19. Sometimes this is such a hard path to walk.

Being the mother of a dead baby is a really uncomfortable space to occupy in this world.

At the hospital, just before August was born, I asked my midwife, “If he’s born alive, should I try to nurse him?” She shook her head, No. Later, I felt foolish for having asked; what a stupid question. Except I don’t think it was stupid. How was I supposed to know what to do? I didn’t know what it meant to be the mother of a dead baby. I still don’t, though more and more lately, I have moments in which I think I have finally integrated it into who I am.

But then that sense of integration slips away again, replaced by the confusion and disorganization, the sense that my life has taken a turn I never could have imagined, and though it did happen, I still can’t imagine it. I lived through it, yet still can’t fathom that it was real.

The other night, I was out with some friends, and we ended up seeing an extremely dark, depressing movie. As I drove my friend home afterward, somehow we started talking about August and his birth. She started asking me questions — she wanted to know certain things about what had happened at his birth and how — and though we’ve talked about it plenty of times before, and despite the fact that I wanted to be open about it, I still felt very uncomfortable answering. Maybe I still have some shame about it all; I’m not sure. I do know I am committed to telling the truth about this event in our lives. I don’t want to add to the taboo surrounding the death of a baby or a child, because the truth is that it happens. Though the death of a child is most parents’ worst nightmare, it’s a reality. I want to be open about our son’s death, so that maybe someone else living through something similar will know they are not alone.

And yet, I still get so uncomfortable when people, especially strangers, ask questions that lead me to a more thorough, detailed account of what happened when we lost our son. I have been surprised again and again by the questions that strangers will ask. If it comes up — maybe someone asks whether I have children, or how many children I have — I tell the truth: I have a daughter who is 14 months old; I also have a son who died.

The next question is usually either, When did that happen? Or, How old was he when he died? I tell them he would be almost 3 years old, but he died unexpectedly at birth.

The next question, inevitably: Why did he die?

I still don’t know how to answer that one. Are they asking for the medical reason that he died? The physiological reason? The spiritual reason? Are they really asking why my husband and I apparently didn’t deserve to have a living child?

After August died and before I was pregnant with his little sister Pearl, he was my only child. I was his mother, yet people who didn’t know me couldn’t tell by looking at me that I was a mom. If they asked that seemingly innocuous question, Do you have any children? — then the whole conversation would begin.

I started thinking a lot about what kind of mother I wanted August to have. I knew I did not want him to have a mother who was always sad, angry or full of regret. I knew I did not want him to have a mother who lived only in the past. I knew I wanted him to have a mother who was strong and loving, a mother who continued to love him, others, and herself, despite the fact that he was not here anymore.

When I got pregnant with Pearl, I thought about that even more. What kind of mother did I want my children to have? Pearl was the child who was here, and I most definitely did not want her to have a mom who lived in the past or was consumed by grief. And yet I still wanted and needed to honor and connect with August, and to honor my own true feelings about his death.

It’s difficult these days to find the time and space in which to be authentic in my grief — meaning, to give myself over to it, fully and completely. This must be true for most people who have lost someone they loved. Time passes; life mostly resumes its (new) normal pace. If you have a job, children to care for, or other commitments, the time and privacy in which to sit alone and cry or wail or beat your fists into your pillows just don’t present themselves anymore. Your feelings aren’t so enormous anymore that they eclipse everything else; and so you learn to let regular life eclipse your inner feelings of loss and loneliness that continue.

For two-and-a-half years after August died, I attended a support group for bereaved parents. I joined the group three weeks after his birth, and I just quit at the end of this summer, when Pearl turned one year old. At my last group meeting, I felt very afraid that I was cutting off my last direct tie to August. Those twice-a-month meetings were the only time that I still devoted especially to him. If I quit going, I worried that nothing in my life would still be just for August — just for me to connect with my son.

This blog now serves that purpose. It’s the only space in which I connect with August in a direct, honest way. It’s uncomfortable, but I don’t want to stop.

I guess that means I’m still working on my old question: How you “move forward” from this kind of loss without letting go of the person you loved.

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18. Sometimes I see the value.

Recently it occurred to me very strongly: August’s death made me a member of the human race.

