When we enter this world, naked and screaming on a cold, metal table, our eyes sealed shut in pitch blackness, we are nameless.
We lack identities, the singular thread tying us together the fact that we are human beings—tiny, pink balls of flesh, brought anew into the world.
Then we are named, forging and extending our identities throughout the rest of our lives, as we crawl, walk, venture out into the world, the unknowns of life becoming comfortable and familiar.
Then trauma strikes, as shocking and unpredictable as lightning.
After the ultimate pain, the overwhelming death of a child—
I find myself as clueless as a newborn again.
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?
In the After, my identity is shrouded in fog. The past, present, and future mold together as one singular experience. Distressed thoughts flit through my mind in the humdrum of the day, escalated by fears of an unknown future.
What will it be? I ask myself, as if I have become a diviner, able to scry into the depths of my unforeseeable future. Will there be more terror? More loss? More grief? More pain?
Will I be digging more graves? Or will I be giving up?
Will I have a whole family?
Or will things be cast away again, a brilliant future shattered within a singular moment, hopes and dreams dashed as quickly as the silence of a heartbeat, the cessation of a breath?
I don't know what I am now.
I can't put a label on it.
I struggle to identify with embodiments of fiction, aching to pull apart movie reels like threads, stitching back together the pieces of my soul. I reinvent myself through the stories of others, yearning to find myself anew, put a name to the girl who suffered so much, but had no way to describe her new normal.
I developed both a kinship and an aversion to horror stories.
Why would I want to watch a biography of my life?
What escape from the mundane would this be?
I envy the mothers who can engross themselves in the throes of momentary terror, revel in the unfolding of a fictional landscape of dark and twisted fantasies. They lose themselves for hours in the realm of another person's nightmare. Yet I live in this nightmare, day in and day out.
I can think of nothing worse than the grim scene of a hospital room, a broken mother lying in a bed brimming with her worst nightmare. Holding a child that will never breathe, a baby that will never open its eyes to the world. Wishing beyond all hope that this, too, was some kind of scary movie, some kind of drama that would cease in just thirty minutes— that's a wrap, folks!—the reel cut short, open to edits and deletions.
Snip snip, the directors would decide, the baby's death is too brutal, too sad. Folks will riot. Reviews will scathe, burning away sales, crowds will turn away, nobody wants to watch something like that.
Then I wish my life were a movie, in which I could simply press pause, hit rewind. I would re-shoot my son's brief life and death, omit his horrible, unforeseen demise, depict the triumphant saving of his life, recast him in sequels, as a toddler, as a boy, an adult.
And then, when I know there is no escape from this reality, I identify with apocalyptic stories. My world did end, after all. This is the aftermath. Maybe I don't wear a gas mask to protect myself from harsh environs, or have scars and burns that would mark the trauma of my character like a badge of grit.
But I am one of those survivors, traversing a real life landscape of unknowns. My lens have shifted from rose-colored to grey and desolate, every place I once frequented a reminder of brighter days before the world ended.
My son's death was the hydrogen bomb, the bubonic plague reincarnated, the meteor that decimated my bright, blue planet Earth.
Against my will, the world switched to survival mode.
I wonder who would care to peer at my story.
The poor mother whose child died.
One day, mothers would revel in it, the mothers with their children intact, folded protectively in their arms, without a care in the world as to what could happen to them.
How could anything go wrong?
What I was, my Before, swirls before me in a cyclone of past memories, too rosy and technicolor to be anything but outdated TV. This won't fit here anymore, I think, throwing negatives and slashing reels, my lip curled in disgust.
It's different now. I'm different.
So who am I?
I struggle to fit into the old molds that have become too big for me to fill, bloated and heavy with the weight of tears.
I must fill it with something, but what?
An angry woman. A vengeful woman. A bitter woman. A sad and grieving person, struggling to find herself again.
None of these names quite fit; like shirts that appear at first glance to work, but are too short in the sleeves, too narrow in the bodice.
What do they call a mother whose child died?
A woman who gave birth, passed the threshold of a mother –-finding herself at the other side, empty-armed and broken hearted. What do they call the women who flit between two realities like apparitions, ghosts slipping between and always a kind of hybrid—not quite living mother, not quite childless—an alternative dimension mirroring something perceived on the outside as normal.
What new mold do we fit into, now? Are we some embodiment of fiction? What can we relate to now?
Would you like to have a romantic dinner today? I text my husband chidingly, smiling to myself—my mind alit with momentary joy at this small interaction, a welcome break from the constant, ruminating terror in my brain.
I play charades every day.
He plays with me, acting out the gestures, as we smile our phantom smiles and go about our empty errands. At times I feel like I can wear these titles again, wrap this lost identity around me like a shawl, hold it close and let it smother me in something similar to normalcy.
Then a singular thought weighs me down—my son's face, his pointed lips and button nose—the shadow of the hospital room, forever looming over me like an eclipse—and I am lost again, everything familiar to me as heavy as an anvil, a burden that is far too much to bear.
I am both a whole person and un-whole person.
I am whole for having known the love of my child, expressed in every kick and nudge in my growing belly, as fragile and fleeting as it was. I cling to these delicate memories like morsels, breadcrumbs strewn through the wilderness of my mind, confirming to myself that, yes, he existed, yes, he was here, yes, I am a mother, aren't I? Yes, I can still be one.
I am un-whole because, no matter how complete my son made me, no matter how I construct myself in this reinvention, I will be eternally missing that piece of me. I will be a puzzle with a piece forever lost, although the shape is imprinted within my soul. I will know exactly what happened to that piece, but I will still carry on—naked and afraid and confused—to be admired by others for my strength; to even be pitied by others (although there's no room for that anymore).
I am still trapped in the wilderness of baby loss, in the After, any vestige of freedom eclipsed in dark woods.
There's no real name for us mothers, but perhaps we are just un-whole.
We are still lost, still navigating our path through the dangers of our own minds. But we are here. We navigate grief with a compass. Sometimes it is clear, other times fuzzy. Sometimes we must sink knee-deep into the woods, plant our feet into the soil, and scream. Sometimes we must allow ourselves to be lost, submerging ourselves in the river, letting the current sweep us away in our sadness. Sometimes we must embrace the pain, allowing it to bloom and flourish in the cracks of our fractured hearts.
In the After, I pick myself up, my stance unsteady as I walk across icy rivers, waters that can crack any moment and sweep me under again in a fresh deluge of grief and loss. I fear taking the wrong step, making the wrong choice. Yet hope weaves its way through the cracks, tiny webs that stubbornly stick, no matter how lost I am.
I cling shakily to my present, hoping resolutely through an uncertain future.
Struggling to be un-whole.
Its the After that hurts the most. But it's the After that is all that we have.
In your After, what are the recurring questions that ring loudest for you?