Five-and-a-half years ago, I miscarried my first baby.
It was a cold, cloudy day when I saw the first drop of blood and a feeling of dread settled over my already heavy womb. Over the next 48 hours there was panic, and then an ultrasound that showed a strong heartbeat, and then a tiny bit more blood, and then an ultrasound that showed only stillness.
Less than three days after the feeling of dread settled over me, I was under general anesthesia, delivering the remains of my baby, the tiny arm buds that had waved at us a few days before and the sweet little legs that we’d seen kicking with might and the now-still heart, removed from my body.
My baby wasn’t planned. I was young and still in graduate school and my husband and I had discussed waiting to begin trying until we had solid jobs and a house with room for a nursery and a car more reliable than our ’98 Ranger, but when the nausea came and my period didn’t, we’d been filled with nothing but an odd and unexpected hope.
I waited almost a week to take a pregnancy test, willing myself not to get too excited. When I finally did, the two pink lines began to bloom before I even rested the test on the sink and my husband and I spent the afternoon giggling at our good fortune. Life was about to change and we couldn’t have been more thrilled.
Over the next month and a half, we made big plans and embraced the new direction our life was taking. We slowly revealed our news to family, and took great joy in the pure unexpectedness of our blessing.
At night, hands on my belly in the dark, my husband and I wondered aloud about the great mysteries of life and who our child would be. We brainstormed names: Georgia, Augustine, June; we were sure it would be a daughter.
When life changed again, and I was, two months after discovering I was pregnant, suddenly restored to my nonpregnant self, we were devastated and the world beneath our feet felt unfriendly and unfamiliar. In a haze of sadness, my husband and I decided that our only path forward lay in making a family right away, crappy house and crappy car and bad jobs be damned.
Later that year, I delivered my first son. He was, and is, a perfect rendition of what a childless couple might imagine when they daydream of parenthood. Chubby and pleasant, with round eyes and a sleepy smile, he was adored from the moment his body was laid across my chest.
As he began to grow, and I began the monumental shift to being my motherself, the anniversary of my first loss approached. As over-the-moon as I was about my son, I still ached for the maybe-daughter who’d been stolen from my body.
In the months right after my loss, I hadn’t know how to grieve, but the world had given me space. No one, particularly my friends who were all in their early 20s and still aghast at the thought of parenthood themselves, knew quite how to respond to a woman in mourning for an invisible loss, but they seemed to understand that miscarriage was big and bad and it was alright for me to feel a little out of sorts.
After the birth of my son though, with a babe in my arms, it felt like I had lost all claim to my grief: I had wanted a baby and now I had one. Case closed, mourning over, sadness gone.
On the one year anniversary of my miscarriage, I strapped my newborn son into his Ergo carrier and took a long, cold tearful hike. I forced myself to remember the painful details of my dilation and curettage, but also the joy and peace that pregnancy had brought before the pain set in.
There’s no script for how to thank your lost baby for existing, especially when you’re not religious, but I sent my love with all the telekinetic power I could muster, out into the universe, hoping that it could reach through space and time and science and spirit to wrap its arms around my baby’s soul.
I wanted her to know that she was loved and that she was real and that, while we hadn’t intended to replace her, we were grateful for the gift she’d given us, the child who would not exist if not for her brief presence and sudden departure: our son.
When I returned from my hike, my husband didn’t mention my lost baby. My parents didn’t call. My friends didn’t text. She had been forgotten by everyone who hadn’t carried her in their belly. I vowed to honor her, silently and solitarily each year on the anniversary of her passing.
For three more years, I did. I took the same quiet hike on my own. I sent my love and embrace into the universe. I silently shouted my gratitude for the possibilities in life she’d opened our eyes to. I never posted about her on Facebook or talked about her with anyone else, but as her mother I saw it as my responsibility to steward her remembrance and honor who she was and who she might have become.
This year though, as her anniversary approached, and then passed, I didn’t think of her at all. My big boy had just turned 4 and was filling our house with joyful (and not so joyful) noise every waking moment, and my new baby, another son, needed to be held and rocked and comforted while awake and while asleep. My internal clock was based on the schedules of my two wild children, and because I was on maternity leave, I hadn’t looked at a calendar in weeks.
When I stepped outside the day after the anniversary, a cold wind wrapped my body and I was suddenly deeply aware of her ― and of the fact that I’d forgotten her. Tears filled my eyes as I buckled my children into their car seats. As my 4-year-old sang and chatted on the way to preschool, my ears buzzed with shame. After walking him into the building and returning to the car I sat in the front seat and cried in earnest.
As her mother I had failed to carry her safely into this world, and now, even in passing, I couldn’t honor her as I’d promised.
I drove to the trail I’d hiked for her each year and, quickly and quietly, strapped my newborn into his carrier and began my walk of love. My steps beat a rhythm of sorrow, and my thoughts, usually sad but peaceful, we’re instead scattered and apologetic.
Even though it was cold, I took the longer path, a nod to how sorry I was. After several miles, my newborn began to stir and I sat down on a rock to nurse him. It was only as the milk began to flow that I was able to calm. I noticed the sunlight filtering through the sparse trees. I noticed the winter birds calling out to one another. I looked downward and saw the earth, soggy and fertile, covered in brown leaves and the discarded pine cones of the winter.
As my babe broke his latch, and looked up at me, willing my eyes downward, I soaked him in. The unexpected blue of his eyes, the soft curve of his pink cheeks, the baby hair, downy and white, beginning to cover his head. He was here and real and alive and, as deeply as I wished it was so, my first baby was not. There had never been milk for her, or a comforting touch or a lullaby sung late into the night. But there were people, two of them, who would not be here if not for her, whom I could direct my milk and comfort and lullabies to.
As I once again strapped my son into the Ergo and began the second half of my hike, I realized that there were other ways I could honor my first baby besides a sorrow-filled walk once each year. I counted up the ways I poured my love (enough for three) into my two living babies and rejoiced for all that I had.
Slowly, the guilt and sadness began to leave me. I stood at the trailhead when I was done, realizing that this would be the last walk I ever took in honor of my baby’s memory, and made peace with the way I keep her present every day in the thousands of ways I mother.
There is no bench with the date my baby left, or rock meant to help me think of her or a tree planted in her honor. There is now not even an annual walk in which I hope my love embraces her from afar. Now there is only the simple recognition that she’s present in the everyday acts of love poured quietly and intentionally into living children. These, I think, are what matter most of all.