Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form;
Then, have I reason to be fond of grief?
Fare you well: had you such a loss as I,
I could give better comfort than you do.
I will not keep this form upon my head,
When there is such disorder in my wit.
- Shakespeare, The Life and Death of King John
Andrew has packed up the last of the baby items—the tiny clothes, the pregnancy journals, the ultrasound photos taken at monthly intervals, the plush dog my mom had sent, the little blankets. I couldn’t do it. I could barely get out of bed to shower or dress.
Grief is ugly. It is unwashed hair hanging lank and greasy against a cheek worn red from tears. Grief is brimming eyes and chalky skin. It is the pain of breasts filled with milk when there is no baby alive to feed. It is the loss of hope, especially when the autopsy shows that the baby’s kidney disease was genetic and the reoccurrence risk for any future pregnancy would be 25%.
It is watching your friends and cousins announce births and pregnancies, wanting to celebrate with them but instead burying your face in the pillow and sobbing all night. It is losing your friends. They don’t know what to say around you, so they stop calling. You sit in the cold stairwell of a building during your first week back at work, and you wrap your arms around your knees and drop your head and sob, wailing for the loss that keeps growing.
* * * *
We lost Matthew over Thanksgiving week in 2002, changing the meaning of that holiday for us forevermore. After the memorial service in Chicago, I couldn’t breathe, caught in the throes of a vicious panic attack. Wave after wave of terror washed over me. What will I do now? How will we go on? How will we build a family? I could not in any way face trying another pregnancy at that point in my life.
We traveled to Tampa to be with my family, and there our Rabbi came to my parents’ house to conduct another memorial service. We played Hallelujah by Rufus Wainwright during the service. “I've seen your flag on the marble arch; Love is not a victory march. It's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah.” Over and over, I played that song in the weeks to follow, searching for something—comfort? meaning? – as I tried to cohabitate with my grief.
Once we made the mistake of going to a shopping mall. The stores teemed with families, with babies and children and pregnant women, all oblivious to the agony they inflicted on us by simply pushing a stroller with a crying babe inside. The utter longing for what I had lost, for what I wanted more than anything in the world. I would have given up God and country and my job and my home to have my baby back. Each day was a crawl forward, a lead-limbed dragging into the winter months ahead, the winter of my discontent. I read Auden and Shakespeare; I lay down with Grief and embraced it because it was the only friend who understood me.
* * * *
A choice had to be made. I was only 28 years old. My baby was gone, and I would never never never have him back, and that would be my pain to bear for the rest of my life. But life is for the living, and I needed to build my life anew. Good luck and bad luck are scattered without reason or discrimination. We were not the only ones who had suffered bad luck, and we made a choice to go forward.
Somewhere out there in the world, there was a baby -- either existing or fated to be born-- that needed a home. Ours was a home that needed a baby. We would start the adoption process. We made initial appointments with several agencies. I may not be able to make a healthy baby right now, but damn it if I won’t still be a mother. I was born to be a mother.
Some people questioned if we were “ready” to start the adoption process. Were we done grieving, they wanted to know. Clearly, this was a question being asked by those who have not yet known loss. You are never done grieving, and if you wait for that to happen, life will pass you by. But we were ready to choose hope, to choose life, to choose family and love and the chance to raise a child. We were ready to hold our loss in our hearts while we sought out joy. I didn’t give two figs if my child was flesh of my flesh or not. Put a baby in my arms, and that baby is mine.
When we walked into our appointment with Maggie, we entered an office covered with photos of babies that had found their forever homes. Babies everywhere of every kind. New babies, older babies, toddlers, black and white and Latino and Asian and Indian babies, fat and skinny babies, babies with glasses and hearing aids, babies with cleft palates, bald babies and babies with hair, twins, sibling groups, all smiling out from photos sent by grateful adoptive parents. They all had something in common. They were loved. Loved by birth parents, loved by adoptive parents, loved by the adults who were trying so hard to give them the best possible life.
After talking for three exhausting hours, we signed on and decided to pursue a domestic open adoption. We knew that we could really empathize with a birthmother, for we know what it is to lose a baby, and we could understand her grief. We knew that her loss would be our joy. A strange situation.