Little of significance had happened during that bland winter of 2011/2. We had just celebrated an excellent Christmas with the families and were enjoying preparing for the arrival of our third child, Ethan; then Death crept up, catching us unaware.
Ethan was probably taken on the morning of the 27th December. Both my wife, Lesley, and I suffered horrific dreams as we awoke that morning. I dreamt of being suffocated under the sands of a beach in Donegal. On awaking, I genuinely believed Death had come for me. It took many minutes to realise he had not.
That day, Lesley thought she was in early labour. When the labour then stopped, I could not shake the feeling that something was very wrong. After a slight movement was detected the following day I was sure everything was OK.
By the time Thursday 29th December had arrived, there was still no significant movement and we went to the Southern General hospital for reassurance. However, in refusing to reveal a heartbeat, the monitor offered no reassurance. The midwife casually suggested that the monitor was most likely faulty, that we should move rooms to try a different monitor.
It is obviously much easier to move a portable monitor than a patient. I knew at this stage Ethan was dead. Our initial room housed another patient. The room we moved to was empty; bad news is always broken in private.
When the second monitor couldn’t detect a heartbeat, we were immediately taken down to the ultrasound suite; of course, Ethan remained still on the ultrasound screen.
Selfishly, I found it difficult that we were required to return home to await labour. Mercifully, labour was induced and we were booked into the delivery suite on the morning of Hogmanay 2011.
Words can never be adequate enough to describe returning home to tell everyone who needed to know. Our eldest son was devastated. Our second son's age, of only 16 months, allowed him to remain blissfully unaware. The night of the 29th December 2011 was a terrible night, as were many of the nights that followed.
The 30th December, the eve of attending the labour suite, was eerie. Ethan’s brothers slept at their grandparents' house that night; alone, we prepared for the uncertainties of the following day. We busied ourselves, doing little of importance to pass the hours of darkness.
From a father’s perspective, a stillbirth labour is eerie; the silence is so different compared to a live birth. Normally, while awaiting the birth of a child, a father’s concern is split between mother and child. Ethan demanded no concern during these hours.
Ethan's delivery was traumatic. His position was both back to back and breech. Timings meant there was no effective pain relief. Morphine proved to be ineffective. Even the universal, but often useless, gas and air (nitrous oxide) refused to participate in this birth by inducing vomiting. Being prescribed Fentanyl (an opioid derivative), Lesley was required to self-administer. However, this analgesic regularly induced unconsciousness, where she stopped breathing for long spells.
Each contraction caused her to awaken and desperately re-administer. Unfortunately, by the time the drug had reached its target receptors within my wife's body, the contraction had passed unchallenged. This seemingly eternal cycle then repeated.
Not long before midnight on Hogmanay, we discussed an epidural. As the anaesthetist mulled over administering a chelating agent, to bind to the analgesic already in the blood supply (this would have effectively stripped the drug from the bloodstream), Ethan announced he was arriving. There was no time for any other pain relief to be administered.
Ethan was delivered after only 36 minutes of the new year had passed, weighing in at 7lb oz. There was little reward for Lesley's ordeal; there was no reassuring cry as a child tries their lungs for the first time. The look on Ethan's face, as though he was gasping for air, haunts me as much as the dream of suffocation under the sands.
Ethan was one New Year baby that the tabloids would never report. His arrival coincided with the celebratory fireworks that exploded near the hospital and those text messages that people send instructing everyone in their phone book to have a happy new year. This was not a happy new year, nor would any new year ever be happy again.
In total, I spent 30 hours in room 12. Apart from the fireworks, the night caused no disturbance; even the breeze refused to pervade the room. Lesley quietly told Ethan of his brothers and cousins. A strong wind suddenly shook the room, to the surprise of the midwives. The windows rattled and then silence was allowed to return. I am convinced that Ethan was trying his new wings for the first time, with the characteristic clumsiness of an infant.
After the on-call priest arrived to perform pseudo-baptism rites, we spent some time alone with Ethan before managing a few hours of disturbed sleep.
On New Year's Day 2012, we left the Southern General to embark on a new, unfamiliar journey of grief. We held a memory box in place of a baby. We made our way through the emotional fathers making phone calls and proud new grandparents. We walked through the expectant, smoking mothers who are a permanent feature outside maternity suites.
Despite blogging about death and grief for several months, it took a full year from Ethan’s passing to muster the courage to fully capture his story in writing. Life is now as normal as can be. Our sons regularly do the things that other boys their age do: football, Thomas the tank engine and watching programmes about talking bananas. They also regularly visit the graveyard. They are matter-of-fact about death. There is no need to concoct tales to cover up the fact that everyone dies. For that, we have Ethan to thank.