by Nancy Méndez-Booth
I embarked on a one-woman letter writing campaign between February and May 2008. I wasn’t trying to save the whales or the rainforests, though I believe both should be preserved. I wrote thank you notes in those three months, almost 230. They acknowledged gifts and extraordinary kindnesses received, but not for a happy milestone. My birthday is in July, and John’s and my wedding anniversary is in October. I wrote the notes after we lost our son.
Why was I so thankful? The night of Thursday, February 7, 2008, the news of our son’s death was delivered to me and John about seven hours before I delivered him. I felt many things that night. Thankful was not one of them.
John and I had been filled with thanks for months prior, since the call from the fertility clinic on Saturday, July 7, to tell us yes, I was pregnant. It was the best news after five years of trying to conceive, and as many failed attempts and lost pregnancies. By September, I had sustained the pregnancy for eight weeks and was considered enough in the clear to be “discharged” from the care of the fertility clinic to my ob/gyn.
I was thankful to the sensitive staff and doctors of the clinic but relieved to leave them behind. It never made sense how a process based on so much precision – monitoring my hormone levels daily, administering carefully calibrated fertility drugs at exact times – delivered only failure and sadness. John and I followed all our instructions, my hormone levels were textbook, I had the inner workings of a woman ten years younger, yet I fell into the category of unexplained infertility.
See ya, I thought when I exited the waiting room for the last time. Let other bloated women sit in that limbo, pumped with hormones to the point of bursting. I was pregnant and less of a failure every day I didn’t lose the pregnancy. I was happy and I felt entitled.
I relished my pregnancy. John loves to cook, I love to eat, and we feasted. Meals were for celebration, no longer just consolation. John included strawberries throughout our menus: in cereals, salads, smoothies, chocolate tarts.
“I didn’t know strawberries were still in season,” I said when I saw eight containers in the refrigerator.
“Babies need folic acid,” John replied. “And it’s my favorite fruit.”
The three of us ate well and I felt great. I managed my minimal morning sickness with watered-down apple juice and running. I’m a long-time runner and continued to run throughout my pregnancy. That’s how we nicknamed our developing baby Speedy: my constant running buddy was the world’s fastest fetus. I took scenic routes and described aloud what I anticipated sharing with Speedy once he or she was strapped in a jogging stroller: Manhattan from the Jersey side of the Hudson. Maine lobster boats at dawn. The flats of Cape Cod Bay. San Juan Bay from the path along the old city wall. The bright toddler playground at Pershing Field Park. Everyone remarked how great I looked. I felt beautiful. My body was a gestational luxury suite and it was occupied by our most honored guest.
John and I saw our VIP during my 20-week amniocentesis, a procedure that extracted amniotic fluid through a long needle inserted into my belly. The sample would be tested for abnormalities and deformities, but we knew Speedy was ours no matter what. I was one in a row of women, reclined and waiting, separated by drawn curtains. John and I were thankful to be together and not in the partitioned areas on either side of us. One held what sounded to be a very young woman, a girl, who had taken time off from school for her appointment. On the other side, we heard a couple whisper about previous tests and bad findings, and offer each other thin assurances of “We’ll be okay.”
Within our curtains, the technician scanned my belly, and John and I watched our baby on the ultrasound monitor. There was Speedy, active and with all limbs in their proper place. We didn’t want to know if Speedy was a boy or a girl. We wanted to be surprised. The technician prodded Speedy through my belly, hoping the baby would open its right hand so she could count the fingers. Speedy responded to the knocks with closed fists, like a shadow boxer.
“Look at Speedy go,” John said. He turned to me like he does when we high five each other over a brilliant play by the Mets. That feisty baby was definitely ours. Speedy turned and the baby’s profile reminded me of my own as a child.
“Your baby is cute,” the technician said. “Thank you,” I replied but thought, Damn straight. Of course our baby was cute. Our baby was perfect.
For 18 more weeks, Speedy grew strong and quickly. We hit all the right marks at every pre-natal visit: my blood pressure was 120/70; the baby’s heartbeat was 150. It sounded like the galloping of determined horses. Dr. B, my ob/gyn, measured my girth before I entered my ninth month, and predicted a birth weight of eight to nine pounds if I carried to term.
That’s a big baby, I thought. I rubbed my belly. “Okay Speedy, we work as a team when the time comes. You hear me in there? You and mommy are going to work together to get you out. Fast is good, Speedy.”
