Labor Days, Or Learning to live as TP

Labor Day. What does it bring to mind? Work, sure. Also, ironically, play–how many people frolic or relax on a day off from paid employment today? Understandably, mothers might think of the unforgettable process of birthing their children. I think of that, and many other days like and unlike them, today.

One year ago, on Labor Day Monday, I crept into my bedroom where Jon was still sleeping. “Hey,” I said softly, touching his shoulder. “Want to come have coffee with me and the baby?” He murmured something indecipherable, his eyes still closed, and I repeated what I said. Then he opened his eyes, like I’d pricked him with a pinpoint. “The baby?” he said, with a searching look. I nodded. He got a huge smile on his face and wrapped me in a  hug.

That is a sweet memory. It’s all the more poignant because that pregnancy never resulted in a baby, and it began a year of days and weeks of contractions of grief, buoyed by hope and indescribable blessing, with yet more lessons of patience and suffering. It’s been a lot of labor, and there’s still more to come.

***

The day Christian was born, August 5, I labored in a quiet room. 

I hadn’t want to walk into the hospital. We’d gotten everything together, driven through the sunny morning to a coffee shop, then gone on to where our son would be born. As we approached the front door, I hesitated. I almost stopped. I had known about this moment for months. I knew Christian was dead and that he needed to be born. But I knew that once I walked through those doors, the end was near. I would walk out of them without my son. 

All through that quiet day, I watched clouds form and dissipate and reform outside the window. I saw the rocking chair, meant for laboring mothers, sit empty. It was sad, but it was simple. That chair was not meant for me that day. 

I was glad for the sunshine and the clouds. 

***

Grief is a funny, sneaky thing.

The pain of loss is mostly dull, like a quiet ache that one learns to accept because it doesn’t disappear. I expect it at certain times. At church, always at church. Driving past the cemetery. Reading a newly-arrived condolence card. These times make sense. They are direct reminders of Christian and of what we mourn.

Sometimes I can feel it coming, like a creeping storm. I received a call from a medical group, evaluating my stay at the hospital. I answered questions because I wanted there to be some formal record of the compassion we experienced–me, Jon, and Christian. But I wept when I got off the phone.

Jon stopped by our kids’ school, where another volunteer and I were cleaning and organizing in the library. We went by the stairwell to talk. He’d ordered the headstone, but after seeing more options–why is even death in our culture drowned by consumer choices?–wanted to see if I wanted something different. We spoke briefly, but I could feel the wave rising, the emotional wave threatening to crash. I couldn’t switch from school mode to grief mode. “I’m sorry. I can’t talk about this any more,” I said, abruptly. He nodded. He got it.

Sometimes grief flares up sharply, cutting my breath and choking my throat, at times I least expect it. On a hike with my daughter, after just marveling at the wonders of the view on the mountain, I see silvery-green leaves quivering in a soft breeze. Why should the shimmer of leaves, when a moment before I was alive and joyful to the wonders around us, make me want to weep?

Our girl walking down a mountain trail, while I try not to cry.

How do people live with this? I think. I know of harder cases, the ones that I think would be more difficult to bear. The parents who’ve buried three adult children, all of their children. The new friend who had a stillborn son this year. And yet how can anyone learn to live with this or any suffering except to slog through it, to labor and be carried?

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden,” Jesus said, “and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). Not “I will take your heavy burden.” But rest. The crosses are still there.

It is exhausting when it hits, this grief. I wrote this a few weeks ago after writing down some theological thoughts pertaining to grief: “I stand here, fully caffeinated in the morning, dishes washed, list getting checked off. I’m in my prime time. And after thinking about and writing these few words, all I want to do is crawl back into bed and sleep, deeply and without dreams.”

