for you, bean
Jesus didn’t let us know our child had died.
He didn’t tell us as we drove across Texas, giggling about names, wondering whether it was a boy or a girl.
He didn’t tell us as we hiked desert trails in Big Bend, photographing my wife’s belly against the backdrop of mountain vistas – or as we videotaped cute messages to our child each evening, explaining all the things we’d seen that day.
He didn’t tell us when we drove back to Maryland and announced joyously, over pizza with our best friends, that we were pregnant.
Jesus calls us His friends, for everything He knew from His Father, He made known to us. Everything, apparently, except for the devastating news about our child.
That was why, after my wife had carried our baby’s remains inside her for two and a half weeks, we walked into the obstetrician’s office for our first ultrasound, expectant and giddy.
* * * * *
In Oklahoma, next to a highway gas station in a little souvenir shop painted in Native American patterns, I bought a buffalo.
We were just passing through but decided we’d find my brother a Christmas ornament. He was born in Oklahoma but had never been back.
“Look,” Karyn said, bending to lift up a stuffed buffalo. “Feel how soft.”
That wasn’t why we were there. Male task orientation: find ornament, buy ornament, get back on highway. “Humph,” I grunted.
“No, feel it.” She was right – it was soft, one of the softest stuffed animals I’d ever felt. Lifelike, too. I’d seen my first live buffalo only two years earlier and had been enthralled.
“Let’s get it.” Her eyes sparkled. “For our bean.”
I dropped it back in the bin, mumbling about the price. We resumed our ornament search. But after a minute or two I glanced back at the pile of little buffaloes, sidled over, picked one up.
Karyn had videotaped me in North Dakota, beholding my first buffalo: my brows raised, my eyes absorbing, my disbelieving smile as big as the plains. The doll in my hands was quite accurate – furry hump, lowered head, chin-to-chest goatee, tufted tail. I rubbed the soft hide against my cheek, testing. Then I rummaged through the bin for the most perfect one.
It was expensive, yes … and a fun warmth swelled in me with the realization that I had a baby I could spoil.
Other babies had stuffed bears, stuffed lions, stuffed dogs. Ours, still no bigger than a bean, would have a stuffed buffalo, and an unspoken promise of one day seeing his or her own live buffalo in the wild.
We’d shared the news of our pregnancy with almost no one – just our mothers and a few friends. But there at the register in that nowhere stop in Oklahoma, I couldn’t help bragging to the grandmotherly cashier: “I’m buying this for my baby.”
* * * * *
Dimness in the ultrasound room. A sharp, indrawn breath. Fingers squeezing my hand.
“Maybe it’s too soon to see the heartbeat,” Karyn said without exhaling.
In reply, a solemn grimace beneath downcast eyes.
“Okay,” she said, brave, gut tight. “What are my options?” And started bawling.
Unable to speak, unable to move, I watched her bawling. The doctor had to hug her because time was stuck, and I had no mind.
* * * * *
Thirty-six hours later, two days before her birthday, Karyn sat on a gurney, chatting with the nurses as they waited for the operating room. She’d had a “missed miscarriage”: our child had died, but her womb slogged on as if everything was normal. A procedure was needed to remove the remains.
“I just want it out of me,” she’d muttered earlier, upset by the thought of the “little skeleton” inside her. She’d been hollow and flat until we arrived at the hospital, but as they prepared her for the operating room she reanimated. Soon it would be over. We’d be back on the upswing, progressing away from death toward hope. We would always remember our child, of course; we just wanted to remember from a distance, as far away from the present as possible.
I’ll never forget the distracted look on her face as they rolled her, chatting with the nurses, toward the operating room, her mind intent on anything but what was happening.
An hour later I was informed that the procedure had gone smoothly, Karyn was in recovery, but she had come out of the anesthesia too quickly and was very emotional. They wanted me to come back on the condition that I would coax her back to sleep.
That was when I learned there was something else Jesus didn’t tell me.
Jesus didn’t tell me how it would be, finding my wife caught between alertness and anesthesia, eyes shut, subconscious bleeding. He didn’t tell me how I would feel holding her hands, wiping the hot tears washing her cheeks as she wept
where is my baby
I want my baby
I’m so cold
I feel so empty
my tummy feels flat already
could the doctor tell if it was a boy or a girl
I feel so lonely inside
so lonely inside
God had taken the life of our child. My wife was utterly crushed in her innermost spirit. And Jesus never told me that that hour was coming, that hour of sitting there, helpless, holding her hands, staring at death’s cold void, having nothing of comfort to say, trying to shake the faithless instinct to protect my wife from God.
