An unholy triad

Tomorrow I was due to give birth to a daughter, but instead she is enveloped in cardboard on the bookshelf in our living room, a breath of ashes in a box. She is sandwiched next to a chess board her father made and a stack of well-thumbed Dr Seuss books that her brothers periodically pull down from the shelf to read, or more often, to pin bedsheets to kitchen stools in the elaborate cubby houses they build.

In my mind there are three versions of my daughter; an unholy triad. They are as distinct as siblings - borne of the same place but each with their own memories and form.

First, there is the daughter I gave birth to in a forsaken hospital room with a butterfly on the door. Her entire body fit into Lee's hand, her skull no larger than a chicken egg, with her brothers' big feet and the tiniest, most delicate fingers.  When we said goodbye, I folded her hands in the centre of her chest, as decorous as a spectre. 

Next, there is the baby that still lives within me, shapeshifting from grief to light and back again. In researching for my novel I learned about microchimerism, a process where stem cells from an unborn child cross the placenta and lodge in the mother's bloodstream, where they stay. When a mother’s heart is injured, the cells of the children she grew in her body - whether or not they stayed in for nine months or three - will flock to the site of the injury and transform into heart cells, capable of beating.

When I read about this phenomenon, I folded at the waist and howled, because of course. Of course she has been with me the entire time. Lately, she has been in the space where grief lives; tucked in the void between my heart and lungs, or perhaps nested in the hollow of my vertebrae, methodically stitching pieces of me back together.

And then there is a little girl, aged about three, with a fringe. She is tall for her age, and bossy. She adores her brothers and her nan, and likes having each fingernail painted a different colour. She pronounces her middle name 'Gwendowyn' and slides into my bed in the middle of the night to press her cold feet against my calves.

She is fierce, and gentle, and loving; my daughter. It is a privilege to know her.

This is the Edie I miss the most. 

Ten easy steps to survival.

Step One.

Say yes to everything. Reply immediately to every text message, offer to bring a plate, make a dinner, organise a catch up. Bury yourself in busyness until you can’t feel your heart beating in your ears anymore. Become overwhelmed, burst into tears in a board meeting and cancel everything. Choose only the things that bring you back to life and connect you with other people.

Step Two.

Attempt to write poetry. Accept that your poetry is terrible. Give up and read poetry instead. Spend hundreds of dollars on books of poetry.

Step Three.

Write like your life depends on it, because it does. Take furtive notes while driving the kids to kinder. Scribble in the margins of your favourite books. Read trashy romances, trade magazines, the newspaper, Virgil, Atwood, Clancy, Woolf, Dickens. Chew up words and spit them out in an order that feels right. Feel the words in your bones.

Step Four.

Go on a diet. Sign up to a weight loss app, measure yourself religiously, track everything you eat. Feel worse, much worse. Tell yourself that a soft body is a reminder of the three children you birthed, and you can’t be bothered being skinny anyway. Eat when you are hungry. Drink a lot of diet Coke and chai tea with honey. Sometimes, when things are really bad, go to bed with an entire block of Cadburys.

Step Five.

Become obsessed with skincare. Buy ridiculously expensive moisturisers, potions, weird spinning face brushes. Spend a lot of time in the evenings poking your pores, prodding the pregnancy-induced acne, tracing the sunspots dotting your cheeks. Let your tears soak into the skin on your hands and your stomach. Kiss your sons on their cheeks, sniff their heads. Force your cheeks into a smile until it feels natural again. 

Step Six.

Stop trying to sleep. You are awake until 2am most nights anyway, so stop fighting it. Read more. Pace your kitchen by the light of the rangehood. Feel yourself fraying at the edges. Go to a kind GP, explain that four months ago your baby died inside your body and stare at a poster about cardiac health while he writes out a prescription for sleeping pills so strong that they come with a booklet of warnings and risks. Wait until the weekend, and then sleep for eight hours straight, more than you have in months, and wake up feeling lighter but denser, more solid, like there is more of you in the room than there was the night before.

Step Seven.

Read back over the text messages you received when your baby died, the words you wrote. See your daughter’s name in the tiny green speech bubble of a text message, and cry again. Walk past her ashes in the cardboard box on the bookshelf, and wonder if you will open them one day, run your hands through her remains. Cry, but be oddly fascinated by the thought of it.

Step Eight.

Decide not to be sad anymore. It wasn’t even a real baby, anyway. Tell yourself to stop being dramatic. Read stories about families who lost babies at full term, at a week old, as a three-year-old. Imagine losing your boys. Cry. Be sad, and dramatic.

