Blow by Blow
by Melissa Miles McCarter
Maddy was born on September 1, 2003 and died on October 6, 2003. Her death certificate says CAUSE OF DEATH: SIDS. Sudden Infant Death Syndrome--also known as crib death.
My pregnancy had been one worry after another. However, it never even occurred to my husband and I that we might lose Maddy to SIDS. After her death, we tried to find some cause for her death other than the official cause of death, which seemed almost to be a non-diagnosis. I had been taking lithium for years for bipolar disorder; Maddy was exposed to the drug the first two months I was pregnant because my HCG levels were too low to show even in a blood test that I was pregnant. I later learned that the low levels signalled that the pregnancy wasn’t viable, but Maddy hang on, burrowing her way into my body and heart. We were unaware of the series of blows that were about to come.
Once I knew I was pregnant, I discontinued lithium because there was a risk it would cause congenital heart defects. On advice of my psychiatrist, I stayed on the antidepressant Celexa throughout my pregnancy, which I would later find out carries a similar risk to lithium. I also went onto the anti-seizure medication neurontin because it had a low risk profile in order to control my moods. We were so careful, trying to make the best decision for my mental health and Maddy’s well-being, but once she died we second guessed every decision.
The first blow came at 16 weeks into my pregnancy. The doctor told us that according to the ultrasound, Maddy might have Down Syndrome. We had already decided that if we were to find out that she did have Down Syndrome, we would abort. We wanted a healthy baby or no baby at all. The window to abort was about to close; right before the 6 months “deadline,” we found out from a specialist that the original ultrasound did not indicate Down Syndrome. It either was an error in measurement or interpretation. I thought back to the fact that a blood test failed to detect my pregnancy, and now an ultrasound had detected a phantom abnormality; I didn’t know that these medical irregularities would haunt my pregnancy and Maddy’s birth.
The next blow was around the corner. At the same time we knew for sure that we wanted carry the baby to term, I began to have frequent contractions. They put me on brethine to stop premature labor, and put me on a steroid to help develop Maddy’s lungs if the drug couldn’t prevent my going into labor. I was also told that I had to be put on bed rest for two months. The brethine made me feel like I was on speed and the steroid made me angry and irritable. So much for trying to control my moods--the medicines I was taking to keep Maddy inside in me and/or healthy if she was born caused me to have symptoms that mimicked bipolar disorder. I spent the last couple of months of my pregnancy in bed, wanting to run around the house at high speeds and snapping at my husband.
The next blow came at the next ultrasound, about three weeks before my due date. We discovered that Maddy was in the breech position. We were so beaten down at this point, having dealt with blow after blow in the course of this pregnancy. My OB/GYN told me we could try to “turn” the baby by their manually manipulating Maddy’s position in the doctor’s office. We breathed a sigh of relief for a moment but then we had another blow.
I thought I was leaking amniotic fluid and went to the emergency room. The nurse monitored me for a few hours and dismissed my fears. During this same time, my sister’s ex-boyfriend committed suicide and she asked us to come with her to pay her respects to his family because they lived about a couple of hours away from us. We got the okay from the hospital to travel. We figured, outside of the family obligation, it would be one last time to have some sort of vacation before Maddy’s arrival. After blow after blow, we thought it might rejuvenate us.
We left Tyler, Texas and continued on for a weekend trip to Louisiana. My husband had it in his mine that he wanted to see Kate Chopin’s home in Natchitoches. Being nerdy English doctoral students, this seemed the best way to have one last hurrah. Our two year old, my husband’s son, my step-son, came with us on this final family trip where it was to be just the three of us. We stopped in Shreveport, and went to a casino to have a breakfast buffet. I was at the end of my 37 weeks, and we planned to return home a few days later to have Maddy turned, or, if this failed, to have a C-Section. We never get to see where Kate Chopin’s home.
My water broke. I had to have an emergency C-section in Shreveport, four hours away from home. We were in a small Catholic hospital, where we weren’t even sure our limited graduate school issued health insurance would cover. My husband stayed with my step-son and I was rushed to the operating room, all by myself. But, we thought that now that the pregnancy was at a definite end, the blows would be over. It would all be over, and I was looking forward to holding my daughter in my arms.
. Blow. Maddy was born, but she wasn’t breathing. I kept asking, is she okay? But no one would tell me what was going on. Later, I would find out that they thought she was having a seizure. She was rushed into the NICU and I was brought to my room to recover from the C-section. I wouldn’t get to see Maddy until the next day. I lay in bed in agony, feeling my uterus shrink to near its original size, wishing I could hold my daughter in my arms.
My dad took a picture of her with his cellphone, and after he showed me it, it motivated me to get up and walk around a few hours after the surgery. I had to be able to get into a wheelchair before they would take me down to the NICU. Luckily, Maddy was stable, not having had another seizure. They decided to keep her in the NICU for about a week for observation while they put her on antibiotics because my culture tested positive for strep. Every three hours I went down to try to breastfeed her, but she had trouble latching on and I wasn’t producing enough milk. They supplemented with formula and I pumped in between seeing her. Even my breasts were failing us..
