“The Unborn and Born Dead Are Yet Among Us”
by Raymond Gariepy
Published in Vol. 11, issue 2 of the Humber Literary Review
This narrative’s bullet is stillborn.
The sonographer’s probe slid across my wife’s abdomen; the transducer’s sound waves captured images from inside her body. The ultrasound monitor was not a portal to light, love, and life made visible. Black, white and gray interstellar residue appeared. Is the baby okay? was our entry to darkness at midday that left my wife and I, like Job, to “grope in the noonday as in the night.”
I have seen the rings of Saturn at high noon. Walking past the city’s planetarium one day in summer, I stopped to peer into telescopes set outside. I can’t believe I just saw its rings, I said. An astronomer described how the lenses magnify the sky, even in daylight. Saturn is about 1.2 billion kilometres from Earth, yet telescopes detect starlight and sunlight reflecting off it. The light you see now was emitted over forty years ago! he said.
A scope, directed at the sun, a mere 150 million kilometres away, revealed a restless star whose eruptions resembled ostrich plumes quivering in a breeze. Their prominences rose 240,000 kilometres from the surface. The sun’s immense fury left me momentarily estranged from Earth. I was insignificant. I was alone, the last human to see and feel sunshine.
Deep space rewarded me with celestial radiance cast earthward alive from the past. The difference between the waves pulsing toward me and the blurred images cast upon the ultrasound monitor was the absence of a pulse. The revelation was a stellar corpse, no longer gravitationally bound to its star.
Night at noon became our ghost. The baby stalled and died at seven months. My spouse would be hospitalized the next day. We did not sleep. We slept. When she turned on her side to face me, the deadweight within her not only nudged me awake, it awakened a mashup of grief and melancholy and failure. A part of us was gone for good.
The attending nurse asked me to wait in the corridor. I left my wife. Oxytocin, administered intravenously, induced slow labour. Alone, she would drive out our lifeless child.
I nail-gunned my shoulders to the hallway’s puke-green wall. I lost all focus and disengaged from a future that had promised something new. I entered a space cratered from an absence of clarity. What the hell went wrong? My repertoire of anxiety and insecurity was intensified by my lack of sleep and cravings for nicotine and caffeine. I did not want to be part of the exodus playing out. Everything, and everyone, clawed at my nerve endings. I wanted to be in the room with her.
I looked at the faces of the expectant mothers waddling past, hoping to see my wife’s face among them as she made her way to the delivery room, our healthy baby about to enter the world. The parade of so much pregnancy weighed on me. I filtered the surrounding sounds and targeted my wife’s staccato breathing and the nurse’s urgent urging. New mothers shuffled along, many on the arms of their partners. Bycatch noises distracted me. The Parkinson shake of a food trolley’s wheels, the emphysemic air-conditioner, and the metronomic slap-stick-slap-stick of rubber soles against linoleum muffled the acoustics of the closest I’d been to labour and birth.
Across from me, a wall of windows looked into the nursery, where chirping and wailing newborns were cocooned. Two years earlier, our son had been born by C-Section in this hospital, and the nursery was where I saw him for the first time, and made my first promise. I’ll always be here for you.
The nurse called me back. My wife had drained and hidden her tears. Blood and tissue, the colour and texture of crushed cranberries, stained the bed. The nurse had deposited the stillborn body in an aluminum bedpan she’d covered with a white towel. Placing the receptacle on the floor, she shoved it aside with her foot, like a dog’s food bowl.
She left it for you. Look at it! my wife said. What she could not carry kept her from looking. She expected me to put my eyes into words for her. A pugilistic heart pommelled my chest wall. My anxiety slugged its way toward what finish I did not know. Turning my back to the metal coffinette, I cheated us of words.
We argued over a dead baby.
Sometimes cowardice has its rightful place. I knew that fearing our fear was the greater fear. I did not have the balls to look at death in miniature. I willed myself to pass by, not pause. I had no wish to see a deceased self. Easier to pretend to look and lie. A made-up story would be the antidote to the horror we’d conceived.
The corpse was not ours. It belonged to another child who’d deviated from its expected trajectory. It had turnips for limbs, and its eyes, ears and nose were larval. The creature was an aberration crowned with a grotesque Francis Bacon head, a worthless blob of potato brain sprouting fur and possessing a tumor-filled maw of gnashing teeth. Gorging upon itself, the slobbering organism had gnawed through its umbilical cord. That’s what damned it to hell.
