The following is the true story of my daughter, Freya Rose. She passed away on January 21, 2016 and was born a day later.
Part 3: The Instructions
I find a pamphlet that was hiding under the changing station I had built for her. In it are the directions on how to take the two boxes of scrambled parts we were given by my mother-in-law and turn them into a crib. Everything is simple: pictures, not words. As I flip through it for the second time in the span of a few months, I remember how complicated it seemed to put together despite the man in the instructions showing me plainly what to do.
What a lot of people don’t seem to realize when a baby dies in childbirth is that it wasn’t simply a nine-month-old infant that died: it was everything that child could have been.
My daughter Freya wasn’t an infant when she died. She was a five-year-old, tugging on my hair as I gave her a piggy back after her first day of kindergarten; she was a twelve-year-old, nervous about what her body was going through; she was an eighteen-year-old, anxious and angry about becoming an adult; she was a twenty-five-year-old, asking me advice on what direction she should take in her career. She was whole.
Of course, I don’t know that this is actually who she would have been. She might have been tall and skinny and happy; she might have been a burly football player, fighting to get her school to start a girls team; she might have been one of the multitudes of semi-silent, just-average people who get through life and make the best of it. The details are irrelevant. “She would have been” is all that matters.
One of the phrases I hear most often when I tell someone about what happened to my daughter is “you’re still young; you can try again.” This is, of course, true, at least on a literal level. We can have another baby. We can get pregnant again and possibly give birth to a healthy boy or girl.
At the same time, this statement is painfully, patently false. I can never try again. There will never be a version of myself that is eager and nervous and giddy about having a baby girl and teaching her how to play chess and ride her bike and build a deck. That person died when Freya died. From the moment her heartbeat stopped, I was broken in a way I didn’t think possible.
This is something that I feel people in my community of family and friends don’t seem to grasp. I’m not the father of a dead infant: I am the father of a fully-grown woman who lived a full life. She grew and grew and grew until I died an old man and even then she grew some more after that. This is the reality I live in every day. I lost a daughter that lived alongside me for the entirety of my life. She had a personality, funny little quirks, anger, sadness, all of the things that make anyone a complete person. And then she died.
I can’t try again. That isn’t to say that I won’t try to have another baby with my wife. No, what I’m trying to say is that I am emotionally unable to put myself in a place where I will be as hopeful and excited as I was when my wife was pregnant with Freya. The next time my wife is pregnant, I won’t be able to imagine the person our child might become because I won’t be able to see that far in the future. I won’t be able to plan for their high school graduation; I won’t be able to make a list of video games to teach them at different ages; I won’t even try to guess what their favorite color might be. Instead, the only thing I will ever imagine is that they live.
Sometimes, when I’m trying to pull myself out of the dark corner where I sat in the hospital room after she died, I tell myself that I should have been thinking that all along: I just want you to live.
So then the real question becomes “how do I move forward?” Honestly, even now, I don’t have an easy answer. There’s only so much reading and thinking and therapizing on the subject I can do before realizing that we just have to figure things out, one day at a time. It’s a hard thing to do when you’ve spent the last nine months living in the future, thinking almost exclusively of what your life is going to be instead of what to make of your life as it is.
I spend a lot of time thinking about who I was, who I am, and who I want to be. Do I still want to be a father? Can I still be a father? What would my life be like if I never had a child? Do I even deserve to have a child? These kinds of questions hit me at the worst possible moments: at work in the middle of a meeting or at the grocery store while I’m paying for milk.
A lot of people around me have avoided talking to me about Freya dying because I think they believe that I’ll have a dreaded moment of sadness in front of them and that it will be their fault for triggering it. I might, it’s true, but I might not. Either way, it’s an awful way to deal with a loss. I’ve tried to understand the logic behind this plan many times and I think it breaks down like this: “if I don’t talk to him about it, he won’t think about it, and therefore he won’t ever be sad. This is a good plan because, if I do talk to him about it, he’ll feel sad because now he’s thinking about an awful moment in his life and that would be bad.”
The fatal flaw in this logic is that I’m always thinking about it. No one has the power to make me forget it and no one has the ability to help me avoid it by not talking about her. The one serious side effect of the whole “avoid it till it goes away” strategy that no one really considers is that you’re leaving the grieving person to mourn in the dark, to deal with these feelings alone when they have no idea how to do so.
One of the biggest things that helped me move forward in my life, other than talking about Freya with my wife, was simply being. doing things that weren’t related to Freya, going into the world instead of locking myself in a closet. My old friends didn’t talk to me anymore so I made new friends, friends that didn’t know about what had happened. I looked for people that were happy and full of energy. I found relief in being around people who weren’t worried that I might break down or, god forbid, feel sad in front of them. These people were innocent of my recovery but helped nonetheless.
Is that cheating? Is that denial or repression or whatever other ugly word someone might conjure to explain away a person just trying to get by? Maybe.
I don’t really care.
I try to tuck the instructions into the plastic wrap I’ve used to pack up the crib slats. I have to pull the plastic back to make room for the pamphlet but I pull too hard and the plastic tears. I swear under my breath and pick up the roll of tape sitting next to me. Holding the pamphlet in place, I wrap five, six, seven layers of tape around the slats and step back, my forehead hot. The small stack of paper is now plastered onto the wood, snug and waiting.