Three days after my surgery, I was officially released, but they let us stay in our hospital room until Maddy was released. The night before we were to take Maddy home, we got to “co-room” with her. Matt held her in a swaddled pink blanket and watched a football game. I held her in my arms under a LSU blanket my husband had bought me after wandering around Shreveport while I was recovering from surgery. We tried to breathe easy, walking out of the hospital with her after she passed the “car-seat” test, in which we proved we could safely strap her in. We were on our way back home.
While we thought the blows were over, that everything had been so worth it despite all our difficulties, I still had lurking concerns. She was born at 5 pounds 5 ounces, a bit earlier than we wanted. I hadn’t gained any weight in my pregnancy and soon was twenty pounds lighter than my weight before I got pregnant. But the worries started to wane when we went to her first pediatrician’s visit and she was almost 7 pounds. I was starting to gain weight. My milk was starting to flow easier. Maddy hardly gave us any trouble, sleeping on schedule and very rarely crying. The blows were done. Or so we thought.
The morning Maddy died, I was beside her in bed, fallen asleep next to her after we finished breast feeding. This would soon haunt me for years. When I first looked at her, she looked like she was sleeping, content with a small puckered smile on her face, swaddled in her pink blanket. I reached towards her, about to change her diaper after our long nap, and I realized she wasn’t breathing.
I called 911 and was told to put her on a flat surface. We were taught baby CPR at the hospital, but I couldn’t remember anything. I tried to suppress my panic and listened to the instructions. But her mouth was full of mucus; I couldn’t get her to breathe. After one puff, blood, like a small nosebleed, came out of her nose.
The doctors could never get her to come back to life, and in my heart I knew she was dead, even as I saw them working on her and hoped I was wrong. The doctors took forever before they confirmed this fear, which they did when my husband was on the way to the hospital. I was the last one to see her alive. After being interviewed separately by the police, a week of funeral services, and my husband taking a week off work, we were left with trying to deal with life, day by day. The blows had stopped, but we were broken in the wake of Maddy’s death.
I was afraid the horrible pain, feeling like I had a broken heart, would never end. For a while, I was a defective robot, unable to do the simplest tasks. I felt old before my time, unable to look forward to the next stage in life.
We thought the blows had stopped, but they still come, like aftershocks from Maddy’s death. Sometimes I feel guilty because I know that if Maddy had lived, my husband and I wouldn’t have as much free time together. I feel bad when I think about how old Maddy would be now and the milestones we might be enjoying. I love spending time with my stepson, but his company often reminds me of the joy we felt when Maddy was alive.
Blow. I run into a former student of mine from when I was a graduate teaching student at the university. She had last seen me pregnant and asks, "How is your baby?" I took a moment, tried to breath, then said, "She died of SIDS." I didn’t know how else to answer, and the conversation ended abruptly. This would only be the first of many times since.
Blow. I walk on campus and see all the innocent, carefree students starting the new semester, and it seems their only worry is what class to take. I feel like I have a visible gaping wound. I have become “a mother whose child has died.” There’s no other way to describe me.
Blow. I can’t let go of the day Maddy died, the last day I saw her. It is frozen in my mind, for me to go over and over, and it clouds my memories of her. I stare at the few photos we have of Maddy. I try to remember every moment I had with her. I can’t get the image of her dead, lying beside me--and then my trying to revive her--out of my mind.
Blow. I have physical reminders of Maddy's gestation, and eventual birth, that I cannot avoid.
One is the scar on my belly from the C-section. This scar fascinated my stepson, who would often raise up my shirt so he could gently touch the purplish line. He asks, "Who did this, Mommyhead?" I answered, "The doctor." He seems very sad. "The doctor not supposed to do that. He hurt you. I think to myself, "You're right--this shouldn’t have happened."
Blow. My step-son doesn’t understand where Maddy is. To him, she’s just gone. Sometimes, he asks my husband where Maddy is. It pains me to see my husband have to remind his son that his daughter, my step-son’s sister is dead. Britin doesn’t ask me, instead saying to me, haltingly, "Maddy is in heaven."
Blow. There’s a period of time when I can’t reminisce about Maddy with my husband.
Any mention of her name seems to pain him. To my step-son, he only remembers seeing her in the few photos we have of her. He doesn’t understand why I am sad, pointing to the picture, seeming to say, "Don't worry, Mommyhead, Maddy is right here."
Blow. Everyone who is close to me waits for me to fall apart. I am eerily calm, numb, functional, but an automaton. I only cry alone. I deadened myself, because life would not stop after Maddy died. Sometimes I wonder--if I had let myself break down, beyond a little at a time, would I feel less empty, resigned?
Blow. Sometimes, when I wake up the next day, I hope that my life will be a different story.
I never before had wanted to have a different past, to wish that life had been otherwise. I used to think, "Things might have been bad, but it was worth it to be at this point in my life." But the narrative of my life has been interrupted by Maddy's death. I have to accept that tragedies cannot be unwoven from my life. I have to accept that the blows never stop, just slowing down, fading into the background, like a heartbeat I wish I could hear again.