You Should Also Know

It's been two months now, two months filled with the difficulties of early grief.

But you should also know that there is a beauty about these days I still don’t have words for, a beauty that is palpable even here, even in these days heavy with her absence.

* * * * *

It’s the week after Lily’s delivery. CJ and I are out for breakfast, eating pancakes at a diner and trying to plan our baby girl’s funeral, when a friend texts us a link to a song.

I listen to it later in the car by myself, in between stops at Old Navy for funeral clothes and Costco to pick up premade soups for the burial luncheon.

And I know as soon as I hear the first line that it is the right song for our Lily: So beautiful how could we not believe.

I listen and I can’t stop crying.

The words speak to the beauty I’d sensed in that hospital room just a few days previous, even as I held my too-small, too-cold, too-still daughter.

I can’t explain it really. It was perhaps the worst day of my life. I watched my husband and my daughters hold Lily in their arms, and I held her too, and my heart split open with the joy and sorrow of it.

So beautiful how could we not believe.

* * * * *

On Valentine’s Day, we make doughnuts at my brother’s house, snow on the ground outside, dough swelling in the warmth of the kitchen. The girls run around with their cousins, a trail of dolls and dress-up clothes in their wake, and I work in the kitchen with my grandmother and the recipe she’d scrawled on an index card decades before I was born.

At one point, I hear the girls in the adjacent room, planning a funeral for one of their baby dolls. Their mood is cheerful, their play creative and cooperative. But they’re planning a funeral for a baby.

I hate that they are playing this, that they are reliving the cold, hard day of Lily’s burial in the midst of a happier one. I wish they didn’t have a category for babies dying. I don’t want this to be my legacy to them, I think.

They’re not acting sad, but I know that on some level, their little hearts are being broken, and I hurt for them, these children I love the best.

Later that afternoon, I stand at the kitchen counter and help as each of the girls takes a turn cutting out a few doughnuts. I guide pudgy toddler fingers and delicate little girl hands, and we fill the dining room table with row after row of our hollow circles.

And then we fry them and eat them, still warm in our hands, and we smile with delight, powdered sugar dusting our lips.

We love. We grieve. Then all seek our reprieve.

* * * * *

At our church women’s retreat a few weeks later, I sit around a table in a sterile basement classroom with a group of women who’ve been assigned to be a small group for the weekend, a group of women I know very little.

I stare at the wildflower arrangement in the center of table and listen to the others introduce themselves, knowing that when it’s my turn, I’ll talk about Lily and about Avaleen too. I’ve reached the point where it’s almost impossible to explain who I am, to tell any real version of my story, without talking about them.

I’m the last to speak. “I have two daughters,” I say, “and I’ve lost two daughters. One of them just last month.”

My voice breaks, and I look up to see that I’m not the only one crying. One woman shares about her own pair of pregnancy losses. Another tells me she how she pictures one of my girls sitting in a room like this someday, sharing about the sisters she’d lost and how God had met her even there.

I remember then something my Mom had said when she was here taking care of us after Lily died, about how she had a sense God would use this loss to help make my girls who He wants them to be, that somehow deep pain would help unleash great good in their lives.

I tell the ladies with me around that table that I believe this, and they pray with me that it will be so.

So beautiful how could we not believe.

* * * * *

Beside me while I write is the Easter lily my oldest child picked out in memory of her sister. Several of its buds are still pressed tightly together, sealed, enclosed. But two have begun to open, white petals unfurling, beauty erupting.

It’s fitting, I think, that a lily’s glory comes from its unfolding, for Lily’s life and death are teaching me about the beauty of coming undone, of the holiness found in being broken.

This Easter, I keep coming back to Jesus’ words to us on the night of His betrayal:This is my body broken for you.

So beautiful how could we not believe.

Early Grief

IMG_9430 I wake up tired, the kind of tired that coffee doesn't touch.

My days are full of normal activities: breakfast preparations, breaking up sibling squabbles, picking up toys, loading kids in the car for errands and activities, breaking up more squabbles, picking up more toys.

But my brain isn't normal at all. My thoughts are hazy, disjointed. When I talk to friends, I ramble, or I don't say much of anything at all.

I crave time alone and also I feel isolated.

"The baby died," my two year-old says, in the middle of her afternoon play. "The baby died."

"Yes," I say. "She did."

I don't cry then, nor do I cry when my four year-old prays at bedtime. "Dear God," she says. "Please put another baby in Mommy's belly."

She pauses then continues, "The kind that doesn't die."

"Amen," I say simply and kiss her forehead.

Later though, when all is finally quiet and still, I ignore the crumb-littered floors and the toys strewn on the carpet. I crawl into my own bed, and the tears come with such force that I struggle to catch my breath.

It's been one month since we said goodbye.

Letters for Lily

  Lily1

At Lily's burial service, CJ and I both read letters we'd written her. I am posting them here in the order we read them that day.

Lily,

I have no idea where to start this letter. I’m not sure I’ve ever written a letter to someone who will never hold it and read it. My hope and prayer is that God will allow you to know my heart and love for you, even though we have yet to meet.

