Well, it’s Christmas. We have made it this far without you. Everytime I write the date, even months ago, I would marvel that it had been that long. That time didn’t actually. stop. That now it is September, Novemeber, December, Christmas.
As I buttoned Vesta’s Christmas dress and helped her step into her tights, I wondered what you’d be wearing. I wondered if I would have gone the cute sweater vest and button down shirt, little-boy-dressed-like-a-man route or a “Baby’s first Christmas” onesie. I continue to marvel at the ease with which I move around in the world, especially since Vesta is so much more independent, dressing herself, climbing into her carseat, getting food from the fridge. Without you here, I just grab my purse and go. I sleep through the night. I stand around the island in the kitchen, virtually uniterrupted, and talk to the grown ups. Relatively no demands for me to be anywhere else anymore.
As I’ve been told, the anticipation of the holiday is worse than the actual holiday. We had two babies to come home to, having not been back to my upstate New York home since you’ve been and gone. I dreaded it. As time grew closer, I lamented my choice. Since I moved away 13 years ago, I’ve never not wanted to come home. I always greatly look forward to it. Now, I just want to retreat to a cave. Especially, at Christmas. Especially, with the babies here I so wanted you to meet. I had envisioned the three of us posing for a photo with our three babies on our lap in front of the Christmas tree. All smiles.
But it’s normal here. Everyone is doing their normal Christmas things. There is an adjustment here or there but nothing major. In some ways, it’s nice. It’s nice to leave my daily life of loss and sorrow and come back home to find my family relatively unscathed, still doing what they do, what they have always done. I don’t mean to sound dismissive or condesending but I’ve always thought of life here as relatively simple and easy. And it seems to continue so. I visited my cousin and her new baby and it was nice to be in a normal newborn home: everything a bit amiss, baby contraptions everywhere, cozy and warm and geninuely happy and tired. It’s nice to be with both cousin’s families with new babies to remember and see and be a part of what happens when the baby doesn’t die. I begrudge them less. Since I had it with Vesta, I remember how it was and it feels good to revisit it after living in such tragedy for all of these months. It’s refreshing to be around these families with new babies who still get to have the love without the loss, the innocence and naivete around their pregnancies and new babies. That they got what they were supposed to get, what they planned happened, even if it was not exactly what they planned. It’s refreshing to be around my family for whom everything is still going right, for everyone here in New York whose lives haven’t been completely derailed. It’s kind of like in Mexico: it feels less real here. Except, of course, when it feels exceptionally real.
I sat and held baby G for two hours the other day. You loom large in my mind: heavy and big like a 3 month old, even though you weren’t. I see pictures of us holding you and I think “He was small”. It wasn’t your presence or energy either, as I never felt you here very strongly at all. It’s something about your physicallity and my memory. Like in the movies when they hold up a clearly 6 month old baby to the actress who has just pretended to give birth. G is impossibly small, the size at one month that Vesta was when she was born. a whole pound less than you when you were born. She doesn’t look or feel like you. Other bereaved moms have told me, most of whom were terrified to hold a baby after theirs died, that once you are with the baby, it is not bad, it can be easy, it can even be healing. Because this is an alive baby who is not yours. Your heart swells and you’d still throw yourself under the bus for this baby but it’s not your baby and certainly not the person who was inside your dead baby. I held her and watched her and touched her head and felt her weight in my arms and examined her feet and fingers, her long legs and her skinny arms. I can hold her and I can love her even though she is a baby. Even though her family gets the happy ending that is an alive baby and I do not. I can hold her and meet her baby cousin and ooh and aah and coo and coddle and these little babies can stitch up a part of wound. They say to me, “It’s only me. Someone different and unique in the same sized packaging.” and I hurt less. Or differently. I hurt more for Harvey and less for “my baby”. I grieve deeper for the singular person he was, who he doesn’t get to be, who I don’t get to know. Turns out that behind the fear and anxiety and trepidation was a salve, a truth. It’s not all babies, just mine.
At Christmas, I took a Xanax and a deep breath and walked in to my uncle’s house, full of people who love me more than anyone on the planet. People full of grief for the baby I am not bringing in. Full of not only their grief but that wretched helplessness that comes along with grieving with your loved one who is most affected. Full of people who don’t know what to say or do and so just say and do what we always do. Full of people who will do their best in this worst circumstance. I did my best, too, and we were with the babies within minutes. My little nuclear family quickly curled itself around their little nuclear families and we passed the two babies between the three of us. Your sister was a pro without a moment of practice. She sat so still, made sure she held their heads and wanted to be nowhere else but holding them. If she wasn’t holding one of them, she was asking to. She would hold them, touch them, coo at them, tell me about their small eyes and whispy hair. I was so proud of her, displaying that level of caution and reverence for such little beings without ever having been so close to one before. It was also devastating to see what she couldn’t see: what she had missed, what she is missing without you here. I didn’t know how she’d be as a big sister but this ease, this naturalness, this pure urge to hold them, is not at all what I expected. If you were here, of course, not every moment would be like this. But there would have been this moment. Daddy placing you in her arms, holding your head for extra support, while she looked down at you and smiles and I stood back to capture the moment of your first meeting. When she bounded in the house from being with J during your birth like she was and called “where is he?” . Your head would turn to hear that voice you knew so well, now so clearly, just like I did when my brother arrived to meet me. The swelling of my heart with pride for the my little girl and the simultaneous breaking of my heart for my little boy. I am getting used to this now. Or should be, at least.
