The hospital social worker looked my husband and I in the eyes. Our bloodshot, tired, wet eyes.
“You had no control over his death. But you do have control over what else will die with it. Don’t let that be your marriage if you don’t want it to be.”
This was our final session together. We were preparing to be discharged from the hospital after the birth and death of our three day old son. I had clothes on for the first time in a long time that I was suddenly very aware of. Loose cotton drawstring pants worn over my hospital grade netted underwear, worn over the dressing covering my fresh C-section scar that crossed the very bottom of my stomach. A loose cotton shirt fell over my tender middle and a cotton nursing bra held my chest underneath. Rough pads were stuck to the inside to keep my milk swollen body parts from spilling out as I waited for them to realize they didn’t have a mouth to feed.
My hair was pulled back into a tidy braid my sister had worked for hours on. Tackling the large matted middle section first and then working through every tangle around it. I had even attempted to put a few swipes of makeup under my eyes before I realized my attempts at covering my exhaustion were futile. I hadn’t really slept in weeks, my Maybeline color stick couldn’t compete with that.
I looked over at my husband. He was wearing the same sweatshirt he’d had on for the last eight days and a t-shirt underneath that was a pale color, almost the same color as his skin. I really hated that t-shirt. His face was covered in days old stubble and his hair was begging to be covered by the beanie he sometimes wore. Our discharge binder was in his lap and he was clutching the sides as she spoke to us. His head nodding vigorously after she said this last sentence.
He put the binder down, pulled his chair as close to the side of the bed as it could get, sat back down, and grabbed my hand.
“Thank you.” He said to the social worker as she started to pack up and prepare to leave. She said something about how our case had really made an impression on everyone at the hospital and how they are all rooting for us and our recovery. I couldn’t hear exactly what she said because all I kept hearing in my head was don’t let your marriage die.
Our bags were packed in the corner. Our family had come earlier to pick up the flowers and cards and grief gifts. My husband put on his jacket and helped me get up and put mine on too. The nurse pushed a wheelchair in and when I sat down in it my husband took the handle bars and rolled me through the hallway towards the elevator. The last time I was in this wheelchair down this hallway I was carrying my dead son’s body from the NICU to our room.
They let grieving mothers hold their babies as long as they want. When they first offered that to me I shook my head and softly said no. My husband touched my arm and then gently said to the nurse, actually we will. He knew that I really wanted to. That I wanted to hold him in my arms as long as I could and say goodbye to him away from the beeping monitors and wires and overhead fluorescent lighting. Then he had the nurse help him swaddle our son. He tenderly picked him up, placed him in my arms, and wheeled me into the elevator and up to my room. Through this same hallway.
A number of nurses had come out from their stations to say goodbye and when we got to the elevator our main nurse squeezed my hand and hugged my husband.
Then we were alone. In a stale elevator on our way home to tell our daughters that their baby brother didn’t make it.
We heard a ding, the doors opened, and he wheeled me gently to the door. It was clear someone had called ahead and had a hospital valet staff pull up our car as quickly as possible. We had to exit the same way everyone was exiting the maternity wing and they were trying to shield us from seeing the wheelchairs that held mothers holding babies. My husband said thank you to the valet and put our bag in the backseat. I slowly got out of the wheelchair and he held my arm as we walked together to the car. It was late afternoon during a Chicago winter and the sky was gradually turning a deep blue as the sun started to set. He opened my front door and before I sat down he grabbed me and pulled me close. He held me for a long time as I cried on that curb in the cold with the neon hospital sign shining in the background. I pulled away slightly after some time and he helped me sit down in the passengers seat. He sat in the driver’s seat, turned the car on, and held my hand as we started to drive home.
I thought about all of the things I was afraid of while we drove. I was terrified of telling our girls. Of the unknown hidden parts of grief that no book or article or counselor could prepare me for. Of the deep sadness this would bring my six and three year old. Of the work it would take to help them work through their grief. That this deep ache I felt would never go away. That I would never be able to sleep again. That my health would get worse instead of better. That I may never recover from this. That my girls would grow up with a wounded mother instead of a healthy one.
