Grief in the Midst of a Pandemic

I’ve been rolling with it, I really have. I’ve been staying in the moment, I’ve been releasing expectations of perfection and productivity and found joy in simple things. I’ve made my kids get outside every day (when I’m home) even if the weather is crappy. My dog has had all of the walks. We’ve cooked at home. We’ve napped. I have toilet paper without having really hoarded.

I’ve been a little sad that Braden likely won’t finish his last year of elementary school in the building where he’s spent the last 7 years attending class and making friends and learning so much about himself and life. I’m disappointed that he won’t get to do the 6th grade graduation rituals he’s watched all of the other 6th grade classes before him do, and that he won’t get to play his last season of soccer as a Hyde Park Eagle after a 6 year run of Eagle’s soccer. I’m bummed that we didn’t get to go on the Spring Break trip I spent so much time planning, and that we may not get to go on the cruise in June that my mom has so been looking forward to, because she wants us all together to celebrate my parents‘ 50th wedding anniversary. I’ve had an “it could be worse” and “we just have to do what we have to do” attitude about the whole pandemic thing. There’s still a lot to be be grateful for, and I kind of love having my kids at home. I’m enjoying the slower pace, the meals together at home, the spring weather, and the freedom to let go of the sense that “I should be somewhere doing something.” Nope. I’ve been where I need to be. At home, or at work. That’s it.

As part of the medical community, I certainly am aware of all of the anxiety that is attacking us. As an American, I’m aware of the fear and uncertainty that plague us all. But somehow, I’ve carried this sense that the worst, most profound struggle I’ll ever have has already happened, that this current challenge is very serious and will have long-lasting and far-reaching repercussions, but that nothing will shake me as deeply as my baby losses have. It just won’t. It can’t.

I’ve already had to grapple with the fact that nothing will ever be the same again. I’ve already confronted my own mortality and the fact that death is a normal part of life. I already know that despite faith and prayer and love and resources and pure intentions, horrible things can and will break through my perceived bubble of control and wreak havoc in my life. Bad things will happen to good people, for no good reason at all. Grief is real and normal and part of everyday life, and so are joy and love and new beginnings. All of those things can and do coexist. I’ve had to grapple with the idea of a “new normal,” I’ve hated it, fought it, and come to accept that it is. On a very deep level. So all of this madness and chaos really hasn’t rattled me. It will come, bad things will happen, some of us won’t survive, we will come out on the other side changed, and hopefully we will have gained a deeper awareness of what it truly valuable and worth clinging to in life.

I don’t mean to minimize the seriousness of our current reality, or dismiss the profound grief and anxiety that many may be feeling, and the tragic loss of life that others are experiencing. And I know that the loss of the life of someone dear to me may happen again. But I’m not terrified of it. I know I’ll grieve it deeply if it happens. Until then I’m focusing on the tasks at hand: caring for my children, friends, family, patients. I know others are experiencing deep grief, and I am available to walk with them. But I myself have felt grounded and stable.

Until today.

Today I decided that I needed to take flowers to Gavin and Heath. I haven’t visited in a while, because I’ve needed to stay focused on those important tasks at hand, and I needed to remain functional, and I could not allow the deep grief I can still sometimes feel over their losses to consume me. I know they are always with me, and that they are everywhere I go. I feel their whispers to me when I see a feather, when I hear their windchimes. I see their life force in the blooming flowers and small creatures outside my door. I know I’m caring for them by caring for their brothers and for my tiny patients. But this week, I’ve wanted to express my love for them through the ritual of buying and preparing flowers for their graves, of driving to Spring Grove along the route I’ve driven so many times. I’ve needed to kneel at their graveside and place flowers, bursting with color and vibrant life, at their feet, to celebrate them and declare that they are loved, remembered, still vital.

And then I heard that Spring Grove, like so many places, may be closed to all but essential visitors; in this case, workers and funeral goers. And I thought, if that’s true, that’s ok. My boys aren’t going anywhere. They will be there when this is over, and I can still sense the calming peace of connectedness that I feel when I’m in that place just my picturing it in my mind. They aren’t really there anyway, they’ve made their final journey home and are waiting for me. Our separation has already been so long but it’s just a slice of the separation that still lies ahead, and I know in the end I will be with them. So, it’s ok, I told myself. This is temporary.

