“How many kids do you have?” is such a loaded question for me, for any mother who’s lost a child. And yet, being new, it’s one I’ve had to answer a lot lately. Normally I do some mental math and if the questioner is someone who I won’t likely see again sometimes I’ll just say “four” to avoid making our encounter awkward. But if they are someone who I think will be a part of my life I answer “five” because to know me is to know I had another daughter, once. One that I lost (much) and loved (more). Recently a group of women asked me that question and I wasn’t prepared so I stumbled over my answer. (The math is so much harder when there are multiples!) “Five,” I said and then corrected myself. “Four.” My heart hurt. “I mean five.”
“Well which is it?” one lady asked, clearly baffled as to how I could not know how many children had erupted from my nethers. “Four or five?”
“Five,” I said finally. “I had another daughter. Our oldest. But she died.” The simplest explanation is usually the best. I just wish I was more confident in saying it. You’d think I would be after ten+ years.
“Oh,” she answered, unsure of what to say. Most people say something along the lines of “I’m so sorry” or change the subject. But this woman looked down at Jelly Bean who was adorably trying to count out “four or five?” on her chubby fingers and said, “Did she look just like her?” I was so startled by the question – I’m pretty sure no one has ever asked me that before – that I didn’t even answer her. But the truth is, I couldn’t even if I had wanted to.
I can’t remember her face. It’s strange because I remember so many things from that time in sharp detail and yet the most important thing – her – eludes me. As she died so quickly, I was basically the only person on earth who really knew her. I am her mother, for pity’s sake. And yet I cannot picture her tiny, still face even now. The pieces are there – my sister commenting on her long eyelashes, my mother holding out a little hand to point out the perfect fingernails, my dad telling me she has my chin – but when I try to put them together it is a flurry of tiny white snowflakes, scattered. 1,000 paper cranes already flying away from me. A doll in a pink, smocked dress. Backwards: The dress I still have; the baby in it, I do not.
Perhaps it is God’s way of protecting me from missing her too much. Or perhaps it is God’s way of telling me I should have taken those scrapbooking classes when I had that coupon for 50% at Archiver’s. Or – and I think this may be it – it is God’s way of telling me that some things are better when you listen instead of look. You may have heard that silence is empty but I can tell you an eternity is spoken in the absence of a baby’s cry.
I found myself listening to the silence a lot. The silence came in the comforting presence of my long-dead grandmother who had also lost a child, the silence lovingly touching my hair, whisper light. Then the silence told me to breathe. Don’t forget. Don’t remember. Just breathe. I listened and listened and listened until eventually I found myself listening to my friend LuAn. She was the leader of the women’s group at my church and I’d thought she’d come to offer me more words I couldn’t hear because I didn’t want to be comforted, not yet. She had not. She’d come to talk to me about Abby*.
I knew Abby well. We’d been pregnant together. Not only that but we’d both been told our babies had a one-in-a-million chance of survival. I was carrying my daughter Faith, who had Turner’s Syndrome. She was carrying identical twin boys who had the incurable twin-to-twin transfusion syndrome. We prayed together. Puked together. Cried together. Laughed together. But she had been silent ever since my baby had been born and died. I didn’t get my miracle. She couldn’t even come to the funeral because she was on bed rest, trying not to jeopardize her still-pending miracle. And now she was at her most critical, and most helpless, stage of the pregnancy. Total, absolute bed rest. I knew all this.
Yet I also knew I was living her worst nightmare.
“I wouldn’t normally ask something like this,” LuAn started and before she finished the silence filled with all the things we don’t normally do but have to make an exception for when a baby dies. Normal was gone. Faith was gone. But Abby’s twins were still very much alive and Abby needed help. Yet how could she even ask it? How do you ask a mother who just lost her baby to care for a pregnant woman who may or may not lose hers?
I said yes, even though my heart threatened to revolt. I was on maternity leave. I had nothing but time and the silence of a nursery I refused to take down. Besides, what was I going to do? Sit at home and keep leaking bodily fluids on things? (Oh the things they don’t tell you about pregnancy! Your body’s been storing up 9 months worth of goo and it all has to come out somewhere. There’s a reason the hospital gives you maxi-pads the size of a snowboard.)
That first day was awkward. My job involved driving Abby to her doctor’s appointments, cooking, cleaning and making sure she downed these massive protein shakes every few hours (which she would then promptly throw up and then I’d retch because I’m a sympathetic puker and then we’d laugh which would make her throw up again, poor girl). It didn’t take long before our friendship was rekindled.
One morning I realized that for the first time in a very very long time, I had woken up excited. I was excited to go see Abby so we could talk about our ex-boyfriends and watch soap operas and poke her babies to make her stomach do that weird alien thing it did when the babies separated.
But I didn’t fully realize the extent of my attachment to Abby and her boys until one day when we got The Call. My husband, tired of coming home to an empty house, had insisted we take a vacation together several hours away. Of course it was during my one time off that her babies would come. I panicked. They were three months too early! “Are the babies alive? Is Abby alive?!” I demanded, unable to banish the worst-case scenarios after having lived one. “I have to get there before they die!!” I made my husband leave our vacation to rush me to the hospital. “You know Charlotte,” he said, “most babies live.” But I didn’t know! I didn’t!
And then there they were: two perfect, beautiful, alive, baby boys. Just 2 pounds each.
“Do you want to hold them?” Abby asked me, painfully hunched over her emergency C-section wound. I nodded, the silence speaking for me. “You can go into the NICU. I put you on the list. It’s supposed to be only immediate family but I told them you are my sister.” She smiled as the tears ran down both our faces.
As I held one of her babies, my heart bursting with amazement and love, I realized: she had got her miracle. And, after all, so did I. As Dieter Uchtdorf, a leader in my LDS faith, said, “By becoming the answer to someone’s prayer, we often find the answer to our own.” I may not remember Faith’s face anymore but I know her voice every time I hear it in another baby’s cries. I hear her every time someone asks me to help and I begrudgingly offer my services, only to discover that in the end I’ve got so much more out of it than I ever gave. I hear her a lot lately. She sounds like hope. And that’s my miracle.
Have you ever helped someone else and found that in the end it helped you even more? Anyone ever asked you an awkward question you didn’t know how to answer?
*Name has been changed