The thought, like a broken record, kept playing over and over in his mind: “This is the worst night of my life. It will never be worse than this.”
It was midnight. It had been about seven hours since he’d first heard the news. Their baby was dead. Looking at his wife, lying upon the hospital bed, it seemed hard to believe that the belly which only yesterday held a moving, living, baby boy, now only contained a body waiting to be delivered into the world as a corpse. Why couldn’t they simply remove the baby via cesarean? It seemed particularly cruel to have to go through a prolonged delivery process. For what?
He’d taken the call at the office in the late afternoon. His wife’s voice crying into the phone that something was wrong – horribly wrong. The voices of his co-workers, who knew they were expecting, laughed and cheered behind him as the young father-to-be rushed out the door. His back to them, they did not see the look of panic that gripped his face.
Arriving at the hospital he burst through the double doors of the maternity ward, asking for his wife by name. The faces at the nurse’s station fell in unison. The look of sympathy and the glances that, almost apologetically looked away, seemed to confirm his worst fears.
The doctor was an immigrant, his English broken. His finger hovered over the ultrasound. “See this here? This is the heart. It not beating. I am very sorry for you. These things happen sometime”.
“Why? What happened?” He couldn’t tell if he was whispering, shouting or crying. It sounded as if somebody else were saying the words.
“We don’t know until we see baby”, he said.
“So what happens now?” he asked.
“She will deliver baby.”
“Deliver?”, he asked, not able to believe it. “Can’t you just, you know, cut it out?”
“No”, he said, seeming to suppress a chuckle. “Cesarean is major surgery. We not do that unless necessary. She will deliver”, he said. With that, he left the room.
For the first time, they were alone.
His wife had a look of quiet anguish on her face. They did not speak until he said, “I can’t believe this is happening. What… what happened?”
She spoke softly, the light glinting off her tear-stained cheeks as she said, “When I woke up this morning, something just felt wrong. I couldn’t feel him move. Everything just felt strange. I went to the doctor and he said he couldn’t hear the heartbeat and that I needed to get to the hospital to see if they could hear the heartbeat with better equipment.”
“You drove yourself here?” he asked. He tried to imagine his wife driving in traffic knowing that her baby was probably dead. “Uh huh”, she replied. He stood and brushed her hair aside with his hand. “I love you”, he whispered. “I love you too”, she said.
And so it began. The waiting. He had never experienced anything like it before. This must be what it’s like, he thought, to be on death row the night before one’s execution. Only then, the hour is known.
Minutes seemed to last hours. He imagined himself playing catch with his son. He imagined him again as a young man, adjusting his tuxedo in a mirror before the high school prom. Random thoughts flooded his mind. Stop it! Stop it! STOP IT! And yet, he could not stop. Worse, as painful as the thoughts were, there was almost a perverse, twisted, yet comforting pleasure in the exercise. He knew this was as close as he would get experiencing these events, so, why not wallow in them, no matter the pain?
He looked at his wife. He couldn’t imagine what it must be like for her – her constant companion of these past months, now gone. He felt guilty. He should be talking to her, comforting her, supporting her. He felt as if she were lying there, limbs severed, bleeding to death, and he, missing limbs of his own, was unable to stop the flow.
They should have slept, but neither could. The grief, the unanswered questions wouldn’t allow it. And so, the silent vigil continued until the first signs of a distant dawn began to lighten the ink-black sky.
A doctor, different from yesterday, and a nurse appeared. It was time. As the delivery progressed, he peered down and could see the top of the baby’s head. Bright, overhead lights shone down upon him as the nurse turned to him, saying, “He has your color hair”. Under ordinary circumstances, the comment would have been met with a wink or a laugh. Here, now, the young father wailed a long, deep sob. It was the kind of cry that upon hearing, one hopes to never hear again.
Finally, the baby arrived. The mystery was no more complicated than the umbilical cord wrapped tightly, like a hangman’s noose, around the baby’s neck. No genetic disorder, no birth defects, healthy in every way except that terrible one way.
Treating the lifeless body with the same care as if he were alive, the nurse cleaned him, diapered him, wrapped him in a blanket and even put a little knit hat upon his head before gently laying the bundle in his mother’s arms. No words were spoken.
The nurse left the room, leaving the young family alone for the first and last time.