The Birth, and Death, of Iris Giana
(Also titled The Questions We Ask)
5:30am I wake up with a deep searing pain that spread from my pelvis up over my rounded belly and nestled just under my ribs. Rocking to my side (as somehow during the long night – or perhaps after the fourth trip to the bathroom – I’d ended up on my back), I take one, two, three deep breaths in. Trying to send the pain away. Tony, who is sleeping next to me, grunts questioningly and I pat his arm to tell him I’m ok. I roll out of bed, half bent at the waist from the pain, and get ready for work.
6:45 am I pull open the door to my compact car and swing my left foot out. Gingerly, I move my belly to follow, place my right foot on the ground and struggle to pull myself from the small space. At 19 weeks, my low slung belly is just big enough to make moving difficult and the pain is making it nearly impossible for me to be as nimble as I usually am.
Lately, I’ve been careful to step as lightly as possible because my water broke very early, at 15 weeks. They already warned that I would most likely have the baby early. Too early for her to survive. That I must be careful and drink enough water so that I’m continuously replenishing the sac. I hear them and I get it but I’m optimistic. I won’t terminate her little life, as they pressure me to do. I must endure. I reach in the car to grab my water bottle and purse and happily tiptoe toward my office. Everything was fine. Everything is fine. Baby Iris Giana is fine.
7:30 am I can’t take the pain. Everything is not fine. I’m useless at work. I can’t answer messages, decipher data, or pick up the phone. Over and over, the searing pain stabs me from front to back. I lean forward to breathe through it and immediately lean back to hold my breath.
“Oh my god,” I huff and the heads of my coworkers swivel toward me. “Something isn’t right, something isn’t right, something…” I pause to pant as the pain returns. I close my eyes as if that might help.
“Honey,” the older woman, that sits across from me, says as she wipes at the spilled coffee on her desk. “I’m really sorry but I think you need to go to the hospital. Right now.” I turn away from her, away from the pity in her eyes. My own are wet with unspent tears. ‘I must be strong. I’m stronger than this’, I chant it in my head.
“I’m ok, I’ve been in a lot of pain lately. It comes and goes. It’ll pass, it’ll pass, it’ll pass.” I’m chanting again and I have no idea why.
“No,” she pauses to get up from her chair. Her thick body swaying to remove itself from the plastic arms. “I’ve had 6 children, Jade. I have even more grandchildren. I’m sorry but it sounds like you’re in labor. You need to go to the hospital, right now.”
I shake my head at her but I know she’s right. Everyone told me I wouldn’t make it. That Iris Giana wouldn’t make it. But I had to try, didn’t they see? I couldn’t just give up on her. I shake my head again, this time the tears fall hot and fast. I suck air in through clenched teeth as another wave of pain passed through me. I shoot out of my chair and brace my hands on the desktop. My manager immediately grabs up my purse. She searches for my phone and hands it to me. We aren’t supposed to have our phones at our desks but everyone does it. I keep my eyes averted, a rule breaker I am not. Usually.
“Here, call Tony. Tell him to meet you at the hospital. I’ll take you,” she says as she pats my arm then turns to look for her own purse and phone. Also out on the office floor.
“No, I’m ok. I promise.” One breath in, long exhale out. I thumb over the phone and call my guy. Once, Twice, then a text message. Please, meet me at Winnie. Baby coming now. Too much pain. Coworker says possible labor. The rings must have woken him because immediately he messages back: Damn. If you can’t drive, call an ambulance. I’m on my way. How silly. Of course I can drive myself. I am a strong, black woman. I am a strong black woman who can take care of herself.
8:45 am I could not drive myself.
I’m waiting at a red light but I gotta get out. I wipe a hand across my forehead and it comes away wet with sweat. I’m too hot and I can’t sit down for even one more minute. Stepping on the gas, I swing into the parking lot just at the edge of the street and I whip the door open so fast I nearly fall out of the car. Was I wearing a seatbelt?
I make sure to snatch up my phone and, as I walk my first pass around the car, I call my mother. No answer. I hang up and call again. No answer.
“Mom, please. I need you,” I say out loud. Or I try to. I’m crying too hard to get words out. Another wave of pain hits and I double over the hood and do one, two, three squats. I think to call Tony but stop myself. He’s already on his way. So, I muster up all the strength I have left, round the car another three times, and do my squats. The whirring sound of traffic speeds past me and slows at each the turn of the light. No one stops. Life goes on. Does no one care that I’m losing my baby over here? Does she matter to no one but me?