I spend a lot of time in my head. More than most other things, I think, I’m a thinker. Considering ideas; feeling my way through and around new theories; exploring my feelings and trying to root down to where they came from and why. These are the things that I do, pretty much constantly. Sometimes I drive my daughter, Pearl, around this city, and she babbles and plays in the back seat while I muse in the front seat, and then at some point I snort awake and think, “Oh! I haven’t said anything to Pearl this whole trip!” And I feel bad, and apologize to her: “I’m sorry, honey, I’m not ignoring you. I’ve just been…thinking.”

My point is that, of course, I have always been a member of the human race. But I live mostly in my head. I am a romantic and a storyteller, and I spend a lot of time telling myself stories about life, and trying to fit new layers, new experiences, into my grand, overarching story, my work-in-progress, my magnum opus: Being Human Here on Earth, Right Now.

Since August died, I have been so much more vulnerable to stories of others’ pain and loss. I am like a gigantic wound, one big raw nerve, a mass of pure emotion and empathy. People whose babies died kill me, of course, but it’s not just them; anyone feeling devastation and hopelessness makes me cry in commiseration.

I think I’m winding around what I’m trying to express because I’m not quite sure what, exactly, that is. It may be really simple. Let’s see:

Living within the pretty, strange and terrible stories inside my head sometimes distances me from life, truth, and what it really is to be human — which is ironic, since that concern (what it is to be human; what life is for, what it means, what we should do while we’re here, and why) is the central focus of my in-my-head musings.

August’s death made me more human because it put me really, firmly, in the same boat with everyone else. Where I already was, but didn’t know it. Now I do.

Sometimes I walk around filled with my own sadness, my own story of sadness: This is what happened to me. My son died and everything changed forever. I am a sadder person now, and I always will be. Sometimes I tell that story.

Just recently, though, I had the very quick follow-up realization that — wow — I’m not the only one. Most people are walking around carrying their own heavy story. Loss, depression, addiction, abuse; whatever it is, most of us are wounded. I’m not alone or unique in this in any way.

That is such a beautiful thing for me to realize, and it’s humbling. I’m glad to be here with the rest of you. Right where I’ve been all along, and just didn’t know it till now.

17. Sometimes the grief was like ocean waves.

At first, there wasn’t a moment that I didn’t feel as if I were drowning in it. Yanked under by its inexorable, deadly tow. Tossed in its churning waters, utterly at its whim and mercy.

Later, a few months I think, there were moments of calm, even humor. They were difficult because even a bit of laughter felt like a betrayal: I thought I was dishonoring my son, the gravity of his death, by feeling lighthearted. Plus, it was just so incongruous. Living in such misery made spots of normalcy, of fun, seem bizarrely out of place.

But those lighter moments were also made difficult by the cyclical pattern of grief. I don’t think I’m the only one who experiences it this way: It is like ocean waves. Maybe the sky is stormy and the sea is choppy and the waves come hard and fast, one after another, and you don’t get a chance to catch your breath before the next one whops you in the face and bowls you over. You are powerless, just a little bit of unimportant nothingness in the grip of this huge, powerful force, and all you can do is hope your instincts will kick in at the right time to help you grasp at something, anything that might help you stay alive.

Or maybe things are pretty calm, and the waves roll in slowly, not close together at all. Maybe they take their time, rippling along, gathering weight and force as they move in toward the shore. Maybe you’re standing just calf-deep in the water, relatively dry and stable, feeling contemplative as you gaze out to sea. But you still know that next wave is coming.

When I first started getting small breaks from my grief over losing August, they came just a few minutes at a time, and they were both a huge relief and also very scary. It felt so sharply good not to cry — not to want to throw up and die — which is how I felt just about every minute for the first three or so months after he died. But feeling released from the intensity of that sadness scared the shit out of me, too, because I knew the sadness was still right there, a monster just around the corner, and any second it would jump out and get me.

I remember talking about it in my support group, describing it as being rubber-banded back into the grief. The longer I go feeling good, I remember saying, the worse it is. It’s like stretching out a rubber band farther and farther; the farther you stretch it, the harder it snaps back. I’ll go a few hours feeling normal and good, and then suddenly I’m slammed right back into the awfulness of everything, and it’s almost worse than if I’d just stayed in the grief and not felt better at all.

