This morning while I was running, my thoughts drifted back to Mother's Day 2003. A decade ago, a lifetime ago. I rarely think about that time, and if I do, it is only on the periphery of my mind.
I touch on it with words like grief and loss, but I dance cautiously around the concrete memories. Tears soon mingled with the sweat on my face as I ran on a road only I could see.
It should have been my first Mother's Day, but life had been unkind, and instead I was clawing my way back from losing the baby.
I had learned that good luck and bad luck are scattered without reason or discrimination, that you can watch your baby happily suck his thumb during an ultrasound and have no idea that his days are already numbered, that he will never know more than brief life beyond the womb.
Doubtless I could have survived that time without my dear friend Beth. She was also deep in the grieving process for her first baby, a girl named Georgia who was stillborn at 38 weeks gestation. Beth reached out to me and clasped my hand as we journeyed together through loss.
I clung to my broken friend who knew the utter agony of going to the hospital with a swollen belly and returning home empty-armed. We wept over the memory of milk coming in but having no baby to nurse. We remembered feeling the little kicks and planning for a future that would never arrive.
We consoled each other when colleagues, family members and friends announced pregnancies, and we reminded each other how much worse it could be.
At times, despair drove me to my knees, like the time I found a tiny outfit that Andrew must have missed when he packed up the baby items and pregnancy books. It has been ten years, and I still have not opened that box. I can't bring myself to read the pregnancy journal, nor can I throw it away. It just exists, carefully stored away in another lifetime.
Beth and I had an identity crisis that Mother's Day. For what are you, if you have lost your first baby? Are you a grieving mother, or not a mother at all? Nameless, hidden, it is a special pain reserved for those who have no other children at home, no one left to affirm that they are, indeed, still mothers.
When the sadness felt too much to contain, I used to chant to myself that my pain paled in comparison to that of mothers who have lost their older children. Perspective, perspective, keep your perspective, I reminded myself. I was grateful for what I had, for my husband, my family, health and hope.
Hope. Yes, there was also hope in May of 2003, hope as tender and new as the pale green shoots peeking through the barren gardens. I was thick in the grieving process, but I was also thick in the adoption process. I cultivated that bit of hope and pruned the weeds of bitterness that threatened to smother it.
On that long-ago Mother's Day, I walked outside and offered myself up to the universe. I put everything out there, my exhaustion and grief and pain, my fragile hope and dreams and plans. I had traveled to my own personal hell, but it was lesser than the hell of others, and I was still breathing. I would survive this.
I tilted my face up to the grand Chicago skyline and cried. I sobbed and sobbed because my baby was gone, really and truly gone. It was Mother's Day, and I was not a mother. I wanted my baby back, and he would never be back.
I let the warmth of the rising sun dry my tears. I resolved to become a mother. Maybe not that year, but it would happen. I would never give up, never stop searching for the child who would make me a mother. I let this determination float from my heart into the world around me, and I felt comforted.
Little did I know that my baby was already growing in another woman's womb, the baby that would make me a mother. We had not found each other yet, and it would be many months before she would make her way into the world, then into foster care, and finally home to me. I would be a mother, as certainly as the sun would rise.
I felt a shift in my step, a lightness of being as I continued my morning run.
My thoughts jumped forward a year, to Mother's Day of 2004. It felt as if all my life I had waited for that celebration. Our adoption of Katie would be completed the following week.
I looked at my new little daughter on that brilliant spring morning. She was wearing a yellow cotton dress, and Andrew snapped photos during brunch. The waiter had brought a highchair for Katie, but I pulled her back out of it within minutes, eager to hold my baby.
She was the light in the room. We all gravitated toward her, feeling the pull of her life and love. Could it have been only a year? Or a whole lifetime? I kissed Katie's soft plump cheek. "I am your mommy, forever and ever," I chanted to her. "You are my daughter. Thank you for making me a mother. I will love you for all of your life."
After brunch, I had a phone call to make. I wanted to wish Beth a Happy Mother's Day, her first with baby Jackson.
We made it. We were mothers. A boy and a girl lost, a girl and a boy born.
As I completed my run today, fresh tears coursed down my cheeks, now tears of joy. The sad memories do not grow sadder with time, but the sweet memories most assuredly do grow sweeter.
Happy Mother's Day, to all mothers, to those who have suffered loss and to those who have been blessed anew.
Happy Mother's Day to my own beautiful, wonderful mother and amazing mother-in-law, who traveled the path of grief with me as I searched for a child to love, and who have embraced the child we adopted with unconditional love. When Katie made me a mother, she also made them grandmothers.
Happy Mother's Day to my grandmother, who recently turned 98 and is the matriarch of the family, healthy and involved in all of our lives.
And, finally, thank you thank you thank you to the birthmothers who have made us mothers. We are thinking of you today, knowing that your loss is our joy. We are, as always, grateful for the gift of life.