Could a bottle of water truly be the catalyst for my emotional breakdown? Sitting in the waiting room of a funeral home with my wife — we had lost our baby girl two days earlier — I found myself confounded by the most inane details scattered throughout this somber place of business.
Beyond watching five seasons of HBO’s Six Feet Under, I had never stepped foot inside of a funeral home. Pop culture touch points had certainly prepared me for the overall look and feel, but much like a movie set, those glimpses were merely facades. This was no Fisher household. It was a corporate entity.
Business cards stacked neatly at the reception desk — a reception desk, for that matter. Brochures and pamphlets on display. And, the pièce de résistance — bottled water and napkins emblazoned with this funeral home’s corporate logo. There we were, confronted by the reality that our daughter, Angel Belle, at just under 23 weeks gestation, died after a placental separation and exhaustive delivery, sipping from a funeral home water bottle.
Looking back at the emotionally draining week my wife and I went through last month, bottled water seems an extremely trivial detail to belabor over; yet, it speaks to the surreal feeling I still have when reflecting on our experience. Once the inevitable had gotten underway — following a challenging pregnancy, my wife had started feeling painful contractions on a Friday evening, beginning what would be a three-day odyssey at our local hospital — everything seemed like another checkmark on a large list of corporate procedures. Emotions were never part of the equation.
We arrived at the hospital Friday evening and were admitted to Labor and Delivery after a quick assessment. Check. Contractions were timed at three minutes apart. Check. My wife’s cervix was measured at 3cm dilated. Check. We were rushed into a labor room. Check. Up to this point, corporate efficiency was working in our favor. As soon as the severity of my wife’s situation was known, the hospital staff responded swiftly.
The next check, however, was anything but favorable. At 22 weeks and 6 days gestation, the corporate rulebook deemed Angel Belle a lost cause. The doctors on call — my wife’s Ob/Gyn was off that weekend — informed us that, once delivered, no measures would be taken to keep Angel Belle alive. Not unless she was at least 23.5 weeks along. That corporate checklist required a plus six in the life column in order to have their response shift to life saving mode. Born six days too soon. Check.
Angel Belle was alive during the entire delivery process. My wife felt her kicking throughout. Her heartbeat was strong. And then it was not. After being delivered, Angel Belle took a single breath while her heartbeat slowly faded. I watched as the nurse took our 1 lb. 6.93 oz. baby girl to a table and counted off the slowly decreasing heartbeat. She called out, “doctor?” I watched as the doctor nodded in the negative, and with that, it was over. Angel Belle died on May 5, 2014.
Beyond the truly empathetic and comforting nurse that took care of my wife and baby that evening, there was little to no glimpse of emotion or understanding in the process. Were it not for my mother-in-law’s advice that evening — she went through an eerily similar loss of a child on that exact day in 1991 — my already irrational state would have been made worse by the next round of corporate checkmarks.
The death certificate needed a name. Angel Belle. Check. A funeral home needed to be selected — any child born after 20 weeks requires an official burial or cremation. Cremation. Check. If we wanted photos of Angel Belle, we would need to take them that evening. Check. My wife needed to be moved out of the delivery ward and sent to the post-partum ward. Check. Angel Belle, now lifeless, was left alone in a bassinet in the delivery room as we all were moved upstairs. Check.
Nearly a month later, as Father’s Day approaches, I am left wondering about another checkbox. Am I still considered a father? Do I recognize that part of my life while celebrating with my own father? I find myself yearning for a clear box to check off. Perhaps, that corporate mentality, from branded water bottles to 23 ½ week guidelines, helps sort through what would otherwise be a chaotic, emotionally destructive period.
Nothing is left to interpretation during those moments. Instead, interpretation is left to the living. I’m now left with choices and uncertainty. Do we try again for another child? Will the next pregnancy end in heartache?
Perhaps I’ll look back to my first brush with death, Six Feet Under: “Everything – death, life, everything – it’s all completely suffused with static. You know? But if you listen to the static too much, it f%$s you up.” So, I’m going to cut out the static and proudly check the box next to Father this weekend while bidding farewell to our little Angel Belle.