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The Baby Who Wasn’t

There's no roadmap for dealing with the grief of losing a child; this is how our journey went.

For a long time, one was enough.

That one baby came into our lives like an earthquake. In the years before, we had built the structure of our life together. A temple of two. We worked long hours, traveled abroad, kept the house tidy. and folded the clothes promptly.

That temple crumbled after the birth, and we rebuilt it slowly and piecemeal into something Seussian. Purpose twisted unreasoned joy and at-our-wit’s-end impulse into a structure that held our three lives. Me with the little one at home, stealing nap time to clock in at headquarters. An isolated outpost, disembodied speaker voice in staff meetings. My wife balancing a new career and a new office, drag racing home every evening to beat bedtime. We spent weekends holding tiny fingers, practicing steps in the sunshine, playing peekaboo around the ottoman, spooning words into the baby’s ears and food into her mouth. She was a flock of giggles amid grumpy cats.

We three were happy, and one was enough.

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Then, another earthquake. My mother, the foundational cornerstone of my own life structure, gone forever. Reduced to ash. Impossible to rebuild. In the few months afterward, only one purpose for me: live through this. Night after night without sleep. Day after day without emotion besides despair. On the couch, sprawled under blankets, staring at the television to bar my mind against thought. Live through this.

Many helped. But only one other person knew her voice, her hands, her walk, her made-up curses half shouted in exasperation, her cheerleading at games with a fist in the air, her unending encouragement: My brother. He and I, together with her, spent the hours, days, years of childhood building something unique from countless unremarkable moments. Only two of us left to see it.

“I could not make it without him,” I said. My wife believed me, thought of our child. One might have been enough for us, but someday the child would need more than ghosts to see the temple of our lives.

So we began to make room in our minds for another someone. We began trying to create life. After eight months, pleasure repeated like clockwork became a chore. Impatience and worry crept into the calendar. Every four weeks, disappointment. Had our bodies grown too old?

Our daughter didn’t know our plans, but knew somehow. At a new school, making new friends, she filled out the get-to-know-you worksheet, displayed in the hall. She had one mom, one dad, two cats, zero brothers and sisters. Heartbreak was a number. “I want a baby, even if it’s a boy.”

Finally, my wife’s giddy suspicion led to a drugstore test taken in a drugstore bathroom. She called me on the way to an office Christmas party. Her plans to get blitzed happily derailed. All the imagined logistics taking shape in our minds. Think about when to: recover tiny clothes from the attic, research car seat reviews, buy paint samples for the nursery, schedule maternity leave, tell parents, tell aunts and uncles, tell the future big sister, ping-pong names back and forth, sounding them aloud, testing the shapes with our lips. Does that sound right? Is that your name? Is that you in there?

But something was different than the first time. Pain.

With the doctor, peering at the ultrasound screen, seeing nothing where something ought to be. The fertilized egg had dallied on its journey. Pregnant in the wrong place. Many medical words: ectopic; rupture; hemorrhage. A being no bigger than a blueberry, hand-buds held to its chest, a minuscule liver already hidden inside. Hope as a mortal threat.

Stunned, sent home with the wrong news to share, un-shareable in polite company. Sentences no one wants to hear. Sentences we spoke only to closest family, our voices weak.

The doctor made another appointment for a procedure. Something quick and painful to destroy the tissue her body had built to welcome the fertilized egg who would never arrive. There needed to be a shot of something toxic to reverse the growth of that egg. We arrived at the hospital four days before Christmas. We sat on a bed, in a busy room behind a curtain. My wife was in a gown. I was in regular clothes. Unlike the surgery that had brought our daughter into the world four years before, I would not be in the room. Hugs and tears, no words on my lips to make any sense. An unseen nurse filled the moment with a sharp instruction. Must stay on schedule.

Afterward, I brought my wife home. Instead of a baby, she was carrying a guttering flame. She lay in bed, gripping pain in her core, head fuzzy from anesthesia. Tears everywhere. We were guilty about the grief. We knew people who had birthed full-term babies and buried them days later. People who spent years and fortunes trying for a pregnancy that never arrived. People who lost children before their ages turned double digits.

But we couldn’t help it. We mourned an idea, an expectation. The name we’d never speak, the big-sister books we’d never buy. We mourned the worst bad luck. Not an error in replication, not cell division ripping helter skelter. Simply the wrong place. We mourned certainty, sprinting ahead in our thoughts. This could happen again, more than once. Would we stand to risk that? Could we stand another round of this cocktail of pain, grief, and guilt? How much time could we lose, trying and failing, before biology ran its course?

For our daughter, for most other people, we kept masks in place. It was the season of advent, of preparing for arrival. We were stuck on goodbye. My wife sat next to me in the pew, her head on my shoulder, her weight on me, begging without speaking, Would you take one side of this? It’s too heavy otherwise. Caroling joy to the world, visits to Santa, the sugary warm smell of angel-shaped cookies, the baby’s-first-Christmas ornaments — mine, hers, our daughter’s. Making the road-show circuit of parties with in-laws, standing room only, four generations of Irish Catholics having 20 simultaneous conversations, luke-warm buffet offerings — sorry we started without you — off to the next address, bringing season’s greetings of fake-smile sorrow.

It was too much to take. We escaped with our daughter, west across the big river to foothills and boulders. A place where water flows from the rocks, warm as an embrace, enough to fill great pools where people float, suspended from gravity in ancient ritual. I drank from the gushing earth and filled bottles to bring home. We three walked through a forest, and hiked to a ridgetop in the new year, gazing at a city we didn’t know, spread out in the valley. I took pictures of the two of them, wife and daughter, smiling together, smiling for real, the three of us beginning to rebuild.

Back home, my wife found the strength to share her sadness and gained access to a secret society. Women who carried the same un-shareable news, who had mourned, who knew the sense memory of fading pregnancy. Each week, she returned to the doctor, who performed tests on the guttering flame, her own safety not assured until it was extinguished completely. She would sit in the waiting room, round bellies all around. An easy excuse to invite bitterness. Instead, the rote exposure to success dulled the fear. Seeing the same encouraging faces in the exam room, every seven days, buoyed her in a way I couldn’t. A sisterhood of experience took her hand, led her into trying again.

The following advent, we were preparing for an arrival. Our second child was born in the middle of winter, in the middle of the night. Later that day, he lifted his head from my shoulder and cried out. Strong from his first hours. We sat his sister on the couch, placed him on her lap. She smiled wide. Mother and father setting the foundation for the two babies in front of us, the one we never met there in our hearts.