We pulled into the church parking lot that bitterly cold morning, and there was the hearse. The hearse for us. The hearse for him. That awful, concrete symbol of life turning into death, of joy becoming grief, of a deep sorrow that will never really go away.
I hadn’t been expecting it. I knew they were bringing him in his tiny casket, but I never considered they would drive him to the church in a hearse. Its massive, tomb-like essence shrouding his miniature body and carrying him to where we would gather with friends and family to mourn his premature death.
I inhaled sharply. My chest grew tight. My breath caught in my throat, and I covered my mouth with my hand, the tears coming in a sudden wave of sorrow and cascading down my cheeks.
“I didn’t know they would bring the hearse,” was all I said, as my Sister’s arm went around me comfortingly. It felt like it made everything that had happened over the last couple of weeks really real. It all came flooding back to me. The grief and sorrow intermingling with the dark guilt hidden in the depths of my soul.
I had held him in my arms for a couple of hours the day he was born. I was overwhelmed with the knowledge that I would only have those few brief hours with him, and I intended to soak in every single second. After we took pictures with him, I just held him on my lap, or next to me on the hospital bed while we waited to be able to go home. Harvene brought in a memory box that the hospital had put together. She took great care picking out a tiny crocheted blanket and hat for him. She wrapped him in first one blanket, then another, wanting to pick the very best things for him. Did we want to put something special in the casket with him when we buried him? No, I really didn’t. I didn’t want him in the casket, let alone anything else. It wasn’t like he would ever enjoy a blanket’s soft comfort, or know that someone somewhere had knitted a miniscule hat for him.
Everyone was being so wonderful. So kind. So compassionate. They all called him “him” and not “it,” or even called him by his name. Zion. Their gentle care for me caused me to withdraw even more into myself, the knowledge of my shame hanging over my head like a dark cloud. If they only knew what had been in my heart, they would never be so kind.
I felt desperately protective of my son. I was acutely aware of his gestational age. 16 Weeks. Well, technically, 15 weeks, 6 days. But who was counting? I knew who was counting—thousands of clinics all over the country who didn’t consider a baby of my son’s gestational age a human life. He was under that 20 week mark. He could still be legally aborted in so many places, with unwitting mothers being told he was “just a clump of tissue” and that ending the pregnancy wasn’t murder.
I picked up those tiny fingers and counted the fingernails, the wrinkles on his knuckles. How could anyone say he wasn’t human? I had heard of enough people saying with the loss of a pregnancy “Well, at least you weren’t further along.” As if his size makes him more or less of a person? As if that eases the heartache of losing a child?
I knew that seeing a dead baby couldn’t be easy for anyone, but to me, he was beautiful. He was mine, and I wanted to memorize every little detail before I had to let him go. For a long, long time, I just held him. As the hours passed, his skin began to dry out, his body becoming more brittle. I began to be afraid of accidentally tearing his soft skin. Suddenly, I didn’t want to hold him anymore. I didn’t understand why, I just knew a dark cloud of sorrow was forming over my head, and it no longer comforted me to hold my stillborn baby.
And then I realized why. With the passing of each hour, his body—warm when he was born—grew colder and colder. His limp, unmoving form began to torment me. And I began to smell…death. I had never been with a person when they died before, and I wasn’t cognitively aware that death had a smell, but I suddenly knew all-too-well, that death most certainly did have a smell. And my baby was wearing it.
I suddenly wanted him as far away from me as he could be. Harvene had asked if we were ready for her to take him yet, but as much as my aching heart longed to say yes, I couldn’t say it. Once he was gone, he was gone forever, and I couldn’t bear that thought. But I couldn’t bear the thought of him lying there cold and dead, either.
“Stephen,” I said quietly, handing Zion over to him. “Please take him and put him over there. I can’t hold him anymore.” Thoughts plagued me that I couldn’t give him up yet—I would always wish for these moments back. I had to soak up every minute. But I couldn’t. I just couldn’t hold him anymore.
It was taking hours for me to be cleared to go home, and I needed a distraction. Hannah had been by her phone all day, waiting, praying, texting encouragement back and forth. She had said she would come over if I wanted her to, and I desperately wanted her to. Stephen headed to pick me up the Arby’s sandwich I was craving, and Audra came in to tell me she wanted to do a quick ultrasound to make sure everything was delivered safely. Hannah came in and waited with me. I felt self-conscious of my hospital gown, the IV hooked up to my arm administering fluids, the blood on the sheets. All the signs of having given birth, but nothing to show for it.
And then the tech came in to take me down to ultrasound. I told Hannah I would be right back and climbed into the wheel chair they brought for me. I was only gone for a few minutes—everything looked great! I was cleared to go. They wheeled me back into my room. I carefully stood up and looked over to where Hannah was standing with Stephen. He had returned with the coveted food.
“Annie, you didn’t tell me he was over here,” Hannah said, her voice holding a question in it. It was as if she had really said, “Why didn’t you show him to me earlier?” Stephen stood next to her, his face showing both sorrow and pride as he showed Hannah our son.
My heart dropped to my feet. Why hadn’t I showed him to her before? “Oh, um, yeah,” I fumbled lamely, hurrying to climb back into the hospital bed and cover myself up. I wondered if maybe I could cover my shame with the blankets—like I had quickly covered up the blood when Hannah walked in.
