Seattle’s Kerry Park is half way down the south slope of Queen Anne. Overlooking a playground and nestled between charming hillside homes, the space has just a few park benches and a statue called “Changing Form”. It is a small park, yet boasts a majestic view.
Several years ago, my husband and I happened to be driving by and with the sun setting, made a quick decision to pull over and take a look. We could see the city, the mountains and surrounding waters. In a town that has more overcast days than not, we were granted a rare evening with a view that was both stunning, and crystal clear.
Although at that time, our future was far from crystal clear and we were in the midst of our own metamorphosis and changing form. Half way down the slope, or half way up the hill? We were existing in some sort of half way space ourselves. Breathing enough to be alive, but yet not fully engaged in life. We were were playing the part of happy tourists, but beyond the role, we were so very far from happy. Our souls had been crushed and our hearts broken.
Just four months earlier, without expectation or explanation, our daughter had been born still thirty-eight and a half weeks into what had been a perfectly normal pregnancy. On this June evening, I was still in the throws of a physical and emotional transformation.
Physically, my body had the markings of a woman who had just gone through a pregnancy and delivery. These postpartum symptoms were both a cruel joke and treasured testament. My skin was newly adorned with stretch marks, my stomach squishy, my thighs full and my hair falling out. But without our baby in my arms, my body boar the only physical proof of our daughter’s existence. I believed that my body had done what nature intended it to do, and labored, pushed and delivered a tragically unnatural result: a silent and still baby.
The death of a child is a significant loss, but it is especially brutal when it is done at the same time you are preparing to meet your child. So emotionally we were barely staying afloat and washed up in a wave of grief. The simple act of taking a shower in the morning required a great deal of energy and could deplete us for the day. We had lost our footing and now couldn’t find the appropriate lens from which to view a world that was forever changed.
In an attempt to escape the pain and darkness that surrounded us in our hometown of Chicago, my husband and I decided to take trip. Just the planning of this getaway might give us something to look forward to and provide us with an alternative point of focus. We needed a total change of scenery, to run as far away as we could from the flat surroundings of the Midwest and remove ourselves from every single person other than each other. As the parents of our baby, we were the only ones who shared the depths of love for our child and could come close to understanding the grief of the other.
So we got on a plane, indulged in some inflight cocktails and landed in San Francisco. From there, we drove up the West Coast to Seattle through Eureka, California and Bandon, Oregon. For days, we weaved and climbed our way up Highway 101. Along cliffs and through forests, beaches and towns, we steadily progressed. At one point the GPS even lost track of us and placed us not on land, but smack dab in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Somehow seeing the image of us as a tiny dot, slowing advancing forward, yet in the middle of a giant blue graphic, felt freeing in a strange sort of way.
In the Northwest corner of the United States, Seattle felt like the farthest point that we could run away from a haunting darkness. But sitting on the park bench in Kerry Park, it became clear that this wasn’t something we could run away from. While I had done my loud, angry, sobbing cries over the previous months back in Chicago, sitting in Seattle on that night a slow and steady stream of tears quietly made their way down my cheek. The tears were turned on by a sound of summer. In the park on a lovely evening, these sounds were all around us, yet it was one sound in particular which seemed to drown out all others. This was the sound of delighted children laughing and giggling as they played on the playground. This was the sound of happiness.
Until that moment, happiness was foreign to me. It was a long lost emotion that I hadn’t felt in months. But as the sounds of the delighted children pierced straight to my heart reminding me of what I had lost, I was able to process something else. It was fleeting, but present. Even if I wasn’t yet able to feel it, I was able to recognize it and a shift began to happen. Happiness was present in the sound of the playing children, I wanted happiness.
With this recognition I could now resolve to move forward, and allow myself to take the journey back towards happiness. Hundreds of miles from where we had said goodbye to our baby girl, I could allow myself to say good bye to the dream of our baby girl. I knew I would carry her with me always, but now I could move forward. We had been stuck half way down the slope, but could now start our climb up the hill. In that June evening, overlooking the space needle, the Olympic Peninsula and Elliot Bay, we watched the sun set, and instead of darkness falling, felt it begin to lighten. We decided that we would return to Chicago, and make the most courageous decision of our lives, and attempt to have more children.
