cw: child loss
Ten years ago, I’d just given birth to my second child, Paul, when I got an email from my cousin.
My cousin Hallie was in the Peace Corps at the time, working at a clinic in a remote West African village. One of her jobs was to help weigh and measure babies. She’d record their measurements in a notebook, and if they needed a little boost, she would recommend that the mothers attend a demonstration she co-led on how to make an enriched porridge.
I pictured her over there; she’d have gone into the nearest town to get internet access. I had given birth to my son, Paul, who was full term and stillborn. I was at the beginning of a new life, which is to say the cruelty of my old life but without him in it.
Reading her email in those early days, it hit me for the first time — there were so many people that he would never know. He would never know her. One of her lines gutted me and stayed with me: “If he were here, I’d fight to be the one who weighed him.” His arrival weight, his final fighting weight. I wish she could have been the one. Show me how to make the porridge, too.
You learn to make tiny adjustments along the way in how you think about your child who died. You don’t move on, but you move. The story of his little life is well done but it’s not finished. There have been periods of impossible darkness; joys and heartbreaks; laughter and boring life. There is no way to draw a straight line from his birth to today. Even though you were there — you gave birth to him and you held him — sometimes the experience feels unbelievable. Like it happened to someone you know, and yet you live with this messy knot of feelings.
In those first days after his loss, the anguish was so acute, so visceral you wanted nothing more than to be launched far into the future because the only imaginable balm was distance. But now here you are, a decade later, and you find yourself craving a few minutes back in that hospital room laboring or holding him, the searing pain forging you two together. Instead, your hands are tied in the present; you live 10 years on and you have two other children to care for. And inexplicably and eventually you go for weeks without thinking about him at all. And then there are a few days when he colors everything. And you can’t explain that either.
Shortly after Paul was born, it became clear to me that I would write a book about this experience. What I didn’t know then is how long it would take, how it would haunt me, how much the process would mimic the struggles and lessons that originated in the 48 hours of laboring, delivering him, and saying goodbye. I wanted to hurry, I thought sooner meant better, I thought this was a story with a straightforward beginning and end. I didn’t trust time or myself.
For many of those years I felt I had fallen behind – behind a child in headcount, behind in life, behind in writing; a timer always running. But in the past year, I started pulling at threads and asking questions I once had been afraid to ask. Although it truly scared me, I trashed most of a working first draft and turned off the timer. I thought the day I met him would be the closest he and I would ever be. Now I see his birth as a handoff; he gave me a portal, a gift, the outline of a shape, a map for me to figure out. My role is to build out the rest. He said, you can write your way back to me.
I started doing interviews and research, incorporating more people’s voices, going both back in time and forward facing. The project has morphed into something fuller, more expansive. Part medical mystery, part memoir, part elegy, this weird little book is actually becoming something richer, better and bigger than me. Nine, eight, seven years ago I couldn’t have seen that. I wasn’t ready.
My cousin Hallie got married this summer. At the wedding reception, my youngest daughter ran up to me as we were about to take our seats for dinner. She pulled on my dress and said, “Mom! Paul is at our table!” Smiling to match her enthusiasm but a little confused, I asked her who Paul was. “MOM. Dead Paul, OUR Paul!!” She is seven and she’s his little sister. She took my hand and pulled me over to our table and sure enough, there we were: Kate, Jimmy, June, Paul, Diana. The caterers had even mistakenly served him a salad. I turned to find my cousin and pulled her into me for a wordless hug. Ten years on, this is how the points get added to his constellation. His name on a piece of sea glass at a wedding reception when you don’t expect it. An empty seat at a table. The story continues apace.
Happy birthday, Paul. Here’s to whatever comes of the next ten.
Kate Suddes is trying to break your heart. Her writing has appeared on Cup of Jo, Romper, HuffPost, NAILED Magazine, Human Parts, Noteworthy and others. Her work explores grief and longing in different forms. Kate is currently at work on her first book about her stillborn son, Paul. She lives in New Haven, Connecticut. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter, if you’d like.
P.S. Kate’s first essay about her stillborn son, and 17 reader comments on grief.
(Photo by Maryanne Gobble/Stocksy.)