My daughter’s name is River Champion Kontour. She was born sleeping on the 25th of June, 2014 and this is her story.
It took years for us to decide to get pregnant, and even longer for it to happen. There were years where I felt it was impossible. It wasn’t easy. Seeing a stick with a negative result, month after month, is defeating. However, on the 1st of November, 2013 I saw two lines. It was one of the happiest days of my life.
I am not one of those women who enjoyed being pregnant; it was hard for me. Everyday was a struggle. I had nausea and headaches early on. Later on, it was pain in my hips, my back, my lungs … I never felt good. I complained all the time. Toward the end, asthma became a constant battle. I would have coughing fits that would make all the ligaments from my neck down ache. I would get tired quickly which made work very hard because I was constantly exhausted or in pain, or sick. I stopped sleeping. I had acne, leg cramps, heartburn, loss of bladder control, rashes, and hemorrhoids. Basically, I hated being pregnant –most of the time.
Every night, however, I would indulge in an excessively long shower. I would stand in the water letting it soothe my aching back and hips. The hot steam would help me breathe. I would hold my belly and rock back and forth and I would sing to the baby. I would talk to the baby. I never thought of anything during this time but the baby. It was my special time with her. My only time with her. I also loved feeling her move, which she did all of the time. She was a feisty little baby.
Week 16 I agreed to the genetics testing. A week later I got a call, saying we tested positive for neural tube defects. Fear consumed me. It was the first time I realized just how much I wanted this baby. The fear and worry continued until we had an appointment a few weeks later. As I was riding the elevator up to that appointment, the appointment where they might tell me that my baby was not compatible with life, I felt her move for the first time. It was undeniably movement. A tiny little flutter. Like a small furry mouse rolling in my tummy. I thought that moment was a sign – a sign that she would be OK and that I didn’t need to worry. Why else would that be the first time I felt her move?
The ultrasound revealed that our baby did not suffer from neural tube defects, but that the placenta had a problem. The baby’s cord was attached to the side of the placenta instead of the middle. This condition is fairly common and rarely life-threatening for the baby if his or her growth was closely monitored. I was told to come back at 28 weeks to make sure she was big enough. If she was, I could carry to full term. If not, we would deliver her early so we could give her the nourishment my body could not.
At the 30-week appointment she measured in the 25th percentile. They only deliver early if she would have measured in the 15 percentile or less – we were in the clear. A 10 percent difference and she would have already been born. She would have lived. Of course, there was no way to know this. All we knew was that she was healthy, full of life and big enough.
I was worried about my weight in those last three months. I was eating and eating, and my tummy was growing and growing, but my weight never seemed right. By the time I delivered I had only gained somewhere between 18-20 pounds. This wasn’t from dieting; I indulged in everything and gave into every craving. People would tell me how lucky I was, and that I shouldn’t complain about the small weight gain whenever I would bring it up, even then I thought their reactions were insensitive and unhealthy. I was legitimately worried about the weight and health of the baby, and they were annoyed with me for complaining about not being bigger. Being skinny … it’s always more important to people then health, and a truly disgusting obsession that plagues almost every woman I know.
At week 36-week appointment the nurse said, “You made it! The baby can come out safely at any time!” I remember that moment and that statement so clearly because I felt … happy. We had made it. I was going to have a baby. I had made it through the end of the school year, I had made it to the baby shower where we got almost everything we needed, we were going to close on our house in 12 days. The baby’s heartbeat was perfect. My blood pressure and urine samples were perfect. Again, we had made it. Everything that happened after that was just extra meat on her little bones. Get fatter. That’s all I had to worry about.
The day my heart shattered into a million pieces, the day our lives changed forever, was Tuesday June 24, 2014. I was 37 weeks and 6 days.
I had been experiencing true labor pains since Sunday night, and off and on all day Monday. It wasn’t until Monday night that they started to get consistent. They were about 35 minutes apart – too early to go into the hospital. Earlier that day I had relaxed by the pool. Kurt drank and played the ukulele, and I sunbathed, swam and spent the day with lots of my favorite people. This was the last time I remember feeling River move, and she moved a lot that day. Kicking, spinning, moving all around. I don’t know when the last time she moved was. Most likely she kept moving until that night when I slept. I just know that the last time I noticed, the last time I remember feeling her, was at the pool.
