After nearly three days of abandonment, our dispirited house amplifies our loss. The jubilant hugs in the hallway, once celebrating our newly discovered pregnancy, fizzle into sad embraces of sympathy. Excited chatter of baby names in the kitchen now consists of placeholder mumblings of hamburger toppings as lunch is passed around. Music that once filled the air with sweet melodies, inducing pop-up dance parties in the kitchen, has been muted. Ambling slowly, my grief-stricken feet carry me from one dead memory to the next. My downcast eyes preserve the tight seal on the jar of emotions I carry, tucked deeply in a remote corner of my numbed mind. Having contained my free-flowing tears since leaving the hospital, my overconfidence brims the top of the glassy vessel, creating a tense meniscus. As my eyes lift and see a solitary person–my grandma–standing in the living room, the thin glossy skin bursts, releasing the cries I so carefully held in.
Her small frame, six inches shorter than my own, reaches out to embrace me, wrapping me in a surprisingly strong, grandmotherly hold. Through a thick German accent, four words, “everything will be okay” crosses through the anesthetized air. Though her face holds steady, modest wetness lines the edges of her creased, hazel eyes. With less control, my tears shake in a final, shuddering sob, but retreat under her soft hands holding mine. I nod. Although her words are uncomplicated, she means each one of them. This hug, these words, these few stolen moments of solitude, guide the lid on my emotional jar to tighten, recapturing the remaining painful tears.
As everyone mindfully eats, nibbling between cautious conversation, my mind is drawn back to Sophia’s box. It sits on table, amongst hamburgers, french fries, and paper soda cups. I recount each item safely contained in this box, except for one late addition: a shiny, silver disc labeled Sophia Grace 12/31/10. Desperately, I want to see the sacred photos to which this disc is privy, to take in her short life all over again, to grasp at the only tangible images we have. Simultaneously, a wretched feeling in my gut tells me I am not ready to relive our daughter’s moments, living and otherwise.
“Everyone is welcome to look at the pictures. I cannot bear to see them yet,” I offer softly. Everyone agrees: my parents, my sister, my grandmother, and Jason. With their willingness to join in our pain, a gratefulness surges momentarily. Within seconds, nerves distend through the appreciation, igniting an instant anxiety about how these pictures will be received. Her skin is so red and fragile, her arms and legs so disfigured, her size so alarmingly tiny.
All these potentially disturbing features had waned under the glow of her peacefulness, of her fortitude, making way for only loving thoughts. I fear others will not be so forgiving.
What if they think she looks ugly or scary?
Urging my faith in the familial support to outweigh any overprotective fears, I stumble slightly to the bedroom door, turning back briefly to take in the facial expressions pre-show. With a snap, Jason opens the case.
On the brink of barricading myself, I call through the remaining crack between the door and frame,“Tell me when you are done.” Seeing Jason through the slit, he nods, turns back to the screen, and pushes play.
With the final click of the door knob, I release the airtight seal of the jar lid, allowing a few quiet tears to seep through the spiral maze of the screw-top. The notable softness of our duvet cover gently strokes my cheek, nuzzles my nose. Being surrounded by our own belongings brings a comfort the hospital could never reproduce. Craning my head to look at the wall opposite the headboard, the leaf print we so carefully chose to match the green of the decor focuses back on me. The x-ray-like allusion of the leaf exposes each spidery vein, each slender stem, each jagged saw-tooth edge. Together as a gestalt, the parts create the whole being–lest it be a leaf exposed from the inside out. Sighing in empathy for the leaf, my head rests comfortably on my pillow, no stiff paper pillowcase in sight.
The digital clock at the bedside, so used to waking us up each morning, now times each slow minute as I wait for this to be over. After ten advancements of the digital numbers, Jason comes in, lying down next to me.
“It’s over, Babe.” Stroking my arm slightly, he knows there is a fine line between a tickling torture and soft, soothing comfort. Smiling, a pride gleams from his eyes as he discloses, “Everyone liked the pictures.”
Rejoining the group, each pair of reddened, tortured eyes carries a tenderness along with it. A flurry of compliments extend through the uncomfortable silence as I carefully lower myself onto the chair, crumbling my protective resolve.
