"Noun: The evacuation of a dead child or organism." Stillbirth. No warning at all, there it was right between "veterinarian: a person who practices medicine or surgery on animals" and "blunderbuss: a short musket of wide bore used for shooting at close range" as if dead babies are as pedestrian as ailing animals or Civil War era artillery. Automatically I typed s-t-i-l-l-b-i-r-t-h into the (super addicting) vocabulary game Knoword *. But I couldn't go any further what for the tears crowding my eyes.
That's the way my grief works these days: when talking about my deceased daughter Faith, I feel a familiar ache but it's as much happiness as it is sadness because I love remembering her , love sharing her with people. But sometimes grief surprises me - a news report about another mother who has lost a child (the #1 reason I cannot watch the news, I will feel sick about it for days), a dress in the size she would be wearing if she were still alive, a poignant look on Jelly Bean's face that is a shadow of an unknown sister, and even a sterile word that pops up in a mindless game. This grief is the kind that reminds me I have a smoldering coal of hurt deep inside, one that still burns tears into my eyes.
Talking about dead babies is a loaded subject. It has caused more than a few awkward silences in the nine years since she died. I have the disconcerting habit of answering the commonplace question of how many kids I have by saying "Five" when there are only four immediately obvious. If the asker presses further I tell them simply, "Our oldest daughter, Faith, is deceased." Most people then stare uncomfortably at the floor and say how sorry they are. I don't like making people uncomfortable but it feels like a betrayal if I don't say it. And if I, her mother, don't remember her then who will? Still, I understand their awkwardness, their fear, their unasked questions. Questions for which my answers are not very satisfactory.
Were you surprised? Not really, we knew from the 20-week ultrasound that she had severe problems but like any first-time parents we were so excited to see her little heart beating, her little alien face; of course we held out hope that she would beat the odds and prove the doctors wrong. So yes, we knew she would probably die but every death, by its very nature, is somewhat of a surprise. When did she die? I'm not sure exactly. The last time I felt her kick she was alive. The first time I held her she was dead. What happened between those two certainties I still don't entirely know. What was wrong? Faith had a genetic mutation called Turner's Syndrome. Only girls can get it and it can be hereditary although it isn't always. Many girls with Turner's are born and live wonderful lives barely complicated by their disease. Why her? All I know is that she lived the life God meant her to live, short as it was.
What did you do then? I gave birth to her. Like any baby, she still had to come out. Like any childbirth, it hurt. A lot. We had a funeral for her, after which we had her body cremated. Then we went home to our empty house full of the nursery, the furniture I had hand-painted for her still waiting expectantly. A tablespoon of ashes, did you know that is all a baby makes?
Ugly, uncomfortable, difficult truths all of them and yet I do not regret sharing her with people. Babies have a way of cracking us wide open and they don't lose that power when they lose their mortality. During this season where much is said of giving, I would like to share with you three of the most cherished gifts I have ever received and three of the most beautiful gifts I have ever given.
The first takes place in a Babies 'R' Us, a week or so before her birth. Another very pregnant mother and I stood side-by-side going through racks of infant dresses. "Ohhhh," she sighed, rubbing her belly, "I'm trying to find something for her first pictures. Everyone always wants to take so many pictures." She paused to laugh and added, "Better of her than me I guess!" Turning to me she asked innocently, "You?"
I considered telling her the truth: I hadn't felt my baby move in over a day. That she was in the slow process of dying from my inside out, perhaps already dead. I was shopping for a funeral dress. But then I looked at the woman's bright face and knew that I was living every pregnant woman's worst nightmare. I decided not to burden her with the knowledge that babies die. Instead I smiled and for a moment played the part I wished so fervently were real. We giggled and talked and compared heartburn (death is no respecter of acid reflux), at last both of us choosing the same pink smocked preemie dress.
Upon parting, even though it tore me apart to say it, I wished her a quick delivery and blissful first meeting with her daughter. No tears. That was my gift to her. She hugged me. That was her gift to me.
The second occurred at Faith's funeral. We had only lived in the area for a few months and so most of the attendees were our families from out of state and relative strangers from our church. An elderly woman whom I didn't recognize lagged behind the others and then at last came to me, holding both my hands in hers. "I had a baby, once," her voiced trembled. "In those days they didn't even tell you they died. I woke up from the anesthesia and the baby was just gone. If it wasn't for a kind nurse I wouldn't have even known he was a boy. When I got home they had packed up the entire nursery, nothing so much as a little sock left. I never got to see him or hold him. I don't even know where he is buried. It was as if he never existed." Peering into my eyes, she asked, "Did you get to hold your baby?" I nodded.
While it may seem macabre to some, we had held her and rocked her. Prayed over her. Made hand prints and foot prints. Took pictures. Then at last we dressed her in the tiny pink dress and gave her to the nurse. Said good-bye for the incomprehensible forever of this life, named her Faith as a testament to the immutable eternity of the next. I told the woman all of this and she nodded, tears streaming down her face. "I understand why you did that."
The understanding. That was her gift to me. "In a way," she continued, holding her hands out to the room, "I feel like all of this is for my son too. I wish I could have done this for him." We cried together and I whispered, "It is. Oh, it is! This is for your son. He knows you love him." That belief. That was my gift to her.
The last and most recent occurred at a car dealership of all places. My husband and I had finally decided to bow to the demands of suburban parenthood and buy a minivan. He was signing paperwork while I sat in the waiting area with our children. A man sat there with his two children. We chatted, inevitably coming to the question of number of kids. He answered "two", smiling at the two girls playing on the floor. I answered "five." He counted, look confused. So I clarified. As soon as I said it, I could tell from his face that something immense had happened.
At first he just asked the usual questions about Faith but then he leaned forward to tell me. "We lost a son a few months ago. He had hydroencephaly." From there we talked about his son and he and his wife's lonely experience with the troubled pregnancy and their infant son, born perfectly beautiful on the outside but completely lacking a brain. The painful decision to remove him from life support. The unceremonious burial. After an hour or so it was time for us to go - children come and go but financial paperwork lasts forever - and as I stood, he stood too.
"Thank you. You don't know what this has meant to me. Nobody ever lets us talk about our boy. They think we should be over it by now, be grateful that it 'all worked out for the best.' But I miss him." His voice cracked. I told him that it does get better. I barely remember those first few months, my grieving was so intense. But the adage is true and time is generous healer, if you will allow it.
"I can't wait to tell my wife about this. Thank you," he repeated. Listening. That was my gift to him. His gift to me? Being allowed to hold the memory of my precious daughter in my arms, proudly out in front, for all who would see, to see.
Thank you for letting me share my Faith with you. It is a gift. This is what I mean when I say I have five children: I have five children. Four I hold in my arms and one I hold in my heart but all are beloved.
PS. People often ask me what to say to someone who has just experienced the loss of an infant. The usual "I'm so sorry" "What a terrible loss" "I'm praying for you" are all wonderful and very appropriate. But my favorite response was from my friend LuAn, who at the funeral said simply to me, "Tell me about her." And then she listened.
*Just in case you get as addicted to Knoword as I am, be warned that they use the British spellings, save you two days of frustration and screaming "I know how to type 'colorful'!!!" at your computer.
Written with love by Charlotte Hilton Andersen for The Great Fitness Experiment (c) 2010. If you enjoyed this, please check out my new book for more of my crazy antics and uncomfortable over-shares!