Saturday, December 29, 2007

My Own Christmas Miracle

A miracle occurred in our little world last Christmas season. As this Christmas season draws to a close, I can't help but retell the story, so that others may also be amazed at God's love, grace and faithfulness.

Tick, Tick, Tick

On our first anniversary , July 3rd, 2000, we conceived a child, after trying for three months. Conceiving as newlyweds wasn't our first choice. We knew more time alone as a couple was probably best, but I was 34 and my husband 41. While we were enjoying long hikes, leisurely dinners, and lazy Saturday mornings, our biological clocks were doing a steady tick, tick, tick, tick.

Our baby was eagerly anticipated. We spent hours talking about names, looking at baby furniture, and counting ourselves blessed that we were able to conceive. I knew that at our ages, fertility was supposed to diminish; I was pleasantly surprised to fall pregnant at all, given the bleak picture often painted for "older" women.

There was no morning sickness or spotting. It was an uneventful pregnancy, with an ultrasound at seventeen weeks showing a happy-go-lucky baby boy, doing flips and sucking his thumb. I was already in love with the little guy, but actually seeing him threw my heart into flips of its own.

A routine blood test was offered to screen for abnormalities. We agreed to the test; it wasn't invasive. Results showed a 1-in-87 chance of Down Syndrome, which was upsetting and scary, but we declined the amnio, which would have confirmed or ruled out the disorder.

Meanwhile, I had not begun to show, and at 20 weeks, hadn't felt any movement. We were mildly alarmed at this, but it isn't that unusual in first pregnancies, so we didn't suspect anything was amiss.


A level-two ultrasound was offered, in lieu of the amnio, to check for signs of Down Syndrome. We agreed to this and went to the appointment just shy of my twenty-first week. The test began as usual, with the doctor commencing his fetal measuring.

I didn't see the heart beating, as I had in the seventeen-week ultrasound. I asked about this, and the doctor said he would check conditions after he finished his measurements.

Having finished his measurements, he proceeded to check the baby's condition. After a minute or so, he pushed hard on my stomach, and then said, "I'm afraid I have some bad news. The baby's heart is not beating and he is not responsive."

Stunned does not even begin to describe our demeanor. I broke down. Then, still crying, I asked why I hadn't had a miscarriage or any bleeding, and why I still had signs of pregnancy. I had never heard of a baby dying in the womb without miscarriage. Turns out this is not uncommon. The placenta keeps producing hormone, so the mother continues to experience signs of pregnancy.

The baby only measured sixteen weeks and, judging from the last known heartbeat, died sometime between the nineteenth and twenty-first weeks.

Next, I wanted to know if I had worked too hard or done something to cause this. He apparently hears that a lot; he immediately ruled it out and indicated I should stop that line of thinking entirely. He said it just wasn't a healthy pregnancy, and there was nothing I did or didn't do to cause this tragedy.

We were comforted by the doctor and nurse, then sent to another room to have more questions answered by a genetics counselor. She indicated that perhaps the baby was Down Syndrome; many Down Syndrome babies don't make it to their birthday. That was all she could offer, except that our next pregnancy was likely to be normal.

There is only a 4% chance of losing a baby after twenty weeks. Why, I asked myself, am I always caught in these tiny percentage categories? Only a small percentage of women get married after thirty, a small percentage conceive this late in life, and a small percentage lose babies in the twentieth week. At the rate I was going, I figured there was only a slim chance I would ever have a child.

Meanwhile, it was evening now, five days before Thanksgiving. There wasn't anything else I had the strength to ask, so the doctor, a neonatal specialist, had us leave out the back door, presumably so that our tears didn't upset anyone still in the waiting room.

We drove home in silence.

Advised to see our regular doctor the next morning, we were faced with the task of somehow getting through the night, knowing that I was carrying a dead baby. I never fell asleep, needless to say.

That was the darkest night of my life. I've lived long enough to know that life ebbs and flows. There is joy, and then sadness. I shudder to even think about it, but I know that there will be other dark nights, as the years pass by. We have to count our blessings, but keep our grip light on the things of this world, for we are not in control, and the Lord has the big picture (his picture) in mind.
My husband lost his mother in an auto accident at the age of sixteen, also in the evening, so this was only one of his darkest nights.

Labor was induced the next morning, at 11 am, and our baby boy was stillborn at 5:30 the following morning. The epidural, given too late, didn't take. It was painful, but shorter than a regular full-term first labor. I only had to dilate seven inches, rather than ten, and there was no pushing.

The nurse, who had been through this many times before, knew to wrap up our baby, and have each of us hold him. I would find out later that doing this was an important part of the grieving process. I never looked at the baby, but my husband did. He is still haunted by the image, and to this day, I wish the nurse had not suggested it.

They discharged me, after I spent the equivalent of a day listening to loud, healthy fetal heartbeats and heard two babies make their first cries. They told me to avoid letting warm shower water run on my breasts, so as not to stimulate milk production.

As always in the aftermath of a death, we were in shock as we went about the business of going to a funeral parlor, considering our burial options. The owner of the funeral parlor waited on us. Thirty years previously, this same tragedy had occurred in his wife's youth. He was a gift from God. It was a difficult thing to attend to, and he was wonderfully understanding and supportive.

We had the baby cremated and went up to a very high California mountain, not far from where we lived, to release the ashes into the wind. I had painstakingly prepared a funeral handout, complete with verses and an order of service. Just my husband and myself were present. It wasn't the sort of thing you invite people to, nor did we have any family in the area to invite.

