On Losing Thomas

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“She immediately hooked me up to an ultrasound, checked for a heartbeat and smiled: ‘Everything’s fine with the baby,’ she said. ‘Look, he’s kicking!’ She took a screenshot of my little boy punching me in the belly with his fist: I was immensely relieved. Going on with her examination, though, her smile turned into a frown. ‘Your cervix is very short,’ she said. ‘Perhaps this is just your natural physiology, but I’m going to send you to the delivery room where we can check this out further.’Dr. Jozefien De Bock

Trying to Figure It Out

By Dr. Jozefien De Bock

“Feather on the Lake,” Via Unsplash, by Andraz Lazic.
“Feather on the Lake,” Via Unsplash, by Andraz Lazic.

Dr. Jozefien De Bock, Weekly HubrisEditor’s Note: It was in Pendleton, South Carolina, of all places, that I first met Jozefien and Sam during the time between lost Thomas and yet-to-arrive Pieter-Jan (whose godmother I would become). And though Jozefien-the-Fulbright-Scholar has now returned to Ghent, we stay in close touch, and I am happy to report that PJ has been joined by yet another brother, Augustijn. This column first appeared here in July of 2020.

GHENT Belgium—(Hubris)—1 April 2023—This morning, I lied. It wasn’t the first time, and, if I’m honest with myself, it probably won’t be the last. I told a blatant lie, straight-faced and aimed directly at people whom I quite like but don’t yet know very well. 

When I got home, I was so upset about it that my husband had to drop everything to try and calm me down. Writing this, more than five hours later, I’m still upset. 

Here’s what happened. I took my toddler to daycare and bumped into the parents of one of the kids in his group there, people whom I hadn’t seen for months because of the pandemic. The mom was clearly very pregnant, and I engaged in some chit-chat about pregnancy and pregnancy ailments, etc. Wanting to share with her, I started talking about the first three months of my two pregnancies and how awfully sick I was. But of course, they only know about PJ, the toddler I’d just dropped off, and not about Thomas, his big brother, whom we lost during pregnancy. So . . . I had (again) cornered myself, having to mention Thomas whilst not wanting to, and so I blurted out, “I lost my first boy towards the end of my pregnancy,” to get past the inevitable awkwardness, the inevitable next question: “How many months pregnant were you?” And, I admit, I have come to use this phrase often over the past year or so, whenever people ask. And it is a lie. 

My first pregnancy was very hard. I was sick, miserable, and scared, because I hadn’t known I was pregnant and had taken a lot of medication to combat infections that coincided with my first weeks of pregnancy. I was alone, as my husband had only come home for Christmas and had gone back to the States to resume an academic scholarship just as we found out that I was pregnant. When, finally, the infection cleared up and my three-month-scan showed that all was well with this new life, this little baby boy, I began to breathe again. Having regained my physical strength (the first months, I had to be carried around and fed), I began to work again. I dressed differently, showing off my growing belly to the world with great pride. I had wanted to become a mom since I was 26 and, at 32, it felt like a dream come true. At four months, I felt my baby kick for the first time. It was a tickling sensation and it stunned me. Then, one week later, everything went wrong. 

I started having cramps after my first prenatal Yoga class. My brother, a PE-teacher, suggested it was probably just the effect of moving again after having been bedridden for so long. That sounded like a plausible explanation, so I managed to put it out of my head. Later that evening, however, the cramping got worse, and it continued to worsen. I spent most of the night on the phone with my husband: finally, that time-difference came in handy. By early morning, the cramps were so bad I couldn’t walk around anymore.

I called my OB-GYN’s office. They said it was probably gas, but, if I were really worried, I could come in. I was really worried, so I called my mom, asking her to leave work to drive me to the hospital. Mom picked me up, and, after waiting for ages in the waiting room, I was called in to see the doctor. She immediately hooked me up to an ultrasound, checked for a heartbeat and smiled: “Everything’s fine with the baby,” she said. “Look, he’s kicking!” She took a screenshot of my little boy punching me in the belly with his fist: I was immensely relieved.

Going on with her examination, though, her smile turned into a frown. “Your cervix is very short,” she said. “Perhaps this is just your natural physiology, but I’m going to send you to the delivery room where we can check this out further.” Still not able to walk, I was wheeled to the delivery room. By this point, I was much more relaxed. The baby was fine, I had heard of reduced cervixes, and I’d read that they put a ring around them to solve the problem. I prepared myself for a minor operation. 

Another OB-GYN had a look at me, and here, things started to change. She told me it was either stress, and I needed to calm down, or an infection. In the latter case, “It is a matter of luck,” she said. My mom went with the problem being stress-related and told me I just had to calm down and everything would be fine. But I knew that something was seriously wrong.

I wanted to send my mom home and asked her to phone my brother. My mom was very much emotionally involved with this pregnancy. She had wanted a grandchild for years, ever since her doctors had prepared her for the fact that she might not survive the cancer that struck her at the age of 51. This baby in my belly was the fulfillment of her long-standing dream. I felt that she would not be of any help to me if things went wrong. My brother, on the other hand, is one of the least emotionally available people I know, and, with his extensive training in First Aid, he can always be counted on to come through in bad situations. 

By the time my brother got to the hospital, I had seen three different OB-GYNs. The senior one had told me that nothing could be done; we just had to wait and hope for the best. I could wait in the delivery room or I could go home. I chose the latter. My brother called me a cab (he had come by bike). The cab driver asked if I was OK. I said I didn’t know. 

