Four Years

After another year of neglecting this blog, I wasn’t sure if this post was going to happen. With so many lives and livelihoods being lost to the history-in-the-making events that have shaped the past few months, every time I’ve managed to steal a few moments alone with my laptop this week, I’ve found myself staring blankly at the screen before me, unable to shake the feeling that sharing yet another post about my own grief journey seems both self-indulgent and unnecessary.

In many ways, four years later, my grieving season hasn’t changed much. It always starts around the beginning of May, as the first hints of spring permeate the air and adorn the trees, never failing to taunt me with reminders of the blissful anticipation I finally started to feel as I neared the end of my anxiety-ridden first pregnancy.

I’ve been looking through the same photos, listening to the same songs, and watching the same videos that I do each year—the moving images of Leah’s brief life that I don’t share on social media; the ones that show her body being visibly ravaged by seizures and her tiny lungs gasping for breath. I’ve been sobbing the same tears alone in the dark as I whisper again and again, “I’m so sorry, baby girl. I’m so sorry I couldn’t save you.”

I’ve been mumbling expletives under my breath every time minor inconveniences throw a wrench into my daily routine, and occasionally yelling these sentiments into the air while slamming tables and punching walls.

I’ve even had a few difficult moments of critical self-reflection where I stop and wonder if writing an annual post for this blog is really about Leah anymore. Since leaving academia and joining the private sector full-time, this blog has become my only real outlet for meaningful writing. Maybe Leah’s birthday has become a justification for me to take time away from “real life” each year and invest it into a vanity project. Because, when I’m being honest with myself, I know it’s much easier to spend my time waxing theoretical about grief on this blog than it is to do the dark and heavy grief work that this milestone hurls at me each year.

Of course, as the past year has brought about some major life changes, this grieving season has looked different in some ways, too.

I’ve been thinking about the communities that have borne the lion’s share of grief during a global pandemic that has laid bare the ugliness of human corruption and hatred alongside the beauty of our kindness and generosity. I’ve been thinking about those for whom the rallying cry to end systemic racism that is currently reverberating across the globe is not merely a trending social media hashtag or fodder for political debate. I’ve been thinking about those for whom there is no “going back to normal” after the dust settles and the rest of us, with our chronically short memories, have focused our attention and outrage elsewhere.

And, more than usual, I’ve been thinking about Leah as I watch my living children go about their days. I’ve been thinking how I can actually feel time slipping through my fingers as these two beautifully complex little humans grow and change before my eyes. I’ve been thinking about how big and scary and cruel this world is, and mourning the fact that I cannot tuck them both away, warm and safe inside my mama heart’s infinite love, and protect them from it forever.

I’ve been thinking how glorious it is to finally hear my nearly-three-year-old speech-delayed son call me “Mommy,” and how cathartic it is to feel my seven-month-old daughter burrow into my chest whenever I hold her close and whisper, “I love you, honey girl. I’m so happy you’re here.”

I’ve also been thinking how similar yet tragically different my girls’ journeys have been. Unlike her brother and exactly like her sister before her, Charlotte catapulted her way into my world quite unexpectedly (all the more so after two false-negative pregnancy tests last March initially confirmed my assumption that I couldn’t possibly be pregnant, yet also couldn’t explain away my unrelenting cravings for egg salad). I’ve been thinking how, like Leah, when I got to see and touch Charlotte for the first time after she was removed from my body and taken to the NICU, her dark hair and chubby limbs were obscured by tubes and bandages, and when I heard her cry from inside the glass barrier that separated us, I broke down and cried, too.

And during the fleeting moments wherein I find myself with some quietude, usually while walking outside as my two living children doze off in the double stroller a former version of me never imagined I would purchase, I’ve been closing my eyes and allowing myself to imagine the other life I’d be leading if Leah was here. What would my four-year-old girl look like now? I always imagined that her hair would stay dark, but given the strawberry-blonde locks that have grown far too long down my son’s neck and forehead, I now wonder about that. What sort of cake would I be making for her? How would she feel about sharing her birthday with Father’s Day this year? The list goes on.

