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Marching to Zion

Having a baby wasn't exactly part of their plan but neither was returning to school without her. One couple copes with the loss of their daughter.

None of it felt real. Zenee’ Render thought about how she was going to deliver the news as she walked across the Stadium Crossing parking lot with the boy she had started seeing, Nike’ Millard.

The text two days prior asking to talk was not subtle — he knew something was up.

She stopped in front of his Honda Accord.

“Can I have a hug?” she asked.

They sat in the front seat, silently looking straight ahead as the rain came down around them. Tears started rolling down her cheeks as she thought about how this might jeopardize their new relationship.

Finally, she said it.

“I’m pregnant.”

After a long pause Nike’ broke the silence.

“It’ll be ok.”

He kissed Zenee’ on the forehead and drove her home.

He then drove across the street and sat in the stadium parking lot. He called his brother who, a little tipsy, didn’t totally believe him.

He called his mom — she told him his life was about to change.

***

Zenee’ is always anxious. She’s always expecting the worst. When she excused herself during her dinner shift at Collins Living-Learning Center to pee on a drug store pregnancy test, she thought it would just calm her nerves.

Then the pink line appeared.

She was eight weeks pregnant and a junior studying psychology. He was a journalism major catching up after missing a semester. They had just started being more than friends, now they were looking down the barrel of unexpected adulthood.

They discussed options.

Zenee’ knew immediately she wanted to have this baby, but she also knew it would hold them back academically and professionally. She didn’t want either of them to feel trapped.

“How do you tell people you want to keep this baby,” she said.

Even through the months of bad news that came after, she resolved not to change her mind. She always wanted a family, even if it came earlier than she expected. When her grandmother passed away she prayed for strength and patience. Her prayers were answered but not how she had hoped.

She found out during finals week, shortly before she planned to go home to Indianapolis. Her mother told her she would support her no matter what option she chose, but urged her to focus on ending the semester strong. Then the morning sickness hit in the middle of her Spanish final and she missed the rest of her exams.

When she returned to IU for the spring semester, Zenee’ started skipping her Friday classes to make trips up to Indy every four weeks for doctor’s appointments.

At 20 weeks, she was excited to learn the gender of her baby. Her mother stood beside her as the technician squeezed gel onto her belly, which was just starting to show a baby bump. She had been binge watching “Gilmore Girls” and was hoping for a daughter.

Zenee’ could tell something was wrong. The technician was attempting small talk but trailing off and not answering any of her questions. She started to cry.

Nike’ came late. Zenee’ looked to him for answers as he tried to make sense of the ultrasound. She cried harder.

“Deformities” was the word the technician used, but with little explanation following it.

It was bad, but it could be worse, the doctor said. Zenee’ left without knowing the gender, and made an appointment for a specialist the following Monday. She skipped all her classes.

The specialist explained what the ultrasound showed: deformities on the heart, an abnormally curved spine and the likelihood that the lungs wouldn’t be sustainable.

There was talk of an omphalocele, meaning the baby’s organs, such as the intestines and liver, were forming outside of the abdomen.

Still, Zenee’ wanted to keep the baby. She was born blind in her right eye. She exceeded doctor’s expectations and she believed her baby would too.

Despite all the uncertainties surrounding her pregnancy, Zenee’ was right about one thing: she was having a girl. She and Nike’ decided to name her Zion, after the city of God.

Every two weeks the specialist explained more medical jargon. Every two weeks Zenee’ asked the same question, “Is she going to be ok?”

Finally the specialist answered her.

“We’ve never seen a baby with these complications live,” he said.

Zenee’ asked him to leave immediately.

The option to terminate was still available but at a price. Zenee’ was into her second trimester and past the 22-week legal limit for abortions in Indiana. The procedure would cost thousands of dollars, not including the cost of traveling out of state to do so.

She decided to keep fighting. Zion was part of her life now.

Zenee’ had three more appointments. The news never got better.

The deformities on Zion’s heart were identified as ectopia cordis, meaning the organ was outside of the body — something that only happens to five to seven babies out of a million.

Zenee’ researched the outcomes and read about babies who lived for hours or even days with the same conditions as Zion. She already felt cheated out of seeing her daughter grow up, she needed to at least meet her.

Zenee’ worried her baby’s survival rate was getting worse with every passing day. She wanted her now. She asked her doctors if they could schedule her cesarean section sooner.

“If we’re not waiting for her to be well enough to operate on, let’s take her now so she can live now and so we can have as much time as we can with her,” Zenee’ said to her doctor.

Zion heard her request. Two days later, when she was seven-and-a-half months pregnant, Zenee’ went into labor.

