Not All Children Get A Chance To Grow Up

by Jacqueline Dooley
Courtesy of Jacqueline Dooley

Trigger warning: child loss

The first playdate was the product of an infant/toddler reading hour at my local library in the fall of 2002. I’d been freshly laid off from a dot-com job that had consumed me. My daughter Ana was 18 months old.

I’d been adrift, aimless, caught in the purgatory between unemployment and whatever came next. Suddenly I was in the company of a toddler all day, every day.

And so I found myself in the library at 11 a.m. in the middle of the week, my little girl squirming on my lap as the librarian paged through a picture book at the front of a crowded playroom.

Those midmorning story hours marked the beginning of something new — a shift from a working mother who felt perpetually guilty about having to divide her time between work and home to the self-employed mother who prioritized her child’s schedule, fitting work around playdates and nap time.

I don’t recall much from those fragile early days, but I do remember holding Ana in my arms as we sat on the threadbare library rug, her wide blue eyes taking it all in, the feel of baby-soft hair tickling my chin. The memory is like a faded photograph, sepia, worn at the edges.

The name of the first little girl we would schedule a play date with was Madison. As it turns out, she was born at the same exact hospital on the same exact day as my daughter — May 16, 2001.

“I remember you,” Madison’s mother had said as we listened to the librarian move through another story. “From the baby bath lesson.”

I’d remembered her immediately. This was the woman who’d been draped in an oversized bathrobe, eyes puffy with exhaustion, standing beside me as the nurses washed our newborns. We’d been delighted at the coincidence, but the friendship hadn’t lasted long. A year, maybe two.

Now I find myself groping for the fading images of those first playdates, for the liminal time when I existed between two identities, for the days spent in parks and living rooms and backyards where little girls in pink dresses and sun hats discovered the world for the first time.

Two girls with equal promise but unequal luck.

On Facebook, the daughters and sons of people I’ve known throughout my children’s lives appear before me — grown or nearly grown.

I’ve lost touch with so many since Ana died — the mother of her first best friend, nearly all the parents at the tiny private school she attended from first through eighth grades, all those stage moms and dads from the music school where she’d learned to love Zeppelin and Hendrix and Fleetwood Mac.

But I still see them in my feed — the parents, the children, and their siblings. Even the youngest siblings have (mostly) grown older than Ana. I marvel at how tall they are. I stare at their changed faces and elongated limbs. Time has stretched them. These are not the round-faced children I remember.

It shouldn’t surprise me anymore. It has been four years since she died and more than a dozen years since I’ve seen some of these kids in person. And yet, I remain stuck in their childhood just as I’m stuck in Ana’s.

Courtesy of Jacqueline Dooley

They are all nearing the end of childhood. They will go on to start their lives without fully understanding the gift they’ve been given. This is how it should be, of course. Death should not trouble the young. It should remain a faint and distant dread or else how could we possibly bear the weight of life?

Some 20 years ago on the first week of May, I was huge and impatient for the baby to arrive. Ana was due on May 6, but she would not be born for 10 more days because labor didn’t come. I had to be induced, my water broken. Only then, and after eight hours of excruciating pain, did I become a mother.

Why had it taken her so long to be born? I ask myself this question 20 years later as the May sun warms the yard, coaxing the dogwood tree to bloom. Had she known, in some unnamable, soul-deep way, that her time in the world would be too short? Had she prolonged the beginning of her life so that she could forestall her inevitable death?

Oh, but to have had those 10 extra days with her in my arms — safe and warm and whole. My baby, gazing up at me with those cornflower eyes that saw every little thing.

In the first few weeks of Ana’s life, I was completely untethered from the world. I sat beside her bassinet, praying she’d sleep so I could sleep, becoming fully immersed in the moment. But the world didn’t wait long. I returned to work when the baby was six weeks old. By then, I’d fully embraced my new identity. There was no looking back.

In 20 years, the trees have changed. The yard has changed. My body, mind, and soul have changed.

In 20 years, Ana’s room is still the same — in shape and location, if not in contents. The walls, once pink and purple (then blue) are now white. There is one chalkboard wall where I write my messages to her. I work here too. I made it my office six months after she died, throwing out the hateful bed where she’d breathed her last breath, opening the curtains, letting the light in.

My desk faces a window that overlooks the yard. I can see the bird feeders, the zero gravity chairs, and the nectarine tree.

Gone is the swing set, the picnic table, the sandbox, the tetherball hanging from its pole, the yard toys, the driveway chalk, and the garden where we grew string beans and strawberries (her favorite). I close my eyes and conjure the shadows of these relics that existed during the brief time when I took it all for granted, along with the promise of her life.

American culture presents parents with the unspoken guarantee that our children will survive, that childhood always, always, always gives way to adulthood. This is a lie.

The 16th of May will mark the 20th year that I’ve been a mother. It’s hard to believe that it’s been 20 years since I stood beside another incredulous woman as we watched our babies get their first baths. The nurses showed us how to swaddle them, then placed our daughters in our arms and we held them with the blind certainty that they would each live a long life.

But one of us was wrong. My baby died on a frigid evening in March six weeks before her 16th birthday.

I’m not jealous of all the mothers I’ve known for the past two decades, the mothers whose children are safe. I hold the memory of each child who touched my daughter’s life close to my heart. These were the children that knew my daughter. They are the ones who bore witness to her life. I hope they remember her.

No, I don’t begrudge anyone their happiness. But with each smiling graduate, each teenager triumphantly sitting in the driver’s seat, and in all those carefully decorated college dorm rooms, I glimpse a future that Ana didn’t live to see. An ache fills the space where she should be. I can hardly bear it.

For the first time since she died, it finally hit me — the enormity of Ana’s loss — her loss, not mine. Her life, not mine.

Twenty years is a big deal. My sweet girl. This birthday should be about everything that lies ahead of her. Instead, it’s about my memories and my pain.

How can I not feel cheated on her behalf? Her life was practically guaranteed. Here is how you wash your baby. Now take her home and keep her safe.

We’re told that if we are good parents — kind, attentive, caring, and wise— then we will see our children safely to adulthood. There simply is no room in the limited American imagination for an alternate ending. And yet, here I am, on the cusp of celebrating my daughter’s 20th birthday by leaving freshly cut spray roses beside her urn.

I am wallowing. I know this. My soul is desolate in the looming shadow of this momentous unbirthday. But I’ve learned to let the grief rise up when it needs to and carry me for a while.

I will try to enjoy the spring sunshine and covet the warmth, but I won’t deny my sadness. I’ve learned that sometimes I need to confront my desolation head-on before I turn to the busy task of living. The days are once again liminal and I feel unattached as I remember how, 20 years ago, the promise of motherhood waited for me beyond the curve of my belly.

The fullness of spring is here. Living to see another blossoming dogwood tree is a gift that’s not lost on me. Nothing is promised. I understand now that there were never any guarantees.

This post first appeared on Human Parts.