We fell in to the normal questions, to the normal catching up with adult family members, with the normal gorging of ourselves on Italian meats and cheeses. I was living right on the surface, have been since I got here. I can’t go down very far or I am sure that I will explode into a million pieces. Just being where I grew up, the snow and the river, the warmth of my uncle’s house, the unmistakeable smell of home at my dad’s, the smiles and laughter of my cousins, the gentle squeeze of my grandmother’s hand on a forearm, just being there without you, too much to fully experience. So I stayed on the top, with medicine and booze and sheer will. Until your Nona, your sweet, sweet Nona, came to me to ask how I was doing and it came out. Not all of it by any means, but all of the effort, known and unknown that it was taking me to keep it together was toppled. I just leaned into her and started crying and she said comforting words and my Grandmother came over and rubbed my back and said comforting words. And because of those babies, because of my cousins’ faith in me, I cried perhaps for the first time, at least for the first time in a long time, for YOU. Not for all of the shenanigans that grief commits on a parent. Not anger at others and deep sorrow for myself. Not being able to look at other babies or new moms in the eye. Not being unable to be happy for anyone else because I am so sad for myself. Not begrudging others for doing nothing wrong except loving and celebrating their living baby. Not jealousy, anger, frustration, betrayal. Just you. Just my loss. Just your absence. There was a purity there now. There was none of the crap that gets piled on from daily life after losing a baby. There was just the love of our family and your absence from it. I was alone inside myself without you. And there was a sweetness. There was a freedom now in my grief, in my longing for you. There was a revealing of a truth. I caught a glimpse of it after G was born safely. It was a long forgotten clarity from the first days and weeks after you died. “I want my baby.” Pure and simple. I want my baby.
I visit my Grandma in her knew home. She had a fall and is now living in a nursing home. She wants all of her new friends and the staff to meet Vesta for the first time. As she parades us through the halls and the cafeteria she says, “This is my great-granddaughter, Vesta. My namesake.” Then she smiles wider, raises four fingers and says “I have four great-grand daughters”. This is true and it’s not true. She has four great granddaughters and one great grandson but he’s dead. I am hurt that she doesn’t just say “5 great-grand children” and I am grateful that she says “daughter” and not “children”. I wonder if one of the babies was a boy, as she was expected to be, what she would say then? This is a convenient out and it sticks in my craw and she says it over and over and over. But as I ruminate about it over the following days, I know that I appreciate her position. All too well, really. No one knows how to talk about a dead baby, not even an 87 year old woman who lost her mother at 13, who’s twice widowed, who’s best friend lost an adult child, who’s seen and known plenty of grief. Even she plays verbal games to avoid talking about my son. I condemn her at moments in my mind. Until I realize that I am holding her to a higher standard than I hold myself. I routinely lie you away. “How many children do you have?”, “Is she your only child?”, “Do you have any other kids?”. More often than not I say: “1”, “Yes” and “No”. I also play the same game she is playing, tell the truth but not the whole truth: “Do have kids?” “Yes, I have a four year old daughter”. In all instances I shift my weight and do the unconsious, characteristic lying behavior of briefly looking away. But, at the end of the day, I am the same as her or worse, since I am your mother. I do what I can to avoid telling people about my so who is dead. I do verbal gymnastics and lie and tell half-truths because I don’t know how to say it and I don’t how to react to their reaction and we’re not supposed to talk about it still. And there remains a part of me that wants her to stand up for me, for us. To say it anyway, to be stronger and more brave than I.
My cousin texts me later, after we’ve returned to Portland, and says “Gram is going around the nursing home saying, “I have four great-grand children and an angel.” I am grateful to hear that. Maybe I can say that with some regularity too someday.
Just like everything else now, being home was all things: It was wonderful, exhausting, heart wrenching, bolstering, renewing, impossible, healing and hard. It takes so much energy to stay on the surface, become coworkers in our parenting and just get the job done. Just stiff upper lip it and get through it. I very consciously and with effort stopped living my life like that some years before you died. Now, at times like these, it becomes a survival mechanism, a necessity, what makes the most sense. Sometimes we have to grin and bear it and we do. And we come home wide-eyed and exhausted, wondering how we got through, wondering what’s on the otherside. More of the same? There wasn’t much to look forward to coming home too. There never is anymore. Where ever we go, you are still not here.