***

Yet I go on. What else can I do? People have been so incredibly kind. They are sympathetic and encouraging. “You are so strong.” “Thank you for your witness of Christ.” I am grateful, but my thoughts are garbled, struggling to reconcile the incongruity. I know hope during grief is good, but I do not feel good, or at least worthy of any special attention. This is gagging on a translucent, existential gnat to most people–most probably just mean to be sincerely supportive, while a small part of my brain hears them presupposing some herculean act of will on my part, Emily the Mighty Sufferer, standing athwart hopelessness and yelling, “Stop!” But I know that I am utterly powerless, and I can’t help feeling uncomfortable with the comments. What else can I do?

My choices seem woefully stark. Truly, all I can do is either reject God or surrender to His mercy. To definitively reject Him is to enter a darkness that frankly scares me more than it entices me, though the temptation to push away is real and angrily persistent. But I am so afraid of the hole that rejection presents that this means that it’s not an option. So I surrender to God’s mercy, to Christ’s bleeding hands. And even the surrender is weak and childlike, like a newborn mewing sibilant cries for food. He does not even reach for the nutrients he so desperately needs. He opens his mouth in helplessness and need. That’s all. Just as I lay, one day old, before a pastor in a hospital room, baptized into Christ in tiny weakness, I turn again into that premature babe. I am not yet grown. I do not yet understand.

Rev. Dr. Gregory P. Schulz knows this cognitive searching. In The Problem of Suffering: A Father’s Hope, the pastor, philosopher, professor, and husband and father watched and wrestled as two of his children suffered and died. Kayleigh, his daughter, was almost one year old. Stephan, his son, was fourteen. “I often look at the crook of my right elbow and know it as a sacred place [the last place he held his son, Stephan]. Now I want to understand, if I can, what it means for me to feel the way I do, not just about Stephan’s suffering and death, but how I feel toward his God.”

I know how he feels now. I too confess the hope of the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Cognitively, I believe this. Theologically, I cling to this. Emotionally, I break under this necessity–that we die, that we need the hope of the resurrection. Death is awful.

Christian’s grave in August.

I visit Christian’s grave alone sometimes. They are quick stops to clear away fresh flowers that have withered–how incredibly fast they wither and brown–and to pray. I gaze at the mountain and take deep breaths in the quiet of the trees and wind-swept stones. I watch the antelope that quietly graze in the clear spaces between the dead.

I visit my son’s grave to place my hand over him. I can still see the place where men cut away the grass to turn it back before the hole, the hole that holds the small box in the earth where our son’s body lies. I grip the grass, and smooth it, and I can’t seem to stop wanting to touch it. Because, I realized, it’s the closest I have to touching my son in this life. I weep when I touch the grass, and I weep writing this. Weeping is part of my soul’s rejection that death was ever supposed to be a part of life.

Then I stop weeping, and I go on, resting on Christ, the only One who keeps me going.

***

Approximately 87% of the time, give or take, I’m in daily life mode. Pouring yogurt and milk, wiping bottoms, clearing and cleaning and sorting and planning. 15% of the time I’m thinking, or reading, and of course the times and the roles–and the percentages–overlap. Vocations don’t always neatly delineate labor. It just happens, and I do what’s in front of me. The 2% of grief hides much of the time, but when it emerges, it feels like 200%.

Jon and I visited with good friends one Friday night. Lisa sat with me at the table while our husbands smoked cigars outside and the kids ran amok and alternately watched a movie. “How are you?” she asked, reaching for my hand. It was a creeping storm grief moment, one I had seen coming. I shared and cried, and she cried, and then she suddenly jumped up and ran down the hall, emerging again with a roll of toilet paper that she unrolled slightly, tearing off some sheets. “I’m completely out of tissues,” she said, handing me the paper portion. “So you’ll have to use this.” She set the roll on the table in front of me. We spoke some more, and the tears rolled down my face.

Just then, her husband came in. He took in the moment in a glance, and then said, “I brought the beer in for you, Lisa, but I think Emily needs it more.” He said it gently and caringly. But it was funny. I laughed through tears. Lisa did, too. 

The beer and the TP.

