Valentine's Day is a tricky holiday for my husband and me. Seven years ago, in 2006, Valentine's Day stopped being Valentine's Day and started being simply "the day." As my husband hurried off to work he gave me three cards, one from him, one from our 2-year-old son and one from the baby that had been growing inside of my stomach for the last 38-1/2 weeks and who we were excited to meet just 8 days later.
As I opened the card from the baby, a feeling of dread came over me... I had been worried about a lack of fetal movement since the evening before, and I felt that pang of panic that all pregnant women experience right before the reassurance sets in. I read the card from "Baby" and thought, I don't even know if this baby is alive anymore. About 90 minutes and some phone calls later, I'd find myself next to an ultrasound machine in my OBGYN's office, cold jelly rubbed on my stomach and hearing an anguished phrase from my doctor that is forever etched in my mind, "I'm so sorry, Carissa. There's no heartbeat."
The remainder of that February 14th was filled with consultations from medical professionals and perinatal loss specialists, phone calls to our parents and siblings four hours away and emails to friends. Having a priest come and sit in your living room is not usually a part of Valentine's Day celebrations. We spent the day making decisions and deliberations that no parent should have to make. It's never natural for a parent to plan for their child's funeral arrangements... but it's especially unnatural when it's done at the same time they are planning for their child's labor and delivery.
I don't even remember if my husband and I originally had plans for that Valentine's evening. In seven years, I've never thought to wonder that or try to recall that memory. Its doubtful, given that it was the middle of winter in Chicago, we had a toddler at home, few babysitters and I was at the end of my pregnancy. But if we had made plans, I am certain the reality of our evening was far from what we would have done on that lover's eve... we spent that evening in a hospital where laminaria, which were described to me as "seaweed sticks," were inserted into me to induce labor for a deceased child.
Doesn't sound very romantic, does it? No. It wasn't. But while this is a story about heartbreak, it's also a very true love story. A true love story between my husband and myself. And a true love story between us and our children.
Together, we faced one of those terrible and beautiful life moments. For better and for worse... we did it. My husband/life partner/co-parent held my hand during the laminaria insertions and patted my back when I awoke a few hours later, back in our home, to contractions. Together, we tossed and turned overnight until at 4 a.m., together, we kissed our toddler and drove on a cold, gray morning to the hospital. Together, we parked the car in the garage and quietly put one foot in front of the other and walked to the check-in area. Together, we tried to ignore the happy faces of expectant parents in the elevators with us or the balloons that bopped up and down tied to floral arrangements that said "Its a Boy!" Together, we looked the other way, choked back tears and steadily made our way forward.
Together, we delivered our baby. For many heartbreaking hours, I labored and breathed. He paced and analyzed my contractions on the eerily silent monitor. There was no baby's heartbeat to listen for. And when it came time to push, there was an ironic wave of adrenaline that swept over us both. While we knew the outcome was going to be tragic, we still were eager to see the beautiful child that we, together, had created. And so I pushed, and he locked eyes with me and together we heard our beloved nurse inform us in a whispered voice, "It's a girl." Together, we processed the silence which was immediately filled not with a newborn baby's wail, but with her mother's wail.
We spent the next 12 hours together with our daughter, admiring her, bathing her, taking in every single thing about her beautiful, perfect body... knowing that our time with her was fleeting. Together, we gave her the name we had always hoped to give a girl. Together, we beamed with pride while her grandparents held her and admired her features. When it was time to leave, our son arrived to briefly see his sister and together we left with no wheelchair, flowers or fanfare. We looked back at our daughter and our little son turned around and said, "Bye, Baby." Hand in hand, we stepped out of the hospital and back into a life that would be forever changed.
In the seven years since our daughter's birth and death, our family has grown and happiness has returned to not just most of our days, but to all of our days. Together, my husband and I grieved -- and continue to grieve. Side by side, we went to support groups and counseling and doctor appointments. Together we met with specialists around the country who told us there was no explanation for this event that happened in an instant. Together, we prayed and cried and screamed... sometimes at God, sometimes at Life, sometimes at each other. When one of us would wake to the other silently sobbing in the middle of the night, we never said a word, but just quietly grasped our hands together. Together, we continued to be lively and fun and busy with our toddler. We left him with grandparents and took a trip together and drank way too much wine together. Together, we made the painstaking and brave decision to go through more pregnancies. Together, we have welcomed two more daughters and wept with joy and relief upon hearing their borning cries. Today we are a chaotic, busy, grateful and happy family and together we have created four beautiful children, each of them a miracle. But only three of them are living.
We've made our daughter a part of our story. As a family, we reference her often. Early on, we decided that we didn't want this day to be associated with sadness or despair, so we decided that every year on February 14th we'd earmark it as a special day for our family to celebrate each other. We take a vacation or spend time at a special place and call it her "Birthday Trip." We laugh and play and think about each other -- and we think about her.
So on February 14th, we don't celebrate Valentine's Day, we celebrate something else: a gift from our daughter: our love story. It's a story that begins with us being wiser, more confident and more protective of our emotions and one another. A story that shows us the resiliency of our marriage, and allows us to love more deeply. In this story we have perspective. We are better, more compassionate listeners and friends in this story. As a family we will always LIVE, have adventures and fun. We will find a way, not find an excuse. And in this story, we have a depth of gratitude that was impossible before. We know just how low the lows can be, so we cherish and savor and defend these highs. I'm so proud of our family love story.