Why I want to write my story about Levi:
I want to write my story because his birth was the most shocking thing that has ever happened to me, something that doesn’t happen to many people. So many parts along the way surprised me.
I was surprised when I met that other woman at the qigong conference who had an almost exactly parallel experience, but was tortured by it. We sat on the floor in the huge convention center room after one of the breathing meditations, and she told me about how her life had derailed and fallen apart after her tiny son was born and died. She was so bitter. I suddenly became aware that how we navigate life matters deeply.
I was surprised that my broken heart connected me to others.. I had previously thought I was alone. But all these people in my life stepped out of the woodwork to show love. People loved me. They cared. They saw. They reached out. I wasn’t an island.
I was surprised by how it opened Jason and I to each other. We were trying to be husband and wife, and it was not turning out to be what I had hoped for or expected. But with this shared life experience, a door opened in each of our hearts and we turned toward each other. We were being rocked to our cores and we found intimacy there.
It surprised me that I wanted to follow Levi and die too.
It surprised me that I didn’t go into the hospital when I was feeling “cramps” every 10 minutes. The word “contractions” only whispered in the back of my mind. I didn’t know what what happening.
It surprised me that the women in my family didn’t say to me that night, “Go in. Now.” Hindsight 20/20 is real. That I needed a doctor wasn’t obvious in real time. That Levi was born too early wasn’t my fault.
I was surprised by my wailing in the hospital room when it was time to say goodbye. That sound. Was mine. I have never been so loud.
I was surprised by my anger at the chaplain. The strength and animal fierceness that rose up in me for those 15 minutes was primal and powerful and didn’t recede until he left my bedside.
I’m surprised by how absolutely joyful we were when we held him, alive. That moment lives on inside me.
I was surprised by the physical sensation of him slipping out of my body. It wasn’t an excruciating crowning, so I really felt it. Like a fish, he slipped out.
I was surprised that my milk dropped and that it was so painful. I felt so alone in my body with Levi no longer there. I don't remember Jason touching me much during that time. I do remember us both being impressed by my large, tight breasts though, because it was amazing how much bigger they got. They finally approached our culture’s image of what a desirable set of boobs should look like, and we laughed about it together. Then I pulled down my shirt again, and winced my way through the day. Engorged breasts are painful.
I was surprised by the gifts of grief. They were everywhere, but two stand out. First, it was the intimacy of seeing people’s hearts and showing mine at last. Being sad together was finally acceptable, and I could be honest, like sadness was my natural language and it finally had permission to come out. The second major gift was slowing down and dropping the hustle, to actually respond to myself with care instead of standing at attention to all the expectations everywhere.
I was surprised to respect myself for the first time, because there was no map for this and I was listening and navigating independently. Living off-map is such a powerful state to be in. The only way forward is to listen deeply and then take the next step. Grieving a baby who was born alive, too early to be helped by modern medicine, wasn’t something I had ever heard of before. There were no footsteps to follow. I was in the dark, earthy underworld of women, where all you can do is listen deeply and respond to what you hear. I found it to be sacred ground.
Then I was surprised that I didn’t want the grief stage to end, but it did. The sacred opening began to close. Jason and I were no longer moving to each other’s side at the dinner table to lay our head on the other’s lap and comfort each other. We no longer welled up looking at each other over dinner as we moved food from the plates to our mouths, chewed and swallowed. We stopped clinging to each other in shared sorrow and began re-entering the world in our very different ways. I grieved for the grief.
Then I was surprised at how the grief would hit me at unexpected times. The smallest thing would shock my heart and I would gush uncontrollable tears in public spaces. It didn’t feel appropriate. I was disabled in this way and just had to accept my loss of control.
I was surprised that the little sleeping santa doll Dr. Gearheardt, my foot doctor, had given me when I was a small child finally made sense. I always loved that funny little doll and at last it had a purpose in my life. I pulled it out of the storage box and slept with Little Santa every night. He was the same size Levi had been.
I was surprised by what people claimed to know, spiritually speaking. Allen, an art teacher I studied with when Jason and I drove off in our orange VW bus for a year, claimed that every soul had a choice about whether to be born or not; that Levi was too high vibrational to live in this world; that he came to us as a gift and then chose to move on. I was referred to an intuitive healer by Allison, a jewelry-maker I worked with during that year we lived in our bus. This intuitive healer claimed to know all the things my body needed in order to replenish. She told me strange things to eat and strange things to bathe in. I bought like 20 boxes of borax and 30 boxes of baking soda and innumerable bottles of hydrogen peroxide. Submerging in these long baths would detoxify my body to prepare the way for another baby, she said. I was baffled, but I did it. The results were good. Someone told me that Levi would return to me in this life, as another child, or grandchild, or…they didn’t know, but that I would encounter his soul again. I find myself wondering still, will I recognize him? Is that even true?
I was surprised by how good mom’s comfort felt and how completely she was there for me.
I was surprised by people’s fear that they might say or do something that would hurt me, like my grief made me fragile, when really I was just in the alternate dimension of sacred ground. I realized that people fear grief and go to truly great lengths to avoid it. What if they knew that grief wasn’t equal to death? That it could be sacred?
I was surprised that I knew with absolute clarity what kind of memorial I wanted. I rarely know anything with absolute clarity.
I was surprised when the word “abortion” entered my own personal sphere; surprised that the beliefs of other people who didn’t even know me were changing what hospital I could go to and how the birth of my first child would unfold. We had to go to a different hospital in order to protect my health. I was surprised that my own life was at stake, and that my ability to have future children depended on getting around abortion laws. But I just went to the other hospital that wasn’t as locked into religious politics. I just paid more money since the second hospital wasn’t covered as fully by my insurance package. It was a small navigation point, thankfully, but one we had to make nonetheless, because of the insanity of people's desire to control life.
