Two Years

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.

Leah pic

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.

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The magnolia tree outside our old apartment window in bloom shortly before Leah’s birth

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.

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Kiwi and I at the park on Leah’s birthday last year

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.

Another Year

Yesterday I turned 31. As has become the custom in recent years, I spent my birthday in the most enjoyable way possible for an introvert like myself: A laid back day filled with good food, sunny walks, and laughter-filled conversations with my husband. Of course, this birthday was unlike any other I had experienced before, as it was also filled with diaper changes, cluster feedings, and intermittent cries from my four-week-old son.

In short, it was the best birthday I could have asked for, having accepted that Leah’s absence will be felt on such occasions, both now and in the years to come.

Inevitably, I spent much of yesterday thinking back to this time last year. Still in the throes of fresh, raw grief, my 30th birthday was anything but “happy,” despite the celebratory wishes offered by well-meaning family and friends. It still pains me to think about those excruciatingly bleak summer days, and how I struggled to fill the aimless hours that should have been spent caring for my firstborn daughter. Somehow this past year has passed me by in a flash, yet also at a snail’s pace, completely disrupting my previously-held worldview in the process.

During the months that I carried Leah, I assumed that her presence in my life would bring with it a newfound sense of permanence. Since I didn’t envision myself having more than one child, I expected that my family would be complete after welcoming her into the world. Likewise, I anticipated that having her at my side would solidify my new identity as “mother,” forever changing my self-conception and providing me with a new sense of purpose. As I understood it, Leah would be a central part of my world as I grew old and grey, and I would pass on from this life knowing that my love’s legacy would live on through her.

It’s difficult to explain how outliving your child can completely shatter these conventional expectations. Leah’s death has taught me that the only thing knowable about this life is its impermanence. I think about this each day as I look at the people whose love makes my life worth living: My husband, my family, my friends, and now, my son—none of whom are guaranteed to be here tomorrow, next week, or a year from now.

Each time I hold this beautiful boy to my chest and gently rock him to sleep at night, I can’t help but think how the time I have with him is both precious and fleeting. While these first days, weeks, and years of his life will undoubtedly be among my most treasured memories when I draw my final breaths, he will go through his own life with little to no recollection of the time we now spend together. Indeed, if he lives the long, full life that I hope he does, and if my husband and I do our jobs well, our family dynamic must inevitably change, seeing us become less central to his existence with each passing year. Simply put, every day I am cognizant of the fact that there is nothing permanent about this boy’s presence in my life. Yet as heart-wrenching as this is, it draws no comparison to the alternative that I know too well: Being the parent of a child who will never grow up and venture out into the world on their own, because they never got the chance to.

In this sense, it is perversely ironic that some of my initial assumptions about Leah’s permanence in my life turned out to be true. While Callum will continue to grow and change before my eyes each day, creating new memories along the way, I will spend year after year looking through the same photos of Leah, feeling the same ache in my heart, and pondering the same questions about who she would have been. As it is, I will always be the mother of a dark-haired, porcelain-skinned baby girl, because my daughter never got the chance to be more than that.

Still, as I plunge ahead into another year, I remain grateful for the brief but life-changing moment in time that my daughter was here. Likewise, I am equally determined to cherish every moment with my son that time allows.

One Year

Dear Leah,

It is June 21, 2017. Today you would be one year old. It seems impossible that an entire year has passed since I experienced the best and worst 33 hours of my life. Contrary to my fear that the passage of time would dull my memories of your brief life, I can still vividly recall every beautiful and excruciating detail of the day you came into the world.

I remember breaking into sobs while poking and shaking my belly in the early midnight hours, trying desperately to get you to move before finally deciding to go to the hospital.

I remember hearing my midwife say that I still had a “happy baby,” but you wouldn’t be happy for long, so it was a good thing that I came in when I did. I remember thanking God for protecting you as the nurses prepped me for my emergency c-section. It pains me to recall these final moments in which I still believed that I would get to bring you home.

I remember seeing you for the first time in the NICU after the doctors told me they would have to send you to a special children’s hospital for further treatment. I asked them if I could touch you, and a nurse opened your bassinet so I could stroke your hair. It was heartbreaking to see you hooked up to so many machines, struggling to cling to life in that cold hospital.

I remember the visceral shock that enveloped my body when they told me your condition was far worse than any of us could have anticipated, and that you were unlikely to survive the intensive interventions that would be undertaken if they sent you away.

I remember the sense of awe I felt when they brought you to me for palliative care and placed you in my arms for the first time. To this day, I still have not seen anyone or anything so beautiful. I remember holding you against my skin and kissing your head over and over again, caught in the throes of absolute joy and utter devastation.

I remember crying in the evening as your initial dosage of medication began to wear off, and I started to see and feel the effects of the seizures that were continuously ravaging your body. Were you in pain? Were you afraid? Did you somehow know that you were with your mother, and that I would have gladly traded my own life for yours if given the choice?      

Instead of celebrating one year of cuddles, kisses, and laughter with you, today marks one year of tears, heartache, and longing. It is agonizing to imagine what you would look like, sound like, and be like if you were here, growing into the beautiful girl I know you would be. Instead of crying over still photographs and combing through your mementos, today I would be creating and capturing new memories to cherish. I would be dressing you up in some frilly monstrosity and watching you smash into your first birthday cake. Later on, I would hold you on my lap and read you a bedtime story before kissing you goodnight. 

I wish I could say that I have found some celebratory way to honour your memory today, but any attempt I make to shroud your unlived life in positivity ultimately feels hollow. As grateful and proud as I am to be your mother, you should have lived long enough to be more than my precious baby. Today I am haunted by the reminders of what will never be: You will never smile; you will never laugh; you will never experience any of the light and joy that this life has to offer. It is crushing to think that your legacy will ultimately live and die with me, and that you never got the chance to leave a broader mark on this world in your own right.        

People often say that you are still with me and that your spirit lives on. Even if this is true, it cannot quell the crushing pain of a mother’s empty arms. I want so badly to do the things that non-bereaved parents are able to do each day. I want to rock you back to sleep in the middle of the night, comfort you after you’ve taken a tumble, and feel you wrap your arms around my neck while I hold you. More than anything, I want to know for certain that you understand how deeply loved you are.

It has been one year of a lifetime in which I will continue to wonder who you would have been. No matter what the future holds, you will always be the irreplaceable daughter who first made me a mother.

I miss you, baby girl. 

All my love and a kiss,

Your Mama

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