With the weight of uncertainty no longer looming over me, I was finally able to fully relax and start dreaming of a future with the baby I very much did want. While I was devastated by this outcome with the Viking, I was also relieved, and I dove more fully into researching, decorating, and planning the peaceful life I hoped to give my son.
But the nature of life is that things arise and then fall away, and that includes peace.
Like many single mothers, I had been relying on the help and support of my family throughout my pregnancy and knew I would need them even more once JoJo was born. They were my safe space in the midst of an endless stream of pregnancy and paternity concerns. Until suddenly, my mom’s then-husband had an entirely unexpected and unexplainable psychotic break which threw me into yet another state of absolute terror for my son’s safety. I didn’t know what would happen next or what he would do next. For days my adrenalin soared and I couldn’t eat or sleep. Every ounce of my being urged me to leave and find somewhere secure, but I didn’t know where to go.
My home no longer felt safe, my mom’s home no longer felt safe, and the Viking’s home had never been safe. I felt trapped, panicked, and every ounce of my being worried that my panic would harm my son. I began to beg him, once again.
Hang in there, we are almost to the other side of this and then we will figure out what we’re going to do.
My friends urged me to stay put, stay close to my midwives, and stick to my birth plan. Feeling that I had no other options, I did. I even started to feel oddly calm about it. Perhaps I had made the right decision in staying after all.
I was in my 37th week – which those of us who totally understand how gestation is calculated know is finally full term – and I noticed that JoJo was oddly calm too. Too calm. He was still and silent in every sense. I had been warned that sometimes pregnancies go quiet and that sometimes babies are less active as they run out of room; although, I didn’t assume that he had finally learned to silently meditate. Alarmed, I asked him to move or send me a message. He didn’t. But just as I was preparing to go to the hospital he started up with his regular routine of stretching out, back to his usual self; perhaps he was even up to the Ashtanga intermediate series by now, my dedicated little boy.
I had a regular check up scheduled for later that day. I shared my concerns about his earlier stillness, but he was assessed and I was assured that he was perfect– which, like every mother, I already knew about my child. JoJo didn’t like the Doppler, so for the last few months I had asked that his heart be checked with the stethoscope instead. That particular afternoon, my midwives had forgotten and for some reason I didn’t object. We always did things his way, so I hoped he would understand if this one time we did things my way, letting me listen extra long to his beautifully rhythmic heartbeat.
Though still three weeks from his due date, I had a strong feeling that he was arriving soon- maybe even that night- even though my midwives, my mom, and a tarot reader all disagreed. Most firstborns don’t arrive before 40 weeks. But I sensed it so strongly that I went to bed early that night, giddy but also nervous. My calm was now replaced with an inexplicable worry; perhaps it was about the birth itself. I had read that childbirth is the caloric equivalent of running two marathons – while pregnant – and JoJo’s boundless energy had not been inherited from me.
I awoke a few hours later. It was shortly before midnight and I instantly noticed that he was once again still and silent in every sense. Since we’d already been through this earlier that day, I didn’t panic– but when he didn’t respond to two sleeves of dark chocolate peanut butter cups or my very generous offer that we could finish the season finale of ‘Ugly Betty’ – after all, we only had 20 minutes left to watch and both wanted to know how it ended – I decided to go to the hospital. I assumed he would stretch out at any moment, and I would feel silly for worrying so much. He might also think I was being silly, which would be fine since I had matured as a person and a mother and had at some point stopped trying to impress him, despite his beauty.
I didn’t ask anyone to go with me. I didn’t even know whom to ask. I heaved myself up into the driver’s seat, alone. I had recently traded in my peppy two-door car for a practical four-door SUV big enough to hold my son’s car seat, stroller, cloth diapers, and homemade reusable baby wipes, which were all set up and waiting for him.
I put on ‘The Jumpoff’ by Lil’ Kim in hopes that he would respond with a dance. When he didn’t, I turned the music off and drove the rest of the 20 minutes in silence. Years of meditation had taught me that when you remove external distraction you can more easily pick up on subtle internal sensations, and I wanted to be able to sense even the slightest movements or messages.
Once at the hospital a security guard quickly escorted me to the third floor, Labor and Delivery, and I settled onto a hospital bed. I practiced my yoga breathing techniques, but my fluid inhales became more and more shallow through the uninterrupted and unobjected static of the Doppler.
Then came the still, flat lines of the ultrasound. My worry no longer seemed silly.
I asked if my son was alive, but the technician said she wasn’t authorized to tell me anything; I would need to wait for the doctor on call to arrive, who was on her way in from her house. I asked again more urgently as a stillness crept over my entire body, but she wouldn’t answer and left the room. Something like twenty minutes – or twenty years, I can’t be sure – dragged on, each second longer than even my most agonizing meditations, until finally a hospital midwife rushed in, took my hand, and said the words I’ll never forget.
