‘Tis the Season. For those of us who have experienced miscarriage, stillbirth and infant death, how do we walk through the holiday cheer? It is the season for Christmas cards and sparkly cookies, parties and gifts. It is also the time of year when somehow the fact that the world keeps spinning without slowing down to acknowledge Mary Rose makes my heart feel a little more tender. This second year of holidays after my daughter’s death from trisomy 18 hurts. After two early miscarriages in July and October, the holidays feel raw and holy. I walk this path gently.
My friend, Daniela, recently sent me the book Joy, Interrupted edited by Melissa Miles McCarter. I love the title: Joy, Interrupted. Even in the midst of my pregnancy with Mary Rose when I knew that she would die, there were moments of joy. Snuggles and kisses. Loving conversations. Moments of grace when those who love me did stand by me. A bit of community. Hugs. I continue to find joy even though it is interrupted by grief and longing.
In McCarter’s book she collects works of various genres including artwork. The stories of heartbreak and hope are poignant. I love the titles of the five main sections: No, Furies, Plea, Longing, Acceptance. The editor’s own daughter, Maddie, died at six weeks of SIDS. She then experienced secondary infertility. McCarter’s pregnancy was not easy and it ends for her in the death of her baby. She put together this anthology to heal and offer healing to others. The book has a range of topics including infertility and death of the mother, as well as miscarriage, abortion, adoption, stillbirth, infant and child death. The essays by Gabriella Burman about her daughter, Michaela, who died suddenly at five years old, 12 days after her youngest sister was born, brought tears to my eyes. Michaela who had many challenges and delays is a beautiful girl and her eyes cut to my own heart. (There are a few photos in the back of the book remembering those whom the writers honor.) One essay by Gail Marlene Schwartz about her pregnancy with twins was also particularly touching. One of the twins has Down’s Syndrome. Instead of aborting Benjamin, who does not fit into his parents’ family, he is given up for adoption to a willing and waiting family. That which one does not want is another person’s miracle.
Reading this collection during Advent makes sense to me, because I keep pausing as I check in with my heart and inner knowing. I don’t want to be swept up into the insanity of this season without remembering my family in its entirety. Last December I was in a foggy daze, but I wanted to create a good holiday for my living son, so through my tears and heartache, I decorated a tree, took a family photo, sent out cards, and baked. But it hurt each step of the rocky, craggy path. It hurt and now I am here again. People say that time makes this pain better. I can say that I am not quite as shocked as I was last year. I can also say that I don’t cry hysterically as often, but my eyes tear up frequently as I open my heart again and again. With each opportunity to love another I open my heart to being broken again. I cannot build a fortress around my heart. As Marie Howe writes in her beautiful poem “What the Living Do,” “I am living. I remember you.”
Last year when I worked on our family Christmas card I included Mary Rose’s name on the card after my son’s name. The Armentrout family includes Mary Rose. Every time I sign a card with our family names without hers my heart aches. Perhaps I will change the wording this year to say something like “and Mary Rose, in our hearts” or “and our intercessor, Mary Rose.” I hope that for parents struggling with their footing on how to be a family with part of their heart in the heavenworlds that there is space to acknowledge all of the children, if that feels right, even if our family and friends do not speak their names any longer.
Our friend Annie made us our Christmas stockings last year. She knitted these huge, beautiful, homemade stockings and she knitted an angel on the back of each stocking to remember Mary Rose. Mary Rose whose only Christmas on earth was that first year when I was newly pregnant with her. Isaiah’s Promise sent a handmade pink stocking with Mary Rose’s name on it and a small angel pin. This year I am thinking of putting something from Mary Rose to the other children in that stocking. If she is with us continuously and constantly, then what would be an appropriate gift to her brother and cousins? Chocolate? A sweet treat? Perhaps this will be a new tradition for me to keep her in the family, to weave her short life here into our longer lives on this earth.
Two years ago I bought a Christmas ornament from Brian Andreas and StoryPeople. It says “I carry you with me/into the world,/into the smell of rain/& the words/that dance/between/people/& for me/it will always/be this way,/walking/in the light,/remembering/being alive/together.” When I bought it I knew that my aunt would not live much longer. I unpacked the ornament last December after the year that changed everything. I wept because of the truth that now my daughter, that spark of life the previous December in my first-trimester was now somewhere else, not posing for photos under the tree, not growing, not here on this earth.
Last year my sister and her family made a donation to Isaiah’s Promise for Christmas in memory of Mary Rose. This meant so much. Perhaps this holiday season for those readers who know of a family who has experienced a baby death, a small donation and a card with the name of the baby could be offered. It is the speaking of the name, the acknowledgment of the life that we mothers seek. The comfort is in coming together as a community to celebrate our living and our dead, as we are intricately woven together, those still living on the earth and the ancestors of different generations here in their other-worldly presence.
As for the parties and the celebrations, I go to a few but give myself space to leave if I want to, to cry if that feels right. I was at a meeting this week and a tiny newborn girl with Mary Rose’s coloring was right behind me fussing and being a baby. I wanted to get up and leave, but I decided that I could make it through the two hours to be with my friends. Other times I just don’t face the world because I can’t. Cubby didn’t go near babies for two years after her beloved newborn, Francis, died. I navigate the best I can and hope that each of you readers has good support, warm tea, and the space to rest and grieve in your own time. It is so important to take the steps to rejoin the spinning world around us, but it is good to know one’s own limitations too.
This year as I prepare for Christmas, I am in a different space. I think of the Christ child whom we remember this Christmas. I think of Mary and how all mothers await their babies. I remember my anticipation waiting for Mary Rose. A child is coming who promises peace and love to our broken world. Even in grief, the light settles in each day and a gerbera daisy blooms in December in my garden. Sister Evelyn of Mount St. Mary’s Abbey told me once, when my aunt was suffering from atypical meningioma, to look for the small miracles that surround the difficult situation. Around my aunt’s hospital bed many gathered. We shared chocolate. My son brought joy to her long days. She made us laugh until her very end. Indeed the miracles abound, but Sr. Evelyn tells us to look for them. It’s okay if our joy is interrupted by our grief, as long as we allow joy to come back again and again and again.