Okay … Call this awareness, call it a rant, call it whatever you please, but I need to get this off my chest.
So much of what stillbirth parents go through is hidden. So much of what stillbirth parents go through is a taboo, it’s stigmatised. After weeks of pussyfooting around a huge part of the reality of stillbirth, I have decided to speak up about it.
Because I am FED UP. I am fed up of telling myself I am being completely honest with the situation. I am fed up of hiding behind a partially opened window to protect those around me – being transparent but not fully open. This is reality. This is MY reality. And I think it’s time it was shared …
As those of you who follow my blog know, I have been open about Otis since he was born in to the arms of angels 4 months ago. You will also know that I do share pictures of him quite regularly. What you may not have noticed is that I share the same pictures of him over and over and over again. I don’t share new ones. Out of the 265 pictures I have of Otis, I have shared just 17. There’s a reason for that.
I had someone say earlier today that ‘Otis is just beautiful, I don’t understand why anyone would be offended seeing a sleeping baby. They just look like they’re asleep’ … The reality of it is, we were ‘lucky’ that Otis was so unscathed when he was born so he DID look just like he was sleeping. But he changed. He changed and it happened so quickly.
I fell asleep in the early hours of June 4th, the morning after Otis was born. It was around 2am and I had just led Otis down in his cot for a couple of hours. I was exhausted and I didn’t want him in bed with me for fear of hurting him. I didn’t want to roll over on to him and suffocate him. Stupid, I know, considering he had already passed away. But I still mothered him as I would have had he been alive. It just felt ‘right’ to lay him in his cot. So I did. I put him down and just stood staring at him for about 10 minutes, taking in every last detail of my perfect piece of me. His head of dark hair, his beautiful button nose, his pink skin …
Anyway, I must have dosed off because the next thing I know it was 5:17am and I was waking up to daylight. I turned over to look at Otis through the gaps between the bars of the cot.
He was blue.
When I had put him to bed, he was pink. If he didn’t have his cherry red lips you wouldn’t have even known he had passed away. And now, in the three hours since I fell asleep, he had turned blue.
All of a sudden, Otis didn’t look like he was just sleeping anymore. He looked like he really was. He looked how I feared he would look before he was born; he looked how I expected him to look when he was placed on my bare chest for the first time.
He looked dead.
But strangely, there in that moment, it didn’t bother me. I wasn’t scared anymore. I wasn’t scared because he was still my little boy. Instead of crying – instead of being fearful to look at him – I got out of bed, I scooped him in to my arms, I cradled him to my chest and I told him that I love him.
I saw his beauty through the changes; through his discolouration; through the bruises and blisters that were forming on his eyes and cheeks.
I led back in bed, Otis cuddled up next to me, and I leant in to give him a kiss on his forehead. It was then that it really hit me that my little boy was gone. It was then that I realised I was cradling the body of my dead baby, because a pungent smell had started seeping from his pores. When I put my lips to his face to kiss him, my nose fell just above his head and I could smell the truth;. I could smell the reality of the situation; I could smell his rotting organs.
His appearance didn’t matter to me, at all. I wish he wasn’t like that, but he was, so I accepted it. I just wanted to cuddle and kiss him regardless. I was expecting him to be born like that so it was something I could deal with. But that smell that was coming from this perfect, beautiful little boy – MY little boy – it was hard to accept. That smell meant, not only was he dead, but he was starting to decompose.
I forced myself to accept it because I had to. I knew I had just days to make a lifetime of memories with my son so I had to accept it.
I didn’t do it easily. I broke. I took my arm from underneath him and I led him on the bed in front of me. I gently removed the blanket he had wrapped around him, so to hopefully slow down his deterioration, I placed my head on to his still chest, and I wept.
I cried and I cried and I cried as I held his hand and I did all I could do at the time. I apologised over and over and over again. I told him how much I didn’t want to see him like that but I couldn’t bare to let him go. I told him I was sorry for keeping him with me knowing he was essentially decomposing but I wasn’t ready to let go.
Then, for a moment, I forgave myself. I forgave myself because Otis is my little boy and he knew that I needed that time with him. He knew that I needed to make those memories before I could say goodbye. He knew that I would let him go when I knew I needed to. So I snapped out of it, I snapped out of the constant sorrowness and I mothered him. I wiped the tears from my face, I got up out of bed, I had a shower and I got changed. Then I went back in to my bedroom to read my little boy a story.
I sat on the bed and I picked him up. I held him to my chest as I read him stories. I kept looking down at his perfect little face and I was smiling. Smiling?! Yes, smiling. Because this amazing and perfect and beautiful little boy was mine. This little human relied on me, in death as well as in life.
Instead of panicking and getting upset when blood starting seeping from Otis’ nose, I simply gently wiped it away and carried on reading. When fluid started seeping from Otis’ eyes, I simply gently wiped it away and carried on reading. When blood started seeping from Otis’ ears and mouth, I simply wiped it away and I carried on reading. When I saw blisters starting to form where I had touched Otis’ skin because of how fragile he was, I quietly said ‘I’m sorry baby, let’s cover you up so mummy doesn’t make any more marks’ and I covered him with a blanket and I carried on reading.
I was going to do what I could to ensure the rest of the time I had with his physical body was used to make memories with him; to laugh with him; to smile with him; to talk to him; to read to him; to sing to him; to cuddle him and to kiss him. I was never ever going to get that time back. The crying could wait.
And that is why only 17 out of the 265 pictures I have of Otis have been shared. Because on the majority of the pictures I haven’t shared, he doesn’t look like he’s sleeping – he looks like he’s dead. I haven’t shared those pictures of Otis because I want to PROTECT those around me from seeing such innocence in such a bad way. I haven’t shared those pictures of Otis because no one wants to see a dead baby that actually looks dead, right?
Would the reaction to Otis’ pictures remain the same if I showed you what he REALLY looked like after 34/48/72 hours? I like to think it would. But I know, deep down, that it wouldn’t. Because no one wants to see a dead baby that looks dead. A dead baby that looks as though he/she is sleeping – that’s okay, that’s fine because it doesn’t upset you, it doesn’t offend you, it isn’t too hard on your eyes to see.
If you have never become a parent to a baby born floppy, silent and still with their eyes closed then you’re probably wondering why I even took pictures of my son when he was like that. I don’t get to take pictures of him growing. I don’t get to take pictures at his first birthday; his 5th birthday; his 15th birthday; or his 50th birthday. I don’t get to take pictures of him riding a bike for the first time. I don’t get to take pictures of him wearing his first football kit. I don’t get to take pictures of him sporting his first tooth; his first grazed knee; his first piece of chocolate cake; with his first girlfriend/boyfriend …
So I took pictures of him how I COULD see him. I took pictures of the memories I COULD make with him.
And I’m glad I have those pictures. I want to remember my sweet boy for everything he was. I want to remember every crease on his little old man forehead down to the creases on his toes. I want to remember every last detail about him, be it a day he was pink or a day he was blue.
This is truth. It’s reality. It’s the reality of the parents of 2.6 million babies who are stillborn every year. We don’t just see our babies fresh and pink. We don’t just feel our babies warm from the warmth of our bodies immediately after birth. We watch them change, rapidly, before our eyes. We feel their tiny bodies go cold.
But they are still OUR babies. They are still ours and we are still theirs, regardless. Death does not take that away.
My son WAS stillborn, but he was still born. And that, that is a beautiful thing.
Otis Dominic Anthony Cullen; you are missed beyond words and loved beyond measure.