Our little boy's name, Isaac Abraham, is from the Old Testament story about Abraham being asked to sacrifice his son, Isaac, on the altar. In my mind, that was what God was asking me to do. He wanted this baby, for whatever reason, and my job was to let my baby go, while still being able to say each day, "I love you, Lord" and mean it.

The Beginnings of a Miracle

A few weeks following the funeral, a work acquaintance of my husband's, after offering his condolences, added that he dreamt we would eventually have a baby on Christmas. I barely looked up when my husband repeated this that night, but I filed it away somewhere in my head, nevertheless. I was busy teaching first grade and trying to be a professional in the midst of my grief, which got much deeper after the funeral, when the shock was replaced by horror.

The doctor said to wait two complete cycles before trying to conceive again. I wanted so badly to be pregnant again, that I didn't wait the two cycles. We waited one. Still, it took five long and painful months to conceive. I'm aware that five months isn't terribly long, but my heart just wanted so badly to feel hope again.

Many women go through childbearing heartbreak, some much worse than mine. I found out shortly after our tragedy that a woman from our church had lost two full-term babies, back to back, for unknown reasons, and still didn't have a baby at home to cuddle.

You hear stories like this, and know to count yourself blessed, but when you're going through your own pain, you feel so alone and like such a failure. It is hard to explain; I still wonder if there is any longing stronger than that of a woman for a child.

My first son died in November, 2000, and my second son, Daniel, was born on January 11, 2002, healthy and strong. I didn't relax through the pregnancy until I felt Daniel kick, at seventeen weeks. What an awesome feeling! And what a relief!

My third son, Timothy, was born twenty-one months later, healthy and strong. I was blessed and busy. As each of their birthdays came and went, I still wondered about the December 25 dream, but there wasn't time to dwell on it very often. I was a happy mom.

I miscarried another baby in 2005, at ten weeks gestation. It was a much less horrid affair, but still, I was thirty-nine, and it looked like my last chance to have another child.

Meanwhile, we moved to Ohio and were busy getting established in a new community and in a new house. I had become a stay-at-home-mom, was very busy everyday, and had to put my childbearing grief behind me.

Try as I might, I found it hard to say goodbye to pregnancy and childbirth. I loved nursing and all the quiet, peaceful, sleepless nights spent looking down at a beautiful newborn. I nursed my second son a long time, two-and-a-half years, partly because he loved it, and partly because I was trying to hang on to the childbearing chapter of my life.

The Miracle

In late February 2006, I went shopping for a daycare crib and highchair. We needed extra income, and I was taking in a 13-month-old baby in a week's time. As I shopped, I couldn't help but notice all the beautiful furniture and other baby items. I floated along down the aisles, not ready for the tears that welled up.

The painful realization that I would never have a daughter suddenly overwhelmed me. Retreating to a corner of the store, I regained composure, then quickly went about getting what I needed. Back in the car, I allowed myself to cry all the way home.

I wiped away the tears when I got to my driveway. As I opened our front door to greet my family, I told myself that the childbearing chapter of my life was closed. God obviously wanted it this way. I was forty, my husband forty-eight. We were old. Too old to bare another potentially-painful pregnancy experience. I knew it was best to count myself blessed and move on. My boys were wonderful and I was completely smitten with them. I made a mental note to see a doctor about birth control soon.

I unexpectedly conceived a month later. It was both pleasant news and a worrisome shock, since we weren't prepared financially. You see, it is one thing to desire a child, and quite another to be told you're having one, at the age of 40!

We were delighted and amazed to learn, during the 21-week ultrasound, that we would be having a daughter! And her due date? December 25th!

Emily Rose wasn't actually born on Christmas Day. I requested an early induced labor, due to blood pressure complications. I had suffered post-partum pre-eclampsia with my first child, pregnancy induced-hypertension with my second, and was in the third week of hypertension with this last pregnancy. I knew that birth didn't stop the blood pressure problem, but it did start the reversal process. It seemed prudent to have the baby, eleven days early, before pre-eclampsia had time to brew. The doctor agreed.

Now, of course, I wish I had stayed the course and let God work his complete miracle. Emily just might have been born on Christmas, after all, and what a testimony of God's grace, mercy and love that would have been!

Regardless, her due date in itself is a miracle, in our little world. And having a daughter is every bit as wonderful as I imagined. And, needless to say, every time she smiles up at me, I am so amazed at what the Lord has done.

He is faithful.


Betsy Shaw Mackenzie said...

Wow, what a story. I cannot imagine what that must have been like, having to give birth to a child you knew you would never feel, warm against your chest. You are a brave woman.

Betsy Shaw Mackenzie said...

Hello again. I want to mention your blog in my next post at BabyCenter. Can I? I think it is so great that you are doing this, and can't help but feel I've played a part, somehow. I am planning a New Year's post, and your new blog is one of the highlights of 2007 for me. Let me know,either by commenting over at Babycenter, or here. Thanks and keep writing.

momma's heart said...

Yes, Betsy, that would be fine! And thanks! It is so kind of you to help me in this endeavor! I really appreciate your feedback. I didn't realize until you mentioned it that I have a bad habit of creating huge paragraphs. lol

I am really enjoying this. You have played a huge part! Thank you again, Pam

molly said...

i just clicked over from betsy's post on babycenter and got lost in this story. I also write for babycenter and was excited to see another new blog. betsy was right, you do have something to say. thanks for this wonderful testimony of faith.

Terra said...

I have a friend who miscarried at 17 weeks, and another who lost a daughter at birth, so while I don't have firsthand experience, I feel for you. I can't even begin to imagine that pain. God is mysterious and wonderful in his plans for us. You now have three wonderful children to love.