Illustration by Brian Cronin
The first wave was simply brilliant. Friends tiptoed up to our door, set down plates of macaroni and cheese, lasagna, sandwiches, or fruit, rang the bell—and left. How did I not know of this amazing practice? It was exactly what we needed: a combination of nourishment, respect, privacy, and love (unfortunately, a mere month later, we'd realize we had gained a combined weight of almost 60 pounds).
The second wave was floral—very traditional. My wife loved that our house looked and smelled beautiful, but I thought it looked and smelled like a funeral home. I will never forget one arrangement, from a dear friend. The florist had the inspired idea of putting it in a "treasure chest." I was a bit taken aback when I opened my door to see a deliveryman holding a dark wood box, 14 by eight inches, with a rounded top flipped open to display orchids and lilies. "Really?" I wondered. "A baby casket?" I thought I was paranoid. But out of caution, I hid it in the kitchen, barely visible behind other arrangements. My wife walked downstairs, passed the kitchen, and stopped suddenly to ask, "Is that a baby casket?" For the first time in ten days, we laughed.
The third wave of consolation came from friends who wanted to touch base, see if we needed anything. These offers were well intentioned and tiring. They required a response when neither of us had much strength. But sometimes we'd read a message, something like "We don't know what to say. We love you. We're here." And that was perfect.
We eventually started to respond to e-mails and calls and venture outside where we encountered the fourth wave, the most infuriating. It was the unsolicited mention of "God's plan." I don't know if this evoked rage or was the random place where my rage happened to fall, but when I'd hear someone say, "God's plan," I would immediately think, Asshole.
My wife wasn't bothered by it. She'd explain that the concept of God's plan—or its less Catholic/Christian version, "Everything happens for a reason"—brings people comfort, which is what they are trying to provide. To me, it suggests there's an explanation for your pain, but you don't get to know it. It's brutal. A person can get headaches and lose sleep trying to remember the actor whose voice is in an animated movie or the name of the woman who slept with Gary Hart (don't google; it's Donna Rice). So imagine the suffering affixed to the unanswered question, "Why did this happen?"
On my worst days, I would remind myself that in the grander scheme, I was quite lucky. I had a beautiful wife, a lovely home, a good job, a great dog, and solid friends. I also had the freedom to take a two-month leave from the office, and though I knew this was a tremendous luxury, it was also necessary. A psychiatrist had written the accurate yet unsettling words that, in her opinion, I was "not prepared to return to work and won't be for some time."
The doctor was right. My thoughts weren't clear. I had three fender benders in a week. I wasn't sleeping well. I was having memories (that, I expected). And visions (not expected). Too many times I recalled the images and textures I saw and felt that night in the bathroom. A few times I dreamed I was rocking a newborn baby swaddled in a red blanket—just that image. Once I woke in the night and walked around the house. I stopped climbing the stairs back to my bedroom to sit and, for about two minutes, speak to a 2- year-old girl with black bangs. I was cognizant enough to know she wasn't a ghost or anything supernatural but rather my mind's way of burning off steam. I told her I was so sorry that I couldn't protect her. She said that she forgave me, and I went back to bed.
Another night, hours after taking a sleeping pill, I woke to use the bathroom, only to walk quickly into a wall and fall backward. On more than one occasion I slept for 17 hours straight. The doctor said that was normal. My wife and I tried to make love, but, in her words, it was the "scene of the crime."
A shrink suggested I ask a friend to drag me out of the house on a regular basis. We surfed the chilling waters of Zuma or Venice and I'd talk incessantly (to him, the seals, anything that seemed to listen) about how much it hurt. I was a broken record. Yet he continued to regularly invite me out. Compassion breeds an amazing amount of tolerance.
My brother flew across the country for a night. We had drinks, and he joked with my surfing friend. I felt several seconds behind every conversation. I went downstairs pretending to get a bottle of wine but really trying to collect myself, and my brother found me there. I apologized for being slow, and then began to cry. Hard. Uncontrollably. My baby brother held me up, supporting me completely, squeezing me as hard as he could, telling me it was okay. He meant the crying.
A month after the loss, I remembered each hushed backstory or confession of every male I knew who had experienced something similar, and I called them. A colleague whose wife had delivered a stillborn child offered to hang out and have a drink. A friend admitted that he felt embarrassed telling a coworker that he didn't want to attend a baby shower. Another, who lost his son in the 35th week, told me that they'd moved apartments to escape the baby's room they had created. He said he took no time off from work—not a single day—yet still didn't understand why he'd misplace things or get lost in midsentence. After a pause, he asked me to keep a secret and said they were pregnant again but too frightened to tell anyone.
My wife and I started taking some short trips, little adventures to get our lives back in motion. A short time later, her period arrived. It was as if her body were saying, "Hey, let's move on." And we are. It's been almost ten months. Time helped. We are working. We've lost the weight and are making love.
In a parallel universe, I'm changing diapers and craving sleep, but in this one, the adoption process is under way, so somewhere there is, or is about to be, a child who will find his or her way to us, and we will all catch and protect each other. In due time, I'll rock back and forth, holding a swaddled child. In a whirlwind of joy, embarrassment, and hypocrisy, I may even shamelessly think that everything happens for a reason.
Men Open Up
We Hear You!