I went ahead with the ritual of buying and preparing and driving. The colorful hydrangeas, gerbera dasies, and tall stalks of purple flox rode proudly along with me as I pulled up to the gatehouse. And there I was stopped, and there I hit my breaking point. I was told that indeed, only essential visitors (those attending funerals) could enter. Suddenly I felt the separation, was aware of the reality of this and so many other separations happening in our world today, and how incredibly hard that truly is. Tears instantly burst forth as I tried to say, “ I was hoping to take flowers to my sons’ gra…” and couldn’t finish. Once again, I couldn’t reach them. And neither can so many other people, be with the ones they love. For a moment I was acutely aware of so many ways that people may be experiencing separation at this time. It’s so heavy.

The kind man at the gate immediately took both pity on and action to help me. I saw him summon the helpers and watched the well-rehearsed actions of truly caring and well-intentioned people unfold. I’ve been the helper many times, I know the feeling of recognizing someone in need and knowing it’s time to do the thing that they need you to do in order to offer the support that they need. Someone asked me to pull over, someone ran inside for a special tag, someone came to my window to explain why they were limiting visitors and that I could visit today and that someone would follow me into the cemetery, not to spy on me, but because they are closely monitoring visitors. He asked me about my sons. He offered condolences like the professional he is. I was grateful for their kindness. I could not stop crying. I thanked them. They smiled and generously offered encouragement.

Driving to the infant section I passed a funeral procession and was struck with the memory of fresh grief soon after a loss. I realized that my own grief is not as fresh, but that I am still changed by it daily.

I parked. I called a friend and cried. I walked to their graves, alone, knowing no one else was present besides the man in the maintenance vehicle that had followed me and parked respectfully several dozen yards away. The tiny yellow flowers that have always bloomed on their graves were there, and I was comforted by their presence and reminded of the three previous Springtimes that I’d spent visiting this spot. The first year, when everything was so fresh, the yellow flowers were a surprising reminder of the fact that love still blooms after death. Their faithful return visit each spring is a reassuring message of the unending nature of that love.

I knelt, feeling guilty that my babies were allowed a visitor and would have flowers while all of the other babies remained alone. I looked over the graves and realized that each was graced with the promise of enduring love, whether they’d been brought flowers or not. I said a blessing over all of them and told my boys that the flowers were for sharing. I told them I missed them, and how very loved they are, and how grateful I was to be able to visit them. I bent my head and felt just how much love had been poured into this sacred place, by so many families. I felt it strengthen me.

On my way out the gatekeeper told me I could call and set a weekly appointment to visit. I apologized, thanked them, wished them a pleasant day in the sunshine. And drove off, back to the rest of my life. As I pulled into my driveway, I noticed a black and orange butterfly directly in front of my car. The first one I’ve seen this year. It stayed long enough for me to take a picture and then flew off. I could not fictionalize that timing to be any more perfect than it actually was.

There is great change, great loss, painful separation, even much death. Yet love endures. It always does.

Almost 3

Today, I feel them near.

I don’t feel their weight so acutely at every moment anymore, a survival mechanism that’s developed thanks largely to medications, and while that allows me to breathe more effectively and function more efficiently on a daily basis, I do miss the constant reminder that my children were here, and that they were real.

The reminder this morning is heavy.

I worked last night, watching a new mother nurse her day old infant, explaining the role of hydration in the elimination of the bilirubin that had built up in her daughter’s body and led to her admission to our NICU for phototherapy. The little murmuring noises that the baby made, the reach of her tiny hand upward along the side of her mother’s breast as she swallowed, the mother’s comment about the painful uterine cramps she experienced every time her child latched, her squinting eyes shedding tears of hormone-soaked love and exhaustion and fear and persistent presence, all brought home afresh just how powerfully intimate this relationship between mother and newborn is, how visceral the bond. I remember those cramps, those noises, those tiny fingernails on my skin. I am honored to witness the magic and breath-stealing beauty of these moments between a mother and child that I do not even know. It is a privilege to glimpse this new relationship in its infancy, these sacred roles playing out quietly and humbly at 0200 while the world sleeps.

