Just over a year ago, our daughter Portia Elizabeth was born. She gushed into this world, tiny, gray and limp. Stillborn.
We had known for months that her condition would not allow her to live outside my womb. We also understood that stillbirth was a real possibility. Nevertheless, I had prayed for God to allow our baby girl to be born alive. Having known and read of other families who got to spend precious hours with their newborn infants who had terminal diagnoses, I hoped we, too, could hold our daughter, alive. I knew we wouldn’t get to watch her grow up, but at the very least, I wanted to see the color of her eyes. (Never hearing my son Josiah’s cry and never seeing his eyes open were my greatest traumas in losing him.)
I longed to have the chance to make memories with my daughter, alive. I ached to be able to know her, not just see her form.
It was not to be.
Wrestling with Questions
In the months between Portia’s prenatal diagnosis and her birth—and in the past year since saying goodbye—I have pondered many questions:
How do you make memories with a child who will never experience life beyond the womb?
How do you celebrate the life of a child who is not destined to live?
How do you welcome a child who dies before birth?
If a life is limited to pregnancy, does it even count?
The news that, just like with our firstborn, we would not get to keep this child either, was devastating. Somehow, in the midst of that, I determined to enjoy the time WITH my child ALIVE in my womb, as long as it lasted. Special memories were made TOGETHER as I consciously carried my daughter with us camping, hiking, attending family reunions, and enjoying getaways with my husband.
In the end, I didn’t get my wish to meet her alive. Yet Portia’s stillbirth didn’t really steal as much from us as I had feared. We already had experienced life and made memories together.
Remembering Life with Portia
In this post and the next, I want to share the myriad ways we forged beautiful memories with our baby girl from day 1 (or maybe I should day 0!).
Over the course of months and years of fertility treatments, Matt and I had grown accustomed to the twice-monthly, 2-hour trips to and from the fertility clinic. We’d take off work, schedule Matt’s mom to watch whatever foster children we had at the time, and head off for a day in the big city. Usually we’d squeeze in a meal at a favorite restaurant—maybe Thai, or Ethiopian, or something new.
But after multiple failed attempts and two miscarriages (all this AFTER our firstborn Josiah, who was conceived rather quickly), the doctor had me try a different fertility drug. This time, instead of Matt injecting me in the buttocks, I had to stick the needle in my own belly several nights in a row. (Wow. The things we do for a baby! I am okay with being stuck with a needle, but I can’t tell you how long I sat in the bathroom trying to work up the courage to jab myself that first night—only to realize I had forgotten to press the plunger, so I had to do it all over again! Oh, the torture.) I didn’t EVER want to have to go through this again.
Additionally, the doctor informed us that we would try one more time with IUI (intra-uterine insemination). The supply of sperm banked before Matt’s cancer treatments years before was dwindling. Next time she would ask us to consider IVF (in-vitro fertilization)—a procedure much more invasive and MUCH more expensive. Still without a huge increase in our chances. The pressure I felt was enormous. My heart was desperate with the weight of such a decision.
I unloaded my burden to a friend, and she immediately promised to pray for me every day for the next month. What a weight was lifted, and I went from there with renewed courage and peace.
Once again, that Friday in January Matt and I left our three foster children with my mother-in-law and headed out on our “date” trip to the fertility clinic for the ultrasound. This drug I had injected in my belly shortened my cycle by speeding up ovulation. At the ultrasound, the doctor informed us we’d have to return bright and early on Sunday morning for the IUI procedure.
However, a big snowstorm was forecast for that weekend. Driving would be difficult, if not impossible, and we COULD NOT MISS our scheduled time for the IUI.
By the time we reached home that evening, we had decided to pack our bags, book a hotel room, and head right on back to the city that night. Then we could get snowed in THERE and not miss our appointment. Matt’s mother would stay with the children while we were gone. And WE could have a fun weekend getaway without children!
It was great. We got in late and slept in blissfully. Upon waking Saturday morning, the storm had still not arrived. So we went shopping and had a nice dinner at a Mexican restaurant. While we experienced a tiny bit of guilt for leaving the children with my mother-in-law a night more than necessary, we fully enjoyed the beautifully relaxed time together with no responsibilities and no distractions.
