Saturday, June 14, 2014

Knowing my children

Each year, on B.W.'s birthday and at Christmas time, we go shopping and then donate to this wonderful local organization that serves underprivileged children in our extended community, by providing them with presents on special days of the year.  As part of their "Birthday Project", on each registered child's birthday, he/she receives party supplies, toys, games, sports equipment, books, etc., based on age and any known interests.  Their "Giving Tree", which runs during the Christmas season, is along the same lines, but each child is able to provide a list to the sponsor, detailing the specific things he/she hopes to receive.  The gifts that we buy and donate on B.W.'s birthday each year are always intended to be what we (believe we) would have given him on that particular birthday.  At Christmas time, I am able to request that we are matched with a boy who is the same age that B.W. would be, to make it more memorial-feeling for our family. 

In 2009, as we walked the aisles of a toy store, searching for gifts to donate on B.W.'s third birthday, I was overwhelmed with the vast and varied options denoted as "3+".  It seemed that age three was a year of interest-explosion for the human child.  Legos, puzzles, matchbox cars, super-heros, construction vehicles, arts and crafts, train sets, transformers, Disney-themed toys, mini-sized sporting equipment.  The games aisle, alone, must have had 100 different options for the three-and-up demographic.  I broke into tears, buried my head into B's chest in the middle of the store, when I realized anew that I had absolutely no idea what B.W. would have wanted.  Which superhero would he idealize?  Would he prefer cars, construction or trains?  Would he have shown artistic tendencies, fantastic motor skills, an interest in science? 

I knew B.W.'s kicks.  I remember that he had my lips and ears, B's eyebrows and fingers.  I can picture his dark hair and the perfect crevices underneath his eyes.  I know the weight of him, the texture of his skin and hair, the soft-spot on his head.  I know the love I feel for him.  But, that is about where my tangible, articulate-able knowing of my firstborn ends.  And, because all I ever wanted as his mother was to embrace the person he was and watch him discover the world, it's one of the most painful aspects of his death and perpetual absence.  There are so few memories to cling to, his personality left completely unrevealed to me.  No one except me, my husband and our pastor, to have actually laid eyes on him, to have witnessed his beauty and potential.   


The bereaved parent support group that we've been attending since Zachary died, met last night.  In addition to the regular agenda of the meeting, the topic of the night was "meet my child" - meaning we should provide a glimpse of who our children were, putting the circumstances of their deaths to the side.  Most of the people in the room had years of memories to draw upon, which, for B and me and one other woman who lost her infant son, only served to highlight just how much we have missed because our children died so, so young.  When it was my turn to talk about Zachary (and B.W., if I had any leftover emotional energy to talk about the next-to-nothing that I know about him), I first offered a backdrop perspective that mostly eludes me, unless I purposely remind myself of it...

On C.T.'s first birthday, during his party, I had a couple of different people mention that "his personality is really coming out now" and/or "wow, he has become so ________ ".  I remember enjoying that family members were getting to know him better, but I also felt surprised that C.T.'s personality traits were perceived as being new or different, by others.  These observations, noted by outsiders to our little family unit, were things I knew about C.T. from the very beginning of his life.  Attributes that are simply part of who he is, made known to me from his very first days like some kind of electric current between mother and child.  I remember feeling proud and satisfied with my little secret.  That I knew my sweet boy better than anyone else, and from the very start.   

So, at the meeting, I went on to talk about what I could feasibly describe about Zachary, his personality, about some of our stories and experiences from his lifetime.  I was overcome with emotion and omitted several pieces that are pretty significant.  I neglected to talk about how Zachary's feistiness was colored with his opposite-of-high-strung posture.  About how he demonstrated his cool with his cocoon-breaking technique and his old-man style splayed limbs, which seemed oddly comfortable for him, even as a preemie.   My choking tears prevented me from sharing how intently he would look for my voice with his eyes.  How much it appeared he wanted to learn about this world.  Everyone in the room was as compassionate as I hoped they would be.  B rescued me and talked about B.W., about how isolating it is to be the only people to have met "him", about how it hurts that he is treated more like an event in our lives than a real person, our son, a unique individual who we just didn't get to know. 


