Even though it will be several weeks before the first day of autumn is officially upon us, for me the experiences and expectations that encapsulate summertime conclude when students and educators alike prepare to head back to school. While this transition is sometimes bittersweet, more often than not I find myself looking ahead with anticipation during this time, rather than dwelling on what I’m leaving behind. I’ve never minded trading summer barbecue fare for spice-laden soups, floral-print dresses for comfy sweaters, or blazing heat for cool, crisp breezes. Likewise, after several months of relative freedom in my academic pursuits, I often look forward to preparing weekly lessons and meeting new groups of students as another semester commences each September.
This year I feel quite differently about it all. I imagine it would still be this way if Leah was here with me. I know it would have been difficult to return to a fall work routine after savoring these first two months with her, even if I would only have to venture away from home to teach once a week. But now I suddenly fear leaving summer behind for entirely different reasons.
As an exercise in mindfulness, during the final weeks of my pregnancy I had adamantly resolved to restrict my anxious imaginings by only picturing immediate and positive outcomes. I purposefully decided not to fret about where I would go to pump breast milk on a busy university campus several times a day in the fall, or how I would manage to meet new writing deadlines while caring for a fussy newborn. I did not allow myself to worry about how my husband and I would juggle the logistics of childcare arrangements if we ended up teaching on the same days each week in the winter term, or whether we would find a daycare space at all during that time.
Instead, I forged a psychological contract of sorts between myself and my anxiety, acknowledging that I would eventually concern myself with these future uncertainties, but for now I would simply anticipate and enjoy my sweet girl’s first weeks in the world. I imagined strapping Leah into her carrier and taking her for afternoon walks with my dog each day. I pictured feeding her late at night in bed while my husband slept next to me. I thought about celebrating my 30th birthday at home with a bottle of wine and takeout sushi, welcoming the first of many years that we would spend together as a whole, completed family.
In many ways, I had envisioned summer 2016 as the “summer of Leah.” And this certainly has been the case, although the outcome has been strikingly different from what I had hoped for: This was the summer of Leah’s birth, but also of her death. Rather than spending my days and nights changing Leah’s diapers and holding her close, I have spent this time aching for her presence and grieving for the life she will never get to live. When I take my dog for his afternoon walks, I can actually feel Leah’s absence, and more often than not it causes tears to flow behind my dark sunglasses. When I go to sleep each night I begrudgingly wrap my aching arms around a childhood teddy bear, rather than the beautiful baby I long to hold.
As I awake in the mornings now and feel the cool breeze creeping in through my bedroom window, I am silently reminded that the summer of Leah, and the “official” period of time that I have been able to set aside for mourning her, is coming to a close. If Leah was here, I would be heading back to work in the coming weeks and preparing to balance these responsibilities with my new role as mother. Now that she is gone, I must still venture back into “the real world,” but learn to do so while carrying my grief, rather than the tiny girl who captured my heart less than a year ago.
Likewise, it is often said that the pain of grieving begins to alleviate with each passing day. But this brings little comfort to me when the passage of time also takes me further away from the fleeting hours that I got to spend holding and caring for Leah in the hospital. As each new morning eventually fades into night, I sense my memories of her sweet face, soft skin, and heartbreaking cries growing dimmer. While it may not be rational, I fear that my memory of her all-too-brief life may eventually fade into nonentity as these final summer days grow shorter, colder, and darker.
In this sense, the prospect that grief will remain my constant companion from here on is a strange comfort to me. I may not have allowed myself to vividly envision Leah’s life beyond these initial summer months, but I do anticipate new triggers to emerge with each temporal milestone that passes. Indeed, it is safe to say that I will actively seek out these little reminders of her wherever I can find them. As much as they will provoke feelings of pain and longing, they will also keep me connected to all the latent hopes and dreams that I carried for my daughter’s life during my pregnancy. In the most profound sense, they will keep me connected to her.