By Sarah Kilch Gaffney
Sitting in a waiting room full of so many pregnant women, my body is panic personified. A wave of cold washes over me, followed by a surge of heat and sweat. I adjust my shirt and wish desperately that, despite the coolness of the season, I had chosen to wear short sleeves. My heart is pounding and I glance around to see if anyone has noticed.
This happened the last time I was here, too, but I thought it was because I was so emotional: the last time I was in my OB’s office, my husband had just died.
I debate whether to pull out the book from my bag, unsure of the wait time and my ability to focus. Instead, I watch the other people waiting and try to calm myself. A teenage mother complains to her friend about her weight gain. A couple about my age sit across from me, looking down at their phones. Three enormously pregnant women come and go. Another rubs her belly absentmindedly while watching her toddler play.
I sit and sweat, my face flushed. People walk by, and I stare at a stack of magazines, all touting healthy pregnancies and the latest baby gadgets, and I will myself to hold it together.
When my name is called, I rise and smile, follow the friendly medical assistant down the brightly lit hallway. When she takes my blood pressure and notes its somewhat elevated state, I try to explain through my clenched throat and blurred gaze. It feels like I am trying to talk while also swallowing a dry, spiky rock.
“We really wanted another baby,” I whisper, “but my husband died this spring.” She looks at me, tells me she has goose bumps, and then wipes her eyes. We both needlessly apologize.
She leaves to let the doctor know I am ready; I change into the gown and arrange myself on the examination table. My skin is so damp that my legs stick to the paper sheet beneath me. A few minutes later, the doctor comes in; I promise her that, truly, most of the time I’m okay. I have good days and bad days, I say, but I’m doing okay. I swear, I say.
More than anything, I wanted my husband to beat the odds, to survive the brain tumor that would eventually take his life. I also wanted another child with him. We talked about it, waffled with many what-ifs, and talked about it some more. And just as we decided, yes, his body started its last, long downward spiral.
I wanted my husband to live to watch our daughter grow up, for us to have another baby together. For our life together to be just that—together.
I did not want to watch my husband slowly die, to be widowed at twenty-nine. I did not want to be genuinely happy for the pregnant women in my life, only to be hit by a nearly debilitating wave of grief every single time.
At my current age, and in this era of social media and acute semi-connectedness, friends, relatives, and peers frequently post announcements of pregnancy and birth. One by one, the other mothers at daycare reveal their second due dates and with every heartfelt congratulations, I feel more left behind, more empty. With each friend’s pregnancy, my loss that much more acute.
Babies are such happy, vibrant things. They are beautifully vulnerable and exquisitely life-affirming. And yet, every newly announced pregnancy, shared baby photo, and chatter about potential future children leaves me reeling: tear streaked cheeks, disfigured by grief.
In the first few months after my husband’s death, I relived his final moments and last, gasping breaths almost every night. My exhaustion was so pervasive that I often fell asleep quickly (except that first night, alone in the house next to an empty hospital bed). At night as I prepared for sleep, staring at the ceiling and feeling the vacant space next to me, his last hours and minutes would pass before my eyes like a reel of film. After several months, the frequency lessened, then all but ceased.
Every time I lifted the cardboard box containing his ashes, I set it back down on the linen chest at the end of our bed, astonished at the sheer weight in my hands. With the scattering of his ashes on the mountain where we met and eventually married came some relief, like progress, like release. After the mountain, I was knocked sideways a little less often: I was going to have to move on through this life without him by my side.
But, the baby thing. It still gets me every damn time.
This past summer, my husband’s brother and his wife announced they were expecting their second child. After my initial burst of happiness, I was once again overtaken by grief. The baby-to-be was conceived within weeks of my husband’s death and was due a week before our daughter’s birthday. I felt so grateful for something positive to focus on, and so completely eviscerated at the same time.
Grief is not a pretty thing. It is sobbing and face-crumpling and screaming at the sky. It is turning away from the others left behind, returning to them only when you are ready. It is bursting into tears in the grocery store, forgetting your keys, your shoes, yourself. It is uncertainty about whether you are going to make it out of bed or through the day, and then concern that something is terribly wrong when a day passes with something akin to ease. It is questioning everything, and sometimes just not caring anymore how the story ends. And sometimes, often times, it just doesn’t go away, no matter how much you hope and beg and pray.
My daughter and I talk about her father every day. We look at his pictures and tell Daddy stories and she keeps a Daddy “snuggle” (one of his old fleeces) at preschool and in her bed at home for the times when she misses him most.
At school, her friends acquire new siblings, and she sometimes asks if she can have a brother or sister, too. The first time she asked was only weeks after her father had died, and I sank to the living room floor and cried. Now, when she begs me to grow a baby in my belly and is so perplexed by its lack of possibility, I have the strength to deflect. Nearing four, she also sometimes asks when Daddy is going to get better, and when he is coming home. Other times, and with a startling clarity in her eyes, she asks, “But why did our Daddy have to die?”
I have no answers for her, beyond the oft-repeated recommendations of using concrete language to explain that his body stopped working; to repeat “really” or “very” many, many times before the word “sick” so that she doesn’t associate the severity of cancer with illnesses such as a sore throat or the common cold; to assure her that I, her only remaining parent, am healthy and am here.
It still hurts so intensely because we loved so deeply, but sometimes I feel I am caught in an eddy, spinning and bobbing and waiting while I try to keep my head above the water. I see the rock and the river, but I am not really part of that world anymore.
Hard as it is to remember sometimes, I try to believe that this vortex is a journey towards peace. I know the time will come, and I know I probably won’t be ready for it. Part of me believes if I felt the current shift, I might just dive under and grab hold of that rock and never let go.
Eventually, though, I will need to float downstream. Eventually, I will need to let go, to make my own way through this grief. And maybe, someday, on some different stretch of this same river, will come that place of peace.
Read Sarah’s original post here.
Sarah Kilch Gaffney lives in rural Maine with her daughter. Read more from Sarah at: www.sarahkilchgaffney.com.