Stephanie is the founder of The Sweet Pea Project. She is also a superstar.
After forty weeks of excited anticipation my due date was finally here. But Madeline didn’t seem to realize that this was the day the doctors had predicted her arrival, and was quite content to stay snug in my belly for a little longer. On Tuesday I went to see my doctor. He examined us, Madeline and I, and said it was up to me. We could induce if we wanted, we could wait if we wanted. We decided to stick it out for a few more days. I trusted my body, it would let me know when the time was right. Madeline would come when she was ready. On Wednesday I lost my mucous plug. Any time now labor could begin! But I was still pregnant when I went to bed that night. “This is all completely normal,” my doctor told me. They were not at all concerned, and neither was I.
My pregnancy was uneventful and complication-free, and I loved every second of it. Sure there was morning sickness that lasted all day, fire-like heartburn, and constant runs to the bathroom- but the discomfort all seemed to melt away whenever I felt my little girl move inside of me. And she was an active little monster! Madeline had regular dance parties every night. She would begin to kick around 11:00pm and would go nonstop until she tired herself out. It was my favorite part of the day. Eating peach ice cream was another surefire way to get her going. A few bites and she was kicking up a storm. Madeline also had very predictable hiccups every morning right around 8:00am. Her hiccups were so predictable that towards the end of my pregnancy I stopped setting an alarm clock, relying completely on Madeline to hiccup me awake every morning. On Wednesday night, after her dance party, my husband read Maddie her bedtime story, just like he had every night since we first found out I was pregnant. After the story we got ready for bed. He gave me a hug and Madeline kicked me so hard that he felt it through my belly into his, and we joked that she was jealous of me hugging her Daddy. That was the last time either of us felt her kick. I woke up to unusual movement a few hours later. It felt like Madeline was twitching. I woke Richy up and we considered going to the hospital. The twitching stopped, and I wasn’t cramping or anything, so we went back to bed.
On Thursday I didn’t wake up until after 10:00am. No hiccups. That should have been my first sign that something was wrong. I ate ice cream for breakfast, hoping that the sugar rush would get her moving. I had heard that babies tend to slow down a bit right before birth, so I thought maybe labor was about to begin. I took a shower and rubbed my belly and sang to Madeline. Nothing. I was getting pretty nervous as I got out of the shower, and was on the phone with the nurse from maternal fetal medicine before I had even gotten dressed. She said I should come in just to get checked out, just to ease my mind. I called my husband as I was getting dressed, but he said he couldn't leave work. I sat on my bed and noticed that my belly looked different. Madeline seemed to be lying sideways. I called my husband back and told him that I thought maybe he should come with me, but he said that everything was fine and that I could call him if I needed and he would leave work right away. I didn't protest. I called my mom to let her know that I was going to the hospital. She offered to meet me there, but I told her there was no need for that, I would just call her later and let her know how things went. I grabbed my pillow and the camcorder, just in case I did end up going into labor, and headed out to the car. My hospital bags were already in the car. One bag with our stuff for labor, and one with clothes for all three of us for the hospital stay. Those bags had been waiting patiently in my backseat for weeks.
The hospital is about a forty-five minute drive from my house. I spent the entire ride rubbing my belly and alternating between singing to Madeline and begging her to move. At one point I started to cry and pleaded with her to please just kick once for Mommy. "It doesn't have to be a big kick Sweet Pea" I told her, "just let Mommy know you are alright." Nothing. I stopped at a red light less than a mile from the hospital and just as the light changed to green and I began to make a left turn I swore I felt her move a little. I breathed a sigh of relief and pulled into the parking lot, parked my car and walked upstairs to Labor & Delivery.
Telling the L&D nurse that I was here because I hadn't felt movement all day made it seem more real, and a little scary, but I convinced myself that it was going to be okay. At this point my worst case scenario was that something was wrong and they would have to do an emergency c-section. My mind never even drifted to worse possibilities. After forty-one weeks of complication free pregnancy, I thought Madeline was a sure thing. The nurse had me give a urine sample and then led me to a small room. She tried to find Madeline's heartbeat with the Doppler. She wasn't able to find it, but she said that the Doppler was acting up and asked me to wait one minute while she got the ultrasound machine. My mom walked in just as she was about to do the ultrasound. My mom is such a good mom. I am eternally grateful to her for ignoring me and coming anyway. The nurse began to do the ultrasound, but stopped after just a few seconds. She turned off the monitor and again blamed the machine. This ultrasound machine is so old and useless, was the lie she used. She told me she would take me across the hall to a newer machine, she just had to go make sure it was available. When she left the room my mom looked at me with worried eyes, she looked so much more worried than I was. She said she thought we should call Richy, that he needs to come now, and she stepped out into the hallway to call him. They took me across the hallway and I was still so oblivious to what was about to happen that when we walked into the room, I smiled. This was the same room where we first learned that Madeline was a little girl. I loved this room.
