cicatrix

noun

  1. The scar of a healed wound.
  2. Botany  A mark on a stem left after a leaf or other part has become detached.

 

Our son Gus, born still almost 8 years ago, is very present for me right now. As the foliage in my lovely neck of the woods reaches peak incandescence, my grief is close to the surface, welling up at unexpected moments and summoning a fierce instinct to retreat into solitude.

This is partly because the rituals of Remembrance Day, October 15th naturally inspire reflection, and partly because this is the only season we had with him. Watching as the daylight ebbs and the landscape transforms itself takes me back to the same time of year, long ago, when he began to assert his presence with bumps and flips and flutters within me.

The radiant colors of Maine in autumn are, for me, at once breathtaking and tinged with melancholy. As the leaves let go and flutter down from their summer heights, the mother branches above bear the scars of their departure. My own aching heart salutes the trees, left to face the stark realities of winter torn asunder from their offspring. Nature, beautiful and indifferent, is its own kind of trigger.

The scar from my second son bisects my lower abdomen, a raised pink line only a few inches long. The incision, now partially obscured by my laissez-faire approach to grooming and my middle-aged-mom muffin top, was carefully planned and executed by the surgeon on call the day that my uterus threatened riot and revolt. Through that wound was delivered my squalling baby boy, startled to have been wrenched from his nest. Breathing and kicking and unmistakably alive.

The scar from my first son cleaves my life into two immutable categories: before and after. There was no cut — he was born vaginally, silent and still, after 12 hours of distraught labor, already gone before we began — but he left a mark both deep and permanent, a counterweight to the fact of his younger brother’s joyous arrival two years later, an indelible shadow over me forevermore: my first baby died.

Both scars are hard to look at straight on. Even now as I try to type this, my mind skitters in search of distraction — the urge to switch tabs, check my email, take a sip of coffee, is ever present. I avoid mirrors while dressing, reflexively averting my eyes to spare myself the complicated knot of wonder and shame that seizes me when I am forced to reckon with my own naked postpartum 40-something body.

The human instinct to diminish the discomfort of loss is formidable. In the aftermath of that horrific night, many people simply could not imagine what we were going through, and said so. One friend’s sympathy card mentioned that her mind simply sheared away at the idea of surviving the death of her own daughter — she could not force herself to reckon with the thought. I appreciated and understood her honesty. Until that terrible moment in the triage unit when we were told that Gus had no heartbeat, I couldn’t have reckoned with it either.

Cicatrix: A mark on a stem left after a leaf or other part has become detached.

My babylost friends with catastrophes even older than mine have confirmed that their own grief never entirely leaves them. The world keeps spinning, the seasons march on, and so must we. We keep growing.

And yet the baby-shaped holes in our hearts remain, through subsequent pregnancies and parenting, through new homes and new jobs and new friends, through infertility, through other sad farewells. Our lost babies do not define us so much as give us shape: negative space and the longing ache for completion.

Our wounds heal, our scars remain. As the brilliant Elizabeth McCracken says in her own memoir of baby loss, “It’s a happy life, but someone is missing. It’s a happy life, and someone is missing.”

And so, in this seasonal transition, I give thanks for my fiery five year old as I mourn my firstborn. I wonder what it would have been like for my younger son to grow up with an older brother. I weep. I take long walks in the woods and comfort myself with the sensory pleasures of the season: the juicy snap of fresh apples, the increasing chill of the evenings, the scent of wood smoke. I hold space and silence. I light candles and speak the names of the constellation of lost babies in my universe. I honor the cicatrices we carry with us, and the new growth that emerges around them.