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“If we are to turn the corner and cope with uncertain losses, we must first temper our hunger for mastery. This is the paradox. To regain a sense of mastery when there is ambiguity about a loved one’s absence or presence, we must give up trying to find the perfect solution. We must redefine our relationship to the missing person. Most important, we must realize that the confusion we are experiencing is attributable to the ambiguity rather than to something we did—or neglected to do. Once we know the source of our helplessness, we are free to begin the coping process.”–Pauline G. Boss, Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live with Unresolved Grief
I’m a writer. I serve other roles in my life, but few connect as deeply as that of a writer. Writing helps me to make sense of the world, to translate the endless cascade of experience into a narrow, comprehensible channel. Writing sets order to the disorderly and speaks the unspeakable. But some things, I’ve learned, exist beyond the comprehensible, beyond the spoken—and beyond the written word.
But yet, here we are, nonetheless.
My wife and I had been married for nearly two years before we decided to have a child. We started trying and got pregnant quickly. She took two pregnancy tests, one after the other, just to be sure. We were reeling from all the emotions that come from realizing a new person would be entering your life—and that they’d have a debut. April 29, 2022—about two weeks after my wife’s birthday.
We thought we were prepared but didn’t know what to expect. I detailed a long list of books to check out at the library to be ready for pregnancy: Expecting Better, Like a Mother. Preparation helps to manage anxiety, so wading through the literature seemed at least productive. My wife didn’t have bad morning sickness. We didn’t know if that was good or bad. When we looked up our questions about early pregnancy, the answer was always yes and/or no to almost all questions we had.
At nine weeks, we had the first ultrasound to determine a heartbeat. We held our breath and heard it, thumping loud and clear into the darkness of the small room.
On October 21st, my wife and I learned we would be having a son. We both were hoping for a daughter, so this was an adjustment. Everyone has an expectation of the birth gender of their child and how that will dictate their decisions. Ultimately, we were just happy to have a healthy baby.
We called our parents and talked out how we’d handle Christmas this year. We didn’t need any gifts, but the baby would. My wife and I bought a big, long dresser for the guest room to put a changing pad on—and to put his clothes inside. We tried our best to temper our excitement and anxiety; most days, we failed. I’d spend hours frantic with anxiety and fear for all to come with having a child; I’d spend hours in bliss and expectation of meeting my son.
We couldn’t wait; we had no choice.
Waking Up to Loss
I woke up early in the morning and found my wife wasn’t in bed next to me. When I went to the guest room, I found her lying in bed, covered in the heaviest blankets. She told me to lie down next to her. I wrapped her in a deep, heavy hug. Our bodies were wracked with sobs that lasted for hours. For days.
On October 23rd, we lost the baby.
That day, that week, was a blur. Grief makes time lose all its depth. You wade along close to the shoreline, careful to not lose sight of the ever-vanishing land. Crying felt violent and feral like a wild animal was trying to escape from my chest. I’d felt bottomless grief a few times in life, but this was new, fresh, different—and much, much worse. My tears were so constant that I had a hard time seeing how they’d ever end.
I did my best to take care of my wife. I went to the store for more pads as she bled through them. I drove her to the doctor and to the grocery store. I ordered take-out and more take-out so neither of us had to go to the kitchen for any reason and see magnets holding the final ultrasound of our son.
When she was sleeping, I put away the prenatal vitamins, the baby books, and the ultrasound photos. I placed them in the bottom drawer of the long, flat dresser that would no longer be our changing table.
As the days went on, sadness rose like a wave. If I could breathe through it, I could ride it out and not be pulled under. I took the week off, but I dreaded going back to work. We hadn’t told anyone, so I wasn’t expecting difficult questions.
It was hard to look at people I once knew after so much had changed for us so quickly, so finally.
Why Did This Happen?
“If we ask the fundamental question, ‘Why did this happen?’ we must be prepared to look beyond the neat equations of cause and effect and learn to live with uncertainty. We cannot know for sure why bad things happen to good people, but we do know that not everything that happens is a result of our actions…. People cling to the view that the world is always just, for if it is not, then there is no way for them to control the randomness of their own losses. And this is frightening thought for many.”–Pauline G. Boss, Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live with Unresolved Grief
We had a flurry of doctor’s appointments that week. We both did our best to keep away the gnawing thought that we could have done something different. If only we had followed this sleeping pattern. If only we had realized this could be…. potentially….maybe…sometimes….a warning sign. I kept my focus on the immediacy of taking care of my wife and listening to the doctor.
It should come as no surprise that no answer was provided as to why the baby didn’t make it. Maternal health—and women’s health more broadly—is criminally understudied and underfunded.
We had a range of options as to why it could have happened. But none were certain. And none provided us a clear path of action. Or closure.
I had to tell both my parents—two of the hardest phone calls I ever made. We had told my dad only a few days after his birthday—but now we had to tell him that he’d have to wait for his grandson. I called him instead of video chat because I couldn’t stand to see the pain in his eyes reflected in my own. My mom, as always, took it gracefully and in stride. She had experienced plenty of hard choices and knew how little comfort the medical system offered women about their bodies.
People brought us food. Sent us cards. We appreciated them all. Each day got a little better. A little easier. When I met with my therapist, she said to take some time to write it all down because I would forget in time. Her suggestion was to finish out the story of my son’s life that I had built in my head.
