Two Kinds of Goodbyes

While dropping off my son at college, I think of the two children I lost.

Illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker

When we embrace, his is the same face I remember from when he walked through the doors of his school on the first day of kindergarten and turned to wave. Now he’s entering his junior year of college. After we say goodbye, my husband and I get in our car parked by the side of his freshly painted dorm building. The hard maple trees are in full bloom. Birds call. The air is clear. Before we pull away, we watch him walk toward his dorm building.  It’s a walk I could pick out in a crowd, and for a moment I can’t breathe.

As our son nears the doorway, there’s a spring to his walk. He’s happy to be back. Before he enters the building he turns around, looks at me, and raises his chin. It’s the look he gives me when he wants me to know all is good. I smile and my eyes fill.  Everything about this day is bittersweet.

The 10-hour ride home is eerily quiet. My husband stares ahead, lost in his own thoughts. I know I will see my son in October for parent’s weekend and then for Christmas and spring holiday and summer. I tell myself all of this but the tears won’t subside.  

Even when he’s away at college, he is always first. Motherhood has no end or compartment. I am always a mother. After I lost my babies, before he was born, I was a mother then, too.

Throughout his childhood, birthdays, first days of school, high school graduation, and now his junior year of college—all the markers that chart a child’s growth—I think about what my two other children would have been like if it all had turned out differently. I’m not supposed to have these thoughts; I’m sure of it. Does continuing to remember them mean that I love my living son less, or not enough, or that I am not fully there for him as a mother— as if always looking around for someone else?  The opposite is true.  I could not look away from him. In a room together, especially when he was younger, my eyes barely left him, as though I thought if I looked away he would disappear.

My first pregnancy was not planned. We had talked about having a baby, but we were early in our careers, living in a walk-up without air conditioning. In the sweltering days of August, we spent our weekends in movie theaters seeing film after film to keep cool. But when I discovered I was pregnant—I seemed to know it the minute we conceived— I was elated. I was 32 and everything seemed possible. I dreamt of taking the baby in her buggy to the park, of bathing and holding her, reading to her, of giving her the childhood that I had wished for—a kind of romantic paradise made impossible by my father’s death when I was 2. I wonder now about the repercussions of saddling our children with the burdens of what we never had.

I began to bleed in the fourth month. I was at a museum with my mother; when I went to the bathroom, I noticed the blood. I didn’t want to tell her. It felt almost like failure. Hours later, in the obstetrician’s office, I discovered that my cervix had begun to dilate; the beginning of premature labor. I was rushed to the hospital to undergo a procedure to stitch my cervix.

I had been exposed to DES, a synthetic nonsteroidal estrogen administered to women of my mother’s generation in the mistaken belief that it would reduce the risk of pregnancy complications and losses. Ironically, women who were exposed to the drug in utero have an increased risk of infertility and adverse pregnancy outcomes. My mother had told me I had been exposed to DES when I had my first gynecological appointment, but because I was young and believed in my own immortality, it was never something I had looked into or understood. My sister, who also had been exposed to DES in utero, was at the time six-months pregnant with no complications.

For the remaining months of the pregnancy I was on bed rest.  At 32 weeks, on July 28, my water broke. My obstetrician postponed labor with intravenous medications, but two days later the contractions started again. I was prepped for a C-section. Our baby’s lungs collapsed 10 minutes after birth, due to the pressure on her underdeveloped lungs from the loss of fluids. I’ve always wondered if she would be alive today if the obstetrician hadn’t waited. For days, I lay in the hospital recovering from the surgery, unable to fully process what happened, my nipples dripping milk, wondering if, during the 10 minutes she was alive, she felt the aura of my love. She was a fully formed baby, nearly five pounds. I held her in my arms, draped in a flannel blanket, and marveled over her. We named her Isabel.

For a year I lived a sort of half-life. My daughter was alive in my dreams and fantasy life but to the rest of the world she was gone. I could not move past it. There were days I could barely get out of bed. I knew that baby before she was born. I talked to her. She fed and breathed off of me. It never occurred to me that she would not survive the pregnancy.

