This personal essay by Tamarin Norwood charts the months of late pregnancy following a terminal prenatal diagnosis, when an unexplained congenital condition led to oligohydramnios: the depletion of amniotic fluid necessary for foetal lung development. It is taken from an in-progress book exploring the need to create meaningful narratives from scant available evidence, and the role that finely tuned metaphor can play as an instrument for probing, capturing and magnifying the fragmentary memories of a very brief life.
This is part of a series of essays addressing miscarriage, prematurity, stillbirth and neonatal loss, published by The Polyphony to coincide with Baby Loss Awareness week, which runs 9-15 October every year.
Now five months into the pregnancy, we could see without ambiguity that Gabriel would not survive his brief cresting into the light of the world.
But by night, the clarity of day was shot through with possibility. In these months the nights were long and wakeful and dark, and full of invention. My body was the whole of his world, I thought, so surely I had within me the means to save him. I would do anything. In the dark my mind turned over and over the same dilemma, searching for a way out. As long as he did not surface he was safe, I thought, like a sort of fish, who would drown in air. I imagined his developing lungs like gills: systems of paper-thin folds held apart by the water that flows between them and so delicate they collapse if brought up into the air. It is as dangerous for a fish to rise to the surface of the water as it is for a person to dive beneath it, and the effort no less great. Here was a possibility. If the effort and the threat were alike for him and me, then I could reverse it, and take on the effort myself. I could learn to dive, to open my eyes and hold my breath underwater, and when he was born he would never need try his lungs, only his gills, and we could dwell together. I knew he could swim; I had seen it in the first of his ultrasound scans, when the grainy dark smudge in his abdomen was yet to be seen and all was still well. I heard a radio report around this time of train carriages felled, at the end of their lives, to the bed of the ocean where they become new reefs, their weltered metal walls coralline and pink and suckled by the gaping mouths of fish, doors and windows wide to boneless squid that dart and hide and I thought there: we could live there, I could swim down and down and down never come up, and there you would be, and there we would be safe.
On sleepless nights I sent out thoughts like these to probe the furthest depths of hope, of poetry, of science: emergency beacons that one by one returned without news. Whatever outbound route they took there was only one way back, to me, my baby, as close and distant as it was possible to be. He doesn’t have gills, he has lungs. All the oxygen in his blood is from my breath. The fluid in my womb is gone. And I have a living son, who needs me on dry land.
These nights revealed me to myself as two distinct terrains: inside, in the dark, rosy and rounded, warm and safe, a pool, an underground lake—and this was where he lived; hemmed all around by the impenetrable bank that is the surface of me—and this was where I lived. I had never so keenly felt that I live on the surface of myself, that my body is shaped to meet what is outside itself and not within. How ill-judged it seemed that my arms, my mouth, my eyes should be out here with me, how poorly planned, when there is such fullness, such lively richness, such possibility, within.
Medicine sends out its own strange probes. One afternoon my mother held my hand as a thick needle was pushed through the taut skin of my belly to extract a little of the scant remaining fluid. Putting my coat on afterwards, I watched the midwife peel two printed labels from a sheet in her file and apply one to each of the plastic vials the needle had supplied. Twin vials, smaller than I had imagined, neat and contained like oxygen tanks. I asked to hold them. Their smooth, even weight was warm against my skin. But for the plastic, but for the span of a minute or so, the cold of the room, the coat done up, I almost held him then.
And there were the inaudible signals of the sonographer’s wand, routinely pressed against my abdomen. Once, not long before the birth, I asked a consultant to show me what he could of the baby’s face, and let me take home a printout. He pressed into my skin and we watched the corresponding greyness take shape obscurely on the screen: that’s the bridge of the nose, the forehead, the jaw just here, he said as the indifferent cursor caressed those tender forms, then he stopped when from somewhere, from me, soft vowels of sorrow filled the room. A tissue was put into my hand and then, I saw, into my husband’s too. In the silence that followed the picture was printed, and the attending geneticist explained the features again. It was difficult to make anything out. Her fingertip indicated a prominent curve: That’s the forehead. she said. It’s a good forehead. I was pleased. I smiled. It was a good forehead. What a dear baby. Only later did I recognise what a generous remark this was, and how well placed. She saw that we needed our baby to be admired and adored, and had he died before birth, hers might have been the only such remark of all his life. When he resumed the scan I noticed the consultant’s eyes were wet too. All of this meant something. But for many things, between us, we almost held him then.
We almost held him in the evenings too, as he grew and his movements became very prominent. We would watch the spectacle sadly. When he kicked, the protrusion of his limbs into the very air of the room seemed otherworldly, like dreams pluming from the furthest horizons of our world, and we wished he were real. Yet he was real. It was just that for us, the nature of his realness was impossible to grasp.
I can remember the strange unreality of Gabriel’s older brother before he was born. His had been an easy, healthy pregnancy, and not being able to know the baby or yet believe he was real was a delight, a confection, an adorable quirk of his protean personality. There was a song I used to play him in the womb. I would put on this song and sway and dance and sing him the words, and always press my palms against his roundness. It completed a circle somehow; if I danced without my palms against him it felt as though I were dancing alone.
