May 22, 2011
In preparation for our upcoming move to India, I have been sorting through our stuff and trying to unload some. It’s slow going; I am very easily distracted. The other day, I stumbled upon some photo albums from our time in Turkey and got particularly swept up reminiscing about a visit to Bursa in 2003. We met the gardener at the Muradiye Complex, where several Ottoman sultans are buried. Before sharing the bloody tale of Sehzade Mustafa’s demise, he warned, “I am going to tell you a tragic story. Don’t be sad.”
Since rediscovering that photo album, the gardener’s words have echoed in my head because I feel the need to share a tragic story of my own. This blog isn’t usually the place for me to pour out my emotions, but I’m struggling to find any place to do that right now. And I don’t want the story of Benjamin Warren to be forgotten.
So. I am going to tell you a tragic story. Don’t be sad.
As many of you know, I love teaching children, but I’m not always a big fan of small people outside of school. Therefore, it came as a shock to everyone – including me – that I am ridiculously obsessively uncontrollably crazy about my two nephews, Nico and Paul. They are the beautiful creations of my sister, Kate, and her husband, John. I could never have predicted how much I would unconditionally worship them (even when Nico spat on my foot and shrieked, “I hate you!” when we were trying to pull a splinter out of his toe). A friend once told me, “I think you love Nico more than I love my own children.”
When my youngest sister, Megan, got pregnant, I had mixed emotions. At first, I wondered if my swollen heart had room for another nephew or niece. Every week, Meg forwarded the emails from babycenter.com with a summary of the baby’s development, including a comparison of the fetus to a fruit or vegetable to better illustrate its size. When it was just a kidney bean, I was happy for Meg and her husband, Britt, but I couldn’t muster much long-distance enthusiasm. By the time it was a mini-watermelon, I was in full auntie mode, bursting with the anticipation of adding another lovebug to my cherished collection.
At Christmas, the whole family – minus Tony and me – gathered at my parents’ house in Michigan. As we watched via Skype on Christmas Day, Megan dramatically ripped open her ultrasound report to discover her little spaghetti squash was a boy. There was a momentary hush of disappointment as we had all wished so desperately for a girl … but then the realization hit. Another boy! Three curious little guys running and rolling and laughing together; it was going to be fantastic.
Meg emailed photos of her enormous belly and matching smile. She gawked in awe at her morphing body. Two of my colleagues at school had almost equally-baked buns in the oven, so I was able to vicariously experience Meg’s pregnancy. I ached to be there with her, and I toyed with the idea of visiting the States during our spring break, but the timing was just slightly off. We had to be back at school on April 18; the baby’s ETA was a week later.
As the due date loomed I eagerly wrote on Meg’s Facebook page:
March 17 – oh, I just want to cry at how beautiful you are! My baby sister!! So excited to meet the new man in your life.
April 3 – Be sure to text me when the melon drops! I don’t care what time it is.
April 17 – Baby, where are you? Auntie Sharon is waiting impatiently for some news.
April 18 – Still waiting…
April 19 – Another morning with no nephew news. Why the face?!
April 24 – Did the Easter Bunny bring you a baby?
Looking back at those posts breaks my heart. My next message to her on May 1 hints at the sad ending to this story: “I’ll be home soon to smother you with hugs and kisses.”
On April 27, I went out to dinner for Family Night, a weekly tradition with our little circle of friends here in Vientiane. We met at a nice restaurant with a lovely terrace, and I promptly announced, “My baby’s supposed to be born today!” In America, it was the morning of his due date. After a delicious dinner, a tasty ice cream dessert and lots of laughter, I got a text from my sister, Kate. “Call me. They can’t find a heartbeat.” I quickly stood up and showed the text to Tony. He grabbed my bag and started to lead me out of the restaurant, telling the group, “We have to go.”
My phone beeped again as I walked downstairs. “She lost him.” I tried to dial her, but in my hysteria, I couldn’t remember the number. Convulsing with sobs, I climbed on the back of Tony’s motorbike and rode home to get on the computer. I Skyped with Kate and my mother and learned that Britt was in a meeting at work at couldn’t be reached. I called Meg at the hospital, where she was in shock, waiting to deliver her dead baby.
I sent Tony to the guestroom, and I sat on the bed all night with my laptop, occasionally Skyping or chatting online with friends and family around the world. I don’t really remember much about those conversations except that I was overwhelmed with the most crushing sadness I have ever experienced and that many wonderful people offered words of sympathy. Eventually, I fell asleep with my phone in my hand, desperate to hear that it was all a big mistake. I was certain that when Meg’s baby was born, he would suck in a big breath and everything would be OK. The next morning, I felt frantic for news, cursing the time difference between Laos and the U.S.
Another excruciating day passed before I learned that Meg had delivered a beautiful little boy, Benjamin. Doctors determined his arm had been pinned against the umbilical cord, cutting off the blood flow. Although they couldn’t pinpoint the exact time of his death, Meg thinks he was active up until the day before his due date. She woke up on the 27th and didn’t feel him moving, so she went to the hospital, where an ultrasound failed to detect a heartbeat.
