Friday afternoon. The colour of the sky. The yellow green of jacaranda leaves against the intense blue sky.
It is August. I sit on the edge of the hospital bed, looking out the window. There is nothing else to do. Yellow green against blue.
It’s mid afternoon. I wait alone.
Now it is the day before yesterday, Wednesday, and I am wiping the kitchen cupboards. The brand new kitchen is covered in fine brown building dust. It's warm for August, which is why Possum is running around wearing only a teeshirt. Wipe, wipe, rinse the cloth. Then I am lying down on the cheap sofa we'd installed while we owner built. An island of foamy comfort in the tsunami of a building site.
‘Mummy, why are you lying down?'
My two-and-a-half-year old, who seldom saw me prone. Especially with a house to build. Especially as a mother of a two-and-a-half-year old.
'Mummy's waiting to feel the baby move.'
I am 36 weeks pregnant. Hugely. Being the second baby you don't look like you have a size 5 basketball shoved up your teeshirt, it’s more like a big messy pillow.
'Is the baby moving?”
“I'm not sure. Let's just lie still together and see.'
I lie still. There’s so many jobs still to do. Small tedious jobs, like wiping cupboards, and big jobs, like packing up the rented house, painting walls and building steps to the veranda. Who would owner build? It's never finished. Never finished until you split up and have to sell it and then it's finished and fabulous. But never before then.
Possum has wriggled off, out of sight. I hear her grunt, at the same time I hear a car on the gravel driveway. The latter is the TV antenna man, winding his way up the long drive. The grunt is that of the toddler who has taken a dump on the lounge room floor. Shit! Literally.
'Just a minute!’ I call out to the antenna man. Where’s the paper towel?
Friday morning. I am wearing my mother-in-law’s coat, bought in London when she was 30. She knows I like old things. It’s not ‘vintage couture’ but it serves its purpose. Can't tell if I am fat, or pregnant, or pregnant and fat.
I am shopping with my sister-in- law. I need slippers. I should have been more organised. My mother says, 'Do you have your port ready?' Who calls them ‘ports’ these days? No, my port is not packed. I am not organised. Now if I had some help …
I did ask. My mother said, 'When do I have time to help?' She is too busy being retired, painting pictures and maintaining the garden (it’s a big job). But still.
Pissed off, I ring my sister. She is always happy to trade complaints about our mother. But she's in one of those moods. I do my 'poor me' routine, her eyes narrow. I know, it's a phone call, but I can feel her eyes narrowing down the phone line. I step into the trap. 'Can you come and help me?' I whine.
'When did you ever help me? When I was pregnant and we were moving into our new house, surrounded by mud. When did you give me a hand?' She goes on and on. That was 21 years ago! I was sixteen. I didn't have a driver's license. There was no public transport to where she lived, I was doing my HSC and as useful as a chocolate teapot.
Did I say any of this to her? No. I listened and then I got off the phone and sobbed. And not for, like, three hours. Literally three hours. And I vowed, I am never going to speak to either of them, ever again. Not even if something bad really happens. I am never going to speak to them again.
Something bad happened. Friday, arvo. I sit on the tightly made hospital bed staring at the jacaranda leaves. I have a newspaper for company, bought from the booth in the hospital foyer. My sister- in-law has left. I urged her to go; she has a long drive home.
I have been induced with prostaglandin gel. It will be hours before my husband arrives as he is moving house. Flicking through the arts section of the paper, I see my old friend Greg has won a short film award. Yeah, go Greg, awesome. I want to ring and congratulate him, but I don't have his number. Also, it might be awkward to talk to him right now.
God, I really should ring my mother.
Thursday, afternoon. The antenna man has left. The poo has been cleaned up. Possum has a nappy on. I lie on the couch. We brought up a few pieces of furniture, because, as owner builders, we were here so much. A kettle, a table, folding chairs, the couch. I lie waiting for the baby to wriggle, to dance the merengue. Waiting.
Finally, I ring my obstetrician. I can’t feel the baby move. He tells me to come in to the hospital.
'Have I got time to shower?'
I am grimy from the kitchen cupboards. I have been living in these traccie dacks for weeks. The same traccie dacks. You only have one pair, when you are pregnant. A humungous pair.
'Yes, have a shower, then come in.'
Have I got time for Nick to come home from work and so we can drive up together?
‘Yes, come in together.’
He sounds calm. I call Nick and he leaves work, a little earlier than usual, but that’s okay, he’s the boss. The three of us pile in the car. In the country everything is 60 kilometres away. I’ve had my shower and I’ve thrown a few things together, just in case. But I haven’t packed my ‘port’.
‘Sorry you had to leave work early’, I apologise to Nick. He’s okay.
