"It's a little girl," our doctor said. My husband, Tony, beamed dreaming of the days he would train his future tennis or golf champion.
I consciously ate well. I tried not to be stressed. I listened to classical music instead of my usual rock. Everything seemed fine. But blood results stated she had a high likelihood of a rare terminal chromosome defect. The doctor advised that if she did have the condition, we should terminate. At home, I stroked my belly and felt the deep connection to my daughter, beyond time, beyond comprehension. Through uncontrollable sobs, I said to Tony: "I can't do it. I just can't. I'll never forgive myself." He held me as I nestled into his warmth. "I'm with you on this. We're in this together."
At week 20, I watched the doctor's face, searching for answers. She shook her head. She then rattled off the rainbow of acute malformations – brain, heart, spine, intestines. Then "and she's only got three toes". Through the numbness, I was escorted to do more tests. From afar, I watched Tony, surrounded by pregnant mothers. He stared into nothingness. His silent, paralysed face consumed by a deafening pain. My heart shattered. And it would do so countless times over. During the ride home, I wondered why hadn't the world stopped? Amid the silence, Tony turned to my belly and said: "Hey there, don't think this changes anything. It doesn't. We still love you so much."
My entire being ached with anguish. Intellectually, I understood that it was just a matter of time. But my whole existence cherished each second she was still with me. When can a mother ever be ready to let go?
Bears of Hope provides a bag at hospitals to parents of stillborn babies. The bag includes a bear named after another stillborn, donated by the child's parents. Knowing about this, we felt less alone. We then thought, 'Why are we counting down the days until she dies? Why can't we celebrate each day that she is alive?' So we began a Facebook group called Baby Angie's Register of Kindness. For those inspired by Angie, they would do an act of kindness to strangers. People were moved to forgive debts, to plant trees, to make packs for homeless people, to think with greater perspective.
We soon realised that the only way through our pain, is to realise that our suffering makes us connected to a shared humanity. That in our suffering, we can still recognise gratitude and love. That by doing so, we can be placed on the path to healing. Through being generous, loving and kind we can have the perspective to celebrate Angie as a miracle and not as a tragedy. We started a regular gratitude practice. When we saw other babies and pregnant mothers, neither of us felt resentment or envy. We felt joyful for them and joyful that Angie was still with us.
We found an incredible doctor who would journey with us and beside us through our grief. A day after meeting this doctor, Angie's heartbeat stopped. I wailed and shook with primal cries. Coincidentally, I was at Westmead Hospital, surrounded by the social worker, midwives, the chaplain, my best friend and our doctor. Their compassion, professionalism and kindness embodied not only the best of their profession but also of humanity. And even in my devastation, I felt privileged that Angie and I were part of this inspiring group of women, who give of themselves wholeheartedly and consistently, every single day.
After a 20 hour labour, I gave birth to Angie on March 4, 2017. At 3:27am, Tony clutched my hand, tears streaming down his face, ready to meet our daughter but also one agonising step closer to goodbye. As I held her, I knew Angie was a diva. Though she had many physical issues, she had eyelashes and fierce eyebrows. Then Tony and I both looked at each other and smiled through our tears "She has all her toes!"
The Red Nose foundation – which cares for families whose babies have died suddenly from SIDS and stillbirths – provided us counselling that nurtured us through our grief. The compassion and dignity we were afforded placed us on the path to healing and facilitated our post traumatic growth.
But it is tragic that after two decades, the number of stillborn babies in Australia has not changed. Stillbirths account for 71% of all sudden and unexpected babies' deaths in Australia.
Cat Thao Nguyen is a writer and mother. June 30 is Red Nose Day.