By Dannielle Gallagher
CW: This post discusses infant death. To learn more about The Aleksander Fund or to donate please click here.
To my Sweet Baby Girl, Poppy:
The minute I discovered I was pregnant I knew you were girl, just like I knew we would be the best of friends – that is after you outgrew some of that fire you inherited from your Daddy. I knew I loved you more than I ever thought possible, all before you were the size of a pea. I knew that you would grow to be brave and strong and determined. I knew that you would grow to also “know” things in that same deep down way that I sometimes do. I felt that about us, that we belonged to each other, right from the very start.
What I didn’t know, was as you grew inside my belly (and my heart) you were sick. You see as you were growing, your tiny heart didn’t form quite right. There was a little valve inside it that wouldn’t close, so as you grew from a tiny seed into our beautiful little Poppy, your heart became too large to fit into your chest, it expanded to squash the organs that would make it possible for you to ever take a breath. Your official diagnosis took up most of a page, it started with your heart, compounded with a series of devastating complications, and ended with three serious looking specialists in an ultrasound room, telling us that your condition was “not compatible with life.” Those words will haunt me, always. The moment I learned that I wouldn’t get to watch you grow into the extraordinary woman I dreamed of, was excruciating. It was also only just the beginning of my heartache. Your diagnosis also came with a recommendation of medical termination.
I won’t say I didn’t have a choice, because I did, but ultimately every option I was presented with still ended in your death. So I picked the option that sucked the least, the one that I thought I could best live with. I made the decision to love you enough to let you go in peace, surrounded by those who love you most in this world. It wasn’t a choice I wanted to make, but I made it, because sometimes being a Mother means doing what is best for your child, even though it breaks your heart to do it. I want you to know that If I could have chosen to have you live a healthy and full life, I would have given everything to give you that. Its devastating to know that even with all of the medical miracles we have in this day and age, there wasn’t a miracle big enough to save you.
I chose to let you go before twenty two weeks, because that meant that labor could be induced and proceed naturally. Had I left it any later I would have had to travel to a specialist to have a procedure to stop your heart chemically before I traveled home again to birth you. Had I chosen to continue the pregnancy it would have still ended the same way, and I could not face the possibility of you being sustained by machines and suffering until you could no longer cling to life.
I spent my last morning with you, feeling you kick inside my belly. Your daddy and I laid our hands on my tummy, I sang “Over The Rainbow” to you, and told you just how much we wished things could have been different. We said our goodbyes before the first of my contractions stopped your weak and malformed heart. I laboured with you the same as I did your three brothers. Your labour went reasonably smoothly, although it was hard to ride the crest of pain knowing that you would not be coming home with us when it was all over. You were delivered, a tiny, sleeping bundle just a few hours later. You were beautiful, so beautiful. You had your daddy’s lips and the smallest, most perfect hands and feet. To hold you, one would never know that you were so sick.
In the hours after your birth, we cuddled you – the hospital had a special cold cot that allowed us to spend time with you in hospital to say our final goodbyes. Your whole family came in to meet you, your Brothers, Aunts, Cousins and Grandparents all showered you with love. You were visited by a very lovely lady who captured memories of us all together, so that we can remember you always. I keep one of those photos beside my bed, and I talk to you every night.
The last few months without you have been the hardest of my life. I have spent time in my grief trying to find other parents like me, but I haven’t had a lot of luck. I found a few Facebook groups, and some articles, but mostly nobody puts their hand up and says “I had a medical abortion.” I mean I couldn’t even bring myself to tell anyone outside of our family, so I understand completely. At the time of your death I didn’t feel strong enough to deal with potential backlash, so I told a white lie and when people asked about you, I said that you were sick and you past away in my womb. I felt sick about holding that piece of us back, but I wasn’t ready then, I’m still not sure if I’m ready now.
Eight weeks to the day of your passing, I came across an Instagram post on my news feed from Jen Pastiloff – I’ve been following her for a while on social media. The post she shared was a story about a Lady named Julia and her little baby Aleksander- you see Aleksander was born sleeping, just like you were. I read that Instagram story three times. I absorbed it with my whole heart, something about it spoke to me in a way that cracked my “I am okay” facade more than a little. I cried for Julia, I cried for us, and then I cried some more when I read how after talking with Julia, Jen felt moved to offer her a place at her On Being Human Retreat in Tuscany. Jen went onto explain that while Julia slept, her tribe got to work raising enough money to gift Julia a place so that she could heal. From that beautiful connection between Julia, Baby Aleksander and Jen, the Aleksander Fund was born. That’s how big she loves.
Reading Jen’s post planted a seed, and that night I had some crazy ass dreams about being on a retreat with all my friends. The next day, I got up with this feeling of “you need to write to Jennifer.” Not being a person who generally ignores wacky/deep dreams without consequence, I listened. I sat down after I took your brothers to school, and I wrote to Jen. She was one of the first people I told the whole truth to. I felt like you were safe with her, that I could share our story and there would be no condemnation or criticism at her end. The funny thing is, I was right about her, what I got in response to my email was love, acceptance, and to my great surprise, an invitation to attend her September On Being Human retreat in Tuscany. Of course I said yes.
