Today I'm going to do something I haven't done before. I'm going to review a book. You see, I've recently read something that I so vigorously devoured that it has to be shared here. It's a memoir called An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken. The tagline reads: "This is the happiest story in the world with the saddest ending." And it recounts her journey through the stillbirth of her son and subsequent pregnancy that followed soon after (basically along the same timeline as mine).
In terms of a review I just plan to say it's so worth the read. And not just for people who have lost a child. Or for people who have lost anyone at all. It's just a good read. It's so insightful and raw and real. She tells a beautiful story (though I wish it wasn't true), and it was one I nodded along with, at times actually saying out loud: "Yes! Absolutely, yes!" At times crying (okay, sobbing -- like put the book down and cry for a little while sobbing). And at times even laughing. Out loud. With a few tears streaming down my face. Because the reality is, this shit is sad. But the pregnancies, the crap you deal with after, in hindsight, can have these gloriously sad laughable moments.
Mostly, I want to write about a few (a lot) of the quotes that stood out to me and provide a commentary for how it made me shout out "THANK YOU FOR GETTING ME" as I read. (Spoiler alert: Her second child is a boy, too, who she gets to bring home this time -- But she spoils this in the first 6 pages, so I don't feel guilty spoiling that here).
"Every day as I love this baby in my lap, I think of my other baby. Poor older brother, poor missing one... The love for the first magnifies the love for the second, and vice versa" (7).
Sometimes I worry I detach myself a little from this baby. Only to snap myself out of it and give him a rub. Sing him a song. Read him a book. Say good morning. I don't mean to, but it happens. And it's so refreshing to read about how for McCracken, the love she has for one doesn't diminish the love for the other, even though he's gone. I think that may be my fear. That this new baby is supposed to "replace" Ryan. But I know in my heart that'll never happen. And it was good to read that in practice it doesn't have to be that way either.
"I'm not ready for my first child to fade into history" (15).
I suppose this ties into my last point. I know in my heart Ryan is irreplaceable. And I can only hope it's that way for people on the outside of myself. Which is why I suppose it doesn't sit right with me to say "Yes, this is my first" when asked. Because he's not. He'll be my first lots of things hopefully. But he'll never be my first baby.
"No more talk of angels. I can't stand the tendency to speak of dead children as such. I do not want him elevated to angel. I do not want him demoted to neverness. He was a person, that's all" (32).
The word "angel" as a term of endearment is forever ruined for me. No child of mine will ever be affectionately called "angel." You'll never hear me utter: "Good night sweet angel" as I lay my baby to sleep. I don't think I've ever said that Ryan is an angel now, or that he was born an angel. I don't ascribe to "My son has wings." And I don't begrudge or judge the people who do. But I can't think of my son as anything less than the sweet baby he was. I don't want him to be anything else. So perhaps this is a gentle early warning... but should the time come that this new baby comes home with me, and I get to post a plethora of photos of him every single day, please never say: "He's such an angel." Because I likely will correct you about it.
"I can't remember how long we'd know that [he] was dead before we declared that we would have another child, or which one of us first said it... It was like believing in the future instead of in the place we were at that moment" (40-41).
I'm not sure I've ever said it here, but we had this conversation within two weeks of losing Ryan. I'm not sure now how that makes me feel, but I'm sure it's something along the lines of how McCracken describes it. We were ready to start our family. I didn't know what else to do but to continue to try. And by trying we weren't denying Ryan's existence, but instead looking to the future. I remember this day, this conversation, so vividly. At the dining table, head bent over food I still could barely eat. Tears on my cheeks. We've come so far from that day.
"Every day of my second pregnancy I thought of [him], of course. But I tried not to think of the exact circumstances of his death... If I remember, I will walk to the nearest hospital and ask for a nice bed in the psychiatric wing... just keep me, nurse, for a few months" (56).
This was one of those "Yes! Absolutely yes!" moments. I'm hyper-aware of this new little one. I find myself reclining in staff meetings or in the car, my hands on my belly, feeling for the slightest movements. And he doesn't always oblige me. Which just means I have to sit longer... This is pregnancy after loss.
"Sometimes, when I think back on those days I forget that I wasn't just a woman who had lost a child, I had given birth to one, too, and was recovering" (67).
