Jennifer Meyer
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The One We Lost

Nicholas Ryan
May 24, 1986

The warm, darkened room fills with the swish-shish of placenta as the technician combs your nearly ripe belly, searching. On the screen is a grainy wedge of shadows that she doesn’t bother to interpret for us. She is frowning, focused. We are all waiting for the bird-quick thumping that will release our breaths.

Your eyes are wide with a desperate prayer. Your hand squeezing mine so hard it hurts, and I squeeze back. The technician looks up only briefly before returning the sonogram wand to its holster – her eyes guarded and sad. “Let me get the doctor.”

We wait long minutes in that womb-like room, suspending sorrow with denial. Something wrong with the machine. An inept technician. The baby’s positioned differently. Your hands never leave your belly.

The doctor introduces herself, but I don’t even hear her name. She looks young, even younger than we are. “When did you last feel the baby move?” she asks. But you are mute, face pale.
“Yesterday,” I say. “We heard the heartbeat.” But I stop myself there, because lay midwives are illegal in California. Ours sent us here with strict instructions not to mention her name. Everything was fine, she had promised. She just wanted to be sure. It was nothing more than a sense, she would tell us later, that something wasn’t right.

“And you’re not under a doctor’s care?” The doctor’s eyes bore into Kate’s.

Kate glances at me, opens her mouth to speak, hesitates. Her face clouds red. “No.”

The doctor roves your belly a second time, then shakes her head. “I’m sorry. There’s no heartbeat.” She wipes the gel from your taut skin with a towel. “I’ll give you some time alone, then come back to discuss your options.”

When the door clicks shut, you clutch at my t-shirt and scream, “No! They’re wrong. It’s not true.” You roll your head from side to side, pound your other fist on the padded table. Quiet tears rush down my face, and I wait for your eyes to find mine before I reach for you.


When the doctor returned, we were given two options. Kate could carry the baby to term and wait to start contractions naturally, or she could be induced. Either way, she would have to go through the full ordeal of labor.

“Can’t they just give her a C-section?” I asked. The doctor glanced over at me as if I were some interloper in the room.

“That’s not called for,” was all she said, then left us to confer.

“What do you want to do?” I asked Kate. I couldn’t imagine her going through six more weeks of pregnancy carrying a decaying child. Dodging strangers’ smiles and questions. Kate couldn’t either. We opted for induction, and Kate wanted it right away.

They moved us into Labor and Delivery. It was decorated to look like a bedroom. Frilly curtains, framed Monet prints – the same room, I realized, as the one I’d labored in three years before. Only this time, it was Kate propped in the bed, peering over her belly at the nurse. And this time, there was no anticipation of joy.

“This can’t be happening,” Kate murmured as the nurse prepped her arm for an IV. I had the same feeling. There was nothing real about this day.

Kate didn’t even notice the needle going into her arm. “When it kicks in,” the nurse was saying, “it’ll be more intense than natural labor, less time between contractions. But we can give you whatever you need for the pain, since the health of the baby is no longer a concern.”

I winced at the nurse’s words, but Kate didn’t react. Yes, knock her out, I thought. No one should have to go through this. Just let her wake up and have it be over.

But Kate was adamant. “It’s still my birth,” she insisted. “I want to be there. No drugs.”

It could be hours, though, before labor really started, hours more before it was over. I rested my face in my hands and tried to nudge my mind into gear. I needed to make phone calls, arrangements.

When the nurse left the room, Kate propped herself up to a sit. “I want to talk with Erica.”
“From here?” I asked. She knew immediately what I meant. The local D.A. was waging political war on midwifery. Stillbirths warranted a murder charge. We could leave no trail to Erica’s door. Even this baby’s conception could raise scrutiny. Home insemination was considered practicing medicine without a license.

“Oh. Right,” she said.

“I need to pick Toby up soon. I’ll see if Kimberly can watch him overnight. I’ll call Erica from home.”

“Make sure she knows I don’t think it’s her fault.”

I nodded. “Do you want me to try to get your mom?”

