My toddler son Seamus had been dead for a little over a month when I attended my friend Jess's baby shower. She had extended the invitation with several caveats: everyone would love to see me, but they didn't want me to feel obligated. I could arrive late, leave early, skip it altogether with no hard feelings. I hated being treated so delicately. And so, as if to prove to myself and others that I had my shit together, I showed up with a big smile and a gift in hand, determined not to be a drag on the celebration.
I usually tell people that Seamus died in a car accident, but the reality is more complicated. My husband Eric was pushing him in a stroller through a marked crosswalk when an elderly driver started to make a right turn through the intersection, then slammed his foot on the pedal, mistaking the accelerator for the brake. Eric was thrown 30 feet through the air and briefly knocked unconscious. Seamus' stroller was dragged through the intersection then pinned to a telephone pole by the car. He endured two surgeries and a night in intensive care before succumbing to his injuries. Twenty-seven hours after arriving at the hospital in a blind panic, I walked out with a bandaged, shell-shocked husband, a manila envelope full of grief pamphlets, and five tufts of wispy blonde curls tied neatly with purple ribbons and tucked into tiny envelopes—mementos the PICU nurses had prepared for us while we filled out organ donation paperwork.
Family and friends rushed in to help in the aftermath. By the time a month had passed, Eric and I were still receiving a steady stream of thoughtful messages and meals delivered to our door every night; but for the most part, people had gone back to their lives, and the two of us were left to face the vast emptiness where a chubby, silly, inquisitive little boy had been. Our once-happy marriage had become unrecognizable, replaced by a somber, weary march through days that ended with an alcohol-and-Ambien-assisted fade to sleep. In addition to signaling my togetherness, attending Jess's baby shower offered a temporary escape from the misery of our home, a chance to feel normal, or at least to act normal, for a little while.
The women who gathered at our friend Megan's apartment that night were former colleagues at a local nonprofit where organizational restructuring and layoffs were a constant source of stress and uncertainty. The group was practically founded on gallows humor; but still, I worried that my transition to "grieving mom" would be an impossibly heavy lift for them. We congregated around a small table stocked with appetizers and bottles of wine. My friends caught up on workplace drama, while I tried to follow along. I tried not to drink my wine too fast; I tried to smile; I tried to keep my hands from shaking as I delicately arranged cheese on crackers. Curiously, no one was talking about children or babies. Worse, my friends' eyes kept filling with tears whenever I spoke, even when the topic was sports or the weather. At one point, one of the women pulled me aside to tell me how much she'd been thinking of me and Eric and Seamus over the last month. I remember a surge of panic, watching her tears overflow as eight pairs of concerned eyes darted to me, then back to their conversations, then back to me again. I smiled, said "Thank you," and changed the subject.
And then there was Jess, looking so radiant and so pregnant. Her blue eyes sparkled, and she was all belly and limbs in her gray sweater and black leggings. "I'm so excited for you," I said, hugging her. But my smile was a thin membrane holding back enormous, ugly feelings. I held them back with such force that my face hurt.
When Megan herded us to the living room to open gifts, I took a moment to appreciate that Jess, like me, had no tolerance for baby shower games. No one would be asking me to guess the candy in the diaper or decorate a onesie. My affection for her grew—alongside a desire to run out the door and disappear into the rainy night, never see these people again.
I slid into a chair opposite the mom-to-be, clutching a glass of wine and bracing. I tried to calm myself by looking out the window behind her, where street lights lit up the rain in cascading, fluorescent triangles. I tried to muster some oohs and awws at the swaddle blankets, tiny hats, and plush toys amassing in a pile at Jess's feet. When the women began trading childbirth stories, I sank back in my chair, fixing my smile and my eyes on whoever was talking, watching opportunities to contribute to the conversation pass by like distant trains. Looking down at my empty glass, I recalled the earthquake-like sensation that occurred in my pelvis right before I reached down between my legs and felt Seamus' head for the first time. It was cosmically powerful, despite the fact that I was sitting on a toilet and crying. Eric was holding my hand, setting the stage for countless jokes about bathroom pep talks in the weeks to come as my stitches healed.
Where did Seamus come from? I wondered. Where did he go? Is it the same place? Is it a place at all?
Megan pulled me back, saying, "Michelle, tell them what Eric said about the placenta."
"Well, placentas are gross," I said, looking into my empty glass. The women responded with smiles and eyebrows raised expectantly, but the room went eerily quiet. Red wine swirled in my belly.
