4. Sometimes I think, on some level, I knew he was going to die.

There is the journal entry from November 2009, for example, written sitting cross-legged on the floor in the baby’s room, when I was 7 months pregnant. I had turned on the sweet little lights we had set up, one each in three of four corners; they cast a warm, dim glow that I thought wouldn’t be too jarring for the baby if I had to turn on a lamp in the middle of the night.

That November evening, I sat in the baby’s room, crying so hard and simultaneously laughing at myself for it. “I miss you so much,” I wrote in my journal, the one I had kept throughout my pregnancy, recording all the moments and sensations that I didn’t want to forget — my hilariously excessive appetite one night that was my first signal that maybe I was pregnant (somehow I consumed a half-pound of shrimp cocktail as an appetizer, followed by three tilapia fillets, two servings of potatoes, which I normally hate, a pile of greens, six chocolate-chip cookies and a slice of cheesecake; “OK,” I remember thinking, “I’m a pretty good eater, but something is going on here”); the first symptoms I experienced; the first time, at sixteen weeks pregnant, that I concentrated really hard and felt the baby’s tiny movements, deep inside me. “But how can I miss you when you’re right here?” I wrote that night. “In two months, you’ll be in my arms. I’ll be able to look at you and wonder at how incredible you are.”

Well, I did get to do that, for a few hours, anyway.

The feeling I had that night in the baby’s room was definitely one of grief, of missing someone who wasn’t there, or wouldn’t be for long. At the time I just thought it was strange, odd enough to write about in my journal. Now I wonder if it was some sort of deep intuition, an unconscious knowledge of my own body, which included my baby’s body: knowledge that the baby wasn’t okay and would not be sticking around.

I also wonder about my lifelong propensity for that soul-deep feeling of loss, which I could always access pretty easily, long before I ever experienced any great loss in real life. Growing up, any novel or movie about a character losing a loved one sent me into awful, shoulder-shaking, snot-dripping sobs. In Rilla of Ingleside, the last book of the Anne of Green Gables series, Rilla — Anne’s youngest daughter — loses her favorite brother, Walter, when he dies fighting in France during World War I. Rilla’s despair hurt me even more deeply than Anne’s (well, it was Rilla’s story, after all). I wept over that book many times, rereading those scenes again and again and feeling just too much deep, painful empathy for Rilla and her loss.

Another example from four or five years ago: that silly movie P.S. I Love You. I saw it in the theater and embarrassed myself by starting to weep about five minutes in and being unable to stop throughout the movie or even after it ended. I was still shuddering and snorting and wiping my nose as we headed back out to the parking lot, all because Hillary Swank’s character had to say goodbye to her dashing charmer of a husband who had some terminal illness and was destined to die.

Sometimes, before August ever came along, I would consider the possibility of reincarnation and past lives. Maybe, I occasionally thought, in a past life, I had had a lover or a close family member who died. Why else would that particular story line affect me so deeply, when I hadn’t lived through anything remotely similar in my own life?

These days, since August died, I wonder more whether those long-ago moments of grief and deep empathy, experienced while watching a film or reading a book, were not flashbacks to another life, but flash-forwards to my own life — premonitory emotions, shadows of the enormous, crushing heartbreak I would feel when my son died.


3. Sometimes I thought maybe he wasn’t a real baby.

That is tough to admit, to write, but it’s true. In certain moments, I really had that thought — a mad, hysterical notion that August didn’t count, he wasn’t real, and all my sadness was ridiculous, laughable even.

For a long time, there was a strong sense of unreality to the whole experience of losing him. It started the moment we got to the hospital and the nurses began grimly, efficiently rushing around me, sticking things into me, shaving me, prepping for the C-section that would not end up happening because it wasn’t needed. They perform emergency C-sections to save babies in peril. They don’t perform them for babies deemed “incompatible with life,” as August was — babies with no chance of survival.

In the weeks and months that followed August’s death, I felt like a crazy person. I regularly had PTSD-like flashbacks of all those horrendous moments — my midwife barking orders to her apprentices when she decided to transport me to the hospital; my pissed-off, confused question — “The hospital? What are they going to do for me there?” — and her bright, loud, almost sing-song response: “They’re probably going to section you, honey!” A Cesarian section — the thing I had most wanted to avoid. (Since I hadn’t considered my baby’s death as a possibility, that wasn’t on the list of Things To Avoid If Possible.) More horrendous moments: The one when the doctor was saying something to me as I lay on the gurney, frowning and squinting up into the fluorescent lights, and then the midwife leaned over me, took my hands into hers, pressed them and looked hard at me as she said, “Sweetheart, do you understand what they’re telling you?” I frowned harder and searched for understanding. “Yes. They’re saying…there’s something wrong with the baby. They’re saying the baby is going to die.” Her eyes shiny with tears. The doctor looking grim and gray-faced. My own emotional disconnectedness, which set in abruptly with the knowledge that the baby was not going to live, and did not lift until he was lying on my chest, warm and beautiful and dead. All the horrible, unimaginable moments replayed again and again in my mind, shocking me freshly each time.

I was plagued by recurring thoughts, and one of them really made me feel insane: “Maybe August wasn’t a real baby.” I think it was a trick my mind played on me in hopes of escaping the anguish: “He had a birth defect…he wasn’t a real human being…why am I so sad? There’s nothing to be sad about!” This thought kept coming back to me.