Like his brother, I sang and swayed with Gabriel too. It was easy to feel he and I were engaged in a shared project of growing closer and closer together, a kind of neural and cellular falling in love. I imagined the soft-edged sounds of my speech reaching into his world as the soft-edged forms of his limbs reached into mine. I pressed against the uterine wall and imagine him pressing in return, hands meeting palm-to-palm in dreamlike mirror forms. I sent my songs to him, my movements, my love, and received in return the warmth of the plastic vials, the shadows on the screen, the neural pathways pressing on and on towards me as I press and press to imagine his underwater world. I took him to places: into woodland, over fields. We spent time in the garden sun. I booked a single seat at a concert for him and me, to show him the resonant depth of the music in the room, then cancelled in case it would be too sad. I imagined the food I ate was a line dropped down to him, the goodness of which and the vestige of its flavour might be detected in his cells. In a notebook I wrote to him, and found myself using the kinds of words and syntax you would speak with a child, as though he could understand. In this way the writing completed a circle too, as though if I didn’t write, I was alone. It was another line dropped down to him, and I knew he would leave this line behind when he was gone. It was a comfort to think I could continue write to him, just as I was now, after his death. We talk to the dead in their absence; Gabriel’s absence was already here.
But in this way the writing contributed to a confusion in my mind about the ways in which Gabriel was with us while he was with us. The line of writing seemed to connect me with an imaginary friend I would be able to commune with for as long as I needed him, with only a brief complication at the moment of his birth, before he could be returned safely to my imagination. I knew this to be untrue and I resisted the comfort it brought me. But it was impossible to grasp what exactly was true of him, and I urgently needed to, before the complication of his birth, and the new imaginary turned out not to be the same.
The studies I was reading about foetal development all seemed to observe the period of gestation through a lens positioned at its conclusion: pregnancy seen through the fulfilment of its promise in birth and infancy and the span of new life. Prenatal prosody promises grammar, prenatal touch promises proprioception, even the mother’s attachment to her unborn baby is the making of a promise, assuring her bond to an infant whose survival depends on her care. This lens was no use to me. My attachment to Gabriel was not the beginning of something else; it was happening now, before he was born. It was a promise being kept in the making. And in the same way, surely, even in the oxygen-deprived, sleepy, incomplete, even unconscious mind, even if the activity of the brain was more physical than cerebral, surely something was being made that counted now and not only for later. I wanted an underwater lens that pressed against him, that would move with him as he grew, that would feel the feelings of the unborn mind to understand how his promises are experienced in the making, that would tell me if there was wonder, fear, pleasure, the dark impression of something gathering. These studies could tell me no such thing.
If the things I sent to him made any contribution to his forming mind, it must have been modest, attenuated as it was by the tissue between us and the hormones that subdued him. And if they reached him, they would not have made his world more full, more rich, more present to him than it might otherwise have been, much as I wanted this to be true. It was most likely that the breadth and depth of his experience was no greater with my care than it would have been without. It was just possible, though, that whatever he received from me made his life differently rich than it might otherwise have been, and different in the direction of the cadences of our family life. So I sent these things to him, aware that neither I nor even he would ever know what use he made of them, what dear muddy assemblages he would leave on the sand to be washed away by the shattering tide of his birth, but I felt that the more I sent him, perhaps the closer he might build himself to us. I allowed myself to imagine that perhaps there is a kind of pleasure in invention for him as there is for me; or if not pleasure exactly, then at least a kind of neural reach, an exertion all his own, that would remain forever private to himself.
As his mother, coming to terms with this possibility struck me as the greatest letting go, as though he were leaving home all grown up, and no longer would I know what he was doing. The prospect of his independence from me was unthinkably sad, and it was thrilling. In these private cerebral exertions Gabriel could not be a figment of my imagination, nor even a function of his own gestation. He was making a world all his own; and all the more his own because it would never come true to us. An expanse of possibility lay before him. There wasn’t much time, and there wasn’t much of him to use it, but perhaps it was real.
Dr Tamarin Norwood gained her doctorate in Fine Art as a clarendon scholar at the University of Oxford in 2018, and is now a postdoctoral research fellow at the Drawing Research Group, Loughborough University, writing a book on metaphor and neonatal loss. She is also a visiting early career research fellow at the Centre for Death and Society, University of Bath, and researcher at the Oxford Centre for Life Writing, University of Oxford. Tamarin’s scholarly publications focus on representation and loss in drawing; her related prose fiction, poetry and artwork have been published and shown widely including with the BBC World Service, Art on the Underground, ICA Philadelphia, MOCCA Toronto and Tate Britain. Much of her work is interdisciplinary, most recently as part of Hubbub, the inaugural Hub residency at Wellcome Collection, London. She tweets at @TamarinNorwood.