photo by  Xin Li

photo by Xin Li

During the second or third day of Zachary's life, as we were adapting to the NICU staff, their schedule, their protocols for involving parents in the care of their child(ren), I was able to change one of his first poopy diapers. I lifted his legs, exposing the mess, and tried to gently wipe away the sticky and stubborn meconium. Procedure required that we track Zachary's "output" and I began to stack the dirty wipes into his used diaper so that it could all be measured together.  Every time I wiped, the pressure of his raised knees against his abdomen... well, I suppose it helped to push and prod the tar-like substance out of him.

The pile of wipes that accumulated in the dirty diaper was stacked so high it started to look like it would topple. The nurse was laughing, glad it was me, not her, dealing with the mess, and thoroughly amused at the prank my son was pulling on me. Zachary's father was cheering him on, astonished at the volume of poop and elated that his son was living and thriving and ridding himself of waste. 

Zachary's innocent and penetrating eyes looking for my voice, the fact that he was completely unaware of the hilarity of the diaper changing scene, evoked some of the warmest feelings of gratitude I'd ever known. I couldn't have been more thankful that his systems were functioning, that I was able to revel effortlessly in this mundane task of diapering our new son.


I want to love this funny memory, one of many precious moments I was so fortunate to have with Zachary during his first week of life, before all hell broke loose. I want to be the bereaved mother who dwells on Zachary's life, not just his death. I want my memories of Zachary to bring me comfort and to help assure some kind of legacy for him.

It's just that every memory I have leads to the same senseless and traumatic end.  Only one week after that hilarious diaper changing scene, my son's body was overcome by sepsis, a gram negative infection he acquired in the hospital environment—hauntingly, from E.coli bacteria.  His presenting symptoms were essentially ignored at the most critical time, implying a grievous delay in his diagnosis and treatment. Zachary died on his fourteenth day of life because of a microscopic piece of shit and an unforgivable series of human errors along the way.

This is how it is with my memories of Zachary. They are precious, beautiful, and smeared with the ruin that followed, by all that was neglected and the severe price he (we) paid for it. 

At almost twenty months out from his death, the ruin, the perfect storm of errors and omissions that led to his demise, seems to have left the most lasting impression on me. All those bottles of milk I pumped to feed and grow him, the happy milestone of having regained his birth weight: obliterated by the knowledge that he was never fed again after the sepsis diagnosis.  His mighty grip on my fingers, the beauty of his wide-open eyes searching for his mama's voice: violently stripped away with the neonatologist's insistence that we medically paralyze him during his illness. The evidence that his body was beginning to recover, the quiet and hesitant celebration at having made it through the worst of it: completely extinguished on the very same day by a scan indicating a massive, irrecoverable brain hemorrhage brought on by the severity of Zachary's illness.

It doesn't help that the timeline of his entire life, all of the highs and lows, happened in the course of two weeks.  The close proximity of the good and the bad times melds them together in a way that destroys my ability to compartmentalize them, to look back on even the best ones with the clarity and purity of emotion that existed at the time. 


My support group newsletter says we will discuss "joyful memories" during our next meeting.  This meeting topic feels like some kind of cruel joke, a subtle way to dissuade parents of dead infants from participating at all.

Most of the bereaved parents in the group have years and years of memories with their child to draw upon, significant chunks of time where things were happily sailing along.  For me, there is the two weeks with Zachary, the second of which was mostly horror-filled.  And with B.W., our son who was stillborn in 2006, my memories are limited to the time he was in my womb and the few hours after his birth.

I think I'll sit this one out. 

How do you feel about your memories with your child(ren)?  What influences the way you experience your memories?