At 28 Weeks: When Reality Shifts, essay by Erin P.T. Canning at
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At 28 Weeks: When Reality Shifts

At 28 Weeks: When Reality Shifts

written by: Erin P.T. Canning



We noted the first red flag when the ultrasound technician became quiet; when she pushed the probe into every inch of my slick, protruding belly; when instead of counting toes or fingers, we began counting minutes.
Knowing we’d return home within a few hours, my husband and I had left the paint trays and rollers on the floor, wrapped in plastic, so we could easily resume rolling our promised future onto the walls. We had begun filling the once barren room with shades of blue, with boxes of furniture and toys yet to be assembled, with stuffies awaiting first hugs.
When we moved into this house, we needed to replace all the broken blinds with window shades. “What colors do you want upstairs,” the salesman asked. “We’re not doing the kids’ rooms right now,” I said, as if our kids already existed. When I closed my eyes, I heard the faint foreshadow of laughter within those empty rooms. I never doubted our kids’ inevitability. Already I vowed to sit at the edge of their beds as I read to them every night, to cherish their smiles and discoveries for hours, and to never corner them into hiding behind locked doors while their parents screamed at each other. No, not my kids.
During the ultrasound, the goo covering my stomach dried out. The technician squirted a new ribbon of gel over my stretch marks and pushed down harder, continuing her search. My husband and I stopped cracking jokes. We held our breath and each other’s hand as we willed the monitor to show us our orange baby of melted wax.
For 28 weeks, I had stared at the 3-D sonograms hung in the room where we awaited our turn. I’d examine each sculpted ball of wax with their pudgy noses and plump cheeks and try to envision the corresponding newborn photo. I wished the nurses and parents had hung the before and after photos side by side. How accurate were those photos: good enough for Madame Tussauds? Or had all those parents been dreaming of a specific face only to be handed a surprise post-delivery? I wanted to know.
We caught a glance of our wax baby’s hand. Maybe an ear. Or I just kept hoping, trying to rationalize why this wasn’t working, reassuring myself that my baby hadn’t melted away. Didn’t I feel him kick last week?
The technician stepped out for a moment, and the doctor came in: the second red flag. Tilting the monitor away from us, she too probed my belly in silence. My husband and I shed our smiles. My doctor left without saying a word, at least I think she didn’t. The expanding silence had shifted the air pressure, plugging my ears and dampening all sounds.
The technician instructed me to clean up and that she’d escort us to my doctor’s private office. When she left, my husband helped me wipe my tackly stomach. “Red flag?” I asked, making sure the logical portion of my brain still functioned. “Yeah, I think so,” he said. It’s amazing how many emotions can roll through four words, from doubt, to confusion, to disbelief, to trepidation.
I stretched my pants above my belly and lowered my shirt, carefully massaging away the wrinkles. “You’re okay,” I chanted. The universe needed this little, almost person. This reality required his existence. “You’re all right,” I said again. Trust the universe.
Three years ago, my husband took RCIA* classes so we could marry inside the Catholic Church. After his baptism, communion, and confirmation, we attended mass regularly. We were no longer C&E Catholics (those who attend church only for Christmas and Easter). But mid-way through my pregnancy, the clash between the pews’ imposed posture and my concave spine left me nauseous and lightheaded for hours. So we stopped going.
As we walked opposite other parents anticipating their turn to see their babies, I carried weeks’ worth of postponed prayers. We entered my doctor’s private office, and she gestured for us to take a seat. I scooched forward, arching my spine away from the backrest, and watched the outside world diminish until the latch clicked.
Again, silence pervaded the room. I longed to return to the hushed light and humming machinery, when all I had to do was relax while the cold air prickled my goosebumps, when “what if” had not mutated my reality. The overhead fluorescent lights exposed the sterility of her private office. Neutral gray tones subdued emotion. Not a speck of dust contaminated her glass shelves that boasted a JCPenny portrait of her two smiling children.
My doctor sat across from us, and I shielded my belly with my arms. Only five weeks ago did my little guy begin hearing voices other than my own; I didn’t want to scare him. However, when she started moving her lips, I couldn’t hear anything. When she shut the door, she must have turned off the audio track too. I rubbed my belly to soothe my baby, and the audio returned, only my doctor sounded like Charlie Brown’s mom. Even now, whenever I recall sitting in that office, I hear either silence or garble. That is, except for three specific words.
“…very low fluids.”
The red flag. She planted it firmly before us now.
