What would you do if your first child, within hours of being born, was diagnosed with a condition so grievous that into your hands — the hands of a brand-new parent still exhausted from a long labor after a conscientious, healthy pregnancy — was placed the responsibility of choosing whether to let this baby live or die?
That's what happened to Monica Wesolowska, whose new memoir Holding Silvan is an exquisitely written, devastatingly honest account of what happened when she and her husband were told that their newborn firstborn — dearly wanted, dearly loved — had experienced oxygen deprivation during labor and delivery which left him with massive, irreversible brain damage.
Wracked with grief, they chose to let him die. Years later, they had two more sons — born without complications, and healthy today. Wesolowska and I belong to the same gym, and after hearing her story I wondered how she found the courage to become pregnant again after losing Silvan. That is: how she overcame a primal dear-God-not-again fear that would have frozen many people This story is about her, not me, but I am someone whose life has been thoroughly twisted by fear. In fact, the reason I chose never to have children was fear — of ever experiencing anything akin to what Wesolowska endured. That's why, during our interview, we focused on fear.
ASR: Were you a generally fearful person before Silvan was born?
MW: It’s interesting that you’re asking about fear now because fear is an emotion I’m only just starting to see as a shaping force in my life. As a child, I was clearly cautious about some things like riding a bike and driving a car, both of which I postponed until my twenties. Now I wonder if I found writing compelling back then as a way to retreat from the scariness of life. But, of course, you can’t retreat. You’ve got to live, you’ve got to die. So I’ve pushed myself to do things, jump into icy ponds, travel by myself, publish a book. The hilarious thing is that for these things there is always someone who calls me “brave.” But really, even for the simplest things like driving a car, I feel like I’m putting my life at risk. Maybe everyone is like this to some degree, but I’m always pushing against fear.
ASR: Were you afraid to become pregnant again after Silvan died?
MW: Of course I was afraid. Would any woman not be? But I also knew that while I was pregnant with Silvan I’d felt powerful and safe. I’m sure it was the hormones coupled with the way that strangers treat a pregnant woman — as though she matters. So once Silvan died, I wasn’t afraid of being pregnant again. But I didn’t know if I could handle losing another baby. That second time, though the hormones of pregnancy agreed with me again, I didn’t get to enjoy the same sense of communal support because I really didn’t want anyone to talk to me about being pregnant. I didn’t want to celebrate my pregnancy until I knew the outcome.
ASR: Given the tragedy of losing Silvan, does fear haunt your life as a parent of two living sons?
MW: Well, it didn’t at first. When my children were very young, friends complimented me for not having become overly fearful. I let my children roam around tot-parks freely. I let them play by themselves in the backyard. I had a few bad moments when I found them “playing dead” and had to shake them out of their games just to make sure they were really all right. But I felt pretty cocky in those early years, when my children were always within arms’ reach.
The “haunting,” as you call it, seems to have started more recently, as they have gotten older and more independent. I struggle with panic more; I overreact. But, just as when I was younger and would push myself to do things that scared me, I now push myself to be a normal parent. I tell my older son he can bike to school by himself. But then I have to go up to the school and peek through his classroom door to make sure he’s really arrived.
This is a newer development. I suppose it has to do with my children going farther and farther from me. And maybe with my sense that I’m lucky to have had them this long. I think part of me is waiting for the other shoe to drop. Or maybe the trauma of losing Silvan is coming to the surface. ...
I just hope my fears don’t get worse. I’d hate to become an old mother glued to the phone waiting to hear that my children are still alive. That wouldn’t be good for any of us.
ASR: What kind of reactions has the book been getting, and how does it feel to know that people are reading your no-holds-barred account of a personal tragedy in which you were forced to make a life-or-death choice?
MW: I’m not sure how I’m dealing with it. ... I wrote my memoir about Silvan primarily for myself, but as soon as it was written, I wanted other people to read it — even though I was terrified of being read. ...
Although a few people have criticized my husband and me for making a choice to let our son die, it turns out that none of them had actually read the book. When people do read it, and take the time to write to me, they floor me with their responses. They say they feel lucky for having read about Silvan, or they feel freed to talk about death to their own children, or better able to think about their own coming deaths.
In some ways, I feel more connected to the world because of this book than ever before. So having Silvan did connect me to others after all. And at the same time, I’m scared because I suspect this feeling can’t last, and that someday I will have to write something else. And so it comes back to dealing with fear again, doesn’t it?