I first read the writing of Angie, of still life with circles, last summer, during my first tentative steps into the baby loss blogosphere. I was very moved by this post I read of hers at Glow in the Woods, a blog for babylost parents of which she happens to be the editor. Last year she created the “right where i am” project, to encourage bereaved parents to write about how they are doing on their grief journeys, and to remind them that wherever they are, it’s where they are supposed to be.
I’m grateful for this reminder. I don’t know why some of us humans worry, in the midst of grief, about whether we are grieving the “appropriate” amount for our situation… but it happens. In fact, it is remarkably easy to do. (It’s probably a subconscious emotional stalling/distraction tactic, right?) I know we have to grieve however we do. I’m sure it’s true that I’m right… where I am.
It has been one year since we were told that our son Sebastian no longer had a heartbeat. I feel lucky to know when that heartbeat disappeared – almost to the hour – and to be able to honour, in my heart, the day he died as well as the day he was born.
So where am I?
When I let myself go there, I feel like I’m in a place so complex that if I tried to tell someone in conversation, words would definitely fail me. Back in September, when I went back to work instead of going on maternity leave, my supportive co-workers would often ask me, “How are you doing?” and I know they meant it. They were so lovely about it, but school is not the place to take on that topic. While working, I didn’t allow myself to delve into how I was doing, so I’d condense it into, “Okay,” with a shrug-half-smile, or “Depends on the moment,” to which people would nod sympathetically.
Now, when people ask me how I’m doing, I assume they’re referring, with the best of intentions, to my visibly pregnant status – and I usually abridge my response in a similar fashion.
But where am I, unabridged, uncondensed? Bereaved and pregnant?
I am torn, every day, between joy and grief. Right now, I’m watching my abdomen ripple as my daughter does some kind of martial-arts-yoga in there, and I fiercely love every second of it. Equal in my mind are my eagerness to meet her, and my yearning to cherish everything in case it’s all I get. My husband reminds me that there’s no benefit to worrying that lightning will strike us twice, and I know he’s right. I do my best not to let stress get the better of me – for me, for the baby, for the family in general.
But I cannot avoid thinking about it. I really do believe that this baby will be fine – I have not just hope, but confidence – but at the same time… why shouldn’t lightning strike twice, if it can strike once? Every time I talk about when I go on mat leave, when the baby comes, when we will have a newborn, I’m qualifying it in my mind. Every time. (You can understand why I don’t do this aloud – what a bummer of a conversationalist I would be.) This is not me being morbid; this is me staying sane. I need to let myself remember that life doesn’t always make sense.
This dichotomy of emotion is magnified when I’m with E. One year later, he is figuring out so much more about babies and pregnancy, which is both wonderful and disconcerting. He is so excited about his baby sister, and often asks when she’s coming. He has a long list of things he’s going to teach her. He talks to her, and yesterday he told her, “I love you, baby sister!”
Sometimes, he mentions that he would like a brother. Does he know that he almost got one? I know he thinks about Sebastian, but I have no idea what form this fabled baby brother takes in his mind, if he understands that there was a real baby.
A couple months ago, I had a conversation with one of his little friends at day care, who asked about the tattoo on my wrist.
I said, “It’s a fish, a salmon.”
He asked, “What does the writing say?”
“It says, ‘Sebastian.'” I hoped that would be it, but this kid is five. He wants to know things.
So, in as few words as possible, I explained that he was E’s baby brother who had died, right before he was born.
This child’s mom knew about what happened, so I hope she was able to answer any subsequent questions he might have had, after he’d chewed on that idea for a while.
I didn’t realize that E had overheard this conversation until we were in the car on the way home, when he asked, “Mommy, is Sebastogen in your belly?”
Oh, my poor baby. What does his brain make of all this? He knows there’s someone in my belly. It might as well be his baby brother, since he’s never met anyone (other than himself) who has lived in there.
I carefully, lovingly explained that no, Sebastian was in there at one time, but he died, and I was really sorry that E never got to meet him, and that we couldn’t keep him and bring him home. He said calmly, “Yeah, he never got to see me.” I heard him say this again to his aunt, many days later. He takes it all in and remembers. He obviously thinks about it.
I just dread the day when he truly puts it all together and realizes that he was cheated out of his baby brother, that there really existed one meant for him, but he’ll never get to play with him.