On a logical level, I knew very well that it was incorrect, and knowing that made the thought even more twisted and surreal. Of course August was a real human being, a real baby. What was my grief-stricken brain trying to reduce him to — nothing more than an aberration, a mistake, an “oopsy” on the road of my and E’s lives? What a sickening insult to him. I felt awful about it, and took to reminding myself whenever needed: He was our son, and he had died.

But as hard as I tried, for a long time I just couldn’t absorb it. And so, sometimes, my brain rejected it, and him, as fantasy.

I was so glad, several months later, when those thoughts stopped coming — when I finally, fully accepted that August had been real, he had been here and ours, and he had died.

Well — I’m still working on accepting that last part. I still don’t understand how to accept a truth that seems so utterly wrong, alien and unwanted.

2. Sometimes the horror engulfs me all over again.

The other night, a friend was talking about the room where her son lived before he died. Listening to her transported me right back to the morning after August died, when we came home from the hospital without him. That was the worst feeling…the worst I can imagine or try to describe.

It was Monday, January 11, a sunny, crisp, chilly day. I had been in labor all day, walking around the house and neighborhood, napping sometimes, watching movies and hanging out with my friends. We were doing a home birth, and our midwife and her apprentices had come over mid-morning; so had my three dear girlfriends. But early in the evening, when I was about 8 centimeters dilated, the baby’s heart rate started to drop for no apparent reason. We rushed out to my midwife’s car and drove quickly to the hospital, where everything just started going crazy. (That’s another story for another post.)

August was born late that night, and termed a “fresh stillbirth” since he had died sometime while I pushed him out. We got to keep him with us for several hours, but not for long; we had decided to donate his body to the Blood and Tissue Center, so they had to come take him away within a certain, small number of hours of when he died. We only got to hold him until about seven in the morning. During that time there was one interruption after another — nurses checking on my status, phone calls, a forty-five-minute interview with people from the donation center to make sure August and I were both “good candidates” — meaning, that he would be a healthy donor. Our hospital room was dim, and at one point between disruptions, E and I both tried to get a little sleep, me with August wrapped in his blue knitted blanket and propped up next to me.

All we wanted to do was to go home. Having to stay there in the hospital for hours on end seemed like one more injustice on top of a mountain of them. The doctor finally released us at ten in the morning, and my best friend picked me up. It was so sunny; I remember her black car gleaming as she pulled up next to the bench where we sat huddled, waiting. When she got out of the car she burst out crying, and we held each other and sobbed. It was the most awful thing — all the excitement and anticipation ending in having to come home without our baby.

The worst part was when we got back to our cold, dim house. It was chilly outside and cool inside, and the blinds were drawn, and the dogs were quiet, padding softly around our feet, nervously flicking the ends of their tails as they looked up at us, wondering what had happened. I went into our bedroom, which was, and still is, my favorite room in the house. The midwives had made up the bed for us — fresh sheets, our big down comforter, absorbent pads beneath the bottom sheet in case my lochia flow was especially heavy. I had slept only about an hour out of the past thirty.

As I walked into the bedroom and slid in between the cool, clean sheets, the feeling I had was so strange — a surreal mingling of immense relief and shocking, soul-shattering grief. August was supposed to be here with us. I was supposed to be lying in this bed with him, holding him and nursing him, marveling at his sweet, perfect body. Instead I was trying to wrap my brain around an unbelievable truth: He had died; he was gone; I would never, ever see him again in my whole life.

1. Sometimes I can’t believe how much time has passed.

The southeast corner of August's garden. Some of his ashes are buried at the roots of the Eve's Necklace tree.

A year ago today, on a cloudy-bright, warm, early April Saturday in 2010, fifty-two of our friends and family came to our house to help us build a memorial garden for our son, August. It was an all-day thing with barbecue and beer, sweat and laughter, and of course tears as well. Together, we transformed a shamefully neglected, waist-high, fence-to-fence crop of weeds that was a poor excuse for a back yard into an elegant, intimate, sweet garden with mulched beds and crushed granite paths. All the plants we put in were drought-tolerant and freeze-resistant, and many were Texas natives. We spread a bit of August’s ashes at the base of two new trees — a sweet, lacy Eve’s Necklace in the southeast corner and a Mountain Laurel, cousin to Eve’s Necklace, in the northwest bed.

Before burying the first spoonful of ashes, I tried to think of a few meaningful words to say, but everyone was looking at me, grimacing and frowning in their effort to — what? not cry? wrap their, our, minds around this awful, unfair thing that had happened? Tears were choking me, words weren’t coming, and finally I fumbled out something or other that I can’t remember now. I think it was okay. I wasn’t the only confused, tongue-tied one; none of us knew what to say. August’s birth, on January 12, 2010, was the best thing that had ever happened to us. His death, the same night, was the very, very worst — the unimaginable worst.

I intend to tell our story of the past fifteen months and counting since August died. After he died, I searched the Internet for stories of other parents with children with the same problem, but encephaloceles are so very rare — one in 5,000 to 10,000 births. I didn’t find much. I hope that writing our story might help someone else who needs connection and information like I did.

Although I fervently hope that no one else ever needs this type of information. I hope and wish no one else ever has another baby who dies from an encephalocele. I send that wish up to the stars, though I know they are as cold and dispassionate as the Great Void.

With love to sweet August,
August’s mama