Three years ago today, we lost Ethan.
Three years ago today, that pretty nurse practitioner pressed the doppler deeper and deeper into my belly, willing it with all her might to pick up on a heartbeat that just wasn't there.
Three years ago today, I wept on an exam table and Andrew laid flat on the floor to keep himself conscious.
Three years ago today, the doctor gave us two options - we could say goodbye to our baby in a maternity ward or at an abortion clinic.
Three years ago today, I called my parents to tell them that we lost the baby and to ask them to bring contact solution to the hospital. They brought two big bottles...because it was the only thing they could do.
Three years ago today, a nurse led us to a room far away from the other mothers and babies and put a butterfly on the door to alert the staff that the soul in this mama's belly had already taken flight.
Three years ago today, I held my son for the first time and the last time. I have imagined holding him since. I have held him in my mind, in my heart. But when it comes to my son, my arms are useless.
As I think back on that day three years ago, I see a girl with a broken heart, a girl who is me...but isn't. I feel sad for that girl. I even cry for her. But I don't cry for me. Because I'm not sad. And writing those words - I'm not sad - that's what breaks my heart.
How do you mother a child who is dead?
There are no carrots to puree, no skinned knees to kiss, no monsters to chase from under the bed. There are no pictures to take, no cowlicks to smooth, no sneakers to tie, no report cards to sign...
The first year, I mothered Ethan by being sad. I was sad all the time. I felt that grief down to my fingernails. I felt it shrouding my spirit. I felt it in every corner of my home. I grieved hard and long. I tried to be normal, to celebrate holidays and other people's babies. But inside, I was mothering my son.
I also mothered Ethan by talking about him. I talked about him a lot - with Andrew, with family, with friends. When strangers asked if I had kids, I always told his story. When I was pregnant and people asked if this was my first, I told them no. We planted a tree. We had a ceremony. I wore two necklaces engraved with his name.
I was a good mom. A really good mom to my baby in heaven.
And then that grief, that misery, that loneliness...lifted. It faded. It just sort of stood up from my couch and walked out the door, slowly and silently so that I didn't even hear it go. And the next time I tried to call on my sadness, it wasn't there.
That's where I'm at now. I'm happy. I'm grateful. I'm living and celebrating and hoping and I don't feel sad. I feel blessed to work where I do. I love my husband. I delight in my daughter. I'm a good mother to her...
But not to Ethan.
Maybe that's not fair. Maybe I'm being hard on myself. But that's really how I feel. I don't know how to mother a dead child without being sad. I don't know how to love him with a mended heart. I am ashamed sometimes of my grief, of my lack of grief. I am ashamed of the fact that when people ask if Harriet is our only, most of the time I say that she is. There are days when I am caught up in mothering my spunky little girl and I don't even think of Ethan.
Is this what the other side looks like? Is this what I wished for all those days and months when that ache felt too much to bear? When I told myself that someday it wouldn't hurt so bad, did I ever really think that it wouldn't hurt at all? I feel stuck in the goodness of my life because it leads to guilt - how could life possibly be so good with one family member missing?
And then there are moments...unexpected moments...when I ache for him.
Every Christmas, my inlaws donate fruit trees to a community that desperately needs them. They do it in Ethan's name and every year, when we open the certificate, I am surprised by my grief. I am surprised by how much the tears sting. I am surprised by how much I wish he was here with us, ripping through wrapping paper and sneaking Christmas cookies from the table. But more than that, I'm surprised by how much it means to me that they remember him...that they write his name...that they miss him too.
Ethan had Down syndrome, and when I see children who have that in common with my boy...oh, I want him back. I want him back so badly that just thinking of it now is making me cry so loudly that I have to put my hand over my mouth to keep from waking Harriet.
And soccer...I don't know what it is but there's something about seeing sweaty little boys chase each other around a soccer field that makes me think of Ethan and miss him so much.
So three years later, as I write these words, I am realizing that despite my genuine happiness and the deep gratitude I have for the direction my life has taken, my grief is still here. The tears are fresh in my eyes, multiplying with each word I type. It's so cliche, but this stage of grief really is a dance - a dance between loss and gain, heartbreak and gladness, a dance between what's not here...and what is.
So today, I picture myself holding a chunky three-year-old boy in my arms and dancing crazy around the kitchen table, admiring all the trucks and trains on his birthday cake. I wanted today to look like that.
But today looks a lot different. Today...my boy is dancing with Someone else.