I know you’re out there, ready to pull the covers way over your head this holiday season, hoping to wake up only after “the most wonderful time of the year” has passed. I see the way you quietly choke back your pain in everyday settings, and I know the pin-prickly feeling on the backs of your eyes as you finally submit to the hot, stinging tears. There’s the awareness that there will never be another holiday with your child, that in some way this otherhood will always exist, even if time or circumstances eventually bring you a little closer to a recognizable way of life.
We are the only two people in the world who know what it was like to be Nathaniel’s parents. Many people feared it would tear us apart, but this shared heartache has cemented us more firmly together. It won’t be easy for us to create another child. We are, it turns out, 'differently fertile'. Trying to conceive is terrifying for all the unknowns it contains, and the constant shadow of “What if it happens again?”
I struggle. I find myself mirroring the jovial spirits of my peers, returning their utterances of “Happy Holidays.” As I say this, I wander inside myself, an unwiilling participant of this merry time of year. Instead, I turn inwards—the Ghost of Christmas Past, trapped far back in time.
Your sister died but you became a big brother nevertheless, and I can see you itching to fulfil that role. If only you knew how much I want you to experience the healing that would come with a brand-new life. Sometimes when we talk about babies I will put my hand protectively over my lower belly but I don’t tell you about the changes going on inside. You don’t need to know how often our babies die, you don’t need to share my fear. So I just hug you and tell you that I would also like to have another baby, very much, and that I hope it will someday happen for us.
It is a box really, if you ask me. Nailed on four sides, it could be a coffin, except I cannot lie dead in one. Too real. And not true. Instead, I live, dead, stuck in a box, breathing sixteen millimeters of stale, dark air. Some days it feels like a trap, a tricky contraption, carefully designed to stifle me, slowly, painfully, and yes, alive. Other days, it stands empty like a junction, a stop sign, where I paused, before my life took a very wrong turn.
We are so many different things. We are happiness, sadness, madness, brokenness. All these things make us, complete us. I wouldn't want to erase any happy memories of my life with my husband or my living son. Why would I want to erase the only memories I have of my daughter?
No one here wants a rousing speech. Or maybe you do. I don’t know. We do not speak a common language, or share common customs. We hold different politics, different faiths, different aesthetics. We are connected, but only nominally. In reality, 'babylost' covers an extraordinary diversity of experience. There are so many ways for babies to die. It still shocks me.
Rattled, I listen to Neil deGrasse Tyson as others might listen to a preacher. Science in the face of the fear that comes with being human is the only thing that calms me. And not just science for its own sake, but the joy in science. The marvel at all we don't know. That we feed on flora and fauna, and then die to feed flora and fauna. That we are, actually, made of stardust, and so is everything, right down to every grain of sand on Hirtle's Beach.
I didn’t win the parenthood game in the conventional sense. Yes, it feels like the confetti is falling in great abundance on everyone else, while the hurt in my life grows deeper and deeper. It stings, burns, and rattles me on a daily basis. With child loss, there’s no stopping that confetti, no delaying it, no pretending it’s not coming.
Relationships live in the spaces between people, are held in place by those people, each one on their own end. When one person drops their end, the other one is left trying to find ways to hold the entirety of the lopsided connection on their own.
We would live happily ever after, the remnants of our eternity filled to the brim with milestones, coos, first babbling words, innocent giggles, and wide, chubby smiles. Then the fairytale was flipped, shattered and warped into a gothic nightmare. The princess holding her dead little prince in her arms, dressed not in white but in black, her bright world gone dark.
In my conscious attempt to steer clear of catastrophe, I had been focusing too much on the “how,” when it all comes down to “what” and the absence of “why.” That it is always a life too short, a death too soon, and the meaninglessness in between. So I visited Ground Zero last fall and this summer. For the first time in the four years of living barely an hour from it. I stood there in silence, daring to open up to the lives I knew were ripped apart that day. I allowed myself to believe that I knew every single parent, sibling, spouse and child who forever lost a part of their heart that day. I need not imagine. I knew.
Having grown up with two older brothers, I had always romanticized a house of women and girls. We would be that house, and I was thrilled. Dominating bathroom counters and get-ready times. Un-shy about tampons and maxi-pads and midol. Borrowing clothes and scents and make-up secrets while the bewildered males looked on. Instead, you died.
I used to think our lives were a series of stories; everyone talks about them as such. It's evident as people frantically search their minds for a spiritual explanation when something horrible happens; it's difficult to let something just exist as it is without reigning it in. We're a people obsessed with redemption in the face of adversity and great loss, but our life stories do not have a beginning, middle, and end.
