I think most journalists will tell you that writing in the first person is difficult and even a bit unpleasant. It’s hard to lift the curtain on your own life and let people see you — it’s much easier to write about others. This is the only story I can recall that I ever wrote about myself, except perhaps for things like travel pieces. I wrote it to acknowledge National Birth Defects Prevention Month, and to commemorate the 40th birthday (and day of death) of my first child. Three newspapers — in Salt Lake City, Norfolk, Va. and Fort Lauderdale, Fla. — ran this on their op-ed pages.
By Arthur Frederick
Dear Baby Boy:
On a day in the not-to-distant future, I’ll pause to quietly take note of your 40th birthday. It is unimaginable that you, my first-born child, was born so long ago.
Things were different back then, in the early 1970s. For one thing, sonograms were not a regular part of a doctor’s tool kit, as they are today. If they were, your birth defect would have been noted very early in your mom’s pregnancy. As it was, your undeveloped skull and brain were not discovered until a number of hours after your mother went into labor.
“When I examined your wife, I felt soft tissue rather than a hard skull,” the doctor told me as we huddled outside your mother’s hospital room.
Today, because of that ability to diagnose anencephaly at somewhere between the 11th and 14th week, around 95 percent of families elect to terminate such pregnancies. That means that only about 1,000 anencephalic babies are now born in the U.S. each year; back around the time of your birth, that number was more like 20,000.
We didn’t have that option. But, to be honest with you, it’s a decision we probably would have made. Not because we didn’t already love you, but because I believe we would have accepted the inevitability of what was about to happen to you, and to us.
Those who end their pregnancies early avoid the indescribable pain of their child’s certain death. About half of anencephalic babies are stillborn; others, like you, are born alive, but are destined to die in as little as a few minutes or as much as a few days.
No babies born with anencephaly survive.
You died in an incubator in the hospital nursery, surrounded by a half-dozen healthy babies. I stood and watched through the big viewing window during the 20 minutes or so that it took you to go.
I’ll tell you a few things that have happened since then:
Your mom and I didn’t stay together very long after you were born. We were both devastated by what happened to you, and to us. But our parting wasn’t your fault.
You have three half-siblings, all girls. One is a doctor; another is a drug addict. Their lives, as well as your very short one, have taught me that having children, while joyful, is a risky business with unpredictable outcomes.
Both your mom and I are grandparents. Since you would be 40, you might well have had children of your own by now who would be approaching college age. I feel sad at having missed that, and even sadder when I think about all the things you missed.
You may have noticed that I opened this letter by referring to you as Baby Boy. You were going to be Matthew, but under the circumstances, we decided not to name you, and Baby Boy is how you are listed on your birth and death certificates. It was a decision, among many others, that we had to make in a hurry and under great stress. I hope it was the right one, but I don’t know.
Not naming you may leave the impression that we simply hoped to avoid the pain of your death by not acknowledging your life. That was not the case. Not at all.
Forty years after your brief time here, your dad still loves you very much.
Arthur Frederick is a journalist and a public relations consultant. He lives in Palm Harbor, Fla.