On October 22, 1990, I became the mother of two children. I will always be the mother of two children. Our daughter, Rachel, was already nine, but we’d been unable to conceive a second child after my husband’s shocking bout of cancer two years into our marriage, and so after several miscarriages and years on the artificial insemination rollercoaster, we’d arranged to adopt. It was a boy. He was a month early. We were thrilled.
Bob and I flew to the birth mother’s southern city, made our way to the hospital, and stood at the nursery window. The 4-pound incubated baby looked tiny, sickly. He had an odd, bulging forehead and his skin was dusky and mottled. I started to cry and Bob put his arm around me.
Later, we made awkward conversation with the birth mother in her hospital room. She was a fortress of a woman, not fat but about six feet tall and solid, wearing a blue bathrobe, and reeking of cigarette smoke. She’d mentioned some early pregnancy drinking in her first letter to us, calling it “partying.” My God, I thought, what were we getting ourselves into?
Bob and I spent the next few days in the hospital getting to know the baby, and nights in our hotel room making phone calls. Our daughter’s pediatrician said the baby would probably be okay, given his normal head size. Bob’s parents said they’d support us, no matter what. My mother, who died only a few years later, said, “Why take on someone else’s problems, Fran?”
We couldn’t reject the baby because he looked sickly. He was ours. We’d become attached over months of letter-writing and occasional phone calls with the birth mother, and although I was all over the place in that hotel room, I knew I had to take him on when I had a dream of him, left all alone in a dark, empty nursery.
By preemie standards he wasn’t that small, but the doctors said he needed to stay. Bob flew home and brought Rachel back. Our daughter was overjoyed that she now had the sibling she’d longed for, and we gathered him in and declared him ours. We named him Michael Max, in the Jewish way, after Bob’s favorite grandfather, though most often we called him Mikey, Magoo, or Little Man.
A few days later Bob took Rachel home, and I was alone. Didn’t matter. I was falling in love. Each morning a nurse took Michael Max out of his warmer and handed him over. I’d sit in a rocking chair most of the day, watching all the other human dramas unfold in front of me like parchment scrolls, feeding Mikey through a sliver of a nasal tube, unselfconsciously crying and whispering to him: It’s okay, it’s okay. You just have to be the baby, and I’ll be the mommy.
I’m not sure when I took Michael completely into my being as my son. Was it the first time he cried and I rocked him until he settled? When I changed his diaper and saw how undernourished he was, his skin hanging off his bones? When I found myself singing to him, though my singing voice isn’t fit to be heard by man or beast? When he looked up at me with deep blue eyes, and we both seemed to know we were meant for each other?
In the evenings for the next three weeks at the hospital, I’d find a restaurant along the local strip, eat dinner alone, and then return to the hospital for a last visit. The chicken in the Greek place gave me food poisoning—nausea and stomach cramps so bad I considered checking into the hospital myself—but by dawn I was ready to resume my vigil. That morning, a young, redheaded teenager sat in the rocker next to me, awkwardly holding her newborn, weeping and wavering in her decision for adoption. I decided I was lucky that Michael’s birth mother was older, steadier. We had agreed to her terms: we would send letters and pictures once a year, one way, through the lawyer. I was grateful it was only that. I could do that.
Michael became a beautiful child with blue, slightly crossed eyes, a pile of blond curls, and a solid build. Like many parents of children with neurological difficulties we became experts on issues we’d never even heard of before, like sensory integration, and Pervasive Developmental Disorder, Not Otherwise Specified.
Indeed, Mikey was often frustrated and refused to touch certain objects, but everything he would do, he did with uninhibited enthusiasm, especially when it involved water. Bath time was always hilarious, though convincing him to get out of the tub not so much, and our little man just adored the pool. We all had to be there to watch, too, including Cookie, our cocker spaniel, and Mikey’s favorite stuffed toy, a puffy bright pink and green turtle. He’d stand at the pool’s edge, laughing, and jump into our arms, often before we could even get ready to catch him. He’d put his arms around us, give us one of his squeezes, giggle more, and then scramble up the pool steps to do it again. And again. And again.
Perhaps we minimized our son’s problems in our letters to the birth mother, though we often felt overwhelmed by them. Mostly, we told her how much we loved him, how hard we were trying for him. We described how he giggled and put his whole body and being into hugging us. We told her that he loved Big Bird, buses, and balls. And we wrote about his sister, who had become very grown up, teaching him, hovering over him like a little mother.
In our third birthday letter, we told her that Michael had finally learned to point, had a vocabulary of about eight words, or maybe word-sounds, and one time shocked everyone by clearly putting together “peanut” and “ butter,” neither of which was one of his words. We sent the gorgeous photograph Bob had taken that summer of Mikey and his sister in the pool. A photo we enlarged and hung in a frame on the living room wall.