Clearly it’s a relationship that I deeply longed to experience again myself. I celebrate this mother’s opportunity to do so, to nurture this child and this love. I think of my own two living boys at home, sleeping in their beds, remember their tiny reaching hands on my neck and all of the growth that has come since, and am grateful. I try not to think of what almost was, what should have been, what was buried a year and three years ago.

When those thoughts do sneak out of their compartments and into the present moment, I give silent thanks that their hearts ever beat at all. I acknowledge how deep and shattering their losses were and are, I remind myself that I cannot go back and change their outcomes, and I try and allow the grief to come through as compassion and support that I can offer to the mother and child currently in front of me. And no matter how hard I try, no matter how clear-headedly I inhale and exhale and remind myself that this story in front of me is playing out independently of my own, that this isn’t some form of cruel torture that the universe has contrived just for me, that the hurt and sadness won’t bring them back and that I can best honor and experience them by distilling my grief down to kindness and love that can be expressed and given away, when I step away from my patients I always, always long to hold my own babies again. And that’s ok. Of course I long for that, to watch them breathe and sleep and stretch and smile, and for their gaze to meet my own. How could I not ache for that? I am a professional, and I am also a human.

I slept this morning and into the early afternoon, and woke, disoriented,with a heavy brick of terror on my chest. Time is passing. School is starting. They aren’t here. And the world is moving on. I remember that every year at this time a low-grade sadness settles over me and always has, even before my summer babies died and I was cast into heavy post-partum grief right as summer descended into fall. It dawned on me that this is what’s happening, that I’m wading into the depths of my season, and once I see it I am surprised that it caught me off guard. I feel myself spiral, sitting on the couch staring at the wall, too sad to move. A few breaths later I realize that a sudden downward spiral toward a place that feels a lot like somewhere that was once my baseline means that I must have been doing at least somewhat better, and that I will hopefully rise again.

I have a whole list of things to accomplish today. But I feel them calling, so instead I step outside into the afternoon summer haze and simply sit, and listen, and notice. And I feel them, their weight painful but so familiar and safe and sweet over my heart. They feel like home.

The air is cooler than I expect, not as heavy with humidity as I’d imagined, and slips easily into and out of my lungs. My heavy heart rises with the hum of insects into the canopy of tree branches over our patio, hovers with the leaves dancing in the breeze as is their nature. A flower head bobs in one of the planters I keep for them, and the lantana has rebloomed a brilliant fiery red after shedding its initial blossoms earlier this summer. I had feared the color might be gone for the summer. But it is back.

Gavin’s wind chimes, a gift from a sweet friend that have lifted my eyes on many dark days, occasionally ring softly, a gentle reminder of love that is still present. The glass orbs and sun catchers that I hung for them last year and three years ago are still on the branches where I placed them on another summer day that now lives only in my memory. Since then, a winter has come and gone, and these comforting items are still present.

My babies were real. I did not imagine them. Their love is real, their energy is still with me.

The moss rose’s petals are open now, responding to and embracing the sunlight. There are fewer feathers this year, but I have cherished every one of them. Fewer butterflies also, but this afternoon one drifts brightly by.

Gavin would have been three this month. Had Heath survived to term, we would have been planning to celebrate his first birthday in November.

As the light changes and the shadows lengthen, I will get through it by pausing more often. Embracing the bittersweet more often. Noticing them more often. The pain cuts but the love fills and lifts. Heaviness and lightness entertwine, and they are both mine. They are the stories of my children in heaven, they ground me and they live on as long as I pass their love along. I will continue to breathe, to rise, and to reach.

The Way Forward

Sometimes an aching heart needs to be carefully cradled, suspended, immobilized, insulated from additional blows, so it can safely experience stillness and deep rest. Then, as with an aching muscle or joint, sometimes the best therapy for a broken heart is movement: gentle stretching, slowly increasing in range, encouraged to reach a little further, but never forced. Both rest and movement are necessary for healing.

