by Danny Bonvissuto
Lisa was eight months pregnant and ready to meet her second son. Baby showers had been thrown, rompers had been bought and tiny hats had been knitted. Then one morning she felt a flutter kick that was never repeated.
I found out about Lisa’s stillborn son one morning after toddler music class. She was sitting on the steps in the sunshine, puffy-eyed and uncomfortable in maternity clothes she had to wear until her body adjusted. Having lost my first son under similar circumstances a few years earlier, my mind raced to find the words I would’ve wanted to hear.
Your son is alive. This didn’t happen.
Since I couldn’t say that, I just cried with her, and silently prayed she would find strength, courage and all the other things you need to walk through a world full of babies who are living when yours is not. Lisa has a great group of friends and I knew they’d fill her hours with visits and her fridge with food. I didn’t want to chat or cook; I wanted to write the story of her son.
After my first son died — and the gauzy haze of grief lifted a bit — I opened my laptop, typed the words “Dear Dominic Jr.,” and didn’t stop until I’d filled 13 single-spaced pages.
The story started long before I got pregnant: The big house we bought after the wedding, thinking we’d fill it with family. Selling it six months later and moving to another state. And another one after that. Traveling, shopping and eating our disposable income away until the day the pharmacy ran out of my birth control pills.
We took it as a sign.
The trip to Turks and Caicos, where my husband got double-dared into eating conch penis, which the locals consider an aphrodisiac (or at least pretend they do to fool tourists).
Finding out I was pregnant one month later. Blaming the conch penis.
The words “It’s a boy!” scribbled in my OB/GYN’s harried handwriting. Buying impossibly small pajamas with puppy feet. The routine ultrasound that ended with a doctor I’d never met saying four words that changed everything.
I have bad news.
Healthy baby but broken cervix. Setting up my hospital room with everything I’d need to spend four months on my back. Contractions four days later. Saying goodbye to him long before my doctor filled the room with words I already knew. Holding my son as a priest baptized him. Hearing my husband on the phone with a crematorium. Leaving the maternity ward and passing a woman and her newborn baby being wheeled to a room, their noses touching.
I lost my son, but I wasn’t about to lose his story. And every year, on the anniversary of his birth, I get up early and spend a few quiet hours reading that story and crying with a mixture of grief and gratitude. Grief for the gift I lost. Gratitude for the gift I gave myself.
When I was pregnant with my second son, one of the many things I promised God if he’d let my child live was that I’d help mothers who lost their babies. God held up his end of the bargain, but I had yet to hold up mine. Until Lisa.
We spent a sunny Saturday on my couch — Lisa at one end, me at the other, and a box of Kleenex in the middle. I opened my laptop and typed two words: Dear Wiggly. Lisa took it from there.
Two miscarriages. First-trimester bleeding with the third that sent her straight to the emergency room. The relief of seeing those little legs dance on the ultrasound screen. Nicknaming him Wiggly.
Sticking that big belly out during family photos. Taking smartphone videos of the heartbeat during doctor visits. Lots of walks, yoga and knitting. One month to go.
That last kick.
Twenty-eight hours of labor. The silence of the birth. Holding him to her chest. Kissing every finger and toe. When it was time to leave the hospital, having the nurse take the baby out of the room so she didn’t have to walk away and leave him there, alone.
Lisa preserved every piece of her son’s story. She spoke with bravery, honesty and love. The only thing that didn’t come out easily was his name — words she imagined on birth announcements, not sympathy cards.
As we said our goodbyes, Lisa thanked me for what I’d given her.
If I could’ve gotten the words out, I would’ve said the same thing.