Birth Stories

Published on May 12th, 2017 | by Gabriella Belfiglio

9

Ragged: A Stillbirth Story

Scattering

 

Here bone and here skin—

no teeth in these ashes—you

didn’t have time to grow that

sharp bite for this world.

Here lips and here the heels

of your tiny feet that never

touched the earth.  I peeked

under the wrap they brought you

in, saw you raw and naked, but

I can barely remember.  How I

dreamed of knowing your body.

Every crease,             every mark.

With still closer consideration

than a lover gives.  Here

elbow and here knee.

Here the snake of your intestines

that never digested even the

mother’s milk my body leaked

those first miserable weeks.

Here skull and eye sockets, here iris

and cornea, here narrow ten

perfect fingers and ten nails

that never scratched.

In one of the only photographs

of you—I am holding

your hand and it looks

like you’re squeezing back.

Here spleen.  Here liver and kidney.

Here navel.  Here lungs.

Here heart:

both yours and mine.

 

I hide inside of poems. It is easier to bare all behind the mask of metaphor, the syncopation of syntax, the awe of alliteration, or the music of meter. I hide in the cadence of words, in the breaks of lines.

I’ve always been a sprinter, not a marathon runner. In public, I dash through the poignant moments of life, never revealing the full spectrum. Never looking back after running across the imaginary finish line.  I tell stories, but only glimpses. In poems I can capture beginnings, endings, a scene, a snapshot; like my father’s array of seven fishes rushed onto the Christmas-eve dinner table; or a freezing afternoon slinging fish in Union Square—my coworkers and I huddled together like penguins; or the instant I first saw the love of my life: sun shining—neon lime green shirt. #5 printed on the back, her beautiful body jumping up to catch a softball.

It’s the middle I can never quite capture. The neutral zone. The tedious daily pull, which becomes the mainstay of our lives.

Dante’s Inferno starts:

 

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita

            mi ritrovai per una selva oscura

            ché la diritta via era smarrita.

 

            In the middle of the journey of our life

            I stray away from the straight road

            and wake to find myself alone in a dark wood.

 

Dante’s detour into hell is an exploration of middle, which begins with a classic before versus after moment. We all have many of them: Before I fell in love for the first time—and after; before I left my childhood home—and after; before the car accident—and after.

Some of these moments are so momentous that the transition becomes crucial to your identity.

Before I was pregnant, I dreamt about it. I wrote poems anticipating my children.  I was often mistaken for the mother of children who looked nothing like me. Family, friends, and even strangers constantly told me how great a mother I would be.  I started babysitting when I was still a child. I was a mini mother to the toddler who lived across the street.

After college, I worked as nanny in Brooklyn. I mothered children who were not mine, plunged between the privileged white American parents and the Caribbean nannies. I was duped into my first nanny job while assisting two writers who were starting a new literary magazine. They were a married couple with a little girl and the wife was pregnant. Their new-born son spent his first three years on this earth in my care more than anyone else’s.

I became a teacher and touch the lives of many, as they do mine: our connections deep and everlasting. But I always have to say goodbye.

Finally, motherhood became more than a dream. My life partner and I sifted through the ridiculous on-line catalogs of expensive sperm—the irony that this was something that has been offered to me for free my entire life, until now, resentfully noted. We chose our donor and on our second try inseminating we succeeded!

While I was pregnant, we read and sang to our baby in utero. I even organized a co-parent group with other expectant parents.

Not wanting to find out the gender, we took to calling the growing baby inside me sherman: we liked the she, he, her, man possibilities. I followed our pinprick of cells to the size of a cherry than an orange than a small melon. I thought now sherman has a spine, now eyes, now lungs to breathe.

One night, at thirty-one weeks, I was sitting on the couch with my partner.  I felt a strange tightness in my uterus.  We looked up what it might mean. It sounded like a Braxton-Hicks contraction, uncomfortable, but nothing serious, and not the rhythmic contractions we were taught to look out for. We went to bed. I woke up hours later and my uterus was still taut—but and I felt some pain.