9:30 am – 2:00pm I arrive at the hospital and am admitted into triage. Within the next few days I will be a completely different person. I will no longer be pregnant. Iris Giana will no longer be alive. I will, once again, no longer be a mother.
Tony holds me as I weep. He holds me as I take the medicine to slow down the contractions. They are much too strong and I’m not dilated yet. We must be careful, the doctor said but I don’t know why. I’m already losing the baby, what else can I lose? Tony helps me to the restroom. There’s blood. He helps me back to the bed. We do this two more times. I’m crying all the while. The doctor comes back. It’s time to move me to my hospital room.
They tell me when I get to my room I’ll need to take a pill for the abortion. I feel attacked. I don’t want an abortion. I want my baby, I cry and say. Please let me keep her. I turn away from their long faces, their looks of pity. They tell me I can’t.
“There’s nothing we can do,” they say. I hate them. Despite all that has happened in my life, everything I’ve been through: the attacks, the abuse, the searing cigarettes against my skin and scalp, I have never hated in my life. It’s filled with too much evil and eats you up. It poisons your soul. But, in that, moment I hate them. I turn my face away because I can’t bear to look at them. I am ashamed, because of this, and I can’t look at Tony. He might see the hatred behind my eyes and think less of me. He loves my light, how it shines from the inside. Hatred dims your light, I know it.
“It’s just the scientific term for it,” my nurse soothes me. “We know that you aren’t having an abortion,” she says softer and touches my hand. “It’ll help you dilate and the contractions will start back up. It takes almost 4 hours for the first pill to start. Then, if you haven’t dilated further, we’ll give you another.” I don’t want to meet her eyes so I keep mine trained on her manicured fingers. The nails are rounded and clean. EMPLOYEES MUST WASH HANDS BEFORE RETURNING TO WORK and I can tell she’s a rule follower. Like me.
Her fingers are small but they cover most of the words on the paper. I want to snatch the paper from her fingers and tear it to pieces. I don’t want to sign it. Yes, fine. I take it from her, softly. With shaking fingers I sign on the line saying they can give me medicine to abort my baby. I want to ask questions. I always thought, should the occasion come, that I would ask questions and advocate for more myself but I am deflated.
There is nothing I can do. I have done it all. There’s no way to save Iris. We’ve done all that we could and it didn’t work.
2:25pm I’m transferred to a new hospital room and I’m crying again. “I’m not supposed to be here. This is a delivery room.” I can’t hold my head up. I’m ashamed. I’m letting Iris down and I can’t be here in this room.
“It’s ok,” Tony pats my hand and I’m wheeled in. I can feel the wave of pain passing through again but it’s muted by the loudness of the room. It calls to me. You’ve failed, the big delivery bed says. You couldn’t hack it, the floor to ceiling windows scream. You did this, sounds the closed door to a hotel grade bathroom.
After settling me into the bed, Tony says that he will be back. He needs to run back to the house to get something that needs a signature. Why is he leaving me? Why would you leave me alone? But I understand, I guess. Maybe he needed a break from all of this. Maybe he would go and cry in the car, because he’s a strong black man and he needs that strength for me.
2:45pm The pain is back. My room is set up, I’ve taken my horridly named abortion pill, and I’m wrapped in a new hospital gown, one designed for birthing. I take a quick trip down to the terrace area, some semblance of normalcy. A place that is supposed to fill mothers-in-labor with tranquility. It pushed me over the edge. I’m not supposed to be on this terrace until I’m 9 months. I blubber into my tissues and lean my head back and my soul cries out. The terrace is empty, ironically, and I don’t try to hide my grief.
The walk also pushed my body over the edge and the contractions speed up with an intensity I can’t take and nausea rolls through me. I have to stop in the hallway to take deep breaths. I nearly fall when I step toward my room and I’m angry.
I’m angry at god, for putting me here. How dare he? I gave him my wishes, I put my soul – and Iris Giana’s soul – in his hands and he destroyed them. I’m angry that I came out to this stupid terrace, pretending like I was one of these girls with their healthy babies and their family members that love them enough to answer their phones. I’m angry that the contractions are back and I can’t walk to my room without help and I’ve been walking on my own for 23 years and now I’ve reverted back to infancy and, and, and, and. I’m filled with hate and anger and I can’t stand it because this isn’t me.
3:00pm The nurse has led me, like a sheep, back to my room and is getting the line started. I need the pain medication because I’m not a strong black woman. Not anymore. I’ve dissolved and devolved. My old tears have dried on my cheeks and new ones are threatening to fall. I can barely stand, barely sit, barely breathe.