Had the alcohol, pot and hash enjoyed in my youth, or the one-time hit of LSD dropped in high school, lingered all those years inside me like bullets in a handgun’s chamber? Did my excesses contribute to manufacturing defective and abomination-creating sperm?
Scientists discovered toxins in the umbilical cord blood of newborns. The industrial stew passes from mom to baby. Throughout the pregnancy, the fetus mainlines bug-killer, household cleansers, mercury, steroids, non-stick spray, and carbon monoxide. Maybe that killed it.
Who was responsible? My spouse? Her parents? My unknown birth parents? (I’m the son of who knows who.) Do I have defective genes? Attributing blame would not solve the riddle as to why my wife and I botched making a whole and healthy child.
The postmortem report stated: “The specimen showed no signs of abnormality. The vascular loss was evident. Spontaneous abortion. A failure to thrive.”
Jettisoned gestation. A stillbirth. Life terminated itself at seven months. Dissected, analyzed, bagged. Following its autopsy, the creature was stuffed into a biohazard container and incinerated with human tissue, amputated limbs, malfunctioning livers, kidneys, and hearts. (Late at night, did the villains from folklore, who robbed children of their innocence, sneak into the biohazard storage and steal the brains, legs and arms, bones, organs and eyes from the doll-sized corpses, repurposing them to create the monsters of our nightmares?)
My wife and I did not inquire about our broken infant. We did not ask for its body, leaving no proof a reasonable facsimile of us existed. We didn’t discuss a memorial, nor hold a candlelight vigil for the unbaptized baby. My mother paid for a Catholic Mass for the repose of its soul.
Some people believe the souls of the unborn choose their families in advance. Greedy kids pick wealthy and doting parents, while a child with low self-esteem selects abusive ones.
Taiwanese fetus spirits of the aborted and miscarried wander the earth in search of their parents’ love and care.
Scandinavian folklore says the Northern Lights are the spirits of dead young women. Greenland’s Inuit imagine spirits travel to the upper world or the underworld. The Jews say old souls attach themselves to new individuals. Did our son or daughter find its way into another person?
I wanted a second child (half-heartedly). Does the soul of a ditherer get a pass?
In elementary school, the nuns and priests taught that unbaptized spirits travel to Limbo, a “blind world” between heaven and hell. This holding cell denies its residents the sight and warmth of the sun. Here, observed Virgil in Dante’s Inferno, “the anguish of the souls” utter “no lamentation other than the sighs that kept the air forever trembling.”
In catechism class, we drew pictures to celebrate Lent, the period of penance and reflection leading to Christ’s death and rebirth. My drawings depicting the souls of the dead ascending to heaven were Valentine-shaped hearts with angel wings. Pious spirits were yellow, and impious ones were coloured black to represent binge sinners, pagans, the unbaptized and illegitimate, their feathery appendages tattered and singed, their fate a fait accompli.
My wife and I were each in the middle of the other’s unmerited suffering. Our spirits splintered. The shards fled our bodies, leaving us exit wounds.
After reviewing the autopsy report and our respective medical histories, a geneticist concluded that stillbirth was not an indicator of inherited abnormalities or underlying birth defects. He could not explain why the baby did not survive to term. Angst kicked in, goaded as always by the mystery in my life. Adopted, I knew nothing of my origins, except that I was an accursed bastard whose black birth soul was saved through baptism.
My wife and I did not heed suggestions to try as soon as possible to get pregnant. We didn’t believe the level of our grief to be in its infancy and that another child would temper our sorrow. I do not recall talking with my wife about the sum of our fears and feelings. The stillbirth did not strengthen our marriage nor influence its demise.
I view life through a prism of losses—the death of our mothers and fathers, our lost children, broken relationships, squandered friendships, and the time lost reliving loss. Rather than sunlight refracting into a multi-coloured spectrum, the emerging light is spectral and distant, as though viewed through the opposite end of a telescope.
“From ‘celestial radiance’ to the ‘black white and grey interstellar residue’ of his demised unborn child on an ultrasound screen, a father, through language that is both brilliant and brutal, searches through the anguish of his grief for an understanding of loss.”
–Donna Morrissey, 2023 CNFC/HLR Contest Judge
Raymond Gariepy is a poet, a writer of nonfiction and fiction, and the editor of WestWord magazine, published by The Writers’ Guild of Alberta. His essay, “The Unborn and Born Dead Are Yet Among Us,” is in a collection of essays in the final throes of completion.