On October 26th 2010, in the wee hours of the morning, we took a car service to Beth Israel. I thought we were anxious first time parents, I thought they would make fun of us for rushing to the hospital and send us home. I didn’t even bring a toothbrush or book to read. After we arrived, we waited for over an hour to be seen. Finally, after I threw up in the sterile hospital bathroom and the pain kept getting worse, we were ushered into a room.

And then everything happened so fast. So fucking fast. It’s exhausting to write it down, to speak it, it doesn’t even feel real.

Suddenly there were doctors and nurses all around me and they were whispering something about our baby’s heartbeat slowing down. The doctor began to bark orders frantically as the nurse fumbled with the IV, unable to find a vein.  They whisked me away, saying This Baby Has To Come Out NOW. I was so confused. I thought: it isn’t time, the due date is nine weeks away. I was worried about sherman being too small, being alone in the NICU.

Before I knew it, they smothered my breath with drugs and when I woke up, my baby, our baby was dead.

I lost so much blood, I would have died too, if I wasn’t pregnant and producing extra. Every time I asked in my post-anesthesia, morphined state where our baby was, my partner had to break the news to me again and again, keep telling me she died. I kept asking, forgetting the answer, or not believing it, or just unable to accept it.

We named our daughter Kali Antonia Belfiglio Suarez. We held her funeral on the date originally scheduled for her baby shower.

Ring-a-round the rosie,

A pocket full of posies,

Ashes! Ashes!

We all fall down.

Ashes, like baby powder, fire dust like a fairy’s magic sparkles. We scattered what was physically left of our child into the dirt of Brooklyn, like compost, like fertilizer.

Grow, baby girl. Begin again.

I go through revolving doors of emotions.

The sorrow surfaces when I look at other babies. My heart is woven with string and every smile from a tiny being pulls one loose.

The shame is constant, like blood moving through me. I think of how I failed—on a mundane level I tell myself: I should have gone to the hospital sooner. And on a metaphysical level I question: is this my Karma?, my fate?, what have I done that was so wicked to possibly deserve this?

The anger kicks in when I hear a parent yelling hate at their child—yanking them with a violent grip.

On the desperate days nothing can lift me, not even the first note of the cherry tree’s perfect pitch of pink, or the finest made chocolate on the tip of my tongue.

The self-pity comes round when, years later, I still cannot fit into my favorite clothes. A small thing you might think but it is a tangible symbol of a transformation I would rather not have had. Every time I pull on a pair of pants that cannot close or try to force a tiny dress over my foreign body, I am reminded not only of the loss of my daughter but of all my failures.  There’s a team of bullies inside my head crueler than the worst outside it. My waistline is constantly left with crease marks from too-tight clothes, just above the scar of my daughter’s unfair entrance into the unfair world.

The pain flares at unexpected moments that I am never quite ready for. My brother just had his first baby and my sister’s eleven-year old daughter says in front of the family, in front of me and my partner, in her loud happy voice: Oh, I am so glad it’s a boy, because that means I am still Pop’s favorite granddaughter.”

My daughter is erased which means that I am erased.

There is not even a word in the English language for people like me—it takes seven: a parent who has lost their child.

The other day, on my block, a few houses down I found a discarded puzzle piece. Being an artist, also known as a collector of trash, I pick up a thick wooden pig.  A few steps down, there’s another—smaller wooden pig. Big pig, small pig; it’s elementary.  One piece fits into the other: mama and baby. I am the wooden mother incomplete, an empty space the size and shape of my missing baby jagged out of my side.

What most people who knew me before don’t understand is that I am not the same person. I might look like my old self, but something is gone that will never return. It is harder to maneuver through the world now. I have always had a hard time fitting in, but now it is sometimes impossible.

