Words and image by Abigail O’Shea
I never got to hear my daughter cry, or laugh, or even breathe. But I got to hold her and feel her against my chest as I cradled her lifeless body for eight hours. I slept with her in my arms and carried the illusion she was slumbering peacefully, even though I knew better. Even though I knew this was a whisper of the life she would never get to have and the moments we would never get to share.
Still, I savored those hours in the delivery room with my baby girl, and alongside my parents, my stepparents, and an unwavering nurse named Kim, bore witness to her existence by creating memories of her. We embraced her and kissed her tender cheeks to remember the way she felt. We studied her dainty face, attributing features like her slightly upturned button nose and full, rosy lips to my genes. We spritzed lavender hydrosol on her receiving blanket and nuzzled her, inhaling deeply to catalog the soft floral scent into our consciousness. We dressed her, took photos with her, captured her footprints, cut a delicate wisp of her hair, all to preserve her presence. We mourned and wept over her. We honored the undeniable, indelible impact she would have on our lives. We named her Grace.
I could have held her forever and it wouldn’t have been long enough. It felt unjust that our time together was so brief, and yet I shouldered the blame. I didn’t know I was pregnant until 27 weeks along, when my doctor informed me after doing routine blood work. I had assured her beforehand there was no way I could be pregnant; I was on the pill and hadn’t had a regular period in years, the result of a crushing, decade-long dependence on restricting, binging, and purging. I was wrong. I was completely unmoored from my body and the cues it was begging me to read.
It was February 2014 and I was reeling from a brutal, blindsiding breakup from the man who shaped my entire being. It had been a week since he upended my world on an otherwise ordinary Tuesday night. He said he could no longer be with me while I struggled with eating issues that he couldn’t fix. He took pride in planning and portioning every meal I ate, selecting flattering clothes, and doing anything he could to shield the shame of my illness from others, yet he was still unable to control the outcome. I was shattered and jilted, but saw it as an opportunity to re-engage my medical team, take ownership of my body, and win him back.
The days that followed told a different story. When my doctor called to deliver the news of my pregnancy, she also alerted me to my fatally low potassium level. My mom and I rushed to the hospital, where I received IV electrolytes and had an ultrasound to determine the baby’s gestational age. The imaging also revealed abnormalities with her spine and extremities. All I could think was that I caused this. I’d become so detached from my body that I didn’t realize I was pregnant, and had starved my baby of key nutrients in the process.
An amniocentesis and other advanced testing with a high-risk OBGYN two days later confirmed the worst. My daughter had an undiagnosed genetic disorder with profound neural tube defects. Even with rigorous oversight and treatment through the remainder of the pregnancy, it was unclear whether she would survive to term or through delivery, and certain she wouldn’t live more than a few days after. Once born, she wouldn’t be able to eat, breathe, or move on her own, and would spend whatever time she did have being poked, prodded, and bound by machines in the NICU. The obstetrics team and a pediatric geneticist assured me that my eating disorder didn’t make her sick, and that these were biological factors beyond our control. Their words were empty to me. They also explained that in Massachusetts it was illegal to terminate a pregnancy after 24 weeks, and I’d have to go out of state if I chose to have a late-term abortion.
Something inside me shifted in that moment. I stopped caring about returning to a relationship that amplified the distorted and untrue thoughts I had about myself. I stopped caring about manipulating my body to fit some nebulous ideal of beauty. I stopped caring about my needs altogether. My daughter was depending on me to show up for her and decide the most compassionate, humane way to move forward. It was my first real act as a mother.
I spent the next few days moving between introspection and conversation. My parents, who had been estranged following a contentious divorce, came together with their unflinching support. We spoke with each other, with specialists, and with a rabbi to weigh the moral and medical implications of my decision. I spoke with my ex-boyfriend, the baby’s father, to gauge his thoughts. He indicated no interest in being involved and said what to do with the “fetus” was entirely up to me. I already knew the answer. The image of my tiny, helpless baby hooked up to monitors and IV lines, intubated and encased in a plastic-walled bed, just for a sliver of time on Earth, seemed cruel and selfish. I had to end her suffering.
In early March, a week after learning of the pregnancy, my mom and I traveled to Albuquerque, the city where I was born, to visit one of the few clinics in the country that performed advanced-term abortions. It seemed like a twisted cosmic joke that my daughter’s life would end in the same place mine began. I faltered slightly when a protester heckled us on the way inside. Was I sure this was the right path? I’d always identified as pro-choice, but had never been called to face the decision until now. I reminded myself that any spiritual or emotional doubts couldn’t outweigh the painful, abbreviated life my baby would experience. And so we walked on.
My mom spent each heartbreaking moment next to me and shared every ounce of agony, gripping my hand as the doctor injected medication through my abdomen and into the amniotic sac, easing the baby’s heart to a slow, gentle stop. We returned to Boston the next day, where I was admitted to the hospital to be induced. On March 7 at 10:16 p.m., after 24 hours of labor and 10 days that held a lifetime of choices and sorrow to withstand, I gave birth to a precious baby girl whose small size belied her significant impact. I was immediately overcome with love and gratitude for my silent savior.
Though Grace’s time in the physical world was quiet and finite, the ways she changed me have endured. Because of Grace, I found a new respect for my body and an understanding of its capabilities. I found the strength to stop hurting for a man who left me broken down and detached from my sense of self. I found my way back into recovery on my own terms, ready and motivated to be healthy and whole. I found my voice.
She also taught me about that insoluble substance called grief, and the importance of honoring our sadness and giving ourselves the space to heal. While at times we wall into ourselves and dwell on those we’ve lost, there’s comfort in leaning on loved ones and looking to the simple beauties of the universe to keep their memory alive. Grace remains with me in a picture on my bedside table. I sense her presence in discarded change on the street, collecting these coins as though they’re messages from her. My mom created a book of photos and mementos that she gifted to the whole family that Christmas; my sister crafted a delicate silver bracelet affixed with tiny charms of angel wings and the letter G; my now-husband proposed to me at the spot where I shared Grace’s story with him; my mother-in-law never forgets to call me on Grace’s birthday.
Four years have passed and her influence abides. Grace helped close old wounds in my family and brought peace and equilibrium to my parents’ relationship. And as my husband and I seek to start a family of our own, Grace will always be our first child. She’ll forever fill the empty chair at our table. She’ll live on as the person who rescued me - my Saving Grace.
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