KINGSVILLE, Texas (AP) - Kirsten Compary settled into the couch for her nightly routine - playfully poking her tummy to watch the baby kick and squirm in return.
But this night, the baby didn't respond. She hadn't moved in hours.
When Kirsten awoke that night, sleeping on her stomach, her rounded pregnant belly squished gently into the mattress, she knew in one heartbreaking instant that something was terribly wrong.
It was 3 a.m. Nov. 23.
Courtney Marie wasn't due for another three months.
Doctors later would say the baby died from a blood clot in the umbilical cord. Kirsten says her only child was "born sleeping": a beautiful baby girl with her mother's nose, her father's ears and the tiniest toes.
Grief overcame Kirsten, who had waited 15 years to have this baby. But in the months since, the Kingsville woman has sought to lessen the sorrow of other area mothers whose babies are stillborn. In doing so, she's unintentionally opened the door for discussions about a taboo topic long considered a private matter, a painful secret.
"It brings meaning to the pain," Kirsten said. "It brings meaning to the grief and it brings meaning to her life. It's almost that she's living on through giving me a story to tell."
Kirsten, 40, with help from a traveling labor-and-delivery nurse with whom she bonded during delivery, has created a memory box program at Christus Spohn Hospital South. Modeled after others nationwide, the program lets families store mementos, clothing and photos of their stillborn babies, tangible reminders of children they never got to see smile, laugh or cry.
Kirsten peppered her home and office with softened portraits of her daughter adorned with Bible verses and Winnie the Pooh quotes, inviting visitors to ask about her story.
A woman from Kirsten's church, after seeing Kirsten's photos online, decided to make handmade knit caps that are extra small in size to fit premature and stillborn babies. The church knitting group made 21 hats that Kirsten delivered to the hospital.
"Some are very basic, some are more elaborate, and each one was knit with lots of love and prayer," Kirsten said.
And Kirsten set up a blog, an unflinching chronicle of a mother's life after losing her baby. In it, she openly discusses her feelings on Courtney's due date, explores her changing perception about heaven in the aftermath of Courtney's death and details the unexpected grief that overtakes her on holidays.
Losing a baby long has been a sensitive topic, but that seems to be changing as women become more open about their loss, said traveling nurse Grace Dabney who helped Kirsten cope.
About one in every 160 deliveries ends in stillbirth, classified as the loss of a pregnancy that is at least 20 weeks along, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Any pregnancy loss before that is classified as a miscarriage, a much more difficult number to quantify because many women don't report it.
More than 11,000 babies statewide were stillborn between 2006 and 2010, according to state data. Ten times more babies were stillborn than died of sudden infant death syndrome, or SIDS, according to state records.
Dabney said there is a much more open environment than there was when her own mother lost nine children in miscarriages and stillbirths.
"My mother did it alone," Dabney said. "She cried, she grieved. Her husband - my dad - was there for her, but it was a private thing. When you lost a child, you grieved quietly."
A year ago, Kirsten Compary burst into the bathroom where her husband, Phillip, 41, had been showering. She held the pregnancy test close to his face. Without his contacts, Phillip had to blink to focus his eyes.
He stared at the digital letters: PREGNANT.
"Really?" he asked incredulously.
Their 15-year marriage had been consumed by infertility. The couple wanted four kids. They prayed for them. They experimented with increasingly expensive fertility treatments and artificial hormones, which gave Kirsten nasty mood swings. She visited a reproductive endocrinologist. No luck.
By the time the Comparys moved from South Dakota last year to take jobs at Texas A&M University-Kingsville, they had given up hopes of becoming biological parents and were discussing adoption, another option that posed a financial challenge for them.
The move was stressful and left Kirsten feeling tired and sick. She blamed it on a cold and the South Texas humidity.
After one particularly bad coughing fit, she was swept by a wave of nausea, which she instantly dismissed. When the second wave struck, Kirsten decided to see a doctor.
But first, she bought a pregnancy test, because she knew the doctor would ask.
"I fully expected it to say, 'negative,'" she said.
She took it first thing in the morning.
One word ended 15 years of waiting.
