Our Firstborn: A Journal (Part Four)

Disclaimer: This post is the fourth in a series about one ACMB Team Member’s experience with infant loss. (Click here to read “Our Firstborn: A Journal [Part Three].”) We understand that this post may include language and ideas that are difficult or traumatizing to some readers and urge you to stop reading if you feel triggered in any way. As always, ACMB aims to provide a platform for our Team Members to share their experiences honestly in hopes of helping other moms, and we are very grateful to Jennifer for sharing her story with us.

In the months and years that followed the death of my oldest child, I found such incredible solace and comfort in hearing the stories of others. Just knowing that other people had survived what I was living through brought me hope and helped me feel a little less crazy. I have been continually grateful for the bravery and willingness of those parents who shared their worst nightmares in support of my own grief and healing.

In that same spirit and in honor of Pregnancy & Infant Loss Awareness month, I am sharing mine.

April 27

We found out today at the doctor’s office that we got the very thing every expectant parent hopes so desperately for: a perfectly healthy child.
The autopsy report said so.

No abnormalities of the heart or lungs. No vascular complications. No invisible bacteria or infections. No imperfections of placenta or cord. “Cause of death: Unknown.” I left with as many samples of birth control pills as they would give me.

When I got back to work the mound on my desk seemed like the most ridiculous thing I’d ever seen. The thought of sitting down to do it seemed even more insane. So, I cleared my voicemail, scanned through e-mail, and after a “full workday” of about 28 minutes, I left my office. Luckily, almost everyone was in meetings, so I only had to leave a note. As I was making my escape, I overheard a conversation in which a close colleague of mine was finding out that her expectant daughter-in-law is having a girl. They were giddy and cheering. After five boys in the family, there would finally be pink dresses. I was relieved to be walking out. The last thing anyone needs in the middle of a baby celebration is to have to talk to me.

When I got to my car, the sadness hit me like a wall. So much of this process is not even about the initial loss anymore. Yes, it overwhelms you in the beginning—the actual loss of the baby—but when I cry now, all these weeks and weeks later, it is about other things.

A friend of mine who has had several miscarriages wrote something a few weeks ago that came back to me today. She talked about the loss of her innocence—and even though I knew what she meant, I hadn’t actually felt it until today.

When I sat down in my car in the parking lot I realized that I will never, ever feel the way they do right now. In the midst of being respectful of the miracle that is pregnancy, I will never, ever jump up and down over it. That feels too presumptuous, too risky. I will never be uncautiously, unabashedly expectant. I have lost that.

Today he would have been two months old, and according to the charts, he would’ve been smiling in response to things. He would’ve been playing with his hands. He would’ve been starting to recognize the difference between parents and strangers. He would’ve grasped his ability to have needs met by crying and his personality would’ve begun to unfold.

That’s what the charts say. That’s how I know those things. And I also know, because an autopsy report says so, we had a perfectly healthy little boy.

May 1

Last night we went out. I mean “out” like we used to. Out to dinner with some new friends—people who didn’t know us when I was pregnant. People who don’t consider us the saddest people they know. We had great Thai food on an outdoor patio and drinks that came with disclaimers. Then we went to a bar with a live band that didn’t start until 11:00 P.M. We stood on our chairs and yelled and spilled things. The band was sweaty, drank Texas beer, and smoked a lot between songs. We thought they were awesome. When we left my clothes smelled like an ashtray and it didn’t bother me like it used to.

We laughed a lot.
We danced.
We “woo-hoo-ed” and whistled.
We had stamps on our hands.

We forgot for just a little while.

June 6

Last week I went to Baby Sam’s house. The best friend my son will never know. His mom and dad and I had dinner and caught up, and they got to meet Wheeler. It was something that needed to happen and I was glad to finally do it. I’ve missed them a lot. 

Sam is huge already. I can’t believe how much he’s grown in these first five months. Absolutely perfect and precious, making adorable faces and new noises. I didn’t hold him, though. That is for a later time, perhaps.

It is amazing to me that he is already so different. I think that is what made it easier than I expected. He’s not the thing I lost anymore—he’s moved past that. I guess the blessing is that it might get easier and easier to be around him. After all, Wheeler will always be a newborn to me. That was how I met him, that was how I held him, and that was how I said goodbye to him.

It continues to be true that the things I’m sad about now aren’t much about a baby anymore. I’m sad about not being able to have a new dimension to my friendship with Sam’s parents. It was difficult to watch them in a new, evolved relationship. There is something deeper in their interactions. There’s experience in her voice—fragile and weary, but it’s there. And the light in her eyes when either one of them looks at her was breathtaking. I’m sad that she is embarking into this formerly unknown world, learning so much about herself and her capacities. I’m not sad she’s doing it; I’m sad she’s doing it without me. And I know she’s deeply grieved about this, too.

Later that evening Sam’s mom and dad sat and looked through my book of photos. She cried a lot. It’s hard when it becomes real to you—the photos make it real—and no matter how much you’ve cried up until that point, the pictures open up a new place in you. They asked questions. I told a birth story few are brave enough to hear. She talked about his profile and his curly hair and his perfect little hands. It occurred to me later that they did with him just as I had done with their son—conversations we had been waiting almost a year to have with one another. I realized I had often imagined us sitting around a dining room table talking about who got whose eyes and nose and which uncle would be taking credit for what. 