I felt a poke. Speedy was an insistent knocker, especially when I was standing still. He’d poke me like, “What’s going on out there? You’re not moving. You okay?” I rubbed my response through my belly and felt Speedy’s contentment spread like a relaxed warmth through my body.
* * *
I woke up tired on Thursday, February 7. It was the day before I was to enter my ninth
month, six days after my latest pre-natal exam. I felt weighted. Pregnancy’s tough, I thought. These last four weeks are going to suck. I called my office and told them I’d work from home. I napped most of the day. John
only called twice to check in, relieved I was finally staying still and not wanting to wake me. He was surprised at the end of the day to find me home, lying on the floor, instead of attending my pre-natal yoga class.
“I’m cool,” I assured him. “I just can’t get comfortable anywhere today.” “Oh? How about I make you some dinner?” John asked. “Nah, I haven’t been hungry today.” “Oh?” he sounded suspicious.
“Nothing. I’ll make you some tea. How about you lie on the couch?” John consulted the notes we’d taken during the hospital’s pre-natal class while I sipped decaf green tea and shifted on the couch.
“How about you call Dr. B, tell him how you’re feeling?” John knew to suggest, not instruct.
John was already standing next to me, phone in hand. He quietly packed a few additional items into our go-to-the-hospital bag while I described my symptoms to Dr. B in my very precise way: lethargic, lack of appetite, lower back pressure, no discharge or wetness. Dr. B suggested I go to the hospital, perhaps I was experiencing labor.
I called out to John after I hung up the phone. “Dr. B thinks we should go to the hospital, maybe I’m in labor.”
John already had my coat and the car keys in his hands. “He probably knows what he’s talking about.”
There wasn’t any traffic on the back roads to Hoboken. John wrung the steering wheel in his hands and gunned the engine at every red light. I sat on a beach towel and wondered what all the fuss was about. I felt fine, just a little tired. I’d never been in labor and didn’t know what to expect. I waddled into the emergency room, calm and dry. The few people waiting smiled at me.
“Pregnant lady coming through,” announced an older man.
I checked myself in while John parked our truck. I made small talk with the orderly who sat me in a wheel chair and pushed it to the elevator to the maternity ward. He was a nice young Filipino man who insisted I enjoy the fuss being made over me. A newborn would change everything. I agreed and we laughed. “You’ll do great,” was the last thing he said to me before he left and the nurses took over.
* * *
The nurses helped me undress and change into a slightly better class of hospital gown. It
was fabric, not paper, with a tiny pink and blue rose print. There always seem to be too many straps, and I can never tie the gowns closed properly. The nurses strapped the fetal monitors onto my belly and helped me onto the bed positioned toward the television in the softly lit room. Everything was soft and gentle in those mommy suites. I wondered if mauve was scientifically proven to soothe women pre- and post-labor.
The nurse seemed very young to me. She had difficulty detecting a sound with the monitor and called for a more senior nurse. I was relieved when John entered. He paused when he saw the silent nurses gathered around me. He kept out of the way but within my sight, and gave hand signals like a thumbs up to keep my eyes focused on him. The senior nurse couldn’t detect any sound either and asked for an ultrasound machine. I tried to remember if this had been mentioned during the pre-natal class.
The senior nurse rolled the scan wand over my belly. I saw an image on the screen of the ultrasound machine at the far corner of the room. It was blurry, like an X-ray of a deflated plastic bag submerged at the bottom of a pool. I wondered why they weren’t focusing on my baby, if there was something wrong with the monitor. The head technician was called, who then called for the doctor on duty. He walked into the room with my doctor. The three of them spoke in hushed tones by the monitor.
Why aren’t they fixing the machine to focus on my baby? I thought. Dr. B walked over, sat on the edge of my bed, and took my hand. He’s been my doctor since before I met John. I’d trusted him with my anxieties, history and hopes for more than 12 years. His winced face scared me.
“Elena, there is no heartbeat. I’m sorry. Your baby has died.”
I gripped his hand like I was falling. Words like that don’t compute. It’s like trying to submerge a beach ball into a pool. My brain resisted. I fell away somewhere deep inside myself. Suddenly it was John at the edge of my bed, holding my hand.
“This isn’t happening,” said a voice that wasn’t mine. “I can’t do this.”