The circles I used to move in don’t feel right.  I don’t know how to relate to people. Most don’t ever bring up my daughter, yet they easily talk about their own children. Kali Antonia is always on my mind. Always in my heart. Not feeling that it’s appropriate to talk about her is devastating. It’s a strange invisibility, like I’m leading a double existence. I feel like I have to put on the it’s all ok mask, I have to smile when it only hurts my already tense jaw.

Further, it’s not like I might regain my daughter some day, like the use of a broken hip. It’s not like I can replace Kali Antonia, like a prosthetic limb. I can never not be this mother—who is rarely counted in the club of mothers—who has a dead child. Who would want this identity?

One of the hardest parts is the endurance it takes.

The sprinter in me is forced to slow down, to pace myself, in order to endure this never-ending marathon of grief.

Self-help books read like an insult. You’re a better person because of this experience, they claim. Or like if you just go through the prescripted phases of grief you will come out the other side evolved, a winner. There are phases, sure. There are better days. There are even wonderful days. But reality circles back—the same sharp edge of the guillotine crashes down—severing the same head, again and again. No, I don’t believe in acceptance or closure when you lose something so central to your existence. Grief has no expiration date.

As C.S. Lewis said after losing his wife: Her death is like the sky, spread over everything.

Photo by Rachel Elkind

Scattering

 

Here bone and here skin—

no teeth in these ashes—you

didn’t have time to grow that

sharp bite for this world.

Here lips and here the heels

of your tiny feet that never

touched the earth

on their own accord.  I peeked

under the wrap they brought you

in, saw you raw and naked, but

I can barely remember.  How I

dreamed of knowing your body.

Every crease,             every mark.

With still closer consideration

than a lover gives.  Here

elbow and here knee.

Here the snake of your intestines

that never digested even the

mother’s milk my body leaked

those first miserable weeks—

my breasts swollen with need

of your suck. Here skull

and eye sockets, here iris

and cornea, here narrow ten

perfect fingers and ten nails

that never scratched.

In one of the only photographs

of you—I am holding

your hand and it looks

like you’re squeezing back.

Here spleen.  Here liver and kidney.

Here navel.  Here lungs.

Here heart:

both yours and mine.

 

 

Photo of Kali and her mothers taken by Rachel Elkind, part of the Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep organization, providing the gift of remembrance photography for parents who have lost a baby

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About the Author

Gabriella Belfiglio

Gabriella M. Belfiglio lives in Brooklyn, NY with her partner and four cats.  She teaches self-defense, conflict resolution, karate, and tai chi to people of all ages throughout the five boroughs.

Gabriella won second place in the 2014 W.B. Yeats Poetry Contest.

Gabriella’s work has been published in many anthologies and journals including Radius, The Centrifugal Eye, Avanti Popolo, Poetic Voices without Borders, Literary Mama, The Avocet, The Potomac Review, Lambda Literary Review, and The Monterey Poetry Review.

Her website is www.gabriellabelfiglio.info



9 Responses to Ragged: A Stillbirth Story

  1. Kelly Sokol says:

    Gorgeous and devastating and raw. And thank you.

  2. Stephanie says:

    thank you for sharing this beauty. my heart aches for you ❤️

  3. Claire says:

    I’m so sorry for the loss of your precious girl.

  4. Marcia Lerner says:

    I am still so so sorry for your loss, Gabriella. Of course it will hurt forever.

  5. Yuko says:

    So much love to you. Such an enormous loss and we learn to live with grief. Holding you in my thoughts.

  6. Claudette Boehm says:

    Kali will always be with you. Your tears will come and go; you are a different person now and always. Sending love to you.

  7. Anna (Ayla's mom) says:

    Yes. Yes. Me, too. Yes.
    Thank you for sharing your world.

  8. Sharline Chiang Sharline Chiang says:

    Incredibly powerful, and moving beyond words. Thank you for sharing your story. I am so sorry for your loss. Thank you for sharing Kali Antonia’s story.

  9. Charlotte O'Brien says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your story. Thank you for including a picture of your daughter. She is beautiful. I’m so sorry for your loss.

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