How do you exercise an aching heart? By actively loving. By allowing love to flow through the broken parts that hurt so deep you can’t catch your breath. By slowly, slowly allowing the scorched and dead parts of your heart to welcome new growth to its inner landscape.

“Do you know what hurts so very much? It’s love. Love is the strongest force in the world, and when it is blocked that means pain. There are two things we can do when this happens. We can kill that love so that it stops hurting. But then of course part of us dies, too. Or we can ask God to open up another route for that love to travel.”

-Corrie Ten Boom

When Gavin died, I prayed and begged God to open up another route in the form of another baby. It was simply too painful to not have a way to channel all of that leftover love. The desire for another pregnancy that ended with a healthy, living child was overpowering and all-consuming. It was happening all around me. I dreamed of it happening within me.

One day, it happened. Little Heath began to grow. And then, halfway through my pregnancy, my much-wanted rainbow became another angel. I held him for a few transcendent hours, and buried him next to his brother. And the horizon went completely dark. A suffocating stranglehold stole my breath. Where is my path forward? How, now? With both of them, all of them, out of reach?

Not all. Not all of them, mama. I know you wanted more. I know others have more. Some have fewer. Some have none.

In fact, both of these living breathing boys of mine were born after earlier losses. They are both rainbows. Both miracles, both blessings. And they still need so much from me.

Breathe. Gentle stretches. Look up, out. See, connect, reach. Be here. Be here, now, fully. (Or, as fully as you can be–try and be present just a few degrees more than you were yesterday.) Give love, nurture, teach.

I walk two paths, one foot on each. One path is simultaneously full of grief over what has been lost and is carried further away from me every day, longing for what I cannot hold, and hope for a someday-homecoming and reunion like nothing I’ve experienced before. The other path is the here-and-now reality of the living, the details of which sometimes seem so inane and pointless in light of the coming mortality that we will all stare down sooner than we’d like. Yet on that here-and-now path walk my most precious in-the-flesh boys, and I must follow it to the end and be as present and engaged as possible. They deserve that. They need that from me. And being their mom feeds my weary spirit.

Someday, around the bend and out of sight, the two paths will merge. And my splintered heart will be whole again. I believe that, with all of the pieces of my heart. 💙💜🦋

Heath Justus

18+4

T21, hydrops.

Technically a miscarriage, not a stillbirth.

My son.

I knew before I listened this morning that he was gone. I don’t know how I knew. I last felt him move two days ago, but his heartbeat was still strong, galloping and blaring through my home doppler yesterday morning, despite the heavy fluid load that it was pushing against. My strong little boy. Today, stillness.

How do I feel?

Peaceful.

He’s already in heaven.

Just his sweet body is resting here safely with me.

What has Gavin been whispering to him over the past few weeks?

To hang on and fight to stay? To let go and cease from his struggling? To give momma all the loves possible while he’s here and to soak up my warmth, my voice, my love while he can? Or that he needn’t fear flying away, because my love will always reach him, and my voice will always resonate with his energy?

Did Gavin whisk him away? Did he lead him home? Did he help him decide when to come?

Did he hold his hand, like Braden takes Rowan’s? Tell him not to be scared?

Did he wait patiently with him until he was ready and then walk slowly away with him, arm around his shoulder? Did he help him whisper goodbye in my ear last night while I slept? Tell him all the sweetest ways to say hello from heaven? Promise to help him leave his own special mark on my heart and the world?

Are they running and skipping now, or quietly watching and waiting?

Two brothers in heaven,

Mirroring the two on earth

Sweet souls intertwined

Linked forever

I had no idea, when I stumbled across this sweet scene last night, that I was witnessing an in-the-flesh version of the relationship that was forming in heaven.

My rainbow that couldn’t stay.

He’s the thunder that capped off a treasured friend’s beseeching, heartfelt prayer. He’s the butterfly visiting another angel mom this evening, a different variety than the blue swallowtails Gavin liked to send. His brother has been teaching him, and he is visiting already.