At the hospital we are ushered into the ultrasound area. The midwife is upbeat as she smears my belly with the gel, cold and oozy, thick and clammy. She swipes the instrument across and across and across my broad belly. She remains cheerful. She leaves to fetch another midwife. The second midwife repeats the motions of the first.
'Sometimes the heartbeat is obscured by other body parts,' the second midwife says, also cheerful.
'Let me know when I should start crying' I say, because I’m not one for hysteria, because I’m not going to be one of those neurotic types of pregnant women, am I? But they don't reply, they don’t reassure me. They continue to smile but leave to ring the doctor. We wait. It's probably his dinner time.
The obstetrician hasn't ever met my husband but doesn't introduce himself, or hold out his hand for a handshake. He gets straight down to it.
'I am afraid the worst has happened.'
Does he always say that? Did he rehearse that line on the way in?
I don’t cry yet. He tells me that I can continue to carry the baby until I go into labour naturally—there's no hurry—or I can be induced. I book in to be induced the next day.
I am carrying a dead thing. Where there was life and hope and dreams and a future human with her name already chosen there is now death. Inside me. I scream, ‘Get it out of me.’ But I’m just thinking the scream, I don’t actually do it. But I do cry. I am human.
We leave the hospital and by now it’s 7.30 and two-and-a-half-year olds need food, no matter the emotional devastation and the fact that mummy is weeping. Naturally we go to McDonalds, conveniently situated on the freeway out of town. I’m red-eyed but holding it together. Ordering normally. Waiting for our order normally.
The young McDonalds girl hands over the food. 'Have a nice night,' she says. Normally.
'What the fuck, my baby has just died. How can I have a good night?' I don't yell at her, because she is fifteen or sixteen and why ruin her night too? Imagine how traumatised she would be, poor thing?
The country shack we are renting while we build the ‘dream home’ has gently undulating floors and is held together with pink priming paint. The landlords are salt of the earth but the house should be razed. I decide that I can't come home from hospital to this dump. So we agree to move as planned, the next day, Friday, to our half-built house on the hillside.
There is a knock at the door. Unexpectedly, it is my brother and sister-in-law, on their way home from a camping holiday. They thought they'd pop in to say hello. Hello! They are greeted at the door by our swollen-eyed faces. They offer to stay the night. My sister-in-law will drive me to the hospital in the morning while David helps Nick with the move.
Friday morning. I shuffle past the removalists, wearing the heavy coat that obscures my belly, my head down, sobbing. I wonder if anyone tells them why. At least it is a good excuse for how disorganised we are. On the way, we stop to buy slippers. I dread anyone asking me when I am due. I avoid people's eyes. At the counter of the department store I pick up a bulk pack of man-sized hankies.
It’s Friday afternoon. I have read the paper. I have not rung Greg, the award-winning director.
I stare at the jacaranda. I ring my mother from the hospital pay phone. It is her grandchild after all, and she needs to hear it from me.
The world doesn't shift on its axis.
Friday evening. I think I ate the hospital food. Nick has arrived, exhausted. The doctor has given me another application of gel. I haven't dilated. The hospital is quiet, all the visitors gone. We have the whole place to ourselves. We sprawl in the waiting area and share a bottle of red wine. It's not going to make much difference now, is it?
As family are hours away, Possum is staying at her family day carer's. It is her first night away from us, ever. Later, Pauline gives me a photo of her in the bath. She doesn't look distressed. She looks … inscrutable.
Tuesday before. My regular visit to the obstetrician. I am 35 weeks pregnant and will be induced in two weeks, given my gestational diabetes.
He is listening to the heartbeat and I have this urge to ask him if I can listen too, but he only has a stupid old-fashioned cone, like a mini megaphone. Then, as I am walking out, he casually asks me if I’d been having many movements lately. 'Not as many as with Possum,' I reply. Now she was a kick boxer. Once I saw the outline of her foot through my skin, like it was poking through Gladwrap.
That casually asked question while I was already heading out the door. I think about it later, with the benefit of hindsight. But then? I did not have any inkling that anything was wrong, except for that urge to listen to the heartbeat. Some mother's intuition. While he must have known and was waiting for me to discover it for myself. That's why he told me to take my time.
The previous Wednesday night, in bed. Completely wrecked. I had been varnishing the timber edge of the kitchen benchtop. Anyone who’s ever been pregnant knows that when you are still, that’s when the baby kicks. It’s not kicking. My husband, who has never been pregnant, says, ‘things often go quiet just before the birth.' Hmpf. That’s when I started to get anxious.
Saturday morning. 4am. I am on my hands and knees. The contractions are strong and regular. I am fully dilated. The doctor is summoned. I feel for him, being called in at this hour on a Saturday to deliver a dead baby.
