Our Story of Infant Loss

© Jay Harden

Today, May 20, 2007, I was eating breakfast alone, browsing a circular from a local hospital. On the back page was a list of support groups and one of them was for “infant loss.” How curiously modern a term for our stillborn child 34 years ago. I wondered what would happen if I just wandered into their group meeting and how I, a grandfather with a white beard, would be received at this late date.

Back then there was no recognition of stillbirth as a reason for grief and no help whatsoever for the parents, as if it didn’t happen. But it happened to us and I want to tell our story even now before it is lost.

We were in love, and it was extraordinary. She was 14; I was 15. We planned our lives together in great detail, and finally, six years later, upon graduation from college, we married the very next day on the 6th of June, 1965. We planned to spend four years with each other and exploring our careers before having children. She was a first grade teacher, a natural – one of the rare ones. She made a difference with every child she touched. I was off learning to fly airplanes. We wanted four children, two boys and two girls, so each could have the experience of a brother and sister, something I appreciated, but my wife had never known. We wanted our children four or three years apart so they would be playmates, but not all in diapers at once.

While I was at war, I got a letter from her. It was a folded piece of colored construction paper in the shape of a diaper, with a safety pin in the middle. I was overcome with tears of joy, an incongruous sight in the officer quarters, and I called her long distance from halfway round the world at the exorbitant cost of $50. We celebrated our gratefulness.  I don’t remember the conversation, only her enthusiastic lilt and my dreamy manliness.

When I returned and stepped off the plane, I instantly spotted her in that bright bulging red dress among the crowded bleachers, waving. It was one my life’s transcendental visual experiences, as vivid today as then. In essence, she glowed, framing a smile that illuminated the gray sky with a personal spiritual beacon of love and new hopes.

The baby was large and reluctant to leave its home, so she was induced on the day before our fourth anniversary. As I watched and heard, they had to break my daughter’s collarbone to deliver her, but she was healthy and greatly loved and finely beautiful, like her mother. I was overjoyed at the idea of being surrounded indefinitely by two beautiful women who thought I was a god. Our enthusiastic lives went by too fast for four years. Then as our planned dream unfolded, another child came, in 1973. As before, we didn’t want to know the gender early, already satisfied with God’s gift.

We cared for the two beings in one body consciously and conscientiously, and all checkups went fine. Then in the middle of the last trimester, she came home and said the doctor could no longer find the heartbeat. We were to meet him that evening to use a very sensitive, advanced and expensive electronic stethoscope.  He let us hear the rushing pulse of the placenta that sounded like a gentle train bringing our baby to us, but again no heartbeat. Nothing was really said conclusively, so hope and innocence reigned over reality and we went home, waiting for the next step that would clear up everything.

The doctor never called us, and with increased concern, we called him. He was out of town, so my wife explained the situation. The covering doctor told us without sentiment that our child had died and to come in for an exam. We clutched each other, overwhelmed in mutual tragedy and unrelenting tears. Shock distorted our perception of reality, a stunned, slow motion, joint nightmare in daylight. I remember the first part so clearly and the last part as a ripping, tearing loss just beyond sanity and comprehension, and way beyond acceptance. It was the first real defeat in my life and in hers. We were powerless, completely lost, and at the effect of every fear, with nowhere to turn. Time had turned to friend from enemy.

Her mother was of no help whatsoever, but my mother quietly understood and flew up to be with us. Her father, my first hero, had been a country doctor and she assisted him in the stillbirth of her stepbrother, when she was about 25, cleaning and dressing the perfectly formed baby. Her presence with us for a few weeks was all we had and it was a crucial, softening kindness.

The doctor explained that we had two choices: to take the baby now, or to allow for a full term delivery, the latter being the safest for my wife, and thus our choice.

Thereafter, life became an altered consciousness. We both went to work and acted out our former normal lives. Only a very few knew what we were suffering: she in her insane world and I in mine. I still don’t know how my love managed to help my love keep her mind together. I felt the most helpless of all. She refused all my usual hugs and affection, retreating somewhere, somewhere I hope that was helpful. Nothing I did relieved her pain.

I went to the doctor – lost my cool with him – and demanded that he give me something, some task, anything to do to contribute to the well being of my love. He said the only thing he knew was to touch her and I had already tried that. But coming home, I devised a strategy to touch her without her knowing it consciously. At every opportunity I would brush past her, just making contact. I asked for the salt and accidentally grazed her finger. I managed this is so many different ways: this was my focus, my secret mission of love. And in a few days, I noticed a significant lessening of tension within her with a hint of peace and, I think, we both felt closer in our hurting silence.

The stress increased at a greater rate as time passed. Her stomach started to shrink and the shape of tiny bones became visible. It was agonizing pain to me and God knows what for her. I spent as much time as I could just being around her, out of the way, but there grazing her and stealing glances within the desperate sadness of two crushed hearts.

It became even more surreal for me to plan for a death that had not officially occurred. At the time, I was an officer in the Air Force on active duty. As such, I had the right to bury my family in a military cemetery, so long as I agreed to eventually join them. I signed the necessary papers and made all the arrangements. We lived in St. Louis at the time, nearing time for transfer to a new assignment. I had hopes of a military career, not knowing we were to spend a total of 18 years in St. Louis until my love died, too, and I tried moving away from the pain. So I elected a military cemetery in my home state of Georgia. The Marietta National Cemetery was full at the time and only Andersonville was open, so that was our choice.