I was aware of John, but my focus became internal. There was no refuge. My body was a trauma site, and I retreated into a recess of my mind. I followed directions. It was all I could do. The nurses unstrapped the monitor. They told me to go to the bathroom to empty my bladder. I obeyed. I screamed when blood streamed into the toilet. The blood continued down my thighs when I stood. The nurses helped me into bed and raised the rails because I convulsed like I was being shocked. My teeth clattered as loudly as the bed frame. I felt cold. The nurses piled blankets on me, and Dr. B instructed them to pump warm air under the layers. Nothing stopped the shaking.
My baby was dead. I was in labor and dilated. They gave me a choice: my baby could be extracted via caesarean. I had no choice: I would deliver vaginally. I had promised Speedy. Mommy would deliver her baby into the world as we had planned, as if he was alive.
The anesthesiologist was delayed for almost an hour, busy attending to women in labor with live babies. He would not administer an epidural unless I sat on the edge of the bed and held very still.
“Fuck you!” I screamed. “Go fuck yourself!” John told him to leave and stood between my bed and the monitor. I labored for almost seven hours. John held my hand, watched the contractions approach on the monitor and counted down my agonies. He watched the pain arch and levitate me. He unclenched my teeth from the bed rail. The pain defeated me. I was aware that John stroked my temple, my hairline. I wondered how he knew to touch me there.
My temperature rose and my pressure dropped. I didn’t feel the needles that were inserted into my veins. Dr. B reminded the staff that intravenous antibiotics would have no effect on the baby. They needed to save me.
I was wheeled into the delivery room before midnight. For 45 minutes, I pushed my feet against the stirrups as if I would stand. My body clenched like a fist and I grunted like an animal. I was ashamed that I wanted it to be over. I was afraid of when it would end.
“It’s coming, Elena,” Dr. B said from between my knees. “Make this your last one.”
I pushed and strained beyond John’s and the nurses’ count until it felt like my vagina and ass flew off. My body released into the bed. It was over.
“It’s a boy,” announced Dr. B. “I know.” I had felt it all along. “Do you want to hold him?” “Yes,” I said. “I waited for him for so long.”
* * *
John and I left the hospital on Saturday, February 9. I carried the tote bag given to new
mothers. I left behind the newborn diapers and nipple cream. The bag held the small yellow hat they’d placed on our baby’s head, the death certificate we’d take straight to McLoughlin’s Funeral Home, and the hospital’s standard newborn announcement card. It read: Liam Méndez Booth; Friday, February 8, 2008; 12:28 a.m.; 5 lbs., 10 oz.
* * *
John and I learned many things in the weeks immediately after I gave birth. I have a blood clotting disorder, undiagnosed all my life. I released fist-sized clumps of blood and clots when I delivered. It was likely clotting of my placenta that caused it to detach and deny blood and oxygen to Liam. My doctors have told me to be thankful that I was active and ate healthily before and during my pregnancy. Those things may have prevented my blood from clotting dangerously before that day. Those things didn’t save my son.
I also learned that I was exposed to the strep A bacteria, different from the B strain that causes strep throat. I could have been exposed anywhere: work, the PATH train, the bank. There’s no way to know. People have told me I’m lucky the hospital staff administered antibiotics that saved me. The A strain attacks vital organs, is lethal to unborn babies, and often fatal to the mother.
Many people don’t know what to say when they hear my story. “Oh, I would die,” some say. “No, you don’t die,” I tell them. “And that’s the problem.” John and I were given many answers, but nothing made sense. We had prepared for everything. Especially me. I’m a type-A planner. I read everything, took notes, made lists, but there is no way to know what to do. Stillbirth is not covered in pre-natal class. It is the chapter not included in the pregnancy books. It is not expected or found in The Expectant Father. If the subject is mentioned, the mention is brief and useless.
“Sixty percent of stillbirths are unexplained,” states The Mother of All Pregnancy Books. I don’t know how that information is supposed to help me. Some books mention that smoking can increase the risk of stillbirth. I’ve never smoked.
I never sought information on the subject before I delivered. It’s the place no one wants to go, yet there I was. All the information we were given – my placenta was 20% detached; the meconium was very fresh; Liam likely died in the hours before we arrived at the hospital, maybe while I napped at home – did nothing to answer why. Not just why it happened. I didn’t understand the why of anything. Why was there traffic on the street when we left the hospital? Why was music being played on the radio? Why were people walking with purpose, like they had someplace to go, like life mattered?
