Beauty exists even in the most difficult situations. The day my daughter was born was the hardest day of my life — but it was beautiful. An ER visit had led to an ultrasound 36 hours earlier, which showed that our baby’s heart had stopped. She would be stillborn. We didn’t even know her gender at that point; we had been excited for the surprise. On the screen that evening we saw our perfectly formed baby, but where there was supposed to be a flicker of white we saw only stillness. I had carried her for 34 weeks without so much as a backache, and now she was gone. But her story didn’t begin nor end that day.
Maeve’s story begins the summer we found out we were pregnant. We had so much fun preparing. I loved being pregnant and spent a lot of time focusing on self-care and doing everything you’re “supposed” to do: eating well, running, sleeping a lot. I did yoga and enjoyed being propped up with blankets and pillows in the back of the class (pregnancy perks, amiright?) I didn’t drink coffee for my first trimester, I skipped sushi and lunch meats, I ate protein and read books about natural childbirth. We had lots of fun excursions, including a babymoon in Burlington, VT. We took a road trip to see the Avett Brothers in Cooperstown, NY. We camped at the concert venue, and I so fondly remember the sun setting as they played, thinking about how the next time we saw them in concert we’d have a little baby with headphones keeping us company.
On December 26, 2015 while visiting family for the holidays, I was overcome with worry. Maeve hadn’t moved that day, or at least I couldn’t remember when she last did amid the hustle and bustle of the holidays. The next day was supposed to be my baby shower. We checked into the ER, hoping for some reassurance and to be sent on our way. I was oddly calm as the anxiety grew. I knew.
The first nurse was kind and told me to relax, that she had come in during her own pregnancy after not feeling baby more than once. This was really comforting for a moment, until she tried using the doppler. Her talking stopped and she said something about needing a better machine. She came back with an ultrasound machine and a doctor. My heart was racing as I squeezed Michael’s hand. The fear is indescribable. The doctor had tears in her eyes when she told us that she was sorry and that our baby didn’t make it.
In an instant, everything changed. Pregnancy is a time of such anticipation and joy and the sudden shift to grief and despair was shocking. I was wheeled to a room with dim lights and no windows and Michael had to notify everyone that we were going to have our baby, but that the baby was dead. I don’t know how he did it, but he did and was back by my side almost immediately, where he stayed for the 36 hours until Maeve was born, and for the six weeks following her birth. This was the first gift Maeve gave us: strength for each other.
The medical staff was compassionate and spent time with us. One doctor laid out how induction would go; it would be slow and carefully managed. Another doctor quietly insisted that, while I had planned on a natural delivery, under these circumstances I could and should take all the pain relief options possible. That I was going through enough. Later, the anesthesiologist who gave me an epidural wore a Superman shirt and made me laugh, a moment of levity that was so appreciated. During the very long induction and labor (36 hours), I was comforted by a few nurses but especially Maggie, whose compassion made all the difference. This was the second gift Maeve gave us: amid this heartache, gratitude for those around us.
Because of the meds and the epidural I was able to sleep through much of the “active” labor. I woke in the middle of the second night and felt the urge to push. The doctor checked me and said the baby’s head was right there and it was time to push. I broke down. This should have been SO different. I was overwhelmed with the realization of what was happening. We were having our baby, and the baby was going to come out dead, and I had no idea what he or she would look like, and I’d never get to hear the first cries, and we’d be leaving empty-handed and….
It’s as if Michael read my mind. All of the panic dissipated as he looked me in the eye and said, “We will get through this together and we can be sad and angry and everything else. But not today. Don’t worry about anything today. Today is for pushing.” I heard that, and I could handle that, and I did that. Maeve was born and was taken from the room to be cleaned up; that wasn’t how it would’ve gone had she been alive. I remember the sadness in the room. I felt like I had let everyone down; it was just so, so quiet and empty. We had no plan in place and were so unsure of how to handle it. I knew we’d want to see and hold her, but I didn’t know if it would be too hard. There’s no right way to handle your stillbirth, but I do know that Maggie validated every feeling we had. When we told her we were ready, she brought our baby in, dressed in a warm blanket and little striped hat. Maggie carried her in carefully and lovingly, as if she were alive. I’ll never forget that.
Our girl name had always been Maeve. Maeve Kathleen. We cried as we held her. We kissed her face and hands. We took turns holding her in our arms and telling her we loved her. We took a handful of pictures. We were at once so sad and so proud. Maeve was beautiful. Her chubby cheeks and button nose and delicate fingers made us smile at each other through our tears. That time with Maeve was precious and changed us forever. Saying goodbye was impossible, but we knew in those moments that we’d be making our girl a part of our lives in real, tangible ways from that day forward.
If I’m honest, giving birth was a relief. The previous days were so devastating and once we found out there was no heartbeat I remember distinctly feeling like I wanted the baby out as fast as possible. It was too much to bear. But once we saw her and held her, things changed. She wasn’t just our baby that died. Maeve was — Maeve is — our daughter. She made me a mother. She taught me about myself in ways no one else could. She created a stronger bond between her father and I, and ours was already a powerful one. She inspires us on a daily basis. The gifts Maeve has given us are innumerable.
The recovery room had a window, and that day was so foggy. Michael and I lay together, holding each other, crying, Pandora playing from an iPhone sitting next to a tray of uneaten dinners. We missed the joyful expectancy we had just days earlier. We missed our daughter. Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic” came on, mirroring the weather outside and the feeling of longing in our hearts. That song will forever be Maeve’s and is part of me now forever — literally. “Let your soul and spirit fly into the mystic” is tattooed above my heart, alongside a fairy that a dear friend designed for me. Maeve, in Irish mythology, was queen of the fairies.
In the six weeks after Maeve died, our friends and family rallied around us. We were fed, nurtured, given space and loved on. Maeve was loved. Getting up in the mornings was so hard; the sadness weighed most heavily on me when I first woke up. Some days I couldn’t get out of bed. But Michael was able to get me out for a hike most days and those excursions became our lifeline. We could talk through things, scream in the woods, cry among the snow-covered trees. We could laugh. We could talk about the future. We could remember fondly the time we had together as a family of three. Mostly, though, we could simply walk, one foot in front of the other. And as we walked we’d take in the beauty around us; it was life-saving. The warm sun, the snow drifts, the views from the summits in Acadia National Park, where we live, were healing in ways they never had been before. The beauty surrounding us was truly getting us through the hard days. Things we had never noticed, not really noticed, now took on new meaning. And the only reason we were able to be so present, so appreciative and so reflective was because of Maeve.
Maeve’s life was so short. She was here and then she wasn’t. And yet her brief life, her little newborn self, continues to influence us every single day. Because of Maeve our hearts are bigger, our feelings are deeper and our lives are infinitely richer. For these gifts I am forever grateful.
Caroline Fournier is an elementary school teacher in Bar Harbor, Maine. She, her husband, baby boy, and dog are usually exploring Acadia National Park. Otherwise she’s writing, parenting, making coffee, reheating said coffee, taking care of pet chickens or re-watching the entire “Office,” in no particular order. You can follow her on Instagram @maevesmiles.
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*Photos provided by author.