by Heather Carnaghan
Today was the four month anniversary of Charlotte's stillbirth. Four months. 121 days. 2,904 hours. 174,240 minutes. 1,045,440 seconds without my daughter in my arms, and yet and every single one has been brimming with her. I went to the woods today, like I always do on the 21st, to find something. I never know what it is that I am looking for when I start my hikes, but I always manage to find it along the trail.
I sat under a tree with scars and proud branches stretched out to catch the season's first real warmth. It had a date and name carved into it just like I did. I laid Charlotte's pink blanket across my lap and noticed a sapling that had rusty crinkled leaves so similar to the proud mama tree whose roots pushed out of the earth and made my bench uneven. I pulled the book out of my backpack and began to read in a whisper, "I'll Never Let You Go by Smriti Prasadam-Halls". How embarrassing it would be if another hiker witnessed this odd display! "I've heard of tree huggers, John, but this woman was reading baby books to acorns." After long glances down the trail in either direction, I read on a bit louder, "When you are happy, I hear you sing." Does she? Mothering a baby who is not in your arms leaves you feeling so much loneliness and guilt. Am I dishonoring her when I laugh? When I sing? When I forget for a split second how much it hurts to go on without her? Am I failing her by fighting my way forward, away from her?
A bird watcher approached. I paused awkwardly, "Hi...I'm, uh, just...reading." His eyes darted left and right and down before motioning forward and muttering something about a woodpecker. I watched him scuttle out of sight before I continued reading. "When you are sad and troubled with fears, I will hold you close and dry your tears." The wind picked up and the wetness in my eyes evaporated into the gust. This is what I love about the woods. There is often a cosmic connection between what we feel and what the Earth does all around us. Perhaps the timing of that wind was a coincidence, or perhaps it was a tiny piece of my little girl touching me in the only way that she can now. Either way, my eyes were dried and I was able to read on. " When you are quiet, I think with you." Is this why I haven't been able to enjoy listening to music or my old pals on NPR for four months? Or why most noises and superfluous conversations have been especially grating to me? What was with this book? I brought it along with the intent of telling Charlotte that I loved her and would never let her memory go, but somewhere between the lines on the pages and the swaying mama tree above me, the tables had turned. This sweet little book has pictures of parent animals guiding their babies with messages like, "When you aren't sure, you'll feel me near. When you are scared, I will be here." It was there, in the woods, under that scarred-like-me tree, that I realized I'd had it backwards. Our babies teach us strength in their helplessness. We learn to do difficult things like changing diapers, working after sleepless nights, saying goodbye, holding their ashes, not for them, but because of them. Our children teach us how to be strong even when they aren't able to be with us. Charlotte has been guiding me to higher ground all along.
I finished reading the story to the baby tree, then gently tucked my stone with a message to Charlotte into the crevice between its mama's roots. I nestled two rocks collected by Jack and Sam next to their sister's. My mind wandered to thoughts of an interview I have scheduled tomorrow and I pushed them out of my head. I had a whole path laid out before losing Charlotte and I am ridden with guilt for wanting to return to the ease of that mapped out existence. Thinking about career goals, personal bests, and my "five year plan" seems trivial when a life was lost. I looked up from my plodding feet and Charlotte had one more sign in store for me. It was, quite literally, a signpost, as if at this point she couldn't trust me to metaphors. "Please stay on trail." Good luck on the interview tomorrow, mom. Your path is my path, so stick to it. Thanks, Charlie.
Heather is an educator, 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.