The afternoon went by, the cramping subsiding a bit. My parents dropped by the apartment after work, wanting to check up on me. My mom and brother went out to do some grocery shopping. My dad stayed with me. “Just stop being so stressed out,” he said. I didn’t react to his scolding. But suddenly, I felt as if though had to use the bathroom. I went to do so, and as I sat down, felt a wave of hot liquid run down my leg. I screamed, emitting a sound I had never made before, from the very depths of my being, a sound of absolute horror.

Even though my rational mind was trying to concoct another explanation—“I’ve peed myself” was the best I could do—my body knew that my waters had broken and that this was a very bad thing. I fell to the floor and held my legs up, desperately hoping to keep the water in, desperately trying to keep my baby alive. At this very moment, my mom and brother walked in and, seeing me lying there, my brother immediately called an ambulance. When they came, they told me I had to get up so they could take me downstairs. I didn’t want to. They picked me up and yet more water ran down my legs. I started crying then, gasping for air, going into shock. Once the EMTs put me on the stretcher, I calmed down somewhat, but my pain was overwhelming now. At four months pregnant, I was in full labor. 

The obstetrician at the hospital (yet another one) asked if she could have a look at the baby. I said no. She later looked anyway. She said nothing. I started throwing up. They brought in the anesthetist to give me an epidural. The pain went away. Numbed and half-paralyzed, I lay on my back, staring at the ceiling. In the early hours of the morning, Thomas was born: a circle of doctors and nurses brought him into the world. There was a dead silence. Everybody looked sad. They asked me if I wanted to hold him. I didn’t want to. After they had taken him away, the midwife came back and whispered in my ear that I could always change my mind; I just had to call her. I started bleeding and had to have an emergency curettage. As two OB-GYNs were scraping away the last remains of my pregnancy, I made a joke about it. 

Some hours later, when the effect of the epidural was wearing off, I suddenly wanted to hold my baby. They brought him to me. He was so small. He looked like an elf. His head was too big. His hands and feet were tiny. His skin was very red. His eyes were blue. I held him in my hands. They brought me a box with clothes for prematurely-born babies. I picked out a little hat and a tiny blanket to wrap him in. I picked out a blue butterfly. I wrote in the book of loss, “Your father wasn’t here.” Then, I had to give him away. A primal scream made its way from my stomach to my mouth. I felt empty. I was empty. 

Daylight had come. I got a last check-up and was told I could go home. My brother, who had been with me through all of this, helped me gather up my things. I stumbled through the hallway, where new mothers were holding and nursing their babies. I cried. My parents were waiting in the parking lot. I got into the car and said nothing. When we were almost back at the apartment, the impact from the cobblestones hurt me so much that I threw the door open and almost rolled out of the car. I more or less crawled back home and somehow made it to my room. My waters had made a puddle in the hallway. It hadn’t been cleaned up, yet. 

Over the next few days, I was dazed. Later, I began to feel suicidal. I felt empty and without meaning. I wandered along the edge of bridges late at night, pondering how it would feel to drown in stinking water. I considered stepping in front of a bus. I phoned the suicide helpline. It was busy; they asked me to hang on. The absurdity of the situation made me laugh. 

I managed to survive that first month. I no longer wanted to kill myself, but I no longer wanted to live, either. I got the news that I had been granted a Fulbright scholarship, so I could join my husband in the US. I didn’t care. People started telling me that I had to pick my life up again. I hated them. I hated most people, and I wished bad things would happen to them. When people asked me how I was doing, I told them, “Bad.”

When I told people what had happened, many of them did not understand my grief. Especially when they learned I had lost Thomas four months into the pregnancy. Most people told me I was exaggerating. That he wasn’t a real baby, yet. That I should be grateful that I lost him so early and not at the end of the pregnancy, because “that would have been much worse.” They told me that what happened really wasn’t that bad at all and that I should get myself together. All the grief I was experiencing, the overwhelming loss I felt, the sadness and the anger—it was all unwarranted, uncalled for. 

And so . . . I started telling the lie. That Thomas was in fact almost nine months old when I lost him; that I lost him “towards the end of the pregnancy.” So that I would be allowed to feel as I did. So that my grief would not be called into question. So that my little Thomas would not be diminished, described as “not a real baby, yet.”

And even today, now that the presence of his brother PJ has filled the gaping hole Thomas left behind, I keep telling the lie, as I still cannot muster the strength to face those dismissive comments about my firstborn child.

Maybe one day, when I’m strong enough to let people know how hurtful their remarks are to those of us who have suffered a loss that remains unacknowledged, I will start telling the truth.

Jozefien (carrying P.J.), Sam, and Snoops.
Jozefien (carrying PJ), and Sam (carrying Snoops).

Dr. Jozefien De Bock is a historian with an MA from Ghent University (Belgium) and a PhD from the European University Institute (Florence, Italy). She is a public historian who spends her time and energy to ensure that the findings of her research reach an audience wider than the two reviewers of the papers she now and then submits to academic journals, just for the sake of it. She is an unwilling as-yet-unpublished author currently based in the beautiful medieval city of Ghent. And she is the mother of Thomas and Pieter-Jan, two baby boys, one now a star in the sky, the other a happy little fellow here on earth. Until recently, she pursued a career in both academia and the cultural sector, working at the University of Ghent as well as for various museums and archives. At the moment, however, she finds herself in the shoes of many, many women before her, home with the baby she loves so much but without the job she worked so hard for. Basically, she is looking for ways to combine motherhood, a very sensitive body and mind, and a fulfilling professional career (and utterly failing to do so). (Author Photo: Matthew Langthorne.)