* * * * *
Pain spliced us together like blood brothers at the heart. In a whole new way I understood that I would never, could never leave this woman. I had heard her deepest spirit, and it was selfless, protective, noble. The love in our marriage had always been strong; now it was a love that stood against death.
We worried how our mothers would fare. They needed this baby. Divorce, unemployment, housing problems, sibling conflicts had taken their toll. On Thanksgivings and Christmases we all seemed like a group of refugees barely holding things together. In the middle of their beaten lives, our pregnancy was a precious encouragement, a gift of life. Our family was growing. They would be grandmothers for the first time. Listening to them laughing as they picked out their “grandmother names” was better than invigorating – it was healthy.
Then God placed a knife in our hands, with no choice but to plunge it into our mothers’ hearts.
We felt like the death angel, dreading those phone calls. Stolid, I held Karyn as she informed her mom through steady tears. Then it was time to call my own mom, with Karyn holding me. “Are you sitting down?” I asked her.
“What is it?” she asked, a bit excited. She’d known about the ultrasound appointment and had joked about twins.
“No, Mom, are you sitting down? On the floor. I need you to tell me you’re sitting on the floor.”
“Okay.” Her tone quavered. “I’m on the floor.”
“Mom –” I said, and plunged in the blade, weeping.
* * * * *
Both teachers, my wife and I began the school year with our students three days later. How we managed that, we still don’t understand. Neither of us felt the usual first day jitters.
Other things were different. Karyn had to prepare herself to teach the entire school year, instead of stopping midway. Our plans for a summer vacation to Hawaii, which we’d gleefully canceled after the positive pregnancy test, were joylessly penciled back in. The small set of books and toys and onesies that had already accumulated in our house were shut away in a plastic bin. We pulled away from all but a handful of friends and family members. We had liked who we were becoming as parents. That gone, we no longer recognized our lives.
And we dreaded March 29.
A matter of statistics, the doctor said. One out of every five pregnancies. Things would go better next time. Despite those assurances, we were stunned by the possibility that we might not be able to have children, and by the prospect of the rest of our lives flavored by grief.
There were little blessings: at least we were together when we learned our bean was dead. Our mothers lived nearby and could grieve with us. We’d become pregnant on the first try, the first month, rather than having to wait. We had the hope of fertility. And Karyn, who had been reluctant to share the news of our pregnancy with a best friend who’d suffered two miscarriages, suddenly found herself able to commiserate.
And we still trusted the God who had crushed us. “When times are good, be happy,” the Book of Ecclesiastes counsels, “but when times are bad, consider: God has made the one as well as the other.” We’d placed our hope in God for years; becoming embittered with Him in a time of grief seemed spineless. In a rock-hard way, we sought to affirm His place in our lives, even as we grieved His actions – to be like Job, who said after the death of his children, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.”
At least we’d celebrated that little life strongly while it was with us. Roadtrips always bring out the best in us, and in the Southwest we were conscious of our new traveling companion every mile of the way. (Rarely has a child so young seen so much.) Weeks after the miscarriage, Karyn told me that while she was pregnant, she’d often caught herself swaying her hips when alone. Singing to our bean.
* * * * *
Six and a half weeks of fetal growth, the sonographer had estimated – two weeks younger than the amniotic sac. That launched me into the calendar, counting back to the approximate day our bean had died: camping in the Guadalupe Mountains of Texas.
Was it the heat? The strenuous hikes? The stench of guano at Carlsbad Caverns the day before? The cumulative unrest of a three-week roadtrip?
Or was it that night in Guadalupe after all, that harrowing storm that had raged through the darkness like a tornado, descending from the mountains like the hand of God, dashing our tent into the mud and sending us scurrying, rain-blasted, into our car until sleepless dawn?
Were those winds the wings of seraphim, escorting our child’s soul into heaven?
Sinking beneath unknowables, I fixated on the two weeks of ignorance. Our bean was already dead when we diverted our roadtrip through Atlanta, through Columbia, through Charlotte to share our happy news with family and friends. Already dead as we recorded silly video messages about our trip. Already dead as I prayed daily for our baby’s health and strength and intelligence, and for a safe delivery.
Couldn’t God have extended the courtesy of telling us?
The week after the miscarriage I wrote “Beheld,” a poem about our loving ignorance. I’m no poet, yet it seemed right to try to honor our child in words.
how dumb we must have sounded
then, with the sonographer.
“What a lot of room in there!”
and – “Will you print us a copy?”
and – “When is the revised due date?”
and – “It’s beautiful …”
it wasn’t supposed to be hide-and-seek.
scanning the darkness we were told was fluid –
angle after angle,
gray shapes coalescing and dissolving
(“Where are you?” in a sing-song voice) –
seemed a part of the mystery
as we leaned forward, expectant,
awaiting a revelation.
