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.