I came to Berkeley young and idealistic. I had read Jessica Mitford’s The America Way of Birth, and was determined to experience “natural childbirth.” I hired a private midwife, ate healthily, got exercise. Our daughter was born at Alta Bates in 1994, and the experience was delightful, and we were a happy trio.
Two and a half years later, we returned for child number two. I had done everything much the same – same midwife, healthy eating, much exercise chasing my active two-year-old. I arrived already dilated, but not feeling great. My midwife was there, but before she could figure out what was happening with me, she was snatched away to deliver the baby of another woman who did not have a private practice midwife but depended on the larger group of midwives Alta Bates kept on staff for women lacking insurance.
This happened again and again. In two hours, she left my side eight times to deliver other people’s babies. When my husband, frantic that he was going to lose me and the baby, yelled at her to call in backup, she finally did. She then observed that my baby was posterior, executed a fancy flip of me that caused the baby to flip over, and proceeded to deliver my son. Exhausted from this ordeal, I was unaware of the damage that had been inflicted on my child. As they wheeled me to recovery and took our son Zachary Madison Baggins to intensive care, the nurse who assisted the birth told my husband tearfully that the baby had suffered asphyxia, and that there would probably be brain damage. “What can we do?” he asked. “There is nothing you can do,” she replied. We were never told why they kept him in NICU after they released me, though we asked.
We took home our sweet, beautiful baby three days later. We loved him completely. He learned to walk, talk, eat, sing. A friend nicknamed him the Dahli Lama, he was so calm and agreeable. He seemed perfect to us.
In preschool at Children’s Community Center, he had trouble socializing with his peers, but he loved his teachers. When the time came for elementary school, he told us “I am a Time Lord. I have the power to turn back time.” We were delighted by his creativity. We arranged for him to come back to CCC after kindergarten to ease the transition.
At Arts Magnet, Zach did ok. Not brilliant, though he pretended to be. Which caused more problems in forming social connections. By fifth grade he was miserable. We bought him a Wii and got a puppy and hoped things would improve in middle school.
At King, he struggled. We got a tutor for violin, but his teacher never encouraged him, so eventually, he quit. He loved the kitchen and garden and spent one happy summer in the kitchen program. He learned to bake pies for his eighth-grade project, a skill he cherished for the rest of his life. He was creative with his cooking, a pastime he loved.
In high school, he was in the Green Academy. He had teachers who cared about him, but he struggled, had trouble following instructions, got mediocre grades. He desperately wanted to be smart. He took Latin. We got him a tutor. His sister made him flash cards and tested him. He passed, just barely. He was ostracized and bullied by other students, even in the tight-knit small school. He loved chess and taught a neighbor to play. Art classes were his safe haven, but we couldn’t convince him to study art in college. He wanted to be smart.
He got into CSU Chico for computer animation and game design. He met other outsider nerdy kids there and made friends, but they never formed the safety net he needed. He told us something was wrong in his brain, but by this time we had forgotten the Alta Bates birth experience. We had warning signs – he told us he had no more use for his extensive comic book collection. He wouldn’t go see the latest Star Wars film. After he chose to end his life on March 14 at the age of 20, we talked to the psychiatrist he had seen. She said a child who experienced asphyxiation at birth would likely have low intelligence, low impulse control, low motivation. We believe our sweet, kind, creative, imaginative, loving, quirky child suffered from this increasingly limiting brain damage inflicted at his birth.
As I embark on my soulful passage into a future without my son, I would like to leave a memorial to him that might be useful to others embarking on soulful journeys of their own. There is a little-used plot of land between the tennis courts and the basketball courts in Live Oak Park. A labyrinth would not prevent pick up games in the space but would increase the use of this space in a quiet, productive way.
We applied to the city’s Public Art Commission, which seemed to like the idea but claimed to have no process by which citizens can donate a piece of public art to the city. I am willing to set up funding and get volunteers to build it, but I am at an impasse with city approval. I hope my community will help me to help the city to make this memorial a reality.
David and I have embarked on a life of adventure and travel, but we will miss the dear, sweet presence of our son every day.