Two years after Isabel died, I was pregnant again. There is a part of me that doesn’t want to tell this story, that is ashamed that I lost not just one child but two, that my body was inept, uncooperative, that it deceived me once again. During the second pregnancy, I was cognizant of its fragility; it was almost as if I were holding an explosive that would erupt if I wasn’t careful. I paid attention to each and every morsel I put in my body, steps I took; I worried about overexerting myself. I slept on my side to keep the blood and nutrients flowing to the baby. I took my vitamins. I went to my doctor’s appointments. I did not drink or smoke or eat sushi or shellfish. I counted the days, weeks, months, charting my baby’s growth, knowing when he would grow fingernails, develop hair.

It was New Year’s Day. The night before, we had celebrated with friends. I had taken a few sips of champagne and then refrained, even though I knew one glass of champagne would not harm the baby. The next morning I looked in the mirror and my pregnant belly looked small. I kept looking at it in the full-length mirror. I couldn’t remember the last time I felt the baby move. I was 26 weeks pregnant. I called my doctor and went in for a stress test. The baby wasn’t getting sufficient nutrients and our only option was to immediately give birth. I was prepared again for a C-section.

After my first pregnancy, I learned that like many DES daughters I had a T-shaped uterus. My obstetrician thought it could be managed with bed rest, but my uterine lining was thinning as it stretched, and inhibiting nutrients from entering the placenta. At birth, our boy Samuel weighed less than a pound and was the size of a large frog. Nevertheless he had my husband’s face and nose. I saw the resemblance immediately.  

I knew babies that had survived at 26 weeks and against the odds I was still hopeful. Samuel was rushed to the ICU. Those next two days were a blur. I was heavily medicated from the surgery. I remember waking to the thought that maybe today I would get to hold my son only to learn that his kidneys had failed.

During those years, we went to work each morning, engaged with friends and family, traveled. We attempted surrogacy. My younger sister offered to carry our baby, but after one round of IVF, my body shut down. We decided to adopt—another story all its own. That decision resulted in our remarkable son whose young biological mother chose us to raise him. When he was old enough to begin to understand how babies are made, we told him about the two babies who hadn’t survived and explained the story of his adoption.

“If you didn’t lose those babies you wouldn’t of had me,” he said.

“But we were meant to have you,” I said.

Our daughter and son are buried in a cemetery in Westchester County. On our way to visit friends in Connecticut or Westchester we pass by the cemetery. When I think about my family now, I include the daughter and son that we lost. They are shadows in our home. As I see my son turning before my eyes into a young man, I think of Isabel, with my wide forehead, and Samuel with my husband’s nose. When I was still childless, I’d see mothers cuddling their babies on the bus, kissing the tops of their heads, and I’d think of the babies I lost. As the years passed, I’d see their images in schoolgirls with knee socks rolled to their ankles in their short plaid uniform skirts, in boys dashing up the slide at the playground where I took my son. When I passed teenagers, arm in arm, threading through the streets, I’d catch a flash of Isabel with long dark hair down her back. When I’d see a boy with red hair, I’d picture Samuel. I still feel as if I know them.

In a trunk where I keep my memorabilia, I have a photo of Isabel’s first sonogram. I have saved her pink striped hospital cap and wristband and flannel blanket. I have a Polaroid snapshot the nurse took of her. I have the wristband I wore when I was admitted into the hospital for Samuel’s birth and a photograph of me that New Year’s Eve when he was still inside me. Aside from the small plaque that marks their graves, these physical objects are the only tangible markers of their existence.         

The passing on of genes is not why I wanted to become a mother. I wanted a child to take care of and nurture. Though my son doesn’t share our biological make-up, he has my husband’s dry humor and laugh, my reflectiveness and gestures, our worldview. He shares aspects of who we are and is indomitably his own person.

There is a Yiddish word for the evil eye: When people relate their accomplishments or blessings, they say kina hora to ward off evil. The fear is that merely speaking of something good might do harm. Wondering about how my life might have changed had my daughter and first son lived has always felt like evoking the evil eye.

There’s another Yiddish word, barshert. It means destiny. There is little doubt that if I had not lost Isabel and Samuel, I would not have been given the extraordinary gift of raising our son. My love for him is physical, tangible, fierce. My love for the babies who died is more ethereal. Our losses transform us in ways that are impossible to know or understand.

When people ask me how many children I have, I want to say I am the mother of three. But then I would have so much to explain. Motherhood has no end or compartment. I hope my son will never feel as if he has to hide his losses in privacy or shame. He is my third child, and he is always first.