The Narrow

Have you ever noticed how often we use words associated with death and dying when we describe how babies sleep?  Dead asleep, dead to the world, sleeping like an angel, out like a light, in another place, dead weight, gone, out to it, passed out.   People sometimes say these things when describing Elijah sleeping.  Then they realise and look at me with momentary horror as they register the meaning of their words.  It’s okay.  It doesn’t worry me too much.   But there is a reason we use those descriptors.   The space between a baby sleeping and a baby never waking is narrow.  Narrow in a way that terrifies me.

When Elijah is deeply asleep, his body still and his breathing almost undectably shallow, I panic.  I place my hand against his stomach until I feel sure that he is okay.  Even though I know what a baby without breath looks like, I am still terrified.  That moment that severs them from life is instant in most SIDS cases.   One moment of this earth and the next beyond it.   I imagine two lines branching out from single one.  Two lines travelling in very different directions, but at their origin, separated by only the slightest of degrees.  When Elijah is deeply asleep, it’s not a stretch to imagine him taking the darker of those two paths.

I used to say “babies bounce” and be part of the confident parenting brigade that espoused the deceptive toughness of newborns.  It’s conventional parental wisdom – you are afraid of breaking your firstborn and treat them like china.  You realise that they are tougher than they seem and relax on your second.  And it’s true – babies survive so much.  It’s hard to hear tales of babies surviving starvation, abuse, tragic accidents and medical difficulties when your own baby couldn’t even survive a nap.   I love a miracle story as much as the next person, but there will always be that lingering thought “where was my miracle?”    Why was Xavier the antithesis of a miracle? He had a 999 in 1000 chance of living and he did not.

When my first son, Isaac, was born I expected to feel an immense love. I had read enough to know that would happen. I was surprised by the ferocity of that love.  That feeling that I would not only take a bullet for my son, but that I would have no problem pulling the trigger if I needed to, to protect him.     That there was absolutely nothing I would not do for him.  A lioness with her cub.  When Xavier was stolen by SIDS, I had no chance to fight for Xavier.  We were given a day in hospital, which is so much more than so many SIDS families, but it was immediately clear that this was a chance to say goodbye. There was to be no fight.   There was no rollercoaster of “will he make it or not”. There was just a little life snuffed out.   He had no chance to change his world whilst he was a part of it.   He was here and then no longer here.   The space between those realities too narrow.   No space for me to squeeze between and save my son.   Two weeks.   A sliver of time, too short to seem of consequence.   And yet his impact is indelible.   He changed lives.  Mostly for the better, but now fear is written on my heart.

The chances of Elijah dying are narrow.   So close to zero that it would seem impossible.  But Xavier fell into that narrow crack, beyond all reason and sense.
As Elijah gets older, the smiles and gurgles more frequent, he feels more of this earth.   It feels as though his place is permanent.    And every time he wakes again in the morning, the gap between him and the unthinkable narrows.

The Inside and the Outside

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Every Saturday my little family heads down to the local coffee shop and I wonder what we look like to other people. Beautiful four year old running at the front of the pram, cute little Hugo, our cavalier puppy, on his heels. N or I pushing the pram, lightly touching each other around the waist. It must look idyllic. It must look like the perfect family. What it looks like and what it is are so very different.

I felt similarly when pregnant. I wondered if people who had recently suffered loss or infertility looked jealously at my growing bump.

I know in the weeks after Xavier died I wanted to rush up to mothers of newborns and say “Do you know? Do you know how utterly privileged you are?” I wanted to talk to those heavily pregnant and ask “Do you know? Do you know the precious weight of what you carry?” I didn’t of course. But what if I had and she had returned the pain in my own eyes. If she would have said, with a heaviness another loss mother would recognise, “Yes”.

We go about our daily battles and it seems like everyone else’s battles are being easily won. But we don’t know. We don’t know how much pain lies before apparent happiness. Each of us are icebergs, only revealing the tip of our lives. Carefully constructing the image we allow the world to see. We know this of ourselves – why do we presume that everyone around us does any differently?

My personal Facebook feed is filled with photos of Elijah on different outings – parks, various beaches, numerous cafes. As my parents are currently overseas, I am posting daily pictures so they can watch him grow. This no doubt gives the impression of a terribly confident mother – happily out and about with a perfectly behaved newborn. This would be a generous assumption. In truth, I am not a homebody and will always prefer out to in. When I am at home alone with Elijah, the darker thoughts creep in. It’s when I hold him close and beg him not to die. Do I prefer the facade of a mother breezing through parenthood? Of course, but it masks a darker truth.

I never want to be defined by my loss – although I am happy to be shaped by it. But sometimes, I want to scream “Getting here wasn’t easy – the road to this seeming perfection was paved with tears and still, always, there is someone missing”.

But that’s not the image I have chosen to present to the world. There is a large element of choice here. Could I fall apart? Of course I could, in a heartbeat, in an instant. But I hold myself and my family together. Is this a form of lying? Would it be truer to myself to let more of the pain show? Would it ease the pressure on those around me if I was to be more “real”? I am not sure. So much of how I coped with Xavier’s death was “fake it until you feel it”. When faced with something that cleaves your heart in two, people really don’t want to see the full ugliness of it. I didn’t want to be the full ugliness of it. For all our talk of being real, there comes a point of too real. And so I have been play-acting for some time now. Not just for those around me, but for me. I have been play-acting for so long that it might be difficult to tell where the reality and where the acting meet. And perhaps this simply is my new reality.

Being grateful for each and every moment, striving to live in the now and taking advantage of every possibility can seem unbearably Pollyanna-ish. It can seem fake and impossible. But my alternative is impossible and so I take this path and I will smile through the pain.

The Magic of a Newborn

As my eldest son Isaac (now 4) grew from newborn to baby to toddler, I would announce each new phase as my favourite so far.  But the newborn stage holds a special place in my heart.   There is just something magical about new life in its most infant form.  This tiny little person, full of possibility, but right now totally dependant.    Baby at breast, surrounded by my family,  offers a level of contentment that cannot be easily surpassed.  Watching N hold little Elijah – both relaxing on the couch – fills me with warmth and gratitude.   The little mewls, the grip of a tiny hand around your fingertip, those bewildered first glances until they catch your eye and gaze back your reflected love.   The cuddles at all hours of the day and night.  I can’t properly describe how much I love each moment.  I felt this with Isaac, with Xavier and now with Elijah.  When Xavier died so young, I felt particularly robbed of this beautiful stage.  So I treasure every sight, every sound, every smell, every touch that Elijah offers.

A dear friend gave birth to her first – a little girl- two days before Elijah came into the world.  When we met up for the first time after our babies were born she cried with me over Xavier.  Her absolute love for her daughter giving her a glimpse into what the impossible pain of losing Xavier might have been.   Even now, with Elijah in my arms, I wonder how I survived – and continue to survive – without one of my children.   But his love remains and my heart richer for him being a part of our lives.   I am a better, more patient and more grateful parent after loss.  And the magic of a newborn has me spellbound once again.

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