I never wanted to be a part of Those People, the ones like Pastor Schulz and the church people who lost three children and my new friend Becca who lost her son this year. Before, I admired them and others, and I feared what they shared. I secretly hoped I’d never, ever, have to be where they are. It’s like an out of body experience sometimes, explaining to people who don’t know our story, and I’m listening to myself speak calmly about Christian, his life and his death, while the whole time I’m incredulous. I’m not actually the one talking, am I? Did this really happen to us? 

But I am one of Those People now. And sitting with Lisa, and looking at the toilet paper, I thought, “Yep, that’s what this is. The TP Project.” The Toilet-Paper-necessary-for-tears, the Time Project of living here while waiting for eternity, the Those People embrace. Because the fact is that unless I am one of Those People, hopelessly broken and in need, I don’t really need Jesus. No, I didn’t need Christian to die to believe that the Son of God dead, buried, and resurrected is true. But loving Christian, and living and laboring through my own helpless grief, continually points me to our Savior who labored mightily for me and for him. The grief will go on, but it will not last forever.

I’m a little TP. I giggle, and wipe away my tears, and drink a beer. And the labor goes on.

Tomorrow and Forever

Tomorrow, my vocation of mother will include a task that no loving mother ever wants to complete.

Tomorrow, we will bury Christian. Our son. My son.

I know our children are not ours in the sense of proprietary ownership. We are merely temporary guardians of these precious souls whom God has created for His good purposes. But we never expect to see them die before us. We expect that they will bury us, not that we will bury them.

Tomorrow, we will go to the cemetery, Jon and I, and our six living children; my parents; two dear pastors and their wives. We will commend our son’s body to Christ, confessing that on the last day, Christian will rise again, he and all the dead. And we will see him, and them, again, and live forever together with Christ in heaven.

I don’t want to do this. But I know this is what God has given us to do. As long as he lived, Jon and I strove to feed and nourish Christian; to take him to church so he could hear the Word and receive Christ; to care for him by acknowledging that God made him a unique individual placed in our family for a short time. We did this imperfectly, of course. Yet God gave us these tasks to love and serve our little Christian.

I got to hold Christian late Monday night, after he was born. He was so small, and his body was swollen from all the fluid that had been growing in him. But he was beautiful. Every cell on his head was intricate and flawlessly connected. The fine cuticles and nails on his tiny fingers were so detailed and immaculate. His wide-topped head was like his five-year-old brother’s. His deep brows were like his Dad’s, his long fingers like his mine. His button nose was just like his biggest sister’s.

I don’t know how God could have ever chosen us over His Son. When Jesus sweat drops of blood in the garden, asking for His Father to take His cup away from Him; when He staggered up Golgatha, beaten beyond belief; when He hung gasping on the cross–I cannot fathom the love of God who would see and know His Son’s excruciating suffering and allow Him to die because He loved and loves the world so much. As a mother, if I had to choose between saving my son Christian and saving the rest of the world, God help me, I would choose Christian.

And God knows that, and He has given us this glimpse into His unfathomable love in this: that when we lay Christian’s body down to sleep in the earth tomorrow, when my hopes and dreams as a mother to love and to see my son grow up and thrive in this world are buried, I will still yet have hope. I will grieve for the rest of my life, but I will have this: Christ has made all things new. He choose us. He will raise our son from the dead, and He will raise us if He does not come again to the earth first. And we will hug our Christian, and bow before the pierced hands of Christ, and He will embrace us all forever.

Lord, let at last Thine angels come,
To Abram’s bosom bear me home,
That I may die unfearing;
And in its narrow chamber keep
My body safe in peaceful sleep
Until Thy reappearing.
And then from death awaken me
That these mine eyes with joy may see,
O Son of God, Thy glorious face,
My Savior and my Fount of grace,
Lord Jesus Christ,
My prayer attend, my prayer attend,
And I will praise Thee without end.

~”Lord, Thee I Love With All My Heart” Lutheran Service Book #708, vs. 3.

When Time Runs Short

I believe that I shall look upon the goodness of the Lord
    in the land of the living!

Wait for the Lord;
   be strong, and let your heart take courage;
    wait for the Lord!

~ Psalm 27:13-14

What happens when time runs short for a child? How do we wait?

