Tomorrow is Leah’s birthday. And right now, I am sequestered in my bedroom with a lukewarm coffee and a rare opportunity to write, all the while listening to Callum’s whimsical babbling and my husband’s muffled laughter seep in from the other side of the door.
The only problem is that I don’t know where to begin. Maybe this is because my ongoing sleep deprivation makes it difficult to put my scattered thoughts into words. Or perhaps it’s because I don’t feel like I have much to say that hasn’t been shared on this blog already. After all, while the past two years have brought many changes—namely a blue-eyed boy whose presence fills my days with tremendous joy and gratitude—the triggers and manifestations of my grief for Leah remain largely the same.
I suppose if this time has taught me anything, it’s that grief, in all its agonizing volatility, also brings the comforting familiarity of an old friend whenever it knocks at my door. Not that it ever leaves my side completely, but the bustle of everyday life usually compels me to bury my painful feelings when they arise—and, to be completely honest, most days I’m simply not brave enough to follow grief into the dark places it needs to take me.
This is what I (still) wish more people understood about grief: It is not a task to finish or an obstacle to overcome. Rather, it is both an extension and a reflection of the all-consuming love that I carry for my daughter. And, contrary to our cultural propensity to associate strength with stoicism and sadness with weakness, I can attest to the fact that it takes far more courage to heed grief’s promptings—to purposefully feel every harrowing ounce of sadness, anger, and longing that they bring—than it does to push them aside and carry on as if they don’t exist at all.
These past few weeks of my grieving season have been filled to the brim with such promptings. Sometimes they’re triggered by a song I hear on the radio; sometimes it’s the sight of a dark-haired toddler girl wobbling down the sidewalk; and sometimes it’s simply the feeling I get when a warm, humid breeze touches my face in the morning, transporting me right back to where I was this time two years ago.
When this happens, I often feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of memories, emotions, questions, and regrets I have to sift through. Likewise, the what if‘s and what could have been‘s that flash through my mind’s eye are devastating as they are vast.
What if, two years ago today, I had gone to the hospital as soon as every cell in my body began screaming that something wasn’t right after Leah missed her usual post-dinner active time? Few memories reduce me to sobs faster than me standing in my old apartment bathroom, frantically shaking my pregnant belly in an attempt to make my baby girl deliver a strong kick, all the while feeling her feebly prodding back at me, as if to say, “I’m still here, Mama. But I need help.” This is the thing with generalized anxiety disorder: over time, you become accustomed to people dismissing your fears as overreactions (because, much of the time, that’s exactly what they are), and you learn to doubt your corporeal fight-or-flight responses. Add to that my desperate hope that faith in God and fervent prayer would protect my daughter from harm, and it would seem that Leah didn’t have a fighting chance against the fetomaternal hemorrhage that ultimately stole her life.
Yet I still find that these traumatic memories don’t hold a candle to the excruciating moments wherein I allow myself to envision what Leah’s unlived life—and my other life—would look like if she was here, healthy and alive. It feels like an exercise in masochism to sit and imagine what could have been, yet on days like today I can’t resist doing so. There are no words to describe the ache I feel when I imagine waking up to my two-year-old daughter crawling into bed next to me, feeling her wrap her little arms around my neck, and hearing her call me “Mommy.” I picture her looking a lot like Callum, but with dark, chin-length hair and her dad’s deep green eyes. I wonder if she would have a special outfit picked out for the day, what sorts of gifts she would open, and what kind of birthday cake she would want. I imagine we would take her for a picnic at the park near our old apartment building and show her the ducks, just like I had envisioned doing so many times throughout the nine months that I carried her.
As it is, I don’t know how I will spend the day tomorrow. Most likely I will still go to the park and look at the ducks, just like my husband and I did on Leah’s birthday last year when I was heavily pregnant with Callum. Maybe I will even make her a cake, even if it’s just a reason to see her name in writing.
It’s been two years since I said hello and goodbye to my baby girl. So much has changed in that time, yet so much remains the same: I still love her and miss her with every inch of my mama heart, and no passage of time will ever change that.