October marks the month to recognize Pregnancy and Infant Loss. Today, we’re sharing one story about loss from Katie Colt. She’s written for us before, on a much lighter subject; today she’s sharing an essay about her first son, Max, who passed away shortly after his birth.
By Katie Colt
Standing outside in the frozen cold on Valentine’s Day, I put down a shovel. My eyes were blurry with tears, and I couldn’t look at anyone except my husband, whom I turned to and embraced. Our bodies interlocked, I quietly hoped that I would disappear in his arms where we stood. We scattered the last of the dirt over the tiniest wooden coffin in the forested section of a cemetery, in front of everyone we knew. The coffin contained the body of our first and only son.
Max was born following a routine induction a week after his due date, but entered the world without breath and with little pulse. After hours and days of treatments to revive him, an MRI revealed catastrophic brain damage as a result of having lost total access to oxygen, a hypoxic ischemic encephalopathic (HIE) event, at some unknown point. The results confirmed what we had feared since his arrival: every thinking, feeling, perceptive piece of him was gone, never to return, and never to have a chance to flourish in what should have been the start of his life. The beautiful, otherwise robust child I had just birthed was brain dead. The hospital and doctors abdicated responsibility by estimating that the injurious oxygen loss occurred days before I had even set foot in the hospital. We were ruined.
We had always wanted children. “When” was swiftly decided for us, as I became pregnant almost immediately following the mutual agreement that we would “see what happens” at the end of my birth control pill cycle. It was a leap-of-faith decision—we would let Nature take its course. It just so happened that Nature was on the fast track to making us parents. We gladly and joyfully hopped aboard.
Later, on that same day in February, people gathered at my parents’ house to pay their respects. In a fog of house calls, condolences, hugs, and tributes, someone uttered a small sentence that landed with a thud on my heart: “There will be another.” The shock, the anger, the horror that someone might suggest this on the day I buried my first child warranted a response, but the numbness of an abysmal grief solidified my silence. I had nothing to say.
As the initial shock of our loss faded in intensity during the following weeks and months, anger grew quickly and fiercely. This anger was directionless, pointed at everything, anyone, and no one at all. In this vacuum, the idea that “there will be another” was a piece of shit that people say when they themselves want to hope for a better tomorrow but presently have no insight into the impact of said words on those they impart them to. I don’t want a fucking other kid. I want my baby. Give me my fucking baby back. Give me my motherhood back. Give me my future back.
My husband and I fought a lot in those early days. We cried a lot, too, but I kept crying long after he stopped. I got mad at him for not crying. He got mad at me for expecting his sadness to continually produce waterworks. We felt listless and defeated.
Time kept inching forward. We didn’t know what to do with ourselves, because we had prepared to share ourselves with someone new. The potential of love and parenthood and memories and the making of a life sat empty, achingly unfulfilled, in every interaction between us.
A doctor at a follow-up appointment tried to be encouraging, saying it would require a leap of faith to get pregnant and go through it all again. All I wanted to do was leap out of the office window and crash onto the cement below, so I wouldn’t have to listen to anyone else talk to me about other future children. I wasn’t sure I was ever going to take a chance on anything again, ever. Taking a chance on Nature seemed too risky. Not all babies live, not even in this cushy, technologically advanced age of endless information that we surround ourselves with to achieve an illusion of control over our lives. Not all babies live.
A strange envelope arrived in the mail one day. It contained a flash drive with a children’s museum logo on it—my former employer. We had moved home before Max was born for my husband’s new job and to be closer to family, and I missed my coworkers terribly; they were my friends, my family while living away. I stuck it in the computer, and a video began to play. The screen was filled with the museum’s employees, talking to us one by one, telling us stories, reading us letters and poems, expressing their condolences and their hopes. And then:
“I know this is super hard to hear right now, but please don’t be scared to try again. I have an older brother, his name is Quincy, and he passed in much the same way. We remember him every year—we love him very much. But, don’t be afraid, because no one deserves to be parents more than you do. And if my parents had been too scared, I wouldn’t be here.”
I watched with mouth agape, tears streaming down my face in a mixture of disbelief and awe. Here was my friend, sharing the intimate fact that his own life had been created as a result of his grieving parents’ leap-of-faith decision. It never occurred to me until then that having another baby might in fact produce another life—one that might actually get to be lived. In that moment, that corrosive “there will be another” statement began to lose its sharpness, its wounding capability. It began to represent something tangible, something loving, something to share the present and future with. This person’s statement caused the first light bulb to turn on in my head, laying the wire of the first connection to life on the other side of Max’s death.
After several months, my husband and I decided to try again. It was a decision of love, of heartache, and of desperation. At that point, the hope of continuing our lives and marriage with the promise of family was only minutely stronger than the fear of losing again, but the moment our collective scale tipped toward readiness, we knew we had to take advantage of it. Neither of us wanted that fear to singularly dictate the rest of our lives, especially since we had an early idea that we’d be grappling indefinitely with various versions of our grief.
Luckily, I became pregnant again quickly, and with it, I had to implant the idea into my psyche that lightning rarely strikes twice. The odds had to be in my favor, so I chose belief in the randomness of the universe and the probability that I would have a healthy child. “The odds are ever in your favor” became a twisted, Hunger-Games-esque mantra in my anxiously pregnant brain. I had nothing else to go on. After what we had been through, some people might have come to believe that life is meaningless. I was never interested in tumbling down that rabbit hole. If a new person was going to get the chance to be here with us, I had to leap, only hoping that I would land safely on the other side.
Photo by Ananda Escudero Gomes via Unsplash