This post is best read while listening to "Bowl of Oranges" by Bright Eyes.
His face was what impressed me the most. I didn’t fully know what to expect, when the midwife asked me if I wanted to hold Luca. I darted a look of apprehension towards Daniel, who had offered to cut Luca’s cord and was now holding him in his arms, with tears streaming down his face. I asked him: “Is he… is he OK?” Now, I knew all too well that my son was not OK – in fact, I knew he was not alive. But I was worried about what he would look like. He had been dead inside me for two and a half days. I had never seen him. I would not recognise him amongst a million other stillborn babies. I just wanted to be reassured that he looked like… a baby. Daniel said, softly: “He’s fine. He’s beautiful” and handed me a big pile of towels and blankets. Luca’s tiny body was clustered in the middle, his head a perfectly round sphere.
I reached for my glasses to see him better. I lifted one of the blankets to show his body. I know everybody was probably expecting me to burst into a primal cry but instead, I smiled. I must have been crazy when I was thinking I would never tell him apart a million other babies – because I definitely could. He was so unmistakably mine. His genetic condition, whilst affecting the length of his limbs as well as the correct functioning and development of many of his internal organs, had left no sign on his face. Luca was, in fact, just gorgeous. Because his heart had stopped nearly three days earlier, his skin had started to peel off a little, and was very red – as if he had got a pretty bad sunburn. He had the shortest, finest dark hair, and his head was gently tilted and leaning on his left shoulder.
“He looks like my dad, doesn’t he”, I whispered to Daniel, smiling. He nodded. Everybody else agreed, including my – very tearful – dad. I, according to most, am the spitting image of my dad, so inevitably I realised that Luca looked a lot like me. When I was pregnant, Daniel and I often joked about how we were hoping for Luca to have Daniel’s stunning blue eyes – yes, I’m a sucker for those – but Luca’s eyes when I let him go were obviously closed. They also looked a bit puffy, as if he’d come home after a long, exhausting journey that had kept him very busy for months. In a way, I guess that’s exactly what happened. His mouth was somewhat open, and his lips were ever so slightly pulled in what might have looked like the beginning of a smile. Again, that was clearly not possible. But I guess I was desperately looking for something, anything, that could make my child more like a real person – without realising that he already was a real person.
From the moment he was born, I remember wanting to cry. I wanted to cry so badly, but somehow I just couldn’t. My body wouldn’t let the tears out. I even whispered to Daniel, at one point: “I want to cry, why can’t I cry?” and he said that it was probably because I was still high on the morphine. I think he was right, as he almost always is. Luca was passed from person to person – everybody wanted a piece of him. Everybody cried. Everybody said he was such a cutie. Nobody shied away from looking at my child, holding him, and smiling at him. My dad kissed me on the forehead, my mum stroke my hair. Gladys, the midwife, with her calm and loving attitude, weighed and measured Luca and then placed him in a cold cot – that’s a cot specifically designed for stillborn babies, which helps to preserve their small, fragile bodies for as long as possible. I leaned over the edge of the cot to look at him, at his whole body. It still felt so absurd that I had given birth to such a beautiful baby, complete in himself and fully formed, but that he would have been just too poorly for life.
How was it possible? He was there, he was real, he had a face, with two eyes, a nose, lips, two ears, and he had a body like everyone does. I could spot his shorter arms and legs, but to me he still looked like a perfect baby, very tiny but very real. Gladys told me that his skin was too delicate and she would not be able to dress him, but we could wrap him around the blanket we brought with us, the one with the little blue elephants. I touched him, he was still warm – I gently touched his hand, his feet, his cheeks. I still wasn’t able to cry, and I hated it.
Oh, Luca. How I wanted to hold you and stroke you and touch your skin just like any other mum is allowed to do with her baby. How I wanted to absorb more of you, your body, your life, without being told you were too fragile for that. Too fragile for your mum’s loving hands and lips and arms.
We spent a total of six hours with Luca, in our hospital room. During the first few hours, while I was still feeling very spaced out because of the morphine, we received visits from several people, including Liz, the lovely Bereavement Midwife. She sat on the bed with me, and gently ran me and Daniel through what the next steps of our bereavement care were going to be. She had to ask the most terrible but necessary questions around agreeing on Luca’s post-mortem examination. I remember answering them all with a feeling of complete detachment from reality. After lunch, my parents and Daniel’s mum left, the midwives left, and the three of us stayed there on our own – my little family. After lunch, the sudden realisation: the baby all those doctors had been talking about, checking on, worried about, comforted me for, the one we had seen so far only in black and white and grey on the screens of so many hospitals, was a real, tangible human being, and he was right in front of me. Still, I was advised not to touch him too much, not to hold his naked body, not to stroke his skin for too long – he was a tangible human being, but he was so incredibly fragile as if made of glass.
After lunch, finally, the tears came like a storm that had been looming over me for hours. I sobbed uncontrollably, I cried so much and so hard that at one point I realised I was no longer able to breathe. Daniel cried with me and held me tight. I don’t think he whispered anything else apart from “I love you so much.” We didn’t do a lot, those six hours. We took photos of Luca. We kept rearranging his blanket and his little teddy. We stared at him – in awe, love, and infinite sadness. We tried to memorise every minuscule detail about him, about his whole, tiny body. We tried, I guess, to be parents to our dead baby – how could a person even fathom having to do that, one day?
At one point, I needed to go pee – something that, apparently, made all the doctors and midwives very happy, as it’s not meant to be a super common occurrence straight after giving birth – and asked Daniel if he could come and help me. I was still wearing a few cannulas, I was bleeding, and I could barely walk. As soon as we began walking towards the door, we both looked at each other, then we looked at Luca, forever asleep in his cold cot.
Daniel asked if I really needed his help – I said no, that he should probably stay with Luca. He hugged me and whispered: “I know it doesn’t make sense, I know he doesn’t need me, but I don’t want to leave him on his own, I don’t want him to think we abandoned him.” I burst into tears and held him tighter and closer, stroking his hair and saying that I absolutely understood what he meant, and that he should stay with him, I would be fine and if not I would call a nurse. This, to this day, is one of the moments that both Daniel and myself treasure the most about meeting Luca.
At around 4pm, Gladys was about to end her shift and she came into the room to do one last thing: take Luca’s prints. I looked, concerned, as she gently lifted Luca’s floppy arms and legs to softly press his hands and feet against a small ink pad. I realised we were about to say goodbye, and my stomach churned. It was all done, all gone, all over. I slipped off the hospital gown and got back into my dress – a red dress I bought on our holiday to Italy and which showed off my bump.
I slowly walked towards Luca’s cot, and fixed my eyes on him, as if trying to tattoo his entire being into my irises. Touching him one last time revealed a much colder, less baby-soft body to my fingers, and it hurt my soul. I tried to block the tears, just because I didn’t want them to blur the last ever sight of my son, perfect and still in his perpetual sleep. I hadn’t been able to cuddle him, bathe him, stroke his hair incessantly, play with him, hold him in my arms without the aid of blankets, feel the weight and warmth of his body pressed against my chest – but I could have one last, perfect image of him as he laid peacefully in front of me. My forever baby, forever my first born.