Step Nine.

Keep the words inside your mouth, or don’t. Tell a teenage shop assistant that you need something roomy as you just had a baby, but don’t need any breastfeeding tops because actually the baby died. Watch the words fall out of your mouth in shards, and let them shatter on the floor of the shop.

Step Ten.

In the kitchen, when your husband is making lunchboxes for school and kinder tomorrow, put your arms around his waist and breathe him in. His back is broader than your whole body, like a solid plank, an old growth tree. Press your face against his shirt and hold on tight as your boys barrel into your legs for a family cuddle. Let yourself be held up by the three of them.

Fuck off, Babycentre

An email pinged

Squeezed between an ad for a new film

And a reminder about prep enrolment

Congratulations!

You are 32 weeks pregnant.

 

Your baby is the size of a pineapple.

It’s bones are calcifying, so eat almonds, cheese, whole milk.

You may get heat rashes under your breasts.

Be kind to your back when you roll over in bed.

 

There is a pineapple in my fruitbowl

In the corner of the kitchen.

It is from Yeppoon, where Lee grew up,

Surrounded by mango trees, siblings, heat.

 

My baby was the size of a mango,

And just as sweet.

Her skin was the colour of a plum

Soft, cool and damp. A half-formed thing.

 

I sliced the pineapple after dinner,

Carving through the calloused skin,

The fermented flesh at the base dark with juice.

We eat it with our hands, dripping onto the deck.

 

The rain turns the view monochromatic,

Grey trees, grey sky.

The pineapple is tart, and sweet.

My baby was the colour of a plum.

 

my favourite books of 2017

I have read 72 books this year. I only know this because I have begun keeping a 'reading journal' late last year, after I interviewed a bibliotherapist who recommended that people write notes on their reading habits in order to get the most out of it. I actually read fewer books this year than in previous years, as I stopped reading for a while in late October after the stillbirth of my daughter. Instead, I watched a lot of superhero movies and Broad City, and got addicted to true crime podcasts. Anything else was too much.

I tend to trash books, so I will often borrow from the library then buy copies of the ones I really like. I am a voracious note taker and scribble in the margins, dog ear the corners, stick post-its on the inside covers of books. Sometimes I buy two copies, one to trash and one to keep pristine.

Here are my top few books from the past year. They aren't all books that have been published this year, nor are they in any particular order, but they are all books which have moved me in some way.

Our Magic Hour by Jennifer Down

Okay so I only finished it recently, but it is goooood. At a sentence level, the prose gets the perfect blend of florid and spare. Plus she describes both Melbourne and Sydney so perfectly, and captures the messiness of being young, living in sharehouses, dealing with families and death and life. I just ordered her collection of short stories, Pulse Points, too. 

Between a Wolf and a Dog by Georgia Blain

Oh god, Georgia Blain. I cried in the opening pages. This is probably in my top three books of all time. Her use of metaphor, of allegory, in capturing both domestic minutia and the fragility of life and relationships, is exquisite. 

The kicker is that one of the characters is dying from brain cancer, and Georgia herself was diagnosed with brain cancer while she was editing the book. Georgia's mother Anne Deveson, herself a brilliant writer and journalist, died in December 2016, and Georgia died three days later.

The Dry by Jane Harper

I read this in the hospital room while I was waiting to give birth to my daughter. The book is captivating, and easy to read, and very Australian. It was just distracting enough that I could forget where I was, but light enough to be genuinely enjoyable. I've since read another of her books, and it was okay, but nowhere as good as The Dry.

The Seven Principles of Making Marriage Work by John Gottman

A bit of a random inclusion, but I am a firm believer that good relationships take work. Lee and I have been together 10 years, and we are not perfect – far from it – but after a year bookended by a miscarriage and a stillbirth, plus a renovation (always) and job changes for both of us, a tune up was in order. This book is regarded as one of the best on the topic, and for good reason. There is no waffly crap, just helpful suggestions to make sure both partners feel heard, supported and whole in the relationship. 

The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy

I read this earlier in the year, before even getting pregnant, and good lord did it turn out to be prophetic. Levy is a staff writer at the New Yorker and I've read her previous book Female Chauvinist Pigs, which is a feminist examination and critique of raunch culture, and kind of expected this book to be similar. It is actually a memoir of her relationship with her ex-husband, an affair, and a miscarriage. She writes brilliantly.