I was surprised that I had been prepared for this great loss. I saw later in my journal that the last entry before Levi’s birth was about an Alan Watts interview that had crossed my path. He interviewed a rabbi who’s whole message was that gratitude is the highest act of faith. Gratitude for everything, even the things we might find to be unacceptable, is faith in action that all things are held and guided by the Great Mystery. This was radical and went into me surprisingly deep. I was held and prepared with a practice of gratitude fresh in mind; a navigation system for what was coming.
I need to write my story because I loved Levi and I missed him and my arms longed to hold him afterward. He wasn’t there, so I tended to the rosemary plant from Dan and Brie that sat on the hardwood floor in front of the sliding glass door, amongst all the other flowers that kept getting delivered from so many people.
I need to write my story because I was surprised by the depths of grace and help I experienced through the dark pitfall places. People were there to lift me up when I was getting sucked down. I was able to grab their hand tightly and let myself be lifted back up.
I need to write my story because it changed me and the way I live.
There is a tree. It is an Oregon White Oak. The only Oregon White Oak planted at our favorite Portland Park. It is Levi’s tree. We planted it in his memory with the help of the park ranger. I wore my red wool peacoat on that late October day. We gathered in a circle, Jason and I, my parents, Grandma, and Scott, Winter, Kyzen and Billie, around the freshly planted tree and sang the same song we had sung in the hospital room: You Are My Sunshine. The pitch was too high for me. My voice sounded hollow and shaky. But Grandma’s voice rang clear and true, and I followed along with her. Dad harmonized, as always. Mom was the one to arrange the whole thing. She made many phone calls and got special permission. No engraved memorial was allowed, but we all knew who the tree was for. Later that week, Jason and I went back and secretly spread Levi’s ashes there. Dad carried water, 2 buckets of water balanced on a broom stick across the back of his shoulders every few days to water the tree during the first two summers of its life. He did this without being asked or thanked.
Levi, my firstborn son, had a very short life, but he was greatly loved.
My friends are sending their kids to college this week. Posting pictures of dorm rooms and campus signs. Their kids were born around the same time as Levi. He would have been going to college this week, I realize. I have held him in my heart all these years. I am ready to release him to the world, too. The time has come to write the story and share it.
Have you ever seen an alive baby at 17 ½ weeks gestation? Do you know how small they are, but how perfectly formed? I could show you a picture of Levi and you could see for yourself. You might be distracted by the slightly “off” coloring of his skin though. He didn’t have any fat yet. Maybe that is why he looked a little purplish in the pictures; the blood sort of changing the color of his skin. He was beautiful. He looked like Jason. He had perfectly formed hands and feet. A perfectly formed body. A beating heart. Lungs that expanded and contracted as he breathed. So quiet and peaceful. And alive.
That was his whole life. 45 minutes in our hands. But what an amazing 45 minutes it was. The most timeless 45 minutes of my life. Holy. He passed through our lives. And as he did, he cracked me open. I birthed him, and then that experience birthed me.
There is no name for the parent who loses a child. Not an orphan. Not a widow. I am simply, Mother.
We are in our old Honda Civic hatchback in the parking lot of our apartment. Our hospital things are in the back seat. Jason turns off the ignition and we sit there in stunned silence, looking at the front door. Last time we walked through that door, I was still pregnant, we were still hopeful. Now, the apartment feels like an empty shell of the past, and we are...I don’t even know...unable to feel this much.
Our first baby was born yesterday, at just 17½ weeks gestation. He was so tiny, like a little baby bird. We held him in the palms of our hands, we sang to him, we took pictures of him with a disposable camera the nurse brought in for us. We named him Levi. He lived for almost an hour. Then his heartbeat began to slow. We could barely see it beating anymore. The rhythmic expansion and contraction of his lungs grew fainter and fainter until it stopped all together. His skin changed color slightly, and he was gone. We became parents yesterday, if ever so briefly. Now we are home, with empty arms.
Are yesterday morning’s dishes still in the sink? Is the bed unmade? Are clothes strewn about? When we walk in, it means we are back. I just sit here in the passenger seat breathing. I don’t know how to navigate this moment. I am afraid. Afraid that I might curl up into a ball and sink deeper and deeper down and never get up again. What if I end up totally dysfunctional and ruin my life somehow? How will I possibly be able to handle the pressures of daily life?
Still looking forward at our front door, I hear myself declare, “I give myself 30 days.”
Jason looks at me with eyebrows raised. He is also shell shocked. I look back at him, not sure where those words came from exactly, but knowing they are true and wise.
“I give myself 30 days,” I hear myself declare again, “to do whatever I need to do. To fall apart, to lay in bed all day and cry, if need be. To take endless baths. Whatever I need. I will not expect anything of myself, except to follow each moment.”
I know myself. I am afraid of the whip cracking voice inside my head. Of all the expectations that will come rolling back in. I will think I should be doing more, functioning higher, pulling myself together faster. I also know I have to let myself fall apart and heal or I will carry this grief with me forever. The side of me that needs to hold it together and succeed is struggling with the side of me that needs to break down and care for myself first.
“In 30 days I will check in. I’ll reassess and see. If I am stuck in bed or in some deep depression, I’ll do what needs to be done to get up. But until then, I expect nothing of myself.” I nod my head once. Jason nods his head slowly.
I claimed a womb for myself.
Hi friends and family! This is where I'll share excerpts of my writing and bits about my writing process as I bring it all together into a book . Thank you for sharing in this process with me! Fellow writers, I encourage you to share your words, too. Sharing our writing is an important and generous act. We humans find our way together as we share stories from the heart.