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  • Writer's pictureElizabeth Leon


Updated: Nov 11, 2018

When your baby is no longer here, every other baby is an occasion of longing for your own child's presence. I am working at being brave to make space to have babies around me again and to let the joy and beauty of that co-exist with the loss of my son.

John Paul Raphael's perfect little feet

My blog has been silent for so long now. It isn’t that I didn’t have anything to say, just that I didn’t have anything NEW to say. My grief was on repeat. Everything I had written, all the struggles I had tried to share just kept coming around and around and around. What had felt like a process I was moving through turned into a circular labyrinth with no exit, and I eventually just gave up and crawled into bed. The flurry of writing that poured out of me as I tapped into this grief experience changed to a trickle and then stopped. My brain became foggy and my thoughts unclear. I ran out of energy and motivation and I was just so sad and tired all the time. Depression settled over me in fits and spurts. I hid it really well, managing to still live my life most days but my husband was worried about me. To be honest, I was a little worried about me. Just when I thought things might start to get a little better, they had gotten emphatically worse. I swam in discouragement, feeling like this dark space was going to be my sentence for the rest of my life.

I have some understanding for why my sad and dark feelings got sadder and darker in this season, and both reasons are sweet little babies. Our daughter Meaghan was surprised in September by a giant proposal party in Arlington at the Irish bar where she met her now-fiancé in December of 2016. She thought they were going in for a drink and instead found Evan down on one knee in front of 40 of their favorite people!! It was an amazing day, but big festive gatherings are still unpredictable for me in my grief. I have a really hard time making small talk when the big loud trauma of John Paul Raphael's death is still so big and loud in me. Plus, my grief makes me feel so altered that it is disorienting when other people treat me like a regular person. I am not quite sure what I need in those situations, but it is often just not that. In addition to my anxiety about how I would cope in this large social gathering, when we got to the bar, there was a baby.

Babies are everywhere, of course. I have never been SO AWARE of how babies lurk like little emotional triggers every place I go. Even when I can’t see them, their little newborn cries steal all the way up to the choir loft at church and lodge like a lump in the middle of my throat. I remember being back at St. Theresa the first Sunday after we buried John Paul Raphael and there was a newborn on the other side of the church that cried his little newborn cry for minutes on end. It was physical agony. My milk was still drying up and my breast and womb physically throbbed at the sound of that baby and I ached for my own. The tears coursed down my cheeks and I wanted to flee. Three months after John Paul Raphael died, a lovely woman at our church had her 5th baby and in a moment of unfounded bravery, I signed up to cook a meal for her. When Ralph and I pulled up to the house, I could barely get out of the car. When we finally got to the door and she answered carrying the pink bundle in her arms, I was the most awkward of visitors, torn between not being able to look at her infant and wanting to snatch her and run for the car.

My 6 Beautiful Babies in order -- Maggie, Leah, James, Nathan, Clare, & John Paul Raphael

One of Meaghan’s best college friends had come into the bar on that special day carrying an infant carrier on her arm with a fat little baby boy cherub filling up the seat. And my heart ached. Already feeling like a vulnerable party alien, this little sweetie pulled my tucked-away emotion right onto my face and into my now watery eyes. I looked away and let the pain move through me like a contraction. I miss you I miss you I miss you I miss you.

I managed to make polite party chatter for a while before I noticed Ralph wiping his eyes as he talked to the little cherub’s mother. I decided to join them since the fat cuteness was elsewhere with his father. This lovely young mother had just shared with him about how sorry she was about John Paul Raphael’s death. She lost a sister when she was a child and she told us how she watched her parents live with that and how they never stopped mourning the loss of their daughter. Ohhhhhh, my heart. I know I have said this before, but for a grieving parent, always carrying the loss of their child, to have the loss spoken and their child’s name said AND a story of understanding shared – well, this was a trifecta of comfort even though it made me cry. Please know that her comments didn’t MAKE me sad. They just allowed me to connect the sadness I already felt with another person. This is the most elusive of remedies for a broken heart and so, so needed. This honest and authentic conversation in the middle of the bar was a testament to the character and vulnerability of this young woman. She was no stranger to grief and she instinctively knew that speaking it and sharing it with us would be a benefit to all three of us, even if it might have felt like a risk. I don't know if she realized the gift she gave us through her courage. Her conversation also provided a safe place for the next beautiful and so achingly painful thing that happened.

Evan proposing to Meaghan

About 30 minutes later as I was sitting at a table talking with Ralph and some other guests, this lovely young mother came by with the fat angel in her arms. Right in front of me. He was unavoidable. Every baby I see is measured, of course, by how old he or she is in comparison to John Paul Raphael. This little guy was a few months older I knew, but he had been born prematurely so he was about the size John Paul Raphael might have been if he had been healthy and lived. Have I shared much about this alternate reality show that runs in my mind? It seems impossible to stop it playing in my head. "What would I be doing now if he were still here? How would I handle some event with a bouncing 10-month-old on my hip?" The scenes are without end.

The words slipped out before I was even aware of them.

“Can I please hold your baby? I know I am going to cry. Is it okay to cry and hold your baby?”

I am well aware of how many people might be totally put off by this. SO aware, in fact, that the previous 10-20 times I have considered asking it, mostly to strangers in stores, I have managed to stop myself. But here in this place, with the foundation of a safe conversation already laid, I could speak the words. And because this young woman's heart had been enlarged by her own suffering and probably also by the new contemplation, now that she was a mother, of what it would REALLY feel like to lose a child, she said yes.