After seven missed calls, Nike’ raced down Interstate 465 and met her at St. Vincent Hospital in Indianapolis, where she was being moved to an operating room.

Nike’ watched as doctors split Zenee’ open for a C-section. Again, Zenee’ was looking to him for answers. She watched him intently and anxiously asked him to describe what was happening.

Destiny’s Child’s “Survivor” came over the speakers.

At 12:48 a.m. on June 6, Zion was born. The doctors handed her directly to Nike’.

“She floated in his arms like a little princess,” Zenee’ said. “She would have had him wrapped around her little finger.”

Zion didn’t cry or squeal to declare her arrival.

The doctors didn’t make an announcement that she was born alive, despite the high odds of stillbirth. Instead, Nike’ and Zenee’ watched Zion’s heart beat outside of her chest.

“That was really satisfying — even though we knew it wasn’t a good outcome — just to know she was alive,” Zenee’ said.

Zion was three pounds. Her hands were the size of her mother’s finger. She had her father’s nose, which made Zenee’ jealous. Zion didn’t open her eyes, but Zenee’ couldn’t help herself. She lifted one lid and saw brown. She told herself the other one was blue, just like hers.

Zenee’s favorite nurse, Jenny, told her Zion fought to stay with her parents.

“I’ve never seen a baby fight this hard,” Jenny said. “She really wants to meet you.”

Zion stayed alive for four hours.

For three days she laid in a bassinet next to Zenee’ in the hospital. She was clothed in a white dress repurposed from donated wedding dresses, lying peacefully as family and friends came to see her.

Soon after, Zion was cremated. Zenee’s mom wears an urn necklace in the shape of heart to remember her. The couple said they hope to get necklaces for themselves in addition to urns for their homes.

“Sometimes it feels like it didn’t happen,” Nike’ said. “Until you see the evidence.”

Zenee’ spent the remainder of summer on bed rest. She lie in her room staring at Zion’s teddy bear from the hospital.

Nike’ visited her every day. After years of flirting and casually dating, Nike’ finally told her how deeply he cared about her. They said their relationship was strengthened by Zion. In August they officially started dating.

There wasn’t time to mourn, Zenee’ said. The young couple, wanting a return to normalcy, came back to IU for the fall semester.

Zenee’ enrolled in 12 credit hours and resumed life as a student. Nike’ picked back up where he left off as a junior. They’re a year away from graduating, again.

On Monday afternoons, Zenee’ sits in the same ecology and evolution class she did last year when she was carrying Zion.

“I fooled myself into thinking it would be easy,” she said.

She rang in the New Year thinking she could leave her pregnancy in the past but Zion is a permanent fixture in her life. She can’t forget her and she doesn’t want to.

Zenee’ turned 21 during her pregnancy, missing out on a quintessential college right of passage. Her friends invite her out in hopes of making up for lost time but it doesn’t feel right. She should be at home making a bottle, exhausted from staying up all night with her daughter.

“It already felt like it didn’t happen and for people to act like it didn’t really set me over the edge,” she said.

Zenee’ joined a support group of women in Bloomington who had lost a child. They shared craft ideas to memorialize their babies. They confessed their jealousy of pregnant women. They lamented the pain of being overlooked on Mother’s Day.

“I don’t want anyone to second guess — I am a mother,” Zenee’ said. “I feel the same things. I worried about my child, just how you worried about your child. It’s the same. I just don’t physically have a baby.”

Nike’ said it’s hard to see young children because it reminds him of the life he started to plan. He still considers himself a father and aims to set an example for Zion.

“I try to use her as inspiration,” he said. “I try to keep in mind if she was still here. [I tell myself] work as if she was here and do what you’re supposed to for her — do better.”

Zenee’ struggles to find a purpose in the monotony of being a student again. She missed out on the excitement of all the firsts: the delighted giggles, the stumbling first words and first steps.

Zion changed everything, and she feels lost without her.

Her baby — who was the center of her life for 30 weeks and four hours — is gone.

Zenee’ started painting again as a way to process these emotions. She finds herself painting triangles over and over, using similar colors and styles every time, because the three points have no true direction. Each color represents a different phase in her pregnancy.

Blue for the strange sense of calm she felt after leaving church the day she went into labor. Pink and red for the love she feels for her baby. Yellow for her new beginning that faded into the green — jealousy she felt toward other mothers.

And purple for alexandrite, Zion’s birthstone.

When she was pregnant, she began a piece of an elephant with a baby, similar to the wooden one in her room that was passed on to her when her aunt died. After she lost Zion she finished the piece.

Now, the mother is alone, but her trunk faces up for good luck.