Ghostbelly: a memoir
by Elizabeth Heineman
Every once in a while, a book falls into my hands that rips my heart out a little, and keeps me awake at night.
“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is my belief.” – Franz Kafka
Ghostbelly is one such book.
Elizabeth Heineman, or Lisa to her friends, has lived an unconventional life, making unconventional choices. So, it’s not surprising to those who know her when she falls in love anew in her mid-forties and decides to get pregnant at the age of 45. What might be surprising, however, is that she chooses to have a home birth, eschewing the barrage of unneccessary medical interventions routinely present in the medical model of maternity care and childbirth. It is not a decision Lisa makes lightly; she agonizes over it, researches it, and ultimately chooses a home birth attended by a certified nurse midwife because Lisa believes in evidence-based practices, and nobody she consults with can offer her any concrete medical reason that she would not be a good candidate for an out-of-hospital birth. Indeed, regardless of her “advanced age,” she’s extremely healthy and fit and is deemed “low risk” by the hospital midwives she sees through a good part of her pregnancy, as well as her family practice doctor.
After an easy, happy, uneventful pregnancy that continues past her due date, Lisa goes into labor one November evening in 2008. Something goes terribly wrong during her labor, however, and her longed-for baby, nicknamed Thor, is stillborn.
What ensues is the story of a woman whose love for the child she never saw draw breath is inseparable from the gut-wrenching grief she inhabits over her loss of Thor. Making yet more unconventional choices, Lisa demands more than the half-hour allotted time with her dead baby’s body that the medical examiner’s arbitrary protocol allows; she and her partner, Glenn, instead spend six hours with Thor that first morning in the hospital, cradling him, lovingly examining him from head to toe, rocking him, singing to him, and talking to him – as loving parents do with their new babies.
“I see Thor. I feel him. I smell him. They have handed him to me in a blanket, and he is heavy in my arms. I rock him and smile at him and sing to him and kiss him and inhale him.
“Glenn watches me and cannot understand: I seem happy.
“He is right. I am happy, because in this strange new life I have just begun, the life of the mother of a dead child, this is what counts as happiness: I have my baby, I am cradling him and talking to him, and they will not take him away in half an hour, and so I am happy.”
“This is what I want to do in those six hours. To take that moment, in which Thor will not grow six hours older, and inhabit it fully. To fully absorb Thor, because it will be our only chance.
“And because this is so important, other things can wait. Like crying. Like thinking about Thor’s absence. I will have a lifetime to explore Thor’s absence, every inch of it; to acquaint all my senses with it, to inhabit it. Any time we spend crying now, bewailing his death, will be time lost to things like singing to him, touching him, things we only have a few hours to do. Thor’s absence will not last just a moment, not even a stretched-out moment. It will occupy time. First he will be dead a day, then a week, then a month, then a year. I will have the rest of my life to explore it, and its exploration will require the rest of my life. But the time to explore Thor’s absence is not now. Now is the time to explore Thor’s presence.”
The next day, after an autopsy is performed, Lisa and Glenn visit the funeral home where Thor rests until his burial is carried out. They are surprised when the funeral director talks about Thor as if he matters, as if he were a person, a real baby, and not just a corpse. “Uncle Mike” as he becomes known to them, encourages them to visit Thor whenever they want, and even to take him home for visits, which they do.
Lisa, of course, agonizes over what went wrong after such a wonderful, low-risk pregnancy. Why did Thor die? She unflinchingly analyzes her choices and the events that led to Thor’s death. While she came to believe that Thor might not have died had she planned a hospital birth rather than a home birth, she does not condemn home birth or midwifery care as one might expect after such a catastrophic loss; rather, she condemns the alienation and isolation of home birth midwives in the U.S.; if home birth and home birth midwives were not placed on the fringe by society and the medical community, if midwives were treated as colleagues and invited to collaborate with doctors, it is likely that situations like Lisa’s wouldn’t arise.
“I believe Thor is the statistic for unnecessary death in an out-of-hospital setting.
“I believe someone else’s child is the statistic for unnecessary death in a hospital setting.
“I believe that a single unnecessary death during home birth prompts calls for abolition of out-of-hospital midwifery. I believe that hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths in hospitals prompt suggestions for voluntary reform. I believe the difference lies in the imbalance of power between hospitals and midwives, not the comparative level of risk of home birth versus hospital care.”
Lisa contacted me a few months ago and asked me to read and review her book (I have to say, I am so incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity to “meet” some wonderful authors this way; Theresa Shea and George Estreich also come to mind), and gave me a synopsis, so I knew going in what the gist of her memoir was. To be honest, I was a little scared to read it; I expected it to be morbid and maybe even macabre. It is decidedly neither morbid nor macabre, although it surely takes the reader out of a comfort zone. On a personal level, this book moved me in so many ways: aside from sharing a name with the author, we share religious views, and I, too, chose home birth (three times) and gave birth to a baby at an advanced age (44). I can’t help but feel a connection to Lisa and her story, though I’ve never lost a child.
Searingly honest, gripping, and articulately emotional, this is a story that needs to be told – and a story that needs to be read.