My husband and I both come from families who are really, really into Christmas. Growing up, I spent many a December at my grandparents’ home in Florida. My earliest holiday memories are of palm trees swaying with Christmas lights, and Santa hats being worn in jest on the white sandy beaches of West Palm Beach. For Christmas at home on Vancouver Island, I can’t recall a time my mom didn’t go all out decorating and baking and dressing to the nines for dinner on Christmas Eve.
My husbands Christmas memories are just as special. My father-in-law and his buddies would have one too many rum and eggnog and climb up on the roof to stomp around, convincing my husband as a kid that Santa and his reindeers had arrived (disclaimer- do not try this at home). Every year, my mother in law painstakingly hangs tinsel on their tree that is 36 years old–the tinsel from my husbands first Christmas.
Twelve years ago, my husband I were young and broke, living in a 450 square foot basement suite. When our first Christmas together came around, we were laughably unprepared. We bought our tree just days before December 25th. When we put the tree up and cut the twine off, the branches sagged dramatically and just about every needle fell to the ground. We laughed hysterically about our ‘Charlie Brown’ tree, and every year as we would accumulate more Christmas decorations and get closer to creating the magical Christmases that our parents made for us, we’d marvel at how far we’d come since that first holiday season together. Six years ago, my husband got down on one knee on a quiet Christmas morning and proposed. So yeah, we are Christmas people.
So here we are.
It’s November 21, 2016 and our excitement for the holidays is ramped up a notch. At 6 months pregnant with our first baby after being told we’d never have children, we are more than excited to get the house ready, attend parties, and celebrate our good fortune. I’m just pulling the garlands from their boxes to get started decorating when I have an overwhelming urge to check my phone. I’d had an anatomy scan three days prior.
All the excitement about the holidays comes crashing down when I hear the tone in my midwife’s voice in her message. “Elana, please call me when you get this,” she says. “It’s the baby’s brain. There are measurements that are of concern and you need to come in today.”
Trauma warps time.
Slow is the seven day wait to see a maternal fetal medicine (MFM) specialist to learn more about the babe’s diagnosis and prognosis. We check out from the regular world, leaving our jobs for the week to travel in our camper. A last-ditch effort at control–if we get on the road and move, the wait won’t be as arduous. We visit friends. We eat fancy lunches. I go to a Christmas parade. The baby kicks, a foot wedged under my rib. I don’t touch the box of garland. I don’t decorate at all.
Fast is the outcome of our MFM visit. It’s immediately apparent that the baby is terminal, there is urgency. The baby dies on November 29th. I don’t know the gender yet, but I feel it’s a boy. I know when he passes–in the middle of the physical pain there is suddenly a feeling of calm and pure love, like his soul gave mine a hug and then went off on his journey elsewhere. Instead of planning Christmas gifts, we are choosing funeral homes and deciding on an autopsy and asking our parents to take the ultrasound photos off the fridge so when we return home it won’t be a violent reminder of what was supposed to be.
We are in shock, yes, but we’re also bored and living in a limbo.
Labour is stalled–it takes days. We’re watching White Christmas on the laptop to distract from the inevitable. Later, I’ll recognize something familiar in lead actress Vera-Ellen, also a bereaved mother. We’re watching It’s A wonderful Life; “every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings”. Will they ring a bell when my baby is born to mark his arrival? He is born at 10:21 p.m. on December 1st. We name him Haven. It is so, so quiet.
Leaving the hospital is like being slammed back into reality.
Christmas lights illuminate our drive home. The experience is jarring at best. There is no reprieve at home–every cheery commercial makes me feel murderous. Doesn’t the world know my baby just died? Our one attempt at Christmas normalcy comes a week after returning home, when we try to continue our tradition of picking out our tree. We take two steps into the outdoor lacrosse rink that houses the pines and firs. A baby cries. I leak milk. We leave. There’s no tree in our home that year. There’s no Christmas at all. On the morning of December 25th, Leonard Cohen is on the radio singing “love is not a victory march/ it’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah”. He’s not singing about the loss of a baby, but he might as well be.
It’s Christmas 2017.
I have an 8 week old. My rainbow baby is here, though we have not had a great start. Pre-eclamsia, an early induction, a NICU stay, colic. I am desperately trying to find my Christmas cheer–after all, I have a baby in arms, isn’t everything great! And yet…there is still a twinge when I hear a Christmas song, still a need to change the channel when the cheery commercial comes on, still a desire to retreat and ignore the season entirely.
Now a little more than a year postpartum, I can see that I placed expectations on myself that were too high. Christmas may never be the same, and I’m okay with that. I am learning to live with a heart that is both broken and filled to overflowing. It’s okay if one day I want to do ALL the holiday things, and the next I want to hide under the covers. It’s okay to marvel at my rainbow baby as he takes in the magic of Christmas. It’s okay if I still feel a little tentative about celebrating. My grief journey is far from over, and that’s normal and healthy and just part of being a human. This year though, my husband and I will do our best to make the same magic for our one year old son as our parents did for us. We’ll celebrate and remember our sweet December baby. A bell rings–I think of my angel Haven and know he got his wings. It’s a wonderful life.