Early Sunday morning, we awoke to a howling wind driving snow across the parking lot. It had rained that night as the temperature dropped, so the windows on our van were solidly iced over. We had to work just to get INTO our vehicle. The ice was so thick we could not scrape it off, so we had to turn on the defroster and sit in the cold car, waiting.
Once the windshields were clear enough to drive, we cautiously started out. The roads were mostly deserted. The short mile or two to the clinic was silent and still, except for the wind and crunching of tires on dry snow.
After the procedure, we headed back to the hotel room to rest until checkout time, hoping the storm would subside by then. Finally the interstates were cleared enough for us to head home.
That weekend we had an unexpected two nights of relaxation away from home, sandwiched in between excitement and adventure. What more memorable conception story could we dream of?
This weekend snowstorm adventure was the very beginning of Portia’s story.
Dreaded, Joyous Pregnancy Test—February
In spite of such a fun weekend with my husband, I was terrified to take the pregnancy test. So much depended on this pregnancy test; I had already been dealt so many disappointing blows in the realm of child-bearing. Yet right when I needed it, God gave me the gift of peace and optimistic joy. (I described this transformation from fear to peace in my post Twenty Weeks.)
And then He gave me the peace and gratitude to accept each day of the gift of pregnancy, even if it was short-lived or didn’t end as I hoped.
That joy was spilling over so much that day at church I had to tell one person: the friend who had prayed every day for a month for me leading up to that month’s IUI procedure.
A Knowing 5-Year-Old
Our daughter had already been with us through one pregnancy, with Josiah. She had seen my belly grow, she had loved on our baby and spoke to him in my belly. She also suffered the loss of her brother alongside us.
Now she was asking if I was pregnant even before I started showing. Like she knew. My husband and I stole knowing glances and smiles at each other. It was so hard to contain our news when our little girl was so sure and so excited about the baby she thought—knew—was in my belly!
Warm family moments surrounding joyous secrets are part of Portia’s story.
Trip to Cincinnati—May
Our little Portia went with us on many memorable trips during my pregnancy.
On one of our first trips, we drove to Cincinnati to visit my cousin and her family.
The weekend started out full of anxiety, as I had overexerted myself physically before our trip and experienced cramping throughout the night.
Nevertheless, we had a lovely weekend with my cousin’s family. First we explored a river-front park in the late spring sunshine, complete with fountains and landscaped playgrounds perfect for children’s play. Then that evening, they introduced us to many spicy but amazing South Indian dishes at a local restaurant. We visited and watched our children play together.
Portia was with us in Cincinnati, in both my anxiety over the pregnancy and my enjoyment of rare time with extended family.
Return to the Homestead—June
The next month we traveled to my parents’ farm in Pennsylvania to spend time with all my grown-and-scattered siblings and their spouses. What a wondrous time of togetherness at the homestead where we all grew up. We soaked up the richness of gathering around my mother’s table, laden with good home cooking, watching little cousins playing, catching up with newlywed brothers and new sisters-in-law, and hiking nearby trails together.
I had only recently announced my pregnancy. This was the first, and maybe only, time for my siblings to see my belly beginning to swell with Portia.
Hiking My Favorite Falls
Later that week, some of us piled into several vehicles and drove to one of my favorite waterfalls. My husband had never been to Ricketts Glen before, and I was anxious to share this special place with him and our five-year-old. We parked at the bottom of the falls and ate a picnic lunch, then hiked up the trail along one series of gorgeous, gushing waterfalls before heading back down to our vehicles. In some places, the stone steps were steep, causing me to move more slowly and carefully than I would have normally. Oh, the beauty of the green moss, the splashing water, and of cousins playing along the trail and swinging along the path with Grandmama and Grandpapa!
Portia was very much a part of this trip. With every step, I was highly conscious of taking the climb slow and steady, stopping often to rest, to prevent overdoing it again.
Family Camping Trip—July
Every year my husband and I take a family camping trip, usually picking a new state park to explore each time.
This time we chose Audra State Park, and it quickly became one of our favorites. Though the campground was packed that Fourth of July week, there was was still privacy and abundant beauty. Mounds of blooming, wild rhododendron surrounded our campsite. Tunnels and caves under their thick growth delighted our little girl with opportunities to explore. The river rushed past the campground, and provided multiple points of entry for wading or swimming. Both long and short hiking trails took us past breathtaking rock formations and beautiful scenery.
