Born Still

In Creative Nonfiction by Anna West

Born Still
Photo by Matt Artz on Unsplash

I was watching a gothic tableau play out from the corner of a hospital room. A pale girl lay on the bed below. Dark hair on white pillows. White sheets between her legs stained with blood. I felt compassion for the pale girl and the three people bending over her. Two nurses and a young doctor. A cry caught in his throat. “We’re losing her!”

“Please, Sis, come back!” My brother Finn’s voice echoed in my head—a faint scent of roses, and a flash of my daughter Gala’s little face. “Don’t leave Mummy!”

Could I come back to that pain? I felt gutted, cracked open as I worked to bear the child I alone would know. For eight and a half months, Vida, my tiny violet girl lay curled, safe within my belly, our secret world her only experience of life. I knew she wasn’t going to make it, but the doctor insisted it was my imagination.

Gala knew as well. We were standing in the kitchen when Vida died. Held in a moment caught forever in time, I felt her drop as Gala’s hands came up to hold my belly. A breath as long and sweet as a strong sea breeze rushed from my body.

And she was gone.

It was late afternoon. A Friday in February. Hot, the air still and humid. We left the house and walked down the path between the Morton Bay fig trees where the fruit bats lived, to the bay below our house. Sulphur crested cockatoos were coming home to roost, their screeching voices filling the air with a tumult of sound. Gala and I loved the big-eyed bats and the raucous birds. We came down here every evening to watch the sunset, which at this time of year was a spectacular show of flamboyant reds and golds, shot through with lilac turning to indigo as the clouds caught the last light of the day. Gala nestled close to me as I felt the waves of sorrow rise through my body and break in my throat.

I gave myself and Vida three days. My excuse being it was a long weekend. I knew it may not have been wise, but I needed time to allow the flickering light that lingered in my womb space to complete the journey. I needed time to prepare for what I knew faced me.

And I needed time to compose my seething energy so I didn’t rip out the throat of that hardboiled doctor. Not that he could have done anything. Nor was he meant to. I didn’t even expect him to. But I still wanted to rip out his throat. See what he thought about my imagination now, the patronizing bastard.

I caught a cab to the maternity clinic alone. I was nearly to term, so didn’t have to wait long before being taken in to see him.

“Good morning my dear, how do you feel?”

“The baby died on Friday.” I felt calm and strong and faced him with a direct, steady gaze. One heartbeat as he studied me. “Get on the table.” He searched my eyes as he held my wrist to take my pulse. He moved to feel my belly. He reached for the sonogram. The gel he spread on my body was ice cold. A brief pass of the probe and he leaned forward to turn off the machine. “Ask someone to bring your things.” A flurry of activity as I was shuttled to the hospital across the road.

They gave me a beautiful, private, corner room with a surrounding balcony and views of the sky. That night the moon was red. Huge and low, and the skies even more impressively fiery than the afternoon Vida died.

The induction was scheduled to begin early the following morning. I was on suicide watch; the staff, though respectfully inconspicuous, stayed close and vigilant. I rested, but didn’t sleep; I was very much awake in the Otherworld I inhabited that night.

It was done. Over. I woke up to the perfume of dark red roses filling the room. Bunches of them; on the nightstand, on the table across from my bed. On the floor in the corner of the room. They were a gift from Finn, the nurses said.

I lived the next few days in a fog. I felt tethered. Tethered physically for sure by the tubes that seemed to run every which way from my body. I could handle those, it was the soul-tethering I was having an issue with. After my first sprint to freedom in the labor ward when I watched from the corner of the room, the world about me conspired to tether me like a helium balloon tied to the wrist of a fractious child. A bright ball of fire caught on the mast of corporeal life.

I was grateful for their watchful care. Their heartfelt recovery effort touched me, but it was Gala and Finn who brought me back. I came back for Gala. Now I needed to find a way back to myself. Or not.

I struggled to maintain a balance between the physical will to survive and an almost stronger force that pulled me toward complete surrender and the relinquishing of control. This conflict, together with a sharp claw of remorse and grief, tore at my solar plexus like a pack of ravening dogs.

Finn’s voice reached me through the fog, “Come on, Sis. Let’s get you out of this mausoleum and back home to your own bed. I’ll act as your batman.”

Life an ongoing adventure for him, he still spoke in boy’s own annual language. But I trusted he would watch over me and I was desperate to leave the hospital. He was right. It had become as cold as a crypt.

Back at the house I wandered from room to room. I wished Gala was with me, but the voices of reason surrounding me had voted she spend the first few days of my return with family and friends.

Who were these ‘voices of reason’? What did they know? Where were they when Vida rested quietly below my heart and whispered her farewell in one long, sweet sigh?