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Attwood

I first read this in year 11 when we were studying Cat's Eye, and liked it then but probably didn't really understand a lot of the meaning behind it. So when the Hulu show came out, I re-read the book and was reminded at how powerful the language is. It is one of the rare TV adaptions where the show is on par, and perhaps even better, than the book.

The World Beneath by Cate Kennedy

Kennedy is primarily a short story writer, and a very accomplished one. This is her first novel, and while in some ways it reads like a series of short stories, the characters and sense of place are so vivid that I couldn't put it down. The book manages to be funny, and warm, and very Australian, while the language still slays. 

The Gulf by Anna Spargo-Ryan

One of my top three for the year. I had read Anna's first novel, The Paper House, last year, and bloody loved it, but this book really is something else. It is a work of art. It is about a teenage girl in an unstable family, trying to protect her little brother, and the sense of impending dread and sadness builds through the story so much that I found myself gnawing my fingernails in worry over the little boy in the book. It didn't help that he reminded me so much of my own brother, and my sons.

The writing is perfect: spare, and balanced, without being melodramatic or overly florid.

A Writing Life: Helen Garner and Her Work by Bernadette Brennan

I have a genuine fear the Helen Garner will die before publishing another book. She turned 75 recently, and I hope to god she's got at least another 20 years in her.  I would read her shopping list, such is the genius of the woman. She is frank, and funny, and fierce (alliteration!) and doesn't pretend to be above vulnerability or doubt. This book offered an insight into her writing life, the stories behind each of her books, and how she came to be such a behemoth of Australian literature.

Other notable mentions include Jessica Friedmann's Things That Helped, a collection of essays about postnatal depression; The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose, a story based on Marina Abravonic's The Artist is Present performance art piece; The Good People by Hannah Kent, which I think is as good as her first novel Burial Rites; and both Rupi Kaur's books of poetry. Rupi Kaur cops heaps of flack for being an Instagram poet but just like IKEA makes good design accessible to the world even thought the quality of the products is usually fairly shite, Rupi Kaur has almost singlehandedly made poetry accessible to a generation of Instagram kids who are otherwise taking selfies and sexting. 

Nevertheless, she persisted.

The day my daughter died, I pack the same blue duffel bag as when my sons were born. I take pyjama pants, slippers, eight pairs of black underwear, maternity pads. Instead of breastfeeding tops and nappies, I pack a pink paper bag filled with a tiny knitted dress, a crocheted bonnet and photos of our family.

On the way to the hospital, Lee and I pass an abandoned service station and imagine how we could open a café there, with early morning coffees for the tradies and milkshakes and cookies for after school. When we pull into the hospital carpark I feel sick with guilt that I have been thinking about life after today, about happy things, when today is the day my daughter will be born, after she has already died.

---

I spend the day of her birth swinging between fury and despair. I hate that I have to do it, and am worried that it will forever mar the sacred and treasured memories of my son’s births, when I was a warrior, an Amazon, part of the long line of women who had gone before me, labouring and swaying and bring forth their children from their bodies. This barbaric pseudo-birth feels impossibly unjust.

I am given a round of medication to induce labour, two tiny pills tucked just under my cervix. Nothing happens, except I feel feverish and sweaty. A social worker tells us about funeral directors, about the costs of cremation, about what to tell our boys. She is lovely, and warm, and I try to hate her but I can’t.

---

Our room is dark and quiet. There is a sign on the door with a butterfly on it, so the midwives and doctors know not to barge in unnecessarily. This is not a happy room. This is a room for waiting, for sobbing, for grief. When I start howling, the midwives run in with tissues and stroke my hair. I am breaking apart, slowly, as the sun streams in through the metal blinds and a fundraising sausage sizzle is held in the courtyard below. I am in purgatory, in this quiet room with a butterfly on the door. 

My mum and Lee are there, and we wait for hours. They take turns on the narrow couch covered in bright blue vinyl, and a hard black chair. I lay on the bed, freezing cold, the blankets coming untucked underneath me. I hate the stupid wallpaper, the resuscitation equipment in the corner, the pointlessness of it all.

I can hear a woman screaming in labour in the next room, and when there is a short silence and the sound of a newborn’s cries, I shove my fingers in my ears and press my face into the pillow.

---

It takes four doses of the induction medicine and almost 12 hours of waiting before the contractions start. I have asked for an epidural, for morphine, for an IV. I had no pain relief with the boys, and a midwife jokes that anyone who has delivered a 4.7kg baby won’t need an epidural for this baby. I want to punch her. I could deliver the boys drug-free because there was incentive. This time, I will labour in vain, until my daughter is born sleeping.