On Friday, April 29, I began the 31-hour journey to the States to spend a week with Meg and the rest of the family. My visit started with a heart-wrenching memorial service, which the hospital holds every year for families whose babies died. We heard from moms and doctors. We listened to poems about events that nobody should ever have to experience. We cried through the music. Then everyone filed outside to tie ribbons on a memorial tree. I held on to my purple ribbon with Benjamin’s name written in silver. I’ll tie it on the maple tree at our lake house this summer.
Britt found strength in being Megan’s rock, and he was wonderful. I felt such an overpowering sense of gratitude for him. He somehow knew exactly what she needed – a hug, a motivational chat, a shoulder to cry on, a walk in the woods, a glass of water, a tender recollection of their son. Usually stoic and easily embarrassed, he calmly walked her through the rituals of treating her tortured body. He embraced her suffering and soothed her. One afternoon, he told us about a poster he saw while working out at the gym. It showed an average person with the caption, “Stronger than yesterday.” The underlying message was that exercise won’t bring instant results, but you’ll grow stronger every day. “That’s true for us, too,” he said and made that his daily mantra. Grieving takes time, and there will be ups and downs, but they will grow stronger, bit by bit, one day at a time, he said.
There’s nothing anyone can say or do to fill the void. Still, having the whole family together felt right. On the Dickinson side, I flew from Laos, my parents and my sister Kate drove from Michigan, and my brother, Mike, and his wife, Summer, traveled from Belgium. On the Warren side, Britt’s parents live nearby so they entertained us at their lovely wooded home, and his brother, Regan, and sister-in-law, Stephanie, joined the crowd. There was laughter interspersed with the tears, and I think we were able to bring some positive loving energy to their home.
We often sat around, looking at photos of Benjamin while Meg lovingly described him for me. I arrived in the States too late to see him, but the rest of the family got to hold him and say their good-byes. It seemed morbid at first, but I so wish I had been able to stroke his chubby little cheek. The photos made it undeniably real for me.
Britt’s mother bought Megan a Pandora bracelet with two blue beads and a charm engraved with a “B.” We thought that was such a touching gesture that our side of the family bought additional beads: one with Benjamin’s birthstone, one with garnets (the birthstone of Meg and Britt), one with an angel, one with a stylistic mother and baby, and one that said “best sis.” There was a compelling need to express our love for Benjamin and his parents while finding some meaning behind his death.
My father found peace in the words of a friend who had lost her adult son in a motorcycle accident: “Everything happens for a reason.” Religious friends tried to reassure us that Benjamin was in a better place and that God must have wanted him in Heaven. However, I find the only meaning that makes sense to me is the very human response of everyone affected – we reached out for each other, pushed aside old grievances, rediscovered the power of love and family, took stock of our blessings, and reordered our priorities.
Living overseas, I have missed both of my sisters’ weddings (to be fair, both happened on short notice), the birth of Kate’s boys and countless other joyous occasions. I hadn’t planned to spend time with Benjamin in his early days of life, and yet I dashed home to be with him in death. When Nico turned one, I paid $2,000 to travel from China to Italy for his birthday party, a decision that seemed ludicrous at the time. After Benjamin’s death, I vowed to make more of those ludicrous decisions, to make personal sacrifices that ultimately pay off in more shared bliss. I also never fully understood the depth of grief that consumes a family when a baby dies. In the past, I have sympathized with friends who lost a baby, but I grossly undervalued their suffering and their need for ongoing support, and that will never happen again.
Those two personal commitments will be Benjamin’s legacy for me.
Back in Laos, I feel so detached from the grieving process that Megan and Britt are experiencing. I don’t have the daily reminders of loss that they face in the empty nursery, the neighborhood streets where they expected to push a stroller, the emails and phone calls from sympathetic friends, the sad smiles of retail clerks, the insurance paperwork, new babies out in public, her recuperating body, and everything everywhere they turn. At the same time, I can’t witness their progress. So when I think of them, I can only imagine the broken couple I last saw two weeks ago. When I talk to Meg, she generally sounds positive and realistic, but she admits there are days when she feels nothing but anger and loss.
At this point, I suppose we can be grateful for the tiny scraps of wisdom we salvaged from this experience and begin to look toward the future. I can’t wait to write about a Fourth of July celebration at our lake house with a whole gaggle of little ones roasting marshmallows, ooh-ing and ah-ing over the fireworks and falling asleep in our arms. Nico and Paul will wrestle with their younger tow-headed cousins on the grass and then share juicy slices of watermelon. They’ll jump off the dock into the cool water and brag about swimming without their water wings. The adults will hold hands and quietly remember that there should have been one more little boy throwing bread to the ducks. But we’ll remember him with love, not grief, and then we’ll lean down, plant a big kiss on a sticky little cheek and feel so lucky.