Another baby’s funeral

When I entered the church I was hit with the scent of my childhood Sunday mornings. The familiar incense, only found in catholic churches, surrounded me. It was a small building, about twelve rows of wooden benches lined each side of a center aisle leading to a marble altar placed centrally on the pulpit. I slipped into a pew a few rows from the back, nearest the exit so that I could escape easily if I needed to. The last time I had been in a church was for a friend’s wedding; this time I was surrounded by strangers, dressed in dark and demure clothing, appropriate for a memorial mass for a baby.

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I was worried about how I would feel going to the service. Would I cry? I thought as I drove to the church. Would I seem emotionless and heartless? I found those original thoughts laughable as tears stung my eyes, the moment the first note of the organ music began. Now I worried I would seem overly dramatic as the tears continued to flow, before any words were even said. I’m not a quiet crier, with a snotty nose that needs constant blowing. I paced my breathing trying to keep my emotion discreet, telling myself I could always step out to the foyer if I needed to.

I pictured myself grabbing my purse and finding refuge in the entryway. The woman who had greeted me on the way in would look up and ask what was wrong. I would apologize for my theatrics, saying how I too had lost a baby and this was simply bringing up too much emotion.

I did not escape to the foyer. Instead I looked up and saw a few rows ahead of me a woman, about fifteen years my senior, holding a tissue to her face. She was crying almost as hard as I was. Seeing this woman unabashedly letting her tears flow reminded me that I was at a funeral! It’s okay to be sad! A baby died! Having a partner in overt sadness gave me the strength I needed to be present through the rest of the mass. I’m unsure who this woman was- I imagined her as an aunt, maybe one without kids of her own, who treated the bereaved mom like she was her own child. Or perhaps she was simply someone who felt deeply, had a particularly strong sense of empathy. She did me a favor that day: her tears gave me permission to shed my own openly.

I listened to the familiar chants and prayers of a Catholic mass, cautiously looking around, eying those surrounding me. Up ahead was a set of three young women- college friends of the mom, I imagined. They were dressed nicely in black dresses with colorful sweaters, a combination that seemed appropriate for a dark service on a bright sunny day. Their hair was carefully arranged and makeup done nicely- their attention to their appearance made me think how much they respected and cared for the parents. The woman in the pew ahead of me had placed her purse next to her on the bench. It sat with the top open, exposing its contents. My eyes were drawn to the keys, which had a small key chain with the faded school photo of a nine year-old girl. I became fixated on that key chain photo, thinking how the bereaved mom would not have one of those for her baby, how I would not have one of those for Mabel.

I was at that service to remember the little girl who entered this world silently a few days before, but I couldn’t be there without thinking of Mabel too. Had I remained loyal to the Catholic faith, this is the kind of service we would have had for my baby. I could see the mom in the front pew and watched her emotions through the mass. I was transported back to the first days after Mabel died- the anticipation of her wake and burial, the family surrounding me at all hours, the engorged breasts announcing to the world that there had been a baby. It was hard.

The priest gave a nice sermon about death and mercy- explaining that we were not asking for mercy in the forgiveness of sins sense for the deceased, but instead we were asking for mercy for ourselves, asking for compassion as we mourned what we lost.

After the mass was over the crowd, which was sizeable for a weekday morning, slowly filed out behind the grieving family, ending in a receiving line. As I waited my turn, I watched a few women who were dressed in scrubs. The bereaved mom was a clinician in a local medical clinic and I could tell these were women who worked with her. It warmed my heart to see them present and wiping away tears. I wanted to approach them and tell them a tiny bit of my story- that I’m a provider who lost a baby too and that returning to work was hard. I wanted to tell them that I thought it was so wonderful they were here and to please, please continue to watch out for the mom. Don’t let her return to work to soon. And when she’s ready, protect her. She’ll look better than she feels. Even months out, her baby will be on her mind and she’ll face constant reminders with her patients. Don’t forget. I played these words in my mind, but never got the nerve to say something. I didn’t want to bring my story into her day. But I know that her coworkers were there for her that day and by that alone, I know they’ll be there for her later on too.

While waiting in line, a woman asked if I were a friend of the mom’s or the dad’s. I said I knew the mom. She introduced herself as the mom’s aunt and asked how I knew the mom. This was a bit awkward for me as I met the mom through this blog and to explain it felt a little clumsy.

“We’re sort of internet friends,” I said inelegantly. “I lost a baby too and I write a blog about it. We found each other that way. I’m a nurse midwife, so we’re both in the field.” My voice was shaky, betraying the nervousness I felt bringing my baby’s story into another baby’s special day.

“I’m a nurse too,” she said and noted how she knew the baby’s whole story from the beginning.   We nodded at each other, sharing the understanding that fellow nurses have.

