K was on the carpet, pushing up to standing at a child-sized chair. I hovered behind her, hands ready to steady her. Another mom, one I didn’t know, dark hair, asked, “Is she your first?” And I sat in the terrible pause where I tried to decide how to answer that question. I think she kept talking, something about how with your first you’re so excited when they stand and with later kids you almost push them back down because you know what’s coming.
“She’s my second. My son died when he was six and half months old.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
I carefully watched K, didn’t look into those eyes to see if they were sympathetic or horrified or looking for escape. I didn’t want to cry, and I didn’t have it in me to make this okay for her if she needed that. As I gathered my strength to scoop up K, grab my diaper bag, and run away, another voice said quietly, “Are you Henry’s mom?”
The tears that had been threatening leaped up. I blinked them back as I looked up this time, at the woman with reddish hair and a post-partum belly. I had seen her earlier, but it took me a while to place her. I had met her in the summer of 2007 at a baby group with Henry.
Even once I made the connection, I didn’t say hello. I didn’t ask about her new baby or how having two kids was. I didn’t ask if she was sleeping or had enough help this time around. I realized why I knew her but said nothing.
But here she was with a little boy of Henry’s would be age and a new baby, asking if I was Henry’s mom.
“Yes,” I said simply. And she told me her name and her son’s name and how she knew me. She asked me about K and told me she had thought of me often since she heard that Henry had died. Our little ones moved in opposite directions, and following them we separated, but I went home so relieved and grateful to have been seen as Henry’s mom.
I didn’t reach out first, but I followed up. I found her email address on an old list from 2007. “It was nice to see you again,” I started and then:
“It was nice to be recognized as Henry’s mom. Having K has been wonderful simply for who she is but also healing. Still, my heart aches for my baby boy who is not here, so to simply be called his mom kind of made me smile a little all day. So, thank you. “
Six years later, I still smile at that memory. I’m still grateful that she was not afraid to say Henry’s name or to greet me as Henry’s mom.
I am many parts, some of them more obvious, some of them more active roles. As mom to my girls, I go to parent-teacher conferences, watch soccer games, volunteer with the PTO, make dinner, sit through meltdowns, read stories each night. As Henry’s mom, I remember. I hold pieces of him. I love Empty Arms, I go back each fall to Boston Children’s, I walk in the Buddy Walk as ways to be more actively, more obviously what I am every day, Henry’s mom.
Today is International Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day. Today I remember many babies gone too soon and I honor the women I’ve met who miss them.
I see you:
Charlotte’s mom; Angel Mae and Owen’s mom; Sierra’s mom; Lucia’s mom; Hope’s mom; Jordan’s mom; Georgiana’s mom; Birdie’s mom; Emma’s mom; Hudson’s mom; Teddy’s mom; Tikva and Jesse Love’s mom; Ezra’s mom; Lakshmi’s mom; Lyra’s mom; Calla’s mom; George’s mom; Thomas’s mom; Georgina’s mom; Isabella, Sean, Samantha, Tristan, and Maggie’s mom; Justin’s mom; Sally Ann’s mom; Matthew and Ashley’s mom; Madison’s mom; Eva’s mom; Jason’s mom; Emilio’s mom; Caitlyn’s mom; Magie’s mom, Devon’s mom, and you, with the baby unnamed but loved.
I see you.
The day before your son’s eighth birthday, you stop at the market to get sausage for breakfast the next morning. You go to the bank, get gas, buy coffee. You meet a friend, eat quiche, drink coffee, write, like you do every Thursday. The checklist of errands, the routine of your writing day soothe you.
The day before your son’s eighth birthday, you notice the lilacs are fading quickly, though you still catch a ghost of their scent, but the deep purple irises have just opened near the back door. You stop to watch a butterfly hover and rest on a flower, its wings nearly black with white spots on the underside, with more yellow on the top. You stand and watch even though mosquitoes hover around you and the air is steamy and your garden is full of weeds. Your son taught you to slow down, to notice. You needed to relearn that lesson throughout his life. You keep trying to relearn that lesson now.
The day before your son’s eighth birthday you get your older daughter off the bus as the leaves turn up on the trees and the wind picks up. You wait for rain that doesn’t come. You hear a low rumble far away.
“Let’s make Thunder Cake!” your girls shout. It’s not the cake you planned to make, but you eight years ago you learned that your plans don’t always play out. You read the story with the girls clamoring on the couch around you. Then you set them to beating the egg whites in the old hand mixer while you measure out the other ingredients.
When you try to take the cakes out of the pans, one sticks and crumbles. You look at the mess and sigh. It will still taste good. Imperfect things can still be amazing.