There was also something I didn't really notice until I was thinking back on all of the deceased child descriptions, by the bereaved parents in the room last night.  Virtually all of the descriptions devoted a disproportionately large chunk of time to the child's babyhood and early childhood - each providing examples for how distinctive personalities emerged very early in life and stuck with their child throughout the lifetime he/she had.  So, I do believe there is something to the idea that the essence of a child is not something that emerges, but rather something that is.  And it seems to be known to his/her parents from the very start.  When I can actually get settled, momentarily, on this perspective, there is a bit of relief that I really did know my Zachary.  The knowing doesn't mean that two weeks of knowing him was enough time.  Anything less than a full lifetime would never be enough.  It doesn't lessen my grief that he is not here now.  And, it doesn't convince me, in any way, that his death is acceptable or purposeful.  But, it is such an honor to have known my son Zachary, in the way that only his mother (and father) could.  My heart hurts to not have had this opportunity, at all, with B.W. 


Reading back through this, it reads a bit convoluted.  Makes perfect sense in my brain, but came out maybe a bit funky.   


  1. I read this post avidly (and did not find it to be convoluted).
    I wish i could say i feel the same way about being able to have know the "true nature" of Paul. I find this to be one of the most difficult aspect of grieving for a baby... we have so few memories, so little to grab onto to remember who he was. I want to believe Paul was already who he would become but right now, i just feel so sad and frustrated i didn't have time to discover (more of) his personality.

    I am glad you find relief in having known Zachary, even if you had so little time to get to know him. I hope i can come to feel the same way about this secret knowledge i might have of Paul (i'm going back and forth about it...)

  2. No, it didn't come out funky. Not at all.

    You DO know your children. It's obvious. You could not write as you do otherwise.

    Such beautiful writing from the depths of Hell.


  3. Not funky or convoluted at all. I think that we did know them, that we do know them.

    I wrote something about Georgina a while back and I stand by my words of years ago. I still feel that I knew her. Everything I felt that I knew about her siblings in their early days, their first cries, has been borne out over the time I have been lucky to share with them.

    From that experience I do believe, very deeply, that you 'knew' Zachary. I know that he was a person, your dear son, your lovely boy, who you were lucky to know. Not an event. A person. I just wish that it could have been for far, far longer, that you could have known more and more about your boy.

    And I'm so sorry that you didn't get the chance to know B.W. at all, in the same way. When I read Sally's comment on my bit of writing above, I feel that it reflects what you have written here.

    Sending love to you and remembering B.W. and Zachary xx

  4. I was just thinking about what I know about Anja. We were walking home from my parents after a Father's Day dinner and I was watching R push M in the stroller while E ran along beside them, all ahead of me, and thinking about how funny and interesting and silly and loving my two living children are, and wondering what Anja would've been like, feeling so awful that I really have no clue. You are so right: we do know our children from their very first baby days, and I can exactly relate to your story about CT's first birthday. I can remember how M was in the first days we were in the hospital and identify in his behaviours and expressions, aspects of the vivid personality that others remark on now. I'm sure you knew Zachary. Sure of it. And yes, it was not for nearly long enough.

    Something about this post helped me realize what was most terrible about my thoughts on the walk home this evening: I was thinking that Anja had no personality, but of course she did. She did. I just didn't get enough time to get to know her. But I loved her and would have loved her however she'd grown, whomever she'd grown into. I think by letting my mind trick me into thinking she didn't have a personality, I am guilty (again) of what I hate so much in others: treating her death as an event, rather than her as a person, an individual.

    Thank you for writing about this. It's made a difference to me tonight.

    Remembering your boys with you.

    1. This has to be one of the cruelest aspects of losing an infant son or daughter....few memories, so little time to know and to do..., but the same unrelenting, unconditional love and devotion of a parent.

      I'm so sad that you can relate. I'm sorry Anja didn't have a chance to share her personality with you.

  5. Hi. Followed you here for a comment you lift on March is for daffodils. One of the things I wonder a lot about Eva is her personality. She was sparkly and feisty and sweet but I don't really know how that would have changed and emerged later (she died at ten months old). However Eva has four brothers, three of which are older and when I look at them now I can see how they were already who they were as babies...but seeing the personality get refined and honed is one of the things I miss the most about Eva.