What the hell. It was just as much my fault. How were they to know I needed help? I was always so self-contained. Self-counseled, as one of my friends had called me with a tinge of reproach in her voice.

I longed for the deep, dark respite of dreamless sleep. Finn had left me one pill, my “knock-out drop” he called it. To be used only in times of insurmountable anguish. He had promised the doctors he would watch out for me, and this he did, albeit in his crazy Finn way.

I took the pill and crawled into bed, my last thought as I slipped under the silken waters of a deep and silent slumber. “Why wouldn’t they let me see Vida before they took her away? Where did they take her? Where is she now?”

A crack opened in my heart as I surrendered to the dark peace of the void.

A few days later, looking out of my bedroom window toward the familiar scene of morning glories spilling blue across bright green grass, I considered the preternatural condition of being both vessel of life and tomb to a child.

My cells wailed with the grief of never seeing, holding, touching my little girl and felt all the more grateful for the few days I held Vida ‘still’ in my belly. My friends, though wanting to be kind, shuddered in horror imagining the putrescence of rotting flesh, but babies who die in utero do not rot. In fact, they can eventually calcify, turn to stone if not induced or passed spontaneously.

I wasn’t sure if this was true, or just a myth, or if Finn had made it up, but the image consumed me. My labor had been long, painful and all the more difficult because Vida was dead and not able to help. I felt as if my flesh was being sliced by white hot, razor sharp blades, and my dreams became filled with stone babies. Battalions of them lined up in caverns honeycombed beneath the sea.

Born still. Still born. An icy, eerie stillness; a silence that echoed through my bones. A heartbreaking, earth-shaking silence, no cry, no movement. And once delivered of the quiet and empty child, my body, as designed, was primed and ready to nurture the life held within it for almost nine months. All business, moving forward as bodies do. Breasts heavy with milk. Weeping milk.

I moved through the next few weeks observing life cocooned in a veil of merciful shock and the occasional bowl of opiated hash. Gala was the only one who could slip through the mists to touch my shattered heart and soothe the fire that blazed beneath my skin.

I watched life played out on a distant stage, my family and friends’ voices all but reaching me, echoing down corridors that separated my world from theirs. I acknowledged their distress as they watched me disappear further and further into a labyrinth from which, I knew, they feared I may not return.

Other than Gala and perhaps Finn, I didn’t want to see or talk to anyone. I had a sneaking suspicion that people didn’t want to talk to me either. They didn’t know what to say, or how to say it. Truthfully, there was nothing that could be said. Silence was my favored option, but it seemed most personalities needed to make a statement. Fill the emptiness with sound when a quiet touch of an open heart and the courageous connection of eye to eye contact; a generous holding of space without personal agenda spoke volumes. Most statements were unintentionally cruel. “Better now than later.” “It’s Karma.”

I realized it was for themselves they spoke, not for me.

The days passed. Long. Hard days. Ice drenched veins. Fire scorched skin. Leaden, heavy heart. My bones, ligaments, everything ached. I couldn’t eat. Didn’t want to eat. But slowly fragments began to coalesce around a kernel of light that still gamely flickered at the center of my being, and I began to feel the power of a life-affirming rage surge through my system, and my natural resilience began to reclaim its presence.

They do not know why babies are born still. I didn’t need to know; it was enough that Vida had died, but whatever the reason, it seemed the responsibility for her death rested wholly with me. The subject of an unsuccessful birth was taboo. Considered a failure in the eyes of the wider world, I guessed my failure was also festering in the deep of my husband’s broken heart. I sensed my presence occurred as a reproof, and the shadow of blame wrapped its sticky tentacles around me.

In some ways I lamented losing the safety of my moonstruck state. I had no doubt that I would remain slightly unglued for some time to come. And I knew that when I came in to land, the full force of my pain would wash over me, and no matter where I found myself, there would be no turning back.

And land I did. I stumbled, righted myself and stumbled again. My husband and I parted, not altogether amicably, but after some years of back and forth, remain firm and loving friends.

Gala has grown into an extraordinary woman, my best friend and mother to Isobel, a rainbow child, for Gala experienced the loss in infancy of her first baby, Aurora Valentine.

Finn has faced dreadful tragedy, but found his bearings, and lives happily near Botany with the love of his life.

About the Author

Anna West

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Anna West is currently working on “In the Garden of Dark Flowers,” from which this piece is taken. Born in Australia, she grew up in Africa, the West Indies, Europe and the UK. She has worked as a producer, actor, waitress and shepherd. She lived in East Arnhem Land while working with the Yolngu Aboriginal people on a documentary that captured their Creation Story, and had the great privilege of working with Ngawangdhondup Narkyid (Kuno), His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s confidante and official biographer. A committed traveller, she is currently based in London working as a writer/ editor.