Doctor B insisted I take the three-month leave my employer provided. I needed to recover, even if I didn’t have a newborn. My writing and editing job would have been impossible to perform anyway. I couldn’t comprehend, communicate or organize information. My brain was broken, like a disjointed Rubik’s cube that could not be turned.
I had company those first two weeks. John took the 14 days his employer offers for paternity leave. John monitored my medications and waited outside the bathroom door for me. He had watched in the delivery room as my body gushed blood, released clumps, and delivered our dead son. He left the hospital with only me, no baby, and no assurances about anything. I slept little those two weeks and always awoke to John’s face. I don’t know who he was trying to reassure, me or himself. I pretended to sleep so he would spend time with his parents, who stayed with us. I was scared to look at his eyes, puffed so small. They were Liam’s eyes but were open and had seen everything, knew it was all true. I listened to the hum of his and my in-laws’ voices, the sounds of dishes being washed, the dog’s nails on the hardwood floors. I needed to hear them because the crib in the silent room next to ours was empty.
Fear kept me indoors as much as the cold that February. I didn’t know where I was. I went for walks in those initial days out of the hospital and insisted I go alone. I felt like someone spun me for pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey. The intersecting beige stretches of hallway in my condo building confused me. Walking along Kennedy Boulevard one day, I forgot where I was going and didn’t know to turn around because I couldn’t remember where I’d been. Nothing around me was familiar: the church on the corner, the grammar school across from it, the buses sailing toward Journal Square. I didn’t know what to do at the intersection. Did red mean go? I went and the zealous crossing guard flew toward me, arms outstretched and whistle screaming.
“Look up!” she yelled. “Watch where you’re going.”
I had no idea where I was going. I recognized a man who was my neighbor, and followed behind him to return home.
* * *
It was almost March when John returned to work, and my in-laws returned to
Massachusetts. I faced ten structureless weeks alone. There was plenty to do: packing away maternity and baby clothes; dismantling the crib; replacing the water in the vases of the sympathy bouquets; taking up friends’ invitations for lunch. There were doctors’ appointments, tests to undergo, more blood to give, more of the same questions to answer.
“Yes, I have the referral right here.” “I experienced a stillbirth.” “Yes, two rounds of antibiotics.” “No, no anti-depressants. Just blood thinners.” “No, I have no other children.”
When we returned initially from the hospital, I had accompanied John as he sought his daily solace at morning mass. I’m a life-long reluctant Catholic but desperation, gratitude, and John had motivated me to practice and attend mass in the years we waited for Liam. The dusty sanctuary lamp that we requested be lit in Liam’s memory was crooked on the chapel wall. The priest always seemed desperate to get us out of the chapel and return to his coffee. I referred to him as Father Rush-us-home-ugh. I remained silent during mass, with no reason to respond with joy or recite the prayers of the faithful. I didn’t want to believe in God, but my rage and hate proved I still did. That made me angrier.
“You’re a writer,” someone told me after mass one day. “You should write about this.” “Thanks,” I said. “I was pregnant for almost nine months and should have a baby.” I stopped going to morning mass with John. I stayed home, blamed the cold and didn’t care what I would do alone for 10 weeks.
* * *
I began to write thank yous for practical purposes. Managing a project has always given me a sense of order and control. I also believe in expressing appreciation. If someone blesses me with their kindness, it is my responsibility to acknowledge the gift with gratitude.
The grey bag that sat insistently on our kitchen floor held everything I needed to get started. The funeral home limo driver had given me the bag when he drove me and John to the repast after Liam’s burial. Someone from the funeral home, likely Mary Anne, had packed it with the guest book, boxes of acknowledgement cards, and Bic pens. My first thank you was to Peggy.
* * *
Dear Peggy, Thank you for your compassion and care the night we lost Liam…
Peggy was a head maternity nurse on duty the evening I was admitted. I’m certain she must have attended to other stillbirths before mine. Peggy’s hand was solid, dry, and warm in my left hand as I labored. She brought Liam to us post-delivery. People with dead babies go to an unfurnished white room. The overhead lighting is as stark as the shock of the moment. Peggy carried Liam in her arms. He was swaddled like any other new born, in a printed baby blanket folded burrito-style and a little yellow knit cap on his head. I couldn’t move my arms, especially my right one, due to a clot that had obstructed my blood flow. The pain was so intense I begged the nurses to inject my arm with something or amputate it. Peggy positioned my left arm, placed Liam, left, and returned with a pill for my pain. Before she left again, she told us to take the time we needed and let her know if we needed anything more.
