Mom to Alana
Stillborn October 4, 2013
Katonah, New York
Source: Faces of Loss
Alana Marie Banerjee was born on October 4th, 2013 at 2:21 a.m. – 6 lbs 8 oz of pure joy for me and her father. At 20 inches long, she was a tall baby, with long skinny legs, slender fingers with perfect miniature nails, and big soft feet with all the requisite toes. She had her father’s nose and ears and eyelashes, my lips and eyebrows, the softest skin I’ve ever felt, and a full head of silky black hair. There was only one thing wrong with this storybook ending; following nine months of a perfectly healthy and blissful pregnancy, our daughter was born dead.
Alana died at 39 weeks 5 days, just two days short of her due date. Up until the moment the nurse couldn’t find a heartbeat, she’d been healthy and strong. The doctors had called her fetal monitor read-outs “textbook.” She’d been active and lively, rolling around in my belly, suffering adorable bouts of in-utero hiccups (often more than once a day) for weeks. She’d passed every prenatal test with flying colors. There was never a cause for concern – never a single warning sign. Until, all of a sudden, she was gone.
The story of Alana’s birth begins at my 39-week checkup. It was a Tuesday afternoon, and I went in to my doctor’s office for routine monitoring as I had been every week for the past month or so. Even though my pregnancy had been trouble-free, my doctors liked to play it safe – all patients are asked to come in weekly the last several weeks of the pregnancy for external fetal monitoring and a quick internal exam. I sat down in the chair and the nurse strapped the belts over my tummy, and just as it had at every other visit, Alana’s heartbeat sounded clear and strong over the speaker. I settled in for the next 20 minutes, basking in the glorious sound of my daughter’s little heart plugging away and clicking the button every time I felt her move, which was often. Everything was as it should be – I couldn’t have been more relaxed if I tried.
When I was finished, the doctor came in to check my print-out. “Perfect,” she said. “This is exactly what we want to see. She sounds like a little athlete in there – strong heartbeat, strong movement. Textbook. You’re doing great.” I beamed with pride. Not even out of the womb, and already my little girl was an overachiever.
If I’d known what was to come, I never would have left that office that afternoon. I would have sat back down in that monitoring chair and refused to get up, would have counted every heartbeat and every kick until I noticed something amiss and made them take that baby out right then and there. But I didn’t know, and neither did they. In only 48 hours, we were all to be blindsided.
I went home and spent a normal evening with my husband. As usual, when I lay down that night I felt lots of movement in my tummy – Alana was always active at bedtime. However, this time it felt a little different, like waves rolling downward through my abdomen. It wasn’t painful in any way, and I took it to be Braxton-Hicks contractions which up to this point in my pregnancy I’d never felt before. They happened every 10 minutes or so for about an hour, until I got up to use the bathroom, and then they stopped. I was excited – my body was getting ready for show time, and Alana would be here soon. I couldn’t wait. I fell asleep with a smile plastered on my face.
The next day is a bit of a blur. I’d like to say I remember feeling Alana kick all day long, but to be honest, I’m not really sure. I wasn’t paying close attention – I was just trying to keep myself busy with small projects around the house to make the day pass faster. It wasn’t until dinner time that night that I distinctly remember a change. Contractions had started – real contractions, ones that felt like menstrual cramps and were coming in a steady rhythm for the rest of the evening. I thought maybe when I lay down for bed they might go away, but they didn’t. They continued the whole night through, coming closer and closer together and getting stronger and stronger. I slept in 5-10 minute bursts that night and most of the next day, breathing through the contractions as they increased from menstrual-cramp-level pain to diarrhea-level pain to food-poisoning-in-the-back-
After almost 24 hours of this, I was sure it was for real. Intuitively, I still felt like we had a long road ahead of us before it was time to go to the hospital, but around 5 o’clock I decided to give the doctor’s office a call before they closed, just to let them know we might be coming in later that night or early the next morning. They asked a bunch of routine questions. “How far apart are your contractions?” “How long have you been in labor?” “When’s the last time you felt the baby move?”