Had we made plans for him (even at this early stage)? Of course, we had. Write them down, she told me. That’s part of the grieving process as well.
The Story of Our Son’s Life
Let’s rewind that Friday night. Say we didn’t lose him. Say that he stayed with us.
My wife’s pregnant belly got bigger and bigger. I helped her with her shoes, and we’d walk around the house so her feet wouldn’t swell up even more. I’d leave at all kinds of hours to get her cravings (baguettes and croissants; fried plantains and couscous) from whatever was open.
As we crossed into the new year, we began thinking about daycare and parental leave. We registered for baby clothes and cradles and everything else that was said to make our lives easier. We nervously thought about this new person who was going to disrupt our lives and change everything we had known about ourselves and the world.
When he came, he came like a bomb: moving everything around to fit him. My wife’s labor wasn’t long but sudden. She gave birth a week early (messing up our perfect timetable), and he came into the world screaming and crying and red-faced. I looked at him through the tears and kissed my wife’s head. I passed him along to her and saw her look at him the way she had looked at me when I had shown her the best parts of me. And he just got that for free, just for showing up!
We took him home and struggled through the first few weeks (months to be honest). His sleeping changed from day to day and week to week. My wife fed him at night, and I gave him bottles during the day. We changed diapers, and I brought the trash out a few times a day. It was surprising how much of it felt like a blur without day or night.
He began to sleep through more of the day and night. He began to crawl. To talk. To walk. He began to have a personality, little bits of my wife and me—and our parents and grandparents—in the way his eyes would scrunch up or how he’d smile out of the side of his face. He was like a living book of our family’s history in a tiny package.
When he’d play with other kids, he’d be gentle and kind. He didn’t like to be around too many other people, and he was a momma’s boy. In other words, he was my son through and through. When he started school, the teachers would always say he was a polite and sensitive little boy. His Grandpa and Grandma loved him and would smother him with kisses. He’d giggle and flail around on the floor when they kissed his belly. His Grand-mere taught him how to cook in the kitchen (we gave him a little stool) and would help him to smother himself with shea butter. She braided his hair while he ate plantains and yogurt. He’d sneeze at the hot sauce, and she’d laugh at him.
I brought him into the barbershop for his first haircut. He got a tight buzz cut, leaving bouncy curls all over the floor. He took after my wife’s grandfather and grew tall and thin. When he’d eat too much, you could see it in his belly, so that was my genes for sure. He was popular and easy-going at school. He did things daily that amazed me and his mother. We were constantly surprised and what he could—and did—do.
When he brought home his first girlfriend, my wife did her best to entertain her. She didn’t last long, and we breathed a sigh of relief.
I had told him to choose any college he wanted, and we’d make it work. When he got his acceptance letter at North Carolina, we were ecstatic. His mom had loved the school and had passed that love onto him. When we first visited, I followed the two of them around town as they compared notes nearly 30-some years apart. Chapel Hill had changed, but it had the same bones that my wife remembered. I smiled as they talked excitedly about late nights on Franklin Street.
Graduation came sooner than we imagined. He’d met a nice girl and had been dating her for a few years. I reminded him of my youthful first marriage and told him to stay young while he still could. He laughed at me—in that way that reminded me of my father and his father before him.
We looked out over the rolling green hills of Chapel Hill and I told him I was proud of him as I had hundreds of times before over the years. He said he was proud of me too. He felt ready for the world. His mother and I had done a good job.
He moved away from us in Atlanta: first New York, then Washington D.C., and finally settling in Chicago with his new wife. We kept threatening to move there to him, but we knew it was too cold for my wife to handle. We visited during holidays and—after our granddaughter was born—we started coming up every few months. We had settled on retiring this next year anyway, so we wanted to spend time with our granddaughter as much as we could.
My wife and I had never had a daughter, so our granddaughter was our chance to indulge in tea parties and dresses. We had Christmas with them every year, as long as I could make it to Chicago without my bones getting too cold.
When it was time for me to go, my son, his wife, and their kids—two more girls!—came down to say goodbye. I asked him to take care of his mother for me (he said he would) and that I was proud of him. He had turned out to be a great man, husband, and father. I hoped I had passed along what I could from my own family to him. He kissed me gently on the forehead and told me he loved me.
I told him he and his mother were the best things to ever happen to me. When I left him, it felt like life had been enough. Finally enough.
Hope and Grief are Neighbors
The tragedy of the world is that hope and grief are neighbors, and a visit to one becomes a visit with the other.
When we are fortunate, we come expecting grief and leave with hope. But, too often, we enter with hope and leave with grief. Ultimately, we must learn that these neighbors live next to one another inseparably.
This may be difficult; it may be the “source of our helplessness,” but it is also how the world works. The world is not just; it just is. Living with uncertainty is necessary—and demanded of us. And today, I’m learning to live with it a bit better than before.
For now, that’s all I’ll ask.
Owen Cantrell is a scholar, teacher, and writer living in Atlanta, Georgia. He works as an Assistant Professor of English at Perimeter College, Georgia State University in Alpharetta, Georgia and as a coordinator of the Georgia State University Prison Education Project. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife, playing banjo and guitar, and meditating.