A few months ago, a New York Times article caught my eye. I clipped and saved it. When I was going through the pile of bills, notes, and files on my desk the other day, the article turned up.
The piece, Haunted by a Child’s Illness, opens: “A child’s serious illness can cast a very long shadow across a family, often for years after the crisis has passed.”
And, I added to myself, a child’s death casts a shadow for the rest of a mother’s life.
I thought of this truth last week when I accompanied my younger daughter Colette, 24-weeks pregnant, and her husband to an echocardiogram of their baby’s heart.
At another earlier appointment, one of my daughter’s doctors had turned to her and said, “So we’re ordering a Level 2 Echo because I see here on your chart that your brother had a heart defect.”
“Yes,” she said. “That’s right.”
I don’t know what else this doctor knew. Did he know that Colette’s brother was born with an extremely rare heart defect and died in open heart surgery, 31 years ago, before Colette was born?
Did the doctor know that even the use of the word “brother,” made us all enter a weird twilight zone? Colette has an older sister Olivia also born after their brother lived and died. Had Malcolm survived, they wouldn’t be here. They have a ghost brother.
All of our lives have been shaped, shadowed, by Malcolm’s death.
When I found out that Olivia, conceived 7 months after Malcolm died, was a girl I felt jittery with relief. More boys are conceived—more girls survive. Girls are healthier. I was happy to learn that Colette was a girl. She too had a better chance.
At an earlier ultrasound to determine Colette’s baby’s sex, the technician asked us what we thought Colette was having, I said, “Girl.” Colette’s husband Bryan said, “Girl.” Colette chimed in, “Girl.”
“It’s a boy!!!!” The tech flashed the words up on the screen. My throat tightened.
The death of a child casts a long shadow.
At the echocardiogram last week, when the technician circled a pulsing section on the screen and said, “There are the 4 chambers of his heart,” an audible sigh rushed out of me. Colette looked over and smiled. She knew. She too felt the relief. The technician then pointed out the mitral valve and the tricuspid, the blood flowing–red as it approached her screening wand, blue as it moved away. Or maybe it was the reverse.
I had trouble concentrating.
Words haunt me: mitral, tricuspid, chambers, valves. In our hospital stays we met parents of children with only 3 heart chambers, missing aortas, atrial septal defects, ventricle stenosis, holes that should have been easy to stitch closed but, mysteriously, weren’t—trickster defects.
I try not to think of these things, those times. My daughter is carrying her first child, my first grandchild, a son!
I remember a conversation I had with my pediatrician a few days before Olivia was born. Dr. Weller had called to see how I was doing. I told him my mother was on her way up and that she would be a comfort to me.
“I’m glad to hear she’s coming beforehand,” he said. “Babies do arrive early sometimes. I assume you have everything ready.”
“Well, not exactly,” I said. “We haven’t set up the baby’s room yet.”
“That doesn’t seem fair,” he said, his voice gentle. “You’re not giving this baby a chance. She deserves a room, doesn’t she?”
“Yes, she does,” I said.
And something shifted, right then and there. I believed, I think for the first time, that I actually would bring this baby girl home from the hospital, that she wouldn’t be whisked away. That she had a chance.
I see my mother—scared but steadfast—helping me prepare for Olivia’s arrival.
Just as I am helping Colette set up her baby’s room. Her boy won’t be here until April. But we’re getting ready now.
Because he’s coming.