Monday, October 15, 2012


“Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne?
Though she may forget, I will not forget you!
See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands;”

This past August, Eric and I celebrated Ethan’s third birthday.  We have a second son now, another little boy.  At nearly 20 months, he’s bursting with new words, with more physical energy than the two of us put together, and with insatiable curiosity about the world around him.  His name is Noah – a name that reminds us of the shelter that carried the last remaining life on earth, like a flickering flame held in cupped hands, through the overwhelming darkness and waters of death until it reached a place where it could burn brightly again.

We wanted to celebrate Ethan’s life in a way that would begin to help Noah understand as he grows up that he has a brother, to know his story and the story of our family. We spent the evening celebrating with birthday candles, looking at Ethan’s birth photos, and listening to recordings of his heartbeat.  Noah loves pictures of babies (candles, sweets, and heartbeat sounds, too), so although we didn’t expect him to understand something as abstract as a brother who he can’t see or touch, he did understand that we were doing something special.

“Oh.  Are you still doing that?!”  It was not the response I expected to get when I mentioned our celebration of Ethan’s birthday to a family member. 

Yes, we are still remembering our son.  

We will be remembering our son for the rest of our lives, as long as our brains and our bodies have the capacity to remember.   I will remember the joy and sheer terror of that blue plus sign on the pregnancy test.  I will remember our first glimpse of him on the ultrasound – a little kidney bean with a steady pulsing heartbeat.  I will remember the delicate flutter of his first movements deep in the shelter of my pelvis and later, the way he made us laugh out loud with his wild kicks and punches in my belly.  I will remember the stunned grief of the day we learned that he wouldn’t live past birth.  I will remember the power and magnificence of my body at work, the labor pains washing over me like waves, every cell of my body straining to give him life.  I will remember the weight of his tiny body in my arms, his eyelashes, his beautiful hands and feet, the miracle of his heart beating inside the delicate arc of his ribs.  I will remember.

I will remember the way his little life – so fragile and vulnerable – called me to a fierce strength that I didn’t know could contain.  I will remember that my love for Ethan, my firstborn, cracked my heart wide open to the pain of this world so that for months after his death I couldn’t bear to listen to the news because every story of suffering led me back, instantly, to the anguish of a grieving mother.  I knew that, even if I never had another child, I would always walk through the world with the wide open eyes and the raw heart of a mother.  I couldn’t forget if I tried.  

When Eric and I began to spread the word about Ethan’s diagnosis, I found that I was a part of a vast and silent sisterhood of grief.  Women everywhere – in my office building, at my church, in the grocery store, through letters sent from across the country – began to tell me their own stories of the children they carry in their hearts.  

We had three miscarriages before our first living child.

My oldest son died as a toddler.  

My son was stillborn twenty years ago this May.  The nurses left me to labor alone, as if I should be shunned for giving birth to a child who had already died.  They wouldn’t even let me hold him.

Our daughter is a twin, but her sibling died in the first trimester.

Our youngest was stillborn.  My priest refused to baptize her or give her a Catholic funeral because she never took a breath. I baptized her myself and the sisters let me bury her in their cemetery.

What astounded me was that I had never heard these stories before.  All around me were men and women who had been changed forever by their love and grief for a child.  And I had no idea.  

Today is National Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day.   It seems strange that we need an official day (declared so by the President, no less) to remember our children.  There is no question that parents who have lost children remember them.  We remember them every day, in every cell of our bodies.  We are different people for having loved them.

The question is whether or not we will remember them out loud and whether the people who love us will remember them with us.  Will their names be mentioned with gratitude in the pastoral prayer at our churches on Sunday?  Will our extended family include them when they name our children?  Will we dare to tell our firstborn’s story when a new acquaintance asks if the lively little toddler running around the room at a neighborhood potluck is our only child?  Will we send a note to friend, remembering the due date of the babies she grieves?  And will we let the fierce love and compassion that grew in us through the pain of losing a child move us to act for other children who are vulnerable and suffering?

Remembering out loud, remembering with our lives is a revolutionary act.  

When we remember out loud, we are declaring that our children’s lives were not a sad mistake or a brief tragedy, but a gift from God that can still bear fruit in our lives and in our communities.  That the dark waters of death have not extinguished the beauty we found in sheltering their lives.  That the names that we carry in our hearts are also engraved on the palms of God’s hands, who has not forgotten, but holds them now, and has promised that their bodies will once again be filled with the breath of life.