Nine years ago, shortly before my 34th birthday and during an early cold snap in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York, my husband and I bought two cemetery plots. Only one was for us (to share). We had gone there to purchase another and added ours only because the cemetery was having a sale: Buy one plot, get a second at half price.
I didn’t know cemeteries had sales, but the clerk at the town hall, whose responsibilities included selling marriage and fishing licenses in addition to cemetery space, said this pair of plots had breathtaking mountain views. She also said we would love it there someday.
In the months before, I had been pregnant with my second child, a girl, with a due date of Christmas Day. Our 3½-year-old son was convinced he would officially become a big brother on Christmas morning. I, on the other hand, was dreading the possibility of this scenario.
“Can we name the new baby Peanut Jesus?” my son often asked.
I was envisioning a Christmas morning where I sat in a recliner drinking eggnog, not one where I was experiencing the body-stretching pain of cervical dilation. Besides, who wants to compete with the most famous birth of all time?
I knew I had zero control over the day on which I would actually give birth; I just hoped it wouldn’t be Christmas morning.
My co-workers at the high school where I teach English threw me a diaper shower in late November, exactly a month before my due date. My son used the shrink-wrapped packages of Pampers and Huggies we received as giant blocks to build a “diaper tractor” in the middle of our living room. I was sure we would be blowing through those diapers in another few weeks.
As it happened, though, my daughter was born only a few days later, on Nov. 30. After not feeling her typical acrobatics for a day, my husband drove us to the emergency room. On a grainy ultrasound screen, we saw the lack of movement and listened for the reassuringly rapid whoosh-whoosh sound of a fetal heartbeat. The machine was silent. I heard the doctor’s words trail off: “There’s no heartbeat. I’m so very sorry.”
I would need to be induced the next day.
At the hospital the following morning, a nurse led me to a small corner room on the labor and delivery floor that had a large blue label placed on the door. I assumed it was a color-coded warning, a message to passers-by: This room is different.
It was there where a doctor first used the word “stillbirth.”
My grandmother had experienced a stillbirth, as had my great-grandmother. But it was a word I believed was reserved for time periods before folic acid and prenatal care. It was simply not part of my arrogant, 21st-century pregnancy vocabulary.
Throughout the day, doctors came and went. Nurses changed shifts. A Pitocin filled IV, taped to my left hand, dripped all day. A social worker visited, then a Unitarian minister. An orderly delivered a meal. My contractions increased.
Outside my hospital window, I could see an elementary school playground. Children bundled in bright winter coats and hats poured out of the school doors for recess. Faint laughter and screams floated up four floors and permeated the brick exterior of my room. I wanted those children to go away but also to never stop.
Fetal monitoring wasn’t necessary, but I asked for it anyway. “Please check,” I said. “Just one more time.” I thought maybe the doctors had been wrong. Maybe I could stay pregnant forever. Maybe, inside my womb, I could warm my daughter back to life. It seemed reasonable. I asked a nurse if it were possible.
“No, honey.” She put a firm hand on my arm. “You have to do this. It’s going to be the hardest thing you ever do, but you have to do this. You are her mother, and this is how you love her. You give birth to her.”
Hours passed. David and I cried on and off all day. We asked a million questions but were given few answers. One doctor told us that in 50 percent of late-term stillbirths, parents never get an explanation. Maybe we would learn why she died and maybe we wouldn’t.
Then, it was time. I was told I needed to push. And so I did. I pushed and I loved my daughter.
In the silence of my blue-labeled room, a six-pound-10-ounce, 20-inch baby girl was placed on my chest. My daughter. We named her June. Lovely and perfect and absolutely still. Cherubic lips and long eyelashes. Tiny wisps of eyebrows. I didn’t know love and grief could be born at the same time, but in a single moment, my heart grew exponentially and shattered.
When we came home from the hospital, our son was filled with questions. “Why did the baby die?” “When is she coming home?”
We tried to keep our responses truthful yet age appropriate. We knew it was important to acknowledge his confusion and explain our sadness but were finding the conversations excruciating.
My fallback response to his questions was usually, “I know it’s hard to understand. But June’s body stopped working and she died. The doctors don’t know why.”
Explaining to a 3½-year-old over and over again that, no, he would not be getting a baby sister on Christmas morning and no, I couldn’t grow another one in time for Christmas morning, was soul crushing. I didn’t know how I was going to cope simultaneously with the physical recovery of childbirth, the mothering of a living child, and my own heavy grief.
Three days after June’s birth, David and I drove through a light snow to the town hall to purchase the cemetery plot. I felt numb.
The clerk asked: Did we want Plot 152 or 163? Next to a cluster of pines or a spot with a view?
I felt incapable of making any decision, let alone a decision about a cemetery plot for my daughter. When the clerk told us about the sale, she said we could, if we both chose to be cremated someday (in order to share a plot), be buried next to our daughter.
David and I looked at each other and agreed. Sure. Whatever. Why not add the purchase of a discounted cemetery plot to the list of things I never imagined myself doing?
On our drive home, I said to David, “Do you realize we are the only people we know who have purchased cemetery plots?”
“Yes, but we’re also the only people we know whose baby just died.”
He was right, of course. Yet every cell in my body was in denial. My breasts were leaking milk, and there was no way to stop it. My heart and my brain could not accept what my body was denying as well.
The day before we buried June, my mother came over. It was my birthday and she was worried. She sat on the edge of my bed, wrapped her arms around me and whispered, “Tomorrow is going to be very hard, but you can’t forget — death ends a life, not a relationship. You are still her mother. She is still your daughter.”
That night, when putting my son to bed, he asked again about June. I had no words left. Instead, I crawled in next to him, inhaled the lavender scent of his hair and let him do the talking. He talked about getting a toy cement truck for Christmas, seeing his cousins, and the giant glass of eggnog his grandmother had let him drink at her house.
Then he said: “Mommy, you said it’s hard to understand what happened to June, but I want it to be soft.”
Soft. I released a deep sigh. “I know. I want it to be soft, too.”
Softness is exactly what I needed. It’s what our whole family needed. Overnight, everything in our lives had become increasingly harder to understand. Except the little boy lying next to me. His words and needs were clear. And they were soft.
In the weeks that followed, I feared I would permanently inhabit a purgatory of unknowns. Extensive medical testing told us only that June and I were healthy. We would never learn why she died. So I searched for softness wherever I could find it. In the scent of my son’s hair. In the morning sunlight coming through my kitchen window.
When asked how I was doing, I often replied, “Well, David and I know where we’re going to be buried someday.”
Which was difficult for most people to hear, but for me this knowledge became a comfort. I didn’t know how I was going to navigate the dark grief ahead, but I knew, at 34, without a doubt, the location of my all-sales-are-final resting place: next to my daughter, on a beautiful hill with breathtaking mountain views, covered in a soft blanket of snow.