It turns out that there is no time for an epidural. The contractions come thick and fast, and I am leaning over the edge of the bed, rocking wildly and vomiting all over the sheets. I am ferocious, shouting at the midwives, swearing and swaying, hurtling headfirst towards the worst thing, the thing that will break me all over again.

My water breaks and splashes all over my feet. The midwives are ready to inject me with morphine but this is not my first rodeo, and I can tell that she is almost here.

There is a pause in the contractions and I feel her settle low in my pelvis. She is ready, I am not. I climb on the bed and push, and there she is, tiny and still, the colour of a plum. I scream and scream, and Lee and I grip onto each other, and the midwives are surrounding me. I am howling, I am broken, I am dust. My baby is dead, my baby is dead. My baby is born, dead.

The room is silent except for my screams and Lee’s sobs and the gentle murmurs of the midwives. She is wrapped and placed in a crib, and all attention turns back to me. There is blood everywhere, and I am shattered into fragments.

---

The placenta comes out in jagged parts, gripping to the uterine wall for dear life. It is ragged and deformed, like the umbilical cord. But she is perfect, my daughter. She is perfect.

---

Eventually, we come home, empty-handed. Leaving the hospital without a baby, carrying a stack of paperwork and our pillows, is worse than the birth. We hold each other in the lift lobby, waiting for an empty lift so we don’t have to face anyone else. The doors keep opening and faces peer out at us, but we can’t move. I catch sight of my face in the lift door and I am unrecognisable, mouth open in a silent scream.

---

Her birth certificate has a tiny word on the left-hand corner. Stillborn. The etymology is from deadborn, undertaker’s slang from the 1500s.

But the word has a dual meaning. It means immobile, motionless, stagnant. But it also means nevertheless, despite, yet.

And still, she was born. Despite it all, she existed. Nevertheless, she persisted.

---

We name her Edie Gwendolyn. We have loved the name Edie for years, and it suits the little girl I imagined she would grow up to be. Feisty, and bossy, and strong. With dirty feet and big eyes and a fringe. Gwendolyn for her great great nanna, who had a stillborn son herself, and who died when I was six months old. My grandma’s middle name is Gwendolyn, and she fought her own battle this year, being diagnosed with late stage cancer in her bones and lymph nodes. She finally, sweetly, thankfully, entered remission in the same month that her first great granddaughter died and was born. They never met, but perhaps they crossed paths somewhere in the space in between. 

---

I have woken up crying every night since the scan. Sleep doesn't come easily, so I take a cocktail of pills - melatonin, temazepam, Valium - and read shitty fiction until I can’t keep my eyes open. My brain keeps up a relentless monologue: my baby died, my baby died, my baby died.

I have the same few dreams over and over. In one, I am in the hospital and can hear a baby crying in the crib next to me. Milk is running down my torso and I am frantically trying to unwrap the bundle of blankets in the crib, to unswaddle the baby and feed her, but there are so many layers, every blanket reveals another one and underneath it all the baby is crying and then I am crying, too. I wake up sobbing every time, the useless milk curdling in my breasts.

---

Lee and I navigate this new labyrinth of loss, together and individually. My grief is loud, and fierce, and exquisite, overflowing and spilling out everywhere, with floods of tears and wailing, until it burns out into a quiet, manageable despair, one that allows me to fold washing and get dinner and take the kids to kinder, my grief contained again within the boundaries of my body.

Where I am loud and messily demonstrative, Lee is quiet, and intentional, and wraps himself in the happy joy of his sons, until it becomes overwhelming and he takes himself downstairs with his guitar and comes back up an hour later, red-eyed and pale.

We cling tightly to each other for the weeks we are at home, in limbo, in grief. He organises an excavator to dig up our backyard, orders forty enormous slabs of rock from the Coldstream quarry, shovels gravel like his life depends on it. I go shopping with my mum. We cry in a French bakery and I try on clothes I would never choose in the real world. What does a person wear when their baby has died? I buy comfortable silk dresses, bright earrings, wide pants in soft fabrics. Nothing that clings. I need space around my body now, room for my grief to grow and spread. My stomach is still soft but my breasts are rock hard, filled with milk with no one to feed. All dressed up with no place to go.

