On October 31st, 2012, I awoke to a phone call from my sister. “I think I’m going to have a baby today. Maybe baby!” I pretended to be calm and collected and told her I would be right over. She only lives five minutes down the road.
When I got to my sister’s house, her curly-headed 2-year-old Rachie greeted me at the door with a big grin. My sister was trying to stifle her own excitement, knowing that while she had been having steady contractions since 3 a.m., birthing is unpredictable–it could be an hour or a day. As we watched television, she wiggled around on the birthing ball, shifting positions, walking around, breathing deeply as her contractions rose and fell. I was mesmerized. This woman before me, sister of my blood, seemed elevated with grace and knowing even in the throes of her primal ache. What a great laborer, I thought to myself enviously. I wish I could do that.
When it was almost noon, we noticed that the contractions were coming a bit less frequently than the morning. “When they get back from the store, Rachie will nurse,” my sister said confidently. “That will get the contractions going again.” Sure enough, the arrival of her big girl sent strong clenches through her uterus as we awaited the midwife. Not just any midwife, but the woman who had gently steered and caught my son and both my sister’s older children.
Michelle arrived and set about fixing her Doppler on the swollen belly to get a heartbeat reading. She placed it low. And high. And to the side. And… nothing. As minutes passed without a reading, I saw my sister’s eyes widen with worry. Perhaps laying down on the futon would help position things correctly. She moved into the birthing room that had been set up in the study, door closed, as I entertained my niece in the living room. More minutes. Then the midwife came out, gently shutting the door behind her, fingers dialing her phone as she quickly explained to me that there was no heartbeat to be found. Maybe this was a tricky baby. Maybe there was a problem. Either way, they were calling ahead to let the hospital know they were on their way for an ultrasound. My sister came out of the room walking as if shackles were on her feet, her neck bent and eyes searching mine. “There’s no heartbeat.” She collapsed into my arms. I held her tightly. “I don’t know what to do if she’s dead,” she whispered. I spoke to her calmly, saying, “Let’s just take one thing at a time. We’ll figure it out.”
They left for the hospital; my instructions were to care for my niece and bring our parents up to date. I was frantic. I called my brother’s house and got my sister-in-law on the phone, “They can’t find the heartbeat. Hospital.” Unable to stay still, I took Rachie for a walk outside, around the block, just like yesterday when we had all taken that walk together to help gravity and motion induce the baby’s coming. Should we not have gone for that walk? Was there something I could do that I hadn’t? No answers. As we circled back to the house, my phone rang. “She’s dead. The baby is dead.” Oh God.
I had no idea what scene would greet me at the hospital. Morbid visions of crying, screaming at the earth so visceral as to pull down the mountains filled me with coldness. Michelle met me at the elevator, enveloped me in a hug. “She’s going to have the baby. She will deliver the placenta. And when she stops bleeding, she can go home. They are doing ok. They’re listening to Bon Jovi.” I sputtered a laugh, feeling disbelief. We walked down the hallway. The staff had placed my sister at the end of the hall, empty rooms surrounding hers. “So she doesn’t have to walk past crying babies,” Michelle offered. I opened the door. My sister was laboring quietly in bed, her husband seated next to her, holding hands. We hugged. She had been given some pain medication that had a calming effect but kept her lucid. She decided to sit on the birthing ball. I rubbed her back. She was hungry. I cut up her baked potato, added butter. An hour passed.
“Rachie knows the baby’s name,” my sister whispered. “I didn’t tell anyone else but her. She knows it is a secret. If you ask her she will say ‘Shhhh'” as she mimed a finger to her lips. “Sarah. Her name is Sarah Tzipporah.” We cried.
That moment of release, of truth, gave way to logistics. I would go back to the house and take her children back to my house. Her 5-year-old son would think it was a treat to stay over at his cousin’s house–the 2-year-old may be trickier, since she had never spent the night away from her Mama, but I would manage. We hugged. I wished I could stay to see her through this birth, to finally get to see her through her birth, but being a Mama means you must take care of all the baby birds in the nest.
Sarah was born around 10 p.m. that night, just as little Rachie fell asleep cuddled up to me on the couch. From the front, she was perfect: A beautiful head of dark hair, rosebud lips and a cleft chin, chubby thighs and wrinkly feet. Ten fingers and 10 toes. But laid on her stomach, it was apparent that her spine had not formed properly. There were divots and fissures where there ought not be. The umbilical cord was short, slimy, indicating possible infection. No autopsy. Nothing to be gained.
My sister labored and birthed all three of her children with grace, compassion and love. She showed such strength of character and mind, even when the walls of the world were crumbling beneath her feet.
Life never really goes according to plan. Neither does death. But our lives are forever changed by my sweet little niece. She is still Sarah.