It was horrible. Knowing that next wave was coming, whether it took a few minutes or hours or even weeks to arrive. Knowing that I was trying to claw my way upward out of a hole I’d never get out of, and sooner or later I was going to get smacked right back on my ass again.

It’s better now, of course. I guess you get used to it, and the waves aren’t nearly so huge after a while. But they still come. Every time.

In related news, a very sweet, very beloved baby boy passed away today. Holden Even Stephens was just ten weeks old. I got to meet him and love on him one time, and he was extra soft and delicious, like a warm little bird. Tonight I’m thinking of him and of August, and hoping there is a heaven so they can play up there together and figure out what the Other Side is all about.

I’m also thinking of Holden’s parents, and wishing I could take away all their sadness and pain… Except to do that would be to diminish their love for their son, and the impact of his sweet, short life on theirs. I have no idea why we have to go through this — such attachment to our children and the other people we love, and such devastation when they leave. But I do know the profoundness of loss is a mirror for the depth of love that we feel. And so I don’t really wish to take away Holden’s parents’ grief. It’s a direct measure of how much they love that sweet soul.

16. Sometimes I felt so fucked.

When August died, I remember feeling wild, crazed, indignant: This kind of shit didn’t happen to anyone else; just to us. Why did it happen to us?? Why did everyone but me get to keep their babies? Why was I the one who turned out to be so fucked?

Of course, that wasn’t true, both fortunately (for self-absorbed, myopic ol’ me) and unfortunately (for everyone else). Babies do die. August is not the only one. I have a new friend whose month-old baby has been in the NICU his whole life and is likely going to die, perhaps sometime soon. This kills me: the inert feeling of wanting to help, to fix it, and being unable to. The feeling of knowing what she, his mother, is about to go through, and how awful-horrible-mind-blowingly-insanely-world-shatteringly-devastating it’s going to be. And not being able to head it off. Ha! I’m not god. Not a saint or a miracle worker. Too bad. If I were, I would save all the babies. Not in a right-to-life kind of way; in a healing-mamas’-broken-hearts kind of way. I would heal all the babies whose bodies weren’t designed to live outside their mamas’ wombs. I would enable clocks to turn backward, just enough to change that one little event in time, that accident, that fumble, that brief interruption in an otherwise watchful gaze — whatever it was that allowed that baby to slip out of this world and forever away.

My advice to my friend this evening was ridiculous: Don’t go to IKEA. Everyone there is pregnant or has a chubby-cheeked little toddler with glossy, curly hair and graham cracker crumbs around a sweet little rosebud mouth — or they have both the toddler and the rounded belly of pregnancy. And they’re so smug about it! They wear the self-satisfied smiles of people whose present and future are assured: evening comedy shows on TV, juice boxes and Cheerios in little plastic bowls, child-sized pajamas printed with ducks in the laundry bin, kisses at bedtime. They get to keep their babies.

If you go to IKEA, or for a walk around the lake, where new mothers push their little ones in jogging strollers as they try to melt away the pregnancy fat, you will develop the incorrect perception that everyone in the world gets to keep their babies but you. I used to sob and rail at E about it — How could this have happened? — my hands open and upturned, empty, beseeching — How could things have gone this wrong for us? E, grim-faced, would shrug. “We won the shitty lottery,” he would say. I knew there was nothing more to say, and I hated that. There was no good answer. We were all alone in the horror of it. No one we knew had ever gone through anything like what we were going through.

Except now we know several people who have gone through it, or something similar. And we’re all fucked.

I have attended a support group for bereaved parents since three weeks after August died. I look at the other women and men in the group and they seem beautiful to me, full of love and grace, and somehow, in a way I absolutely can’t explain, even lucky. I have never looked at them as if they’re fucked. And yet, me? Fucked. Utterly.