This one actually made me grimace a little because it is so true. A regular postpartum woman gets in her car after her partner has carefully loaded all the bags and baby in a carrier into the car. She goes home. Gets settled -- which I imagine involves plenty of couch time for nursing and healing your bits which have really been assaulted by the whole process. It's not that way for those who have lost. At least it wasn't for me. Two days full of visits to the funeral home and cemetery and picking out flowers for his memorial because I just didn't trust anyone else to do it right. Then the memorial itself. We wanted to lay him to rest right away. It was nearly a week before I could "relax," but even then, such little relaxing took place. To relax meant to sit at home without a baby to care for, and no one wanted to be dealing with that sad reality. So we tried to keep busy....
"After most deaths, I imagine, the awfulness lies in how everything's changed: you no longer recognize the form of your days... For us what was killing us was how nothing had changed. We'd been waiting to be transformed, and now, here we were, back in our old life" (97).
This is still true for me some days. The days when life seems to continue on as normal and I can't help but think: "If he had gotten to stay, here's how today would be different." Rich and I for a short time before Ryan arrived mourned the loss of our "old lives" as a childless couple. And now, we mourn our "new lives" as a childless couple. (Though not really childless -- but you get what I mean). Life went right back to "normal" and that was the shittiest.
"No, I insist: other people's children did not make me sad. But pregnant women did... I have nothing in common with you, I thought. That shows I had already forgotten the one lesson I'd vowed to learn: you can never guess at the complicated history of strangers" (111).
I still struggle with this one. I assume all pregnant women I see are blissfully traversing their pregnancies without any real idea (informed by true experience) of the horrors that can happen. And I'm probably wrong 25% of the time. At least that's what the statistics say. And I want to be better at not envying every pregnant woman of her harmonious pregnancy. Because you never know. Someone could be looking at me in envy. (HA! Imagine...)
"Once you've been on the losing side of great odds, you never find statistics comforting again" (115).
I've discussed my feelings on pregnancy stats before so I won't get into it again here. But I was struck by her eloquence with this line so I included it. It was another head nodding moment.
"I can't wrap my brain around losing a child and learning only then whether you'd lost a son or daughter..." (118).
She goes on to keep the sex of her baby a secret until delivery -- a decision she calls an "odd form of optimism." Which is an interesting way of looking at it. But as I've said before, I needed to know because I need to know my baby NOW. As much as I can. And her quote here is exactly how I feel.
"Twice now I have heard the story of someone who knows someone who's had a stillborn child since [he] has died, and it's all I can do not to book a flight immediately, to show up somewhere I'm not wanted, just so that I can say: It happened to me, too, because it meant so much to me to hear it. It happened to me, too, meant: It's not your fault. And: You are not a freak of nature. And: This does not have to be a secret" (136).
This is everything I've ever said about the community of women I've found since losing Ryan. It's not misery loving company. It's mutual understanding and freedom of isolation. Any chance I get to shout out how much I love my fellow loss-moms I will!
"The worst thing in the world had already happened. He was dead. Everything else was easy" (155).
I was sitting on the end of the hospital bed after an ultrasound that confirmed Ryan had no heartbeat when I looked at Rich and said: "I have to deliver him now." I was calm when I said it. I remember so clearly like I wasn't quite in my body anymore, but watching it happen. He was horrified. And in a sort of disbelief that there wasn't another way. But of course there wasn't. He was a fully developed, full-term baby. You deliver babies. And aside from one point in the labour process where I remember crying that I couldn't do it -- not the actual labour, but the delivery of my dead son -- I wasn't afraid. It's true that the worst thing HAD already happened. He had died. The rest seemed and was pretty normal. Almost.
"I asked [my friend] to call my [other] friend Wendy and to split the calls to my other friends between them. I read aloud telephone numbers. Why am I finding this harder to write about than anything?" (165).
McCracken's brief interruption where she asks the reader (or herself) this question struck me because I had two answers for her (since I was crying as I read it):
1. It's a reflection of the beauty of some of the friendships that grow from the profound loss. I know I had a few in particular that deepened their depths and cemented our friendship forever;
and 2. It's an example of one of the robotic and mechanical duties that had to be done much too soon after dealing with an unspeakable loss. Why can't we just crawl into a hole for a few months to cope with the feelings instead of having to take care of business? Because if we didn't, phone calls, emails, messages, would pour in asking if our babies have arrived yet. That's why.
