Holding Gavin

It happened. His first birthday came, and it went. The anniversary of the day he died came, and it went. I did all of the things that we’d planned to do: I decorated his tree, I danced with loving and supportive friends, Ross planted new plants in Gavin’s butterfly garden. I found three of the tiniest, downiest feathers between the doors to our back gate as we headed to the car, and I put them in my pocket and kept them there for the day. We took balloons and flowers and other special items to the cemetery and decorated his grave and enjoyed a simple, sweet birthday picnic in the shade of the cypress tree that stretches its branches over his spot. We sprinkled rose petals and glitter over him, the boys perhaps a little aggressive in their “sprinkling” technique but participating fully in the process. Gavin has a new little neighbor, the boys noticed and commented, and I said a quick mental prayer for that baby and that family and whatever turmoil and pain and struggle they are currently wading through.

We went to the park by the river and played until the boys were too chilled from the water that they’d soaked themselves in to stay. At 7pm the large organ pipes chimed the hour that Gavin was pushed into the world, a salute to the moment of his birth. We were joined by dear friends and I simply breathed as I watched their active play on the grassy slope and enjoyed the changing lighting as the sun descended and finally settled into a warm pink glow all around us. We took the boys home and had cake and opened special, thoughtful gifts and cards from incredible humans who had taken the time to remember Gavin and remember us and offer something to comfort and encourage us on this tough day. All day long I received messages of love, encouragement, honor and remembrance of my sweet boy.

It was after all of this active celebration and remembrance of Gavin that I would find a moment of peace and calm. I drove to the hospital where he was born and died, took flowers for the parent lounge and cookies for the staff. My mother, who had come in to help with Gavin’s bereavement care the night that he died, rode with me. She and I will always always share sacred memories of the hours spent in that little NICU bedspace, with Gavin’s calm and steady godsend of a nurse, pouring love into him and filling the night with a simple celebration of his sweet little life. He smelled of the soap and lotion that I used to gently wash and pamper his body until we placed him in his casket several days later and Ross carried his little box from the car to the grave. His little feet glowed gold from the ink we used to make footprints. The bridge of his nose was bruised from the CPAP mask, and I wished that I hadn’t done that to him. His hair was dark and fuzzy, and my mom commented on how dark his hair was and that it was like mine, a cherished connection of resemblance since his older brother Rowan had come out blonde and fair like his father and looking like I’d had nothing to do with creating him. We dressed and bundled him and he looked for all the world like a perfect, sleeping baby tucked into his grandmother’s arms.

We rocked like that for some time. It was the most painful, blissful, beautiful, precious stretch of time. To only have gotten so many hours with him while he was alive, and to have had those hours filled with so much fear, anxiety, hasty activity, and the awful sinking realization that he was leaving…it was a gift to have calm, unrushed time with him. Time to do and say and think and feel whatever was comforting in the moment. Mostly we just rocked, kissed him, murmured softly to him. My contact lenses fogged over from all of the tears I cried, and the whole scene is remembered as bathed in the hazy halo of light that I was seeing through that night. At one point a chaplain came and offered baptism. I don’t remember her name but she was she sweetest, gentlest presence. She crouched down on the floor next to my rocking chair and poured holy water from a tiny seashell over his still head. It was the most tender anointing. I still have that shell and the tiny vial of holy water in the suitcase, waiting for me to hold them again and remember that moment.

No amount of time in that place could have ever been enough, but eventually it was time to go up to my room and join my sleeping husband in finally lying down and surrendering to the end of this day. I carried Gavin with me and was wheeled to the room and my mother joined us for a bit. She helped me settle him into the basinette and cover him with blankets that had been made for him and position him near my bed. Finally I climbed into bed and my mother literally tucked me in, pulling the blankets up over me, holding me tightly and telling me to get some rest, and that I had done a beautiful job with my beautiful boy, and that he was so very loved. If I know how to love my children, it is because I have been so profoundly loved by this woman. The caring just trickles down and soaks through the center of one soul and then onto the next.

On this night of his birth and death, a year later, we revisited this space. We sat in the chairs, and we rocked. A battery-operated candle softly lit the area, and thoughtful items (water, tissues, gum) had been placed nearby. An angel statue held space for us. It was calm, it was peaceful, and I was ok. I was not anxious, not even when I heard babies crying. I did not feel searing pain at the thought of a living child so close to where mine had died. I did not feel jealousy or anger or even deep sadness. I felt peace. I could breathe. It was good to be in that space and not be in crisis. It was good to be there and at least in the moment, not question the choices we had made. It was good just to remember all of the tremendous love that we’d felt in his presence.

Most significantly, it was a shift to realize that he was not there. He really wasn’t. Not only was there the obvious lack of a baby to hold, of a baby in the waiting warmer, there was the lack of the sense that his spirit was somehow trapped in that place. I realized, I had not left him behind. I didn’t abandon him. He was not still waiting for me to come back for him. These thoughts and feelings and so many more have haunted me, sometimes I’m aware of them, sometimes I’m not, but they are always there. Sitting in that dark space two nights ago, however, I was struck by the impression that while this was undeniably a sacred, calm space and time, he was no more there than he is anywhere else that I go. Because I didn’t leave him there. I brought him with me when I left that space, that time.

Although it was excruciating torture to be wheeled via the service elevator down to the front entryway while holding my precious breathless bundle, and then stand and walk along the curb to the waiting van and place my child in a small basket held by a stranger and then turn and walk empty-armed back into the hospital, I did not abandon him in that moment. Although it was unnatural to place his body in a box and seal it and walk away after it had been lowered into the ground and the final prayer of the service had been said, I did not walk away and leave him there with no one to care for him like I’ve feared. I’ve brought him with me to every single moment, place, relationship, interaction that I’ve experienced since that night. Haven’t I found him at the seashore, along trails to glacial lakes, in simple loving interactions that take place in my own living room? Hasn’t he shown up in the sunshine and the flowers and every small living creature that I see? Hasn’t he been with me when my soul was stirred with compassion for other hurting moms and families? Isn’t it his victorious spirit leaping within my own tired soul when I dance and live and breathe and feel any measure of joy? He is the feather in my pocket and the swelling in my heart. I’ve carried him with me because, quite simply, I could never ever let him go. He is everywhere, and he is always with me.

There is freedom in this realization. I felt it for a moment before the sadness and fog crept back around me. I drove home spent, shaking and cold, and climbed into bed the way I had a year ago, pulled the covers up over myself, and rested, with his sweet presence once again close by. I laid my head down just after 0130, and fell asleep shortly after the time that his beautiful, innocent spirit has ascended a year ago.

Thank you, precious child, for choosing me. All of the pain, confusion, disorientation, and panic have been worth it in exchange for the joy and privilege of having carried, met, and loved you. I carry and love you still. I pray that I will continue to meet you. Thank you for coming with me. You make my heart a bigger place.

One thought on “Holding Gavin”

  1. Kirsten….this is poignantly healing. Bless Gavin and his Trisomy family and bless you for being exactly the right mother and fsmily for his short stay in the world. I pray your pain is somehow less while your love and joy in Gavin lives on. Love you!

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