I decided to get some sleep, if I could, until the contractions were close enough to go to the hospital. I slept all night. I woke up every 30 min or so to a painful contraction and would drift back to sleep. I woke up around 3 a.m. to use the restroom. I was nauseous and felt terrible. If I had to pick one moment to identify as the moment I lost her, it would have been then, but there was no way of knowing that at the time. Feeling nauseous is typical while in labor. Many women even throw up, and not feeling well after five hours of waking up every 30 min in pain also didn’t seem out of the ordinary. Looking back, I should have gone in then, although it was probably too late.
I felt much better in the morning. The contractions were still 30 minutes apart, and I was getting restless. I called Kaiser Permanente, and they asked me all the standard questions. When I was asked if I was feeling movement, I realized that, no, actually … I hadn’t. But then, I hadn’t been paying attention, either. I was too obsessed with the contraction counter and trying to sleep and eat enough to prepare for the long journey ahead that I had completely spaced out on feeling her move. However, I wasn’t worried. I was confident that everything was fine, but I wanted to go in. I was tired of waiting. I knew they might just send me home, but I didn’t care. I was ready to meet her. I was ready to have this baby.
After arriving at the clinic, the nurse asked why we were there. I told her I hadn’t felt very much movement and I was having labor contractions. I remember she looked annoyed, and as she walked us back to the room she told us that usually they don’t want us to come in until the contractions are 15 minutes apart. I felt a little bad because I knew better. I knew I shouldn’t be there, that I was just fulfilling my own desire for the process to speed up. At that moment I thought I was being selfish.
They wrapped the blue heart monitor around my belly, and that was it. The moment it touched my belly we heard nothing. I knew. I knew as she moved it all around, desperately searching for the heartbeat that it wasn’t there. I don’t know how I knew, but I did. I grabbed my husband’s hand and looked at him, not the monitor, until the doctor’s voice cracked and with tears swelling in her eyes she said, “There it is. There is the heart. You can see the two open valves. Oh … I am so, so sorry.”
Panic wrapped around my neck and squeezed all the breath out of me. Somehow I managed to choke out, “Is it a boy or a girl?”
I see that screen – that cold green/gray screen with River’s little spine and her open heart every time I close my eyes. It is, and I fear it will continue to be, my most vivid memory. My dead little baby. My daughter. My life. My heart. Still. Unmoving.
The sad, horrible truth for couples with stillborn babies is that you still have to deliver. You are told your baby is dead. The baby you worked so hard to make; the baby you carried for nine months; the baby whose room is ready and waiting; the baby who was given gifts, inscriptions made out to her on the inside of children’s books; the baby whose car seat sits in your car; the baby who you sang to in the shower; the baby you had felt move the day before at the pool … your baby, your baby is dead. But you still have to deliver. You have to go through the hardest part, knowing that at the end of it, there will be no crying baby. No skin on skin. No first feeding. No cuddles. No first steps. No first words. No bike rides. No scraped knees. No prom. No graduations. No weddings. At the end of this you will not be a mother. Your husband will not be a father. Instead, you will have to do the hardest thing any parent will ever have to do – say goodbye.
They hooked me up to the monitors and gave me Pitocin because I was only 3 cm dilated. It felt good to be in pain because it gave me something to focus on. It also gave Kurt a job to do, and he was amazing. The nurses and doctors kept encouraging me to get an epidural. I think it made them sad to see me suffer. At some point, they all cried. They knew, what I didn’t. That the real pain, the pain of loosing her, was going to be unimaginable. But I didn’t want to hear it. I wanted to hurt. However, Pitocin is the devil. It was too painful and too hard. Knowing I wouldn’t have a baby at the end of it all made me give up, and the epidural took away the pain of my body and left me all alone with a broken heart.