I have gas for the pain. I didn't have anything, for Possum’s birth, my all-natural whoo-hoo birth. Now, it's not even significant that I have gas.
It's quick and silent. There are no reassuring words. No—'You're doing really well.' 'It won't be long now.' Silent.
I gasp in the gas. I am doing really well.
There’s a complication. I don't know what the doctor is doing but it hurts. I hurt in silence. Sucking that gas. Maybe that’s what they mean by ‘suck it up’.
It’s done. There is no newborn baby cry, the most reassuring sound in the world.
'What did I have?'
'A girl. We had a girl.'
Like, why did I have to ask? Doesn't anyone think it matters? We only had one named picked, a girl’s.
They show her to me, wrapped up in a bunny rug. Luckily I'm not squeamish. Her skin has peeled, it is explained to me, because she has been dead for a while. Making me wonder when I had last felt her kick or move. How shocking, how negligent of me, not to notice that. What with the owner-building, the toddler, the finishing up at work … Poor little thing.
Actually, she’s not so little. She's a boofer. Eight pound eight, with broad shoulders. That's was the complication, he had to reach in, to break her little shoulder to get her out. Another indignity.
She looks like me. Poor thing. Boofy, peeled face.
The staff at the hospital are great. They hang a butterfly symbol on the door of our private room. It lets the staff know there has been a stillborn or SIDS baby, so that people don't say anything inappropriate, or act cheerful around us like we have just produced a miracle. They take Polaroids of her, wrapped in her bunny rug. They give us a small booklet containing a tuft of her strawberry blonde hair, her foot and handprints, her weight and date of birth.
We are told to take our time.
Her sister is brought in, with the paternal grandparents. Possum holds the baby and another Polaroid is taken, this time Possum’s face is clouded. Do you think that's cruel, subjecting her to death? She is more comfortable with the experience, I think, than my in-laws, who don't really feel too comfortable hanging out with a dead baby, being of the 'sweep-it-under-the-carpet' era. Still, they are here to support us.
It is now mid afternoon and even though we have been told to take our time, we feel we should vacate the room. Possum says goodbye to her baby sister. We leave the baby, swaddled in the yellow bunny rug. We have the little booklet and the Polaroids.
We wind up the long driveway to our semi-finished home and there is a glorious sunset, the full blood orange and tequila version, to welcome us home. It really is a heavenly spot.
The house—there are boxes everywhere and the electrician is still working, even though it is sunset on a Saturday.
'Sorry,' he says, about the baby, not the lack of electricity. He is the father of five. The power isn't going on tonight but it doesn't matter.
We potter about, putting things in place. The in-laws stay two days and then, seeing we can 'cope', they leave. The power is finally connected.
Flower arrangements begin to arrive, and visitors with gifts, mainly plants. My sister and mother arrive. I have made a nice lunch for them. Amazing that one can do stuff like that, on automatic pilot.
Like a time-lapse photo of a fungus growing in a petri dish, the flower arrangements multiply. It’s a high tide of flowers and the cards are like driftwood. We decide not to have a funeral, but have a gathering and my friend Bek plays the flute while a big mob of us plant trees for a forest in her memory.
The Tuesday after. I smell like a dim sim factory. I have cabbage leaves in my bra. Old wives' tale, supposedly helps with the discomfort. My milk has come in and it’s friggin' painful. My boobs don't know that the baby died. They are engorged, rock hard, and I'm weepy. Every few hours I change the cabbage leaves for fresh ones. Maybe it’s just the cold of the leaves but it is a relief.
People say ‘I don’t know what to say’. That’s okay. What’s not okay is ‘bummer’. True— that’s how one friend responded when I told him my baby had died. ‘Bummer’ is when your footy team loses the semi by a point. ‘Bummer’ is when the scoop falls off your icecream cone three licks in. Please don’t say ‘It’s nature’s way.’ Or ‘it was probably for the best’. You don’t know that. People cross the road to avoid me. When I go back to work, still numb, the childless librarian says, ‘I expect you want to take your mind off it.’ No. I don’t want to take my mind off ‘it. You do. You don’t want my sadness to remind you that a tragic thing happened. It’s like I’m somehow diseased, contagious. Then there’s the nurturers. Who fuss. Who prepare casseroles. Actually I didn’t get too many of them. Maybe I’m too too too too stoic.
It’s six months later. For an old bird, I do okay. Bang, so to speak, and I’m pregnant again. I’m not too anxious. I’m not fearful. I don’t think ‘it’ is gunna happen again. But the baby is precious. They all are, but this one is precious.
I’m driving down the hill with Possum, now three and a bit. She still wants her baby sister. She asks, ‘Is this baby going to be happy?’ I reassure her. This baby is going to be happy. And she is.
© Jane Harrison