That last one stumped me. “Well…” I thought back, “I’m not really sure. I’ve been feeling a lot of movement all day long, but I’m having trouble telling what’s the contraction and what’s the baby. I’m pretty sure she moved fairly recently, though.”
The nurse paused for a second. “Okay, let me check with the doctors.” She put me on hold and came back a few seconds later with a report from Linda, one of the midwives at the practice who was on call that night. “Linda thinks you should come in and let us just check.”
I groaned. I really did not want to go to the hospital too early. As I knew from a stack of reading and hours of Bradley Method training, the only thing they can do for you at the hospital is give you something for the pain or catch your baby. I knew I didn’t want any medication, and I knew my baby wasn’t ready to come out yet, so what was the point in going to the hospital? Plus, I lived 20+ minutes away and didn’t really want to spend an hour in the car going back and forth for no reason. I felt perfectly fine. I was sure the baby was perfectly fine. It wasn’t time for the hospital yet.
I tried to explain this to the nurse, and she put Linda on the phone. “Samantha, I really think you should come in, just to be safe.”
I proposed a compromise – how about if I monitored her movement more closely for a while and came in if it didn’t feel like enough? Linda reluctantly agreed – I was to drink 16 ounces of juice, lie on my side for an hour, and if I felt less than 10 kicks, come in right away. That sounded perfectly reasonable to me.
I choked down the closest thing we had to juice – cranberry lemonade – and lay down on my side. Then I counted. At 45 minutes, I’d tallied four possible movements, but all were during contractions, and none were definitely kicks. That’s when I started to get worried.
I sent my husband, Sudeep, upstairs to finish packing the hospital bag and then we headed for the car. I’ll never forget our cat Gio’s face as we left, looking up at me from his bed. I was trying to explain to him where we were going, and that either we or his grandma would be back for him later that night. I assured him everything would be okay. But he knew – somehow, he already knew – that everything would not be okay. I could see it in his eyes. He just didn’t know how to tell us.
I burst into tears as I crossed the threshold into the garage and climbed into the passenger seat, stuffing a pillow behind my lower back. Deep did his best to reassure me. “Everything’s going to be fine,” he insisted, pulling out of the driveway. I was crying because I thought my worst fear was about to come true – that I’d be rushed into an emergency C-section, and my plans for a natural birth would go right out the window.
What I wouldn’t give now for that to have been the case.
As we sat down in the monitoring room, I grabbed Deep’s hand and smiled, sure that in a moment, Alana’s heartbeat was going to come blaring through those speakers as usual and we’d go home to finish my labor in peace. False alarm. Sigh of relief.
The nurse strapped the first belt on, the top one that monitors contractions. Then she squirted the jelly onto the second strap, and I pointed to the spot on my belly where they’d always found her heartbeat in previous sessions. She placed the sensor onto my tummy.
…And nothing happened.
“Hmm…” she said, sliding the sensor around. “She must have moved.”
Oh, crap, I thought. She’s breech! How could she turn around NOW after being head down for the past three weeks??
The nurse tried moving the sensor to the top of my belly. Still nothing.
For another agonizing minute, she continued to search, smearing the cold, slick jelly across my entire abdomen. “One second, let me just get the doctor…” She shuffled quickly out of the room and closed the door behind her.
I knew at this moment that something was seriously wrong. I just looked at Deep, and he just looked at me, squeezing my hand. The silence rang in our ears like a warning siren.
The midwife, Linda, came in, the nurse trailing behind her.
Linda tried her luck with the sensor on a few quick spots on my belly, but still, the monitor was silent. “Forget this,” she said, the apprehension just barely creeping into her voice. “Let’s get on the ultrasound.”
We all got up and walked briskly down the hallway to the ultrasound room. I lay back on the table, the technician lubing my belly up with more goop, this time heated just a little too hot for comfort. It stung a bit, but the pain barely registered – all I could hear was my own heartbeat in my ears, my eyes glued to the screen as my fingers clutched for Deep’s.
