“Your absence has gone through me

Like thread through a needle.

Everything I do is stitched with its color.”

W S Merwin, Separation

 In June this year our son would have turned four if we hadn’t lost him.

Sometimes the language we use erases the complexity of what has happened to us.  “Losing” him seems like it was accidental. Careless even.  We didn’t lose our son.  He died.  But even that doesn’t cut it so let me start again.

In June 2017, we made the agonising decision to induce labour to save my life, knowing it would end our son’s.

Nothing about our journey had been straightforward.  My husband, Ian, and I had been trying for a baby for three years, finally getting pregnant on our fourth round of IVF.  I was nervous from the start; the pregnancy felt precarious and so unbelievably precious.  After a scare early on, things settled and we started believing that it was our time.  Months later, I’d look back and see how naïve we’d been.

At 14 weeks, a routine scan picked up that the baby was small and that there was an issue with the blood supply to my placenta.  I was told that this was common at my age (I was 40) and sent home with some aspirin.  There was talk about pre-term birth, and then a recommendation that I have a c-section.  As each week passed, my pregnancy became more worrying, and less within my control.

My next scan at 17 weeks showed that our already tiny baby wasn’t growing normally, and that there were other worrying signs.  I was advised to have an amniocentesis, and within minutes a needle was pushed into my pregnant belly.  We were told that things looked bleak and that we needed to prepare to lose our precious tiny baby.  And that was it.  We were sent home to wait for the results.

I’ll never forget those two weeks; pregnant but knowing my baby would be unlikely to survive.  My body felt like a graveyard.  I remember being on a train and someone giving up their seat for me.  I refused because I didn’t feel I deserved it; I didn’t believe I was worthy of being seen as a pregnant woman.  Every night I cradled my bump and tried to find the words to say goodbye.  During the day I’d frantically search the internet for any bit of research that might mean we could save our baby.  I never found anything.

Then something miraculous happened.  Our little boy (the amnio had confirmed he was a boy) looked like he was growing on a repeat scan.  Conversations turned to trying to get me to 24 weeks.  We geared ourselves up for a very preterm baby and long NICU stay, but we were elated.  I decided to embrace my pregnancy, and to enjoy it.  We booked a holiday, I wore the little bola ball I’d bought so my baby boy could get used to its chime.

Days later, my waters broke on the tube home from work.  I felt the gush and knew what had happened.  As a doctor, I also knew this meant that our baby wouldn’t survive.  I was on a packed rush hour tube (back in the days when tubes were packed) and I didn’t want to make a fuss so I sat there quietly, wiping away tears.  My husband met me at the station and drove me straight to the hospital, where I was told to sit in the waiting room of the labour ward, next to a woman being discharged home with her newborn.  I’ve never felt as angry with the world as I did in that moment.  When I finally got scanned, I was told by a doctor that there ‘was no reason to panic’.  The same doctor told me moments later that I was leaking amniotic fluid, confirming what I already knew.  The longer I was left with broken waters, the greater the risk of life-threatening infection to me.  I’d have to be induced, but our baby boy wouldn’t survive being born this early.

I went home to grab a bag of clothes, to shower, and to say goodbye privately to my bump.  I’m so glad I did that as I managed to take the only bump photos I have of my pregnancy with him.  When I returned I was admitted to the labour ward, knowing I’d be giving birth to the sound of cries of other women’s newborn babies. I immediately told the nurses to take the cot away – I didn’t want anything in the room that reminded me of what I was about to lose.

48 hours later, in the early hours of 10th June 2017, I gave birth to our son, silently.

We saw our son before leaving hospital that day.  I felt that I needed to hold him to know, to truly know, that he existed in this world.  That he was here. We named him Altair, Arabic for flying eagle and the brightest star in the Aquila constellation. Weeks later, I collected his ashes, wondering how all I would ever have of my son could be contained in a small paper bag.

I’m one of the lucky ones.  I’ve gone on to have two more children who fill our hearts and lives with a joy that I never thought possible.  Our son Faris was born in December 2018 following my sixth round of IVF, and in April 2020 (the start of the COVID pandemic) his sister Lyra arrived; a miraculous natural pregnancy.  Both of my pregnancies were fraught – I have a rare placental condition which was diagnosed at Altair’s post mortem and was looked after by Prof Alex Heazell at the Rainbow Clinic in Manchester.  Faris and Lyra are here because of his research – funded by Tommy’s.  They are also here because their older brother died, allowing my condition to be diagnosed and treated.  That’s a complicated thing to process.

I remember when Altair died that someone said this would change me forever.  I was angry as I didn’t want to change.  I kind of liked who I was.  But I have changed.  He’s taught me the power of vulnerability – I poured my heart out on Instagram as I slowly started moving forward with my grief, connecting with many inspiring and amazing women – some are now my closest friends.   He’s taught me how to sit with uncomfortable and dark feelings, both my own and others.  And he’s taught me that I’m stronger and more resilient than I ever imagined.

I write and speak openly about Altair, and my grief.  In my own small way I hope I’m normalising conversations about baby loss especially in racially minoritised communities.  We’re the most likely to lose our babies, yet until recently we were rarely represented in stories about baby loss.

In October 2020 I became a Trustee of Tommy’s.   The charity wanted me on board because of my research experience with marginalised communities.  I’m now able to help guide strategy and try and make sure that their research stays relevant to the needs of all parents who lose babies, whilst also bringing the voice of a woman of colour who’s lost a baby to the board.

I can’t think of a better legacy for Altair.  Our flying eagle.

Everything we do is stitched with the colour of his absence.

Shema x

In memory of Altair ‘Moomin’ Taylor, 10.06.17

Instagram- @one_in_seven

For more information about Tommy’s- www.tommys.org/about-us