On Monday, July 8, Jon and I visited a high-risk pregnancy doctor at an exclusively high-risk practice in Denver after receiving a referral from Dr. M. We met Dr. L, a friendly man in his 60s, who introduced himself. Then he sat at the ultrasound monitor, explaining that he was going to show us some things. But then he turned back to us, looking directly at me.

“The first thing I need to tell you,” said Dr. L, “is that you didn’t do anything wrong. You didn’t use the wrong shampoo. You didn’t stand too close to the microwave. You didn’t eat the wrong thing. You didn’t cause this.

“And the second thing,” he said more quietly, “is that there’s nothing we can do.”

That’s when all of our fears from the prior month were confirmed. Our son, Christian, had less than a five percent chance of survival, and he would probably not live long in my womb. Dr. L told us to go back to Dr. M for checks at least every two weeks. If you were my daughter,” he said, “I’d probably fit you in once a week. Just to see if Baby is still alive.” We spoke about another high-risk appointment in a month or so, maybe even meeting with a cardiologist, but both Jon and I felt like that talk was perfunctory, a going-through-the-motions. Neither of us felt like Dr. L thought we would need that appointment.

At the front desk, as the receptionist and I discussed dates and times, I was acutely aware of the mothers waiting behind me. I tried to speak calmly, normally. The last thing they needed was to see a distraught pregnant woman, a fulfillment of their own fears. And the last thing I wanted, at that moment, was to be that mom, the one who’d just received heart-shattering news.

***

So what did we do? Jon and I decided that, as long as I felt physically able, we would to try to maintain our normal routine. This would help us cope, it would help our other children, and it would give Christian what we hoped was a little bit of normal life. The day after our meeting with Dr. L, I took the kids to a parade. It was jarring, and unreal, but it was also life. I watched the little ones run for thrown candy and mesmerizingly watch four-wheelers and tractors and floats. It was sunny and warm. We were together.

We kept on. During quiet time when some of our kids napped and others quietly played or read books, I read a book about continuing pregnancy when Baby is not expected to live. I usually cried. I cried in the shower and at night as I prayed. I would talk to Christian. “I’m sorry Mommy is crying so much. I love you.” And I talked to him about his siblings. “Boy, your big sister sure is loud sometimes, right? She loves her blanket. You hear her yelling about it a lot. She likes to snuggle with you.” She did, and she does. “‘Nuggle?” she says. “‘Nuggle?” Then she climbs over me with her blanket, her Dida, nestles right above my belly, and comfortingly puts her finger in her mouth.

During the other times of the day, right after the news, life was quietly blessed. The kids and I sat on the patio swing or porch rockers, sometimes talking, sometimes reading, sometimes just sitting. We went swimming. We visited with friends at parks and on a few playdates. We are with generous friends who brought us food. We went on walks together. We sang songs. We watched movies together and ate ice cream and popcorn. We read books like Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel. We went to the library. We laughed together when Jon would wrestle with the kids, them screaming in glee. We prayed together and read Psalms. We went to church and received Jesus together. We snuggled a lot.

I would get emotional sometimes, and occasionally the kids noticed. “I’m just sad because I’m thinking about Baby Christian,” I would say. “But I’m glad we have time together.” Unfailingly, they would speak of how they loved him and prayed for him. Sometimes they would just hug me, and in hugging me, they would hug him.

***

At sixteen weeks, a week and a day after we met with Dr. L, I dressed up as though for church and went to see Dr. M. to see if our Christian was still alive. Jon came, too. We spoke together with Dr. M of what will likely happen, which includes induction after finding out Christian’s heart stops beating, to me suddenly going into labor with no warning. Finally, I climbed up on the table, and Dr. M got out the Doppler. I expected to hear nothing–no heartbeat. I expected to hear that our son was dead. This is what I wrote after that visit.