Forever, I thought. I need forever.
Liam was so beautiful I couldn’t believe he came from my body. He had lavishly long lashes and a determined brow. His eyes were closed. I don’t know how long I sat there staring at him. I asked John if he wanted to hold Liam.
“I don’t know,” he answered.
It’s okay, baby, I thought as I looked at the small head in the crook of my left arm. I’ve got you. Mommy loves you.
When John held Liam, our son’s lifeless head fell back. I turned away and felt ashamed. When John returned Liam to my arms, I felt the chill of his body and head through the blanket.
Peggy returned and asked if we’d like to see Liam unwrapped. My stiff arms had prevented me from doing so, and I said yes. Liam’s body was perfect, his skin smooth over a little belly no bigger than a baseball. His feet were long and skinny, with toes of uneven length.
“He’s got your weird feet,” I said to John.
“Ah, you’re a mean woman, Nancy Méndez-Booth,” joked Peggy as gently as she touched my cheek.
Liam was so fair. When Peggy removed his cap, the Velcro texture of his baby hair had promised crazy kinks like mine. The strong reddish tint indicated John’s island home, not mine. Peggy showed me beauty that night, even as I was covered in dried sweat and sat in blood.
* * *
I wrote more thank yous, some days only two, other days more. Each note took time because I needed to fill my time and give it purpose. I wrote those notes as if they were expected and I had a deadline because every morning began as a black-cloud day and I needed a reason to get out of bed. Broken as I was, I could handle writing a card, sealing and addressing an envelope, affixing a stamp, and dropping it into the mail slot in the lobby of our building.
* * *
Dear Mary Anne and staff at McLaughlin’s Funeral Home, Thank you for the sensitive management of the details for our son Liam’s burial…
The car from the funeral home had stopped at our place first. John, my father-in-law, and I rode to my parents’ place to pick them up, and my aunt who’d flown in from Puerto Rico. I hummed and concentrated on how smooth and clean the car’s beige interior was. Everyone in the car made small talk around me.
This isn’t happening, I thought. I’m not here.
John helped me up the steps when we arrived at the church. It’s hard to walk three days after giving birth. I saw the aisle leading toward the altar and was ready to scream and run like someone was about to throw me into a burning furnace. Then Mary Anne appeared. I don’t believe in angels, but at that moment it seemed she swooped down from nowhere. She was much taller than me, in a full-length, opened white fur coat that fluttered like wings. She came right up to me, took my hand and said she had been away but came back from her trip especially for Liam’s burial. She had been through the same experience. I looked at Mary Anne and my nausea subsided.
With John on my other side, I let Mary Anne guide me by the elbow toward the front pew. There was a large flower arrangement on a stand before the steps to the altar, so many white and blue roses and ribbons. I thought it was beautiful until I realized they were resting on Liam’s coffin. I never knew they made such things so small. It looked like it could hold a pair of my shoes.
I looked for Mary Anne among those gathered in the church, then later at the cemetery. She made me feel I wouldn’t collapse within myself. Maybe because she’d been through the same thing, yet was still standing, sturdy, strong and tall.
The sun was bitter in the eighteen-degree temperature as we stood in Holy Name Cemetery. I hate the cold, but how could I leave my son? What kind of mother leaves her baby in the cold? I knelt by the coffin long after Father Tom’s closing prayers. There was a small circular decal on the end of the coffin, with a teddy bear and the assurance “Made with tenderness and compassion.”
“Mi amor,” said my aunt as she wrapped her arms around my shoulders, “you have to go.”
“I want him to know I love him,” I said and remained planted.
I heard Mary Anne announce my and John’s thanks to those gathered and wish for them to join us at Skinners Loft for the repast. When she appeared beside me, I took my hand off the coffin, placed it in her outstretched hand, and stood into the nest of family arms awaiting me.
