My girls and I put up the Christmas tree the other day, and I love to sit in its gentle glow. Ever since I was a kid, I loved decorating the tree, finding favorite ornaments, telling the stories behind them.
Our tree has some ornaments that came from my childhood home—felt animals sewed in a childish hand, the delicate glass snowman and balloon a teacher gave me, a simple red ball with my name and the year of my birth.
Our tree has ornaments I’ve given to my husband or our family over the years—a geologic survey marker for Mount Washington, a wheelbarrow for all the gardening we do together, a green canoe and a toboggan from the years we bought those items to enjoy.
There are ornaments I’ve made for my girls, like the ladybugs from when they turned four and two with corresponding spots and the felt hearts with their names.
If you look, you will find a lot of cardinals. Glass balls with painted red birds, plump birds sewn from felt, a felt heart with a cardinal cut out of birch bark overlay. And the red birds from other babyloss mamas: the needle felted ball from Jenni, the paper circle from Amy, the cookie cutter tree with a reddish feather from a bird nicknamed “the desert cardinal.” It’s not surprising to find cardinals at Christmas, but mine are for Henry.
When Henry was in the hospital, somebody gave us a stuffed cardinal, the kind you squeeze to hear its call. My dad still talks about how it got Henry’s attention, whether the news or the bright color. The cardinal link started there, but it was seeing a cardinal, all red, streak across the bleak landscape that solidified it for me. That sudden brightness reminded me of Henry’s smile, the way it lit everything up, the way it made me smile.
People tell me about their cardinal sightings and let me know they’re thinking of Henry. That makes me smile too. Some days, just when I need it, I catch a glimpse of that flash of red. so bright on a dark day.
Last night, after stories, we turned off the light and sat in front of the fire looking at the tree. I sang my girls their songs, my chin resting on a blond head, my cheek against a nearly five-year-old cheek.
I thought the dark was going to rise up: the missing, the would-be eight year old not here. But instead what bubbled up was love, stretching me tight, expanding me. For a moment, it wasn’t dark and light, here and not, life and death, all those forces that pull me in two directions through this month. I thought it would be, but instead I expanded with just fullness, just love.
Just when you feel you are going to break,
when the light-dark of this month
and all that you do to embrace the light:
the birthday party planning
figuring out when you will go see the trains and the Christmas lights
and is there time to make cookies?
starts to feel like too many to dos,
when you wonder what else you can peel off,
you get a reminder to go for a run.
You get a reminder to slow down.
You take a walk, feel the bright sun, and notice the silver-white frost still furring the shade.
Just when you don’t know what to do next,
your neighbor says, “Pulled pork for dinner—with stuffed jalapenos and beer?”
Just when you are cursing this month and wishing again that you could jump ahead to January,
you get a message from a friend. “It’s December. How are you?”
Just when the darkness is settling,
the lights on the tree you did put up, joyfully, thoughtfully
with the stories of each ornament,
glimmer and set the room aglow.
Sometimes, just when, you need help, a hand, a smile, it comes.
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.
Henry’s birthday was gentle, and it had nearly everything I needed, barring him.
As we ate our chocolate cake with our neighbors, a cardinal swooped by as if on cue when Julie asked, “Where’s the cardinal? Don’t we usually see a cardinal?”
The kids pretended their chocolate cake and whipped cream was bird poop. Spirit of eight-year-old boy?
And then I had my garden time. I weeded and edged. I thinned and transplanted. I mulched and replaced the heart shaped stones. I sweated and my mind wandered.
This haphazard garden is one place I have never planned. I simply fit things into the space I have. Sometimes tall things end up in the front or plants are too close, and when they are, I move them. This garden that I began in 2008 with a couple of hand-me-down perennials has expanded and filled in and flourished.
I went from peaceful contemplation in the garden to lively chaos at science fair that night. And somehow that was right too.
The next day I woke up feeling lighter. My hips, aching for days, felt looser. It is not that I don’t think of him now that his birthday is past, but the pressure, the anticipation of that day and all the hope it held has passed once again.
Friday I took the day off from work. I stayed off Facebook and didn’t open my email. Saturday i absorbed all the kind words and messages that people sent my way on Friday: thinking of you, remembering with you, holding space for your story.
Today I stood in my Gore-tex waving to my big girl on the bus. Today I told my little one about camping in the rain as I drove her to school. Today I checked my email, focused on work, went to the dentist. Today a gentle rain fell, soaking into the too dry earth, enlivening all the green, kissing the swelling peony buds. Today I stood in that rain and smiled.
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.