So I guess you can see how incredibly impactful this little memoir was for me. Basically, I strongly recommend it. You'll probably giggle when she talks about the Dwarfs of Grief. And you'll probably shout "Yes!" when she brainstorms her idea for business cards that read "My first child was stillborn." But mostly you'll feel like you have a friend who "gets it." Or if you haven't been in her (our) shoes, you might walk away understanding us a little bit better.
In a lot of ways now I am someone I never thought I'd be. Insert cliche: Life isn't always what you expect it to be. And as a result life changes you. It makes you different. It makes you better. It makes you worse. It makes you a lot of things. I'm focusing tonight on one small aspect of the changes that have been my life.
I'm not entirely sure how it happened, but in the week following Ryan's death I stumbled into the vast online community of babyloss. I guess the rest is history. But to say that would be skipping a few vital moments.
I saw Facebook pages and Instagram feeds of these mothers who lost their babies and I didn't have to look hard to know their stories. Their words, images, the things they shared... it all spoke to the intense loss. Pages full of their dead children. That's how I saw it at the time. It was morbid. I sobbed. I think it was to my sister that I said: "I don't want to be like them. I don't want my whole life to be about his death."
And now look at me. Except, with 9 months perspective, I see it differently. Those pages weren't about death and loss. They were simply about love. A mother's love for her child. My sharing, photos, quotes... they're not about wallowing in Ryan's death. They're celebrating my love for him. In the same way a new mom shares her son's first steps, or that her baby girl slept through the night.
Maybe I could have kept silent on my social media and grieved in a different, more private way. And maybe I'd still be in the place I am today. But I really think my ability to share my son so openly and with such warm and compassionate reception from old friends and new friends has helped me make major strides in my journey.
Just today, a PAL Support group on Instagram contacted me and asked if they could repost one of my messages, and I very nearly said no. And then quickly changed my mind. Of course they could repost it. If I can help one person, the way so many other mamas have helped me this past 9 months, then yes. Share it!
I never thought I'd be where I am today. In a lot of ways. And I'm still prone to my moments. Those times I curl up and have a cry. But then I remember I'm not alone in this. I'm not as isolated as I sometimes feel. And this online community has given me that. The other mothers who so openly share their love, their joys, their pain.
It's incredible to me how this thing that I was once so afraid of becoming has quickly become my lifeline.
Last week, after months of speculation, we found out that Ryan is getting a baby brother.
Though Rich had hoped for a surprise this time, I knew that would be a very hard thing for me this time around. And, supporting and loving and gracious man that he is, he jumped on board for me to spoil the surprise.
With Ryan, I "needed" to know for my Type-A personality planning purposes. I wanted a very specific nursery design for boy or girl and I wanted to get started right away. I wanted to shop, and white, yellow, and green just weren't going to cut it.
This time was different.
My need to know, wasn't from a place of planning -- though yes, that was part of it. (That bit of my personality did not go missing when Ryan went missing from me).
This time, I needed to know because I have this intense desire to know everything about this baby that I can possibly know. It comes from this place of fear that this is the only time we'll get together. I know I've only been pregnant one other time, but in my experience, that's as far as I have gotten with my babies. All I know, is the time we get before we're supposed to get a lifetime together. This pregnancy is everything to me. And I feel the need to make the most of our time together.
And, as I expected, there are a lot of feelings that come with finding out this baby's sex. My initial reaction was relief. Relief that something like an X chromosome wouldn't be sending me home to pack up Ryan's things. I knew I didn't care one way or the other, as long as he was healthy. I know so many parents say that, but I know that YOU know I mean it. I didn't realize until we saw his cute little boy bits on the screen (we won't tell him I called them that), that I would feel relieved at the sight of them. But sure enough, when Rich asked me how I felt, I heaved a big sigh. Not that a girl would have been less precious to me. My heart melts at the thought of Rich and a little girl. (I even had a beautiful nursery planned that incorporated bits of Ryan's nursery decor -- Surprise, surprise). But as it turns out, I still wasn't ready to face the idea of boxing up Ryan's clothes and baseball things.