* * *
I delivered the thank you note to McLoughlin’s in person. It was on the way to the post
office and I’d run out of stamps. The hope of seeing Mary Anne made me believe I could survive a trip outside, with its risks of getting lost and encountering people. It scared me that I couldn’t recognize familiar places, but it was more frightening to be approached by someone who knew me, smiling and asking where I’d been and how was the baby. They never knew what to say in response, and I’d be too wrecked to say anything more.
* * *
Dear Mina and Ava, Thank you for opening your home and your hearts to us on Saturday night…
Our friends Mina and Ava hosted a dinner for me and John a few weeks after my release from the hospital. I washed my hair and put my pajamas in the hamper. The pre-pregnancy clothes I wore fit as if there’d never been a change. They hid my slack midsection, the only immediately obvious indication I’d been pregnant.
There were about a dozen close friends at the house. They said I looked like a new woman, but I carried Liam’s death with me all the time. My teeth were clenched and my body braced the whole time, but I talked with friends about the avocado in the salad and the painting in the living room Mina and Ava had purchased on a trip to Puerto Rico. I heard John’s loud laugh from across the room. It reminded me that he was not at my side, yet I was okay. I recognized his laugh like a memory of another life, and wondered if either of us would ever return to that pre-history. John and I lived for a few hours that night, even if nothing felt normal. Our friends were willing to play along and help carry us through.
* * *
The thank you notes gave a structure to my hours, then my days until I could string them
into a stretch of days, and eventually a week. They gave me a reason to leave home. I carried them like a talisman, my assurance that I was doing something with my time, had a place to go, had a thing that needed to be done: I had to go to the library to sit by the window and write some thank yous. Or I needed to go to the coffee shop that played WBGO jazz during the afternoons and served apricot scones to write thank yous. These became the places I needed to be and the people who began to recognize me and acknowledge my presence and re-entry to the world. They knew me but did not know what happened. They were safe and so was I.
* * *
Queridisima Giselle, Your love has always been so limitless and my thanks to you are overdue. I don’t know how or where to begin…
Primas gemelas is how the family refers to me and my younger cousin Giselle. We’ve always enjoyed that we could pass for twins. I look at Giselle and see my younger self, in appearance and outlook. She was seven months pregnant with her first child when it was safe enough to announce my own pregnancy. We were giddy to share the anticipation, anxieties, and excitement of motherhood as we had many other things throughout our lives. Giselle bought gender neutral baby clothes so she could pass them along to me, her child’s “big cousin” gift to my baby. We imagined our children’s photos looking like our own childhood photos, holding hands, heads leaning towards each other. John and I sat in the waiting area of the maternity ward as Giselle’s son Alan was born. The photo from that November morning shows me and Giselle, our heads touching over Alan, his face a tiny replica of our own.
John and I waited until a reasonable hour to call after I delivered Liam shortly after midnight three months later. What is a reasonable hour to tell people a baby has died? I was able to make the few practical calls: to my office, the yoga studio, people who were expecting me that day and would worry if they did not hear from me. I was too much of a coward to make the calls that mattered. John had to call my parents. And he had to call Giselle.
John helped me from my bed when I heard her voice in the maternity ward hallway, approaching my room. She entered and her shattered face was my own. I couldn’t speak. “I know,” Giselle said as she held my face and looked into me. “I know.” I leaned on her to walk into the hallway. A man, a new father, stood at the other end and
looked at me like I’d come out of surgery unstitched. He must have seen and asked about the teardrop marker on the door to my room. It signals the staff of a stillbirth. The look on his face mirrored what I felt. I was a monster.
Only monsters delivered dead babies, and I believed I was responsible for my child’s death. Only monsters recoiled at the sight of their cousin’s baby boy and feared touching him. Gisele continued to be by my side, even when neither one of us knew what to do. I learned later that she took on the duty of making the needed phone calls once John spoke with her. Giselle made certain that deliveries of gifts or cards for my planned baby shower were cancelled. I needed her but was ashamed of my dread. I looked at Giselle, and saw my pain and my loss. The few times I saw Alan, I saw a baby boy look at me who resembled my own, but was not mine.
Giselle’s thank you was one of the more difficult ones I had to write and one of the most necessary. Acknowledging the people to whom I owed the most gratitude sometimes forced me to confront ugly emotions that were as strong as my grief. I still feel guilt about my longing when I see other people with their children or when I see baby boys. There are still times when the pain manifests itself as irrational anger: I’m quick to lose my temper, I’m hostile to small, seemingly insignificant changes in routine. I don’t want to acknowledge these feelings, but if I don’t confront them, I will remain a monster.