“It’s been less than an hour but I think the baby might be coming soon,” the nurse says to me like I don’t know what’s fucking going on. I know what’s happening to my body, I’m not a fucking child, I scream in my head but I hold my tongue. I nod and attempt a smile when she looks at me, waiting for a response. Resentment for her swirls in my belly, around the tiny baby waiting to come out.
I text my sister, telling her the baby is coming. Asking her if she’s spoken to mom. She replies immediately, yes, she’s spoken to mom, and ‘oh my gosh, I’m just so so sorry’. So it’s settled then. My mom has time to talk to my siblings, and whoever else, but she can’t pick up the phone to speak to me. Her only daughter that’s going through a traumatic experience at the moment. She can’t even send a text. Hatred and hurt vie for space in my heart. One will eventually take over.
3:05pm I call out to the nurse. It’s no guessing game now. The baby is definitely coming. I tried to sit on the bed but the pain is so bad I can’t sit my bum against the soft mattress. I turn toward the back of the bed, my knees digging into the pillows, and hold the handrails along the sides. I scream through my closed mouth as another contraction tightens my belly. Stab, stab, stab at the button to call the nurses. Stab, stab, stab to my uterus.
“We’re coming, we’re coming,” I hear frantic voices call out through the intercom. I try to reply but only a jumble of moans and screams come out. I can’t think. I need help. Please. I try to say, again, but I can’t form the words. The pain medicine never worked.
Two new nurses come charging into the room and take in the scene. Me, on all fours facing the back of the bed, pillows kicked to the foot, the hospital gown pulled up around my thighs. “Oh honey, if you can’t sit down that baby is definitely coming.” The nurse says, this time I don’t feel anger for her. I feel relieved. Thank you, thank you, thank you, I whisper as I turn around. She helps me ease onto my back and holds my hands in hers as the other nurse opens my legs. I look into her eyes, her only job to keep me steady. The tears come again as another contraction tightens my belly.
“I can see the sac here,” pushing against my vagina, it hurts but not as bad as the contractions so I breathe through it. “Ok, I’m messaging the doctor. We’re having the baby now, ok?”
My hatred is gone. The first time I’ve truly felt it and I’m happy to see it go. Gratitude fills me and I thank her and I thank the nurse holding my hands. The two nod to me and rush about the room getting things ready. I watch them, in between breaths.
Where’s Tony? Am I going to have to do this alone? Oh, there he is. Coming in just as my legs are being spread wide. He’s seen this before, not during my first loss, but when he was the one opening them. This is different than that, I think with a bit of humor despite the pain. His eyes are wide open and I want to laugh but I can’t. I wonder if he sees the baby though. Can he see her coming out?
3:10pm Push! Push! The nurse’s soft voice calls out and I bear down, “like you’re going poo, and a one, two, three…” My legs are pulled back, five nurses – one doctor. The pain meds don’t work, something is wrong with the line and I ask for it. I ask for it again and again. I’m not a strong black woman. ‘I’m not. I’m not. I’m not,’ I chant in my head.
The doctor looks up at me with beautiful blue eyes, staring straight into my soul and, as if she can read my mind, says “You can do this”. I can’t do this. I’m so sorry. I don’t want to lose my baby. I’m shaking my head at her. The smell of copper fills the room. Have you ever smelled copper before? Does Copper smell like blood or does blood smell like copper? Why am I thinking of this when I’m having a baby? I’m only 19 weeks! Why am I having a baby?
3:15pm Iris comes out at the end of a long chin to the sky, eyes open wide, breathe into the pelvis push. 3:15pm will forever be on her birth card. It’ll forever be in my mind. There’s an instant feeling of relief. I look up at Tony and he looks down into my face. I can’t read him, his eyes are red, slight widening at the corners. I wonder if he’s afraid to look anywhere else.
They put Iris on my chest and although it hurts when they push on my belly, I try to lean forward to see her. I want to sit. Can I sit? Can I see her? No, they tell me to stay where I am. Everyone is rushing about, sponge after sponge goes between my legs but at the time I don’t know what’s happening. I catch the Dr. (or was it a nurse) saying “it’s stuck’ but Iris is in my face and I’m overtaken and weeping. Her small translucent fingers wrap around mine. Her chest goes in and out as she struggles to breathe. One, two, three, four.
“I love you, I love you, I love you, Mommy’s so sorry. I love you,” I chant. I want her to know. I want her to understand.