I want to first think about joy. Though you were born still, your gift to us was learning that you existed and getting to tell your sisters that you were “in Mommy’s belly.” Ellie was exuberant. Celia tried to see you by lifting up Mommy’s shirt. Though sadness was to follow several weeks later, you brought us joy and memories we will never forget; just by being. Thank you.

When we were at the doc’s for your 20-week ultrasound, you were still. You were measuring about a month behind. You didn’t have a heartbeat. You were being, yet you were gone. I’ll never forget driving home, sitting in a parking lot down the street with Mommy. Crying. Praying. Calling your grandparents. The hardest thing I’ve ever had to do was tell Ellie, as she sat in my lap. Her attention immediately snapped from a distracted, “what now, Daddy?” to utter sadness.

We could have kept your existence as quiet as possible, managed risk, theoretically minimized the damage if the worst were to happen. We didn’t do that because we wanted to celebrate your life. All of it. Jesus said in John that He “…came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” With all friendships there are risks. With all marriages there are risks. With all children there are risks. Risks of giving and not receiving. Risks of being hurt and risks of losing someone. Having life abundantly means taking those risks.

You gave your sisters the opportunity to live life abundantly. To experience immeasurable joy and to grieve. We would rather have had the experience of them smothering you with love and telling you what to do, but make no mistake that you have been a blessing to us.

Our family is now and will forever be incomplete. Nobody could ever replace you. When we see newborns this spring and summer, toddlers next year and 10-year-olds in a decade we will wonder what you would have been like. It will make us sad, sometimes cry, but we will know that you are with Jesus, having life eternal. We will long for the day when we meet you, and Him and also your sister Avaleen.

I want to honor your memory by living life abundantly. By loving those around me, appreciating the gifts God has given me in your mom, your sisters and you; not fearing the pain of loss. While the pain of losing you is indeed severe, living a life with fear of loss is a burden too difficult for me to bear. I love you, Lily.

Love,

Daddy

 

* * * * * * *

 

Dearest Lily,

There are so many words I wish I could say to you on this day, this day that we gather to celebrate your life and also to grieve its end.

I want to tell you about the day when your Daddy and I first learned that you existed. I knew then that your presence inside me would lead to long months of fatigue and sickness, but still, I felt joy and excitement at the gift of your life.

I want to tell you about the moment when we first told your sisters about you, about how Ellie squealed with delight and how Celia lifted up my shirt, wanting to look and see if she could find this “baby in Mommy’s belly” that Daddy kept talking about. They were both so excited to meet you. We all were.

I want to tell you about the people standing in front of me today, your grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins, the friends and neighbors who celebrated with us when we first told them about you. They loved you too, and they’ve shown their love for you and for us these past two weeks, in flowers and meals and prayers and tears, in their willingness to simply be with us in the darkness.

I want to tell you about the day you were born, about the difficult beauty of those precious hours we had to hold you in our arms. I want to tell you about the wonder of your tiny body, the marvelous intricacy of your mouth and nose and toes. I want to tell you about the doctor and the friends who cried with us that day, about the sisters who loved you just as you were, about the way we felt God’s presence with us even as we said goodbye.

I wish I had a lifetime to tell you these stories, to wrap you in my arms and hold you close, and recount for you the memories stored up in my heart. You were loved my sweet girl, and you are loved still.

This morning, your sister Ellie placed a card inside your coffin. It read, “I am sorry that you died.” And in the end, I don’t have much to add to her words. I am sorry that you died, my Lily girl. So very, very sorry.

Love,

Mommy

Lily Mae

Her name sounds like springtime, echoes the month in which she should have been born. Instead, I delivered her small, still body in winter, just days before the largest snow storm my living daughters have ever seen.

It's been nine days since we said goodbye, and this morning, we awoke to streets blanketed in white. This feels right, like for a few, fleeting moments, the world really is standing still while we grieve.

But the sun is out now, and the snow is already beginning to melt. Stores are reopening, and all too soon, CJ will return to work and there will be preschool and ballet class and church. Our lives will continue even though her's did not.

I'd been watching Call the Midwife throughout my pregnancy, and since those terrible moments in the ultrasound room, I've thought often of the episode where Jenny's fiancé died after a sudden, tragic fall. I've kept returning to the words of one of her patients, a Holocaust survivor, the words that pierced me even as I felt the child inside me flutter and kick. Keep living, she said,  until you feel alive again.

When Avaleen died three and a half years ago, I spent months convinced I could never be truly happy without her, that the deep sadness I felt would always be with me. This time, I know better.

But still, the days are long and the nights are sad, and the road ahead, while not unfamiliar, often feels unbearable.

People ask me how I am doing, and I don't know what to say. But perhaps I should say this: We are living, allowing God to carry us in this darkness, trusting that one day we will feel alive again.

52: Quiet

52 Week 16 It's been quiet here lately. August's been a delightfully slow month for us--long, lazy days full of playgrounds and Popsicles and lots and lots of coloring.

This blog's been quiet too. This is in part because I've been devoting most of my writing time to book revisions, but it's also because I've found myself in an uncertain place, asking God lots of questions and not hearing many answers. I'm an introvert, and when things feel shaky, I pull inward, waiting until I find solid internal ground before I fully reemerge.