Last week, nearly eight years later, my husband and I returned to that park bench. The “Changing Form” statue remained, the view was still majestic. Once again we were playing the part of happy tourists from Chicago. But this time our hearts were truly and sincerely full of happiness because on that park bench sat the three lights of our lives, our three living children. They were bickering and laughing, shoving and hugging as they providing the sounds of summer. As I saw them sitting there, I looked out over the landscape and I knew that my view was indeed, crystal clear.
It was Mother’s Day weekend and I needed to be in that space, with those people. They are my family, they are my heart and they are my soul. Because even before they were born, the promise of their existence provided me with the courage to move forward out of the darkness and back toward happiness.
Bravery was necessary during last week’s trip because I was attending my first book signing and reading of a piece I wrote about our stillborn daughter and her role in our family called, “Our Family Love Story”. The story is included in a book, “Three Minus One”, and associated with the film “Return to Zero”.
Starring Minnie Driver and Paul Adelstein, “Return To Zero” is based on the true story of a successful couple who is getting ready for the arrival their first child when the baby dies just weeks before the due date. The film premiers on Lifetime this Saturday, May 17th, at 8PM/7PM Central.
The book and the film surround a difficult topic. Because the topic of stillbirth is so heartbreaking it can lead to a silent suffering for those going through it. Director Sean Hanish and publisher Brooke Warner are hoping to break the silence of stillbirth, giving a voice to the parents who are grieving the loss of their children so that others can know they are not alone when this happens to them.
Breaking the silence, last week in Seattle, myself and six other authors read our pieces in the book at the Pacific Northwest Writers Association. We had not met before, but were instantly connected by a bond of motherhood and united because of a love of our children. In a powerfully moving afternoon we shared our stories remembering our children, Bennett, Dash, Frankie, Max, Isaiah, Annabelle and Trinity. Through our stories we were able to provide healing to one another and to others who attended the event, some who had suffered the death of a baby very recently and some many years ago. Because we were generous with our hearts and brave with our emotions, we know that the lives of our children have meaning and because of them, we have purpose.
I hope you will be brave enough to view the film this weekend, attend a reading if one is in your area and help others who might be going through the silent suffering of stillbirth.
4:00 in the afternoon now means multi-tasking homework with one, piano practice with the other, and potty duty with the third while unloading the dishwasher and trying to start dinner. Three simultaneous needs with the requests/whines to accompany each. Knowing that there is precisely 23 minutes to accomplish all of the above before rushing everyone out the door for a lesson or practice. Its loud, disheveled and full.
4:00 in the afternoon used to mean a grouchy baby, still sleepy from a nap. Putting him or her in the car seat and driving around with no pre determined destination, trying to calm the baby down and knock off the 2-3 hours until bedtime. Its quiet, lonely and still.
And once upon a time 4:00 meant it was time to check in on the progress of others, make calls to clients, give reports from the day, issue apologies, accept that dinner would be from the vending machine and cancel plans for after-work happy hour with friends or spouse. Its surrendering, frustrating and stagnant.
The start of the busy time of the day, the wrap up of the day, or the check-in point halfway through.
I miss that 4:00 a lot, then again, not at all.
Even in the intimacies of our own home, things look differently and are serving new purposes. This is the winter that our Living Room has become a holding place for cardboard box forts, for weeks on end. The kitchen table is a Lego-building station because the dining room table is claimed by a jigsaw puzzle and board games. And our backyard is a maze of snow tunnels and igloos that make up what the kids call their “bunker village”.
Magic. I’m reminded every time I drive by the school yard and see an evolving playground full of snow boulders and forts. I’m delighted knowing that the kids have created elaborate games of crystal mining and kingdoms during recess. The PE teachers did a unit that allowed the students to sled outside during gym class in preparation for the Olympics and the USA/Canada Men’s Semi-final hockey game was on a TV for the kids to watch during indoor recess and lunch. This is embracing it and this is the stuff memories are made of.
This season, we’ve also been taken with another part of the world: Norway and its Kingdom of Arendelle! The magic of Disney has been sprinkled all over us this and we’ve grown obsessed with all things from the wonderful movie, “Frozen”. My son does a great Olaf, while my daughter’s duet the sister roles and the soundtrack plays over and over and over during our drives around town. I joke that the song “Fixer Upper” reminds me of their Daddy, which makes them, and me, erupt with laughter and giggles every time we hear it. My three-year-old points to the icicles hanging outside her bedroom window and tells me they are scary. I’m confused until I realize that, of course, she thinks Elsa put them there.
