Kate Suddes lives in Portland with her husband Jimmy and daughter June. She gave birth to a stillborn baby boy named Paul a year ago today, and she was kind enough to share her moving story with us…
Nice Baby Boy
By Kate Suddes
We choose our joys and sorrows long before we experience them. —Kahlil Gibran
There are not many things I can stand to remember about that day. I can relive all the moments after he was born. But the hours before and between, 36 to be exact, feel too big to bear. Except this: I can hear the doctor say, “I can confirm there is no heartbeat,” and then I remember seeing a painting on the wall to my left. It was entitled “Mother and Son.”
Paul Thomas Hilliard was born on November 11, 2012, at 10:56pm on a cold, rainy Sunday night. He weighed six pounds, two ounces. He was beautiful. And he was gone. The Chicago Bears lost to the Houston Texans. Skyfall was the number-one movie in theaters. We were five days past the national election and I had been awake for the last two of them.
He had died the day before on November 10, 2012, sometime on Saturday morning. I was reading People magazine in bed. My cousin turned 29. I had pumpkin pie for breakfast. I often think like that now. I may be having a cup of coffee or taking a shower, but somewhere; it’s the worst moment in someone’s life.
His heart was beating and then it was not. I had two kids and then I had one. I was pregnant and then I was postpartum. There was a baby and then there was not. How do I explain that he died before he was born? How many times do I have to tell my daughter June that he’s not coming back? How many times do I have to tell myself? Now I make lists.
I fill out forms like this:
Number of pregnancies: 2
Number of live births: 1
I think in numbers:
1 out of 2
1-1 for the season
Half of my children
One alive, one dead
I keep track of people’s responses:
At least you’re not dead.
You can always have more kids.
I had a miscarriage.
Do you want to hold my baby?
You’ll figure it out.
You’ll move on.
My friend’s cousin had TWO stillborn babies.
At least you still have June.
You should eat.
You should sleep.
Certain questions are no longer straightforward. How many kids do you have? Is she your only one? Do you think you’ll have a second?
I had a dream that I walked into a room with many dead babies wrapped in blankets. He was there too and I was so happy to see him. I wanted to hold him so badly. Somehow his blanket came undone and he was covered—head to toe—in blue icing and sprinkles. You know me so well, baby Paul.
Was it all the Diet Coke I drank that summer? Is it because I wrote a short story about a stillborn baby in 9th grade? Was it the positive pregnancy test on April Fools’ Day? My fear of handling two kids? My joking about him being a neglected second child? Packing and moving four weeks before he was born? Was I overconfident about how well my first birth had gone? Did I have too much pizza? Watch too many sad movies? Eat too few vegetables? Was I ambivalent about having a son? Did he know something that I didn’t? If I write him letters, will he respond?
March 26, 2013
My body is heavy. And I’m being mean to it. Feeling sluggish, slow, and fat with grief. My tummy is full. I can’t quite figure out what’s in there. It’s not you. But you’re not out here either. I had no idea about this thing called grief. How all consuming it is. How slow and syrupy and invasive. Turning plain old regular moments into painful, sharp, little things. Out of the blue. June put drawings, make-believe cupcakes and donuts on your special table tonight. She said you needed cupcakes. Sometimes when I’m not quite asleep, not quite awake I imagine you here. What you would be doing. Sitting in a bouncy chair, squealing. Nursing. I miss nursing the most. And smelling you like a hound dog. Making out with you, newborn style. Instead I just walk around in a daze. Sometimes milk leaks. Sometimes I cry and I don’t know why.
It’s March. This is the month we made you. And it’s all coming back to me. The smell of the weather changing. The smell of clothes I’m finding from last year that remind me of being pregnant with you. I’m so used to missing you that I forget you were here. In my body. Moving around. Listening to my voice. I only ever felt you move. I never saw it from the outside of my body. I’m so sad, baby Paul. I’m so terribly, utterly sad.
I dreamt that I had a really nice talk with Gwyneth Paltrow. We met somewhere in Los Angeles. She was visiting from London and we talked about grief—the loss of her dad and the loss of my son. She was really sweet, gentle, and compassionate. She talked about how long it takes, how you feel disconnected from the real world. Or rather the real world is disconnected from you. Then she bought me a beautiful ceramic bowl.