Finally our child came – on our daughter’s fourth birthday. I was not allowed in delivery this time. Was it a boy or girl? They didn’t know. Could I see my child? They said the physical deterioration made my child unrecognizable and I would be better served by memory. They wanted to consign it to the incinerator. And that’s when I realized what they did not – that our child was a loved human being and knew it, with a beating heart and soul and brain who knew God and breathed not air but the mystical makings of the womb.

My wife became hysterical for the only time in her life in the middle of that night at the hospital (when I was at home asleep) demanding to see her baby, and being denied that. I wish I had known to expect this and had been with her then.

I refused to sign any paperwork until they determined the sex so I could give my child a name. I insisted and they eventually relented. I prayed that it was a boy – it seemed too painful for a little girl to bear so much – and it was the son I realized I always secretly wanted.

What gift could I give worthy of him, and of our love? So I gave him my name, not my birth name, but the name I was called, Jay. And then I gave him my most treasured possession at the time: the sterling wings I earned at flight school, hand engraved on the back with my name. They held the blue blanket that wrapped him round.

Then came the first great difficult solitary decision of my life. Should I stay with my beloved, who could not yet travel, or go 700 miles for my son’s burial? I decided for the living, begging his forgiveness.

My father agreed to be my proxy and handled the details at the cemetery. Dissatisfied with the conventional joyless rituals we had known, and with her help, I wrote the funeral ceremony, a satisfying recognition of one short, bright presence in our lives that made us more compassionate humans.

Slowly at work, different people would come up to me alone and whisper that we, too, lost a child. I was stunned by the number – at least seven I recall, including the Colonel commanding the installation – and their quiet secrecy. I was unknowingly the newest initiate of a large, unknown secret society of unmitigated parental emptiness.

And so it was that we never really grieved, never really talked, and never got help, for none was sanctioned at the time. And so it was that we never really healed, found closure, or moved on in peace. And so it remains for me to this day.

Then one night, about six months after, when the outer world had returned to normal, I had a dream, a nightmare. I was a butterfly at the top of a tall atrium and flew off. As I dove, my wings collapsed and I crashed to my death. At that point I woke up screaming in uncontrolled hysteria for the only time in my life. For about 15 minutes she could not calm me down enough to speak. Then I told her the story and what I knew the dream meant: it meant that I would never have a son. This realization felt so real; I was devastated as a father and a man in an inexpressible, intensely personal way.

My dream may have been part of our difficulty to try and conceive again. I don’t know what her issues over the loss really were, for in time we stopped talking about it and consoling each other because it seemed that was what society expected to prove our healthy return to normalcy. We continued as before to be close, intimate friends and soul mates, but the subject of our lost son only came up when we were trying to help some other stunned couple.

We tried all the best techniques of the time to encourage conception. Finally, after three years, we had another baby, a robust and gentle boy of nearly 12 pounds. If there is such a thing as grace, I received it that moment. How does a man without words describe a sacred discovery of cherishment in his masculine heart? This boy, now a man, has, like his sister, been a continuous delight of life to me, their mother, and the world. No gifts could ever exceed these two. I am grateful for them and accept my smaller family, though I still wonder from time to time what our intentions might have become. Someday, in some other time and space, I hope to understand the perfection of divine destiny.

A few months ago, as my mother lay dying naturally and gracefully at 95, she could not speak but could still hear. I gave her permission to leave when she wanted, and I asked her to do something there for me. “Please tell Dad I’m sorry I wasn’t around to say goodbye,” I said, “and tell Carolyn that I still love her. And will you hold my son in your arms the way you used to hold me, and tell him all about his father?”

My first son is still a part of my consciousness and constant love, and I think often about him and who he was and why he was here. I am the only one now to keep his memory. It is OK that I am the last one to know him, the last one who cares. And I find some comfort in the fact that his name will always be beside mine on a stone for some long time should others want to know he existed. So, is it too late for me to attend that “infant loss” support group? Probably so, probably so.


The Boy Who Never Was

 People nowadays

Don’t talk about the stillborn,

The people who never were.

But I do in my mind.

I talk about him to me:

The boy who never was –

Except in my knowing.

And I talk about him to her,

She who carried him

And loved him with me

Before he was born.

They are together now

And I am left here,

Wondering and waiting to ask.

But people nowadays

Don’t talk about such things –

That is, unless you question.

And gently.

And then you find

A legion of pilgrims,

A secret fraternity of procreators

Of lost ones,

A wide sea of simple smiles

On the face of grief ineffable.

We speak our bewilderment

In quiet whispers,

Unnoticed ripples in the flow

Of vibrant life around.

I had no idea so many

Were like me

And felt like me.

I who treasured deeply

And lost ultimately.

Yet no fortune would I exchange

For the gift in him

That came to me

And went too fast.

I know there is meaning

In my experience,

But I sense it may long be

The great mystery of my life

As I, from time to time, unwrap

More of the package.

Those ribbons shimmer

With a vibrancy deep

And the colors call forth

The rich pastels of my heart.

Was it all about love?

It is all about love.

Love, love, always love.


December 18, 2005

Athens, Georgia