The night before your son’s eighth birthday, you sit in the rocking chair and sing your girls their songs. You remember the song you made up for your son who should turn eight tomorrow. You remember singing it, tentatively, quietly, in the NICU surrounded by beeping machines and another baby who couldn’t stop crying and parents you knew only by sight and nurses. You remember how tense you were in those first days and feel yourself wound tight again. You take a deep breath and try to let your shoulders down.
You try not to yell at your girls who have to use the potty, see spiders, have “bad thoughts,” can’t sleep. You tuck them back in. You give them good thoughts. You say, “Be quiet. Its late.” You say good-night one more time.
On the night before your son’s eighth birthday, you make chocolate frosting, the really good one that takes a long time. You flip the mangled cake onto a plate, spread the thick frosting on top. You flip the other layer on top and smooth frosting on again. When you are done, you look at the cake. The smoothness of the top that will not be punctuated by candles breaks you for a minute. The tears that have been waiting come. You need them to come out. You don’t know if there are more.
On the night before your son’s eighth birthday, you plan out your morning:
egg sandwich early in the quiet before everyone is up
sausage and cake—your neighborhood tradition
get your big girl on the bus
snuggle and read with the little girl
tend Henry’s garden.
On the night before your son’s eighth birthday, you remind yourself that your morning probably won’t go that way. You’ll sleep late or the little one will be up early. Your big girl’s tooth will fall out or the little one will have a meltdown. Thunder will rumble and not bypass you this time. Things won’t go as planned. He taught you that, too, your boy, though letting go of plans and control is another lesson you have to learn again and again.
You step outside, look up to the ¾ moon bright in the sky. You want to feel him in the stars like you did one night in Maine. You want to feel him warm and sleepy up in bed. You shiver in the cool night air, feel the grass damp beneath your feet. You go inside and tuck your girls back in, shifting the big one’s feet back on the bed, wiping sweat from the little one’s forehead. You breathe deep this moment—the chill night air, the dog snoring on the couch, your girls cozy in bed. You sit with this moment. Right here. What is.
Tomorrow your son would turn eight. You plan to sink your hands into the soil in his garden. You plan to eat chocolate cake and strawberries. Maybe you will, or maybe not.
The day will unfold, just as his life did, on its own terms regardless of your plans. Tomorrow your son would turn eight. You will try to let go of your plans, hold onto your memories, and find beauty in the day whatever it brings.
“Can we go out an play in the puddles?”
“Not today. Too cold.” It was gray all day and grew rawer as the day went on. Our wood stove is cranking out heat again after a few days off. And I know my kids and our neighbors didn’t just want to splash in puddles in their rain boots, they wanted to run and romp and roll in them. They wanted to dump murky water over each others’ heads and need an outdoor shower before they could come in the house.
They did that—with our okay—last year. We okayed it because the spring sunshine made it hard to head home and get ready for bed and there was a little wine left from dinner and they were so excited about it.
I okayed it because I remembered my mom saying yes, some 30+ years before on vacation in New Hampshire. I remembered the sheer joy of jumping and splashing and lolling in the mud, the soft-grittiness of it. I smiled thinking about lying down in the puddle like it was a tub. I remember laughing and dripping in my teal terry cloth romper (forever stiff with dirt after that), my favorite outfit that summer.
Today was too late, too cold, but one day last spring I said, “Yes.”
“Remember when mom let us roll around in that big mud puddle?” My sister and I both do.
My little one asks me for stories about me when I was little every day on the way to school. I always begin, “Once upon a time, when I was a little girl . . . ” stalling, trying to come up with a story I haven’t told her. She doesn’t care though, as long as it’s not too short, so I tell her about the mud puddle and the time we went camping and I woke up in my own bed. I tell her about the time I went missing but was in my garden the whole time and about my sister’s rabbit that peed on me and the time the neighbor’s horse charged at my dad while he was getting our new bikes out of the car.
I wonder what stories she and her sister will remember and retell.
What memory has stuck with you since you were a child? What family stories do you retell?
Share your stories in comments or with somebody in your family.
Take some time to write today—and join me for a month of writing with Grow. We’ll connect with those stories that have stuck with you and the moments right now that you want to stick. You don’t have to say yes to puddle jumping, but say yes to some creative time and support for you.
Like my son Henry, Empty Arms was born in May 2007. Since then Carol McMurrich has expanded the reach and offerings of Empty Arms Bereavement Services. I am so grateful for this organization and Carol’s friendship.
This November, the group’s blog features stories from community members. I believe that telling our stories can help us heal—and can help others too. Certainly the stories of other parents whose baby had died helped me get through the early years of my grief.
Today, I’m sharing a piece of my story—one about an opening somebody made for me to tell about my baby.
What story do you need to tell?