And then came December 7, 1993, my personal Pearl Harbor Day. I put Mikey down for his nap and went to my office to work on a new novel to fulfill a two-book publishing contract. For reasons that remain mysterious and fascinating to me, I’d churned out over a hundred pages in the six weeks prior to that day, working faster than I ever had on a story about the kidnapping of a little boy named Elijah. Oddly, I’d spent most of those pages not advancing a kidnapping plot but rather imagining his young parent’s grief and terror. I still wonder if this was a kind of prescience, since I had no real idea at all what grief and terror for your child would be like. It could also have been an expression of my fears for my troubled son.
Around 4:00 I went to check on Mikey and found him in the midst of a violent seizure. He wasn’t breathing. My own screams told me that I had arrived in hell, and from that moment on it felt as if I were constantly screaming—screaming when we arrived at our local hospital, screaming when we got to the big medical center where they shipped him a few hours later, screaming at the next hospital, screaming at the next. Even in my dreams I was screaming.
Michael’s end came on a particular date, of course, though it had already technically ended months before when we stood in front of a light box, looking at rows and rows of illuminated brain slices, after the last of so many MRIs I had lost count. Each MRI was worse than the last, the blackness at the center of our son’s brain bigger.
The doctor gave us the news. “When tissue is damaged like this it shrinks and takes up less room, and fluid fills the void. I’m very sorry, but there’s nothing there. He will never get any better.” Sometimes I still can’t believe I’m a mother who survived hearing that.
After Michael died, I padlocked my office, retreated to the house, and declared I would never write another word. Writing was what I had done before. This was after. My world sucked into itself like a black hole. I spent the next two years walking around wearing my bathrobe and my shroud of grief, crying or staring vacantly at the walls, only vaguely aware of my daughter and husband coming and going, floaters in my field of vision.
We had to send the birth mother one last, impossible letter, which I struggled and labored over for months. We agreed to receive one letter from her. She thanked us graciously for the wonderful life we had given Michael, and said she was particularly sorry for our daughter, then thirteen. She mentioned that she’d had another child. She wanted to go to Michael’s grave. I was so fragile then, reeling in the early madness of grief; I veered from blaming her, to wishing she’d rescue me, to wanting to beg her forgiveness for failing him. Yet that child, and his death, was ours, not hers, and we didn’t—couldn’t—allow her into our lives. I do not have any of her letters now; sometime during those dark years I threw them away in a rage.
Our son would have turned twenty-three this October. I’m still a writer, but I also work as a grief counselor now; it’s one of the ways I have found to move forward, writing is another.
I’m constantly amazed when I sit with bereaved parents that even though all grief journeys are unique, they’re also similar: the rage and often irrational guilt, the feeling of having slipped into another universe; the decision about whether to have (in our case adopt) another child; the struggle to figure out what to do with the child’s room, his things; the difficulty of dealing with people’s insensitive remarks.
My world is rich and full of laughter, humor, and wonder again. Our beautiful, brilliant daughter is now thirty-two, a psychologist. I’m a grandma. Our granddaughter is named after Michael. We feel almost embarrassed at how much we adore that child. She is three now, near our son’s last age, though I try not to think about that. A few weeks after giving birth, my daughter’s emotional generosity astounded me. “Now I understand, Mom,” she said. I wish you didn’t, my daughter. As you raise your own child, I wish you didn’t know firsthand what could happen.
Yes, my life is sweet again, full of blessings. Still, I think I am like every bereaved parent. No matter how long ago it happened, how compartmentalized the grief becomes, or how reinvested in life, this loss remains, forever imprinted on your soul. I can no sooner give up being Mikey’s mother than I can give up breathing, even though Mikey is no longer here.
Sometimes, even now, I have random after-the-fact realizations, for example, that some of the accouterments that accompanied the opening of my son’s life were replicated at the end: the long daily hospital visits, the vigil, the nasal-tube feeding. And that all eight words Michael had mastered by the early summer of 1993 were gone by the time autumn came. And that in the large photograph in the pool that still hangs in the living room, our daughter is strangely bathed in sunlight and Michael is in shadow, as if doom were beginning to encroach.
Bob and I are growing old, but the boy who will always be our son has been frozen in time, in our memory and our home, forever a smiling, laughing toddler. We’ve moved several times since then, and we’ve always rehung our photos of him, and his red and blue finger painting that we’d framed like a work of art. We always put his last pair of shoes in their proper place atop the bureau in our bedroom. Navy Stride Rite sneakers with green laces, well worn, with dirt-caked soles.
Fran Dorf is a psychotherapist and author of three novels, A Reasonable Madness (Birch Lane, 1990/Signet, 1992), Flight(Dutton, 1992/Signet, 1993), and Saving Elijah (Putnam, 2000). Her writing has been published in anthologies, literary magazines, and online sites, such as McSweeney’s, Ars Medica, Forbes, Bottom Line, and Perigee. She’s currently working on a memoir, from which this essay is adapted. She writes an advice column and blogs as THE BRUISED MUSE atwww.frandorf.com, on a variety of topics including psychology, writing, and bereavement, her therapeutic specialty.
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