Except… It doesn’t seem quite so much that way anymore. I got over my maybe-I’m-not-a-mom complex a while back. I feel very, very lucky that we got to have a second child. Sometimes I lie down on our bed and nurse her into a nap, and shiver at how lucky I am: Here is this big, chunky baby lying next to me. I get to feel and smell her skin. She is ours and she is beautiful. So, so lucky.

I hope my friend feels lucky again someday, too. I hope that with all my heart.

15. Sometimes I feel spiritually bereft.

I have done so much reading since August died about the experience of losing a child, and one of the most interesting topics for me has been the spiritual side of this experience, if there is one.

I am not religious and never have been. Always, my spirituality was something very private and very much my own, wrought from a jumble of things that were both precious to me and difficult to put into words: bits of poetry and philosophy that spoke to me; heart-swelling, meditative moments experienced beneath starry skies; hours-long, late-night talks with my best friends that made me feel as if we were tapping into something enormous and profound…even, yes, things I “figured out” while taking mind-altering substances. I filed these feelings and perceptions away, mixed them together, and sensed in them some kind of beautiful truth. And always, these perceptions were positive. I felt spiritually connected to the universe. I believed that what many other people called God was actually, simply, love. I felt able to tune in to that current of love and be filled with and healed by it. I believed we were all connected — humans, animals, plants, water, the earth. All connected by love, and empowered by each other. I believed in possibility. I was truly agnostic: All I knew was that I didn’t know, and I was open to anything. I believed deeply and gladly in that quote from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

When August died, a harsh and sudden change happened within me: I no longer trusted my instincts. Always, I had operated largely on strong gut feelings that steered me truly. I relied on them. After August died, that sense of inner truth and knowing was just…gone. It got twisted and fucked up when this thing happened that was so against everything I had ever wanted or expected.

My spirituality was gone along with my instincts, all in a second. I felt betrayed by what I had previously understood to be a benevolent universe, and that shut off any sense of belief, or faith, or openness. In essence, I was suddenly unable to perceive anything except my own, direct experience — those things I could see, touch, hear, feel. And I resoundingly, gapingly, did not sense August.

I read about people who sensed their dead, beloved children just “beyond the veil.” About people who contacted their dead children in dreams or through psychic mediums. People who saw the same bird on their morning walks every day and believed that bird embodied the soul of their departed child. People who were comforted by these perceptions, since they meant their children were, in some way or form, still around.

Since August died, I’ve never sensed his presence in any way. I’ve never had a message from him in a dream or a psychic reading. Even my atheist friend once said she felt he was nearby somewhere, and that he was glad I had friends around to help me through this. I felt jealous that my friend could sense this. All I could sense was that he was Gone, with a capital G. No trace of him left behind; no aura, no spiritual residue, no message from beyond the veil. Everything that August ever was was simply gone.

Over two years later, I’m still wishing and searching for contact with him. (Will I ever stop wishing for that? Probably not.) I feel angry that he hasn’t visited me in a dream or a psychic vision. I feel jealous of other people who seem to have psychic or spiritual experiences that I just don’t have. I want those experiences, too! I want to know that August is still around, somehow.

I used to think our souls couldn’t disappear when our bodies broke down — they must transmute, like energy, into a different form, maybe into the collective unconscious, maybe into another body-as-vessel. But where did August’s soul go when his body died? It didn’t go anyplace where I’ve been able to find it. And that pisses me the fuck off. I wish he would send me a message. It could be really short and simple: “Hey, Mom. I know you loved me and wanted me. Sorry I couldn’t stay.” That would be plenty; that would be, oh, so much.

But instead I get nothing. No contact from the Other Side; no shivery, meaningful moments of sensing that my departed son is somehow still with us. I’m like the guy in my favorite Buzzcocks song:

What do I get? No love.
What do I get? No sleep at night.
What do I get? Nothing that’s nice.
What do I get? Nothing at all, at all, at all, at all…
Because I don’t get you.

14. Sometimes my brain didn’t work right.

Two days after August was born, we had to drive to the funeral home to make arrangements for his cremation. It was a chilly, rainy morning. E drove, slowly and carefully, while I lay back in the passenger seat with the back of the seat reclined. I wasn’t supposed to be up and walking around yet.

