by Heather Carnaghan
I fell asleep reading about a boat somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic.
I dreamt I was aboard a beautiful ship. Its sails were crisp and white and the skies were impossibly blue. Seagulls squaked. Someone shouted happily that we were on course and my two boys laughed as they chased one another joyfully across the deck. It was the kind of afternoon that you can’t help but lazily close your eyes and smile into the sunshine.
In an instant, the sky blackened. The towering mast fell in an explosion of sound. I felt myself abruptly shoved into the sea, dragged underwater and looking around, desperately begging slow motion bubbles to reveal which way was up. My eyes were blinded by the sting of the salt and my lungs burned for air. I gasped as I broke through the surface and frantically looked for my husband and children.
In that dreamy way, weeks passed in flashes. My family dodged debris and spit salty accidental gulps as we treaded water in heavy clothes and grasped at driftwood to stay afloat. It was hard to see land through the giant swells. We froze each time pointed fins crept above the water nearby, then disappeared somewhere below. We were anxious about them even as they were out of sight.
I woke up panicked, heart racing.
I never had nightmares before this year. This one was palpable and disorienting. I still had the taste of saltwater in my mouth. It felt so real that it could have been a memory, but I’ve never been in a shipwreck.
Or have I?
Perhaps the scene was so familiar, not because of the setting, but because of the feelings it invoked.
Our family was on a beautiful course before Charlotte died . We had a new baby on the way, our first girl! Her nursery was perfect. My oldest son and I had painted it together as a love song to his baby sister. Her closet was bursting with the sweetest patterns and the softest fabrics. We had begun planning a trip so that she could meet our overseas family while she still had that baby smell. Charlotte was two weeks from her due date and our world was beautiful. Our sails were crisp and the skies were blue.
“I’m so sorry, there is no heartbeat.”
Our sky blackened with those words. We were abruptly shoved into a world that we didn’t know existed for newborns. Skin tears, bruises, blood, stillbirth, bereavement, death. There were questions we weren’t prepared to answer. Should we have an autopsy done on our baby? Should we cremate or bury? How much are we willing to spend on an urn? How do you plan a memorial for a baby? How do you tell a 3 and 5 year old that their sister is dead? We grasped at anything that resembled an answer and fumbled to find which way was “up”. Our eyes were raw and salty from too many tears and every thought was of surviving the next minute without her. Our house was a lifeboat adrift and alone on horizonless water.
When we first kicked our way to the surface of our grief, we eased back out into the world slowly. Every errand was exhausting. We carried with us pockets filled with tissues, escape plans, and fear of the next well-meant, “How’s the baby!”. We clung to our chaperones, those friends and family members who stuck with us as lifelines even after the tsunami of sympathy cards and frozen dinners stopped arriving at our doorstep.
Joyful, living, baby announcements circled ominously, producing anxiety even when they were out of sight.
We found other bereaved parents, these voyagers who were battered and changed by their grief too. We held on to their stories for dear life, feeling less crazy that a few months hadn’t erased the feeling of “simply surviving” the bigger waves and still not seeing solid land.
My heart slowly returned to a normal pace as I came to an unsettling realization. I had been living this shipwreck dream, this nightmare, for nine months. It just happened to have taken place on dry land.
There is an expectation in our culture of moving on, of working through our grief, of transforming this tragedy into something worth the heartache. After all, every fetishised American hero has pulled themselves up from their orphaned bootstraps, right? In reality, we are certainly changed by grief, but the expectation of a happy ending, that place where we are over our loss, is an impossible one. What possible transformation could be worth a lifetime with my baby?
There is no real return to normal after your child dies. Your ship is gone and will never be back, so you Swiss Family Robinson your way through each and every day. You forge relationships with locals who know the ways to higher ground. You learn to find physical and emotional sustenance in a foreign land. You begrudgingly become accustomed to the view of coconut trees while silently pining for oaks and acorns. Sometimes a visitor, perhaps a familiar face from Before, looks away uncomfortably as they try not to remind you of home. Do they think you forgot about it? Could they ever forget their own?
Trauma physically and permanently rewires your brain. One year ago I was in the sixth month of pregnancy. I was happily painting Charlotte’s name on the nursery wall and selecting children’s books about inspirational women so she’d recognize Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Maya Angelou’s words by her first birthday. I found a perfect “take home” outfit for her on a day that I happened to be wearing a tee shirt that jokingly read, "You’re kickin’ me smalls!”
Today, I am in the sixth month of pregnancy again. This time with a boy. Finn’s name won’t be painted on that nursery wall until he is crying in my arms and no outfit will be assumed a "take home" one without the lingering fear that it might become a burial gown instead. I will adamantly insist that no friend or family member throws a shower, as this might “jinx” things. When we talk about Finn, our verbiage is different too. We sang goofily to Charlotte and said, “when you come home...!" Finn hears more solemn, "ifs" and a lot less singing, but he hears a whole ocean of hope.
I can’t expect a traditional Disney happy ending. No baby will replace the one I lost, but I am hopeful that we’ll at least have an interesting next chapter with a new life that adds a sparkle of sunshine to our waves.
Charlotte's stone in the tide (Crane Beach, Ipswich). Photography by Pam McRae
Heather is a teacher, poet, writer, artist, and most of all, mother of four. Her three boys inspire joy in her life and writing. Heather's eagerly awaited daughter was stillborn in October of 2017, which focused her creative energy on grief and healing. She created and maintains CharlottesPurpose.com, a website dedicated to dealing with grief positively.