A Smile Returning

I’ve been hiding quite a bit from pictures since Eleanora died. It’s hard to see a photo of yourself when physically, you are someone you don’t recognize.

A couple months ago, I talked on the phone with the minister who performed our wedding ceremony and Eleanora’s funeral service. He was also my youth minister in high school. I was in a really dark place mentally, and I didn’t know where else to turn. He told me, “There’s a look that a mother has in her eyes when she’s lost a child. There’s nothing else like it.” I know exactly what he’s talking about because I’ve seen that look in me.

It’s a look of defeat. Your body is here, but your soul is not. The sun is shining, but all you see is darkness. When I think back to last June, I remember the heat and sunshine of summer, and it makes my skin crawl. I didn’t see bright days and big smiles. I saw death up close. I gave birth to it. I saw hours and hours and hours of nothing but darkness.

When I look back to the pictures we took when I was pregnant, I see so much pride and happiness and radiance in my eyes. I see someone who is so ready to raise her child, she can hardly stand it. I see someone that I’m jealous of now.

I’m jealous because I know now what the news of Eleanora’s death occurring within my own body did to me. I felt a monumental shift in who I was the moment I heard the words, “I’m so sorry, I can’t find a heartbeat.” Outside that hospital room, people were meeting for coffee or taking work meetings or visiting their grandmothers. Even on the next floor, they were welcoming new life. Inside that room, my world froze and all time stopped. I think my soul left, too, when I learned that instead of a home, a safe space, my body had become a graveyard. I can see that in my eyes now, and I hate seeing it staring back at me.

In pictures, my smile doesn’t quite reach my eyes anymore. The muscles of my mouth are performing the movement to make a smile, but that radiance is gone. I miss the version of me who laughed without fear and smiled without sadness. I miss the version of me who didn’t know that sometimes, babies simply die without any identifiable reason.

Three weeks after Eleanora was born, we went to Texas for a vacation. We mostly just needed to get away.

We had just buried our child and my grandpa. (I think the fact that I watched my grandpa attended Eleanora’s funeral and then, about ten days later, we attended his also took a huge toll on me mentally. We knew that he was dying, but never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that he would have to attend his first great-grandchild’s funeral. It felt like a cruel joke. I remember walking in the doors to the funeral home and feeling entirely numb. I still had my stomach wrapped to protect my healing body. I still had my chest compressed to try to stop the flow of milk that was now useless. I still had postpartum diapers and pads on to cover my bleeding. And I walked back into the same building where I saw my child lying in her tiny casket, and I sat in the same front row. I walked past the people I’d just seen, and I felt their despair when they looked at me. I don’t think anyone knew who I was going to do it. I don’t know how I did it. When we walked in the door, the man who assisted us in planning Eleanora’s service asked how we were doing, and I said, “Hanging in there, and we appreciate you so, so much, but I REALLY don’t want to see you next week.”)

When we were on that vacation, I remember waking up sobbing in the middle of the night and telling Daniel that nothing could ever make me happy again. I couldn’t imagine ever smiling or laughing again in a world where I didn’t get to see my daughter laugh and smile.

With time, I’ve found small things to bring me a sense of happiness again, like playing board games with girlfriends, or singing the Encanto soundtrack around the house with Daniel, or daydreaming about names for our Someday Baby. But I also still have to do things like stabilize my breath before seeing my daughter’s monument again. I still have to walk into her nursery and remind myself, “This is NOT Eleanora’s room. It’s not going to be.” I still have to see everyone else’s babies growing up in pictures online and will myself not to have a panic attack.

What I’m trying to say is, my life after losing Eleanora is defined by the word “bittersweet.” All the rest of my days will be bittersweet because, no matter how happy I might learn to be again, I will always be painfully aware of her absence. How can one’s life be 100% happy with such a beloved person gone? I don’t think it can. With time, I’m learning to stabilize myself on the shifting scales of bitter and sweet. Some days are 80% bitter, 20% sweet. Some days are 75% sweet, 25% bitter. Some days are split equally down the middle. The one constant in my life now is that there is no constant. Every day is different from the previous and the next, and I’m just trying to hang on.

To return to my first few thoughts, and the reason I started writing: I noticed a bit of my old self in a picture that Daniel took last night of Eleanora Bear and me with our Valentine’s Day flowers. My smile reached my eyes again, and I look almost like a former, happier version of me. I can almost cry looking at it.

Eleanora brought out a spark in me that I’d never seen before, and I know it came from the fact that I’m meant to mother. That, I think, is why I look so proud and so happy in the photo of me holding her bear. If I am near my child, if I can just hold her in any way, shape, or form, I am happy. It’ll never be the real thing—it’ll always be bittersweet—but I hope that, in time, my love for that child can bring that spark back to me. I hope that we give her siblings who remind us how to laugh and smile again, all while never forgetting that she’s the one who started it all.

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