At the funeral home we sat on small upholstered chairs across a large, dark desk from a man who looked at us sympathetically as he asked us questions in a gentle voice. We answered as well as we could.

At one point, the man said something, I don’t remember what, but something that made me think August’s body was there, in the building somewhere. I sat up straighter.

“You mean, he’s here?” I asked. My heart had started to pound. I felt more alert than I’d felt in days. “Can I…” My words trailed off. I wanted it so badly I couldn’t ask.

The man paused and looked at me; his eyes widened slightly. He seemed to be searching for words. Looking back, I realize he must have understood that I was a crazy woman — the mother of a dead baby — and I craved seeing that baby again. Whatever he had said that made me think August was somewhere nearby had set off that craving.

Which meant the man had to backpedal, make up an excuse, put me off. You see, in the moment, I wasn’t thinking about anything beyond wanting to see my baby boy one more time. Hold him again. Touch his soft, chubby cheeks again, hold his little hand and feel his tiny fingers in mine again. Just once more.

I wasn’t thinking about what state his body would be in, two days after he had died. I wasn’t considering the fact that we had donated his body to the Blood and Tissue Center, and they had long since removed his heart valves and his corneas and I don’t know what else.

Later, realizing my mistake, I felt ashamed. What a huge oversight! Even if August were there, even if the man had brought him to me, of course I wouldn’t have wanted to see him like that. What had I been thinking?

But I was only thinking of how much I wanted him back. That’s all. For months and months and months, that was all I could think of.

The man at the funeral home stammered some excuse about, “Oh, I don’t mean he’s here — he’s actually at our other facility, awaiting cremation.”

I slumped a bit and sat back in my chair, dejected. “Oh. Okay.” I wouldn’t be seeing him once more after all.

Later that moment of wild hope — he’s here? Can I see him once more, just for a minute, I’ll make it quick, please please please?? — seemed so ridiculous. And yet, what mother wouldn’t have felt that way? To have a child who dies is to want something every minute of every day that you can never, ever have again. No matter who you ask, how hard you beg, how craftily you bargain, the answer is always, and will always be, No.

13. Sometimes I figure out a way to honor August that feels good.

So, I wrote an essay about August and Pearl; actually, it’s pieced together from posts on this blog. And I submitted it to this show called Listen to Your Mother that is performed annually in 10 cities across the country, including Austin. And I ended up being cast as one of fifteen writers who will read our pieces in this year’s show! Wow — I’m so proud!!

I’ve been feeling like a writer again, and it feels great. Articles, essays, site content for my former (and once again current) employer…it feels so good to focus once again in the way that writing requires, to consider words and their nuanced meanings, to try hard to get at the exact truth and to determine how to express that truth. I feel like I’m flexing muscles in my brain that I haven’t used in years.

And it feels so good to honor August in this way. To keep him alive in some sense. To keep talking about him; to keep telling the world that he was here, that he mattered, that he is missed.

After my audition for the Listen to Your Mother show, Wendi Aarons asked me how it felt to read my essay aloud. It’s a sad piece; I almost teared up a few times as I read the words. I felt uncomfortable reading it, though I knew Wendi and her associate, Liz McGuire, were already familiar with the piece. I guess it seemed too sad to read aloud. And yet — as I told Wendi — reading it aloud felt good, because I am always looking for ways to honor August that feel right. Cupcakes each year on his birthday, shared with my husband and my friends who were with us at August’s birth — that feels as close to right as I can get. Attending support group meetings to share this loss with other bereaved parents — that has felt right for more than two years now. Talking about August whenever he comes up, despite how uncomfortable I sometimes feel doing so, also feels right. And now it feels right, and so great!, that I get to take part in the LTYM show and read this piece aloud to an audience of potentially 300 people.

Oh, I expect my piece will make us all sad. But then the next writer will take the stage and read her piece, and maybe that one will be a funny one, or a heartwarming one, and it’ll take some of the ache away. After all, my experience of motherhood as August’s mom — it counts, too. And I’m not alone in this experience…which is very, very unfortunate, but also quite fortunate in a different way.

Eh. It’s late and I’m blathering. But I wanted to post about this good thing that happened, since it makes me feel so good, and feel closer to my sweet boy August.

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