The Last Seanachie

My son’s dead body was warm, not cold

Pulp fiction writers have got it wrong. The dead are warm.

They’re not stiffs, ice cold to the touch. My baby boy was floppy, he looked asleep.

Three days earlier he’d been alive, and for three days my wife carried his corpse inside her. The cradle of life traduced to a human mortuary.

Three years earlier I’d sat in the ultrasound room in a London hospital while a bubbly Nigerian sonographer gurgled and burbled as the probe slithered over the jelly to reveal our daughter.

This time, only the electrical hum of the machine and its neon partner beaming down from above in our cubicle accompanied the strained look on the sonographer’s face.

No gurgling and cooing. Just the face, frozen in neutral. She said she’d have to get somebody. And from the clipped tones we guessed it wasn’t for party balloons.baby-2

I hadn’t heard of fatal foetal abnormality until that point. But I sure as shit did now. Not that you take any of it in. Hope jiggles and slithers around until it is hunted down by its meticulous cousin, reason. Pesky things, facts.

My wife doesn’t do public emotional displays. You wouldn’t hire her as a mourner. I recognised the focus in her eyes though, the slight reddening of her cheeks and the lower register of her voice as she began to probe the specialist.

But this wasn’t London. This was the Rotunda in Ireland. A fine children’s hospital, even has a starring role in The Snapper, a movie most Irish mums can quote wholesale. They’ve even erected a plaque to the fictional baby from the film on its walls.

But we’re in Dublin. The staff talk of likely survival postpartum, measured in days, it could be weeks even. Weeks of debilitating pain but we have meds for that, they assure us. If we’re lucky.

And because we’re in Dublin there is one side of the conversation that they cannot have.

The room is very hot all of a sudden, the air syrupy and unusable. I go out into the waiting room and into a sea of pregnant  mums-to-be, radiant and hopeful. Kids of all ages lap around their legs like waves.

My own legs feel hollow and weightless but I feel enormous pressure on my shoulders, almost physical. I realise I’m not actually breathing. I’m so stunned, even my body cannot be bothered. And in the back of my mind, I realise I’m going to have to kill my son.

I’ve been a journalist on some of the UK’s leading liberal newspapers and like most have blithely argued what it means to be pro-choice over dinner with reactionary foes.

Exercising that choice? Now, here’s the irony. Bitterness doesn’t cut it.

My wife has already switched into rational mode, emotions parked for another day. I can see she’s already made her choice judging by her demands for an alternative.

We use the polite term: termination. Abortion sounds so vulgar. We needn’t have bothered. The concept was such anathema, the staff had to asked us to repeat it.

And in that moment I realise we are going to be one of the thousands of who ‘take the boat’ every year to the UK.

And I breathe a sigh of relief that the UK can claim to be the most secular country in the EU.

But there’s a hitch.

We are at the Rotunda’s foetal medicine unit because our baby appears small. The referral took time, the appointment  navigating its way through  backlogged summer scanning schedules.

The baby is 32 weeks. We are now out of time.

I am pulled aside and told strictly off the record that there are two places in the UK that can help.We need specialists to support our application for a termination.

We’ve done the Belfast-Stranraer run many times. I’m Anglo-Irish. But never like this. The A75 through Scotland is a magnificent coastal sweep of a drive. It scoops up barren landscapes and spits you out into great silvery arcing bays of Scottish coast.baby

I associate it with homecoming. The road takes me through Scotland, into Cumbria and over the Pennines into the Teesdale fastness. Limestone hills stand sentinel over the A66 and their silence is matched in our car.

Every mile closer to Newcastle snuffs out another year with my unborn son. Every mile closer to the hospital takes us closer to the moral Rubicon we are about to cross.

An Irish number rings the mobile and asks us what we intend to do.

I’m curt: ‘The least worst outcome. We’re in England.’ No further explanation is necessary and the voice adds that she is sorry they could not have done more.

My mother’s home acts as retreat for us and my wife could be visiting in-laws on a routine trip for all the import of the impending visit to Newcastle. The decision is made and will be adhered to but every minute that passes now is one less with a boy I will never see alive.

I wobble and speak to my father. It is very simple, he says: ‘Life must have dignity.Without dignity what life is there?’

The needle they use is very long. It has to be to reach the heart of the baby to stop it stone dead. It takes 30 seconds and a steady hand from Professor Robson. 2.27pm. Time of death. A kindly nurse gives us a card with a   grief counsellor’s number on it. There’s a logo of little angel wings.

”But what happens now? How do I get it out?” asks my wife.

‘You have to deliver it.’

‘What?’

‘Naturally. We’ll give you something to speed it along.’

On the way home we argue about the traffic. Proxy conflict.

So three years later after the birth of our girl, we are in the delivery suite at Darlington Memorial Hospital. When we were last here I wept my first – and only – tears of pure joy.

Stillbirth is the term they use but there is nothing still about the room.

The same team is on hand, midwives etc, and the same businesslike manner of delivery is still apparent. The same terms float in the air such as ‘dilation’ labour’ pain relief’ and the same bruises are on my wrist from my wife’s grip. OUr daughter was C-section but this time my wife will somehow have to push the corpse along the birth canal. It’s hard work and her face is workmanlike.

When Edwin is born the midwife breaks into tears and has to leave. ‘I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,’ she says.
They swaddle and hand him to me while my wife gazes through the window over foggy Darlington roofs.

He’s warm against my skin.baby-3

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