I watch June sleep. I make sure she’s breathing. I look at her mouth and it reminds me of his. And I can’t remember which came first. Does her sleeping mouth look like his still one, or does his still one resemble hers? I read. I grocery shop. I try to pay attention to my marriage. I attempt to answer emails. I do laundry. I quit Facebook. I look at pictures. I check Twitter. I listen to the Dan Patrick Show. I watch Louis C.K. I bake. I count the days since and the days until.
April 11, 2013
Today is the 11th. The 11th comes every month. And with it, a little knot in my stomach. An avocado pit. A lemon. A key lime. Not unlike the fruits used to compare growing babies in the womb. I think about what you would be doing. How my day would inevitably be different. You would be 5 months. People keep saying things like “I hope it’s getting better” or “I hope that you’re adjusting more and more each day.” As if this were a straight line. As if the day you were born was the absolute worst and each day gets incrementally more tolerable. But I can name dozens of days that have been worse. Sometimes I’ll be doing something, anything. In a pretty emotionally neutral place. And then this deep sadness just stabs me. Somewhere in my chest. And I remember all over again that you’re gone. That I carried you all the way until your death. That your life was 9 months long and from there I birthed you out of my body. It’s not a straight line. There’s no beginning and no end. Today you would be 5 months. And then you would be 1 year. 2 years. 3, 5, 10, 16, 21, 35. When I’m crying, usually late at night, all I can think to say over and over is “I’m just so, so sad. I just want him to come back.” And Papa says, “I know. But he’s not coming back.”
Give a girl a sign,
There is one question that feels useless to me. Why? Others ask it. But why? What did they find? What went wrong? Are there medical explanations? I didn’t even know stillborn babies happen anymore? My midwife Catherine says, “He didn’t give us any warning. Like a child running out into the street.” But I was lulled into thinking he was a sure thing. Sometimes I think I can still negotiate his death. I fantasize about a time where his presence doesn’t feel absurd, audacious, cocky.
At my 20-week ultrasound we found out he was a boy. I knew it. Technology confirmed it. June was three years old. We said “June, it’s a boy. You’re going to have a brother. What do you think we should name him?” She replied, “Nice baby boy.” It feels strangely prophetic now. Like an idea or a wish. Like “maybe someday we’ll get a nice baby boy.”
Q&A with Kate
Today is Paul’s one-year anniversary. I was honored to ask Kate a few questions about her experience over the past year. Thank you so much for sharing, Kate.
How has your grief felt over the past year?
Surprising. I remember thinking, ‘Okay, so the day he was born and died will be the worst, and then it will get progressively better.’ It just didn’t happen that way. Physically and hormonally, I had that post-birth high that mothers get for the first few weeks. When the doctor put him in my arms, I remember seeing him and thinking, Oh, he’s so beautiful; and it sounds dumb, but there were a few seconds where I forgot that he was gone. I remember looking up toward the end of the bed and seeing my midwife, a nurse, my husband Jimmy, all these people, and they were all looking at me and crying, and I remember thinking, oh, right. It was like being told all over again.
What was it like after you went home?
Those six weeks after he was born, I was doing okay. I was functioning. I was writing thank-you notes. People were really present. We were still getting meals and flowers and cards. It wasn’t until a couple months later—January or February—that things got really bad. I started mourning and grieving in a way that I hadn’t fully done until that time. I wasn’t sleeping, I was staying up all night crying, I didn’t want to leave the house. The rest of the world has this unspoken expectation that you should get better and move on; I felt like I was nowhere near that. It was still so recent—I kept thinking, Now I would have had a three-month-old, a four-month-old, a five-month-old…I was still scratching the surface understanding what this loss meant for me as a mother, for our daughter June, in my relationship with my husband.
What was helpful for friends and relatives to say?
The most shocking thing was when some people in our lives pretended nothing happened. I think a lot people truly did not know what to do and I often get the feeling that they didn’t want to bring it up and “remind” me which, from my perspective just feels so absurd.
People just remaining interested, present, thoughtful and curious is so important to me. I’m always so touched when people say things like, I think of you all so often, I think of Paul, I’m so terribly sorry, etc. I want people to ask about Paul, about how he’s doing, how we’re doing, how June is doing…
I wanted them to ask the questions they would have asked if I had had a baby who was healthy and lived—where did the name come from? What was the birth like? Who did he look like? But people must have thought, ‘Don’t remind her.’ Nobody asked all those “normal” questions that come with having a baby. That felt like a huge loss for me. I wanted to talk about that. For me, when people ask questions, I feel comforted. It makes me feel more connected to him, as well.
