A few weeks ago we decided it was time. Time to make time to take one more moment in our lives to pay homage to the baby girl we lost 5 years ago. The cemetery where her body is buried was kind enough to donate the head stone, we share a lot of history with some of the generous women who run the place, and we hadn’t seen it in it’s completion. We hemmed and hawed over when we should go, who should come with us, what should we do, and what should we say while we were there. Eventually we settled on her “birth date”, the date she actually came out of me, June 24th. Then we decided that it would be just us, the three of us, and our good friend Rabbi Julie Adler who has been a spiritual rock for us over the last 5 years having experienced a similar situation with her sister. The one thing I knew for certain I wanted to do was to release some balloons over her gravesite, to try and make the moment a symbolic release of all the anger, all the frustration, all of the dashed expectations, all of the ruined grand plans, and all of the loneliness that this and our other struggles have added to our lives. Even the morning of, we still didn’t know what to say but we knew what we wanted to do afterwards, we wanted to go for pancakes. Because life is painful, awful, stupid, unfair, and beyond disappointing at times, but the world keeps turning and we keep moving forward, so we go for pancakes. A simple yet comforting act that surrounds us with the regular, the normal, the outside world.
The night before she was born, the night that 5 years ago I was in the hospital in the middle of a tornado, inside my room and outside, where the water was pounding against the windows of Prentice, and my water, broken by the nurses, filled the room repeatedly, waves of liquid up to my ankles, it felt like I was going to drown. There are so many memories, both good and bad, that fade over time, but this one is so acute it’s like reliving it all over again. The rush of my family coming to meet me at the doctor’s office, the walk over to Prentice as it was just beginning to rain; my sister holding me on one side, Craig holding me up on the other side. The desperate conversations as we tried to check ourselves in for the “delivery” without screaming at the security guards and anyone else who pushed back on us, “my baby is dead, can you please just let me in and put me in a fucking room.” The smiley faces those same security guards wrote with such enthusiasm on everyone’s badges. The woman who greeted me in the room with a big smile, a care package, and a list of questions a mile long that still make me want to vomit in my mouth. “Do you want to hold her, do you want to name her, do you want to see her, do you want us to take foot prints, do you want us to take hand prints, do you want a baby book, do you want a blanket for her, do you want a hat for her…” it felt like she’d never shut up. Why would I want to hold her? She’s not a baby anymore, what does she need a blanket for, there’s no warming her up, why the fuck would I want a baby book, because this moment is so incredibly awesome?!? Can’t we just pretend that I’m going to take a big shit and there is no baby?!? Can’t you just cut her out of me? Do I really have to go through all of this without the big reward on the other side? Is this really going to be my first experience with childbirth? And what about my birthplan? It was an absolute tornado.
Finally a doctor from my practice showed up and she was small, sweet, warm and had these big green eyes that were easy to focus on while I desperately tried to listen to the words coming out of her mouth. It’s like walking around with big head phones on after you’ve gotten off of the Tilt A Whirl, almost impossible to focus on anything. Afterwards I walked into the bathroom to change out of my black dress I wore to shoot events in, called my clients to cancel both jobs I had on tap for that day, and just stood in front of the mirror in total shock. There was still a big belly on me, I was 8.5 months pregnant, but my body had betrayed me, had betrayed my baby girl, and the thought of her floating around dead inside of me was too much to look at. That was the last time I remember looking in the mirror for my entire stay.
Since we weren’t in a hurry to get her out my induction was slow and as the labor started up Craig and I found ourselves using the techniques we’d learned in class. Finally I looked at the nurses and begged for the epidural as soon as possible. It was so endearing to see Craig trying to help me through this, acting like this was all part of the plan, walking with me through our private hallway, but this wasn’t the plan. This wasn’t worth all of that effort. Why didn’t we spend a minute, not a minute in those stupid classes talking about this. Why doesn’t anyone talk about preparing for this moment in your path to be a parent. A part of me wanted to run through the hospital screaming to find that teacher to show her what we got from our “Great Expectations”.
