Perhaps the bereaved mother reaches a place of unwanted but hard-won power. I’ve generally been a rule follower, a peace keeper. I’ve never had anything I felt the desire to fight for the way I would for Cora. There’s a primal instinct to protect Cora’s legacy, just as I would protect her life. I feel like a rabid animal with my claws out when my motherhood, or Cora’s existence, comes into question. Say something dismissive, and the fuel pours onto my heart’s fire. Tell me I need to move on? I will speak out.
Could it be that I am starting to feel at peace? There will always be something raw about baby loss, a part that doesn’t heal. There is no way around that. But I find that the better I know my grief, and the more I welcome its manifold effects on my life, the less it prevents me from authentically reconnecting to people who live on the surface.
At times, people may think me depressed: I wear my tears with pride, my pain a badge of honor for having known love. At times, people may think me jealous of others: I am no longer naive. I know horrible things can strike us at any moment, and this I do not take for granted. At times, people may think me weak: Yet I rise from the wounds of my past, while they utter that they cannot imagine.
Over the past two months, as I have sat with the thought of my little girl turning five years old, I realized that she is just that—my little girl. She is not symbolic, not abstract, not a purpose or a motivation. She was not a perfect piece of our life’s puzzle, which fit perfectly to make us whole. She was a little girl, a beautiful infant, who did not get to write her own magical story.
I imagine Zia and I talking across a fire. She sits cross legged, smiling, a hot cup of cocoa in her hands. I am enthralled by her presence. I am the student, the listener. I imagine Zia and I hand in hand by the ocean. I look back and see our footprints, one bigger than the other. When I look back, she is gone.
I have my own personal super-reliable never-fail Hulk smash button. It is encountering what might be described as pain policing—telling other people how they should handle their grief and pain. Which—have you noticed?—tends to involve not making things too uncomfortable for the unaffected. I am sure I do not need to list the greatest hits of the babylost universe. Hell, we here can probably do a reasonable rendition of those as a spontaneous choir piece with three-part harmony, set to something immortal like Ave Maria or the Itsy Bitsy Spider.
Some days I prefer the ocean floor. The quiet and the dark and the endless space soothing, instead of terrifying. Looking at the infinite abyss in all directions, there is a peace in knowing that I am very much alone down there, knowing that my actions and inactions can’t hurt anybody else. Better to be chained to the ocean floor, drowning in all that Karma’s accusing me of, than to break the surface and tempt fate.
Now Wigglette will get a chance to play the role of the daughter I always wanted to raise. At first it was a comfort to know that some of that aching gap will be filled. Then came the pain from realizing that being my girl will no longer be something that is only yours. Once I get to witness her developing into a little girl, I fear that my sense of you will become even more obscure, and that I will be forced to leave some more of you behind. There will not be much left, I worry, beyond the knowledge that you were an infant and that I would have cared for you and that I still miss you deeply.
This strange-but-true, yes-but-no existence is accurate for me, but it goes against what most people know to be true in their own lives. Even the term “bereaved mother” hits me as a contradiction, an oxymoron. It sounds wrong, yet I know firsthand how devastatingly real it is.
Big news: we are on Facebook now! Find us there, if you like. And raise your hand for the old-fashioned mailbag, too, for our very own book club full of love and warmth on this rough road. I love the idea of the people of this Glow community being first to hold this book. Some of you are in it. We hold each other, after all, in this world-crashingly illuminated mess.
Each title carefully lined up over the years— wife, career-oriented woman, home owner, expectant mother—is stripped from me, and I am left in the aftermath, as naked and afraid as a child, with nothing to show for it but my own bewildered mind, and the question that repeats itself relentlessly in my head: Who am I?
Despite all my pleas and prayers, death invades my imagination so sharply that it becomes more potent than my reality. At any time of day, while I am driving, cooking, reading, working, just merely trying to put one foot in front of the other, death dangles the other shoe in front of me, daring me to avoid dropping it too.
I wasn't sure if I could contribute anything positive to the anthology, considering my overall experience in hospital was not a pleasant one. But the night before I was due to respond, I remembered just one thing. A single moment: in the delivery room, my doctor and anaesthetist took care with my baby. Not as a stillbirth or miscarriage, but as a baby. They asked her name. A bereaved mother knows the significance of this simple act of acknowledgement and kindness.
I thought another child would stitch some of my wounds closed. I thought she’d allow me to walk confidently into the next baby shower, naturally ask spontaneous questions about the pregnancies of others, not cringe when I walked past the New Baby section of a greeting card aisle. I thought I would stop crying behind closed doors when so-and-so announced she was pregnant. That none of this resolved neatly is another revelation, another betrayal.
I begin to wonder if perhaps no one sees me. I don't utter a word, but no one says anything to me either. Maybe I am an apparition. Maybe I have died and am floating around looking at other people carrying on. Maybe I am visiting from another planet. Maybe my species cannot be identified by the human eye. No one seems to notice I exist. I am not sure if I do either.
I bear the weight of each new loss while they dare to continue to draw hope (for me!) from what happens to the average woman. Perhaps I could hear the compassion in their hope if they were willing to acknowledge my interlaced fear. Right now my own hope is too desperate, too fragile. I reluctantly allow some slivers of it in, but these moments feel intensely private.
Perhaps there is another reality out there, across some vast time-space divide, some wormhole that had been breached when the nurse could not find his heartbeat. Another place, where I meet my son alive. Where I can watch his chubby little fingers curl around my husband's hand. Where I watch him enter into fatherhood, where I am properly reconciled into motherhood.
I look at the documents open on my computer. I need to write a story. About what I can do. How and where I fit. How much I want this. I picture myself, a broken me, as a piece in the giant machinery of an organization. Maybe my cracks will not show from a distance. Once I’m part of the bigger puzzle, maybe I will fit in and play my role in completing the picture. But for now, I need to tell my story the way it is. No, nothing positive really came from the loss. But it sucked the wind from under my wings. I am trying to get a little bit of it back. I hope I do it with you.
We are among each other, even when it feels distant. We pass each other on the street, sit together at concerts and potlucks, perhaps never knowing. Sometimes, with a plate of barbecue on our laps, we blurt out something we generally try not to, and the other doesn't flinch but puts a hand on our forearm and says 'Oh my god, you too?' Uncooperative bodies and recurring nightmares, c-section scars, syringes full of gonadotropins for polycystic ovaries, urns we can't imagine keeping or dispersing. We are us.
My son wants the brown bear in every picture. 'It feels like she’s my sister,' he says. The brown bear we love so much. The one that should have been hers. Merry Christmas Zia Bear. +++ To you, I won’t say Happy Holidays. I’ll say live. It's all we can do now. Live, rambling on about the ache in our hearts and souls. Ramble on the untold story. The incomplete tale. Hers, mine, ours.
“We must not see any person as an abstraction. Instead, we must see in every person a universe with its own secrets, with its own treasures, with its own sources of anguish, and with some measure of triumph.” Signing up for my seminar, students don’t exactly expect to be discussing the inherent dignity and value of every human life. In that discussion, and in coming back to the quote throughout the semester, I hope to help my students develop some immunity against the very human desire to redeem the uncomfortable stories.
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.