Across the timeline of my life there is a line than divides the before and the after. It was written there forever on this day ten years ago. That line separates what was and what is, who I was and who I am. That line was drawn ten years ago today, the day I was told my baby was going to die.
Although ten years have passed, today brought a flood of emotion. I remember the sights, the sounds, the feelings of that day as though it were minutes ago, not years. I can still hear the sound of a tearful doctor whispering “poor, poor baby” before telling us the news. I can still feel the tiny kicks inside my womb, the little life inside of me defying the words that were being spoken…”your baby’s condition is incompatible with life outside of the womb. I am so, so sorry.” And I remember the fear, and the suffocating pain of knowing my first task of motherhood would be loving my child as he died…the child I had dreamed of all my life, the child I had longed for through five years of infertility, the child I had prayed for, this child I so loved…
One winter’s day shortly following that news, I was kneeling on the floor of our bedroom to tuck an ultrasound photo into a keepsake box. In the box was a stack of old photos - a random assortment of memories, from wedding candids to birthday parties to camping trips. I sorted through them with shaking hands, my whole body wracked with sobs as I grieved the “before”. How I longed to still be the smiling girl in those photos, to be that carefree soul. How I longed to be the person I once was, the one who wasn’t making decisions about palliative care and children’s hospice. The one who didn’t know heartbreak the way I was about to experience it. I would have traded everything I had to go back. I knew looking at those photos that my life had already changed forever. And though my greatest heartbreak was yet to come, the line had been drawn.
The ten years that have passed have proven that to be true. What happened on this day ten years ago altered the course of my life completely. The heartbreak that would follow in the months and years to come was more than I could have fathomed. There is no pain that compares to the death of a child, nothing on earth that can ravage you so completely. The grief that followed was relentless, like living each day in a storm tossed ocean, gasping, panicked and drowning.
There is a gift in knowing the fleetingness of life. And somehow, amidst the fear that followed those early days after our son’s diagnoses, God gave us the strength to hold on to that gift. As we resolved to love and cherish our son every moment that he was with us, there were moments of such peace and such clarity. Moments of joy as we stored up every memory of him. The moment he was born and placed in my arms was the most profoundly peaceful moment of my life. And I looked into his face, the face of this sweet one whose body was made a little differently, this brave little warrior who had defied the odds even by being born, and all I could say was “You’re so beautiful.” Over and over I whispered it. And he was. And I knew in that moment that the gift of loving him outweighed the grief and the fear. The honour of being his mama made all of it worthwhile. Even ravaged by the pain of his death, I was finally a mama. I was his mama. And he had been worth the fight.
And it was those very lessons that would define my life from that point onward. The beauty and value of each little life, each one of them worth fighting for. The knowledge that even in pain there can be joy. The conviction that fear should not be enough to stop us…
The ten years that followed would bring six more beautiful babies into our lives, each one of them through adoption. Four precious gifts who would stay forever, two more who would leave. The heartbreak of two more goodbyes was almost more than I could bear. Loss upon loss, trauma upon trauma. Fear so stifling that at any point we could have stopped in our tracks. At any point we could have given up. When the possibility of our most recent adoption came up, those repeated losses and the fear that came with them were almost enough to paralyze us. The thought of risking our hearts again, of opening ourselves up to such uncertainty, brought with it nearly debilitating fear. But it was the memories of our first baby boy, and the lessons he taught us, that kept us going. It was the knowledge that we could face whatever uncertainty lay ahead because God’s grace had always carried us through. It was the deep assurance that fear and pain cannot cancel out true joy. And the absolute certainty that each precious little life is a gift worth fighting for.
And so last year, exactly nine years to the day that we were first given our hardest news, the day that divided our life in two, we booked our plane tickets to China. Nine years to the exact day, we made plans to fly to the other side of the world with our three children, and to fly back home with four. And when the day came that I finally held my newest son in my arms, I rocked him to sleep in our little hotel room. This little one whose body was made a little differently, this brave little warrior who had defied the odds. And as I rocked him, I looked into his sweet little face and whispered “You’re so beautiful." Over and over I whispered it. And he was.
After our first son died, a family member said to me that heaven is closer than we think. She said it’s not a faraway place, but rather it's as though it is just on the other side of a veil. The summer after my first son went to heaven, I was on a hike with my husband. We were passing by a river, and the water was rushing over some rocks, making a soft babbling sound. A gentle breeze was blowing, and I remember watching the river and feeling like my son was gently dabbling his fingers in the water. It felt like the briefest of glimpses, as though the breeze had softly lifted the veil and let me see for a moment that heaven was near. It was the most profound moment to me, like a gift from God to let me know that my son was closer than I imagined. It was deeply comforting to me. And my grieving mama heart felt a moment of peace.
This past summer, we took a hike as a family by that same river. It was the first time I had been back since that moment. As we walked past the river, I looked back, almost expecting to see something again. But there was nothing. We hiked farther, enjoying the sights and sounds of our four other beautiful children as they ran and skipped and played. On the way home, I picked up my youngest son, our newest little gift, our sweet little treasure. It was a long hike, and he was still recovering from surgery a few months earlier. He was settling in to our family and adjusting to so much change. I was carrying him as we walked past that spot in the river, and suddenly felt two little arms wrap themselves tightly around my neck.
“I love you”
My breath caught in my throat. And then he said it again.
“I love you.”
He was just learning English, and just recovering from surgery to repair a cleft palate. Speech was a challenge. Could this really be happening?
“I love you,” he whispered, his soft little arms wrapped around my neck, his head nestled into my cheek. Over and over again as we walked he repeated it, louder and more confident each time. And my mama heart soared.
Heaven is closer than we think. And God is nearer than we know. It is something I have learned only from living in the “after”, something I could not have known in such a profound way if that line had not been drawn ten years ago. Ten years has brought unimaginable pain, but immeasurably more joy. Looking back, I hardly recognize the girl who knelt sobbing on the floor, longing for the before. I can’t imagine it now. No part of me longs to go back. Because while the pain of loss will never go away, joy is magnified because of it. The hard road has been worth every step. The sorrow is not erased but remains with me always, the trauma is as real as physical scars. But just as real is the faith that comes from walking that deep darkness and seeing purpose and meaning on the other side. There is great beauty in the after.