In My Head of Hearts
by Christine Adams Beckett
My heart and mind have been battling for years now, a combat between emotional and rational thought. This war reached a crescendo in November of 2003, when I delivered a stillborn baby girl at the American Hospital of Paris. At the time, I took a 1950s stance to the blow: this is something to be swept under the carpet, to be kept private. To grieve would be indulgent, draw attention to myself. No one needed to know unless they absolutely had to: my family back in America who had been shared the original good news, my French friends who of course noticed my growing abdomen, a mound of my flesh housing what I thought would be new life. In all reality, I had no right to openly grieve for my lost child. She had never taken breath, experienced life and left it untimely for a parent who had first hand knowledge of a developing personality to mourn its loss.
But the dull pain persisted. As much as I reveled in the love of my husband and two walking, talking children, the loss and its responsibility nagged at me. In my heart, I took fault for her death. At the time, I was a young mother raising two young children in the 6th Arrondissment of Paris, where I didn’t exactly belong. Trying desperately to, I studied the language furiously, learned to speak in whispers and have the children under wraps. I could handle the two children – who should have been seen and not heard – but a third in cramped space with culture shock seemed to be an overwhelming reality, a task for which I was simply not prepared. I lay awake at night wondering how I would handle it all, feeling a fear with which I was as unfamiliar as the gendarme’s sirens that squealed by our apartment on the rue de Fleurus. Surely, the extreme stress the child felt though me was part of her demise. She did not feel enough love to thrive.
The Gallic sonographer who tripped over her image weeks earlier wasn’t to blame. I don’t know what the skip of a double take might have meant but certainly it wasn’t as meaningful as my fright. The child would have lived if she had only been given unconditional love and a welcoming greeting from the moment her existence was known. My head told me otherwise, as did my doctor. There was something terribly wrong with her, a suspected syndrome which often ends a child’s life in adolescence. In my brain I know that the pain of a stunted, conscious existence would have been abundantly more painful, but I still took full responsibility. I fretted over wether an unborn child could feel pain.
A friend who delivered a stillborn at 38 weeks of gestation recently told me that the one image she will never erase from her mind was the profound sadness in her husband’s face when they learned the baby en utero no longer had a heart beat. I know that face, and the emotion it inspired in me: shame and guilt and an apologetic string of verbal babbling I still can’t quite recall.
My husband has never had this battle of rationality and emotion. He seems to have his heart planted firmly in his head and I admire him for it. In that desperate, pathetic moment my obstetrician friend, an expat herself and a walking symbol of my more rational side, stood helpless, dripping with sonographic gel and tears and apologies, all the while observing what must be among the more emotionally dangerous of occupational hazards. My dear husband did not hesitate to tell me exactly what my heart needed to hear:
“You’ll meet her again someday. Somewhere. I promise you that. It may not be in the form you expect, but you will.”
Other good intentions inspired Calvinist jargon I hated to hear, and wasn’t a comfort. Although I know that pain and suffering are a part of life and in effect spur uncomfortable emotions that force you to find a deeper meaning in our individual existences, I never once perceived God to have a will for me. I didn’t see Him as a strategist wizard behind a curtain of clouds, flipping switches, killing babies and causing pain. No, I still don’t believe that we are predestined for a certain life. My head tells me it is not so. We make decisions in life that are peppered with inevitable pain, but are also rewarded by happy circumstances, pleasant coincidences.
One of those happy circumstances was the eventual gift of a third baby, born in suburban New Jersey in June of 2010. It was a girl, and she entered this world shrieking a holy terror, and continued to yell almost a half an hour after birth. She even whimpered a little, almost as if trying to communicate with me, as she was placed into my arms after the obligatory wipe down, foot print, and weighing. I looked into her eyes, opening and closing with confusion as if to make sense of her strange new surroundings; I wept and wondered, “Is it she? Is it really she?”
I still don’t know the answer to that question. My head would tell you she is simply Hannah, a spunky child who lights the room on fire when she enters. She is strong and coordinated and self-assured. She is speaking fluently before her second birthday, a talent my head tells me is from the abundant attentions of her two much older siblings. My heart tells me, however, that her experiences may be more of a metaphysical nature. She is speaking from a deeper knowledge of her own consciousness.
I often tell her as I am pulling her out of her crib after a long night’s sleep that I missed her. She parrots back to me, regardless of the context, that she missed me, too. While playing with her dolls recently, I lent a voice to the plastic tiny person, a gesture she found silly or endearing; as reward she wrapped her arms around my neck and told me she missed me. I tried to correct her; “No, Baby, it’s I love you!”
“No, Mama, I missed you!”
God, I missed her too.
I still trip up when people ask me on Mothers’ Day how many children I have. My head answers three and my heart, four. My head imagines that pain I once felt makes me more appreciative of all the love I have in my life, in all forms, and to treasure and cherish it while it is still mine to enjoy. Surely one cannot appreciate happiness without understanding its polar opposite. My heart tells me to cling to it, the fleeting bits of luminosity that gleam at my face through the eyes of my children. I am deserving of it. I will strive to be worthy of these blessings.
It belongs to the imperfection of everything human that man can only attain his desire by passing through its opposite. -Søren Kierkegaard