Five years ago, Kate’s father had hurled her suitcases out on the driveway when he’d caught on that the “friend” she’d brought home from college was more than a friend. Don’t ever come back, he’d said.

Kate bit her lip and shook her head. There was a neighbor she could write to later who would smuggle a letter to her mother.

I called a close friend to come stay with Kate while I picked Toby up. I drove to his preschool. Signed him out. Gathered fingerpaintings from his cubby, buckled him into his carseat, drove home. All in a daze.

“Where’s Mama Kate?” Toby asked when we entered the empty house.

I took him on my lap and held his face close to mine. There was no easy way around it. “She’s in the hospital,” I said. I explained that she was okay, but the baby inside her had died. That she would have to stay in the hospital overnight, and I needed to go and be with her. That he would have dinner and sleep over at his godmother’s house next door.

“But, why?” he asked. “Why did the baby die?”

“I don’t know.” I pulled him to my chest and kissed his silky blonde head. “Sometimes things happen and we never know why.”

When I returned, Kate’s forehead was already beaded with sweat. She had barely a moment to catch her breath between contractions. You would think a baby this small would be easy to push out, but the body doesn’t let go so easily. Kate’s cervix wouldn’t budge.

The doctor on call that night was a Texan. “Maybe ya’ll want to take a break for the night,” he said to Kate in a good-ol’ boy drawl. “It’s after 11:00. Get some sleep. We’ll start it up again in the morning.”

Kate shook her head and growled through another contraction, glassy eyes focused on the opposite wall.

“No, really,” he insisted. “There’s no need to wear yourself out like this. You’ll feel much better in the morning.”

“I’m almost there,” she panted. “I can do this.”

“Actually, you’re still at two centimeters. You’ve got a ways to go. Take a rest.” He scratched his night-whiskered neck and looked around the room. “You got family here? Husband?”

I laid my hand on Kate’s shoulder. “Me,” I said. “I’m her family.” I’d explained it to every nurse and CNA who’d come in the room. We’re partners, I’d say. The baby is ours. Each time I got a startled smile, too wide for comfort. Each time, the information was politely ignored. If they spoke to me at all, it was to tell me what a good friend I was being.

“Well, I recommend a night of sleep. She’s had one hell of a blow today, and she’s getting nowhere fast. We’ll give her something to help her sleep. You can come back in the morning.”

“I’m not going anywhere.”

“Suit yourself. There’s couches in the waiting room.”

But I didn’t leave. After the nurse disconnected the IV drip and turned the lights low, I kicked off my sneakers, draped my jeans over the chair, and crawled under the covers with Kate. Too numb for tears, we held each other tight, took turns stroking the bulge of belly where our baby lay.
Sleep, for me, was impossible. The ward was bustling. Hurried footsteps, women hollering in pain, joyous, back-clapping laughter and talk. Some time before dawn I heard men’s voices hooting in the hall like party animals. I left Kate breathing deeply and poked my head out the door. Half a dozen bikers in black leather and bandanas were passing a whiskey bottle, heads tipped back in laughter. I blinked in the bright light and scowled. Shut the fuck up! I screamed in my head.
One of them looked up so quickly, I wondered if I’d actually spoken. He lifted a hand in a half-hearted wave, started to smile but stopped. His moustache drooped down to his jaw, long frizzy hair pulled back in a band. He tilted his head and studied my face. I pulled back in and closed the door.

I was wrapped around Kate when the morning nurse came in and introduced herself. “Kate’s my life partner,” I clarified once more.

Again the smile. “Oh, that’s nice.” She looked over Kate’s chart while I slipped out of bed and into my jeans.

At the nurse’s insistence, Kate managed to get down a little breakfast. Some oatmeal, a piece of toast. I found the cafeteria and hunched over a cup of coffee and a scrambled egg, as far away as I could get from the bikers eating heartily around a large table. The hair on my neck prickled at each guffaw. Go away. Just go the hell away.

