This past Friday, I went to the casa materna to finish knitting a hat while watching Una familia con suerte with the women, when I heard the responsable, Yadira, mention that we had a woman who has just given birth resting in the back. When I have enough, I usually like to give the hats or socks I knit to the women as an excuse to enable my knitting addiction, so I walked to the sleeping area, to where I assumed she and her baby were laying down, to give them the new hat.
She couldn’t have been more than sixteen years old, with a pretty, round face, and her once full belly sagging like a windless sail as she lay on her side. An older woman I took to be her mother sat on the bed across from her, and spoke in a quite voice to her and another pregnant woman who was in the room with them. I didn’t see the baby, but assumed it lay behind the young mother’s back, hidden away and wrapped in blankets, with a bracelet to ward away the evil eye around its wrist. It’s not unusual for me not to see the babies at first. I said I had a present for the new baby, and asked if it was a boy or a girl. The older woman told me that before he died, he had been a boy.
This isn’t the first time this has happened during my time here in
the rate of infant mortality is improving, due in part to increased prenatal
care, which the casa materna helps to promote, but for women who live in the
farther communities, it is still a challenge to bring them in for more than
four prenatal check-ups. Four check-ups
before their birth is actually an exceptional number for some of these
women. Many factors keep them from
coming more often, or from staying at the casa materna, such as
inaccessibility, lack of education, and machismo.
My first month in site, a fifteen year-old ran away from the casa materna after her husband came to visit her and complained that he didn’t have any clean clothes back home because she wasn’t there to wash them for him. When I went out with the health center staff to convince her to come back, riding an hour into mud-soaked hills, we found her in the river, the bulge of her seven-month belly swelling above the water, as she washed clothes on a rock. After the staff tried to talk her into returning, explaining that she was a high-risk pregnancy, the girl said she was staying, that her husband needed her. It seemed clear that her husband’s dominance over her only accounted for some of her actions. She was one of the many who arrived at the casa materna scared and crying, this town an hour away from hers seeming as foreign and far-flung as another country. She missed her home, and though she heard what a danger it was to her unborn child to not be close enough to the health center for regular check-ups, she could not have realized that death was a real possibility for her or her baby. She wanted to be home, and we all have a hard time thinking of ourselves as anything less than invincible, or that these things don’t happen to us, not just to others. For her to sign a consent form, relieving the health center of any responsibility should anything happen, I painted her thumb in ink, since she didn’t know how to write well enough to even write her initials for us.
The next I heard of her was from Yadira two months later. She had been brought into the health center with labor pains, but when the doctor checked the baby’s heartbeat, she immediately sent her to the hospital in
Carlos, from there she was sent to a better-equipped
hospital two hours to the north. We
weren’t sure if the baby was still-born, or if she died shortly after being
delivered via c-section, but the baby was dead, and a relative was coming by to
pick up some paperwork before riding back to the community in the ambulance to
prepare the burial. Apparently they had
taken the baby girl’s body away from her mother before she regained
consciousness from the surgery; a practice that I learned was common in the
states as well, until they realized that robbing a mother of the opportunity to
say goodbye to her child is often more traumatizing than having to see her
When the relative came by the casa materna, she left a cardboard box on a chair out on the porch where I sat before she entered.
“The baby girl’s in there,” Yadira said to me, nodding her head towards the box. I looked at it. Printed all across it were pale orange lettering and a little girl’s face, proclaiming it to be full of top-quality cookies. The family had obviously asked for it from a store where the shipment of cookies had come in. As the relative came out, her hands full, I offered to carry the impromptu coffin to the ambulance for her. I don’t remember thinking that it was especially light or heavy, just that it did have weight - solid and slightly off-centered – a weight that made it all terribly real.
And now, twenty-two moths later, I sat across from another young girl who had lost her baby boy, the knitted hat still in my hands, and I wondered what they had done with his body. I gave her the hat anyway, I’m not quite sure why. Maybe it was to try to give her something tangible instead of trying to open myself to her emotionally, something with which I have always struggled. Maybe it was to give her something to say goodbye to. Or maybe, as I reconstruct the events in my head, it was to give her something of hope. Hope for her and hope for all mothers, that one day they and their children can go through this journey of passage into the world with less fear that this journey will take them into the next.
I want that to not just be my own reconstruction.