the lost thanksgiving
CW: Infant Loss
My big sister Sarah was the first person in our generation to get pregnant. Then, it was twins. Everyone in my gene pool was 100% ecstatic, with the possible exception of my sister and her husband, who were 90% ecstatic, 10% freaking out. Because twins.
I worked at Nordstrom and on my breaks I wandered down to the infants section and picked onesies off the sale rack. With my employee discount, I loaded up on footie jammies, swaddle blankets, and baby socks.
(Looking back, I know that those socks were a mistake. Babies simply do not wear socks. I don’t know what to tell you. Their feet are blobs of biscuit dough. You try keeping a sock on a blob of biscuit dough. But at the time, I could not resist the smallness of those little fluffy socks, the way they sat in the palm of my hand, no longer than my thumb from heel cup to toe seam. I died, they were so cute.)
Sarah got pregnanter and pregnanter, as pregnant women are wont to do. At about 5 months, she registered for gifts and the family went nuts. My little sister Becca and I planned her shower. I booked my tickets. I bought a stack of my favorite childhood storybooks for the girls: Goodnight Moon, Greek Myths to Read Aloud, Brave Irene. I’d bring everything unwrapped in my suitcase so my mom, little sister, and I could ooh and aah over them before I folded the tiny scraps of cotton into frothy pink tissue paper. My mom always had wrapping paper. The baby shower was in a week.
I closed at work, came home, kicked off my shoes, threw myself onto the couch, and watched a documentary about a wildlife photographer. I was retail exhausted and all I wanted to do let the blood drain out of my feet for a couple of hours. After the movie ended, I found my phone in the bottom of my handbag.
I had 12 missed calls.
Mom. Mom. Dad. Becca. Mom. Dad. Becca four times.
I always thought about the moment my mom said, “Sarah lost the babies,” as the moment that everything changed, but now I realize that I knew before she picked up. I knew before the phone rang. I knew before I tapped her name to call her back.
I knew as soon as I saw the calls from everyone except Sarah, when I was barefoot and still thinking about that so-so documentary. Some part of me stopped breathing and I turned into a rabbit paralyzed by the agony of indecision: run; no, freeze; no, run. I knew, suddenly with no warning at all, that whatever was going to happen had already happened. It was too late to run or freeze.
She took a deep breath, watery and whispering.
“Sarah lost the babies.”
Tim called me one afternoon, the spring of our senior year in college. I’d just finished revising a poem. I was sitting at the desk looking out the window.
He choked on the words. “My dad died.”
I stood up so fast my chair slapped the ground behind me.
“What? Where are you?”
I kept him on the phone as I ran out to the car (did I lock the house?) and found him walking toward his house on a sunny sidewalk. I pulled up next to him and we sat on the curb together and he cried and cried and cried and cried and I wondered if I should be taking him home? Surely home was a better choice. Because he was beyond my reach, I focused on logistical nonsense: Where best to mourn the unexpected and permanent loss of your father? Would he be more comfortable gasping for breath while seated on a sidewalk, or on his couch?
I helped him get into the car and I held his hand. When we got to his house he sat on the front steps and smoked a cigarette. His face became a mask, numb, expressionless. His hands shook when he lifted the cigarette to his lips. His phone rang. He pulled it out of his pocket.
It was bizarre, in that moment, that he had a phone in his pocket. It was bizarre that he had pockets, or cigarettes, or house keys, or pillowcases on his pillows in his bedroom upstairs. Everything that wasn’t pain was fucking bizarre.
He picked up the phone. It was his sister. “Cassie?” His eyes clenched closed and he turned away. He crumpled again.
Unexpected grief is breathtaking. It’s mindtaking and spinetaking and kneetaking, too. It puts you on the ground before you’re done understanding the words you’ve just heard in the order you just heard them:
“Sarah lost the babies.”
I went down onto the ground in that cheap apartment, under the counter-height bar, on the linoleum. That was where I realized what a total idiot I’d been with Tim, years before. It doesn’t matter where you are when you hear. The only people who care about the context of your grief are those who observe it.
Years later my mother would say one thing about that moment. In a conversation about the girls, I would say one of those deficient things that people say: “I was heartbroken.”
“Kate,” she said, in the voice of a mother who is about to say “I wrote that book.”
“Kate,” she said, “I heard you on the phone.”