Blur

It’s ok to fall apart. Here, today, just for now, it’s safe to feel it all. I’ve got you; you aren’t alone. I know that this pain comes from so deep inside that it feels like it might blow you apart if you let it come roaring out of its cage. But it won’t break you. It’s ok to feel it all. There’s so much. And you’ve been so strong. Days, weeks, months of doing what must be done, of striving to do it well, of seeking joy and conjuring up more love to give away, of centering yourself and acknowledging your grief but searching for the meaning that still exists in today. It’s so much work, and you are finding some success. But you are tired, it’s all taking a toll. And sometime, somewhere, you need to set it all down. For a few moments. You get to do that.

I know it’s terrifying, and that you’re afraid that you’ll never pull the pieces together again, and I know that you’re acutely aware of how much is riding on your success.

But,

It’s ok

To feel it all

For just right now.

I’ll sit here with you. Breathe with you. Watch each tear fall. Hear the ragged breaths that you draw. Feel the sting and the ache with you. Remind you that in this breaking is so much strength.

Take the time that you need, to let it out. To exhale the sharpest pain. To acknowledge that this is real. To remind yourself that you aren’t failing. You aren’t beaten. You are grieving, and fighting to engage with life anyway, right where it hurts the most. You are so brave.

When I think it has passed, I look outside my kitchen window, and see a solitary cardinal perched on the fence, turning and calling. Such a small bright spot in a world of grey. I wish I could keep it here, hold it, feel it flutter against my cupped hands, draw comfort from its enlivened energy. It flies off, and another wave hits.

I feel. I cry. I connect. I breathe.

And when it’s over, I pour a cup of coffee, and I keep going. Because there is still beauty out there, and there are many other fragile birds that need to be held.

Enough Love For the Moment

My words have been failing me lately. I haven’t been giving voice to the complexity of this experience of living after child loss. The world is pretending that nothing ever happened, and some days it’s easier to play along than to stare reality in the face. The weight of my grief is too heavy to carry with me daily in its entirety. Fully feeling it leaves me incapacitated, and I have to function. Carrying on isn’t a choice, it’s a necessity. I can tell you that it’s hard. I’ll spare you the details for now.

I visit him weekly, his physical body I mean, in the cemetery where we buried him three days after his spirit flew away. Did I tell you that his daddy carried his little casket from the family visitation room to the van, and from the van to the gravesite, by himself? No other pallbearers, just the father that had stood guard at his bedside in the NICU while his momma was recovering from the physical process of delivering him. I had carried him for 37 weeks and 2 days, had brought him with me to work, to the dance studio, to the beach, on camping trips, out on a lake, above the clouds on airplanes, through the woods and over creek beds, to concerts, to his brothers’ school and sports events, so many places. But for these last few steps, from the curb, over the grass to the spot behind the tree that would shade him and filter the light of the stars gently down to his resting eyes at night, the physical weight of him was borne by my husband. The emotional weight will forever belong to all of us.

I bring him flowers. He always has flowers on his grave, and since his passing, since that week when our house was filled with enough flowers sent by friends and family to fill a funeral home, I’ve always kept fresh flowers in our house. They sit right by the door where we enter and exit our home, a reminder that although he isn’t physically alive and in our arms, his spirit and love live on, and we can carry it with us and let it inform our interactions with each other and with everyone we encounter. We have known pure love. We have known the pain of loss. We have no idea what someone else may be suffering through. We can choose to be kind and to offer empathy. He can live on through us.

Today I bought a dozen red roses with the intention of sprinkling the petals on his grave. I bought several other bunches of flowers to arrange into bouquets for him and for our home. The total came to over $50. Roses don’t usually cost that much at Kroger but it’s almost Valentine’s Day so they are marked up. I bought them anyway. Today was the day I’d planned to decorate his spot, and roses were part of the plan. When you’ve lost a baby, what’s an extra $10?