When I finally made it to the receiving line, I met the dad, who had his daughter’s little hat tucked into his pocket, creating a very special striped accent to his dark suit. The mom and I exchanged hugs and all I could think about was her poor chest- all that hugging when milk is trying to come in. At the end of the line I spoke with her mom. My standard introduction was “Hi, I’m Meghan. I’m a new friend of the mom’s. I’m so sorry for your loss.”

Her mom grabbed me by the arms and said, “Meghan? The blog Meghan?”

I smiled and nodded.

“Oh I am so glad to meet you. And I’m so sorry about your loss too. I saw the page you wrote about Clara, it was lovely.” I suggested she look at the comments because there was a whole lot of love coming to her family from all over. “I am just so happy you guys have found each other- wait, no. I mean, I’m so sorry you both lost your babies, but…”

And I interrupted her, reassuring “Yes, me too.” There should be a word for the weird sense of camaraderie the babylost have- we are so happy to have each other, but wish we never knew one another, that none of us ever gained membership to this awful and special club, that our babies had lived.

I left the church feeling strangely good. It was a weird day- it seemed too sunny and warm for a funeral mass. Perhaps I was colored by my own story, having buried Mabel in the cold snow, but it just seemed so surreal that I spent the past hour sobbing in the dim church only to leave with the bright sun warming my bare arms through the bright green leaves on the trees.

Have you been to a funeral since your lost? What was it like for you?

The First Father’s Day

When I saw those two pink lines, he was the first one I told.  He was happy.  He said yes, when I asked if he willing to raise a child with Down Syndrome.  When I would wake up in the middle of the night, crying as I adjusted to the news that our child would have Down Syndrome, he reminded me that it would be ok.  He signed up for weekly emails from babycenter so he knew what the baby would be doing each week inside me.  He was the one who first called her the Karate Carrot.  He would put his hand on my belly when we went to bed, hoping to feel her kick before he fell asleep.  As we heard obstetricians tell us over and over that the low fluid meant our baby had a good chance of dying, he held my hand.  He crawled into bed with me and held me as we cried together over the fate of our baby.

He stayed in the hospital almost every night I was there, making his commute in snow strewn streets twice as long, just so that he could be there just in case our baby was born.  He climbed through knee deep snow in his work pants to get the blanket we wanted to hold her in, because she might come that very night.  He rubbed my back, held my vomit bag and stood by my side throughout the pain of labor that brought his child into the world.  He cut her cord, artfully creating her bellybutton, the only person I would gladly want to sever the tie between me and my daughter.  He listened carefully as the doctor gave the first sad updates that her death was imminent and then came back to me, relaying the info kindly, bringing me down gently out of the optimistic bubble I had built after hearing her cry.  He smiled when the NICU nurse said he could hold her.  He held her like a champ, like this is what he was born to do.  He gave her back to me, even though he wanted to hold her longer, because he knew my chest was the most comfortable place for her to be.  He did not flinch when the doctor said it was time.  He let them take out the vent, even though he hardly had the chance to get to know her, because he didn’t want her to be in pain either.  He put his hand on her back, so she would know her daddy was there with her when she took her last breathes.  He gazed at her with such sad eyes after she died and bathed her with such gentle hands.  He let the nurse take her, when it was time to say goodbye.

He held me up through her funeral.  He played with his little goddaughters in the days after she died because he just can’t not be good with kids.  He visits her grave with me and listens as I read to her.   As I cry over our daughter, taken from us too soon, he says all the right things.  “I know.” “I’m sad too.” “I love you.” He’s my rock, the father of my child.  He’s such a good dad.

Look at him smiling

Look at him smiling

Chris holds Mabel for the first time.

Chris holds Mabel for the first time.

Mabel’s wake

The funeral home director is a man seemingly in his thirties- younger than I would expect.  He is appropriately somber and a little too easy with a smile at the same time.  He goes through what is involved in burying a baby.  There is one type of casket, white and plastic, made at cost.  It is some sort of makeshift holiday- president’s day, I think, so it’s unknown if we’ll be able to get the casket in the next day or not.  Do we want a graveside service?  Here is a minister that comes highly recommended.  Will we have an obituary?  We want all the names of our siblings, her aunts and uncles, included.  Yes, there are a lot of them and yes, we wanted them all listed.  What do you want on the prayer card?  We flip through the book and my eyes well up as I read ones clearly made for babies.

The funeral director is not there the day of the wake.  We enter the building with photos and a scrapbook in hand, greeted by strangers.

