The Space Left Behind
Editor’s note: This piece was published with the permission of the author’s sister.
On the 1st of May last year, I did two things. I stood up in a Catholic church, something I hadn’t done since I was a teenager, as godmother to my oldest friend’s baby son.
But that is not the story I am telling today.
The second thing I did was visit the hospital to hold my nephew for the first and last time. When I arrived that evening, Elliot had been born four hours previously. Which meant, technically I suppose, that he had been dead for four hours.
We’d known that he was sick with congenital heart defects, and then one day I was standing in a Catholic church preparing to tell him in one hour everything I had planned to say to him over a lifetime.
I can’t tell you what it is like to be the mother of a stillborn baby. That is not the story I am telling today.
I remember the two miscarriages I had before my sons were born and the way I ached for weeks, and years, afterwards to hold those children I never met. But I can’t tell you about the horror of losing the son or daughter whose kick you’ve felt daily for months.
I can only tell you what it is to be the aunt of a stillborn baby.
I can tell you about the onesies I bought. Red, because I knew that my sister would despair at so much pale blue the way I had before my first son’s birth. “Where are all the cute boys’ clothes?” we’d asked each other. I can tell you about the high chair. “You have to have this,” I’d told my sister. “It is the best for baby led weaning; you won’t believe how easy it is to clean.” I’d washed it with love and had planned to take it to her house the next week. It sits in our study now, along with a change table that we’d also planned to pass along. Every time I open the door to this hardly-used room, my heart constricts slightly, I pause and force myself to walk in. I tell myself it is only an inanimate object. And yet I can’t bring myself to give it away. It makes me feel like I’m giving up on Elliot. I wonder what I think will happen if I keep it? I know he isn’t coming back. But perhaps my heart doesn’t quite believe it.
I can’t tell you what it is like to have a nursery set up for the baby you held but didn’t bring home. I can’t say whether you visit it often because it feels like all you have left of the child you loved so much, or if you keep the door closed because it makes your broken heart hurt more. I don’t know.
Much of the time, I don’t know what my sister is thinking. I don’t know if I am saying the right thing, although I suspect that most of the time I am not. I don’t know how to make any of this mean something, and actually, I don’t know if any of us ever can.
But mostly, I don’t know Elliot. I didn’t ever feel him kick. I never spoke to him. I’ll always regret that.
I can’t tell my sister the things I loved most about her son. I can’t ever say, “Oh Elliot would have loved that,” or “Remember when Elliot used to dance to this song?” I wish I could give her that small gift, but I never got to know him like that. That is not the story I am telling today.
What I do know well is the space he has left in my family, in my sister’s family, in my mother’s family. My sister lost her son, my mother lost her grandson, my sons lost their cousin, my grandmother lost her great-grandson, my niece lost her brother. There is forever a branch of our family tree with Elliot’s name on it.
So I tell my sister about the hole Elliot left in our family, the times I wish he was here and the moments that make me think of him, if only in his absence. I think sometimes she wishes I would shut up. I hope sometimes it lets her know much he mattered — to all of us.
Until my sister decides what to do with them, Elliot’s ashes are in her bedroom. There’s a crematorium near us that has a children’s garden. My sister says she thinks she’ll bury his ashes there. She can take my niece to play in the garden when she wants to be close to him. I like that idea; that Elliot will be near the sounds and laughter of children.
When she is ready, I am going to make a request for his memorial plaque, that it might include a message from me on it: “Always one of our clan.”
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