At 3:15 a.m. I started to push. I had waited as long as I could because I knew that once she came out it was over, and I didn’t want it to be over. So, I held on as long as I was allowed. I had joked with everyone that I was going to be a champion pusher. Two pushes … and they would laugh. But in reality, it only took six, and she was born into the world at 3:37 a.m. in the most peaceful way possible. River was born in what is called en-caul. It is an incredibly rare occurrence in nature – a 0.00001% occurrence. This is when the baby is born in an un-punctured, perfectly intact amniotic sack. Throughout history, en-caul babies were considered destined for greatness. They were prized sailors, as it was believed they were immune to drowning. For me, knowing that she was born this way, makes me proud. She would have been the real champion.
They tore open the sack and removed her, Kurt cut the cord, and they put her on my belly. I saw my daughter for the first time. And even though it was the saddest moment of my life, oddly, it was the most beautiful. I was so sad, but I couldn’t stop smiling. She was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, and I loved her instantly. Her. Not because she was a baby, but because of who she was. A little girl who hated tomatoes and kicked every time her father played the ukulele. A little girl who made me buy and consume four watermelons a week. A feisty little girl who held on as long as any baby could have.
We were allowed to hold her for a long time. I just stared at her perfect little face and played with her perfect little feet. We took pictures and held her. And then we said goodbye. They took her away and I never saw her again.
One of two catastrophic events took River away from us. The results from her cord and placenta confirmed preeclampsia had caused me to have low fluid, and because of this, her cord had twisted into a knot, cutting off blood and oxygen. It also confirmed that preeclampsia caused my darling daughters placenta to detach by 25%. This alone, might not have ended her life, but the part of the placenta that detached, was the side where her cord was attached. It is impossible to know which came first, and it doesn’t matter now.
If only… “If only” constantly haunts me now. If only it had hurt. If only my appointment had been a week later. If only I had bled like women are supposed to, when their placentas detach. If only her cord had been attached to the center like normal. If only I had gone into labor a day earlier. If only… If only she had lived.
The experience was deeply traumatizing. At the end of delivery I had developed an infection in my uterus. I had a DNC due to the internal bleeding that occurred when the placenta detached and what must have been 10-plus stitches from a second-degree tear. My asthma caused coughing fits that ended in me peeing myself, which happened every 5 to 10 minutes for the first two days. It was humiliating and horrible. Truly horrible. I stopped eating and lost 20 pounds, developed postpartum preeclampsia, which is very dangerous and easily could have killed me, and had a bladder infection all in the first five days after delivery. But I didn’t care. I didn’t care about my body. I felt betrayed by it. I hated it. I welcomed death, but hung on for my husband. My other love. My other light. The only reason I made it through.
I don’t know why River had to leave us. There probably is no why. No reason. It is just something that happened to my beautiful baby girl, and it will hurt forever. It is the most painful thing that a person can go through, the death of their child. Even though I never got to meet her, I love her. I will always love her. To me, she is the sun, the sky, the moon, the stars, the earth, the sea, laughter, music, every color, a warm breeze on a summer night, the mountains, the forest, a heartbeat, my husband … she is beauty. She is my direction. My compass. She is me. She is mine. She is Kurt. She is his. She is ours. And she is gone. We will miss her forever.
I believe whole heartily that the world would be a better place if she was here. But since she is not, as her parents we have a choice. We can hold onto her and stop living until the pain dulls or we can embrace the pain. Learn to live with it, no matter how intense, and use it to grow. There is goodness in all things. This tragedy has taught us how much love we have in our lives and for each other. The love that surrounded us when she died was overwhelming. Truly. Cards, flowers, donations to March of Dimes, visits, food, likes and condolences on Facebook, kind words… Thank you for loving us. Thank you for loving her. Her life, although far too brief, changed our lives for the better. If you love someone, tell them. If you feel like singing, fucking sing. This life is too short, and far to beautiful, to care what people will think. Tomorrow you might be gone, and the world would miss you. Like River, it’s a better place because of you, appreciate it. Love it. Live it.
Thank you River for giving meaning to this life, and for teaching us what it means to be human. Our darling daughter, mommy and daddy love you. Always. Your name is River Champion Kontour. You were born sleeping on the 25th of June, 2014. This is your story.