In the shower the other day, I found myself thinking about how great it will be when I'm done wrestling, when I've learned whatever it is I'm supposed to learn from this time. "I'll be a more effective wife and parent," I thought. "I'll be better able to minister to others."

And then, He interrupted: "Abby, I'm not changing you so you can better care for others. I'm changing you because I love you."

The words encouraged me, and they stung. I believe them to be true and also I do not. I'm good at efficiency, productivity, and achievement. I love thinking of creative ways to do and to do well. I'm not so comfortable with just being loved. It is hard for me to believe that God would care enough about my heart to work in it, not for some greater purpose, but simply for me.

And so I wait here in the quiet, trusting God will find a way to help me understand this sort of love.

52: Full

52 Week 15 They are competitive for my attention these days. If one of them is sitting in my lap, the other one wants to be there too. When I pick up one of them at church on Sundays, the other stretches out her arms. Last Sunday, I stood during worship, one girl in each arm, thinking more about the challenge of holding them both securely than whatever song we were singing at the time. It's tempting in moments like these to miss the days when I could worship free of responsibility and distraction. But my recent book revisions have taken me back to the days we struggled with infertility, when I often looked with longing at the families in adjacent rows at church, busy, squirming little bodies everywhere. Then, I felt barren, empty. Now I am grateful to have my arms so very full.

Eighteen Months

18 Months You are eighteen months today, baby girl, and I can scarcely believe it.

It seems like just yesterday you were a snuggly little bundle nestled against my shoulder or settled in your bouncy seat, contentedly watching the world go by.

Now, those still, snuggly moments come rarely. You are always on the run these days, your perfect little curls bouncing as you go.

You love to be outside, to watch your sister and her neighborhood buddy whizz by on their bicycles, to climb in and out of your play house, to point out the trucks at the school construction site nearby.

You love words and are picking up new ones every day now. You are constantly asking for a "nack" or for your little blue sun "at" to wear outside.

You love Elmo and bears and babies and fruit of all kinds.

You love playing with people's hair and often fall asleep with your little fingers holding on to your own curls.

You love to laugh, to make us laugh. When you taste a particularly delicious food, your whole face lights up in a smile, and you giggle. When we ask you what your name is, you usually say, "Nor-Nor," your word for your little friend Nora. You love how we react to your intentional mistake, the way we say shake our heads and laugh at your antics.

Your love is fierce, baby girl. When you want a hug or a kiss, you come at me full force, throwing yourself at me with abandon. If your dad or your sister is laying on the ground, you love to run and dive on top of them. You don't worry that you won't be caught; you just leap.

As you have from the beginning, you continue to bring all of us so much joy.

Four

Four Years Somewhere between three and four you stopped being a toddler and became a little girl.

I'm not sure when the shift happened exactly, if your toddlerhood faded with the need for diapers and naps and sippy cups, or if you achieved little girl status with your first day of preschool or your first independent scooter ride.

But what is most certainly true is that, somehow, it has happened. You, my Ellie girl, are indeed a little girl, a precious, delightful, insightful little girl.

There is much about you that hasn't changed. You remain curious, imaginative, and thoughtful. You are still tentative in new situations and fiercely and creatively argumentative when trying to get your way. You continue to enjoy building things and making crafts and playing dress-up.

But there are changes too. You don't play with your baby dolls as much, though you can't stop admiring any newborn you see. You're into princesses now, so much so that "Rella" and "El-sa" and "Anna" are among your sister's first words. You are getting more confident every day on your scooter and your bike, speeding around our little court with a broad smile on your face.

I'm beginning to see that you're a homebody like your mommy. As much as you love preschool, you are often reluctant to go, telling me how much you want to stay home with your mommy and your sister. You rarely request to leave the house and go somewhere, but you regularly ask if anyone is coming over or if we can go outside and play with your neighborhood buddy.

You think deeply about things. The other morning, minutes after waking up, you asked me who took care of the first people on Earth. I stopped blow drying my hair and tried to explain that Adam and Eve weren't created as babies, so they were able to take care of their children. After processing that, you asked how there could be more babies since Adam and Eve only had boys.

There is so much I think about these days as I see the world through your eyes. It is daunting to try to answer your questions about God and friendship, to teach you about manners and integrity. Often at night, when I go in your room to check on you before heading to bed myself, I find myself praying for help.

You've told me, Ellie girl, that you can't hear God speak to you, that you don't yet know how to listen for Him in your heart. But I pray that in the year to come, He will become increasingly real to you in a very personal way, just as He did for your four year-old Mommy so many years ago.

52: Sisters

52 Week 14 They love each other, these two. When Ellie's at preschool, Celia inquires, "El-wie? El-wie?"

"She's at school," I tell her.

"School," she repeats, nodding emphatically.

Five minutes later, it begins again. "El-wie? El-wie?"

When we go to the mom's group at church, Ellie insists on staying in the baby class with Celia. "She won't cry if I am here," she says.

They also squabble and push and vie for attention, but in the good moments, when their joy in one another is evident, I can't help but wish I had a sister too.