So, I just want to acknowledge that we got to do it. We had those very moments we had expected for so long. They weren’t exactly as we had planned them, but how many moments in our lives really turn out as we plan? 

I’m grateful because I was able to be there for them at all.
I’m grateful because my friends were willing to go through those moments even though they were much, much harder than we had imagined them to be.
I’m grateful because I’m learning that I’m stronger than I might have ever known if I weren’t having to prove it to myself.

I’m grateful that my love for him is not vulnerable to the things of the physical world. I don’t have to worry for his safety or fear the loss of him. Our bond has been perfectly preserved just as it should be: unconditional, invincible.

June 30

The house sold.

We close on the 9th. In spite of all the advice to the contrary, we are moving.

I’m aware that I will get overwhelmed with the move. Who doesn’t hate to move? I won’t feel like packing, and in 10 days I’ll be so sick of boxes I’ll scream. That’s all predictable and expected.

But there is this other layer underneath that. I’m not sure exactly how it’s going to roll out, but I know it’s there. It comes from the part of me that is sad about leaving this house, even though I don’t feel particularly attached to it and I absolutely cannot do the commute one more day. 

For the rest of my life this will always be the house that contained my first nursery. 

It will always be the house in which I experienced the revelations of pregnancy, with the kitchen that witnessed him finding out he would be a father for the very first time. 

The living room could tell of evenings on the couch: four hands pressed to a belly, startled with every miraculous squirm held in silence and awe.

This house welcomed me as I came dazedly through the door, bleary-eyed and clutching a tiny wooden urn. I searched its insides for a place of safe-keeping, looking for the corner, the nook that felt most like a heart.

These floors are swampy with the tears I’ve shed. The moisture that incubated this musty hope I sometimes feel as the wood creaks beneath me, eking out the sounds of burdened planks, urging us to move on, reminding us that we have outgrown it.

We didn’t outgrow it in the ways we predicted. We don’t find it too small because of scattered toys and bulky playpens; we’re crowded by what we had dreamed of, by what is no longer here.

We’ve never loved this house. It’s too old, too far away, too plain—we’ve always found complaints. I didn’t expect to feel sad about it.

It’s just a house, I thought. Just a place that contains our furniture and clothing, where we do laundry and have meals occasionally. A place that holds our stuff.

But this place contained us as we were transformed into a family, forced through a tragedy, and now it releases us like damp butterflies or snakes fresh from papery skin: not what we were when we entered.

In spite of our resistance, these walls became our home. I’m grateful for that.

July 10

I am now sitting in the tiniest room in this new house. What a relief.

I’m surrounded by boxes of things—books, towels, stationery, more books, computer parts, dresser drawers—and it’s a bit of a disaster. But it’s all here. We left the old house for the last time last night at about 10:00 P.M., and it was bittersweet in the truest sense: an almost equal mix of hopeful happiness and exhausted sadness.

Before we drove away with our cars packed to their brims with final odds and ends, we walked through it one last time. First, the bedroom. I turned the lights on for one last look, and he made a predictable remark about “lots of good memories in this room” (wink, wink). We both chuckled, admired the suede walls one final time, and then the room was dark.

Then to “Kitty’s Room” (aka: Guest Room, Treadmill Room, Project Room). When the lights came up we both said, “Kitty!!” just like we did several times a day for years anytime she would emerge from that room. I thought of her lounging in the sunspots on the floor and napping on her window perch. It made me smile, and then the room was dark.

When the lights came on in the “office-turned-nursery-turned-office-again,” neither of us said anything. I glanced at the built-in shelves and drawers and saw a flurry of tiny clothes and blankets. I thought about the crib, the furniture we returned, the cries we never learned to decipher, and the bright, smiling paint that lives underneath those somber khaki walls. I think of that turquoise and green as perfectly preserved, completed only weeks before it was covered over. We were still silent as I slowly turned away from the room, aware that I was closing a door on the briefest chapter thus far. He stood silently behind me, tired eyes quickly filling. No words were spoken as he wrapped his arms around me, sadness seeping from one to another, and such relief that these would be the last tears this house would have to absorb.

Then the room was dark.

And we drove away. Into a new chapter.


Author’s Note:

I’m humbled and grateful for you, dear readers, who have gone on this journey this month. Your many messages and comments and emails have reminded me how important it is for all of us to share our stories. A few notes for many of you who have asked: these events took place in Seattle in 2004. And yes, our family’s memorial of Wheeler’s life continues to evolve. We spend his birthday each year inflicting kindness on those around us… a treasured day that I have grown to love. You can read about those days here, here, and here. And finally, the journal this story has been excerpted from is available in its entirety. I have shared it with other bereaved mothers many times over the years. I am happy to send it to you – requests can be emailed to [email protected].

Thank you again for allowing me to share him with you all.


2 Responses to Our Firstborn: A Journal (Part Four)

  1. Erin October 23, 2017 at 7:51 pm #

    You are amazing. ❤️

    • Jennifer
      Jennifer October 24, 2017 at 9:12 pm #