Back in the room, Kate was reconnected to the IV. Her contractions kicked right in, and within an hour, she was in hard labor. I tried to coach her like I had the night before – the Lamaze breathing we’d learned for my pregnancy. But now she’d have none of it. She went inside herself to a place I couldn’t follow. Each wave of pain she swallowed hungrily, ready for more. I rubbed her shoulders, stroked her hand, but she didn’t need me. Didn’t need any of us. She was in battle, taking on God. And when the time was close, she howled out her rage and sorrow in wild wails, tears streaming into her ears.

“Almost,” I said when the baby’s head was crowning. Yet even as I urged her forward to birth, I shrank from it. What does a dead baby look like?

And then he was there. A boy. Our son. So tiny: two pounds, 14 ounces. But everything about him perfect, down to the dimple in his pointed chin.

The morning shift doctor, who’d come just in time for the catch shook his head. “No visible cause for demise. Cord is plump and healthy. No deformities. We can request an autopsy if you like.”
I looked to Kate, and she grimaced. “I don’t know,” she said.

“Think about it. You don’t have to decide now.” This doctor was calmer than the cowboy one. “I know this is very hard for you.”

“I want him,” Kate held out her arms. The doctor and nurse glanced at each other.

“Sharon will clean him up for you while you work on getting this placenta out.”

“No, now. I want his skin on mine, while he’s still warm from me.”

Kate rested the baby’s limp body on her plump breasts while she expelled the placenta easily, like an afterthought. The nurse took the placenta off to be examined. The doctor made a gracious exit. And at last, we could just be. Here with our baby and the goddamn tragedy of it all.

We held miniscule hands and feet between our fingers. Marveled at his pursed, ruby lips. He was getting colder, his skin growing a darker blue.

“What shall we name him?” Kate asked.

I tried to remember the boy names on our list at home. Nicholas, Peter, Ryan. Nicholas, we decided. Nicholas Ryan Hill-Meyer.

“What do you think about an autopsy?” I asked her.

Tears welled in her eyes. “I don’t want them to cut into him. He’s so perfect.”

“You’re okay not knowing then?”

She smoothed his thin dark hair, paused her thumb on his soft spot. “We’re never going to know. It doesn’t matter what they tell us, we’ll never know why. Not really. They can’t give us the answers I need.”

The nurse came back, and Kate let her take Nicholas to wash him, wrap him in a warm blanket.
“You can hold him as long as you like,” she said to Kate later when she held out the little bundle, but Kate directed her to me. “You’re a good friend,” she said, “standing by her like this. She’s going to need a lot of support over the next few weeks.”

“I’m not—” but I stopped myself. Forget it. My eyes were lost on Nicholas’ tiny, perfect face. His little Dudly-Do-Right chin. Even with the blanket, he was no heavier than a loaf of bread.
After the nurse left, I made some calls. A couple of close friends. Our donor and his girlfriend. We decided to give Toby the option to meet his brother. Macabre as it seemed, it felt more right than just telling him the baby’s gone. I would go get him and we’d show him the baby only if he wanted to see him.

It was a gorgeous spring day. As I walked across the parking lot, I noticed a crowd near my car. The damn bikers again. Passing a joint and a beer. The one with the droopy moustache was sitting on the trunk of my Toyota. Of all the cars, why mine? I marched forward, grim-faced.
He watched me as I walked toward him, and startled when he realized which vehicle I was claiming. He leapt off the car like it had burned him, gave the trunk a little brush. “I’m sorry,” he said.

I scowled back.

“No, I mean, I’m really sorry.” He stepped forward and for a second I thought he was going to touch me. “I’m sorry about your baby.”

My stomach tightened as if punched, my throat squeezed shut. Then I relaxed as his words soaked into me. My baby. I looked at his eyes, and they were soft and sad. He’d given me what nobody in that hospital would, and all I could manage was a hoarse, “Yeah.”

I had to drive away before I could let go. Pull over on a quiet street. Rest my head and arms on the steering wheel. I let myself cry.

My baby. He was my baby, too.

© Jennifer Meyer. To reprint, please ask for permission.

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