It’s not fair for them to keep you waiting. You don’t deserve any additional torture, you’re already going to have enough. Your baby doesn’t have a heartbeat. I’m so sorry.
I would later find out that my placenta had failed – hemorrhaged, in fact – a rare, almost instant, unpredictable malfunction, which meant that in the end it was my own body which had not kept him safe, which meant that my son was and would forevermore be perfectly still, a silent meditation from which he would never be interrupted.
In some circumstances this kind of hemorrhage can kill the mother too. I would later wish it had; I would later think the only thing more cruel than your child dying is when you don’t get to die with him.
But I didn’t die so instead I sat there, unmoving, unthinking, with my mind perfectly still for once. It was not the dramatic, theatrical bursting into tears that you see in movies, nor the screaming or wailing I would have expected. I didn’t pull out my hair or insist that this wasn’t true or beg someone to check again. Instead I sank into a slow, quiet darkness, beginning to understand that I had never before actually understood or known misery.
When relationships had ended, when friends and family had died, when business partnerships had gone sour, when money was tight, when goals weren’t reached, or when I hadn’t moved for 60 agonizing minutes of meditation – those had hurt, often a lot, often for a long time, but they were just pain.
This was something far beyond pain.
There is no word in the English language for a parent who loses a child because it is something beyond our words, beyond our minds. There is no breathing technique for such grief, and there is no amount of meditation that can prepare you for the moment after your child goes still.
And for me, there was also no time to even grieve, for though I urgently wished that the world had stopped when he did, wished it would offer us that basic decency, everything continued moving; questions were being asked, phone calls were being made, and a mother in the next room was howling in the final throws of birth until suddenly she went quiet and a baby cried. A beginning I would never experience with JoJo, as we moved into a time of only endings.
Even my own body wouldn’t remain still for my son. I didn’t understand how my heart could still beat, my eyes could still cry. I didn’t understand how I could possibly still be expected to give birth. And yet I was; somehow my body was ready for labor, even if no other part of me agreed. His body was too, dropped and turned, though I’ll never know if any other part of him agreed to this either.
Realizing that I had only these remaining hours left with my son – ever – I went back home, the car seat and stroller and cloth diapers and homemade reusable baby wipes still in their places, still waiting for him.
I would not be able to give him the life I had hoped for him – or any life, for that matter – but I still wanted to give him the home birth I had prepared for him, the peaceful entrance into the world I had spent so long researching and envisioning in a carefully detailed five page birth plan; a water birth, overlooking the water on a warm summer day, surrounded by the intimacy of friends and family and midwives. Sanskrit chants would play for labor and then silence for birth– a soft and gentle welcome of absolute love, arriving into my own hands, a squat pose I had been practicing.
I knew I still wanted his birth to be one of peace, of absolute love, even if he wasn’t there to experience it.
And so we began. My friends and family and midwives started arriving as news of JoJo’s death spread. They came carrying flowers, totems, prayers, and songs while surrounding JoJo and me in their arms. It was a gathering of women of all ages and walks of life.
This is how birth should be.
This is never how birth should be.
Through soft tears I pumped milk – for the first and last time – and drank castor oil and walked through the woods, trying every midwife’s and old wife’s trick in the book to speed up labor. I cried into the trunk of my favorite tree, the one outside my front door whose leaves I had watched grow and change in rhythm with JoJo’s own seasons, and I heard it say to me, as clearly as if being spoken to, “Women have been birthing and grieving children for as long as there have been humans. You are now part of this timeless fabric, and held by the same earth that held them.”
But all of these grieving mothers, the whole of humanity, and even the entire earth couldn’t help me with this labor – of every sense – and by the following night my heart still wasn’t ready to let him go, leaving my dilation stuck and all of us exhausted.
I’m still not ready to let him go, for whatever that’s worth.
It had been almost 24 hours since my world had stopped and all of this had started, with every second of it feeling like an eternity, as every part of my body and mind screamed to change something about this situation– anything about this situation. However, unlike other miseries, this would not end with a bell chiming that the practice of stillness was over, nor would it end with a glorious shake of my sleeping left foot, or even with a gasp after awakening and realizing it was all a terrible dream. This could only end when I agreed to do the one thing I couldn’t imagine doing: let my son – and the hopes and dreams and future that belonged only to him – go.
I knew then that the only thing I had left to give JoJo was my permission to leave my body and my permission to leave this world. I knew that I must offer him the absolute love and acceptance I had promised him, even in its most excruciating form.
I would later read an essay by Kelsey Francis, who was told after her daughter died in utero, “It’s going to be the hardest thing you ever do, but you have to do this. You are her mother, and this is how you love her. You give birth to her.” I knew it was time to love my son enough to give birth to him, to separate from him, not because I wanted to – I would never want to – but because I had to.
I had to let him be born, I had to let him be held, and then I had to let him be free.