Shouldn’t there be some movement in that line at the bottom of the screen? I thought. Come on, move, I urged. MOVE!!!
But it didn’t. The screen was still. Everything was still.
Finally, Linda spoke. Her voice soft, she took my hands and Deep’s in hers, and said the words that by now we should have realized were coming but were still frantically trying to push out of our minds.
“I’m so sorry,” she breathed. “There’s no heartbeat. She’s gone.”
You know how they say that in a crisis, time slows down? In the matter of a few ragged breaths, it’s as if the whole world freezes, but you’re somehow not a part of it anymore – everything is muffled, distant, restrained, as if the air has suddenly congealed. You look up, and everything is shattered, the sky is falling down around you, and yet somehow, instead of panicking, instead of screaming and fighting and ducking for cover, you just watch. You watch like a cool, impartial observer as life as you knew it ends, and something horrible and sick and cold takes its place.
It was like that.
I heard Deep cry, “No,” his voice breaking, his tears spilling onto my shoulder as he immediately grasped at the facts. I heard Linda explaining calmly that if there was anything at all they could do, I’d be on an operating table already, that we wouldn’t be standing around talking about it. I saw the technician turn away, her hand raised to hide the water that pricked at her eyes and flowed down onto her cheeks.
But I felt nothing. I was numb.
My baby girl was dead, and it was already too late – there was nothing I could do to bring her back.
And then it got worse: Linda went on to explain that I’d have to deliver the baby.
Deep was openly horrified, aghast. I just continued to shut down. I yearned for an escape from this nightmare. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I thought, maybe they can just knock me out and remove the baby, and then I can wake up and this can all be over.
Linda must have seen it in my eyes, because she said then, “We can perform a C-section, but I’d strongly urge you to deliver naturally. It will be much healthier for your recovery and for your future pregnancies.”
I nodded my head. I must have been terrified somewhere in my heart, but in this moment it was more of a detached, analytical terror. Like, what will it feel like to deliver a dead baby? Will they expect me to hold her? Will I even want to look at her? And then my mind turned to more practical matters. We have to tell our parents. They’ll want to come here, but it’s late, and they’re going to be upset – what if they get in an accident? What if the news gives my grandma a heart attack? How will my brothers react? Someone has to go pick up Gio.
I wondered if I was weird, for reacting this way. Shouldn’t I have wailed? Shouldn’t I have cursed God? Shouldn’t I be crying at the least? But the tears wouldn’t come. Not yet.
First, I had something I needed to do: I needed to deliver my baby.
Having a mission – a purpose – helped. Maybe I couldn’t feel, but I could act. I realized then that I needed to give my daughter the birth she deserved, the one I’d been training for the past nine months. There wasn’t time now to be scared, or sad, or angry – I just needed to be strong. For her, for Deep, for our families – because if I wasn’t okay, no one would be. So I made myself okay. For now.
Linda checked my cervix. I was two centimeters dilated, and definitely in labor. She said if we wanted some time, we could go home and wait – she was sure I’d deliver naturally in a day or two. Or we could go down to the birthing wing now, and she could give me some Pitocin to increase my contractions, and we could be done by morning.
I opted for door number two. Let’s get this over with, I thought. And then I was ashamed for being callous, even in my own head. Your baby is dead inside of you, I admonished myself, why can’t you even cry??
But I’d morphed into a robot, my mind spinning with logistics and questions, no room left for emotion.
Okay, let’s make a plan. First, we need to call my parents. I’ll ask them to bring Gio to their house, then come to the hospital. That should take about 40 minutes. In the meantime, we need to call Deep’s parents. Wow, these contractions are starting to hurt. I wonder if I can get an epidural… I don’t need to worry about harming the baby now, right? What is this even called, what’s happening to us? Stillbirth? Is that still a thing? I didn’t think that happened anymore. Why would her heart just stop? Why??
Again, Linda seemed to read my mind, or maybe Deep had asked – I’m not sure. She explained that maybe it was a cord accident, that it might have gotten wrapped around her neck or developed a kink. We wouldn’t know until I delivered.