He is so present in every moment for us, but I fear sometimes that he has just disappeared for a lot of people. I still feel him around. It’s hard to describe but I feel like I’m still parenting him from far away.
What do you think Paul was like?
He was really different from our daughter June. I knew that right away. He had a very different personality—I think he was a lot like Jimmy, my husband. Curious, stubborn, quiet, very witty with a dry sense of humor, but coming across as kind of serious. He was an old soul. That is how I “felt” Paul. Jimmy was born in the year of the dragon; Paul is also the year of the dragon; my brother is also the year of the dragon. The three men who I’m closest to in my life happen to be dragon babies.
His death was a loss of potential, too. I think about all the things I know about June that I never could have predicted. How much she loves olives and hot peppers—all the tiny things that make us who we are. That loss feels really big and sad to me, too. Not knowing his quirks, the words he would use, the things he would like.
Where did the name Paul come from?
Right after we had the ultrasound and found out for sure that he was a boy, we thought we should get June an anatomically correct boy babydoll. So we got a doll named Paul from the French company Corolle; he even had a little “Paul” T-shirt. We got so used to saying Baby Paul that the name stuck.
Today is his birthday. What are you going to do?
We are going make him a birthday cake; I know for sure that we will do that. My husband Jimmy took the day off. People keep asking, what else are you going to do that day? I don’t know. I don’t have an answer. I thought about maybe going back to the hospital room. I feel nervous about the day.
Why did you want to share your story?
A big part of me wants to write about Paul to keep him and his story alive, to keep him present in our family. But equally my desire to write about him stems from wanting to provide comfort and support to women who very suddenly find themselves in this situation. Almost immediately after he was born, I tore through every stillborn memoir and story I could find and it was SO COMFORTING. In ways I can’t even explain…it was like they were written in a secret language that only I could understand. And it was immensely soothing to know that I was not the only one, that there were all these perfectly healthy babies out there who were just gone. I know how lonely and isolating it was. And if I can put a book or even just this essay out in the world and one new mom can read it and feel even a tiny bit comforted, I feel lucky to provide that for someone.
Did you get to hold Paul?
We did get to hold Paul. I tried to memorize as much as I could, but it didn’t feel like enough. Jimmy, my mom and I were all able to hold him. June actually came to the hospital to meet him too. It’s actually one of my biggest regrets that I didn’t keep him longer. Of course I didn’t know at the time, but I read in some stories after that many women kept the babies and slept with them until the morning. Part of me wishes I had done that, but Jimmy felt ready to say goodbye. None of it would have felt like it was enough time, so I try not to beat myself up.
When did you find out that he had died?
One morning, three weeks before my due date, I didn’t feel him moving. I was with June in bed, reading books, and he was usually very active in the morning. But I didn’t feel him moving around. So I pushed against my belly and felt his arm or leg and pushed against it, and there was no resistance. That was the first moment that I had a twinge that something might be wrong.
I made some tea, and ate pumpkin pie for breakfast, and I called my midwife. She said, Drink your tea and lie down for thirty minutes. I lay down and waited for him to move, but he was still not moving. My midwife said at that point that I should go right into the hospital.
When we got there, the nurse looked for a heartbeat. I heard a really loud heartbeat and thought, There it is! But it was my heartbeat. She kept looking and looking. Finally, I said, “Look, you just need to tell me.” And she said, “I can’t confirm anything without the doctor, but I am having a hard time finding the heartbeat.” She left to get the doctor and I lost it.
When he came in, he said almost right away, “I can confirm that there is no heartbeat.”
Did you go through labor?
Yes, that’s something people don’t realize—that you still have to give birth. Jimmy said I could wait a few days, and my midwife and the doctors said I could take some time, but I wanted to do it right away. It’s funny, I thought it would go really quickly, like a few hours. I remember thinking, Okay, I’ll be home by midnight. But I was in labor for 36 hours.
You know that moment when you meet your beautiful baby for the first time? Well, realizing the beginning was also the end was heartbreaking. Just heartbreaking. And then regretting that I didn’t take 80 pictures instead of 75, or more photos from different angles, or that I forgot to take a piece of his hair…
This will never go away. He will always have his birthday. I had a child—a full-term, fully formed baby, with hair and fingernails—who was about to be born. Our son and June’s brother. He’s part of our family.
Kate, thank you so much for sharing your incredibly moving story. You can find more of Kate’s writing here. xoxoxo Lots of love to everyone today.
(Illustration by the wonderful Samantha Hahn for Cup of Jo)