My Daughter Died Today

It was fourteen years ago that I woke up to nothing. No movements from the baby. No sense of life. I rushed to the hospital with my husband and found out the terrible truth. I had lost our baby. 42 weeks of pregnancy, and she was gone. I know that people call this “stillbirth,” but I hate the way this word makes people act, as if my daughter wasn’t real, wasn’t part of our family already, as if we could just “start over” again with another baby.

Mary Mercy was my sixth and final child. No one could replace her. Nothing could ever make things right again for me. There is no “moving on” after a loss like this. You don’t “get over” it. I know that it makes others uncomfortable when I talk about the depth of pain I experienced. I found out for myself why people who have lost a child don’t talk about it — because no one wants to hear them. There is profound pressure from those who are untouched by this kind of loss to be quiet about it, or to pretend to have learned some happy lesson from it to make them comfortable. But today, I am making you uncomfortable with my truths, with my pain and loss. Tomorrow you will go on and pretend that the world is still turning. Tomorrow I will pretend also. But today, I am not pretending.

If she had lived, I have no idea who I would have been. In many ways, the person I was the day of her birth died also. Not that day, not for months later, but the person I was could not keep living after this death. It was too much for her. She did not know how to deal with grief or depression. Most importantly, she did not know how to accept the betrayal of the universe, of God Himself, in taking her child. Yes, she knew bad things happened to good people. But somehow, she had always felt safe that her children could walk to school, cross the street, play outside, sled down the hill, go to sleep at night — and they would stay alive. After Mercy’s loss, she realized there were no such promises. At any moment, any of her children could be taken from her.

Though I reject the idea that there was meant to be some “lesson” in Mercy’s loss that would justify her being taken from me, I am a person who has learned that you only ever have this present moment. I am a different mother than I was. I was a rigid mother then, with lots of expectations and consequences. I once told my daughter if she did “that” one more time, she’d be banned from the family trip that weekend. She did that, and she and I stayed home from the trip. I was so sure I was teaching her an important lesson. But what? I was the mother who told my son he had to take back all the shirts he’d bought for school because they didn’t have collars. Why did that matter? I really have no idea anymore.

I have become instead that lackadaisical mother who doesn’t ask kids to do chores, only to spend a minute every other week talking to her, really talking. I’m the mother who throws money at kids if they ask. I’m the mother who asks teachers at school if her kids are having fun, because I don’t care much about grades. I am a mother grateful for the good and bad, the happy and sad, for any chance to spend with my children.

If Mercy had lived, my other children wouldn’t have to live with over-long hugs and wouldn’t say to me, “Mom, I’m not dying” when they go off to college or take a plane flight to a trip with friends.

If Mercy had lived, she’d be fourteen today. She’d be starting high school. She’d probably roll her eyes at me a lot and tell me that I don’t know anything and please can I stop going shopping with her for clothes and let her pick her own?

If Mercy had lived, she’d be at that age where she tells me she hates me. Maybe she’d be dealing with her own depression. Maybe I’d stand outside her door, worrying if she was going to hurt herself after she said, “Fuck you, Mom,” when I asked her if I could do something to help.

If Mercy had lived, she’d be starting to think about boyfriends and college. She’d be so smart. Let me tell you, smart kids aren’t easy. They’re smarter than you plenty of the time at age fourteen, and you give up pretending that you have anything to teach them about pretty much anything.

If Mercy had lived, I’d have seen that first smile that I always wished for. I’d have watched her first steps, written down her first word, gotten that picture of her first day of Kindergarten, her first piano lesson, her first big-girl bed. I’d have braided her hair in a long row of girls’ hair I braided at church on a boring Sunday morning with her sisters. I’d probably have published fewer books, and I wouldn’t have cared about that a bit.

There are times when I tell myself that at least we were spared the bad parts. I don’t have to deal with her breaking up with her first boyfriend. Or her running away from home. I never had to take her to the hospital for a broken bone while I listened to her screaming in agony, begging me to take away pain when I had no power to do that. I’m not going to have to teach her to drive, white-knuckling it and seeing my life pass before my eyes again and again.

And of course, as soon as I write those down, I want desperately to have every one of those things. All the bad moments. All the tears and pain. All the curse words and fights. All the times she would have told me she didn’t need me and didn’t want me to be her mother and that she was fine on her own. I want every moment of that back, and I will never have it.

Instead I have this “lesson.” It is cold comfort for me. I won’t tell you to go home and be grateful for all the bad parts of your time with your living daughter. I won’t tell you I’m jealous of the lesson you didn’t have to learn. I will only say that I’ve learned, if not how to move on past grief, then to sit with it as an old friend and to remember it brought me to the sweetly tinged sorrow of today, knowing that without it, I would not have loved my other children as much as I do now. I couldn’t have. I didn’t know they could be taken away.

Author of The Bishop’s Wife mystery series, The Mormon Sabbatical Podcast, Princeton PhD, fiction editor at Exponent II, autist, she/her

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