Years from now my kids will look at the fence in our backyard and remember how the snow once piled up around it all the way to the latch. Someday they’ll be having a snowball fight with their college roommates and think about the battle they once had with the neighborhood kids. And some morning, many years from now, school will once again be cancelled due to bad weather. My children will be adults, yet they will feel something familiar as they chuckle watching the expressions of delight swallow up their own children.
And with that in mind, I am able to cling onto those emotions and view this winter through the eyes, and hearts of my children. Doing so, reminds me that we are indeed in a season of wonder and I am coerced into a moment of gratitude for what the kids will call, an epic winter.
February can be a bleak month for me. In our family, we roll right out of the holidays and roll right into the birthdays. But as soon as Martin Luther King, Jr. Day passes and we enter into late January, I’m already bracing myself for the next few dreaded weeks.
It’s cold, it’s winter, it’s Chicago. But beyond that, it’s February. And for me, February has tragic significance because it was on Valentine’s Day, that we found out that the baby I had been carrying for thirty-eight and a half weeks died inside of me unexpectedly and without reason, just a week before her scheduled delivery.
And so in this season, even years later, memories of our baby’s death and delivery can be easily triggered as we continue to grieve the child who we love deeply, yet never had the chance to meet. I often think about who our child would be at age 8, and every Valentine’s decoration is a reminder of a day that each year is filled with both aching loss and abundant love.
In a conscious effort to stay afloat on what might otherwise be an emotional drift, I employ strategies to insist on not just survival, but happiness. Fiercely struggling and fighting, I call upon a reserve of gratitude and joy that I’ve spent the last eleven months building in preparation for just how depleted I might feel at this time of the year.
Within that reserve are a few key lifelines working against this impossible loss. Among them is the strange sense of empowerment that comes with the death of a child. It is difficult to explain, but somewhere within that grief, I realized that this was bad, really bad, but I was surviving. Albeit barely, I was making it and that was powerful, and continues to be.
Tied up in that sense of empowerment is the ability to shape my own story. While I can’t reverse this terrible thing that has happened, the one tiny bit of control I have is the vantage point from which I process it all. While some of the major events of life are beyond my control, it is up to me to set the tone and to tell my own story in a way that best suits me.
And when I say me, I mean the entire me. Not just the grieving me, or the me who was pregnant and then wasn’t, but doesn’t have a baby in her arms. But the me in The Before and the me in The After. The me who is filled with rage and the me who is filled with joy. The me who laughs heartily and the me who can’t find her laugh at times. In order to be authentic, my story must be inclusive of the entire me.
A year ago I discovered that within me there was a story so powerful and so prominent that it made it difficult to identify the entire me. I’ve heard writers say that there is usually a story you need to tell first, before you can find the other stories in yourself. I was still operating in self-preservation mode, this story was guarding other aspects of me. The story I needed to share is our family love story.
Within the first year after our baby was stillborn, my husband and I decided that it wasn’t fair to our daughter for our story to be shrouded in darkness and despair because of her death. And so every year on February 14, we take a vacation or do something special together as a family. We call it her “birthday trip” and use the time to celebrate her and to celebrate our family. We shaped our story of loss into a love story complete with tragedy and triumph.
With our family love story always in my heart, when last February, The Huffington Post put out a call for photographs that reminded their readers of love, a personal photograph immediately came to my mind. Without thought or deliberation, I moved as if on instinct and found the picture of my husband and I in the hours immediately following our still born daughter’s delivery and taken by a bereavement photographer who was provided by the hospital.
I’ve always thought of this photograph as truly capturing the essence of our relationship because even in those early hours there is a connectedness and fortitude in our body language. And while it may not have been our most romantic hour, as individuals and as a couple, it was our finest hour. That photograph shows a resolve to grieve together and to move forward together. To me that photograph is the definition of partnership and steadfast love.