And this, I believe, is the one aspect of my grief journey that will never change—the lifetime of wondering. The lifetime of aching. And while I don’t know if writing a post for this blog will prove to be the most meaningful way to honour Leah’s memory on her birthday next year, or the year after that, I’m glad I was able to steal some time to write for her today.

Leah’s Story Part 1: Saying Hello

Even though Leah had rattled my world with her sudden and unexpected presence, she did take it easy on me during the nine months that I carried her. My first trimester nausea only triggered one bout of full-blown morning sickness, and my other physical symptoms throughout the second and third trimesters were bothersome but manageable. Each ultrasound throughout my pregnancy showed that she was growing healthy and strong, and by the time her June 17 due date came and went, my midwife and I were confidently awaiting the arrival of my healthy baby girl.

20 week ultrasound

Leah’s 20 week anatomy scan

I was 40 weeks, 3 days along when it all changed. Like many expectant mothers before me, I had been trying to induce my labour naturally for the previous week by drinking copious amounts of raspberry leaf tea, eating entire pineapples in a single sitting, and going for purposeful walks each morning. However, despite my best efforts, the signs of labour continued to elude me. Luckily Leah had begun kicking fiercely and regularly by 19 weeks gestation, so keeping track of her movements in the meantime was easy and reassuring.

36 weeks

Me barefoot and pregnant with Leah at 36 weeks

Until it wasn’t. My belly rocked with her movements after breakfast on June 20 as per usual, and after dinner I waited for it to happen again. It didn’t. I tried to console myself with the conventional wisdom offered by medical professionals and my mama peers: “It’s getting cramped in there! You won’t feel her kick as much this late in the game.” Ultimately this didn’t work; I poked and prodded, and even blasted music through headphones to try and get her to move. Soon enough I was drinking a glass of cold orange juice and lying on my side to do my first and last self-induced kick count. Still nothing.

I did my best to suppress the encroaching panic. Since we live close to the hospital, I even told my husband to drop me off at the emergency room and head home afterwards so we wouldn’t have to pay for parking. Just a quick confirmation that her heartbeat was fine and I would be back home; back to waiting for labour to begin; back to normalcy. But that didn’t happen. Since I was so far along they sent me straight to Labour and Delivery and hooked me up for an ultrasound and nonstress test. She was alive, but she wouldn’t be for long. Before I knew it, I was calling my husband to bring my hospital bag while being prepped for an emergency cesarean section.

The hours that followed were a blur. I remember my husband holding my hand and speaking words of comfort to me through a hospital mask while a team of doctors removed my daughter from my body. She was born at 4:03am on June 21, 2016. They took her away immediately, and in my drug-induced state I was only vaguely confused as to why I couldn’t see her or hear her cry. I would later learn that she had technically been born “dead” and it took them 14 minutes to revive her. I don’t know how much time passed before they wheeled me into a different room and a doctor began speaking about fetomaternal hemorrhage, tonic seizures, severe anemia, asphyxia, and brain damage. While I didn’t understand half of these terms, I knew in my core what they meant: Despite all my precautions, praying, and planning, the worst had happened.

At this point we were told that Leah would be sent to a children’s hospital in a nearby city for three days of “cooling.” Her extensive brain damage could not be reversed, but they were going to see if they could halt it from progressing. As soon as a bed was open for me, they would send me to the same hospital. I asked if I could see her before she was sent away, and they wheeled me to the NICU. The experience was surreal, to say the least. I could not quite wrap my head around the fact that the tiny girl who had been practicing her kick boxing near my ribs a mere day ago, warm and safe in my body, was now hooked up to endless tubes and machines and struggling for life in this cold hospital.


The first photo we took of Leah on June 21, 2016

Another hour or so passed before the doctors returned. Despite their best efforts, Leah was not getting any better, and they were not confident that she would survive three days on the cooling pad. Suddenly, mere hours after our daughter came into the world, my husband and I were faced with the unthinkable decision that is every parent’s worst nightmare: We could send her away for further treatment and risk losing her in the process, or we could take her off life support and keep her with us for palliative care. The possibility that my baby girl might die without ever knowing the touch of my skin or the sound of my voice outside the womb was too much to bear, so we made the most loving and heart-wrenching decision we possibly could.

Through a steady stream of shocked tears, we asked them to bring her to us.

Read the second part of Leah’s Story here.