Many women, fearing miscarriages, tend to wait weeks to share the news.
Kirsten phoned her dad that day.
"I'm pregnant," she said.
"What?" he asked.
He put her on hold, placed the call on speaker and asked her to repeat herself for her stepmother and some friends gathered at their Minnesota home.
"I'm pregnant!" she yelled into the phone.
In Minnesota, Kirsten's dad Roy Williams made a new entry in his prayer journal: "Kirsten and Phill. Baby. 2011." He followed it with four letters: "TBTG," thanks be to God.
"Sometimes God answers our prayers in a day and sometimes in 15 years and sometimes longer than that," he said. "The timing isn't ours. The patience is."
Kirsten and Phillip nicknamed their baby, "Little Peanut" or "LP" for short. Kirsten had three ultrasounds and underwent blood tests to gauge the risk of Down syndrome, an option routinely offered to mothers.
The Comparys opted against a more invasive test of drawing fluid from the womb because it poses a slight risk of miscarriage.
"We were not wanting to do anything that would put the pregnancy in jeopardy," she said.
All tests indicated the couple would have a healthy baby girl. They decided to name her Courtney Marie, her middle name a tribute to Kirsten's mom, who died in 1990.
The Comparys bought their baby daughter a cinnamon-colored crib and a matching dresser. They purchased a Baby's First Bible, and Kirsten planned to start reading to her.
When the Comparys passed couples with babies in stores, they would lean over to each and whisper, "That's going to be us."
And then Courtney stopped moving. Kirsten knew something was terribly wrong when she awoke on her stomach: Courtney, most active at night, would never allow Kirsten to sleep on her tummy.
They phoned the obstetrician, who told Kirsten to come in immediately. It was two days before Thanksgiving.
Kirsten sobbed the entire 45-minute drive to Corpus Christi where doctors hooked her up to a fetal monitor and performed a fourth ultrasound.
Courtney always wiggled in the other ultrasounds, delivering kicks strong enough to knock a book from Kirsten's stomach, but there was no movement in this picture.
Courtney had no heartbeat, the doctor said.
"I'm sorry," Kirsten told Phillip.
From the labor-and-delivery ward, Grace Dabney watched a doctor walk a sad-eyed pregnant woman to the end of the hallway and lead her into a room where she couldn't hear babies crying and other women giving birth.
A veteran labor-and-delivery nurse, Dabney knew in an instant that Kirsten Compary had lost her baby.
"It was very hard to watch," Dabney said.
Dabney walked into Kirsten's room, pulled a chair beside her hospital bed and apologized for her loss.
"She said, 'I'm so sorry,' acknowledging it from the get-go," Kirsten recalled. "It was a comfort I didn't know I needed."
Dabney, who travels to different hospitals around the country, had been trained in grief counseling for families who lose babies when she worked at a Phoenix hospital with an extensive outreach program for such families.
Banner Desert Medical Center had a room solely designated for families to spend time with their stillborn children after delivery. Photographers with the nationwide Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep program routinely provided grieving families portrait photos of their stillborn babies to help ease the pain and offer a lasting memory of the child.
In Corpus Christi, where Dabney was stationed for three months, Christus Spohn Hospital South had at one time provided grieving families with information and mementos, but Dabney found the bereavement program fell short.
"A lot of the pieces were already in place but had been lost," Dabney said.
Spohn South provided an envelope with information on area funeral homes, but not details about what to expect, physically and emotionally, in the aftermath of a loss, Dabney said.
There were a few heart-shaped boxes for families to take home. The camera provided by the hospital for families to take pictures of their stillborn babies didn't work, she said. There was no counseling or follow-up, Dabney said. The hospital needed new materials and a better plan for how to care for such families, she said.
In the private room at Spohn South, Dabney walked Kirsten and Phillip through the next steps: Kirsten would be given medication to induce labor, a doctor would deliver Courtney and a funeral home would have to be contacted. She talked to Kirsten about the stages of grief - anger, denial, depression, acceptance - and how, for a mother who loses a baby, these stages could drag on, happen in different orders, repeat themselves.