And so I submitted the photograph along with a description of our family love story. I can’t recall much about how I wrote the story. When I wrote it, I know I was sitting on the couch with the laptop, home alone with the kids because my husband was traveling. But other than that I don’t have a sharp memory of writing that piece because I was so in flow. I know I didn’t edit it, I maybe re-read it once. I don’t really know what I hoped would happen. But before I could think otherwise I had sent it in an email text to The Huffington Post along with the photograph explaining why to me, this image was love.
Within twenty-four hours I was in contact with the wonderful Lisa Belkin and Farah Miller who very gently guided me through the insecurities and process of publishing this piece. I had been writing quietly since I was a kid, but within a few days I officially jumped, two feet first, into the public blogosphere. I grabbed a twitter handle, a blog, and a facebook page.
Within a week the piece had been shared around the world and published on iVillage Australia. I heard from supportive friends and family as well as people I’d never met, yet who had experienced similar losses.
Something very important happened. Not only did I share my story, but doing so opened me up to listen to other people’s stories. I heard from a gentleman whose child was stillborn over 40 years ago and I heard from a father who had lost his baby the night before. A grandmother, a sister, a friend; there were so many people who were going through this, or who loved someone going through this. And heartbreakingly, each story represented a child that the world will never get to know. I read every comment and cried and celebrated each and every one of those babies. And every time I thought of my own daughter and grieved for her all over again. Connections were made and in those stories I felt the warmth of friendship and the bond of universal understanding that can both sustain and uplift. I gave, just as I received.
The stories continue to be shared. I’m proud that Our Family Love Story will be a part of the book Three Minus One being released this spring and associated with the film Return to Zero about a couple grieving after a stillbirth.
Sharing this story has allowed me to gain confidence as a writer and share other stories. There are now many pieces on The Huffington Post and blog about careers, and friendship, parenting and food allergies. A piece on leaning in was featured on LeanIn.org. I’m finding my footing as a writer, attending workshops, retreats and conferences. I’ve met writers and bloggers who inspire and challenge me. At home, friendships have been formed and strengthened with other mothers and writers.
Sharing this story has fostered so many relationships. This story was mine for many years, but it was time that I give it to others so I could nurture and grow the other stories in my soul. I needed to get back to a vantage point where I can see the whole me, so I could tend to her and develop her. The whole me is powerful and wise, and has things to say, lessons learned and tales forged on a journey that is simultaneously treacherous and beautiful.
Most of all, sharing this story reminded me that we are not on this journey alone. Sure we have ourselves, and we have our family and friends. But we also have something else. Something that bonds us to each other. There is a big, big world out there full of people who are ready to love and ready to share, ready to listen and ready to give.
I do believe that the words to this piece didn’t come from me, but through me. My daughter didn’t get the chance to live, but she is my heart and she is my voice. And for us, she is the reason why Valentine’s Day is once again a day to spread some love.
“Happiness is the consequence of personal effort. You fight for it, strive for it, insist upon it, and sometimes even travel around the world looking for it. You have to participate relentlessly in the manifestations of your own blessings. And once you have achieved a state of happiness, you must never become lax about maintaining it. You must make a mighty effort to keep swimming upward into that happiness forever, to stay afloat on top of it.”
– Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love
If you’re feeling down at this time of the year, make a quick mental list of how you spent your January. Go ahead and let yourself acknowledge the little and mundane right along with the big and fantastic. Whether you’ve made a major life-changing resolution, or made it through the coldest day in a decade. You stopped eating sugar, you fed your baby squash for the first time or you simply got those holiday returns back to Old Navy. Either way, high-five to you! High-five to us! We’re doing it! We’re surviving this winter.
After all, I’m just enormously satisfied that I was able to spend a morning at the DMV, with kids in tow. And if that’s what it takes to insist on my happiness, so be it.
“Done what?” she asked.
“This,” I replied, “eaten inside and…..played!” I mouthed the word as if describing a mythical occurrence….a flying pig, or a rainbow-tailed unicorn. “plaaaayed” I repeated.
“Oh”, she said and laughed.
“Sounds like its getting crazy in there. Poor kid,” I thought to myself, before the acknowledgement set in, “oh sh*t, that’s my kid!”
I sighed and started trying to coax my sobbing 3-year-old down the tubes all while thinking to myself, “I am not going to climb up in this thing! Oh come on. The germs! I don’t have time to be sick,”
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