I went back to the hospital and was escorted up to the third floor again, this time a few solemn words of sympathy from the same security guard, a purple postcard placed outside my door as a warning to the staff. The white board by the nurse’s station read: Moms 2, Labor 2, Babies 1.
My contractions were one minute apart, though the only feeling I remember is the contracting of my heart. I understood that I would now carry an untouchable pain for the rest of my life, and I should try to ease anything else I could so I asked for an epidural, yet another mockery of my birth plan, though not the hardest plan I would have to give up. I lied down on my left side in the hospital bed and placed my hands on my belly full of JoJo for one final night together. That’s the correct side to lie on when pregnant, according to the books I’d read. It supposedly protects your baby from lack of blood flow. I wanted my baby to know that even if part of him was missing, I would still try to take care of him.
I had asked that the Viking be notified and invited to the birth; he had already chosen to miss most of his son’s life but I wanted him to at least have the opportunity to be involved in his son’s death. I had nothing left to protect JoJo from anymore and for all the things I could no longer give him, I still wanted to offer him the elusive love of his father. It was almost midnight and we hadn’t spoken in over a month but much to my surprise he came straight to the hospital, taking hold of my hand as we prepared to hold our child for the first and last time.
The following morning, as I had been promised, I did have a son and his name is Jon Daniel. He was a long, perfectly whole and beautiful baby, with the huge hands and feet of his father and my mouth, open and round, as if in the middle of an eternal Om. His ankles were crossed, as though he had been in a seated albeit cramped meditation, his left hand resting in the gyan mudra, thumb and index finger touching as the other fingers extended softly away. In yoga this symbolizes the union of the individual self with a higher, bigger, and greater self.
As if a sign that I did not need to worry about him, he was now united with God.
But for all of my wishes that he would escape suffering, for all of the times I had asked him not to lose his connection to God, I didn’t actually want him to be with God. I wanted him to be with me. So I begged God – or any deity who happened to be listening – that if my baby would just magically live I would go on a silent meditation retreat for the rest of my life. Or even: the rest of all of my lives.
It was the most awful thing I could possibly think of doing, besides of course what I was currently in the middle of doing, therefore it was the only penance I could bargain with any sincerity. Offering my own life in exchange for his would be far too easy, in fact a welcome reprieve from a lifetime without him.
My offer was not accepted; though, I’m still open to it– for whatever that’s worth.
JoJo’s father and I left the hospital together with empty arms and for a while continued to grow closer, intensely bonded through trauma and grief and a complicated love, trying to forgive and heal or at least fill our hollows, but in the end nothing could fix what was broken within us, broken between us.
He gave me his portion of our son’s ashes.
You’ve already lost enough of your son, I don’t want you to lose any more of him.
He skipped the memorial service and started planning more children with the 22 year old, the unwanted baby and the ultimatum now gone, the choice between fatherhood and violence now lifted. He could finally have both, the kind of family he wanted, the kind of love he wanted, all of the things that JoJo and I could never be. It hurt me intensely, watching while bleeding from birth and aching from death, with no happily ever after visible in my own future.
More than ever I had wanted him to finally stay with me, to finally choose me. Through everything, I had never understood why he had always picked her – over me, over our son, over himself. He said he’d never known anyone like her, but I couldn’t figure out what made her so special and so worthy of sacrificing everything, including his children.
My good sense knows that it’s not a competition and there are no winners when it comes to dead babies or to the choices that led us here. And in the end their relationship broke too, though, not before she tried to break him through one final assault– this time with her car.
I’ve never known anyone like her either.
Since then he has decided one of his missions is to outlaw abortion, which makes me sick to my stomach and I’m long past pregnancy at this point. I guess he’s hoping to control the choices of women in lieu of confronting his own, wanting to change the law instead of himself, planning to protect the unformed instead of investing in the mental health and well-being of those who live. Or who had lived at one point, and deserved love and protection then too.
Since then I’ve become passionate to end domestic violence, all violence, and support the healing of families. I don’t get to protect my son any longer but I still get to protect his memory, his legacy, and hopefully all sons and daughters, all whom deserve a safe home and loving parents.
So ultimately I suppose the Viking is right: the girl he gave up everything for is indeed special. She set two people onto paths to losing two wanted babies, and she was able to single-handedly radicalize each, desperate to ensure her actions can’t be repeated.
In my entire career in activism, in all my explorations into mindfulness, I’ve never been able to inspire such transformations in others. But I’ve decided I’m okay with that. I’m okay with not being that special, because I still get to be okay with myself.
I asked the Viking if he was okay with himself, if he regretted his choices. He said he didn’t. He said he had chosen love and we should always choose love. I had disagreed, for so many reasons.
If it were really love it wouldn’t have left rippling outcomes of death, damage, and scars.
But, then again- who am I to judge?
I had chosen love. I had chosen my son. And I don’t regret it either– even with my own outcome of death, damage, and scars.