My world had collapsed in a matter of hours. The pregnancy had been trying and difficult, but I really believed that things would work out. We had done everything the doctors asked of us, but it was not enough.
We had suffered through an experience I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. My wife had to go through labor and deliver our children to their deaths, and I was unable to save them or even give them a little warmth while they died.
As you could imagine, I was heartbroken. Realizing that the heating lamp was off was when I lost it. I ripped off my mask and gloves and started to walk out until the neonatologist called me back. No one had time to explain the rules, and if I left, I would not be allowed back into the labor and delivery room. I froze. I couldn’t leave my children and I couldn’t leave my wife. I couldn’t let them go, at least not yet.
And then…I understand that physicians need to distance themselves from their patients in order to deal with the tragedies they encounter, but I was shocked when the doctor turned to me and said “No one else will tell you this, but the babies were born alive, so you can declare them as dependents this year on your taxes.”
This was as close as I have ever gotten to punching someone in the face. I could not believe that anyone could be that cold. Fortunately, I realized how emotionally compromised I was and walked away.
That same doctor declared that the babies were perfectly healthy, although hopelessly premature. The hospital asked me if I wanted an autopsy. I refused instinctively, as I assumed that such a procedure would be prohibited by Jewish law. In any event, it wasn’t necessary because all indications were that the babies were healthy. There was hope that another pregnancy carried to term could produce a healthy child.
As I stood next to my wife’s bed, one of the nurses turned to me and said, “Mr. Shapiro, I have to say that you and your wife handled this as well as anyone possibly could.” It was small comfort at the time, but we had made it through the impossible.
While my wife was recovering, the hospital staff came to fill out our twins’ birth and death certificates. They asked me if I wanted to give them names. I hadn’t thought much about it, and I didn’t have the opportunity to confer with my wife. I chose two Biblical names I knew we would never use for any possible future children, Asher and Devorah.
After my wife awoke, the nurses brought both babies for us to see one more time. They had been wrapped in blankets and each was wearing a knitted cap. They were cold and motionless. We both held them for a few moments, crying silent tears. I spent several minutes stroking my twins’ cheeks as I said my final goodbye. My son’s mouth was slightly open. I pushed up gently on his chin to close his lips, and I gave myself some comfort in the thought that he was a fighter.
I didn’t want to let them go. I couldn’t let them go; I had no choice. With one final goodbye, the nurse took our beloved children to the morgue to be picked up by the Chevra Kadisha.
I needed some time to get away. It was a bad idea, but I drove to a local pizza store to get some food. It must have been some sight, driving down the 101 Freeway, crying loudly and smacking my hand against the steering wheel over and over again.
I spent that night in the hospital with my wife. I could no longer hide my crying from her, and was amazed that she was actually comforted by the fact that I shared some of her pain. She couldn’t understand how I could be so utterly unaffected by this whole ordeal. I had accomplished my goal of being strong when I really needed to be.
In truth, our suffering was just beginning. There is no formal mourning for babies that do not live at least 30 days. That means no shiva, no funeral and the babies are buried in an unmarked grave. It seemed so wrong. It made me feel like my beloved babies were nonentities as far as Judaism was concerned, and yet I needed people to understand how much I loved them and how much they meant to me.
I had spoken to my brother, a pediatrician, about the babies. In response to my question, he assured me that babies at that age could not be self-aware. Even my son’s attempts to breathe were instinctive reactions rather than any attempt at survival. I know that is true, but somehow I find more comfort in believing that my son died fighting.
The Chevra Kadisha picked up the bodies the next day with the instructions about their names and the fact that we did want to know where they were buried. My son was given a bris before the burial.
People can be so cruel. Literally, the moment I hung up the phone after receiving the confirmation of their burial, a nosey neighbor called for my wife. My wife spoke to her for a few seconds, slammed down the phone and began to cry. Through her tears, she told me that this friend said she had heard that this meant we could never have children, and she was calling to confirm the information.
Our babies hadn’t been gone for even 24 hours and we were already the topic of local gossip! I simply couldn’t believe it. My wife and I decided that we needed to get away from that kind of spite for a while, and we planned a trip to New York the following week.
Looking back, I cannot describe the pain I experienced when so many people told me that my babies didn’t really exist, and that I was overreacting. But I had bonded with my children. I loved them as much as any father could ever love his children, and people were telling me that they weren’t even “real.”
I rarely challenged such statements, but there were times when I responded by asking if I was or was not a father while I cradled my children as they died. That always ended the argument, but I still don’t believe I convinced anyone.
There were a few people who showed genuine friendship. One of the best was from a person in shul who walked up to me on Shabbos, hugged me and said, “There is nothing I can say, but if you ever need to talk, or just to sit around with someone and scream and yell, give me a call.” He would do that for me.
That was the best reaction. He justified my pain and acknowledged my children, while understanding that there was nothing that could possibly be said. Most people really didn’t know what to say. Many tried to look away when I walked into the room or ended up saying something stupid.
For a while I flirted with the thought that if I had agreed to try and save my babies, they would have “lived” on machines for a day or more, and then no one would question that they were real. It took me years to realize that such thoughts were my own selfish way of trying to justify their existence to myself, but there would have been nothing humane with such an attempt and all it would have done was prolong their suffering for my own interests.
We didn’t sleep much after we lost the twins. Three or four nights later, in the middle of the night, my wife tearfully mentioned that the babies are so small and helpless. “Who would look after them in heaven?”
I have no idea if such a concept exists, but really there was nothing I could say. I told her I’m sure that they would be fine, but it was no real comfort. Early the next morning, I got a call from my grandmother; we were very close. She was a Holocaust survivor and a very special person. She also frequently had dreams and premonitions that proved amazingly accurate.
My grandmother told me that she had a dream the night before that her father was pushing my babies in a stroller in heaven. Noting the time difference, it is entirely possible that she had that dream at the exact moment my wife and I had our discussion.
That might have provided my wife and me our only little bit of comfort in those trying times. We simply couldn’t handle the reactions we were getting from the people around us. An escape to New York seemed like a great idea, but we really didn’t understand that there was no way to escape that kind of pain.
About the Author: Chaim Shapiro, M.Ed is a freelance writer, public speaker and social media consultant. He is currently working on a book about his collegiate experience. He welcomes comments and feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org or on his website: http://chaimshapiro.com/
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