“The pictures were beautiful, Laura,” says my mom. “They were so well done, almost like a professional photographer.”
“They were so tastefully done,” agrees my sister.
“Hopefully soon I will be able to look at them too,” I whisper, my eyes burning in the shame I feel.
Seeing the unduly placed guilt I have cloaked over myself, my mom offers all she can. “You’ll get there. Just give yourself time and you’ll know when you feel ready.”
As the silence settles again, my sister leans over to her bag sitting inconspicuously next to the couch, and pulls out four little tins. Leaning in close to investigate further, I realize they are not just tins, but small pink candles. Lifting the cover off of each waxy pot emits my favorite scent into the stale room–sweet lilac.
“I thought I would bring a candle for everyone to burn in honor of Sophia.” Her tears waited until the second half of the sentence before breaking free from her large, sad, blue eyes. Mine mirror hers, from color and size, down to the fleeing tears.
Overwhelmed by her selfless gesture, my crackly voice squeaks, “Thank you”, and in broken verbiage, “This is…really thoughtful of you.” Wiping her cheeks, softly sniffling, she nods knowingly.
Lunch ends, show and tell ends, gift-giving ends. With everyone putting on their coats, giving us hugs with extra tight squeezes, one-by-one they file out the door into the tepid Wisconsin winter. The turning of each car engine preempts the grinding of the rubber wheels on pavement, the flash of the headlights, and the reluctant rolling down the driveway. With Sadie, our pug, remaining at my parents house a few more days, the remaining quiet is deafening and troubling. Standing in the large picture window, we lower our arms from waving. Without the beaming headlights, the hazy fog obscures the world outside. With a sharp snap, Jason pulls the blinds closed, completing the shutout of anything not secured within these walls. He pulls me close, and resting his arms on my shoulders he squeezes.
Whispering, as if to not disturb a sleeping baby, he says “What now?”
Shrugging, a heaviness descends over my body, forcing my eyelids to sag. With good, yet previously ignored reasons, I am utterly exhausted. Just the previous night, I had given birth to a baby. Before that, I slept in piecemeal fashion, an hour–or minutes–at a time.
“I could use to lie down for a while.”
“Me too. I think we are both just beyond exhausted.”
Gratitude that he is as tired as I incites a small grin. A self-proclaimed “no napper”, Jason rarely can be talked into even the shortest of snoozes. Our newfound seclusion begets my fear of having to be alone for any length of time. Companionless napping is too daunting, too scary. Ashamed of this new aversion, I implore sleep to take me to a blissful place. Snuggling under a fuzzy pink blanket, his body closely embraces mine from behind. The soft fabric barely stretches around the girth we create together. The chilly air stiffly settles in the house, taking advantage of the heat being turned down for the past three days. Enclosed in our blanketed sanctuary, the warmth grapples with the iciness, forcing its slow withdrawal. Quickly, almost simultaneously, we drift off to a distant universe: a universe where Sophia wasn’t born, a universe where Sophia didn’t die, a universe safer than our own. Unable to escape our living nightmare, vivid dreams of babies, hospital rooms, and an unsettling feeling of doom wildly rouses me from our protracted nap. Teetering on the brink of insanity in both worlds, my lucid mind ascends from the depths of REM sleep. Approaching reality, discombobulation dissolves as mourning reclaims its rightful place. The room, now darkened in the late afternoon, flashes maniacally elongated shadows with each passing car. Jason’s stationary body slumbers in a more peaceful dream world than mine had.
Unable to shake the growing malaise that invades my gut, sits on my chest, and overtakes my thoughts, I shake his arm, softly whispering in his ear a question to which I already know the answer, “Jason, are you awake?” In an uncontrollable torturous circle of irrationality, fear of being alone propagates a fear of having this feeling in the first place. Loneliness extends its unwelcome grip beyond the physical world, spawning a childish fear of being the only one awake in this darkness. Wanting to stash this new fear away in my tear jar, solder the lid shut, and throw it into Lake Michigan, I inwardly pray, plead really, to my own soul: Please let there be a time I feel that it is safe to be alone again.