“The relief and joy at hearing our son’s heartbeat–I can hardly describe it. Hours later, I’m still joyfully incredulous, delirious on the high of knowing he is still alive. Our son is still alive. Every moment is precious. Yes, if I think about what will probably happen, and soon, I am terrified. At the same time, I was reminded today that only God knows our times, and they are in His hands. I pray we can cherish every moment, and every day, that he is with us.”

***

Outside of the doctor visits, life was–I don’t want to say simple, but it was simple. Eating. Drinking. Thinking. Talking. Chores. Visits. So often, simple moments were charged. The hidden thought was always there: this is probably one of the last times/the only time Christian will be here for this. Playing Horse with our rising fourth-grader and laughing at how bad Mom was at taking shots. Poking toes in the sandbox. Grocery shopping. Brushing the girls’ hair. Tickling the little boys before bed. Talking on the phone in the kitchen. Every day, and every week was poignant, but mostly in a cherishing kind of way. This time is special. Only occasionally would I fall apart, thinking of what would never be. Seeing a plane pass overhead on a drive home and thinking, “He will never be a pilot.” Tousling my eldest boy’s unkept, sun-lightened hair and thinking, “He will never stand next to me like this.” The tears would run and run down my face the way they are running now. But I needed those moments like I needed the crazy herding kids “where-are-your-shoes-we-need-to-go-NOW” moments. They were, and are, all tied together.

***

At seventeen weeks, last week, I experienced some cramping and spotting prior to my appointment. I went in, again with Jon, fully expecting to hear no heartbeat. Once again, Christian surprised me. That time, I was shocked–actually dumbfounded–that he was still alive. Once again, we had an ultrasound to see our son.

“See his feet here?” Dr. M pointed out. We marveled at his tiny toes. But I could see that something wasn’t quite right. “You can also see how they’re swollen,” she went on gently. Our son has been slowly swelling with excess fluid, most likely because his heart isn’t strong enough. It’s like congestive heart failure in adults, who deal with bloating and water retention. I had worried about pain for him and asked Dr. M before about that, not sure if I even wanted to hear the answer. What could we even do about it? But she had explained that as a baby in utero, Christian’s nervous system wasn’t fully developed yet, so he likely wasn’t feeling pain. “Also, this is his normal,” she said. “He’s never known anything different.” As I looked at his feet, for the first time I thought, You need heaven.

***

Yesterday. Another week, another appointment. We were silly, waiting with the big boys who’d just had dentist appointments, telling them a story about me that made them embarrassed, grinning, and acting like they didn’t want to hear any more. They stayed in the waiting room when Jon and I went back.

Instead of the Doppler first, due to a nurse shortage, we had an ultrasound. We saw Christian right away, a white figure moving in the black on the screen. His heart thumped. Da-dum. A pause. Da-dum. Another pause, a little longer. Da-dum.

Both Jon and I thought, “Maybe Dr. M isn’t holding the wand right.” We all watched Christian move for a moment, the lines from the erratic beating creating a messy pattern below him, the sound of his heartbeat a pausing, uncertain staccato-like sound. Then Dr. M said quietly, “So you can see how his heartbeat is irregular.” My eyes blurred, and tears ran down my cheeks.

This was stark and real. Christian’s slowing heart was telling us the end of his time on earth was fast approaching its end, and though we’d expected this, I suddenly ached, almost gasping. No! Not yet! my heart screamed.

I pulled it together. In spurts, I managed to ask, “Is there any way to know how long he could make it?” Dr. M was already shaking her head. “His heartbeat could have been irregular before, and we just missed it. Or it could have just started its irregularity. He could last a week or just a day–we don’t know.”

***

That happened yesterday, at our third weekly appointment since our meeting with the high-risk doctor in Denver. Today, I will see Dr. M again, to see if Christian is with us. If he is, I will go in more regularly. I no longer feel comfortable with weekly checks. I know we don’t have that much time.

If Christian has died, between yesterday and today, I will be induced to go into labor, and the last part of Christian’s life on this earth will commence. This has all been so surreal and yet real at the same time. I don’t really want to sleep–I want to be awake as long as he is with us. As I write this, I think I just felt him kick. That started last week–the fluttering kicks of his quickening. I never thought I’d experience that. It is an extra gift, just as he is.

