I was running late, naturally.
When I was in graduate school, every class that was scheduled to start on the hour actually started at seven minutes after the hour.
This wasn't in my head. This was a real rule on campus.
I loved it because it fit so perfectly with my general mode of operating. I need to be somewhere at one o'clock? Great! I'll get there at 1:07. No problem.
So I jog through the parking garage and speedwalk through the lobby, past the escalators, down the long hallway into the cafeteria. There's a small room off the cafeteria. The doors are closed. There's a little sign taped to the door that reads "Heartprints."
I open the door slowly, cautiously, holding my breath as though that will make my entrance less intrusive. I don't want to cause a disruption if introductions have already started.
My eyes widen as I peek my head through the door. The room is full. There are more people there than I've ever seen in this room before. It makes my stomach sink.
Introductions haven't started yet, and there happens to be one open seat. I slide in next to a girl who looks familiar and another girl I know I haven't met before. I exhale and reach in my purse to silence my phone. Someone slides me a nametag and I scrawl my name across it and stick it on my shirt. I know the routine, although it's been a while.
It's the girl next to me who starts, and when she finishes, it's my turn. We were asked to be brief, and so this is what I say:
My name is Brooke. My husband and I lost our first daughter, Eliza, two years ago in December. I was thirty-four weeks pregnant. I had a normal and healthy pregnancy but a few weeks before our due date, I went suddenly into labor. I didn't fully realize what was happening until I got to the hospital and they told me that she didn't have a heartbeat. We have no explanation for what happened, so we are those people without answers.
Here's what I didn't have to say:
I miss her. I'm here because I miss her and she matters and the birth of her little sister has been the greatest joy of my life but she doesn't fill in for Eliza's absence. I love her so much and I don't know who she would be today and that's why two year old girls break my heart. I cried every day for months and months, and I panicked about getting pregnant again. People who had the best of intentions said things to me that caused me a great deal of additional pain. People I thought we could count on disappointed me in profound ways. Other people I barely knew stepped up and became great friends. Through the magic of the internet, I made a new circle of friends who saved my life and they are wonderful, but the price I paid to meet them is far too great. I had to become someone new and I miss my old life and the old me, and I grieve those losses as well. The new me is better than the old me in some ways and worse than the old me in other ways. I am changed because I love her and I am changed because I lost her and I still don't know how to make sense of this. I can't believe this is my life, even though I'm living it everyday and functioning pretty close to normal these days. It's been over two years and it doesn't hurt to breathe anymore, but I miss her.
I don't have to speak those truths because everyone in the room already knows. They know because my life--this life I can't believe is mine--it's their life, too.
We're brought together, in the basement of a hospital, in a windowless room that attaches to the cafeteria, by circumstances beyond our control, by grief we'd never imagined we could survive. Some of us have to fight the instinct to stay home, to curl up in a tiny ball on the couch, to protect our raw and ravaged hearts, and to be brave enough to show up and speak our truths and--more difficult still--listen while other people speak theirs.
We have to sit through stories of babies who were tangled in their umbilical cords, babies whose chromosomal make up was incompatible with life, babies whose mothers had health issues that forced pregnancies to end to soon, babies whose deaths cannot be explained. We have to sit through these stories because they are our stories.
I cry through all of the stories as we work our way around the table. It takes a while. Some people on the far end who are sitting on my side of the table are so far away I can't even see them. Some people tell their stories with breaking, wavering voices. Other people have a more practiced recitation. This was the first time I gave my introduction without crying during it, but I make up for it by crying through everyone else's. My kleenex gets soggy and I can't stop playing with it, twisting it and rolling little pieces between my fingers.
Some people are true veterans at this. One couple has been coming regularly for almost five years; they were veterans when I was a newbie. Another couple is just one week out from the death of their son. They still look stunned. The rest of us just look heartbroken.
People talk about how far they've come in the months or years since their loss. People talk about how hard it is to go back to work--how the wrong boss can make a difficult transition absolutely miserable or even impossible. People talk about their in-laws. People talk about their living children, older siblings who don't fully understand their parents' grief but miss their baby brothers or sisters. People talk about how they cope, about how exhausting and frustrating and heartbreaking the day to day business of life feels when the baby who belongs in your arms is buried in the ground. I listen to the concerns of those who are just weeks or months out from their grief, and it's like hearing my own experience played back to me. It's not easy to know that anyone else, even a total stranger, is enduring that kind of pain. It's weird to think of myself as a veteran, as a survivor, as someone who can speak from the "other side," even as we all know there is never a complete recovery.
I don't attend these meetings regularly. I had a hard time getting myself there in the early months because I didn't want to belong to that group. I noticed that when I did work up the nerve to go, I felt better after, but that didn't make it any easier (kind of like exercise...). I stayed home once my second pregnancy was visible. This is the first time I've been back since Zuzu was born, mostly because I don't like leaving her after a long day of work. But I wanted to go this night. David asked me why I wanted to go, and I just said that I remember going in those early days and desperately needing to hear from someone who was further out from their grief, to hear from someone who lived it that I was going to be okay, somehow, someday. I wanted to be able to be that person for someone else.
And I wanted to be able to talk about Eliza and to cry in front of people who would really understand.
(Even though there's still a part of me who hates crying in front of anyone, and who feels awkward talking about Eliza with a bunch of strangers.)
I do talk about Eliza there. I'm self-conscious at first, and my heart pounds before I speak up. But I do speak up. I talk about how long it took to feel like myself again, to feel comfortable in my own head. I talk about some of the terrible things people said. I talk about how much it hurts to lose not just my baby, but her entire life. I hear myself promising a girl with curly black hair and tear-streaked cheeks that it will get easier, that the baseline of operating won't be so miserable forever. I tell her that life will sparkle again, and superficial pleasures will return.
We commiserate about the way everyone we know is having babies so close in age to the babies who are no longer here. Other people note that it's normal and fine not to be able to attend baby showers, to need to avoid pregnant people and new babies. I say that some friendships can withstand that break, can come back from the distance needed to survive such a loss--I'm living proof of this.
I add that I still mourn this other, smaller loss, too--that I don't just miss Eliza, but the person I would have been if she had lived. The person who would have hosted a baby shower for my best friend instead of mailing a check to someone else as my contribution. I miss being the person who smiled at babies instead of turning away. I miss being the person who chatted excitedly about pregnancy instead of the person who changes the subject. I miss being lighthearted and happy and I grieve for that loss as well as the loss of my baby.
Do you know how much it helps to see a roomful of people who are nodding as I say these things?
The meeting closes, and all of a sudden, I kind of want to run away. That feeling is back: I don't want to belong here, with these grieving parents and their hollow eyes.
I want to run home to my living, breathing, laughing baby. I have an impulse to escape the sadness and affirm the things that are good in my life.
But even stronger than that impulse is my desire to stick around for a few minutes, to have more personal conversations, to talk with the women on either side of me. One is missing her son, Hunter. The other is six weeks out from the loss of her daughter, Norah. Our conversation meanders effortlessly from serious to sarcastic. We find ourselves joking and laughing, and it's a relief to talk with people who understand that humor can be a survival mechanism, that there's a fine line between this laughter and our tears.
I also greet friends I already know, and I chat with the facilitator, who asks to see pictures of Zuzu (of course I oblige).
I can't believe I can do this. I can't believe I'm comfortable here. I can't believe I am at a grief support group. I can't believe this is my life.
I can't believe that I'm (mostly) okay.
But I guess I am. And I guess needed to show up and say, It's been over two years and most of the time it doesn't hurt to breathe anymore. But I miss her.
I expect I'll need to say that again and again.