---

We will find a place, these three boys and I. We will find a place where we can sit comfortably with both forms of our grief – the shock and trauma of the baby daughter we had, tiny and still and cold, and the loss of the person we imagined her to be. I know that we will, because babies and parents and children die everyday, and their loved ones survive, and continue to live and eat and breathe and love.

We are not there yet, and I can’t imagine what it feels like to be at that place, but we will endure. We must. We must.

The very worst thing.

I don’t know where I was when my daughter died. Perhaps I was asleep, or playing with her brothers, or complaining about the exhaustion of pregnancy. Perhaps I was sorting out the baby clothes that we were preparing to fill her drawers. I don’t know what I was doing when the placenta finally gave up, when her cells stopped multiplying. When her tiny heart stopped beating.

I don’t know who I was when my baby daughter died.

---

The day before the scan, we build a bunk bed for her brothers. ‘The baby will wake you in the night. Sharing a room will be better,” we tell them. They fall asleep singing and chatting, and we decide to use part of her brother’s old bed to build a dollhouse, one day, when she is bigger.

---

The radiologist’s face is deadpan as he moves the ultrasound wand across my belly. I have had these scans before, and know the drill. I am nervous and excited. With her brothers, I didn’t exhale until I saw their tiny bodies moving across the screen, like fish, in grayscale.

The screen shows her skull, her torso, her arms. Frozen, a photograph. Lee holds my hand and I shake my head. I stare at the radiologist, his face perfectly still except for one tiny muscle in his jaw, tensed and pulsing. He takes off his glasses and tells us that there is no heartbeat.

I don’t exhale.

---

We are sent to a different hospital, are told that it isn’t urgent, to take our time. We sit in the car, wiping our eyes on our sleeves, hearts on fire. My hands shake as I call my mum, my dad.

My pregnant belly enters the room before me. I sit in the same waiting room I am due to visit in a week’s time, a routine appointment with my midwife. Other pregnant women avoid eye contact as I sob into Lee’s lap. I am living their worst nightmare.

There is a specialist midwife waiting for us named Ali. She calls me darling and holds my arm and leads us into a room. I cry and cry. She waits, handing us tissues. I am amazed at how prepared the maternity ward is for these situations, but of course.

She tells me that the baby is too small for a caesarean, but too big for a curette. I will have to give birth to her, like I did with her brothers. I can’t speak.

---

We go home and get into bed fully clothed. We hold each other and cry.

I tell the boys that there isn’t a baby after all, and that mum and dad will be sad for a while. They say, ‘again?’ then go back to their Lego.

This is not the first sibling they have lost this year.

Ali, my angel midwife, calls later that day to see how we are going. I am still in bed, still fully clothed. Lee has made two lasagnas. We are in shock.

She tells me to sit with it, to feel the pain, that blocking it out now will make it harder later on. I agree, but don’t know how to let the pain all the way in without turning completely to dust.

---

We drink strong gin and tonics and watch Batman. I fall asleep on the couch and dream of little girls, of cots and carseats, of my Nana who died when I was a baby. I wake up sobbing.

We go back to the hospital. Ali takes us through a door into another section of the maternity ward, where there are no pictures of babies or pastel feature walls. It is clinical, and unmarked. This is where they bring the women like me, who have to experience a death before a birth, who have to do the one thing that no mother should ever do. Who will arrive pregnant and go home empty handed.

She hands us tissues and answers my questions about stillbirth, about preterm labour, about what the baby will look like when she is born. She shows us the birthing suite where we will stay after I am induced, and then the Quiet Room, which is dark and small and has a couch and a tiny bassinet. She shows us the tiny wraps and shrouds that the hospital will provide, if we’d like, and we both break then, struggling to stand and to breath.

---

I will take a tablet tonight, a name I can’t pronounce. I google it and realise that it is RU86, the abortion pill. Two days after I take the tablet, I will be induced, and will deliver a stillborn baby. So now we wait, in a holding pattern. We wait to climb a summit, to cross a threshold. It is hard now, but it will get harder still.

I still look and feel pregnant, still gag when brushing my teeth and feel my hips creaking as I roll over in bed. I am holding my dead baby girl close inside me, until I have to do the Very Worst Thing.

---

We are in limbo, visiting our children at my mum’s house but unable to care for them properly. I fall asleep often. A head lice infestation is a distraction. My brother brings brownies and my dad brings icecream. My friends send texts, offers of help and love. I read them in the middle of the night when my eyes are aching and my face is raw from crying, tiny capillaries spreading across my cheeks.

---

I don’t know who I was when my daughter died, and I don’t know who I’ll be when she is born.