The following is the true story of my daughter, Freya Rose. She passed away on January 21, 2016 and was born a day later.
Part 2: The Mattress
I wrap the mattress tighter than I do the wooden slats. I know that if I could just put enough pressure on the mattress, if I can squeeze it tight enough, it might just take up less room in our crawlspace. Maybe then I’ll have room for something other than this crib.
When we were driving to the hospital, our midwife having just confirmed that she could not find our daughter’s heartbeat, some part of me was still hopeful. I had heard of miracle cases before, times when people thought that everything was over but, by some Hollywood stroke of luck or genius, everything worked out in the end.
It was probably for that reason that I needed to know for sure that Freya had died. I couldn’t see for myself so I had to rely on the experts around me. This realization hurt: I had never seen her. Maybe that’s why, when we finally got the senior physician on staff to confirm that her heart had stopped, I felt my soul split down the middle.
Throughout the pregnancy, I had thought that my job was to make sure the everyday workings of our household kept moving forward as usual. I went to work, I did my share of the cooking and cleaning, I even ran on more than one grocery run at ungodly hours of the night. When I found out that she died, I felt more useless than I had ever felt in my life.
On the one hand, I knew that I needed to continue taking care of my family, even if it wasn’t the family I thought it was going to be. I had a wife, a dog, a house, all things that needed my attention. But at the same time I felt a horrible tearing inside of myself: one half was the husband, the other was the wrenching anger and sadness I felt as I watched my wife deliver my stillborn daughter. I have never been more conflicted about how I felt at a given moment than I did in that delivery room.
After Freya was born, my wife and I waited in the delivery room for our midwife to clean Freya’s body in another room, relieved that the physical ordeal was over but simultaneously dreading the thought of seeing our dead child for the first time.
In my research during the pregnancy I had come across a familiar saying: “A mother meets her baby the first time she feels her move inside of her womb; a father meets his baby the first time he holds her.” I didn’t realize how much I was looking forward to that moment until I did hold her and felt my legs go weak. There shouldn’t be room for that much despair in a man. I knelt on the floor in front of her natal cart and wept.
We spent the next few days in the hospital recovering from the birth both physically and emotionally. In retrospect, I am extremely thankful for the hospital’s policies on stillbirths: parents were allowed to keep their child’s body in a private room nearby and were allowed to see them at any time.
At first I was horrified by the idea that we would be so near to her during our stay at the hospital. Why do I need to be reminded of this? Why do I have to relive this over and over again every time I walk past that door to get a drink of water? Why can’t they take her away and let me forget this ever happened?
As the days wore on, however, I found myself wanting to see her more and more, spending less time in our room and more time in hers. She was placed on a type of bassinet that was chilled from the bottom using a self-contained refrigeration unit. As I touched her cold fingers and toes for the first time, I tried to forget the reason why this humming little motor was needed under my daughter’s bed.
Eventually, with a bit of encouragement from my wife, I began to learn more about Freya’s body. For some reason, even though I knew that, had she lived, I would have given her baths and changed her just like any other baby, I felt as though she was sacred now and shouldn’t be shamed by nakedness or the prodding of clumsy fingers. Still, the foreignness of her wintry body began to feel more and more comforting and natural. As I spent more time with her, I found myself marveling at the smoothness of her cheek or the shape of her feet. I can still remember the feeling of her little hands resting around my index finger, her skin soft and newborn.
I became a different person during those few days; where I was once unfamiliar with heartbreak and truly cosmic and unfair loss, I soon became someone who was beginning to accept the double-edged nature of mortality. I felt my heart rip apart and stitch itself together twenty times a day, building a little bit more scar tissue with every pass.
I began to imagine what it would be like when we would inevitably have to leave the hospital and go home. The thought made my chest constrict with fear. I can’t leave her here. I can’t keep her safe if she’s here and I’m not. I still feel this way from time to time when I see her photo in our living room and wonder where she is and whether she’s alright.
Family and friends came to visit. Some of the interactions were positive, some neutral, and then there were the few horrible ones. In the coming year I would learn a lot about this last type of person and where they were coming from but, in the moment, I could only feel a twist of rage as they spoke. A friend of my wife’s wondered aloud if maybe the reason Freya died was because my wife and I weren’t right for each other. My father refused to see Freya’s body. A nurse asked us why we wanted access to the locked room where Freya was kept, annoyed by the distraction, not knowing who we were. It was in those moments that I knew I would always be a father because an instinctual, protective violence coiled in my body whenever I was confronted with these situations.
As we left the hospital, I caught myself glancing in the rear-view mirror, hoping that this cruel trick would reveal itself and Freya would be sitting in a little pink car-seat in the back of my two-door sedan. But of course, no such luck.
We stayed with my wife’s parents for the next few days, trying to recover and prepare ourselves for the pain that would come when we eventually went home. Some consolation came from seeing our dog again after a week apart, the one family member we could dote on and through who we could remind ourselves of what kind of parents we had wanted to be. I watched through blurry eyes as my wife cooed to our dog, cuddling with her on the guest bed at her parents house.
I finish wrapping the mattress, cinching the plastic wrap tight around the bottom. I can hear the wrap straining against itself, the mattress pushing out from every side. As I lean it against the wall and look to the rest of the crib, I hear a pop as the top of the mattress bursts through the careful wrapping. There’s no way it will stay so confined.