In the middle of those thoughts I took a deep breath and looked around, trying to ground myself in the reality of where I was for a moment, so I could get a short break from worrying about where I was going. I looked down after looking out the window and I saw my right hand hand holding my stomach, a habit my body couldn’t quite break, and my left hand still holding my husband’s. I realized that while there were a lot of things I was afraid of, a lot of things I didn’t know, there were a few things I did.
I thought about my husband. About how in the very beginning of our relationship I had broken up with him after I had returned from a trip home where my family had expressed some concern. They asked me about his life prospects and stability given the fact that he didn’t have a college degree yet, was working at a coffee shop, and didn’t quite know what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. While I had fallen quickly and hard for him, on the drive back I started to get nervous that they were right. Maybe he was too full of wanderlust to settle down and not worth dating so seriously if he couldn’t.
The next day I called him to let him know we couldn’t date anymore. It was clear he couldn’t commit to anything, I explained, and I didn’t need to invest in a relationship that wasn’t going anywhere. He kindly asked if we could go to dinner and talk about it. I met him at a pub in my neighborhood and we split a pizza and some wine. He explained that if I didn’t want to date him he would freely walk away, but if I actually did like him and was breaking up out of fear that he would not be able to settle into a committed relationship eventually that I was, respectfully, wrong. We talked for awhile and at the end of dinner he asked if we could meet again to keep talking.
He told me to ask him anything I wanted about his life before we met and the reasons why he decided to drop out of college and why he decided to travel around the world and what types of relationships he had been in in the past and what he wanted in the future. And he asked me a lot of the same questions, not just what choices I had made so far in life, but why and what I thought about them now and what kind of life I wanted to build going forward. We talked about God and our faith and our doubt and our hope.
We ended up meeting for four nights in a row at that same pub in that same booth over pizza and a bottle of red wine. After that fourth night I asked for some space to think and pray through what to do next. A week into that space I asked for I knew what I needed to do. I liked this man. I liked the way he thought, the earnestness with which he approached his life, his deep sense of curiosity, his humor, the way he positioned himself to learn when we engaged in a conversation, the way he committed to seeing a conversation through to the end, and his deep trust in God.
I thought about how he asked me to marry him at two in the morning on a rooftop in the West Village a year and a half after meeting each other, only a year after those pizza and wine conversations. How among other things during his proposal, he had said with complete honesty that he was afraid he wouldn’t be enough for me, but that after a lot of prayer and conversations with God he knew that he would never stop trying.
About how he initiated the practice in our marriage that when we start a difficult conversation, we stay at the table and we start with the hardest stuff first. We look at what we’re talking about from every angle. We don’t work off of false information and jump to conclusions about one another.
I thought about how many times over the last eleven years we had misunderstood each other or made assumptions about each others motivations or created elaborate stories in our heads about why the other person behaved the way they did with us. About the ways he had hurt me in the past and the ways I had hurt him. About all of the ways we had wounded this marriage we had committed to tending.
And about how more often than I would like to admit, he was the one who had pulled us back to that table, to tackle the hardest stuff first, and to not leave until we understood each other better.
I took a deep breath as I thought about these last few months of doctors appointments and opinions and tests and false information and new information and more information and true information we wanted to be false. I thought about these last few days that felt like we had spent an eternity trapped in another world. About the fact that I had been frustrated and hurt by him at different points during our time there. How I had already started to create a story in my head about why he said what he said to that doctor or why he didn’t say what I wanted him to say to that other one.
I thought about how we were exhausted and hurt and missing our son and how I could see that this was only going to get harder.
And then I looked back down at his hand gripping my hand.
On that drive, on that road between the hospital and our home, between losing and grieving, in a moment when I was uncertain of most things, I was certain that this marriage of ours would not die too.