Okay, I reasoned, let’s get this baby out and then maybe we’ll get some answers. And deep in the recesses of my mind, a tiny beacon of hope sparkled through the barren, mechanical darkness I’d descended into. Maybe there won’t be anything wrong with her at all – maybe this is all just a big mistake. Let’s just get this baby here and we’ll see.
Linda moved us to a quiet office where we could call our parents. Everyone was in disbelief. “That’s impossible,” my mom kept saying. “That’s impossible.” “I know,” was all I could respond.
Eventually Linda walked us down to the birthing center in the hospital. The nurses had been apprised of the situation, and they were waiting for us. Everything was quiet, hushed. The wing was mostly empty – only one or two other mothers in labor – but they found us a room in a far corner where we wouldn’t be disturbed. My parents arrived. We all hugged. I was still too dazed to cry.
The next part of the night lasted about four hours, but felt like it went by much more quickly. We didn’t really sleep, but Deep and I lay beside each other in the dark, and we talked. We talked about how we couldn’t believe this was happening, how much we loved each other, how lucky we were to have everything we have, even if we couldn’t have our daughter. We were surprisingly positive and clear-headed and calm. Finally, at one point, I cried a bit – for the future we’d planned, for everything we’d lost, for the baby girl I’d been so looking forward to holding in my arms and was now afraid to even see. Embarrassingly, my crying sent my vital signs monitor into a tizzy, alarm bells ringing in every direction. I calmed down.
And then, suddenly, I felt the urge to push.
I felt like the pushing flew by. Deep and Nurse Carol and Linda supported me, encouraging me, helping me get comfortable in between contractions, suggesting different positions to ease the pain when my epidural started to wear off. After what seemed like only 10 contractions or so, they started exclaiming with joy as the baby finally came into view. “She has black hair!” I remember someone calling out brightly.
I’d expected this part to be a nightmare, knowing in advance that our baby wasn’t going to make it. I’d expected terrifying. I’d expected somber. I’d expected heartbreak. I’d at the very least expected hard work and physical exhaustion.
But what I didn’t expect was joy. I didn’t expect to feel focused and strong and confident as I brought my baby into this world. I didn’t expect unadulterated wonder and appreciation and awe at the tiny little miracle my body had produced.
I certainly didn’t expect that my baby girl would come out warm and soft and glowing, looking like a perfect sleeping little angel. That her face would so much resemble her father that it would take my breath away. That my heart would immediately burst with love for every inch of her flawless little body, as devastatingly still as it was.
It turned out Alana’s birth wasn’t a nightmare at all – it was beautiful. It felt right, everything I’d hoped for.
Everything except the fact that she hadn’t taken her first breath, and never would.
So we told her we loved her. We gave her grandparents a chance to hold her. And then we said goodbye.
We left the hospital the next evening for my parents’ house. Walking out those doors with empty arms was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. And the empty car seat in the backseat was a grim reminder of everything we’d lost. Amazingly, it’s only been 24 hours since we’d arrived at the hospital the evening before. It felt like a lifetime.
We spent the next few days surrounded by family and friends, everyone grieving together. We finally delivered the surprise that we’d been safeguarding for months, that we’d chosen to give Alana the middle name Marie, after my grandma who we love so much – of course, Grandma Re was honored. We were amazed at how much we managed to smile and laugh in between the tears and heartache. Everyone pulled together – Deep and I, our parents, our brothers, all our cousins and aunts and uncles. Everyone united in our shared misery. This family had been dealt a great blow, but we would get through it, together.
We broke the heartrending news to our friends slowly over the next several days. We contacted the funeral home to make arrangements for Alana’s memorial. We went home and spent the week preparing.
On the night before the memorial, we decided last minute to visit the funeral home and spend a few hours with Alana as we finished up assembling the photo boards for the wake. We couldn’t believe we’d managed to fill three full poster boards with memories. We shared each of them with Alana, told her again how much we loved her and would miss her, stroked that soft, soft skin while we still had the chance. Even a week later, her skin still glowed. It broke our hearts how beautiful she looked, even in death.