After the appointment yesterday, through my choking sobs, I spoke to Christian. “You’re going home soon, Baby. Home to Jesus. He loves you more than all of us combined.” He died so Christian will live. His body will be perfected and on the last day, he will rise with a terrifically strong heart. The kids gave me hugs last night as we told them Christian’s time was short with us. “Tell him you’ll see him again,” I said. “We love you, Baby!” our five-year-old yelled. “See you in heaven!”

So we wait now, not knowing what today will bring. We wait knowing while our time here in earth is short, we will live forever in Jesus. There with Him, we will have all the time in the heavens. And He will wipe every tear from our eyes.

Mourning the child we never had

The last few months have been eventful in our family. A relative experienced a health crisis, which necessitated a last-minute trip. School started, and while its rhythms are familiar to us, the first few weeks were chaotic as we rediscovered alarm clocks, uniform wearing, homework and piano practice, and all the million coordinations that come with the routine of classes and their concomitant responsibilities. Our eldest and Jon went on a class trip to Yellowstone National Park for a few days. Our family prepared for our annual open house, which coincided with our church district’s fall conference. We enjoyed the company of another pastor’s family at our house for some days, and then my parents came to visit. The Mount Hope Lutheran School PTO, of which I am a part, planned and executed its annual fall carnival, too, in the midst of all that.

And in early September, I took a pregnancy test, and it was positive.

The first few weeks were as normal as pregnancy can be with me. After seven pregnancies and six births, I know to expect extreme fatigue and nighttime insomnia (I wish I could take credit for that winning combination), as well as nausea. Throughout September, the symptoms were manageable. For the first time, out of all my pregnancies, I felt like I’d figured out how to balance the physical discomforts with daily living. I took afternoon naps and several times went to bed immediately after supper. I ate almonds and bananas and other small snacks as soon as the nausea started, and that normally kept it at bay (again, I wish I could take credit for the oxymoronic juxtaposition of simultaneous queasiness and the biological necessity of eating). I felt, with my husband, the 10% pure joy of knowing we would be parents again and the 90% nervous, half-disbelieving hilarity of knowing that, once again, we would be parents yet again.

Then October came, and all of a sudden, my nausea became intensely, irrevocably worse.

I spoke to our family physician at a well-child visit, and he chalked the sudden change up to my multiple pregnancies and my age. I slogged through a few now-hazy weeks, with the help of my indomitable husband who managed to fix meals, wash dishes, clean and fold laundry, and generally keep our household from dissolving into complete disaster. I took B6, a vitamin that can help with nausea, and Unisom, an over-the-counter sleep aid that also combats nausea. In the past, even a half tablet of Unisom would help me sleep and take away the nausea. This time, it seemed that nothing I did made any difference.

Along with many other questions I’d recorded in my little pregnancy notebook for weeks, I resolved to ask–no, beg, and on my  knees if necessary–my obstetrician, Dr. M, to prescribe something to keep the sickness at bay. At the same time, I thanked God every time I felt particularly awful. Two friends in early pregnancy had miscarried in September, and I knew that nausea was an uncomfortable, even debilitating, symptom that most experienced moms took as a good sign of a progressing pregnancy. When nausea is high, it indicates that hCG, or human chorionic gonadotropin, is also high. Most moms know hCG as the pregnancy hormone, the component that those little pregnancy test sticks measure and shows that, yes, baby is there and growing. My sister-in-law even speculated that I might be carrying twins. The thought was jarring, but not completely unwelcome. I told her at the very least I figured the baby was a girl. I’ve always felt significantly sicker with my daughters during pregnancy.

***

I was relieved to get to my first obstetrical appointment at my eleven week mark. The nurses and receptionists whom I knew from our last child’s birth greeted me warmly and congratulated me. They gave me a bag of goodies they give to all new moms, saying, “You probably don’t need this.” I told them I liked reading all the info I’d forgotten and savoring each baby.