“I think –” and “I think –”
finally we had to say,
“So that is our baby?”
a thoughtful nod
flooded us with recognition.
out of the whole black space –
a tiny, silent, perfect ring of light.
inside, like the color of a glass marble,
a twist of gray,
and along the circumference
little points of brilliance,
newborn stars on a nebula’s edge,
delicate and still.
we’d seen glacial mountains, caribbean reefs,
but nothing as perfect as you.
“It’s beautiful …”
those were the words that
prompted the sonographer
to direct our attention to certain consequential facts –
you were two weeks smaller than the placenta
no bloodflow was reaching you through the umbilical cord
in fact, you had no
you left us then
to take your place in darkness
words cannot fill.
at least –
I’m glad we got to see you.
some parents never do.
and as dumb as we must have sounded
then, with the sonographer,
I’m glad we said you were beautiful,
because you were.
* * * * *
Like the poem, this piece is written for you, bean.
Forgetting is impossible, of course. But time does pass, healing does occur, and even excruciating memories telescope into dreams. As I write these words, Karyn and I are just one week away from the due date of our second child – a little boy that, despite our fears, has stretched and rolled and kicked his way into our hearts.
No one child can replace another. That was apparent right from the beginning when, despite our relief at the positive pregnancy test so soon after the miscarriage, we found ourselves reticent, shut off, wholly unlike the utter innocent joy that welcomed our first child. “I don’t sing to the baby,” Karyn confessed to me, “and I know that’s wrong.”
At eight weeks, bracing ourselves in the terror of the ultrasound room, we heard words of life: “There’s a pulse!” How wonderful to see that minute rhythm for ourselves, to feel an unconscious “Why, hello there!” come to our lips. “Beat beat beat, you little squirt,” I breathed, moistened eyes fixed on that quick, determined pulse. “Just you keep on beating.”
And so we were able to give our mothers hope in time for Christmas. Yet it was bittersweet, bringing to mind what could have been.
* * * * *
Summer in Hawaii? Canceled again – this time nervously. Our second pregnancy has not been without its own fears. Bloody threats of another miscarriage. Preterm labor signs at seven months. And in the back of our minds, as delivery looms, a friend who labored twenty hours after finding out her child was already stillborn.
“It’ll never be over, will it?” Karyn asked when the preterm labor signs began. “We’ll always worry. Even after he’s born.”
I’d struggled with the fact that Jesus kept us ignorant about our child’s death for two weeks, but that was a mask for the real issue: pain had blindsided us. God didn’t keep us ignorant forever. We were together when we found out, and with a doctor, who could reassure us about what had happened. Would the alternative have been better – Karyn bleeding by herself in a campground restroom, and then the long drive home from Texas in grief?
Two weeks, two days, two minutes – what disturbed me wasn’t the delay. It was that God had structured life itself so that we couldn’t see tragedies coming. Jesus calls us His friends, yet keeps His silence as we stumble through time with blinders on, oblivious to pitfalls in the road ahead, pitfalls He can see clearly.
But time, though it steals upon us unsuspected, also works its healing.
We were able to meet March 29 with the hope of another pregnancy. Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, though tinged with sadness, also were freighted with hope. And now we struggle with shame because months of listening to heart monitors, feeling the kicks of hidden legs, and reading children’s books into Karyn’s belly have succeeded in fading our pain and loss.
If last August we could have glimpsed ourselves now, we would have called it impossible. God, who took the life of our first child, is slowly, month by month, healing us in our innermost spirits.
There’s no guarantee that in a week our second child will be born healthy. He could have physical defects. He could be mentally handicapped. He could be stillborn. Or everything could go swimmingly, only for him to be run over by a truck at the age of five.
We can only appreciate each day’s blessings while they last, and trust God with a little perspective. Through the valleys and the hills, the raptures and the depressions, we have no guarantee except that God is good, and that in all things He works for the good of those who love Him.
* * * * *
Midway through the second trimester, Karyn and I finally cracked the seal of our bean’s plastic bin. It was a time capsule – those blue and green onesies, the red toy octopus, that board book about oceans. Seeing them again wasn’t easy, but our bean would want Little Brother to make good use of them, so we set them all up in the nursery.
All except for the stuffed buffalo, the small spark that had lit my heart with a father’s love. It was in there, too. The cushy hide was still soft on my cheek.
The buffalo didn’t last in the nursery ten minutes before I brought it back to our bedroom to keep for our own.
copyright © 2005, michael w. hobson