The head of maternal fetal medicine came in to do the ultrasound, along with the attending nurse. They had been the ones to follow me throughout my pregnancy, so it was nice to see faces I knew. The nurse stood by my side and I noticed that she looked very worried. I asked her if everything was okay, if she thought something was really wrong. She told me that they just wanted to be sure, but didn't really make eye contact. She must have already known. I think by that point, everyone knew but me. The doctor began the ultrasound and turned to me, "I'm sorry Mrs. Cole, the baby is gone." It didn't make sense to me. I told him no. I told him to do it again. He put the wand back on my belly and turned the screen to me. He pointed to her heart. It was still. I have no memory of seeing it though, I think I had lost my vision by that point. I had also lost my ability to process information. I felt like I was falling, I was dizzy, I couldn't breathe. I didn't want to breathe. Nothing made sense. The nurse began crying and my mom rushed over to me and started stroking my hair and talking to me. I pushed them both away and, trying desperately to get hold of myself and remain calm, I turned to the doctor and said "Okay, so what can we do now? What do we do?" He looked at me sympathetically and began talking to me quietly and gently about inducing labor. Oh my God, I still have to give birth?!? "No, no. We need to fix this. How do we fix this? How do we get her back? What can I do?" Everyone just stood there looking at me with such sadness, offering me nothing but their own tears and broken hearts. Still lying on the ultrasound bed with goo all over my belly I took my mom's cell phone and called Richy. I was so consumed by shock and disbelief that when he answered I just flatly said, "She's gone. Madeline's dead." Then I handed the phone back to my mom. I wasn't the only one who couldn't process the truth. My mom had to repeat it a dozen times before Richy stopped saying, "Wait, what?" He was in a car with a co-worker about an hour away from the hospital. His co-worker immediately began driving to the hospital, with Richy sobbing uncontrollably the entire way.
Back at the hospital, someone had led me to a small windowless room somewhere in the L&D wing. I don't remember getting off the ultrasound bed or walking to the room. I only remember being there. I do remember someone handing me a gown and telling me to change into it, but I refused. I just sat on the bed, completely still and silent, and stared at the walls. My mom stood motionless nearby. At one point I told her I was going to kill myself. She closed her eyes and whispered, "I know." When Richy finally arrived our doctor was waiting for him at the elevator. He brought him to my tiny corner of hell and left us alone for awhile. My mom stepped out and Richy and I collapsed into each other and cried and cried and cried.
Eventually it was time to move to a Labor & Delivery room and begin the induction. It was about 7:00pm at that point. My body was shaking so hard that they had difficulty putting in the IV and getting everything started. They gave me blankets, but the chill was coming from inside. No amount of blankets could warm me, nothing could stop my shaking. When I started to feel contractions they gave me an epidural. They didn't want me to have to feel pain. I couldn't have cared less about contractions at that point. I was numb. I was dead. Richy lay on a cot next to my bed. My mom curled up in a chair in the corner. Nobody spoke. Nobody cried. We all just lay there hoping to wake up from this nightmare. At one point I thought I felt a kick and I made the nurse use the Doppler. Of course it was nothing, Madeline was still dead, but the nurse got the Doppler out and checked for me. I rolled back over and cried quietly into my pillow. After nineteen hours of labor it was time to push. I didn't cry out or groan or yell or any of that dramatic garbage. I just did what I had to do. I pushed for two hours before they finally resorted to vacuum extraction. They told me they just needed me to give one more push and I quietly said, "No. I can't." The nurse stroked my arm and told me I was doing so well and that I was almost there, but that was the problem- it was almost over. One more push and they would take her from me. I wanted to keep her with me, in my body. I didn't want to give birth to death, I just didn't want to do this anymore. I wanted to stop and go home and come back tomorrow and have it all be different. But my body betrayed me and pushed her out. I felt my daughter being pulled from my body, and then delivery was over. She was out, she was dead. It was 2:11pm, Friday January 5th, 2007. No one spoke as the nurse carried Madeline over to the warmer, where my mom helped to bathe her. The doctor gently told me, "It was a girl." Was. He said WAS. Richy was sobbing uncontrollably in the corner of the room. He had doubled over as they pulled her out. I looked over and saw him standing there sobbing. "I could feel my soul being pulled out of me" he whispered. That is exactly how it felt for me, only mine was physical- my daughter, my soul, was pulled from my body. He says his felt more like burning, but it was the same- she was a part of us, and when she died it killed us.