Dr. M greeted me with a smile and a hug before my appointment. As we waited for the ultrasound room to vacate, I heard the leaving nurse ask, “So what do you think?” and a man’s voice, audibly shaking, respond, “I think we’re still in shock.” He didn’t sound frightened; simply overwhelmed at the sight of seeing their child. For the first time in weeks, despite the nausea that rose even as I waited, I emotionally grew excited at the thought of another precious baby in our family.

Dr. M asked me some questions as she prepared the ultrasound machine. I mentioned the nausea, and she promised to prescribe Zofran as a help for the next few weeks. She placed the wand on my belly, and we both watched as my uterus appeared. I’ve seen a lot of ultrasounds, and normally a big black circle with a visible squirming baby within it shows up within seconds. Instead, we both saw what looked like a snowstorm in my uterus, with no sign of a baby. After a brief silence, Dr. M said softly and slowly, “This looks concerning. I think you have a molar pregnancy.” She quickly arranged to have a local radiologist review a second ultrasound that I would get immediately at another facility. She gave me a hug and said she would call me that night.

Before I left the now empty waiting room, I thought about leaving the pregnancy goodie bag behind. But I just couldn’t leave it. I carried it with me to the car and cried all the way to the other clinic.

***

A molar pregnancy is rare–something like one out of 1,000 pregnant mothers experience one. Material I received through Wyoming Medical Center contained a more succinct description than those I found in the score or so of Google-led searches. “A molar pregnancy (hydatidiform mole) is a mass of tissue that grows in the uterus after conception. The mass is created by an egg that was not fertilized correctly and abnormally grows. It is an abnormal pregnancy… [in a complete molar pregnancy,] all of the chromosomes in the fertilized egg come from the father; none come from the mother.” I was diagnosed with a complete molar pregnancy. Neither ultrasound picked up any sign of a baby at any stage.

The little mole wasn’t just a devastating sign that what we had thought for six weeks was a baby actually wasn’t. It also meant that I would need a D & C, a neat acronym for a bloody surgery otherwise known as dilation and curettage that would remove my snowstorm tissue. For the abnormal cells could develop into tumors which could become pre-cancerous; they also could cause a hemorrhage. So Dr. M wanted to get them out, and fast. Another complication was that my hCG levels were the highest that Dr. M had ever seen–over a million. That number was–no kidding– higher than women who carry multiples. Such high levels can trigger severe bleeding as well as thyroid problems, some of them very serious.

So in a morbidly ironic circumstance, I had won the statistical lottery. I had not only scored a mole–and not anything as comforting and gentle as Mole in The Wind in the Willows, a simple, endearing creature out looking for adventure. I bore all the physical signs and symptoms of carrying a baby, but without a baby. And the experience would not end with my surgery, which posed its own risks. I would also need to get weekly blood tests to measure if and how fast my hCG would drop, which would indicate if the mole would grow again and require further treatment–or more accurately, annihilation.

Dr. M was incredibly thorough and supportive. She called me three times the day before the surgery to explain what would happen and what could happen. A hysterectomy was a possibility; if I started to bleed too fast, she would remove my uterus to save my life. I could hardly wrap my mind around the whirlwind of facts. On Wednesday afternoon, I thought I carried a baby in my womb. By Wednesday night, I knew not only that I did not carry a baby–not a girl, not twins. I also knew that I did carry something potentially dangerous. On Friday morning, my womb would be empty, and my chances of ever carrying a baby again might be zero.

***

Simple, Loveable Mole from The Wind in the Willows By Eli Moody.

I am now ten days past my D & C. The surgery proceeded as successfully as it possibly could. Dr. M was ecstatic afterwards, explaining how none of the careful backup plans and extra personnel involved had been necessary. I still have my uterus. My healing has been swift and my recovery good. My family and I have been overwhelmed by prayers, messages, the presence and help of many friends, which I will write about soon. But suffice it to say, I am extremely grateful to be able to write this, feeling as I do, and cherishing what I have.

