I awake on the morning of Vivian's 6th birthday thinking of both the present moment - 6 years, how wonderful! What an occasion for celebration! - and of moments past. Vivian's birthday has always been, but hopefully will not always be, clouded with memories and regrets and thoughts of other children both loved and missed.
Seven years ago when my first adventure in parenting ended in the death of my son, I acquired a distorted view of the world of birth and death. I had few close friends with babies and had known only a handful of families through the experience of pregnancy, birth, and childhood, so I had little experience with the "normal." Then my own child died, and I entered a new world, one in which I knew more parents of dead children than I did of parents with living children. Or at least it seemed that way.
Now I live in China, where 18 million babies are born a year, and only a handful of them die in the neonatal period. The relatively low neonatal death rate (11 per 1,000, compared to 23 per 1,000 globally) surprises me a little, as the quality of medical care here in Qingdao (and other places outside the major urban areas of Shanghai and Beijing) is, to a Westerner, dismal.
Just a few days ago a baby was born to an American family here in Qingdao. In 2011 alone, I know of a half dozen such babies born to foreign families here. Let me state clearly that the availability and quality of medical care in Qingdao is my single biggest concern. Surviving a serious medical issue here is a game of chance with poor odds - careless misdiagnoses are not unusual and careful patients sometimes bring their own cleaning supplies to the hospital. Still, 18 million babies were born in China in 2009, of which "only" 11 per 1,000 died in the neonatal period.
All this to say that it has taken me seven years, the birth and survival of my own daughter, and the celebration of the births of many, many babies in Chinese hospitals with unknown ability to handle a complicated delivery or care for a newborn with serious medical issues, to realize that childbirth just isn't that dangerous. Babies don't just die. Babies are tough as are mothers, babies are born every day in dodgy hospitals, and they live.
So what happened to us? Why did our baby die? Seven years since and the ever-present, stabbing grief has largely receded, only to be replaced by a new understanding of how unusual it is for babies to die, and new questions about what happened to us, and why.
This is my new haunting question. I will ponder it for years to come, but in the meantime, I will celebrate Vivian's 6th birthday and the next, and all the ones to come.