I was filled with trepidation waiting at the Florence train station for Alex to collect us in the van, to take us to the Villa – Alex and his Mum Mari own and run the villa, with the help of the beautiful Simina and Johnny, of course. I nervously deposited myself next to a group of women who could have only been our group, I have a habit of sticking to the fringes of things out of general awkwardness. I shouldn’t have worried though, in about five minutes a woman with wild curls and a smile that reached all of the way up to her twinkly blue eyes introduced herself as Janice, she tucked me up under her wing and we spent the whole ride talking in the back seat like a couple of giggling school girls. The halfway roadside lunch of Porchetta sandwiches and Chianti may or may not have added to the bonding experience, but by the time we reached the villa, (Locanda Cugnanello) I had five new besties.
Oh Poppy, the Villa was like a dream, it’s a mammoth old stone building nestled between ancient rolling hillsides, vineyards and wildflowers. Everywhere you turn you are confronted by an equally stunning vista. The whole place is like living inside a masters painting, it’s exquisite. Crunching down the gravel driveway in the van, with that beauty in the background, to see Jen with Charlie on her hip and Barb waving her arms in greeting, with her camera at the ready, felt like coming home. It’s the only way I can describe it. The whole retreat just felt like home. From opening ceremony to closing, I felt nothing but nurtured, accepted and loved. I can’t say I always felt comfortable, but I am pretty sure that’s a part of Jen’s diabolical genius, in order to shake us up a little and make us look beyond the stories we tell ourselves. I’ve gotta tell you, it worked, it really did. Since you died, I’ve been chronically avoiding paying attention to my body and my feelings. I’ve not been kind to myself and Jen’s workshops changed all that. She helped me see myself from a different perspective. Listening to other women share themselves in the safe space Jen created, changed me, in ways I cannot even begin to explain. It made my realise that we are never really alone in our experience, that no matter what we are going through a piece of me lives in another, and a part of them is in me.
The whole experience fostered love, for others and also myself. Moving my body, helped me feel the subtle signals my body likes to use to communicate what I need. So yeah, I learned to listen. I learned to laugh. I learned that 6:30 am yoga and meditation won’t actually kill me, and (gasp) that I’d actually come to enjoy it. I also learned that eating all the carbs and drinking all the wine, is so, so good for the soul. Being in that space, with Jen and all those beautiful women, who I came to see as sisters by the end of the week, gave me back a piece of myself that I felt like I was missing. The experience gave me permission to put down the guilt that I have been carrying in my body, and my heart since I made the choice to let you go.
Since I’ve been home I have thought about you a lot. I spent what would have been your birthday contemplating the last few months. I’ve looked at my photo album filled with our first and last pictures with you, I’ve held onto tiny silver casts of your hands and feet, I even pulled out the little dress we put you in after your Daddy and I bathed you in the hospital. I took the time to think about what could have been, and also what was. My heart still aches for you, but as I held onto those few precious memories of you, the words of the gorgeous Italian medicine woman rang in my ears – Tatheena, who rubbed my back with herbs, relieved my aching muscles with crystal’s, and dried my tears after I sobbed brokenly all over her massage bed. She sat me up, took my hands, completely unperturbed by my nakedness, looked at me with unnerving depth, and said “You will never lose the shadow on your heart. You will walk with it for the rest of your days. But you must live for her, you must live for yourself, your husband, and your boys. You must focus on creating joy. Only then will the shadow fade.” She was right you know. Now when I hold your tiny silver hands and feet, I don’t feel the overwhelming weight sitting on my chest like it did before. I see that place in the foothills of Tuscany, I hear those women say “I’ve got you.” I feel the phantom hands of my sisters, the vibration of their love held in the steady rhythm of the “Om” they bathed me in as I lay open, vulnerable, accepting, on the floor of a Tuscan Yoga room. When I’m lost, or feeling my old friend guilt, I am taken right back there, to that place of love and I’m home, I’m okay, because I know I made the right choice to love you, and let you go.
My dear, sweet, girl, I am so, so grateful that I am your Mummy, I am honoured that you chose me. No matter what, I still know in my heart what I’ve known all along. We belong to each other Poppy, nothing will change that. One day I will hold you in my arms again. Until then I will make do with carrying you in my heart.
Dannielle and Poppy
Dannielle is from Queensland Australian. She is a Mother to three crazy boys, and a sweet Angel baby named Poppy. Dan (that’s what her friends call her) is a born Storyteller, she believes in honesty, kindness, and possibilities. She has a wicked sense of humor, is akward, mildly inappropriate and is not afraid to admit that she’s a work in progress. If you’re into that sort of thing, you can find her on Instagram @she_is_unstoppable.
To learn more about the Aleksander Fund or to donate please click here. To sign up for On being Human Tuscany Sep 5-18, 2018 please email email@example.com.
*All Tuscany images courtesy of Barbara Potter.
I just had time to read essay and I am in tears. I am so happy you reached out and
Made this journey with us.
Sending you so much love. Mom Barb.
I am truly so grateful to you both for having me. It will be my favourite adventure ever. xx Dan.