“I think perhaps I will always hold a candle for you – even until it burns my hand. And when the light has long since gone …. I will be there in the darkness holding what remains, quite simply because I cannot let go.”
It’s a reality I am fully aware of...I simply cannot escape it. I know my fifth child will always be missing. She will, physically, never be present in our family. But when circumstances take place, and I’m reminded so starkly and blatantly, this fact leaves a lasting sting that suffocates me, rendering me breathless.
Going to Mass is hard—even with a new baby in my arms. My little boy (my sixth child, her Irish twin) has not softened that experience. I thought he would help to distract me, or even numb the pain perhaps, so that I would forget that her physical remains are buried behind the church. But it has not helped. I stare at the altar, knowing that her little body is directly behind the building, and all that separates us is a tabernacle, a wall, and a parking lot. I would prefer it to be differently.
Since my husband leads worship for the evening Mass, and I occasionally join in, we have sat in the choir loft to be together. And, honestly, I have wanted to avoid the congregational area anyway. But our living children do not behave, and I haven’t really received much spiritually during Mass by sitting up there, so I made an idiotic choice to sit downstairs with the four bigs, the new babe, and the absent daughter in my heart for the first time since the last time she was living within me.
Initially, I was managing well outwardly. I felt like an accomplished mother, adorning her children like diadems flanked with pride, but all the while knowing one was missing. And I wondered about the perception of those around me...
Did any of them know my history? That I had delivered my daughter, stillborn, just a year prior and that her tiny, perfect body had been buried behind the church? Did they see four “older” children ages twelve and under and a newborn and think, Whoops...that new baby must have been a surprise, all the while, completely unaware that we CHOSE to have our sixth child, because our fifth one we expected to raise never came home?
I began to struggle. I couldn’t keep swallowing back the haunting facts. I am the mother of six children. Five living. One in heaven. No one can see those numbers.
When it came time for Communion, we entered the center aisle, and my babes lined up as ducks in a row in chronological order, tallest to shortest. With each step, I looked at the back of their heads, descending down right before my feet in an empty space between our fourth child and our sixth in my arms. WAIT, my body clamored. WAIT ONE DAMN MINUTE. SOMEONE IS MISSING.
My mind began to imagine what it would be like to actually be walking forward with all six of them present. What would she look like, holding my hand, and toddling around in her Sunday dress? And then it slammed me like a ton of bricks...she will ALWAYS be missing. ALWAYS. Nothing will ever change the fact that she died, that I have not had the privilege of raising her, or the opportunity to watch her grow. And I never will. Nothing is bringing her back...no amount of prayers, wishes, dreams, or pleads. Nothing will undo her death. Nothing will remove my loss. Rather, I have been forced to trade in the gift of being her mother this side of heaven, for a life of grief and a permanent ache for a daughter who has left me from earth far too soon.
When I am with my living children, I feel close to her...my one in heaven. Although her lacking presence screams at me, I find strength in numbers, knowing that no matter what, though she is always physically missing, she is still a part of us and with us in the sacrifice of the mass. But in this moment, on this day, I was not comforted. I was pissed, and I was heartbroken, and my knees barely carried my body through the church while I forced back my tears ready to fall hot and heavy. In that moment, I felt like everyone knew that I was the mother of a dead baby, and here I was causing a scene by parading around with five living children and pretending like my life was “normal.”
My life is far from normal, and a year has not smoothed over the grief, nor made the pain of her absence more bearable.
When we returned home, my husband commented on how he watched us from the choir loft and was struck by the stark reality of her absence. She was missing. He noticed it, too.
In the days that have followed, my sorrow has wanted to swallow me whole, and I’ve been trying to push it aside. Because I’m busy...with life, and a newborn, and four other kiddos, and a husband who hasn’t been home much due to work. But I can feel the tide slowly taking me under. If I’m left alone for too long, my mind remembers, emotions surface, and I feel it all in its raw ugliness. I become aware that there’s still so much work left to be done, and I wonder if my relationship with God will ever be repaired or if healing will ever take place.
After all, I am trying to mother a child who is always missing...that in itself is exhausting and overwhelming and will be part of me forever.