I asked if the low fluids prevented us from seeing our wax baby. She nodded. I marveled that my brain still functioned, that I had pieced together the puzzle. Then my throat tightened.
Low fluids. Dehydration. My fault.
Two weeks ago in our past life, my husband and I had borrowed my in-laws’ camper so we could drive to Florida for my nephew’s baptism. The camper not only spared us the cost of a hotel room but also carried home gifts from my parents and brother: bouncers and an automated swing; playmats and books; boxes of my nephew’s clothing, including a Spider-Man hoodie my brother hesitated to relinquish; V-Tech toys that flashed and beeped and roared; and an eight-foot pre-lit Christmas tree that didn’t fit in my brother’s new home.
Because we slept at a rest stop, we couldn’t connect the camper to a water source. Instead, we brought two jugs of water to refill the toilet. To reduce water waste, I didn’t drink much during the four days total we spent on the road. I had never cared for drinking water anyway. I hated the bland taste, and I’d never seen the benefit.
My doctor continued talking. I grayed my emotions and focused on listening. My baby wasn’t in danger. I knew this because no one burst into the room with a wheelchair. The doctor wasn’t screaming for a gurney or calling 9-1-1. No, she sat perfectly still, feet crossed, hands clasped together, long blond hair draped evenly over both shoulders that supported her beating heart that neither caved inward nor heaved.
More words filtered through the garble.
This hour-long appointment threatened to stretch into forever. I ached to escape, to walk backwards out of that office, retrace my steps to our car, and return home so we could resume our weekend plans. But I couldn’t move. Couldn’t speak. My partner in good times and in bad took the lead; he reassured the doctor that we’d pack over the weekend and check into the hospital on Monday. Slowly, she shook her head; we hadn’t understood her. As soon as we exited her office, we needed to take the elevator to the hospital lobby and check in.
I couldn’t leave the premises. I couldn’t go home.
I kept picturing the paint slowly drying in the trays. We needed to finish painting the nursery; I had to fulfill that promise. Why did the universe want to alter our plans?
I wasn’t prepared. When I slipped on my flats, scratched my cat’s chin goodbye, and waddled out the front door, I had no idea that I’d crossed the threshold into another life. I hadn’t even packed my bags. No maternity nightgowns, no slippers, no card games, no chapstick, no hair ties, no toiletries, no nothing. I couldn’t start maternity leave at 28 weeks. I didn’t want to put a newborn in childcare. I hadn’t concluded my projects at work. And tomorrow…
I found my voice.
“But tomorrow is my baby shower,” I whispered. My words cracked the neutrality my doctor had plastered over her face.
My best friend had spent weeks crafting, decorating, and baking all things Pooh Bear. At thrift stores, she collected miniature honey pots shaped as beehives, and she burned her finger while soldering 100 Acre Wood into a tree ring. She knew I had registered for the entire crib set, a green and white quilt with a plush brown trim, and the matching mobile and hamper. I had envisioned such a nursery since the moment I discovered the Complete Tales and Poems of Winnie the Pooh ten years earlier. Even then, I’d purchased that anniversary edition and its original watercolor illustrations for my children.
“I’m sorry,” said my doctor. “It’s not.”
Every milestone I thought my first pregnancy would include shattered. I crushed the pieces beneath my feet as we reached the elevator, as my husband rested his hand on the small of my back when we approached the lobby check-in desk, as we reached the perinatal ward and waited for a room. Other family members, none of whom appeared pregnant, chatted amongst themselves, their conversations shushed yet void of distress, uncertainty, or fear. I called my best friend. I needed to tell her to not set up her apartment for tomorrow, to find another event for the food, to spread the news to the guests because I had only one call in me.
Her perky voice answered the phone, and those grayed emotions exploded in shades of red and orange. I heard her panic while I sobbed. I didn’t mean to make her fear the worst, but the truth had lodged itself at the base of my throat. I couldn’t utter the words aloud, even though they echoed loudly in my head.
My baby’s in danger.
My husband caught my phone before it hit the ground, and he relayed some of the garble from earlier. I didn’t want to look at the other families near us. I didn’t want to contaminate their experience. I didn’t want to show them the ledge upon which my baby and I teetered. One side contained the universe that conceived him; the other side, I refused to acknowledge.


* RCIA – Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults



That 28-week appointment led to weeks of bedrest, a NICU stay, and two years of physical therapy for my little one. For six years, I never gave myself time to process the trauma that ensued from that initial appointment—until I finally gave myself space and permission to return to writing.

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