The change from calm, respectful reverence to full-blown panic and despair in just a few seconds is a curious thing. The feeling I had as I hung up the phone was one of being punched in the stomach, while simultaneously having my mind spinning in a centrifuge, as my entire face was being electrocuted.
What about that prayer? Was it sincere? Was God still present in that bedroom? Was He still good and loving? Did He see me? I would tackle these philosophical questions later; for now I simply tried to catch my breath, and figure out how to contact Joe at school. There were no cell phones back then; we would call the school office with our message and wait for that person to call us back. The message I sent, Call home now was sufficient to alert Joe that we were in trouble.
When Joe was able to reach me, I told him what happened, and of course he rushed home from downtown Atlanta. To borrow a line from a Les Miserables song, there’s a grief that can’t be spoken. Although I am sharing about this sad event, I cannot fully explain the depth of sorrow and sadness we went through. However I recall how we spent that torturous afternoon in our tiny Chamblee apartment. We had to accomplish the most mundane things such as laundry and packing while being overwhelmed with such heavy grief. And we had to do this while caring for Joshua in a way that would not upset him. So there were tears, smiles, hugs, quiet moans, affectionate kisses, and a pretense of normalcy that had to be sustained in front of this precious child. The things we do for love…I remember feeding and bathing him for the last time, and making sure to remove all his clothes from the dryer (for both our sakes).
In the early evening, the kind pastor and his wife knocked on our door, and came inside just briefly enough to gather the baby and his things, and to let us know how sorry they were to have to do this. We hugged and kissed this little boy, whom we thought of as our first-born son, but now had to return like a package that was delivered to the wrong address, and wept openly as we handed him over (although we tried so hard not to). We said goodbye, closed the door, and faced the emptiness in our apartment that seemed to be so loud and so heavy, that we could not bear it. I asked Joe if he could drive us around to nowhere in particular just so we did not have to sit in the emptiness, and he kindly acquiesced. As we drove around the Northlake area of Atlanta, we mostly sat in the car quietly stunned. I wondered if we would ever get back to normal again, and if we would laugh and smile again. Older, wiser people knew we would, but we didn’t back then. We drove back home exhausted, went to bed, and softly cried ourselves to sleep, hoping that tomorrow the sorrow would abate a bit. But of course it was waiting for us upon awakening, and greeted us each morning for what seemed to be an interminably long time. Things gradually looked normal again, but we were changed from this sad experience. Changed for the better, I now see, but at the time…no, I saw no good coming from any of it. Just ruin, and sadness. How nice it is at times to be wrong.
As mentioned earlier, the kind pastor and his wife were also unable to have children. We heard years later that they were so traumatized by the events of that day that they were indeed afraid to adopt. But like us, they were people of faith, and eventually did adopt two children, and were very happy. Many years later, when I was a mom of three, I wrote to the kind pastor to let him know that God had both healed our pain, and answered our prayers, and that we were ok.
Others who have lost a child can understand the deep and overwhelming pain that seems to render you unable to breathe. However unlike the song mentioned above, the pain does not go on and on. Someone mentioned that my vivid recall of these sad things seems to indicate that I am still suffering their effect. I am happy to finally be able to say that I remember the pain, but I do not feel it. Oh there are small twinges as I awaken these locked up memories, but it does not hurt as it once did, and for that I am grateful. But I think that the love you had for this little person does go on and on.
Since this sad time, I have met many others who have lost or will lose a child. For some of my young friends, they are carrying a child who cannot survive outside the womb. They must go through an entire pregnancy with the sad knowledge that the baby they are bonding with will die upon its entry into the world. At least infertility has no outward signs; but for these brave mothers, they must endure many well-intentioned comments about how far along they are, how many children this will make for them, and how excited they must be to welcome their new baby home. I cannot imagine their pain. For others, they lost their child minutes, days, months, or years after its birth, some to cancer, some to accidents, some to violent crime, and some to war. I do not compare my story to theirs, and I do not think I have suffered more than they have. Some of my older readers will recall the old daytime TV show Queen for a Day, where basically the woman with the saddest story won the most kitchen appliances, based on the applause meter. Alright, that is a much abbreviated version of the show, kind of like the synopsis of West Side Story written by my daughter: Tony’s dead and Maria’s sad. (I giggled as I found this in her notebook, and still do now). My point is that the loss of a child is devastation no matter when or how it happens, and that a mother’s heart never quite gets over it. When my mom’s older sister, Dot, passed away a few years ago, my first thought was that she now, for the first time ever, was relieved of the sorrow of losing her precious Denise to crib death, as it was called then, back in the 50s.
They say that time heals all wounds; I think that is mostly true. I believe more specifically that God uses people and experiences and time to help us heal. However healing is not the goal, but rather growth from life’s experiences is. But healing is, in the words of Ira Gershwin, nice work when you can get it. Next time I will share how that happened for me. The good news is that it happened.