.
“Do you want to take a shower?”
The question came from yet another nurse.
Did I want to take a shower? What a ridiculous question. I wanted to curl up in a ball and die. Who needs a shower when they’re about to die? I was going in the ground, in the dirt. I didn’t need to be clean for that. I didn’t need anything at all.
I waited while she buzzed around the room with annoying quickness, gathering up all of the needed supplies. There was a chair in the shower if I wanted to sit down. And there was the chain I should pull if I had an emergency while in the shower. There was the hamper where my dirty clothes would go. And there were my new clothes, including new underwear and a giant pad that looked like an adult diaper.
The week before, I was sitting in my car under the church awning after my baby shower, eating a gooey double chocolate brownie and letting my sister and everyone else load up the diapers and other baby goodies into the backseat. The bounty was piled so high that I couldn’t see, and I prayed that I wouldn’t hit anything as I backed the car up into a close parking spot to park while I said goodbye. My friends struggled out the door with fistfuls of balloons, determined to shove them into my backseat with all the other gifts. The balloons were the most adorable things I had ever seen, red and gold with intricate depictions of Winnie the Pooh to match our nursery theme.
I waved my hand to dismiss the balloons; there was no room for them at home. My sister pulled nail scissors out of her purse and clipped the strings, and we watched the balloons sail into the sky. I wondered offhandedly where they might be going. Did balloons fly up to heaven and get stuck there? When we die, are there balloons? Do we see them up in heaven? Too many questions.
It was earlier; time was out of order.
My head was out of order.
There were too many questions: did I have allergies, did I have this, did I have that, did I want hospital clergy, did I want family? I tuned it all out; I couldn’t focus. The day was not what I had expected it to be.
I called the husband that day from the OB appointment, and he hadn’t been happy to be disturbed while in his sound engineering studio. But I hadn’t had a choice. One minute I was going in for an ultrasound, and everything was fine.
The next, I learned that my baby’s heart was no longer beating.
There had been no easy way to tell Max. When he showed up at the hospital, he wasn’t speaking to me. I didn’t know why. Granted, I wasn’t speaking either, to anyone. I hadn’t uttered a single word since the phone call. What was the point?
The nurse was giving me a lecture on pain medication, but I wasn’t paying attention. I wasn’t in labor. Almost. But not quite. She kept insisting that the medication would make me sick without food. Pointing at the menu, she offered to get me something to eat. I looked at the menu, and I wanted to spit on it. People in hospitals weren’t happy, and they certainly weren’t looking for up and coming cuisine. I pointed to a salad and almost threw the menu back at her.
Our son was dead.
Our son was dead, but I still had to go through labor.
Salad came. The lettuce was wilted and sad. I felt sick. I pushed the tray so that it spun out away from the bed, grabbing my phone to play with so that I wouldn’t have to look at the disgusting normalcy that was food.
The nurse was still talking, but I hadn’t heard a word. “The pill that they put inside of you is basically telling your body that it’s time to go into labor. Your water should probably break soon, but if it doesn’t they will break it manually. Things will progress like normal labor.”
Pill? What pill? And normal labor? Nothing here was normal. I should have paid better attention. I was so stupid.
Our son was dead, but I still had to go through labor.
When Max said to wait on the labor and delivery class, I listened. Now look where I was. I didn’t know what to do. Labor. Having a baby. Jesus. I didn’t even take the class. It was my fault; I was unprepared. The husband wasn’t going to help me. He never did.
Maybe they were wrong. Maybe the baby was still okay in there, and they just couldn’t find him. Maybe it was really important for me to know what to do; everyone else was certain he would be born dead, but I was certain he had to be alive. I was the only one who knew.
It seemed really important to know what to do. Otherwise, what good was I?
It was worthless, all of it. So worthless. The contractions were getting closer together— labor was full on, but nothing good was going to come of any of it. I bit down so hard on my lip that the sharp, metallic taste of blood flooded my mouth. Minutes turned into hours. People came in and out. Everything inside me was numb, physically and emotionally, and not from the epidural. There was a television show playing, something about naughty dogs and a woman who was training them towards becoming good doggy citizens.
Max was pecking away at the keys on his laptop, typing quickly. Like little chickens attacking their food. I could almost picture the little chicken heads on his fingers, a side effect of the medication coursing through my system. They pecked away, and the unwanted food delivered by the nurse taunted me from where it had been abandoned on the bedside table. I grabbed the plate and threw the entire thing against the wall; it shattered into an infinite number of pieces and the salad scattered everywhere.
The husband didn’t respond.
“Holy cow. Your baby is coming right now.” The nurse was nameless, faceless. The world was whitewashed.
The head was out. His head.
The husband didn’t respond. He never responded.