The next morning it was time. I was dilated, I was ready, get it out. Craig arrived at the hospital that morning just in time to see me in that fabulous open air position with my 5’2 green eyed drill sergeant coaching me to push, holding his hand, staring at the ceiling, and feeling that ring of fire since most of my pain medication had worn off. They put her in a little booth set up in my room so my family could see her. I watched as each person viewed her for the first time; the horror, the disgust, the sadness, then pulling on a smile to face me. I still didn’t want to see her and I still didn’t want to hold her, after all, she wasn’t a “her” anymore. But I did have my camera in the room since it was left in my car, after all I was supposed to be shooting when it all began. I never intended to use it during this moment but I thought about another photographer I knew who spent time documenting her dying mother and how much I admired her courage, her strength, and the work. After the storm had passed and I could think straight I knew what I had to do. Right before we left the delivery room, after the rest of my family had left, the nurse helped us lay her down on the bench by the window and I took pictures. I literally took 8 pictures of her. I never take that few pictures of anything. It made me sick to my stomach at first, she didn’t look like a real baby, but then we stopped for a second and really looked at the baby she would have been. She had the Persin face, she had a ton of hair, she had a crinkle in her ear just like Craig’s. Her lips were blood red, her fingers were long and beautiful, her feet were perfect.
On June 23rd of this year we finally looked at those pictures I took five years ago that day. We had the same response. First total denial that it even looks like a baby, then once the horror and shock wore off, taking the time to look at those features again. More painful this time than the first time. After all, we didn’t truly understand what we lost back then. People say this time and time again but it’s always true and nobody every listens; you don’t understand what it means to be a parent until you are a parent. It’s just one of those things. Once we felt our bodies swell with the love we have for Aleck we understood what we lost on that day. But it wasn’t until we had him that we could even comprehend the size of our loss. And looking at those pictures, we didn’t have the stomach to view them full screen, we saw her perfectly formed body; elbows, knees, hips in place, feet in position, fingers perfectly formed, shoulders perfectly aligned, it hurt even more than it did five years ago.
Now we can’t help but compare these images to that of Aleck when he was first born; fingers crooked and crossed over, shoulders contracted, legs stuck straight, no elbows, hips out of sockets, and a club foot. No matter how much I tried to push it out of my head I’m completely leveled by the thought, “what if she had lived?” So much more painful after all the struggling, suffering, and heartache we’ve experienced while trying to give the best life to the very crooked little baby who survived. He’s amazing; charming, smart, and simply magical. We wouldn’t trade him for the world. But it didn’t have to be so hard, did it? We didn’t need to first mourn the loss of our baby girl and then mourn the loss of a “regular” child with a “regular” childhood. In this situation I hear parents say, “but if we hadn’t lost our baby then we wouldn’t have the child we have right now.” That doesn’t help me, that never helps me, I think it’s bullshit. We didn’t need the loss to appreciate our little boy, we wouldn’t be missing him right now if our baby girl had lived, we wouldn’t even know he was something to be missed. Now I can find the good, the lesson learned in these situations, it’s a survival mechanism for me. Why endure so much heartache if it doesn’t make you a better person, if it doesn’t eventually lead to a better life? We definitely value Aleck so much more than it seems many of our peers value their children and we continue to watch his progress so carefully celebrating even the smallest victories every chance we get. I laugh when I see frustrated parents dragging small children by their wrists, mumbling their grievances under their breath. Like most people in this world they have no idea how lucky they are. Don’t get me wrong, I get frustrated, I get upset, I’m a human like any other parent, but I don’t have that disgust or distaste or look of annoyance I see on so many parents around me. I can’t. We’ve overcome so much, we are so lucky to have the sweet boy we have, and I work everyday of his life to appreciate every moment. The road to get here was so painful that we can’t take any of it for granted.
On June 24th of this year it was a lovely summer day at the cemetery, just cloudy enough to echo our souls, just warm enough to wrap us in a hug. We brought our 5 red balloons, we sang some very inspiring and uplifitng songs, we said what we wanted to let go of as we let the balloons off into the air, and watched Aleck squeal with delight as he released the balloons himself. We hugged, we took a few pictures, and then we went for pancakes.