* * *
I finished all my thank you notes by the time the three months of my leave expired. It was a task I planned, organized and completed on my own, when I didn’t think I could accomplish anything. I still write thank yous. Those post-trauma acknowledgments taught me that I have something to be thankful for every day, if I choose to see it, and it is my duty to share that beauty with others. I’m stronger now because I’ve drawn upon the cosmic bank of goodwill. It’s my turn to give back.
Those three months also showed me that the woman who approached me after mass one morning was right: I am a writer. I couldn’t find the words to help me when I was desperate with need. The ability to write is a gift, and it is my responsibility to develop it and provide the comfort my words might give to others.
Writing the thank yous did not miraculously fill my life with meaning. I am not now convinced that there is a logical significance to our existence, that there is justice in the world or that moments of beauty confirm that life is beautiful. Those written acknowledgments were life preservers that kept me afloat amidst the wreckage that was my life. My orderly print on the page was a comfort. There was comfort in communicating my gratitude when I could not find the words to make sense of grief or the experience. I made connections through writing when I was unable to talk and had trouble being around people. I could express how someone’s kindness touched me, but I was not able to write or talk about what had happened or how I felt. Writing the thank yous kept me at a safe distance when I was plunged into a much larger bottomless pool of trauma and recovery.
I don’t know that I believe in God or what I believe about him. The people to whom I wrote thank yous are reminders that there is beauty in my life. I’m glad they were persistent. I don’t know if they or the beauty in my life are gifts from God, but I do believe they are gifts, and it is right to be thankful because I am no more deserving than anyone else.
It has been a hard road for me and John, as individuals and as a couple. We thought our biggest post-partum challenge would be finding a trusted sitter so we could enjoy an occasional date night. We never anticipated this. There were moments when I believed the loss would tear us apart. Grief made us each feel alone with our pain. John needed to be touched and touch me. He wanted the most basic and physical confirmation that we were still present for each other at a time when I couldn’t bear to be in my own skin. My body was a trauma site. Any touch breached the numbness that was my only security against a pain I was sure could kill me.
We’re still together. I realize that is no surprise. John and I have known from our beginning, well before we tried to start a family, that we need each other to get through any situation. The immediate post-partum years were a journey I can illustrate best with the example of the first marathon John and I completed together. We trained for six months, with me in charge of nutrition and cross-training, and John in charge of running schedules and mileage. We arrived to the starting line of the Cape Cod Marathon unfamiliar with the course or the experience of completing the full 26.2 miles. Some miles were hell. John told me repeatedly I wasn’t pacing properly, and I snapped at him for holding us back. There were moments I wanted to leave him behind. If I had abandoned him, I wouldn’t have heard the toes of his sneakers drag along the impossible hill at mile 19. He didn’t say his legs were too heavy to lift, but I knew to run close at his side with my fingertips at the small of his back as if we were dancing. And he knew to chatter about our post-race Guinness to keep me from stopping at mile 23. Neither of us stopped, even when it began to snow at mile 25. We arrived at the finish spent, me with bloody toes and missing toenails, and John with a knee the size of a grapefruit. None of that mattered. We were battered and breathless and crossed the line holding hands.
John and I know life is like this, whether you lose a child or not: We each go into the unknown with only the promise that we’ll journey together. That certainty and trust is the greatest gift we can give each other, and for that, I am always grateful.
* * *
I don’t want any of these lessons. Yet I think how much poorer I would be as a person if I’d not learned all of this, how poor of a mother I might have been. I am most grateful to Liam. He’s taught me to grow every day for the rest of my life. That’s what still trips me up: I learned to be thankful because I lost Liam. I don’t have the regret of not having taken advantage of our time when he was in utero. That regret would kill me, but I only have this appreciation because I don’t have Liam. I don’t want this lesson. I want one moment with my son. I want to know the color of Liam’s eyes.
I’m getting better mentally. I hope I’m a better person. There are still days when I wonder what the hell I’m so thankful for. I can’t reconcile the simultaneous contradictory feelings of appreciation and resentment, gratitude and anger. There is one thank you I never wrote and I doubt I ever can. It would break me. It would be a thank you to Liam.