And then my arms that have been empty (hollow, vacant, useless, void… there are not enough or adequate words)… then my arms that have been ceaselessly wanting for 10 months were holding a soft, small, warm body again. And I wept. Tears hot on my face. Face flushed, eyes clenched shut. Throat tight. Heart pounding. Some kind of primal sigh left my body. There was a release of something held deep in my core that I hadn’t even known needed to be undone. My baby my baby my baby my baby. My heart surged with joy and broke anew at the rightness of this little one against my breast. The moment felt frozen in time as the merriment went on around us – a sacred little circle of two mothers and two little boys, one here and one gone. And however much my rational mind knew this was not my child, my irrational heart could just rest in the impossible possibility that this was my son and he was still here.

My little friend squirmed far too soon and then it was over and he was gone. The spell broken. My arms cried silently for that firm, warm weight to be returned. I wiped my face and clung to Ralph remembering it all together and letting go again. I will always remember and be grateful for the gift of that first next baby after I had to lay John Paul Raphael to rest.

The second sweet baby to mess with my heart is Celia Margaret Lowry, my newest and so-loved cousin. Celia’s mother Martha is one of 3 sisters who I feel were sort-of my own children too. My aunt Mary is only 10 years my elder and when her 3 girls (twins and an older sister) were born in 1990 and 1991, I was 20 years old. They were the only babies in my life who lived close enough when they were born that I felt like I could really be a part of it all, especially when Mary could really use the help with the 3 so close together. The Triano Trio were the lights of my life for so long and I traveled to Scranton, PA whenever possible to be a part of all the mayhem. I loved to hold them and feed them and change them and help bathe them. As they grew, Mary and I had adventures taking 3 preschoolers on long road trips where I learned about how to help vomiting children in the back of the minivan. Together, she and I coaxed them into the water to ride an inflatable tube behind the motor boat on Lake Wallenpaupack. We spent at least 12 summers together at the beach. The youngest of the three, Martha, got pregnant just after John Paul Raphael died. I have held joy and sorrow together as I followed her journey to welcome her precious daughter.

The Triano Trio

Martha was induced 3 weeks ago. The anxiety I had been carrying for her and Celia in the last weeks of her pregnancy crescendo-ed into a constant alarm. Part of my support during these last months has been a Facebook group for women who have lost children. While so, SO helpful to me, almost every post is a reminder of some way a baby can die before, during or after delivery. I was panicked about some freak cord accident and Celia dying in the womb without warning. Now that I have loved and lost my own newborn, I was desperate for Martha not to know this pain and my trauma amplified every single moment into one that could be life or death for her baby. I switched to full panic mode as the hours of her labor stretched on and on. I prayed for them all day and then well into the night, grateful to be on a group text where her sister Sarah provided frequent updates. I also recognized that my obsession with all the things that could go wrong kept me from thinking too much about how it was going to feel when everything went RIGHT. Because then of course, there would be another baby. And not just a cute fat baby I got to hold in a bar and maybe never see again. A baby that was born the same year as my son. A baby that I already loved because of how much I loved her mother. A baby that, God-willing, would be in my life for a very, very long time. While John Paul Raphael would always, always be gone. I worked hard at being gentle with myself as I navigated these waters in my heart and waited with our whole family to welcome Celia.

Celia Margret Lowry

Praise God, Celia arrived safe and sound after a long labor, weighing in at 8 pounds and 6 ounces. I have birthed 6 gorgeous children, but this little lady is BEAUTIFUL. I cried with relief and in thanksgiving for her safe arrival. Our whole family soaked in the pictures and texts that came or were posted all weekend. I do recognize that MOST of the time, pregnancy and delivery result in a healthy baby. But given what I have been through this year, my reaction was also fairly normal I think. As I let go of all my anxiety and fear now that she was here, true wonder took its place.

I needed to meet this little one face to face so we traveled the next weekend to Scranton, grateful that my Aunt Mary didn’t mind us inviting ourselves to stay and that Martha was open to bringing one-week old Celia to visit. We were so impatient on Saturday morning as we waited for Celia to finish her longest nap ever and for Martha and Sarah to bring her over. (Unfortunately, visiting at her house was not practical because of two excitable dogs.) And then finally they arrived, and there she was. A baby. A newborn baby. This already so-loved Celia. And I was okay, mostly. Excitement to meet her and love for her and her mama was louder than my sadness. I felt again the consuming joy of our 1,690 minutes with John Paul Raphael as we all just sat holding Celia for the weekend and watching the World Series. Sacred time. Time that filled just a little the empty cavern inside. The miracle of a baby never gets old -- their spectacular, dewy freshness, the scent of Heaven somehow still lingering. Babies, by their pure vulnerability and innocence, connect us to our deepest selves, that inner center that was created in love and by love and for love.

Thank you, God, for sparing them grief and bringing this beautiful child into the world to bring joy to us all. Thank you for the gift of my own 5 beautiful healthy babies, so big and so grown. And thank you for my one perfectly imperfect little boy you have already called home to yourself. I love a God whose ways are so high above my ways, and whose thoughts are so high above my thoughts, but who is still so close that He can hold me while I try to hold these mysteries of the joy and loss that is the gift of life.

Amen. Let yourself be loved.

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