Meanwhile, I worry that he’s confused. We’ve tried to be straightforward with him without telling him more than he asks, but I fear we’ve given him a very odd puzzle to put together. Sebastian went to a good place (called “Kevin”?)… and he is gone, but he is also somehow still here in the necklaces we wear to remember him (we haven’t actually explained about ashes)… and he looks like a salmon?
And I don’t know how much he remembers about the months we were expecting Sebastian, but we used to talk about him with the same enthusiastic anticipation that now surrounds his baby sister. Is there any worry in his mind? Does he wonder if this will be another baby who doesn’t actually arrive, or does he just trust us, even though we were wrong last time?
When he talks about being a big brother to his sister, I feel bad that I’m not able to articulate to him that he’s already a big brother. We know in our hearts that he is, but he didn’t get to BE that big brother to anyone. How can we prove it?
It’s the same quandary I’m in when people ask how many children I have. This is a tricky subject that comes up a lot in baby loss blogging. No bereaved parent wants to deny the existence of their dead child(ren), because those children are in our minds and hearts all the time. Some parents say things like, “I have two living children,” and wait to see the response. Some get right into it, knowing that society needs to learn to be more open about baby loss.
In this whole year, I have never managed to include Sebastian in the answer to that question, although I’ve had many opportunities. Because although I am in no confusion about being his mother, or about him being my child, I don’t have him. That’s the whole point. I never got to hear his voice, or nurse him, or change his diapers, or see him outgrow any tiny onesies, or any of the other lovely things you do when you have a baby. I have one child at home – and now, one in my womb. The one in my heart is no longer a child, except as we remember him.
That’s one reason I’m glad to be pregnant right now. I feel more connected with Sebastian, because for now, the number three applies. I was talking about being pregnant in hot weather with the barista at Starbucks the other day, and I had no trouble at all answering that it was my third time doing this. Everyone happily acknowledges the life and realness of a baby inside a big pregnant belly, and Sebastian and I had that, for sure.
In terms of birth as well, I will be able to use the number three. I had a conversation in April with a friend of the family (whom I hadn’t seen in ages) who asked about my due date, and said, “It’s so exciting – it’ll be your big moment, for the second time!” And I didn’t even really think before “Third, actually,” popped out of my mouth. Of course, the conversation got a bit awkward at that point – she had forgotten that that was my stillborn baby she’d heard about months ago – but there is no suppressing that birth in my mind. I’m so grateful for that experience, and how very real it was.
I have something else to confess. I am sometimes prey to guilt that I know is irrational, but is there nonetheless. When we found out Sebastian was a boy, I had mixed feelings for a while. I remember trying to figure out why, because I love my firstborn so so so much, especially his boyness. I realized that part of it was that I wanted my next baby to be a whole new world, like the first one was. I guess it seemed to me that if I had a girl, the experience would be so different, I would be less likely to blur my two babies in my memory.
Also, I was sad at the unlikelihood of having a daughter, since I always pictured having one, but we weren’t convinced we would have more than two children.
Look at that. I got my completely different experience, in spades. And then, a daughter – at a time when I knew, finally, that I would have been equally excited for either sex.
Although I couldn’t be more thrilled that this baby girl is doing well so far, the phrase “be careful what you wish for” comes to mind.
In this last, rough year, my perspective on my amazing good fortune has only grown… but I still wish for Sebastian.
I still cry sometimes, but not very often. It hits me at weird moments, and I don’t always know what to do about it. I am thankful for the short period last summer when I learned to be totally open about my tears, because it made more sense to cry than not to. That time is long past, and I am back to being self-conscious about the moments when I get teary-eyed. I know it’s silly… but I guess it goes along with surviving a year, getting tougher, focusing actively on all the good things… and knowing that time gradually, inevitably forces me to let go. Not completely, of course – never completely – but enough to be present, and to appreciate.
Wow. This is a longer post than I planned. I guess I had some stuff to process – and I think I might have strayed from “right where i am” a few times… but I know at least some of you are still reading.
From the bottom of my heart, thank you for reading. I know for sure that where I am now is a much healthier place because of you. Last summer, when I began writing about all this and thought you would balk at my painful words, you did the opposite. Your support was, and has continued to be, incredible – wonderful – overwhelming. And it encouraged me to go down deep when I needed to. I am certain that this one-year anniversary would be much darker if I had not had your strength to help me go to the dark places from the start.
You are awesome. So much thanks and love to you.