“I’m so sorry you had to see that.” Nameless told the husband as she helped him sit in a cheap plastic chair. She was hitting buttons on the wall, making everything light up. The room filled with people; they were magic people summoning light-up buttons. I couldn’t think clearly enough to understand what she was doing. Things were happening too fast.
Twenty two hours of labor ended in minutes. There was a flurry of activity at the foot of the bed, and the doctor was holding something in his hands. “Cut it,” he told Nameless.
The cord. Cut the cord. Wasn’t the husband supposed to do that? Where was he? There were too many questions. Did I want to hold the baby? I did. But I wasn’t sure that the words had actually come out of my mouth until the baby was in my arms. He was wrapped up in a blue-for-boy blanket. As Nameless placed him in my arms, I was worried that I wouldn’t know what to do, but when he was settled against my chest it all seemed to come naturally. There was no movement, no breathing no crying. His eyes were closed, and he was really gone. Unnatural.
The room emptied. I lowered my head down until my face was almost buried in the baby, filling myself with his scent. He was still warm; it was almost like he was there, almost like he was alive. I stayed that way until Nameless came back. She had a camera, even though I hadn’t really wanted pictures.
His hands; I had to see his hands. I asked her to help me with the blanket, to help me see his hands, but I again wasn’t sure the words had actually come out until she peeled the blanket back. His fingers were tiny and closed, and one of mine filled his entire fist. His were long though—good cello fingers, or piano—just like mine.
The husband brought the in-laws, and they passed the baby around like some sort of disturbing prize. The numbness was so encompassing that I didn’t realize I was crying until I couldn’t breathe. They were passing him back and forth, and it was totally irrational, but I was afraid that he was going to be scared or cold without me. I just wanted him back in my arms.
His fingers were tiny and closed, and one of mine filled his entire fist. His were long though—good cello fingers, or piano—like mine.
He was mine. His fingers, and every part of him. Mine.
When I finally had him back, I held him for several minutes, my face pressed against his tiny body. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. He wasn’t breathing; I wasn’t breathing. He was mine; he was me; I was his. He was dead. I was dead.
I wanted time to stop so that I could stay always in that moment, my face hidden in his blanket. But I knew that couldn’t happen. I knew they had to take him then, or I would never let him go.
I would never see him again.
My son was dead.
It wasn’t how I thought I’d be bringing our son home. Dead. Who thinks that that’s going to happen to them? I don’t think any parent does. Doctors and nurses said goodbye to us as we prepared to leave the hospital. Friends sent us well wishes.
The day was full of “I’m sorry.”
“I don’t know what to say.”
“It’ll be okay.”
I wanted to smack someone in the face. And not just one someone. I wanted to smack them all, every last one of them, just to punish them for their happiness.
The valets drove cars in and out of the circular hospital driveway, running back and forth between cars and the hospital entrance. I clutched the box in my hands. It was his life, all that he had of it. Pictures. His outfit. A lock of hair. His entire life fit into one tiny shoebox, and it didn’t seem right. It wasn’t fair.
There was no way I could go home. Not without him
I can’t. Just. Can’t.
Apparently, it was now a custom in America to bring brownies when somebody died. Who knew?
The box sat on the kitchen counter, right where I had placed it when we got home the day before. There really wasn’t an appropriate place to keep the remains of a life other than next to the brownies. Those damn brownies. The pans were multiplying, and we would never eat them all. They should be donated, given away. When someone dies, you donate their things.
I was dying. I needed to donate my brownies.
Until the brownies left my sight, they were nothing more than memories of his death. Chocolate reminders. I stacked them one on top of the other in the fridge.
From what the nurses told me, when a baby dies, it doesn’t go to the morgue. They store it in a fridge before it is taken to the crematorium. A small empty, food-less fridge, like the ordinary kind you would find in a kitchen. With wire racks and white walls.
I don’t know why they told me that; it isn’t fair. Now, whenever I open a fridge, I wonder.
I wonder if he was cold there.
Author’s Note: During a pivotal Creative Nonfiction course at University of Wisconsin, Parkside, my undergraduate writing professor, Nick, gave us an assignment: we were to go to the student art galleries, find something that inspired us, and write about it. I chose a work called “Bits and Pieces.” It was constructed using bits of found wood, all rearranged and spliced together to form something that resembled a house when you studied closely. It’s really easy to just look at something and take it for face value, but if you take into account each individual piece, you gain a completely different picture. The art was a perfect parallel to the disconnection that occurs when someone we love dies, and my notes eventually evolved into this essay—a way to honor my son.
Sara Tickanen is a graduate student at The New School, earning her MFA in Creative Nonfiction. Her work has appeared in various publications, including The Rectangle and Gravel. She currently resides in New York with her cat, Polly, who helps craft every essay by draping herself across the computer keyboard.
Artwork by Mary F. Reilly-Riddlebarger.