Recovering from Loss
Struggling with grief, a mother whose baby died at birth was led to a whole new life of creativity and purpose.
June 11, 1970: John’s brief life and death changed everything. The myth of motherhood that I had chosen, or perhaps that had chosen me, was short-circuited. Each day diminished itself with what was missing. I sometimes thought I heard the faraway cry of a baby. If not the mother of John, this child I enfolded into my dreams and with whom I envisioned my family’s future, then who was I? There would be no more babies. I knew this from the moment I learned that my child was dead. Emotionally, I did not have the courage to carry another child inside me for nine months, to grow to love that child the way I grew to love John, knowing that the same fate could befall another pregnancy. What was I going to do with the rest of my life?
Summer was a blur. I was a mother on automatic pilot, navigating bruised knees and bologna sandwiches and the backyard sprinkler. It took enormous energy each day to quell the tears banked behind the dam of my eyes. The God of the hospital gurney had evaporated. I didn’t want Robert, Kathleen, or Dennis to see me sad. I stuffed tissues inside my bra to absorb the milk that continued to gush from my stone breasts in spurts of longing whenever I thought of my dead child. Building a fortress around my grief, I pushed on. Women with infants asleep in the baskets of their grocery carts evoked a jealousy so intense that I turned away from them. I envied my friend Ginny even as she wept beside the crib of her son who was born with Down syndrome.
I said, “I’ll trade places with you.”
Boxes of baby clothes I had saved were sealed, put out in front of the house, and picked up by the Salvation Army.
The door to the future snapped shut.
I doted on Robert, Kathleen, and Dennis. I became obsessed with their health, afraid that I would lose them, too. I didn’t want to let them out of my sight. I tormented them with endless questions about their health. I developed sneaky ways of feeling their foreheads for fever by kissing them or casually brushing back their hair. But they were on to me. One night as I imposed my check-up on Robert while he lay in bed, he turned his head abruptly and said, “Leave me alone.” As he moved away, my hand slipped and my fingernail ripped into his eye. My neurosis about his well-being ironically led to a regime of antibiotics, pain, an eye patch, and a scar that would flare once again into infection years later, when he was away at college.