As Chris and I are led down the hallway towards the large room that holds my daughter in her casket, I try with little success to stifle the sobs that start to surface.  Chris holds my arm as we enter the room to spend our last moments with our baby.  There she is, in an eternal slumber.  Eyes closed, face peaceful, she is dressed in her soft white bunny outfit- the first time I’ve seen her in it.  Now that it is just Chris, Mabel and I, I let the tears come.  I cry and I cry, seeing my beautiful newborn daughter.  I want to touch her, but I don’t want to feel the coldness of her skin, so I refrain.  “She looks good.” I say to Chris.  And she does.  She looks just how we had left her.  She shows no marks of her journey from my embrace to the nurse’s arms to the morgue’s table to the funeral home.  There is no evidence of the cuts we allowed for the autopsy to help us determine just why her kidneys didn’t develop.  She is angelic; she is my baby.  After I feel like I can’t cry any more tears, Chris tells the funeral home employee that we are ready for our family.  They line up silently, each waiting their turn to kneel by Mabel’s casket.  They go in pairs, some seeing her again, like my parents and cousin, some seeing her for the first time, like Chris’s parents and our siblings.  I watch my Dad cry- something I don’t ever remember seeing him do.  I watch as my sister brings my three year-old niece up.  After everyone has a turn, my niece runs back up, saying, “I want to see baby Mabel again.”  The sincerity in curiosity make her words play over and over again in my head.

I take note of all the flower arrangements, from our family, friends and workplaces.  Some still sit in our house today.

As the clock nears four, the starting time of the calling hours, Chris and I spend our last moments kneeling in front of our daughter.  This is the last time, the last time I will see her face.  Disbelief takes over.  The funeral home employee returns to the periphery and we nod in his direction.  He comes and closes the casket, placing a large flower arrangement on its lid.  Slowly friends, family and coworkers trickle in.  They sign her guestbook and stop at the table of photos.  As they flip through the scrapbook I made, I can see them point at certain pictures and make cooing comments to each other.  When they finish, most head directly to us, missing the tiny casket on their left.  They don’t even realize there is a baby in the room with them.  She is right there.  Some see the kneeler and realize they can be right beside her for a moment.  They all make their way to us, a receiving line in shades of black.  Chris and I welcome their tear stained faces.  I smile at them, motioning back to the photos, and say “Did you see her? Did you see my Mabel?”

I had a baby. Her name was Mabel.

(written yesterday, February 20, 2014)

Today I buried my daughter.  Words no parent should ever have to say.

We opted for a private, family graveside service in the cemetery nearest our house.  I wanted Mabel to be close so I could visit frequently.  Chris, I and our families caravanned over in the morning, with only minor mishaps.  It’s only 1.5mi from our house, but we had never been.  We entered through the wrong entrance and had to do a five car single file reverse.  But we made it with a few minutes to spare.

Neither Chris nor I are particularly religious, but we felt we wanted some sort of service at the graveside.  I was raised Catholic, but as an adult did not feel connected to that particular religion.  I liked the idea of religion, but had trouble finding the right fit.  While pregnant, I had tried a few local churches- two Unitarian Universalist and an Episcopal church- but I didn’t feel connected enough to any of them to bring them to Mabel’s graveside.  The funeral director suggested a local Methodist pastor who would perform a non-denominational service.  We spoke to Pastor Steve two days beforehand and he seemed nice.  It almost felt better to have a stranger lead us in her services.   And though the service was more Christian than I thought it would be, it was sweet and I appreciated the structure as we laid our baby to rest.

I had extended an invitation to any family members who wanted to speak at her graveside service and my father responded.  He said:

Mabel Cleary Constantino

Your time with us was very brief – too brief  – 36 weeks + 6 hours. The impact you have had on our lives is forever. It will endure forever. We knew you through the eyes and actions of your Mom and Dad, Meghan & Chris, the decisions they made during the past 36 weeks of your life to provide you with the best possible environment. We forever admire their respect for life, their love of life, their love of you and their commitment to each other. It is that love that brought us all together on September 22, 2012 and has brought us here today. It has been quite a journey, the Mabel elements of which have been captured and shared with relatives, friends and others.  Mabel, you have had more written about you than most people my age. Through such elegant prose, and through the love of your family and that of Meghan & Chris, your memory will endure. You forever will be a bright light. You will be the beacon for us all and our Angel. We love you.

I asked my sister to read an excerpt from Elizabeth McCracken’s “An Exact Replica of a Figment of my Imagination”

 

After the baby died, I told Edward over and over again that I didn’t want to forget any of it: the happiness was real, as real as the baby himself, and it would be terrible, unforgivable, to forget it.  His entire life had turned out to be the forty-one weeks and one day of his gestation, and those days were happy.  We couldn’t pretend that they weren’t.  It would be like pretending that he himself was a bad thing, something to be regretted, and I didn’t. I would have done the whole thing over again even knowing how it would end.

She followed by saying a few words.  She had found out she was expecting shortly after we had found out about Mabel’s Down Syndrome.  She thanked me for letting her in at a time when I could have shut her out.  She also thanked Chris for being my rock.