This little guy inside me has already given us so much joy, and now he seems to have saved me from facing a very scary milestone, at least for now.
And although I don't think I'll ever stop wishing that they could have had the chance to grow up together. Play sports together. Wrestle like boys. Race their bikes home before it gets too dark and mom gets mad. Experience all of those brotherly moments together. I hope they'll have a different kind of special relationship. Where baby brother never feels alone because he knows his big brother, Ryan, is always looking over him.
I always thought I'd be blessed with my own little troupe of boys.
It's different. But I never realized how blessed I would be.
I'm totally in love with my boys.
Recently I've noticed I say the word "hope" a lot.
I was at yoga tonight and our instructor had us place our hands on our bellies to make an intention or prayer for our babies. I always say something to the effect of:
"I hope you're okay in there."
It sounds pretty weak when I see it written like that. But in my heart it holds so much power. It's as powerful an intention as "Grow strong and healthy" or "Feel the strength of my love for you." All wonderful intentions I probably should be putting out there for my little one. But no. All I can manage is: "I hope you're okay in there."
And I do it all the time. I have a few friends due around the same time as me. And I always say "I hope we'll have our maternity leaves together." Or "I hope our babies get to meet."
One year ago I was all: "I'm going to do this on my mat leave." And "I can't wait for our babies to be friends!" And now I'm just so much more careful with my words. But it always comes down to that one in particular. Hope.
It's a powerful word, though. So I find myself doing things that allow me to feel relaxed and calm and hopeful.
I brought Ryan's bear to yoga tonight. I have wanted to connect with both of my babies there but had been having a hard time focusing on Ryan when wiggler inside kept doing a little dance during savasana. So tonight I snuggled Ryan's bear with one arm, and held my belly with my other and I got to hold both of my babies in quiet stillness. And it gave me some hope that my family could still feel whole even with this physical separation.
Having the bear there also opened up a bit of conversation with at least one other mom. I'm not sure how many others were listening. She asked about it. I said it belonged to my son. She asked how old he is. I explained he would be 9 months but he passed away in September. She expressed her sadness at that. And the conversation moved on. That little interaction gave me hope too. Hope that his life doesn't always have to be a secret from strangers.
And then when class ended, I checked my phone (as all addicts do), and I saw a few photos sent to me from friends at Landon's Legacy Retreat in Manitoba. Photos with Ryan's name drawn in the sand. With messages saying they were thinking of us. And that just reaffirmed every hope I had that he matters. Even to people we've never really met. He matters. Our story matters. And my goodness, I love those ladies so, so much for just "getting it." (Even though they "get it" because they stand where I stand...)
So do I sometimes say "hope" when perhaps I should be using more optimistic language? Maybe. But I don't really think that "hope" has to be a bad word. Having a little hope is what has gotten me through every day of the last 9 months. And every day of this new, complicated, beautiful pregnancy journey.
From the moment we lost you and I started thinking about all of the milestones with you that we’d miss, milestones that would be difficult, today was one of the ones that topped my list. And ever since last month there’s been a little countdown in my head, thinking about this day.
I had 9 months with you. 9 perfect months.
And now, it’s so hard to believe that I’ve survived 9 months without you.
It’s hard for me to articulate why this one is so hard. If this journey has a tipping point, a day when the timeline of grieving shifts, today feels like the day. It’s like, since losing you, in terms of time, I’ve still been closer to the time we were together. And now, every day after today takes me further away from you. On the timeline of us, I’m entering the longest part. I’m no longer closer to the time I carried you inside me. To the time I rocked you in my arms. To the time I kissed your sweet face. Cried tears over the little bundle of you swaddled in blankets.
From this day forward, I will always be one day further away from the physical you.
And that scares me.
I remember your birth day so vividly. And yet, at the same time, I have a harder time recalling the light weight of you in my arms. The smell of you. The softness of your dark hair.
I try so hard to hold on to that, but it’s not easy. And I know, as time moves on, I’ll only have these distant memories of you.
We’ll continue to make memories with you. In a different way. Like the Butterfly Release last weekend (wasn’t that fun?). Or moments like now, when I sit with you at the cemetery. Just me and you. With the wind blowing strong. The sun on my face. All reminders you’re here.
I’ve spent all day thinking of you.