The cashier commented that I looked like I had some flower arranging ahead of me, and asked what all of the flowers were for. “Mostly for the cemetery,” I answered honestly. This is my new reality. It’s sad, yes, but I’d rather try and make something beautiful out of it that be ashamed or hide it for someone else’s comfort. She quickly said “oh,” her smile disappeared, her eyes dropped and she busied herself grabbing my receipt. I kept my head up, smiled at her and said “yes, well, I keep some at home too.” My eyes said, “it’s ok to talk about this. We all bury someone we love, if we love in this life.” I thanked her, smiled again, gathered my bundle of pink and red and headed home to do my arranging, considering what may have gone through her head when I said that I was taking this expensive, delicate collection to the great, bitterly cold outdoors instead of to my dining room table to be enjoyed by dinner guests safe within my warm home.

The basket of blooming flowers probably seemed like a ridiculous thing to be taking to the cemetery on a freezing February morning. Ice coats every branch above his grave. In a day, all of the flowers will be dead and wilted, frozen to death even as some are at their peak bloom, and others haven’t even fully opened yet. Is it wasteful to spend money on something that will only be seen by myself and the few other parents or walkers who will pass by the infant section of Spring Grove, and be seen for only a moment before we return to the rest of our lives? Is it pointless to invest my time, money and energy in creating this sweet little scene for a baby who stopped breathing almost 18 months ago?

Is it foolish to pour out love on something that won’t last? On someone that won’t last? Was it too much to go through, the damage too lasting and far-reaching, to justify having and loving him earthside for only a few hours? Was the cost to my family, my marriage, my other children, too great? Would it have been better if this hadn’t happened, if Gavin hadn’t happened? Would I have continued living in the safe space above the knowledge that I now possess of just how deep the pit can be? Have we lost time that we can never get back, way more time than we actually had with him here in our arms, time spent waiting while Mom grieves and drowns and struggles to want to still be alive? Could all of this pain have been avoided?

The flowers won’t last, but they are beautiful for the moment, and they are a feeble attempt to tangibly display my love for my child. As I drop petals on the earth that covers his body, I feel the intensity of my love for all of my boys burn through the frozen parts of my heart and soak them with the fuel that will give me the strength and purpose that I’ll need to leave this place and continue to seek joy and give the best of myself to a world desperately in need of compassion, hope, and love. The flowers will die, indeed begin to die the moment they are cut from the earth, but my love for this little boy will not fade.

We all die. We are all born with a fatal condition called being human, and we all carry a terminal diagnosis of mortality. We don’t like to think about it, but none of us will escape this fate. While we are here, we live and love as fully as we can. So if it’s foolish to spread rose petals on my son’s grave, let me be foolish. Let me love the love of a fool willing to invest everything in someone fragile and destined to begin wilting the moment he was brought out into the world, but who holds within himself the ability to inspire in me a love so pure that I’d go through hell to have the chance to touch him. He was worth it.

And when these flowers have died, I will bring new ones. However foolish, I will continue to pour love into this little soul, and to others like him, other imperfect, fragile souls, because of what his life has grown in me.

As I drive away, leaving the little petal-strewn plot containing the sweetest little boy to have ever lived for only 6 hours behind in my rear-view mirror and reenter a world that desperately needs the kind of love that I gave Gavin, I know it was worth it. The willingness that exists in so many other families like mine, willingness to bring forth something fragile but beautiful and precious, however irrational, is evidence that great love still exists. And maybe it’s true that small things done with great love really can change the world.

This is how we win: not by fighting what we hate, but by saving what we love.”

Rose, Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Silent Night

What is it about Christmas Eve that cracks my heart open, and allows the candlelight to shine all the way down to the narrowest crevaces of hope and deepest pits of grief? Is it the old hymn sung acapella into the hushed air by hundreds of expectant worshippers, with its soft echoes of “mother and child” washing over my tender heart? Is it the pause, the space we create to listen, and to feel?

