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.