There were times over the last few years when I have carried my loss around like an old favorite coat. No matter how heavy it got, I didn't want to shed it. It fit, hugging me gently in all the right places. Someone sitting too close to me would be able to smell its foul odor—it was that pungent. Still, I refused to wash the coat. Why would I? The dust mites that burrowed into the fabric were perfect. They were at home in my old coat and so was I.
Ten years later, I still feel an excess of unspent love—there is no place to put it, aside from into the air around me, along with the wishing, the longing, the dream of him. I still play with the active designing of my own afterlife: I die an old woman and revert to my 34 year-old self. I enter into a room and see Liam waking up clammy, whole, and gurgling in a crib. This is my daydream, my most divine and deepest regret spun into active language, a positive state. It’s different now. I can love him, forgive myself, and breathe.
We see it in the flowers, the leaves and the trees, in the plight of the caterpillar and beauty of the butterfly. The days of the week, the months, the years, the seasons; all one pattern that keeps swirling. As much as I don’t want the time to pass, it inevitably does. The more time passes, the further I am from that moment when I kissed her little head and tasted birth and death at the same time. I lived and died in that moment, along with her.
I realize in just a short span of 9 days, our family will approach a milestone of sorts. This number can easily be considered arbitrary, one that would otherwise come and go without any recognition, perhaps it's only quality being that it is so tidy and divisible. I hesitate on letting my mind wander to this calculation in the first place. What good can come from this? It is a simple formula with only two variables, measuring one unit of distance since I last held my middle child. 1,000 days.
The shock and despair of being under the ocean is overwhelming, and the tides often break through my stupor. I wake up, and scream, “She still died? After all that, she still died?” It rings hollow, the scream. My eyes are dead, my throat is hoarse, my head splits into a million shards every minute. The calm and hollow let me be, and yet, every day, the answer never changes. She still died. We made it to shore and she fell asleep in the sand. Like that white dove in that song. The land is lost forever.
Sometimes we simply grab the person next to us and thrust a memory-strand into their hands, begging 'Hold this for a minute, please'. Letting go is, after all, exactly what it would mean to stop mentioning or remembering them altogether. The world expects us to let go of the little memory net that holds our child from falling deeper into the abyss. It shouldn't, but it does.
An obscurus wreaks havoc. It is the manifestation of the repressed pain and abuse of a magical child. This energy manifested as a separate entity that erupted in violent, destructive fury. As a bereaved parent, perhaps I've got my own obscurus. A force that can either destroy, lashing out—or, given acceptance and the support of caring people, result in achievement.
The way life works is that we all change, all the time. But some of the time we change more rapidly. You’d be ten now, and I don’t have a clue who you’d be, or how you’d be in the world. What I know is that every second would’ve been new—a chance for you to discover something, to learn, to think, to feel. To find mischief. Or joy. Or joyous mischief.
There is no pill. No physical therapy can strengthen my reserve. No infusion of chemicals can lessen how deeply I feel this. There is no relief to be found in any of my textbooks, medical literature, or online searches. Nothing can take the edge off. I wake up with it and begin the day feeling acute pain, but camouflage it. It is my job to alleviate my patients’ pain. I support them through their heartache while my own throbs.
I was told grief would come in waves; remain messy and untamed, and I should welcome it. It wouldn’t always feel this dark and heavy, but there wasn’t a timeline, and it wasn't a linear process. Mental health professionals didn’t give validation to the infamous “five steps of grief” anymore, so there was no pressure to evaluate myself. I should just feel it, talk about it, and know that it was normal.
Among those who know the agony of facing a world that pretends your child did not exist, my voice hears echoes of itself. I hear a choir of courage, a melody of survival. Sometimes, refreshingly, my ears pique at words my voice hasn’t yet spoken but knows by heart.
These images assault me as soon as my guard is down, when I drift from waking towards sleep. I jolt awake, but even then I can't fight them off. They are too vivid, too real to disperse by an act of willpower. I don’t bother trying to convince myself that my fear is not a realistic one. I simply get up and check on my boy. I press my hand to his back, feeling the air go in and out. Breathing. He is breathing.
Regardless of the frequent opportunities, I struggle to frame the discussion. Death, of course, does not follow a prescribed timeline, it does not bend to logic or will, it is not fair. Not everyone young will grow old. Far too many times I linger in the anxiety of the subject matter, lost at the beginning of the conversation, pen and mouth idle to find even the first word to console a heartbroken friend, or to answer an inquisitive 4-year-old.