The following morning we held a wake, a full Catholic mass, and a burial. My brother, Mikey, delivered a touching eulogy – a testament to how much this little girl meant to all of us, before she’d even had a chance to live – and we buried Alana – perfect in her tiny white casket – in the same plot as my other grandma, in my favorite cemetery in my hometown (where, no kidding, I used to like to play as a kid, much to my own mother’s dismay). We felt very good about everything. It brought us a lot of closure, and gave us an opportunity to honor the person she would have been – the person she was already, to those closest to her.
Some days, this entire pregnancy feels like a dream. A happy dream, filled with hope, that ended in an unthinkable nightmare – but then we woke up, and went back to our lives as they were. It’s an eerie feeling. But the hard truth is that it was not a dream at all.
Everyone keeps asking how we’re doing, and we’re not really sure how to answer that question. “Okay,” we say, or, “We’re hanging in there.” The truth is, the grief comes and goes. Sometimes it’s absolutely, devastatingly crushing, like a mountain of sorrow sitting on my chest, and sometimes it’s surprisingly, mercifully absent. After all, it’s hard not to smile when you’re surrounded by the people you love, even if one of them is conspicuously absent. But the gaping hole in our lives where Alana should be is never far from mind – we can push it to the side, for a time, but eventually it sucks us back in, laughing cruelly as we struggle just to stay afloat of our tears.
We know that it will get easier, eventually. But we also know that it will never be right. We will always be missing something – someone – and there’s nothing that we can do to change that. That’s probably the hardest part. We want so badly to fix this, but there simply is no cure. It’s taking a while for that to really sink in, for us to really come to terms with everything that’s happened. And every time I come to the realization, again, that there’s no way she’s ever coming back, that I really am not going to wake up from this nightmare, that this is now my life… Well, it just hurts all over again. But we just press on – what else can we do?
We’re doing everything we can to remember Alana. We’ve saved all her mementos in a keepsake box in our bedroom. We got those photo boards from the wake laminated, and will share them someday with Alana’s siblings, so they’ll know the story of the big sister who came before them. We planted trees in her honor, and are getting a portrait painted so we can see her smile. I wear a necklace every day with her birthstone, which her father had bought in advance of her birth for me as a gift, hoping that I would someday pass it on to Alana herself. We filled out her baby book, sent out birth announcements – basically did all the things we would have done anyway, because we want to celebrate her life. She brought so much love to us in the short time she was here; we just want to share that love with whomever’s heart is open to receiving it.
I’m still in utter disbelief that this happened to us, that this happens to anyone in this day and age. I had of course worried through the whole pregnancy about the possibility of miscarriage or early delivery – not being able to carry a healthy baby to term was the deepest, darkest fear of the past 28 years of my life. But once we hit full-term at 37 weeks, I’d finally breathed a sigh of relief. No matter what goes wrong now, I told myself, they can take that baby out and she’ll be fine. It still amazes me that with all the reading I did, all the education I have, somehow I managed to overlook the entire possibility of a stillbirth, that I never knew it could happen to me.
The one thing that has brought me the greatest comfort is knowing that in her short life and after her death, I have done everything I could do for my daughter. I had a wonderful, happy pregnancy, I nourished her and loved her from the moment I knew she existed, and now that she is gone, I’ve done everything in my power to honor her memory and cherish the person she was. Of course I question if there’s anything I could have done differently, if I should have known sooner that something was wrong, if I made some kind of terrible mistake – I’m only human, after all. But in the end, I know that these doubts stem from my desperate wish for control, from wanting something or someone to blame, even if it’s myself. But I know in my heart that this was in God’s hands. Try as I might, I cannot control everything.
To Alana, I just want to say I love you. We love you. Your presence is already greatly missed, and will be for the rest of our days. We will never, ever forget you. And we look forward to the day when we can finally hold you again. We love you so, so much, sweet baby girl. Watch over us. Keep your future brothers and sisters safe. And know that you are always in our hearts.
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