I ask Tony if he wants to hold her and I see the fear in his eyes. I wonder if it’s because she’s just too small, only 8 ounces. Later, I wonder if it’s because he knew I was dying, that something was going wrong. He looked me in the eyes, a smile twitching his lips, his palm against my forehead, fingers stroking my hair back.
If I could ever name that one moment when I truly felt someone loved me it’s this. The way his eyes wet with tears, the way they didn’t move from my face, my hair, Iris Giana’s tiny body, my lips. I want to bask in that love. I close my eyes to it and I breathe into the moment. I think this is the last time he’ll love me. When it settles in that Iris is gone, he’ll remember that it was my body that failed us for a second time (and will again for a third time a year later) and he’ll hate me. He’ll detest me and not be able to look at me. So I bask in the love and I send it right back at him. I send it to Iris. I package it tight and keep it for later, when the love will be gone.
3:….something “What’s happening with my OR?” the doctor yells out and brings me out of the safety of love.
I open my eyes, feeling as though I had been sleeping. I look down, beyond Iris’s tiny moving body and see my legs. Somehow I hadn’t noticed but they’re shaking. I see the bed beneath them, blood is everywhere. Wet and thick like rich molasses. My mouth falls open and I look up at Tony who is still staring down at me with that slight smile. He gives me a soft nod and I don’t know what to say, or do. I can feel the blood coming out now, in gushes as each of the – still continuing – contractions tightens and releases my body.
That’s something they don’t tell you. Just because the baby is out, it doesn’t mean you stop having contractions right away. Almost as if a switch was flipped, I feel the pain spear through my belly. It’s deep enough to feel in my soul. I say ‘I can’t stop shaking’ and my doctor, bent to work between my thighs, shakes her head and tells me it’s alright. It’s alright, the shaking will stop soon.
3:35pm Maybe? I can’t remember how much time has passed since Iris was born. It feels like the minutes are ticking by and I’m counting each breath Iris takes in rounds of four. One, Two, Three, Four. One, Two, Three. One, Two. One…I don’t notice I’m doing it and, to this day, I can’t figure out the reasoning behind it.
My legs are still shaking and at this point the nurse has pushed Tony out of the way. They’ve lifted the bed and I’m unable to keep the whimpers of pain from escaping. I’m trying to be strong. Everyone told me I must be strong and hold on. I have to be strong.
All my life, strong, strong, strong was pounded into me by everyone who didn’t matter. In this single moment I give into the pressure. I want Iris to know I’m a strong woman. I am a strong black woman. I feel no pain. I endure it all. But she doesn’t seem to notice, her tiny mouth gaps open and closed with each inhalation. Somehow her lips are thick and her nose stretches in the shape of her father’s. Her tiny face boasted fat cheeks like mine. As fat as they could be on such a little person. One, two, three…
My head begins to swim and I pull it through mud to lean forward. The smell clogs my nostrils and I turn my face away to try to get a clean breath. I see black spots behind my eyelids and I try to blink them away. Where’s Tony? Did he leave? Where’s Iris? Oh yeah, on my chest, one, two, three, four. I hear them calling my name as my head falls back and hits the pillow. This hospital really is like a hotel, I think as I unwillingly stare up at the ceiling. A hard push to my belly reminds me of the pain, I gain a surge of adrenaline and my head is back up again. Or did they just sit the bed up? I’m not sure.
I try to find Tony and oh, there he is. Standing behind a faceless nurse. His head is bouncing around the room: to me, to Iris, to the doctors and to the nurses at work between my legs trying their best to mop up the blood. I make eye contact with the doctor and notice she’s talking to me. She waves a hand in front of my face and I see a light. A pen light?
“Listen, we are going to surgery. Ok? The placenta is stuck. See, what happens when you deliver too early and you’re not fully dilated is that the baby is big enough to come out but the placenta might not fully detach. And whomp, whomp, whomp, whooo,” I shake my head, my ears are filled with cotton. I shake my head harder, almost as hard as the uncontrollable movement of my legs.
“Did you hear me? I must say this, legally. The risk of this surgery is that I could puncture the side of your uterus. This could cause an issue with future pregnancies leading to…I could puncture…” the tears are falling, I don’t want to listen, I can’t fully understand anyway, and I turn my face away. I turn down to Iris on my chest. I can barely look at her either. I’m shaking my head.
