It was the day of my very first ultrasound, and there we were, my husband and I, in a cold doctor’s office, incredibly confused. See, despite what I’d seen on television and in movies, the scene was very different. There were no gentle gel squirts on my belly, while my husband lovingly held my hand. Oh no! The picture was more like me wearing a sandpaper gown while lying on my back with my feet in stirrups as my gyno shoved a very lube-saturated wand up my vagina. Not quite the romantic moment I’d been sold. I say they should tell you that on the phone.
They should tell you that at your first ultrasound, your husband will watch you get a pap smear and wand shoved up your vagina. That he’ll feel so awkward, he’ll stand off to the side with his arms folded, thanking the Lord that he was born with a knob and bollocks. But despite the wand, the awkward position, and the extra large dollop of lube that fell out of my vagina onto the floor, when I saw the heartbeat and heard the heartbeat…that was it. I was a mom.
That night as I went to sleep, I started to feel all the emotions that a mom feels, but mainly worry and fear. Fear of miscarriage, worry that something could go wrong, fear of abnormalities, worry if I’d left the hair straightener on — the usual. I could go on for hours about the things a pregnant mother worries about. Just know, you spend many sleepless nights worrying. And throughout pregnancy and after birth, you continue to worry. You worry every single day if they’ll be smart, kind, healthy, all the usual things. What you probably don’t worry about every single day, though, is if today is the day your child is going to die.
It took me a while to realize where this deep visceral fear was coming from. For some reason, the obvious just didn’t seem obvious. When my brother died 10 years ago at age 18, I mourned him like a sister. I cried thinking about all the memories we had. I cried harder for all the memories we’d never make — that he’d never meet my husband, be at my wedding, meet my children. I grieved my partner in crime, my childhood, and all the things he’d never experience like falling in love, becoming a father, and Doctor Who coming back to television. I grieved him like a sister. We all grieved, but we all grieved differently — a father for his son, a grandparent for his grandchild, a friend for his friend…
…and a mother for her son.
A mother for her son. Ugh. See, that is the reason why I’m so scared my son will die. Because the day I gave birth, I felt the loss of my brother all over again, as a mother. For the first time, I was in a mother’s shoes. I had just spent 10 months growing this life inside me. Before anyone met him, I felt his kicks, his hiccups, his very strong uppercut to my left rib. For 10 months, it was just him and me — two peas in one very literal pod. Every food I ate, drink I drank, and breath I took gave him life. He was a part of me. No one can ever explain a mother’s love. It cannot be put into words. All I knew was if he were to ever die, I would die.
The thought of my son dying haunted me. I mean, how is there any coming back from that? That he could be alive and laughing one day, and gone the next. No warning, no goodbyes, just…gone. This life that grew inside of me? When I realized what my mother had actually gone through, I got so scared I puked. And that’s really when it all started: this cycle of fear, begging God every night for it to not happen to me, that I don’t ever have to experience the pain of losing a child.
Losing a sibling gives you the unfortunate front row seat to a mother losing a child. But more than that, you get a front row seat to mortality. The idea of mortality is no longer just an idea; it’s very real and very possible. To an extent, I’m sure losing anyone would give you this perspective. The difference is that when you’re young, when it’s too soon, you understand how fleeting life can be.
And now every time I read an article or hear a story about a child dying from leukemia, SIDS, falling furniture, alligator attacks, dry drowning, choking, car crashes — every single time — I feel the walls close in on me. I worry, am I next? Or will I be one of the lucky ones? I flash-forward in my mind to his death, the funeral, the pain, and that visceral fear of it all takes over and puts a lump in my throat.
What they don’t tell you about losing a sibling and then having a child is that you have thoughts about things other parents probably don’t. You wonder if you should have a second or third child in case one of them dies. You think about the age of your sibling at death as some finish line you hope to make it past. You wonder if any days beyond that are just borrowed time. You obsess over CPR classes, the Heimlich, and the quickest route to the ER.
I hope that, one day, I’ll be able to buckle his car seat and not fear that today is the day someone might hit my car and he won’t survive. I hope that, one day, I’ll hand him a piece of food and not fear that he might choke and turn blue. I hope that, one day, when he sleeps in past 7 a.m. I won’t fear it’s because he’s died in his sleep — that I won’t be trembling as I approach his crib, fearing that he might be cold.
I hope that, one day, I won’t think about age 18 as some ticking time bomb or countdown.
I hope that, one day, he’ll be old and gray having lived the most fulfilling life he could — and that I’ll finally be able to breathe.