Dabney didn't try to pretend nothing was wrong. She asked questions about Courtney, how they picked out her name, what the pregnancy was like.
"She didn't tell me not to cry," Kirsten said. "She sat there and held my hand while I let it out."
Courtney was born at 11:35 a.m. Nov. 24. She was 16 inches long and weighed 2 pounds, 4 ounces. Kirsten was 26 weeks pregnant.
Dabney snapped a photo with her camera phone.
"Courtney was beautiful," she said. "She had a nub nose just like Kirsten's. Her hands were so delicate and white and pale. She had hair. Her eyes were no longer sealed. She had very beautiful lips."
Dabney instructed Kirsten and Phillip to hold their daughter as if she were still alive. To inspect her fingers, toes, ears and nose. To give her a bath and dress her.
Then she left to call a photographer.
In the softly retouched pictures shot by Kim Slonaker, a Corpus Christi photographer and Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep volunteer, Kirsten cradles her daughter in her arm and holds her to her chest. There are pictures of Courtney's slender hands and the soles of her tiny feet.
Kirsten's favorite photograph of Courtney shows her in a handmade knit cap for premature babies, too big for her head, cradling a soft white stuffed lamb to her chin.
"She was perfect in every way," Kirsten said.
The Comparys spent six and a half hours with Courtney. They had a private baptism with the hospital chaplain. Dabney was the only witness.
When it came time to leave, Kirsten burst into tears.
"I don't know how to say goodbye," Kirsten sobbed. "I haven't had a chance to say hello. How the heck am I going to say goodbye?"
"So don't," Phillip said.
Federal privacy laws prevented Dabney from contacting the Comparys after they left the hospital, but Dabney couldn't stop thinking about them.
A week after the delivery and a day after Courtney's funeral, Dabney heard her name over the hospital intercom.
She had visitors.
Phillip and Kirsten were at the front door of the labor-and-delivery ward, holding a card and an angel trinket.
"God brings people into your life when he knows you need them," Kirsten told Dabney.
The women met for coffee and developed the idea for memory boxes. They spent an evening at Kirsten's kitchen table decorating box lids with scrapbooking paper while Phillip cooked enchiladas for the three of them.
Kirsten filled the boxes with items she knew grieving mothers would want: Tissues. A camera. A photo album. A poem. A seed packet of forget-me-nots. A blank journal.
And then she included a link to her blog, named after Courtney.
"That's probably been for me one of the biggest tangible things I can do to direct my grief in a positive way," Kirsten said. "What can I do to lessen the burden for others who find themselves in this situation? What can I do to pay it forward?"
So far, Kirsten has made 25 boxes, which cost her about $10 each. Laurie Graham, manager of labor and delivery at Spohn South, said the boxes provide a comfort for women leaving the birthing unit in pain when so many others are leaving in joy.
"It's something we can give them as reminders that their baby really was here, their baby really did exist," she said. "Everybody else goes home with a baby. They go home with nothing. All the items in there are reminders of their baby. It's a memento. It's a remembrance."
Kirsten treasures the items she walked out of the hospital clutching, the things Dabney insisted she keep. In one of those few hospital-issued boxes, Kirsten keeps an ink print of Courtney's feet, the measuring tape doctors used to mark off her 16 inches, the tiny handmade dress they photographed her wearing.
A plaster mold Dabney made of Courtney's hands and feet hangs on a bookshelf at their home. Kirsten keeps a photo on her phone and wishes Courtney goodnight and good morning every day.
"I'm surrounding myself with her reminders not to make myself sad but just to keep her here and present with me," Kirsten said.
Kirsten doesn't hesitate to share her story with those who want to listen. By sharing her grief, she has lessened her pain and, in a way, immortalized Courtney, she said. And in telling the story, she has helped others work through the pain of their losses, as well, she said.
The desktop image on her computer screen greeting visitors to her office is a black-and-white photograph of Courtney's feet, inscribed with a quote.
"There is no foot too small that it cannot leave an imprint on this world," it says.
What can I do to lessen the burden for others who find themselves in this situation? What can I do to pay it forward?"
Information from: Corpus Christi Caller-Times, http://www.caller.com