Hope, Heartbreak, and Hope Again

When the miracle of life is interrupted by cruelty, hope is hard to hold onto. I don't know how they did it
Illustration: Emma San Cartier

Philip and Susan embody that rare fit one glimpses during a lifetime of observing relationships — they were meant for each other. They laugh often, at each other and with each other, and even look alike, with dark brown eyes, brown hair, and those even, symmetrical features prized by Hollywood. You might suppose I am inclined to love them because Philip is my stepson, and I am, but I have not always felt so warmly about his romantic interests. One dreadful relationship imploded around the time of his college graduation; he later fell in love with

Susan. We all fell with him.

Nearly four years after the wedding, they grinned and shoved a gift into our hands one winter day. Unwrapping a pretty picture frame, my husband and I read these words: "A picture to fill this is on the way; it will hopefully arrive by Labor Day!" Our joy was unspeakable! A baby in late August! Hugs and congratulations went all round; it was impossible to not beam again and again. How blessed this little one would be.

But in the months ahead, the picture frame’s happy rhyme held a word that foretold heartbreak. "Hopefully" would become as fragile as the paper it was printed on, a mere string of letters that captured only our wishes, not the future. As one doctor after another ran tests, studied scans, and listened intently with a stethoscope, our hope was tugged away like a float by a summer wave.

At first it was so close, within reach. The baby had a heart condition. She would have to have surgery as soon as she was born. All right, we got ready for that. Weeks passed and the news worsened—there were problems with her organs. Our little raft of hope was on a big ocean now. We celebrated Mother’s Day, suppressing our fears as we waited for our baby, now named Anna Claire.

One day Susan and I sat on a bench overlooking Symphony Park behind SouthPark mall. It was a quiet and beautiful place to take a break from work and share lunch. As we talked, I felt her anguish over comments by medical professionals. Their words were cold and aloof. Didn’t the doctors understand they were talking about her child? Her baby? She was shaken and struggling.

I felt in awe of the love she had for this child, for her natural sense of nurturing and protection. I also felt anger toward those who would overlook this reality. Maybe they thought it was better to remain objective, to keep their distance, and to encourage her to do the same. It would hurt less. "You have a mother’s heart," I told her. "That’s a gift. Don’t let anyone take that away from you."

She kept her balance, but forces beyond our control pulled Claire away, and on the day we learned there was no heartbeat, our hope died. A few agonizing days later, I stood in a labor room at Presbyterian Hospital, holding out my arms for Claire, sobbing beyond reason. Stillborn and premature, her tiny eyes were closed forever, her little mouth a perfect copy of Philip’s. It wasn’t possible this precious girl in a smocked dress and bonnet had left us. But she had. Our future together was gone.

We spent hours in that room, and the very walls seemed to ache for what wasn’t there. I wandered outside, crying my way down the elevator, through the hospital corridors, and out into the bright sunshine. I needed a tree, grass, birds, something living. In the garden of blooming roses along Hawthorne Lane, my eyes fell on a small plaque; I reeled. The apricot and pink blossoms, the yellow blooms were memorials to the children who had died in this hospital. I did not want this, not now.

We cried. All day we cried. Philip held Susan and we held each other, mourning Claire. The long window of the hospital nursery, with baskets of babies like garden bouquets, seemed a cruel mockery of our want, exaggerated by the baby shop and endearing photographs in the hallways. Mothers paced floors trying to speed nature’s course; husbands walked alongside, quietly, tenderly. Our room was a tomb; it didn’t belong in this bright place.

Later the family gathered for a memorial service. People sent gifts. There was a star magnolia tree; there were azaleas, rose bushes, a garden bench. Philip and Susan withdrew into a world where we could not follow, a foreign place where we did not speak the language. Susan slipped on a sterling bracelet, engraved with Claire’s name. The rest of us wrestled with the loss in our own ways. I told no one of the strange dream I had, of Claire as a beautiful young woman in a wedding gown, her brown hair pinned up, her parents decades older, happily seated at a reception, glints of gray in their hair.

The mind can play strange tricks.

Grieving parents tumble into a dark hole, to a place that doesn’t make sense. The cultural message they hear is "get over it." It’s not that easy. Susan and Philip left the hospital with empty arms. In time they joined a support group and met other young couples who had lost babies. Throughout the summer and fall, their schedules reflected a growing companionship with their new friends. What they shared, I do not know. Yet whether in meetings or over dinner or on car trips, a shift happened. Peace crept in and the pallor faded.

A year later, in 2009, I was back on the same floor at Presbyterian Hospital, on nearly the same day in May. Everything was as I remembered it: the baby shop, the pictures, the hallway, the long glass window of the nursery. As I stepped out of the elevator and walked down the hall, I unexpectedly began to cry. I had not been here since saying goodbye to Claire. The pain of that day was wreaking havoc on me, and I was torn with conflict, for I was here to welcome Claire’s brother. Philip and Susan had gotten pregnant three months after Claire died, and now had given birth to a healthy baby boy. When I saw Ben, my grief was overtaken by wonder.

We spent hours in that room, and the very walls seemed to ache for what wasn’t there.

Ben has become the apple of our eyes, and of everyone else’s, this past year. He is utterly adorable, chatty, squeezable, and cute. He was a little pumpkin at Halloween, and a bundle of fun at the Christmas tree farm. We all love to hold him, and even just to watch him. Yesterday my husband called Philip, who was sitting at his desk at work staring at Ben’s picture. "Dad, I just want to go home and hold him," he said. "Isn’t it great to have a son?" Phil responded. I think Ben is the happiest child I’ve ever seen.

Philip and Susan remain in touch with their friends; each of the four couples in their support group lost a daughter. All got pregnant again, with boys, and the last is due in April. What a mystery. This is also the month they will meet for the Hope Floats Duck Race. A giant crane lowers thousands of bright yellow rubber ducks into rapids, to bob and bounce along waterways to a finish line. Hundreds of people will cheer at this playful, lighthearted spectacle. Parents who have grieved reach out to others who need help, and the rest of us are reminded, in a winsome way, that there are courses we have not been tossed into, rapids we haven’t plunged over.

It should be fun for Ben, whom I suspect will be the center of attention. He has lots of little Ralph Lauren outfits, so no doubt he’ll be wearing something scrumptious, like a yellow sweater and tiny plaid shoes. The clothes that kids wear these days! The race should be enjoyable for Philip and Susan, too. They’ll tell Ben about Claire, let him hold a rubber duck, and laugh with their friends. Ben is their irrepressible reality that hope cannot be destroyed. Though it may be tossed and torn from our grasp, it is buoyant, and it returns. Maybe every story does not end so happily, but then, maybe every story is not finished.

Hope comes back for us. It floats.

E-mail editor@charlottemagazine.com, or comment online. Laurie Prince’s essays appear regularly in this magazine.

Categories: Life Lines