I knew that she'd had a little brother who'd died when he was a baby. I remember they had a hallway in their house with a gallery of frames, and I can't remember what was framed--a photograph or a handprint or just his name--but I remember standing in the hallway, looking at the gallery wall, and my friend telling me that she had another little brother, besides the one whose naps we had to be careful not to disturb. She told me his name and said that if she had a son someday, she was going to name him after this brother.
We were probably eight or nine years old. When she told me, I don't remember feeling sad for her exactly, and it certainly didn't occur to me to think about how tragic this must have been for her mom. Instead, I felt sort of awed and impressed. This was a serious thing, to have a baby brother who died. Nothing that intense had ever happened to me. I was glad that she had told me about it, like it was a special sort of secret. I wondered what it would have been like for her if she had two living brothers instead of one. Then I wondered if her first brother hadn't died, if her second brother would have been born at all. The brother that I knew was six years younger than us, which made him a sweet, pudgy toddler with blonde hair and dimpled hands. I thought he was adorable, and I felt a strange little chill at the idea that he might never have existed.
I remember this moment really vividly. I can recall the carpet in the hallway, and the door that opened out onto her deck, and her parents' room at the end of the hall with the Nordic Track machine. There was also a door that led to a bathroom with antique Ivory soap advertisements framed in it. I don't think I'm projecting adult feelings back on it. We were immature in so many ways, but I think we were just old enough to think about life and death with some complexity.
Anyway, when her mom reached out to me after Eliza died, I was profoundly grateful. At that time I didn't know very many people who had lost a baby, and I was desperate for someone with experience to reassure me that I was going to be okay.
I decided that I wanted to include an excerpt from her letter in this section I was working on, so I went to the bookshelf and pulled down the wooden box that contains letters, cards, and the autopsy report that we received after Eliza died. I have another memory box I keep upstairs in our room that contains her clothes, handprints and footprints, a blanket, and some photographs, but this box was the collection of things other people sent us.
I started rummaging through, looking for the letter. I remembered that it was tucked inside a greeting card, but I didn't recall anything else, so I had to open lots and lots of cards.
I began this process without thinking, really. I was focused on locating one particular letter so that I could keep writing.
And before I knew what was happening, I was sitting on the floor, surrounded by small stacks of greeting cards and notes and those tiny envelopes from flower arrangements, and I was sobbing. Wailing, really. Fat, hot tears rolling down my face. It was a big, huge Ugly Cry.
I can't remember the last time I cried like that. Not on her fifth birthday, or in the days leading up to it. I really think it had been years.
I hadn't touched this box ever, really, except to crack the lid and slip in a few cards or letters each year around her birthday. As I looked back over those notes, seeing the familiar and unfamiliar handwriting, the people who shared their grief or simply expressed their sympathy... it took me right back to the first time I'd opened the cards, desperate for the connection in the middle of my isolating grief, but unable to find the comfort I needed anywhere. I remember sitting on that plaid couch in my living room, feeling gutted, hollow, my eyes blurring with tears as I glanced at signatures and then put the cards away, the room spinning, my stomach clenching with heaving sobs.
And here I was--more than five years later--reliving that same feeling in so many ways, minus the plaid couch. It wasn't the same, of course. It was sort of a reminder of how far I've come in this time, but also how great this loss remains.
I Ugly Cried so hard that I felt spent and exhausted for the rest of the day. I was sluggish and unable to concentrate--sensations I hadn't experienced in ages, but they still felt incredibly familiar.
I did find the letter, and it was worth the effort and the tears. My friend's mom told her story--which I'd never known in full--and then added,
... To go home from the hospital without the baby that you’ve poured all your thoughts, hopes, dreams and love into—is probably the hardest thing you will ever have to face.But with that devastation comes unlimited love. The bond between a husband and wife who go through the loss of a child can be even stronger than it was before. This is a time that only the two of you can truly share together. The raw pain and utter emptiness for each of you will recede with the deep love of the other. This is a tragic event in both of your lives and only the two of you will ever know the depth of the feelings involved. That piece of your personal histories will pull you closer together forever.
I remember clinging to those words, looking at them as a promise, as David and I struggled to find our way (and people kept telling me about the 80% divorce rates of couples who have lost a child, because that's SO helpful to hear!). Now, I hold her first son close in my heart, along with so many other babies who aren't here, but whose presence--or absence--continues to make a difference in ways I never would have been able to imagine as an eight year old, awed by my friend's dramatic story about her first baby brother.
I am not sure why my emotional reaction to the cards and notes was so unexpected. I probably should have seen it coming--but if I had, I may have procrastinated looking for that letter. I think there was something cathartic in having a deep, wailing sob fest (and fortunately, I was home alone when it happened). I may have come a long way in the last five years, but I haven't forgotten how difficult this road has been. And every once in a while, it's still overwhelming enough that there's nothing to do but Ugly Cry.