Worrying about this moment. Sitting here with you. Knowing after today, time takes us further apart.
I just hope you know that my 9 months with you physically here were quite possibly the best 9 months of my life. And these last 9 months of knowing you apart from me have been so hard. But, I’d live these 9 months over and over and over again if the alternative was never having you at all.
I love you, sweet boy.
Happy 9 months.
I think for the duration of the retreat that I wish so desperately I was at, that I will make a greater effort to write every day this week about things I would have likely talked to my mama friends about. As it turns out, there are many women at the retreat this year carrying their rainbows. We're all actually due within a month or two of each other. It would have been so healing and amazing to sit and chat with them about all of the feelings that come with this incredible blessing.
And I mean, ALL of the feelings.
It's really a complicated ride.
Even now, I'm sitting in "the nursery," it feels like a room in transition. What was once "Ryan's Room," is now something different. I silently reprimand myself regularly when I call out to Rich to "open the door to Ryan's room," or something similar. Because it's not only his anymore. I should be calling it "the nursery" or "the baby's room." But I slip up from time to time. My heart is going to have to catch up to my head and acknowledge that there are some things that will soon become "theirs" instead of only "Ryan's." And some things will be just for baby. They won't have anything to do with Ryan. And that's good too! I just can't shake the little pangs of guilt when I have to imagine "his things" becoming "their things" or "baby's things."
I wonder if this is something all parents feel when baby 2 comes along, or if it's a pain only reserved for loss moms like me.
There's an intricate balancing act of feeling happy and hopeful, and sad and wistful. I know new baby will always have a brother. Always know his brother. Their relationship will hopefully be a very special one because it's not like many other relationships. But at the same time I wish so hard that this baby could have a big brother here on earth. Today I watched as a big brother helped his little brother unload their hockey bags from the back of mom's SUV and it was a little shot to my heart to wonder what that might have looked like with my own kids someday. And then I think that this little one inside of me wouldn't be here at all if things had been different with Ryan. I want Ryan in my arms every single day. But having him here would mean giving up my newest little and I can't even imagine...
These are the thoughts I can't let enter my mind. They're just a glimpse into how complicated my heart can be.
But I somehow manage this balancing act. Every day. I sit in this room and I miss every moment I didn't get with Ryan while at the same time imagining and hoping for all of the moments to come with my little wiggler inside.
I had a pretty big blessing come my way today.
Today, I should have been heading out on a flight to Winnipeg to participate in Landon's Legacy Retreat for bereaved mothers. But, about a month and a half ago I succumbed to my pregnancy fears and withdrew from the retreat. Afraid to fly pregnant. Afraid to be so far from home pregnant. Afraid to be so far from a major city pregnant.
I've spent the last few days pretty annoyed with myself for "letting fear win." I watched other moms I've become friends with excitedly and nervously pack their bags, board their own flights, and arrive in Manitoba to meet the equally as excited and nervous moms from many places around the world: Canada, US, Mexico, and even South Africa! I couldn't help but feel like I was missing out. Missing out on the chance continue to grow these friendships I've made. Missing out on time away with nothing but Ryan to think about.
Yet, the truth is, it's harder and harder to think only about Ryan these days. Even as I type this, I continuously pause to put a hand to my belly, hoping to feel a kick from this new and growing little life inside of me.
But that doesn't mean I can't still find ways to celebrate my first born. And so we were lucky that today, on what could have been just a very sad, and mopey kind of day, wishing I was a province away meeting incredible women I've come to love and rely on, we were blessed with the good fortune of being able to attend a beautiful celebration for our boy and so many other special babies.
The PAIL Network hosted their 20th Annual Butterfly Release and Family Picnic today. It was such a special time. But unlike some of the other memorial events I have attended in the past 8 months, this one was filled with joy. There were, of course, tears. And hearts are always heavy at these kinds of events. But I was honestly struck by the celebration in the air. The happiness. The hopefulness. There were children playing -- brothers and sisters who have angels watching over them. And parents meeting and supporting one another. I even had the good luck to meet a mom I've been in contact with online since Ryan died. Our babies have the power to make such beautiful memories happen, and the ability to bring us together when we need it most.
Even though there's rain outside, and sometimes things don't always go as planned, I feel really blessed today.