By this time, hiking was not so hard on me. We probably hiked a couple miles in the heat, though sheltered from the sun in the coolness under the giant rhododendrons that grew thick all along the river.
Our camping trip came at the perfect time. We had just learned from our ultrasound that our baby had problems, though we didn’t yet know the extent. Trying to maintain hope, yet preparing for the worst is a difficult tension. In much-needed contrast to the state of our hearts, the state park was filled with beauty and space and water and green—things that brought peace and soothed our anxious hearts. It was a space away from home and responsibilities, a place for life to stand nearly still, and for us to be together, undistracted by troubles.
Above all, Audra State Park is where I purposed to consciously include Portia in our family activities. Not knowing if we would ever get to take our baby camping with us in the future, I soaked up the beauties of the place to infuse into my memories of pregnancy with Portia.
Overnight in Columbus
Because our first ultrasound was hauntingly inconclusive, we were (once again) referred to the maternal fetal medicine clinic. Then we were scheduled for a full workup of level 2 ultrasounds, MRI, and a meeting with the team of doctors and specialists to go over the findings with us. These appointments started first thing in the morning and filled our entire day.
That was the hard part.
The wonderfully memorable part, however, was “having” to be there bright and early in the morning. This meant we had to get respite care for our foster children, book a hotel, and drive up the night before. Once again, Matt and I were given wonderful time away, together.
This time we explored the German quarter of Columbus, which I had only recently learned about. We dined at the bustling Schmidt’s Sausage Haus, enjoying German fare of sausages, sauerkraut and warm potato salad. We enjoyed it so much we even went back the next evening after our appointments to try some more dishes before heading home!
Portia’s diagnosis took us to Columbus for maternal fetal medicine appointments. She also gave us the opportunity to have some rare fun together, away from the children.
Another special time with Portia was a gathering of my cousins from far-flung states. One Pennsylvania cousin hosted the family for a day at her large home with a pool. Aunts and uncles and cousins with their own children gathered for a day of feasting, visiting, swimming, playing games, storytelling, and remembering.
This was the only time these cousins saw me pregnant with Portia. Knowing our recent heartbreaking diagnosis, they gathered around Matt and me and prayed for us and our baby.
Portia’s presence was also felt in our family gathering, as my breaking heart was surrounded by so much love.
Discontinuing Fetal Medicine Visits
Our experience with Josiah’s pregnancy was fraught with the stress of constant trips to the clinic to monitor his growth and health. We couldn’t take that stress this time around.
Knowing ultrasounds would not change the outcome for our daughter, we chose to discontinue following with the maternal fetal medicine specialists. In doing so, we chose peace. No longer were chunks of time being stolen from us, or added anxieties stacked on top of disappointments. We could live peacefully each day at home with our family, undisturbed by the latest alarms about our baby not growing as she should.
We are so thankful we chose the path of peace. It helped to make this pregnancy with Portia as normal and enjoyable as possible.
Choosing a Blanket
Possibly one of the hardest things of celebrating our daughter’s life was choosing a blanket for her. Often friends, family, and baby showers smother new mothers with more blankets than they know what to do with. We already had plenty of baby blankets in preparation for any foster children who might come into our home. But for Portia, I had to choose ONE blanket, THE blanket, that I wanted to wrap my baby in to send her softly into eternity.
I found it: a soft, white, knit blanket with layers of simple, zig-zag, pink borders. With the perfect blanket, my heart was satisfied.
Choosing this blanket was one of few things I could physically do for my daughter.
These memories are some examples of how we came to answer the question, “How do you make memories with a child who will never experience life beyond the womb?”
It was a choice. We chose to cherish the memories made during pregnancy, rather than waiting until birth to start.
Perhaps this also answers the question, “If a life is limited to pregnancy, does it even count?”
Yes, a resounding YES! Portia’s short life affected us to the core. Her life in my womb is inextricably intertwined with our memories from that year.
I am so glad we chose to make memories with our daughter in this way. They are etched in my mind more indelibly than other family gatherings and vacations. They leave me with something warm and precious to hold as I go forward without my daughter in my arms.