Most of the above details about my experience are likely superfluous, but I leave them here, in part, because unlike a miscarriage, I have no physical tie to a child. We suffered a miscarriage thirteen years ago, and while the experiences are similar, the particulars make them vastly different. Someday I will write about the miscarriage here. For now, let this post serve as my memorial to our child that never was.

One of my favorite Lutheran writers is a wonderful woman named Katie Schuermann, whose first book was He Remembers the Barren. The book and blog by the same title speak clearly and compassionately to the ongoing suffering women, and husbands and families, experience when God has not opened the womb. It also speaks to the boundless love of God in Christ, who loves us not because of what we do or bear or birth, but because He lived and died for us. I don’t know if Katie has spoken about molar pregnancies, but having experienced this, I feel more deeply for barren women and the ache they carry in their empty arms. They know what grief for a child that never was is like.

Because molar pregnancies are rare, and because they carry the term “pregnancy,” they are difficult to explain, particularly with a complete molar pregnancy. People understand miscarriages; they are unfortunately common enough that everyone knows someone touched by infant loss. Many hospitals hold burial ceremonies for miscarried babies, a wonderful service to grieving parents and families. We know what to think and do when a child, even a tiny one, dies. But when our bodies proclaim “Baby!” and no baby ever formed, our grief is strange and dreamlike, yet visceral and shockingly physically real.

Years ago, I had a friend I’ll call Lilly who told me excitedly that she was expecting. She and her husband enjoyed their children, but years had gone by since their youngest was born, and I think Lilly had experienced secondary infertility for some time. So the fact that she was carrying another child was overwhelmingly joyful. I can still picture her, crying and beaming on my front porch as she brought us apples.

A short time later, Lilly was diagnosed with a molar pregnancy. I read about it as she went through treatments, thankfully, and became somewhat familiar with its particulars. At one point, she asked me if it was okay for her to mourn. “I just don’t know if I should feel so sad,” she said, tears running down her cheeks. “After all, there never was a baby.”

Perhaps I’m completely theologically wrong about this, but this is what I thought then, and this is what I told her. In a perfect world, where all eggs and sperm would have healthy chromosomes, and bodies would be able to carry wee ones effortlessly, Lilly would have a baby. So of course she could mourn the loss of a child, even though she could not point to a burial site for that child. I have held on to this as I mourn the loss of our child that never was. When our children asked, “Are you sure there’s not a baby?” and felt sad that they would not enjoy another sibling, we grieved, and still grieve, together. Again, it is a different grief from losing a child in the flesh. But it is grief nonetheless, a weeping for the ideal that we do not have, for the reality of life that in these instances is impossible.

In another small irony, I wrote about Mole in The Wind in the Willows years ago, under different circumstances involving saying goodbye to a beloved home. Mole remembers his home that he feels is lost, and his grief echoes ours.

The Mole subsided forlornly on a tree-stump and tried to control himself, for he felt it surely coming. The sob he had fought with so long refused to be beaten. Up and up, it forced its way into the air, and then another, and another, and others thick and fast; till poor Mole at last gave up the struggle, and cried freely and helplessly and openly, now that he knew it was all over and he had lost what he could hardly be said to have found.”

“It was all over and he had lost what he could hardly be said to have found.” This is us–mourning the loss of a life that this earth had never seen.

Our experience has been so recent that I may sound glib in saying this, but God has been so gracious to me and to our family. I can’t pretend to understand why this happened, but I am not bitter. I am sad, very sad. I know I will cry again over weeks and months. But I do not begrudge God or anyone our experience. Truly, how could I? We have been overwhelmingly blessed. And I have been reminded so many times in the last few weeks of how faithful God is to us. My father sent me Psalm 119:50 before my surgery: “This is my comfort in my affliction, that your promise gives me life.” God has given me life here on earth. He gave me faith in my baptism, the faith that confesses that even though someday I die, yet shall I live in Christ. Christ lost everything for me. He bore my suffering on the cross, and He bears me now, even and especially my afflictions, and will unto eternity.  Therefore, even as I grieve, I give thanks, for He has done all things well.