The Baby who Became a Seal


I stand in the gift shop at the Virginia Aquarium in February, almost halfway through my second pregnancy looking for a small stuffed animal to set up an altar for my unborn child. I am scheduled for my first ultrasound the following week. I hold a blue dolphin and all of a sudden I remember my first midwife, Vicki, and her nephew.

Over two years before I interviewed Vicki in December. My son was due in February. I had decided to move to New York toward the end of my pregnancy and needed to figure out his birth. I asked Vicki if any of her babies had ever died.  Yes, she said, One baby. He was my nephew. She told me that before he was born she had a dream that her nephew looked like a seal swimming in deep, dark waters. She told me that Ian, her nephew’s older brother, asked his father What if the baby isn’t a baby? What if the baby is a seal? When the baby had low heart tones towards the end of the pregnancy his mother, Karen, went to the hospital to deliver and soon after labor, without any knowledge of his condition, he died as she held him.

I bought that small dolphin and put it by my bed. A few days later I found out that my baby had several anomalies and might have trisomy 18 or 13. The best scenario is that this baby has Down Syndrome and a heart defect the doctor said. When I trained recently to become a Peer Minister for Isaiah’s Promise, the trainer from Be Not Afraid said Our parents pray for Down Syndrome. Those babies live. Those babies are miracles when you have a fatal “diagnosis.” I didn’t pray for that particular trisomy because somehow I knew that the sadness I had felt, the sadness that I thought was exhaustion might have been some intuitive knowing. My baby would be severely retarded. My baby would have no muscle tone. My baby would die.

I texted Vicki to tell her about my ultrasound results and she told me then that her nephew, John Gilbert, died of trisomy 18. I imagine the baby swimming in deep water, his body lithe and dark, flexible to be who he was. A sweet boy. Someone’s son. A Light.

When pediatric hospice tried to sabotage my homebirth, Vicki offered her home to me to birth Mary Rose peacefully. She had a friend in hospice and had already made contact with her. I felt so loved, surrounded by Grace here in my house with Vicki’s support reaching from New Jersey to Virginia. I recently had tea with Vicki and she told me more about John Gilbert’s birth. After John died his mother decided to pump and donate her son’s milk to other infants. His mother pumped for six weeks and during that time, Vicki got calls from all over the tri-state area from mothers who needed breast milk for their infants. John’s mother pumped gallons of milk and Vicki drove that milk to the Bronx, Westchester, Rockland County, around New Jersey. His milk fed five babies in that time. Vicki says John Gilbert continues to bless families by putting babies in need and their mothers with extra milk years later.

In Patricia Harman’s novel The Midwife of Hope River, Mrs. Potts, an older midwife is talking to the narrator, a younger midwife, about her son.

“Is he grown?”

“No, he died. Died at birth…”

“That’s what makes you a good midwife,” the old lady says. “You know the value of life, and you know loss. My father used to say the two are one, like the bramble and the rose. Life and death…the bramble and the rose” (200).

John Gilbert and Mary Rose are integral parts of our lives. Vicki and I choose to hold the space for the living and the dead who live on and bless us still. When Vicki and John’s parents looked into his dark eyes, they saw the depths between the worlds. As Vicki continues to receive babies she remembers her nephew and somehow understands the connection between the ancestors and ourselves a little more than those who have not witnessed the deaths of young ones whom we expected to live. Once we experience an infant death we do not take new life for granted anymore.

John Gilbert is an excellent midwife’s assistant. He is there with Vicki, especially in those dark hours of the night that remind us of the ocean’s mysteries when women labor as they wait for the light of the sun and the warmth of their newborns’ bodies in their arms.

Author: Dianna

DIANNA VAGIANOS ARMENTROUT is a published writer, teacher, workshop facilitator and poetry therapist. She graduated from Adelphi University’s Honors Program and earned her MAW from Manhattanville College. Dianna’s pregnancy with her daughter, Mary Rose, who died an hour after birth of trisomy 18, changed her life completely. Her blog, Walking the Labyrinth of My Heart, was launched in April 2015 as a way of offering support to others going through pregnancies with life-limiting and fatal diagnoses.

6 thoughts on “The Baby who Became a Seal”

  1. Thank you for this beautiful account. I am Vicki’s brother, Gil, and the father of that wee John Gilbert. I am touched to read on his impact here, and to know it plays out as a blessing of understanding for you. Though his condition at birth, when we first knew of it, came as a deeply impactful surprise, we also understood with an immediacy that surprised me that his life had already been spent, fulfilled in the idyllic and loving ocean of the womb. He had come for that, and to spend a few hours ashore in our arms, before returning from whence he came. He had not come to stay. His death, given his condition, was in the order of things. I accepted it. Karen, who birthed him as beautifully as our other three children endured a hard transition, deep physical, hormonal, and emotional layers of grief, with which I am sure you are all too familiar. And yet you write, and I thank you for your shared process, and witness your loss, along with your finding of light in your Mary Rose.

    1. I am so blessed by your words. My eyes are filled with tears again as I feel the deep presence of our children. Thank you for writing, and thank you for allowing me the honor of sharing your son’s precious life on this blog and in my book to support others going through these challenging and holy situations in pregnancy and birth. John Gilbert was with me before my ultrasound and knowing about him and about your good family gave me some strength during those months of shock and grief awaiting my daughter. Much love to you and Karen and your children…

  2. John Gilbert is always with me. His huge angel wings expand behind me. Perhaps that it why he was here on this earth for such a short time. We will never understand the why. We can only understand the love.

    1. Thank you for being open to sharing John Gilbert with my readers and with me. He is always in my heart, along with the other sweet ones who bless us each day.

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