I didn’t want to love him. Five months into my pregnancy, I stared at the shadowy image that appeared on the ultrasound screen—a tiny baby boy who my obstetrician predicted would not survive another month in the womb. A dark, round mass filled one of the baby’s kidneys, a cyst the size of a small stone. The surface looked as smooth and shiny as the rocks my brother and I once skipped along a riverbank in Montana when we were young. My brother explained that the smoothness of the stones came from years of water rushing over their edges in the belly of the river. The cadence of the seasons shaped their surfaces until they sparkled like black onyx in the sunlight. We skimmed the stones across the water that warm, summer day and made silent wishes while watching the rocks sink deep into the river.
My husband squeezed my hand and reminded me to focus on the other baby, “Twin A,” her little arms and legs unfolding in a sac of amniotic fluid. The doctor quietly warned me over the hum of the ultrasound machine that if the male twin died early in the pregnancy, in utero surgery was not an option. I would be forced to carry him to term in order to keep his sister alive. The prospect of his death also carried the risk of spreading toxins within the womb, endangering the twin female’s life as well as my own, and possibly leading to a premature birth or worse, the intrauterine death of both babies.
Before I had a chance to absorb the grim diagnosis, the obstetrician swiftly moved the ultrasound wand to the other side of my belly, effectively blocking my view of “Twin B” on the screen. But I caught a glimpse of the beating heart; I saw his fingers glide through the water and slip into his mouth in an effort to suck his thumb.
The grieving started at that moment, a hollowing from the inside out that left me questioning my faith and my sanity during the months I was confined to bed rest.
There were prayers and healing stones spread across my growing abdomen amidst weekly visits with a perinatologist to monitor the health of my babies: a safe birthing plan for one, a death watch for the other. As my pregnancy progressed, my condition became the curious embodiment of life and death for the physicians who studied my twins, the tenacious survival of “Twin B” a medical phenomenon. I held onto the thin, strand of hope that was dangled before me when the doctors suggested that if my son made it to the delivery date, an immediate operation after birth to remove the invasive cyst might save his life. For the first time in months, I allowed myself to envision a life with twins, however critical my son’s condition might have been.
Despite the odds, both babies survived full-term inside the womb. The day I was wheeled into the delivery room, anticipation squeezed my heart, every breath a fractured prayer.
First, the healthy wail of a seven pound baby girl who was whisked away for analysis. And then, immeasurable silence when my infant boy was pulled from the comforting walls of my womb into the harsh, hospital lights that revealed his ashen complexion. I touched the pale moon of his face and prayed that he would survive before the nurses rushed him to the neonatal unit.
When my obstetrician entered the recovery room thirty minutes later, I saw the sheen of tears in her eyes and turned away to study my husband’s stoic expression. It was as if all the joy he’d felt at witnessing our daughter’s birth had been sucked out of him at that very moment. I realized then that he knew what I refused to face.
The doctor touched my arm, her fingers cold against my skin. “Do you know what I’m about to tell you?”
“You’re going to fix him, right?”
She reached for my hand and spoke softly. “I’m afraid that the cyst in your son’s kidney was larger than we anticipated. It created a lack of amniotic fluid, which kept his lungs from developing properly. The condition caused irreparable damage to his organs. I’m so sorry, but there’s nothing else we can do, except keep him comfortable for the time being.”
She asked if I wanted to see my son, but her words were muted by the numbing fear I felt for loving a baby who would never survive and guilt over my inability to save him.
It was my incredibly brave husband who chose to stay during those final moments in the NICU when the nurses unhooked the oxygen machine that temporarily sustained our son’s life. I couldn’t watch, knowing that if I did, my heart would splinter into a thousand pieces and that I would never be whole again.
I didn’t want to love him when my husband and the neonatal nurse brought my baby boy into the recovery room and placed his still body in my arms. He was still warm, swaddled in a soft blanket with a satin edge. There were silky wisps of blond hair poking out from under his cap, and he had a slight crook to his nose, reminiscent of my grandfather. I breathed deep the scent of antiseptic soap and the bittersweet memories of a summer that I’d never be able share with my son. Anchoring him to my breast for the last time, I wept against his cheek and kissed pale lips that mirrored the blue waters of the river where I had skimmed stones and made wishes.
My husband and I named him Jason “the healer,” which suited him. His abbreviated life, despite the dismal odds he’d been given in the womb, had kept his twin sister alive, ensuring her safe delivery.
He was more than a healer; he was our hero.
In the days after Jason’s death while I was recuperating in the hospital, my husband was left with the painful burden of picking out a small, white casket and the little blue suit our son would be buried in. I hid behind denial, clinging to my daughter in a desperate attempt to erase the memory of her brother’s body in my arms. Each night on the maternity ward, I was plagued with dreams of drowning, of sinking into rushing water before washing ashore, a broken, grieving mother. I feared that the jagged edges of grief would never smooth over time; that anger would sharpen me instead, preventing me from ever healing and being the mother I wanted to be for my daughter.
I didn’t want to love him, because loving him meant that I would have to acknowledge the loss and work through my feelings of guilt and inadequacy for not staying with him until the end. My insecurities as a mother were compounded by the well-intentioned comments from friends who urged me to move on from Jason’s death and the endless stream of condolence cards that filled our mailbox each morning. After all, they reasoned, how could I have loved a baby I never knew?
“Be grateful that you left the hospital with one healthy baby. Think of all the mothers who leave empty-handed.”
“If you stay busy and concentrate more on your daughter, in time you’ll forget her brother.”
“Twins would have been too much work. Be glad you only have one baby.”
There were others who went as far as to suggest that perhaps I had just been in love with the idea of having twins, not with the twin himself.
They didn’t understand that even though my focus was expected to stay on my newborn daughter, that every smile, and every milestone in her development, was a reminder of the boy who was missing. Although my heart would be forever tethered to his, I vowed not to let the specter of his death overshadow the joy I felt in raising his sister. She was my safety net—the only one who could save me from the deepest part of the river during the months following Jason’s death.
Over the years my husband and I celebrated our daughter’s birthdays, her graduations, job promotions and her very first home. Jason was always there on the fringes of my thoughts, and I often wondered about the man he might have become. Every now and then, the sight of a double stroller would stir the sleeping fragments of grief, and I’d remember the little blonde boy with the crook in his nose. I missed him, but rather than allowing myself to be drawn under the overwhelming waves of grief, I learned to swim within its currents to reach the other side.
I didn’t want to love him, but I did, and I always will. Like the river stones, I’ve been shaped by his love and this loss, discovering an inner strength I never knew I possessed. Looking into my daughter’s eyes, I’m reminded that sometimes the shiniest stones are the ones found in the deepest part of the water.