Was it the song that played over the radio into our warm car full of family not once, but twice, asking me, “did you know that your baby boy has walked where angels trod?” Was it the images of Mary, heavy with her ready-to-be-born child, realizing that she was about to deliver her precious son in a dark and unseen place and bring him into a world that was largely too busy and bustling to even notice that he was coming, that he had come? Was it hearing that scrap of scripture that always seemed oddly tacked onto the end of the narrative of Jesus’s birth, “Mary treasured up all of these things, and pondered them in her heart,” and realizing how huge, how neverending, is the pondering of a mother’s heart? For I have stored up many memories of my own child in my burgeoning heart, and ponder them continually. Did Mary know that she would watch her son die as well? Was she shaking too, holding him moments after his birth, knowing that his living breathing presence in her arms was an absolute miracle? Did she wonder if he could possibly be real, and how long he would stay? I am certain that she was so in awe of the beautiful babe in her arms that she didn’t notice or care just how frantic and busy the world was around her. For a moment, there was stillness, and in that stillness was exhaustion, shock, contentment and love.

At 5 am I finished my Santa-ing, turned down the lights, lit a candle and lay on the couch, hearing only Gavin’s windchimes calling sweetly from beyond my front door, clear and true even in the dark and cold night, and the ponderings of my heart as they rolled around the inside of my head. In those moments, hope and grief sat side by side, reached across the divide in my shattered heart, knitted their fingers together in the glow of candlelight. I bid the flames find their way into the deepest corners of my heart. “Burn away this pain,” I prayed. “Because I know that I will not wake and find that my Christmas wish has come true. He will not be here. He will still be dead and gone, and I will still ache. There will still be a huge black hole right in the center of the place where my joy should be, right in the center of my soul.” And as I prayed this, I knew that his love was there, hovering above the candlelight, as clear and sweet and true as the notes ringing in the air while the world slept. But there was no warm body to hold, no face to watch light up, no sweet third son to watch playing with his brothers on Christmas morning.

Instead, the first face I saw when my eyes opened this morning was Rowan’s. Braden had slipped out of bed hours earlier, kissed me on the cheek and crept downstairs to recline on the couch in the very spot I’d abandoned at 0600 when Rowan woke up crying for momma.

Now in his bed, I watched Rowan open his eyes and speak what his mind was processing: “It’s Christmas, momma. There are presents downstairs!” Down we went, and downstairs we found Braden on the couch with a rainbow over his head, presents covered in rainbows, rainbows dancing through the elf village that Rowan and I had created near Gavin’s tree. The message was clear: “I’m here, Mom, playing with my brothers this Christmas morning. I’m here to lend my joy and sweetness to the celebration.”

Later I took a nap, and woke to find a rainbow on the blanket that covered me. Half asleep, I wondered if i was imaging it, until Rowan bounced into the room and said, “Momma, there’s a rainbow on your nose!” Smack in the middle of my face. Really? I can’t ignore that wink from heaven. Our bedroom is not a place where rainbows regularly appear, this was a special Christmas visit.

Despite these sweetnesses, my heart is still heavy. I am still angry and bitter and see no resolution to this pain of not having one of my children here and alive with me, where I can hold and care for him. I can’t even imagine what it would feel like to have woken up this morning with all of my children alive and physically under one roof. To go to where my youngest is sleeping and watch him breathe. To watch him open his eyes and hear him cry for me, to feel the weight of him as I lift him and to smell his warmth as I tuck him onto my chest. The envy I feel for anyone that was able to wake to find a living babe in their home this morning…I am not proud of that envy. I was once that momma. I did not realize what it felt like to long for what I had, the simple ability to see and touch all of my children, until one of them was snatched from me. Now it’s as if I’ve crossed over into a special kind of hell that won’t end until this life does and I can see and hold my boy again. The agony of separation is not something that I think I can accurately describe. I appreciate the rainbows, I really do, they are sweet and I am grateful that they come, but dammit it’s not the same as having him here. He is with me always but he is not here, and there is no whimsical euphemistic way of spinning that enough to change the reality of his absence in our lives or of the stark empty place smack in the center of my heart where my joy should be.

Time marches on. Not all of me goes with it, and most of me doesn’t want to. I am caring for my living children. I am investing in my marriage. I am going through the motions to do what I have to do to keep life moving forward for my family. But despite constantly running into painful reminders of the reality that other babies are here and mine is not, a very large part of me is still searching for some way to make this not be true. I don’t know the answer to this problem. So like it did in those moments of stillness late Christmas Eve, my heart constantly waits, and searches, and dares to hope.

