“Mommy, was I the first baby born in this family?”

The question jolted me out of my reverie, as I leaned over to unlock the stroller from its spot in the lobby of our apartment building. I straightened up to look at the innocent, round face of my four year old son. I felt a pang of something deep inside me; a pain that hasn't visited in a long while took a tentative step forward.

“What do you think?” I asked him, taken aback by the directness of his question.

“I think I was,” he answered. Of course, he would have no reason to suspect any differently. He is the oldest of our three boys. I nodded my head slowly, smiling at him, as he added triumphantly, “So that means that they put me on the table!”

I quickly realized that he must have just learned about the concept of Pidyon Haben, the redemption of the first-born son, and wanted to verify that such a ceremony had indeed been performed in his honor. As I struggled to think of what to say, my mind racing, my heart thumping, my precious little boy – my oldest but not my firstborn – got distracted and went off to play, leaving me with memories...

It was December, 2005. We had been married for over two years and I was due to give birth to our first child. It had been a tough two years, full of the difficulty of a new marriage, the often seemingly impossible task of molding two people together into one. The impending baby gave us something to focus on other than our differences. This represented hope, a future, something we could share.

In my heart I felt something was wrong.

My due date was a Thursday. I spent several hours out of the house with my mother that day and when I got home, I was eager to eat and drink and make sure I could feel the baby moving. I ate a sandwich and drank orange juice, but the baby did not move. I lay on my side, as I had done so often done throughout this pregnancy, and drank more juice, poking and prodding my stomach, trying to elicit a response from the little one within, but to no avail. Feeling increasingly panicked as the minutes ticked by, I called my husband's cell and waited for him to come home.

When he got home he reassured me, pointing out that we had been through this before, telling me the baby was fine, everything would be fine. But in my heart I felt something was wrong and the sick feeling in the pit of my stomach would not abate. Something felt different inside me. We had to go to the hospital.

Heartbeats

The nurse who hooked up the monitor was a broad woman, with large, capable hands. She placed the piece on my stomach, adjusted the volume and there was only crackling static in place of the reassuring gallop of the heartbeat that we had come to know. She moved it around to the other side, searching, but could not find it. Several excruciating moments passed.

“I'm going to get a doctor to do an ultrasound right away,” she said and hurried off. The suspense was almost unbearable. Nine months of waiting and dreaming, of hopes and fears, came together in that room, as I lay on that narrow bed, and felt with every fiber of my being that our baby was not with us. My poor husband! Did he understand what was happening the way I did? I couldn't bear to tell him. He came to the head of my bed, took my hand. We said few words, but tried to strengthen one another.

The doctor came to do an ultrasound. His face was impassive as he searched the screen. In a low, reluctant voice he uttered the life-changing words we so dreaded, “There is no heartbeat. I’m afraid your baby is no longer alive.”

A surreal feeling began to take me over, as I felt myself detaching from my body, almost the way I imagine it would be to have a near-death experience. My limbs felt tingly and light, and I wondered if they were truly mine, if this body was truly mine, because I felt so little connection to it. Time slowed down, every moment seemed a lifetime, heavy with meaning and intensity. I felt myself going to a deeply spiritual place within, even as those around me became concerned with the physical. The kind nurse put her hand on me, so comfortingly, and people hovered on each side of the bed, helped me up and into a room, spoke about induction.

Strangely, for the first time in my pregnancy, I felt at peace.

Strangely, for the first time in my pregnancy, I felt at peace. I know it doesn't make sense, but paradoxically, through the pain, it somehow felt profoundly right. I think throughout my pregnancy I had somehow known all along that I was not meant to have a baby yet, but only subconsciously, and it had caused me great anxiety as I constantly concerned myself with my baby's movements, feeling the weight of sustaining this life on my shoulders, perhaps waiting for the day, without realizing it, when I would feel her no more. Her. Yes, it was a girl. I gave birth hours later to a little girl, weighing 5 1/2 pounds.

My husband reminded me as I pushed, in those last few emotion laden moments before we were to lay eyes on our baby, that it was all meant to be this way from the beginning, that things were happening just exactly as they were supposed to. I closed my eyes right at the end, because I was afraid to see the baby. I was afraid she would be deformed, that she would look like a monster. I squeezed my eyes shut as I pushed her out into the world and kept them closed through the hushed exclamations of my doula that it was a girl, and that she was beautiful.

A Blessing

Our baby was born on Friday morning, and I have only scattered, fragmented memories of that Shabbos. I remember my husband singing Aishes Chayil, his voice breaking at times before he caught himself, and how beautiful he sounded in light of what we had just experienced together as a couple. We had graduated to a higher level of togetherness; we had brought a soul into the world. We came to discover and appreciate in one another strengths we had never known before.

In those first few days of numbness and disbelief, of aching nights permeated by a vast emptiness within me, there was great beauty and comfort as well, and a closeness with God that I had never known before. He was everywhere we turned. The doctors examined her after birth to try to determine a cause for what had happened, but they could find absolutely no reason, and that too, felt comforting, that the reason was just because God willed it, that it was meant to be, that there could be no “what ifs,” no “if onlys”.

We came to understand, as the days passed, that the pregnancy itself had been a blessing. Her little life was perfect and complete, the nine months of pregnancy a gift, the precious little movements memories I would cherish. In this spirit, we named her Bracha (blessing).

But why? We can never know, we will never know. That question merges with many others, all different yet all the same, and they well up inside me with my tears as I listen to one of the songs we used to play when I was pregnant, and I am moved all at once by inexplicable feelings of love and of being loved, of the endless rightness of everything, of being touched by life as I experience it, the coming together of all I know, the merging of my conscious and subconscious minds, somehow giving me the message that all is good, even the pain, especially the pain, and in this I find strength and courage and beauty to face all the coming days.

One day, when my son is old enough, I will answer his question: No, you were not the first baby born in this family. We had another child before you, a little girl. Her name is Bracha, and her memory is a blessing.

A version of this article appeared in Mishpacha magazine.