My mom walked across the room, holding her first grandchild in her arms. She handed Madeline to Richy and I watched as his face crumpled. He bent his face close to hers and whispered, "I was going to call you MadeLION." They were still stitching me up, so I couldn't hold her yet. Richy stood next to me and cradled his daughter against his chest and told her how much he loves her and how beautiful she is. Then he handed her to me. My daughter is in my arms. This is the moment I had been waiting for since before I ever even conceived, but it was never like this. I looked down at her; really saw her for the first time. She was so beautiful. What struck me most were her eyes, tightly shut but still so gorgeous- big and almond shaped like her daddy's. The nurse later told me that they were brown like mine, I never got to see that. She had my high cheekbones and my ears, my little sister's nose. She was perfect. There is something about holding your child for the first time, especially your firstborn... there aren't words to describe the overwhelming rush of love that pours over you, the feeling that this is exactly what you were put on earth to do- to be the mother of this baby. All of those emotions flooded over me as I stared at her in awe. I couldn't believe that we were capable of making something, someone, so beautiful and perfect. It only took a few seconds before reality settled in. Yes she was here, she was beautiful and perfect and amazing and mine, but she was also dead. We had a few hours with her at the most, and then we would never see her again.
After an overnight labor that lasted 21 hours, I was completely exhausted, but I didn't dare close my eyes. It was so hard, my eyelids were so heavy and I had to fight to keep them open. I knew that this was all the time I would ever have with my daughter, and I didn't want to miss one second. I cradled her in my arms, her head resting in the crook of my left arm. I snuck my index finger into her fist, her tiny little fingers wrapped around mine. I told her how beautiful she is and how much I love her, I told her how sorry I was that I couldn't protect her. I sang "Oh Sweet Pea" and "You Are My Sunshine" to her. Sometimes I cried a little, but mostly I just stared at her. The nurse took her out of the room to take some photographs, and then brought her back to me. I held her for awhile longer, until Richy said it was time. Her skin was starting to get cold and her mouth was getting red. Her body was letting go, and it was time for us to do the same. I didn't want to, but Richy said we had to. I needed him to make that decision. If it were up to me I would probably still be holding her. We each kissed her one last time and told her how much we love her. My body shook as the nurse gently took her out of my arms and walked out of the room with her. I never saw her again.
They told me it was time to move me out of labor & delivery and into a recovery room. Once in my room, the nurse told us that dinner was over and gave Richy a voucher for the cafeteria so that we could get some food, and then began to explain how to use the television's remote control. I stared at her blankly, who cares about food or TV? Nothing had ever seemed more ridiculous. They kept me at the hospital for the weekend. Richy was anxious to go, but I didn’t want to leave. I wanted nothing to do with the outside world. The idea of leaving the hospital and reentering the world was horrifying. As they wheeled me out to the car I clutched Madeline's little green elephant and covered my face with my hands. I didn't want to see anyone and I didn't want anyone to see me. I felt stupid, leaving without my baby. I felt like I failed. Driving home was hell. It felt so wrong to leave the hospital without Madeline. Walking back into our house without her was hell. Facing her room, her crib, her clothes, it was all too much. For the first week I stayed on my couch with the lights off and stared into space. Blood, breast milk and tears flowed from me and I stared with disgust at the saggy emptiness of my belly. As the shock lifted, the depression took over. I hated my body for not protecting my baby, I hated myself for being alive.
Somehow slowly, too slowly even to notice, I began to come back to life. I was different, definitely, but parts of me started to come back a little. Sometimes something was funny, and I smiled. Sometimes I even laughed. Nothing ever went back to normal, but life continued on and slowly I began to participate in it again. Madeline never left my mind, but I was able to see outside of the darkness of her death a little. I was able to look at her pictures and smile at how beautiful she really was. After a few months Richy and I decided that we were ready to try to have another child. We were scared out of our minds, but we were determined not to let fear control us. Madeline was never meant to be an only child, and we were ready to bring her little sibling into the world. Plus, it had taken a year to conceive Madeline so we thought starting soon would be a good idea. This time it only took a couple of months. The pregnancy was a stressful, scary, and emotional time for me- but it was also a gift and I treasured every second. We induced labor two weeks early because I was getting very nervous toward the end of the pregnancy, and after a long labor and emergency cesarean, Madeline's little brother Ben was born healthy and alive. It was six days after his big sister's first birthday. His cry was the sweetest sound I have ever heard.
Madeline would be two and a half by now, and there is still not a day (or an hour, or a second) that goes by that I don't think of her. Some days are harder than others, but most days truly are good. I have learned how to exist in this new life I was forced into. I created the Sweet Pea Project to reach out to other bereaved parents, and I find that helping others does wonders for me as well. I am pregnant again with another little boy, Nathaniel, and I am still as nervous as ever about the pregnancy- innocence and naiveté are not things that can grow back with time. I am, however, full of hope and I do believe that this baby can and will come home with me- something I was never fully able to believe while pregnant with Ben.
I am at a place now where I am comfortable with who I am, a mother to children both living and dead. If someone comments on my belly I always tell them it is my third. If I am asked if Ben is my first I always say, "No, he has a big sister." Sometimes it goes no further than that, but I no longer dread the follow-up questions the way that I used to. Madeline is my daughter and I am proud of her. It is Mother's Day as I sit here writing this, and I am overwhelmed with gratitude to the little girl who first gave me the beautiful title of Mother. I am madly in love with all of my children, but ask anyone, there is always a special place for the first born in a mother's heart.