My sister has been one of my go-to sounding boards throughout the pregnancy- I’ve been just about as open with her as I have my therapist.  And though it’s been hard for me to connect with other pregnant women, especially after the low fluid diagnosis, I was able to still stay connected with her.  It gave me some sense that all was not lost- that despite such terrible news and poor prognosis, I was still human and could find that compassion for someone.  It may have been only one person; I’ll admit I felt very separate from most other pregnant women- friends, coworkers, patients, but the fact that I could maintain some connection with one person made me hope I could return to myself some day.

After my sister spoke, Chris’s mother mentioned she felt just like my niece did at that moment.  My niece had to be taken away howling in that way only 3 year olds know how.  Her tears had nothing to do with the burial- she is too young- but her sobs at the injustice of not getting what she wanted were so very appropriate.  And my mother-in-law’s comment held a little comic relief.

Then it was my turn:

I had a baby. Her name was Mabel.

I carried her for 8 months with worry and hope.  I agonized about doing the right thing for her.  Ultimately she made it clear that she was happy inside me.  She grew and moved and became a baby.  I didn’t want her to be born. I wasn’t ready, but she was.  She showed me that she was feisty and would do what she pleased.

She gave me many gifts.  She came on her own time, with a quick labor, naturally without any distress. She paved the way for her siblings to come safely.  She hung on until she could meet more family.  She showed me she knew me, and was happiest on my chest, close to my heart.  She was here too short, but she was mine.   I made her and I loved her. 

I had a baby. Her name was Mabel. 

After the pastor finished, we each placed a rose (provided by Chris’s mother) on her tiny tiny casket. And then we left so my tiny tiny daughter could be laid to rest.  But I will be back.  With flowers and memories.  I will give her a headstone so that anyone who passes can see she existed.  I want something to mark the grave so that maybe a hundred years from now, someone will see her stone and think, I wonder what Mabel’s story was, what happened to such a little baby who was here only one day.  

My chance to show her off

The wake was harder for others than it was for me.  In a way I had been looking forward to it for days.

 

Chris and I arrived early with our family, for set up and some time alone with Mabel.   We had asked if we could see her before they closed the casket.   Chris and I went to see her first.  As we walked the hallway to her room, I broke down.  The tears were a mix of some sort of happiness that I could see her again and sadness that this would be the last time I’d see her in person.  I know I shouldn’t have been, but I was surprised how small the casket was.  And then there she was- she was perfect.  Just how she was when we said goodbye in the hospital..  Her little pouty lips.  She was swimming in her carrot outfit, like I knew she would be.  She had her little hat with bunny ears on and her cute little feet were in little bunny booties.  I could she just a patch of skin on her ankle and it made my happy.  Chris’s mother had given her a few things to take with her- two little bunnies, one super soft and the other handmade holding a carrot.  And my cousin gave her a little carrot baby.  We thought about taking some pictures (she did look so lovely lying there), but decided we were happier remembering her with the photos we had.

 

Carrot Baby

 

After our time alone with Mabel, our family had the chance to visit with her.  Some had seen her before, like my mother and father, and some were seeing her for the first time in person.  It was lovely to watch.  I think it made it more real for them which made it more real for me.  My 3 year old niece jumped the line, because she wanted to see baby Mabel.  And then after everyone was done, she wanted to go back and see her again.  I loved her for that.

 

Chris and I spent the remaining time before calling hours began just visiting with her.  I told her lots of things.  How wanted she was. How much I loved her. How glad I was she came. How much all her family loved her.  How I would do it again for those six hours.

 

We opted for a closed casket for the calling hours, which was a good decision.  The pictures alone were enough to melt people, let alone the sight of such a small casket.  We laid the carrot baby in front of her casket.  We had brought several large photos of her, hand and footprints and a scrapbook of photos.  My mother-in-law, my sister and I had put together the scrapbook the day before, laying out photos to tell her story- from labor to her passing.  I am so thankful for their help in putting her story on pages, so people could see and know her.

 

As our friends and extended family came through, there were many tears.  My heart warmed watching so many people look at her photos and the tears that they brought.  I was touched by how emotional my family was.  I think the calling hours were actually easiest on me.  I was happy.  It was my chance to show her off.  So few people had a chance to actually meet Mabel or really see her face.  So this was my time to share her with my world.  See, she existed.  She really was here.  And look at how beautiful she was.  Know her.

 

Everyone came.  Those who could not, emailed or called or texted.  They were there too.  High school friends who lived close and far came.  Family friends traveled hours through a snowstorm to come.  So many nurses from the hospital came.  Just about my entire office staff came (and I work in four different offices).  The doctors and midwives in my practice came.  Midwives from other practices came.  My genetic counselor came.  Some of my close patients came.  Chris’s work friends came.  My dad’s work friends came.  Family came.  My own midwives and doctor came.

 

And they all saw her, my beautiful Mabel.

Mabel