This week marks a whole year of Winter being out the womb and in the world. What is, for parents of living children, a time of great excitement and celebration, can be a time of huge anxiety, pain and sadness for those of us amongst the infant loss community. Whilst for many, the first birthday represents a year of achievements and memories made with loved ones, for me it represented a whole year since I last held my baby boy close to me.
The build up to the day was genuinely terrifying and filled with high levels of anxiety which are still lingering now, despite the eventual success. I had no idea how I would feel on the day, I was afraid that my emotions would swallow me whole and the pain I experience daily would sky rocket out of control. I was still coming to terms with my latest miscarriage and the crushing disappointment that my dream of a rainbow baby was not yet in the making. My safety net of a happy pregnancy had proved whimsical and unreliable and I was instead expected to celebrate with both empty arms and empty womb.
But I knew I had to gather this strength yet again, I couldn’t let Winters special day slide past with no cake, balloons or happy birthday sing song.
We decided early on that we would throw a big party, include some fundraising and celebrate our boys angelic accomplishments as much as possible. It felt to me like the right thing to do for us personally. At a time when I was feeling my sons absence the most, I wanted to draw myself closer to him, I wanted to play pretend, to feel like a real life mother and dedicate time and effort to arranging a whole day just for our deserving baby boy.
It wasn’t without challenge. I was exhausted and tearful. At times my strength escaped me. We went to buy balloons and I was feeling excited at the thought of collecting my sons giant foil number one balloon, Dean and I decided to make a day of it. But as soon as we found the birthday boy aisle emblazoned with the slogan ‘It’s fun to be 1!’ I exploded in tears and we left. When we did finally pick up the balloons I was so pleased with them I grinned from ear to ear and we laughed trying to get them in the car. Once we got them home and I carried them up to Winters room and I said out loud ‘These are for you…’ I noticed the stillness of a nursery without a baby, and I found myself again in tears. Balloons with no birthday boy to show them to. And so the pattern of rise and falls and rise and falls continued, every moment was bittersweet, every victory was mourned, every joy swamped in heartbreak, a constant battle between my excitement and my grief. A cake baked so lovingly but with no one to blow out the candles. A birthday wish with no one to grant it. A card filled with heartfelt words that would never be read. Preparing for his birthday felt like intense ‘face your fears’ style therapy, I so desperately wanted to give him a day he deserved but in the process I was forced to confront difficult emotions head on. I couldn’t fold up and give in to them or else the party wouldn’t happen. My strength came from wanting to celebrate his birthday more than I wanted to curl up and cry.
As much as I prepared busily for a birthday full of love and celebration, I also felt intimidated by the anniversary of his death the following day, gently referred to in this world of infant loss as his ‘angelversary’. I was very aware that the high of Winters birthday party would be quickly chased by a low. A kind of post-Christmas season blues on a more intense level. This was a little rain cloud that lingered visibly over our birthday plans. And after his birthday party passed, then what? Where would I focus my homeless love then?
Finally, a pressure to begin to move on weighed heavily on my shoulders. A year after losing Winter, at a time when his birth and life is more a part of my past than my present, sayings such as ‘the first year is the hardest’ played on my mind. Would I be expected to heal now that the ‘hard part’ was over? Was I expected to feel better now I was entering the ‘easy part’ of grieving my baby? Looking back over this past year, when I had only just lost Winter and this baby loss world felt so new and bleak, I think even I was guilty of looking at angel mothers a year ahead of me and thinking ‘well they must feel better than I do right now…’. It’s times like this that I realise just how much I have learnt over this past year. No, I don’t feel better actually. And I accept that now. My grief is eternal, I will never recover from this loss, I will always be a bereaved mother. I suppose I’m just beginning to get used to life without my child. When Winter died I thought his first birthday would never come, it felt forever away. And now it’s here and gone. But it is still very early days, one year down, the rest of my life to go.
It turns out that his birthday wasn’t as scary as I imagined. It was a whole day dedicated to Winter, surrounded by family and friends, swathed in love. So many people who remember and think of our little boy, all pooled together to celebrate his life. I spent the entire day feeling as proud as punch. I was afraid that the passing of time was pulling him further away from me, but in fact I felt closer to him that day than I have for a while. We released balloons, we sang happy birthday, we cut up his cake, we collected funds and gifts for the hospital in his memory, we shared his newspaper clippings and heavenly achievements, I smiled all day at the thought of Winter watching the celebrations unfold, it was one of the best days of my life.
And his angelversary was survivable to. We ate pancakes, we opened gifts, I had a cry and took a nap, we went for dinner together. We took the collected gifts to the hospital, we gave one birthday cake to my family at the Buddhist center and another to the nurses on the neonatal ward who cared for Winter. How did I feel? Gutted, heartbroken, deeply sad, like a piece of me is forever missing. But then I feel like that a lot anyway, so it was a familiar feeling and not at all the crazy distressing day I had conjured up in my mind. We held his heart urn close and talked about our baby boy. We were reminded that in order to die, you first have to live, and Winter lived safe inside me for nine months and in our arms for a day.
I was listening to a podcast the other day where scientists and astrophysicists debated the possibility of time travel, and when describing what ‘time’ actually is someone said ‘Time is a perimeter that measures change’. Isn’t that crazy, that’s what ‘time’ actually is. I wrote it down straight away. We put titled markers on time as humans. One year, 365 days since my son was born. The Earth has circled the sun in one whole swift lap with him missing from it. The movements of the universe offer us these markers and we gather them into calendars and title them with importance. 365 days and I miss my son. But 369 days and I still miss him. I missed him at 300 days and I’ll miss him at 400. The big scary ONE YEAR mark is just as big and scary, and entirely survivable as any other monthly, weekly, daily mark. It kind of feels like less of a terrifying deal when we consider that.
I thought that Winters birthday would mark the end of something, like the last step in a journey. I was expecting a physical crescendo, a grand finale. But I realise now that our story is not finished yet. And it won’t finish when we have another baby or even a house full if I’m lucky. In fact, Winter proved that your story can outlive even your death.
This time just over a year ago I was pregnant and excited. I already know now just how much can happen in one single year, so I suppose I am just wondering what this next year will bring us.
Happy 1st Birthday Winter, the weight missing from my arms, the occupier of my heart.