I saw a woman pushing a twin stroller the other day and my heart tightened in my chest.
I hate seeing twin strollers. I especially hate seeing twin strollers this time of year, as Mother's Day advertising and well-wishing reaches its yearly zenith.
I dwell in the land of the bereaved. The processing of my citizenship began on Mother's Day, May 12, 1996. For a time, I thought my admission would be refused -- all would be right, relief and joy seeming to battle and overcome the fear of loss.
But it was not to be: by Friday, my passport was written, my mind was numb, and my arms and heart were half-empty.
It's been noted there is a funny thing about our language: while we have words for a person whose spouse has died, and a child who has lost its parents, we have no word for the parents of a deceased child.
Thus we enter the shadowy Land of the Bereaved: pitied but unnamed, for to name a thing is to make it's possibility more real; our citizenship is a pain unbearable to contemplate.
In January, 1996 we learned to our shock and joy that I was carrying twin sons. It was an extremely high-risk pregnancy: not only was I 38 years old -- indeed, that was the reason I conceived twins -- but I am a very small woman, weighing less than 100 pounds.
But the first two trimesters of pregnancy were surprisingly easy. Although I quickly became very large, and the rapid expansion of my uterus uncomfortably stretched the supporting ligaments, I was able to do all the things a "normally" pregnant, healthy woman could do.
Until Mother's Day. At not-quite 30 weeks pregnant, I went into premature labor. Drugs were administered to halt the labor; I was given steroids to mature the babies' lungs just in case labor couldn't be stopped completely. Two days later, on May 14, my sons were born: Rhys William arrived by vaginal delivery at 10:48, with Ian George delivered via C-section 10 minutes later. Our babies were good-sized for their gestational age, at about 3 pounds each. They were avoiding the common risks of prematurity: they were breathing on their own, had no brain bleeds, their hearts were beating regularly. They were perfect -- if tiny -- baby boys. We had, it seemed, lucked out, dodged the bullet, beaten the odds: our babies would survive.
But in the wee morning hours of Friday, May 17, we rolled snake eyes. Rhys developed rapidly advancing NEC; by 9:00 a.m. a surgeon had told us his condition was hopeless. His life could have been prolonged for days or weeks or months, but he would never leave the hospital. We opted, instead, to withdraw medical intervention. We held our baby for the last time as he died, having never met his grandparents or his big brother; having never felt the fresh morning air.
And oh, the fear: our baby has died. The dice are now rolling against us. You rest uneasily, sure that the phone will ring at 2:00 a.m., a call from the hospital telling you your other son is in extremis.
But a funny thing happens when you enter the Land of the Bereaved. You find, to your vast surprise, that you know many of its residents.
Our next door neighbor's youngest son also was a surviving preemie twin: they had made our journey 8 years earlier.
A co-worker had, 20 years earlier, lost a premature baby girl.
A parent at daycare reveals their toddler is their second child, the first having been taken by SIDS.
It's almost like having survived one of your children is a dirty secret, kept hidden to only be revealed in the extremity of helping another cross the border. I was so grateful for those guides because if they survived, so could I.
And I thanked the heavens for them because the comfort offered by those who have not traveled the road into this land is a thin gruel, indeed. It's not that they don't care; rather, it's that they don't know.
Hearing that it's "for the best" was a stab in the heart: the best for who? The bet of what? It absolutely is not for the best. For us, the "best" was to be parenting twins, as we'd been preparing to do for 5 months. It was to watch three boys -- not two -- grow up together.
Or that it was "God's Will". Well, I don't believe in your god, and if my dead son was his goddamned will, I can do without him, thank you very much.
And "there was a reason; it's part of a greater plan". It wasn't my plan, and as far as I'm concerned, whatever "reason" there was isn't goddamned good enough.
Or the absolute worse: "at least you have another baby who will leave the hospital". What, Ian was a consolation prize, a spare, we were lucky to have an extra?
And oh, the anger, the purblind rage, when I heard of some other mother, whose labor was stopped, and whose twins were born at full term. Of the endless coverage of the McCaughey septuplets, and wondering if my baby had been part of a media event, would he had been watched a little bit more closely, would he have survived as all 7 of those babies survived. The pure, poisonous envy when, a year later, a woman across the street had to have labor induced, because her twin pregnancy went to 38 weeks -- envy so all-encompassing, I avoided looking out the window until they moved away, for fear of seeing the happy couple, with their two healthy babies, coming and going.
And still, 12 years later, the twinge of pain, the hitching heart, on seeing a woman pushing a twin stroller, because the twin stroller we bought in anticipation was never used; was, instead, given to Goodwill.
And a funny thing, jealousy of other parents who are citizens of the Land of the Bereaved. Oh, how I envy parents who, at least, got a chance to see their child grow and become a person in his own right. What would Rhys had been like? How would he have fit into our family? They, at least, have mementos of a life lived, beyond a small box containing a blanket, a cap, a small set of footprints, and a tiny bag of cremains. They have a rosary of memories to finger.
But those parents, in turn, feel that my path must be easier -- there are fewer corners in my mind in which are lodged memories of a little boy; fewer places to avoid because they bring reminders of all-encompassing pain.
In fact, of course, our pain is all similar, yet each story is different. Which brings me to why I am telling my story -- the story of why I absolutely hate Mother's Day.
I tell it because there will come a time when you will know a new citizen of the Land of the Bereaved. And you will want to bring comfort, but feel helplessly insufficient, and not know what to say and so, perhaps, avoid a fellow human in need rather than expose your own inadequacy and discomfort. My niece put it best, and most bluntly: "I didn't call, because I didn't know what to say. Congratulations? Or I'm sorry?"
I am telling this story this story to tell you: it is not what you say. You can not ease the pain. It is there, it is real, and it will lessen, but there is no magic wand and there are no magic words.
Except these. "I remember when" and "tell me about your child".
Yes, invite memories. Invite sharing. You see, we know our loss makes other people uncomfortable, so we will avoid speaking of it. But, oh, we do need to talk, we do need to share, we do need to acknowledge that our child existed, for however long or briefly his life was lived.
So let me tell you about Rhys. He was a tiny bundle of perfection. He, alone of my children, had the curls and nose I inherited from my father. At two days of age, and 10 weeks premature, he was alert and looked into my face as I held him. I will always regret to the bottom of my soul that I never had the opportunity to rock with a baby in each of my arms.
No one other than the hospital staff, my husband, and my best friend ever got to meet him.
But he lived.