The blaze and the blooming

The initial blow shredded me. It seared, it consumed, it blazed with a heat that I could not withstand. I trembled, crumbled, collapsed. And when I looked up from the puddle that I was, all I could see was you, a beautifully bright spot burning through the blackness, and all I wanted to do was hold onto you. Contemplate you, breathe you, drown in you. The thought of you was the only thing holding my heart together. I hung on for dear life, even though my own life was not very dear any more. You were still precious. And so I clung to you. That initial burst of grief, of love for you, was brilliantly colorfully painfully alive, and it obscured everything else. The devastation of that initial blow lasted a long, long time. I thought it would end me.

But I kept waking up. To panic, to terror, to a cold dread coursing through my center, to an inability to process much of anything or to function beyond a very basic capacity. Days passed. Weeks passed. I didn’t feel like I could breathe. I cried out constantly for relief from the suffocation. And I kept waking up. To more burning, blinding love and longing for you. You were all that I saw. Every beautiful, tragic, agonizing thing that I saw was about you. You blazed, and I could not look away. I wanted to hold onto you so badly, to sustain you, keep you alive, intact, uncorrupted, perfect the way I knew you to be. The image of you was pressed deeply into the center of my heart. I didn’t want to move for fear of shaking any tiny molecule of you loose from your place within me. You were planted inside of me like a seed. I packed myself tightly down around you, and did not look around at the outside world. I couldn’t. I couldn’t bear to see all of the normalcy, or the senseless tragedies, the casual disregard for the sacred nature of life. I gazed only at you.

Zinnia, 8/23/17

You blossomed. You bloomed. You took shape, established yourself. You developed your voice, and I developed my ear for your call. I relaxed a tiny, tiny bit. I peeled my protective seed-covering fingers back a fraction of a millimeter and let a whiff of fresh air into the space around you. I let others catch a glimpse of you, how raw and bright you were. I let you breathe, and I ventured to take a breath too. It caught in my throat, I sputtered, cried out in a hoarse whisper, panicked for a moment, then finished the breath. I exhaled so many tears. And then I let you grow, and be. And you were exquisite. Breathtaking. You shone. I was mesmerized, in awe of what you had become, were becoming.

Zinnia, 9/11/17

You sighed. You rested. I began to understand that you would never leave. I could never lose you. You were mine for forever. I held you, and I shared you. I became comfortable with your constant presence. You were as familiar as the breath in my lungs, as easy as the wind through the trees. I opened my hands. I let you rise up. I let the light back in. We rocked, back and forth, in the unconsciously intimately soothing way that mothers and children do. We slowed down. We exhaled. We noticed. We shone together, you and I.

Zinnia, 9/21/17

You settled, expanded, became the backdrop against which everything else in my life played out. We stretched out our fingers, leaned back, let go. We mellowed together. I let you swim away for a bit, knowing that you’d always circle back to my arms. We played a bit, we explored. I watched you fly. I was so grateful to call you mine. You were everywhere that my gaze fell, and you always caught my eye. I always found you, no matter where I went. I felt joy. You felt it with me. I know that you did.

Zinnia, 9/27/17

I ventured past boundaries that I’d set for us, past safe and familiar scenes, into new arenas that we had not yet explored together. And yet, there you still were. Sending out shoots, demonstrating your character, revealing yourself in new ways. You are alive and growing, and I will continue to discover you.

Zinnia and bud, 9/27/17

Just when I thought that you were as beautiful as you could possibly be, you are coming alive in new ways. The initial love doesn’t disappear, it just lays the foundation for all of the diverse manifestations that love has planned. I will watch you stretch your branches against the sky and flourish.

Old Zinnia and new bloom, 9/28/17

I will raise my arms in your shade, and give thanks. These arms are so blessed to have held you.

Fly, my sweet. I know that even as you do, you will stay so so close, and carry my heart upward with you, into the blazing light.

There is a very real fear

That to keep living

Is to leave him behind

That moving forward

Is moving on, and denying his importance

The truth is

That the healthier I am,

The more alive he is.

The more I am able to do,

The more I am able to do FOR HIM.