Daughters of the Dirt / Sarah Higdon

After Declan
by Casey Kelly Barton

Parents know, the birth of a child changes your life. This is true whether itís your first or your fifth, whether you accept that changes are coming or fantasize that things will be the same, just with a baby. And itís true no matter what the outcome. After my second son Declan was stillborn, he wasnít able to change my life with his day-to-day presence -- heís done it with his absence instead.

I lived on the theory that if you did your homework, showed up on time and made good choices, you got your desired result. Pregnancy was a process, not a crapshoot. You take your vitamins, get your checkups and after forty weeks you bring home your baby (unless, of course, youíre home already).

I followed that philosophy until the moment, seven weeks before my due date, when I saw Declanís motionless heart on an ultrasound screen. What, I asked over and over, had I done wrong? Nothing, they said. I felt sure they were placating me, that when Declan was born some stupidity or oversight on my part would be revealed. Maybe I didnít eat enough complex carbs or maybe I rolled over on my right side once too often at night. But it turned out to be an umbilical cord accident, a statistical fluke. There was nothing I could have done, they said, to cause it, prevent it or even know when it happened.

Declan died where I had thought he was safest. So the first thing that changed was my notion of being in control, being able to create that desired result, being able to protect the people I love. I hadnít even stood downwind of the gas pump when I filled up my minivan (bought to keep the kids safer), thinking that would help keep Declan healthy. And maybe it would have, if the cord hadnít killed him.

The second thing that changed was the rest of my life. I had no new child to mother and get to know, no little brother for my older son, no completed family for my husband and me to celebrate, no use for the baby gear that filled the house. In all the things I worried about during my pregnancy (things I thought would be the end of the world, like needing a c-section, or my mom distracting me during labor) the idea that my son could die didnít enter my thoughts. My plans for us all -- the snuggling, the road trips, the huge garage sale I would have when Declan outgrew his baby things -- were lost. I will always be Declanís mother, of course, but he will be dead for the rest of my life.

My body changed. Thanks to the hormones of labor and delivery, it changed the way all new mothersí bodies do: making milk, scorching my nerves when I heard a baby cry, waking me every two hours in the night to feed an infant who wasnít there. For the first weeks after Declanís birth, I was afraid to leave the house, still needing to wear maternity clothes, not wanting to answer strangersí questions. Iím still a little overweight, baby fat that wouldíve been nursed away over time. Iíve also got a varicose vein that worsened during my pregnancy and a small scar from my labor-and-delivery IV site. They are ugly, and I cherish them.

My understanding of mourning and sympathy changed, too. I now look back on the weaknesses in many of my own condolence letters and calls to others when they suffered losses. My hesitation at mentioning the thing that was foremost in their minds, for fear of reminding them of their pain. My mentioning their loss once and thinking Iíd done all I needed to or should do. I am surprised that I crave hearing Declan called by name, talked about, openly missed. A friend wrote to me about the plans and expectations she and her husband had held for Declan, for watching him grow. I love that letter.

I read in bereavement books that my friendships would change, and this upset me. I had already lost my child; I needed my friends. But it has come to pass and it makes sense. Most of my friends from before have been helping, listening and consoling however they can, and those friendships have deepened. But one friend is out of my life, having failed to respond. I donít have the energy to draw her out right now, and my anger has to light somewhere, even if she didnít mean to be hurtful. The friends Iíve made since are understanding. Many are living with something similar themselves.

The changes have had some benefits, not that it makes them worth the loss of my son. I better understand how to treat people whoíve lost someone close. Since it happens to everyone eventually, thatís not a minor improvement. I tend my relationships better with my husband, surviving son and others, because I know how much I need them, not just how much I enjoy them and how much I give.

In other ways, Iíve become what I previously despised. I actually gave unsolicited advice to a mother with a baby at the grocery store. Not because I thought she would take heed or because it was any of my business, but because we were trapped in a slow checkout line, and if she didnít quit making that baby cry I was going to burst into tears or pass out. Couldnít she see how lucky she was to have a live baby? Couldnít she tell how it tore at me to hear him wail? Didnít she know her trip to the store for a weekís worth of food was really about me and my dead child?

And I keep score. I had read about this and thought I would rise above it, would let unintentionally hurtful remarks pass so they wouldnít cloud my relationships and add to my loss. Some of those phrases I used to use myself, so I understand wanting to say something soothing and not knowing what will help. But it turns out I keep a tally of obnoxious comments in my head. I forgive, but itís hard to forget when everything still sticks to the wound.

Apart from the permanent absence from my life of a boy Iíd expected would outlive me, the biggest difference between before and after is my understanding of my resilience and what feeds it. After Declan died, during the three days of labor induction it took to get him born, one of the nurses looked at my streaked, swollen face and told me sympathetically that I was handling it really well. I promised her that when I got home I would crack like an egg, but to my surprise I havenít.

I stumble ahead. Not in a straight line -- I hurt too much for that -- but tending toward progress. Sometimes I feel guilty about making plans, laughing, deepening my spirituality, anything lively or positive. A support-group leader told me, "You may feel like youíre leaving Declan behind, but heíll trail along with you in your memories." Before his birth, that sort of sentiment would have seemed empty to me. But like any other baby, Declan changed everything.
Casey Kelly Barton lives and writes in Round Rock, Texas. Her son Declan Asher was stillborn on June 9, 2002.