“I won’t be able to have any babies? If you puncture my wall I won’t be able to have any babies?” I repeat this several more times although I can see she is trying to comfort me. She tells me it’s rare. That it’s something they have to warn me of before we go to surgery, but that we really must go. We can not wait even a second longer, and I feel the bed already moving toward the door. We can not wait even a second longer and none of it will matter if I bleed out. All I can think about is that I’ll never be a mom. She asks me if I consent to a blood transfusion. It doesn’t matter. I’ll never be a mom. Who cares if I get blood or not. Who cares? Does anyone care?
Time is moving. Later, I ask Tony if he knew what time we went down to surgery but he doesn’t know. He didn’t stop to clock the time. All he knew was that I was being rushed to surgery and he had a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach. I wonder if he thought maybe he wouldn’t see me again but I’m too afraid to ask. Even now, as I’m writing this, I’m too afraid to ask. I don’t want to open all of this up for him again.
God hates me. He really does. The one thing I’ve always wanted. The one thing I know I was biologically made to do and he took it from me, repeatedly. Take and take and take and take and take. “We really must go.” The doctor says something to a nurse about the OR. “Can we…” I nod to her.
They transfer me to a new bed ‘hold on to her tight’ they say and I pull my arms in so Iris is safe. Her tiny chest still struggling to breathe. One, two, three, four. I feel like I can sense her energy waning. Or was it mine? I try to hold her as we get moving but I can’t.
My arms slacken and I look at one of the nurses in fear. Save Iris, I want to demand but I know she can’t. Can you save Iris? I want to ask but I know it’s not fair for me to expect her to answer. Noticing my distress she gathers Iris into her arms, tiny square of a swaddle blanket and all, and then she’s gone. That tiny body held all the warmth I needed and I begin to panic as I am cool. Or at least I feel cold on the inside, or is that from the saline drip? I’m shaking.
I don’t want to go. I don’t want to leave her. Please, let me stay until she’s passed. I try to ask but my mouth is dry. It’s loud in the hall. They wouldn’t be able to hear me anyway over that sound. Wait, is that me? That keening sound filled with pain? I try to close my mouth in embarrassment but I can’t. It’s too great, my pelvis is on fire and then my head is falling again and I can’t pick it up. I try to keep up with the nurse holding Iris but I can’t.
“Status on my OR?” the doctor practically yells into a small phone held by the nurse. Somehow she’s on the bed with her feet up on the wheels, or something. We’re moving and she’s up off the wheels and leaning in front of me. Both knees pressing into the white of the soft bedding. The white quickly dampening with blood. Hands on my chest.
I try to look for Iris again, try bowing my back to get a glimpse of the nurse walking behind us. But my body doesn’t move. ‘You’ll have her with you when you come out of surgery’ says the nurse at my side. Her small hands grip the bar as she pushes quickly. What she doesn’t say is that Iris won’t be alive the next time I see her.
Later, I will be broken. My daughter took her last breaths and I wasn’t there. Because of this stupid, worthless body, one, two, three, four. The thoughts overlap as exhaustion fills every fiber of my being. I didn’t realize how tired I’d become. One, two, three. I just want to sleep. I don’t want to sleep. One, two. But I’m so tired. One.
‘But you were losing too much blood’ my guy will later defend me to myself. ‘You had to get surgery,’ but I don’t care. I’m a bad mom. I worked so hard to keep her healthy, and she was. It was me, my body, that failed her. First, when my water broke at 15 weeks, and then again when she spent those last moments of her life without us. Alone. Unaware. Sterile. Unloved.
There are so many questions we ask. So many things we want to know. I ask myself many of these knowing I’ll most likely never get the answer:
Does she even know how much I loved her?
How much I still love her?
How much I still think about her even years later?
Does she know I still love her despite healing and finding happiness after?
That losing a child and nearly dying didn’t keep me depressed, and angry, and frustrated at life, forever? Does she know I still loved her even though the pain of her passing got just a little better every day? That when I finally gave birth to a healthy baby girl, Naomi Kai, I thought of how much I loved her?
Does Iris find it unfair? That Naomi Kai is here and she isn’t? (Do any of my angels find it unfair?) Am I a bad mom for being happy with Naomi? Does she know that – even though I love Naomi – I still love her? Is she anywhere thinking of me? Is she anywhere thinking? Is Iris Giana anywhere at all?
At the time, I didn’t know the outcome. I didn’t know things would turn around. I was lost in that moment, in that pain, and I thought it would never end. And as I disappeared into the darkness, just moments after they rolled me into the OR, I thought one last question:
Iris, how can I live without you?