Bless their hearts, I thought. They are pretending so hard.
"I can't remember what Eric said, though," I lied.
Megan told the group that she had come to visit us a few days after Seamus was born. She wanted to hear everything about the birth and I was excited to tell her. Sparing no detail, I walked her through the twenty-eight-hour ordeal, then arrived at what felt like the end of the story: healthy baby, everyone crying, relieved, exhausted.
I pictured my palm opening to reveal a tuft of hair, a purple ribbon. He's right here.
"And then Eric chimed in, saying 'And then a steak came out.'" She was laughing. "He must have thought your organs were just like, falling out of your body."
Everyone laughed, and I followed suit, relieved, amused, or perhaps both. The knot in my chest loosened.
Later that night, I helped Jess load the gifts into her car and hugged her again. I couldn't wait to meet her little guy, I told her, but it might be a few months.
"Of course," she said. Her husband stood beside her, looking stricken.
Driving home, I cried bitter tears, aching with jealousy at the thought of Jess's baby, warm and safe in her womb, comforted by the steady pulse of her heart. Other friends were going home to tucked-in little bodies and warm cheeks to kiss. What did I have? Tiny locks of blonde hair tied up with purple ribbons, in an envelope, in a box somewhere. I thought about primate mothers, who have been observed in the wild cradling and carrying their dead babies for weeks, even months. As with those monkeys, my grief had become a monstrous, physical presence—almost as if my body was confused, asking: "Where is your baby?"
I pictured my palm opening to reveal a tuft of hair, a purple ribbon. He's right here.
After the baby shower, I entered into a kind of social hibernation. I could not carry my son with me, but I could not set him down, either. With few exceptions, I declined invitations to happy hours and barbecues, even missing a good friend's wedding. I lived in fear of the awkward silences, and the questions, which ranged from "Do you have kids?" from a friend of a friend, to "How's the little guy?" from a coworker who hadn't heard about the accident. I still saw my friends, but only in small, intimate gatherings where saying my dead son's name was less likely to suck the oxygen out of the room. Until I became pregnant again the following year, I stayed in hibernation mode; and even then, I emerged tentatively, only to face new questions. "Is this your first?" "How are you feeling?" "Is Eric excited?"
Two years and one day after Seamus died, I gave birth to his brother and sister—twins we named Gus and Greta. It's now been eight years since Seamus died, and while I am more adept at navigating social situations, I still enter most small-talk situations feeling like I am carrying something inappropriate—a bomb I could drop into any conversation: My son is dead.
Last summer, my family was preparing for our annual trip to the San Juan islands when I learned about a resident orca whale whose calf had died. She had been photographed nudging her baby's corpse across the Salish Sea, holding it aloft on her nose when she breached. As if she could will the baby back to life. On social media, a chorus of grieving parents sang out in solidarity. We understood the part of her that could not let go. At least not yet.
After a week, the story about the grieving whale was national news, and even as my heart broke seeing the images day after day, I wondered why humans found it so easy to rally around a grieving whale when we can't seem to make space for grieving humans. Why did I have to protect other people from the truth of what had happened to my family? Why did moving on require letting go?
Seventeen days after her baby's death, the grieving whale let go. A few days later, I stood on a beach in the San Juans with my children, watching a pod of orcas breach a few hundred yards offshore. I wondered if the grieving mom was among them. I wondered if she would return to the place where she left her baby, if she was tormented by the thought of ocean scavengers eating its flesh. I thought of my own son's body, swollen beyond recognition, a line of stitches running the length of his abdomen, a hole in his skull. I thought of the heavy box of ashes that had been delivered to our house a few weeks after he died, the terror of opening the box, and how surprised I had been by their stark, translucent beauty. Years later, those same ashes would cast a white film on the clear blue mountain lake where we scattered them, along with some flower petals and little boats made by Seamus's brother and sister. I remember Eric swallowing a sob, Gus and Greta's voices saying (a little too cheerfully), "Bye, Seamus!" which made us all laugh. I thought of how rotting flesh gives way to bones, and how grief softened by time becomes inoffensive, and frequently—surprisingly— beautiful.
In many ways, I still carry Seamus with me. He's a tattoo. A necklace. The cells in my body. The neurotransmitters that light up when I smell a sun-soaked, musky toddler head. He's small tufts of blonde curls tied with purple ribbons, tucked into an envelope, in a box in my basement. I've carried my dead son for so long that my grief no longer feels monstrous. I've carried this grief for so long that I am not myself without it.