If you can imagine it, the most painful part of losing our children wasn’t holding breathless bodies in our arms. As indescribably excruciating as that was, there is a facet of loss that is even tougher to swallow because it has nothing to do with tangibility and everything to do with what never happened.
I talk about it at length in the chapter that will be published sometime this year, but to summarize the idea, much of the scholarship surrounding loss as it relates to stillbirth deals with story-telling. From the moment a woman finds out that she is pregnant with a wanted child, she begins to tell herself stories about the life she will live with that child. Everything from breastfeeding to birthday parties, from slumber parties to play dates, from the first days of school to graduation from college — every imagined event floods the mother’s narrative as she begins to dream about the life that she will live with her child. But when that child dies, mothers (and fathers) don’t just deal with the pain of losing the child that was living; they also suffer the loss of every moment that will never be lived. The story ends before it even began; the narrative dies with the baby.
I always imagined that our boys would play football. I don’t know why, but being married to a man who is proficient at every sport he tackles, I imagined broad-shouldered, tall, blonde boys who would team up to mow people over on the football field.
Ok. So maybe that’s a bit morbid, but it’s what I imagined. I imagined sweaty feet. I imagined yelling at them not to drop football gear in the doorway. I imagined going broke trying to keep up with their hunger pains. I imagined making them kiss me goodbye, even if their friends were watching. I imagined the hilarity of them realizing that girls didn’t have cooties. I imagined tenacious, mischievous, sweaty boys who loved their mom. Picture the Weasley twins, but with blonde hair.
That was my narrative. That was the story that I told myself about the sons I carried.
But dreaming changed for me when we lost Isaac and John. It became tentative and “iffy.” The storyline turned grey. And though Sophia’s life renews a sense of hope and light, losing Malcolm made thinking toward the future nearly impossible. Dreaming became far too painful because every loss was like a dangled carrot, snatched away at the last moment. I found myself hearing good news, only to hold my breath and wait for the floor to crash out from under me. Planning further than a month or so down the road? That just doesn’t happen in my world because, as the writer of Proverbs so aptly explains, “hope deferred makes the heart sick,” and hope is everywhere.
And hope is dangerous. It makes you want what you might never get.
And so, being pregnant again has presented a new challenge as it comes to dreaming — as it relates to the stories that I tell myself. I admit (painfully) that we hoped for the chance to bring a living son home with us someday, so there was a split second at our 20-week ultrasound where both Joseph and I wondered what life would be with two girls. Of course, it only took one more second to look over at our little blonde wonder-girl to remind us of one simple fact: girls are awesome. And having two is going to be awesome. But as much as I can’t wait to meet this one, to hold her and to live with her beyond the walls of a hospital, I fear writing her story in my mind.
I live with three dead narratives already; I’d rather not live with any more.
But I’m starting to wonder if, as a mom, part of my job requires dreaming — requires seeing beyond what is in order to imagine what could be. I wonder if trading hope for crossed fingers wasn’t one of the bigger mistakes I’ve made, both in pregnancy and beyond. You see, hope lives: it breathes and changes and grows. Hope is as living an organism as a beating heart, I think, because it does so much to fuel those who live with it. It touches every fiber of their being, bringing renewal and energy, keeping everything alive.
And if hope brings life, don’t I owe that to my kids — to live with life? to live with hope? to keep on dreaming? Don’t I owe it to who they are now and to who they will grow to be? As much as the Proverbs writer was correct in his assessment of dead hope, he may also be right in his argument that “…a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.”
I don’t want to be a mom who can’t see beyond the immediacy of every moment. I don’t want to be a mom who constantly fears what might happen next. And I don’t want to raise girls who follow those dark footsteps, because that path is lonely and burdensome.
I want my girls to hope. I want them to dream lavishly about the lives that they want to make for themselves. I want them to pursue those lives passionately and single-mindedly, not faltering in fear about what could happen. I want them to take risks. I want them to believe in something beyond themselves, and to trust that at some point, all things will work together for good. I want them to hope.
And if I want all of that for them, I can do no less than to want it for myself.
And so as I move into my third trimester, that is my goal: to hope. To write stories in my mind about the life I want to live. To hold those stories with open hands, understanding that nothing is guaranteed, but that life is still sweet. And that life — and dreams — are to be lived.