Hannah knew. Hannah knew my secret. How could she even look at me? Look at him? Why had I thought it was a good idea for her to come? Surely she would chastise me the way I deserved to be. Surely she would tell everyone there to stop being so kind to me—that I didn’t deserve it. That I was a terrible, horrible mother and should be punished, not sympathized with.
I couldn’t look in their direction. I felt like my heart was being ripped in two—part of me wanting to let Hannah see my baby, and the other wanting to run and hide. I pulled out my food and began eating, having lost my appetite, but desperately needing to keep my hands busy. Hannah walked quietly over and sat next to me on the bed, her arms circling around me, her head resting softly on my shoulder. Her compassion both confused and tormented me. How could she really love me, knowing what she knew?
Harvene came in to make little ink footprints of Zion’s feet. Then she asked if I wanted him.
“Um, sure,” I muttered, not knowing how to say my heart couldn’t handle being near him anymore. I wasn’t finished with my sandwich, so she gently laid him on the bed next to me.
I couldn’t eat another bite. I silently wrapped up the leftovers and put it back into the bag. I didn’t know what to do next. I just wanted to get out of there. But we were still waiting for the paperwork. Hannah and I tried to talk about normal things—anything to take my mind away from where we were and why we were there. Eventually, Hannah kissed the top of my head, gave me a tight squeeze and headed home. Stephen and I were left alone in the hospital room as the sun slowly went down. Stephen came over to the bed, pulled me into his arms, and I laid my head against his shoulder. The room grew darker and darker with each passing minute as we just sat silently on the bed, arms wrapped tightly around each other. Neither of us reached to turn on the lights. Neither of us cared.
I could feel the tears burning against the back of my eyes. “Stephen?”
“Hmm?” Stephen answered, his face against my hair.
“I…” My voice caught in my throat, and I cleared it self-consciously and tried again. “I…I didn’t want him.” I said it so quietly, it was nearly imperceptible. The tears came then, running down my cheeks in quick succession. The burden of shame was nearly suffocating, and I knew the only answer was to speak it, to bring it into the light.
“What do you mean?” Stephen began rubbing my back softly.
I cleared my throat again, attempting to speak a bit louder. “When I found out I was pregnant, I was mad. I didn’t know how I could do five kids. Adoniah wasn’t even one year old yet! I was mad at God because He knew how much I didn’t want to be pregnant again, but He did it anyway. And I was selfish, and angry, and a terrible, horrible mother.” I was sobbing now, my heart breaking. “What mother doesn’t want her own baby?? I don’t deserve to be sad! I don’t deserve to have anyone be sad for me!”
Stephen just held me for a long time while I cried. I finally allowed myself to cry all the hot tears of anguish, shame and guilt that had been pent up in my soul for so long. After a long while, the storm of tears abated, and Stephen spoke quietly. “You are not a terrible, horrible mother. You are a wonderful mother who loves her children very much. But you are also overwhelmed, and scared and only human and the thought of having a fifth child was too much for you. It’s only natural to feel the way you felt, and it doesn’t mean you didn’t love or want Zion.”
“Because I did want him! I really did!” I choked out. “I was just really scared.”
“I know you were. And there is grace for all of that. This isn’t your fault. God isn’t punishing you. And it’s okay to be sad. Whether you were happy or sad when you found out you were pregnant, your baby lived and died, and you loved him, and you wanted him, and it’s okay to be sad.” Stephen ran his hands through my hair and wiped the tears tenderly from my cheeks. “It’s okay,” he repeated softly. I didn’t know if I really believed him yet. But I prayed that someday I would.
The sun had disappeared behind the horizon and the room was dark and quiet. Harvene came in to say our paperwork had finally come through, and I was free to leave. But first, we had to say goodbye.
Stephen carried Zion over to me. I took him, one last time, and touched his rounded head.
“Goodbye, sweet baby,” I whispered. “I love you now and into eternity. And I can’t wait to see you again someday. Say hi to your sister for me, okay?” Tears blurred my vision as I handed him to his daddy. I watched Stephen just hold him tenderly for a long moment, unable to speak.
“Goodbye, Zion Emmanuel. We love you,” he said, and then handed him to Harvene.
And then she was gone. And he was gone. And we were alone in the dark quietness of the room. Alone with the ache in our heavy hearts. Alone with our thoughts, our regrets, our sorrow.
And now I was sitting in my son’s funeral. His small, beautiful casket sat on the table in the front of the sanctuary, surrounded by my favorite picture of his tiny feet and his initials.
As we closed out the service, we stood and sang “It Is Well.” I sang the words feeling desperate sorrow but clinging to hope. Hope that this wasn’t really the end. Hope that I would see my little boy again. Hope that Zion’s short life had made a difference. Hope that God could bring beauty out of these ashes.
I would end up getting that phrase tattooed on my foot. Scrolled across the top of my left foot, in black ink that was permanently embedded in my skin—just like Zion was permanently embedded in my heart—I would be reminded day in and day out, that God had been faithful in the past, and He would continue to be faithful. In our joy and in our pain. In our strength and in our weakness. It is well, it is well, with my soul.
“And Lord, haste the day
When my faith shall be sight
The clouds be rolled back as a scroll
The trump shall resound
And the Lord shall descend,
Even so, it is well with my soul.”