I have no idea what sound I made on the phone.
I don’t remember that conversation the way you don’t remember the colors of the cars that passed after you crashed your bike and saw the skin of your knee peeled open, revealing flesh that never wanted to be touched by the air.
But by the time I hung up the phone I knew a few things: Sarah and her husband Chris would go to the hospital tomorrow morning and check in to deliver the girls. We would all go with them, my mom, my dad, my sister, and me. I bought a ticket for the first flight out the next morning. My mom’s friend Ellen picked me up from the airport in Denver. She drove me to my parents’ house so I could be there for the silent birth of the first babies of the generation.
Sarah and Chris sat on the couch and everyone was crying. She was so pregnant. Nobody had eaten. Nobody had slept. It was time to go to the hospital where she’d give birth. Where she’d planned to give a very different birth.
We walked down the wide hallway in my parents’ house together, holding each other up. We got into the car and held hands and cried, squinting against the sunny cold day. Colorado weather advisories often warn of glare because in the winter the sun sits on the horizon all day, at that low spot where the visor won’t block it.
I was still furious that she had to deliver the babies. The night before on the phone, when they’d told me the plan, I had snapped at them.
“Are you kidding? She has to deliver them? Why can’t they just knock her out?”
My parents had explained that if she wanted to have more babies, this was the safest way to make sure that she could, that the recovery after a vaginal birth would be so much easier than post-surgery. Besides, she wanted to be awake. She wanted to feel the birth.
It sounded needlessly cruel to me and I was offended by the idea of labor pains on top of this deeper, forever pain. But I was the person who wanted the pain to stop immediately. My sister has always been wiser about pain than I am and she knew that she needed to feel it. She knew this would be her chance to meet her daughters in this world. Of course she wanted to be awake.
We drove out to the hospital together, a knot of people all clutching each other’s hands, arms, shoulders. My parents checked her into the labor and delivery unit. The hallways were unbearable: bright, busy, covered in colorful photos of bright-eyed babies. We could hear the sounds of babies fussing behind some of the doors. Anxious, breathless soon-to-be-grandparents lurked around the nourishment station, munching on snacks and barely containing their excitement.
“Why are we here,” I hissed to my mother. “This is bullshit.”
Sarah’s room had a sign stuck to the door: a laminated purple lily. It was a huge room, filled with far more empty space in it than we could fill, even with our crew. A hospital bed sat against one wall, flanked by a recliner on one side and a rolling bassinet on the other. A door led to a small bathroom, and next to the bathroom a bench folded out into a narrow cot with a thin, navy blue, plastic-covered mattress.
The nurse who checked us in had tears in her eyes. I hated her. Keep your shit together, nurse, I wanted to snap in her face. This isn’t about you.
Months later, Sarah would send thank-you gifts to the nurses at the hospital. “We were heartbroken,” she said, “But this was traumatic for them, too. And they had to help lots of other families while they were helping us, and they couldn’t express their pain the way we could.” She has always been wiser and gentler about pain than I am.
Sarah climbed into the hospital bed, already weary, and looked around as if she’d just arrived here with no memory of the journey. Her eyes landed on the bassinet. She looked away. She asked the crying nurse to please take the bassinet out of the room.
In a few days, I’d be buying three pairs of black pantyhose and four nursing bras at Target. The cashier would hold up one of the nursing bras and smile. “Oh boy,” she’d say.
“It’s for my sister,” I’d reply.
“Is she having fun?” She’d ask. Knowingly. Nostalgically. Setting me up for a punchline.
“No,” I’d say. Rudely. It was all I could say. I’d already had to tell too many people too many times. “The babies died,” “It’s for a funeral,” “A baby’s funeral,” “Twin girls.”
We took turns at the hospital while they started Sarah on a pitocin drip to start her labor. We were there for two days, three days, a week, a month, three hours, I have no idea how long. During the days people came to visit. Some friends climbed into bed with Sarah. Some sat in the recliner. Everyone cried. My mom’s friend Barb told Sarah, “You’ll never forget them. I never forgot mine.”
During the nights, someone slept in the cot and someone slept in the recliner and two people went home to sleep in beds.
“We have to keep taking care of ourselves,” my dad said to me in the hallway, one night, one morning, one fluorescent hour at the nourishment station where we made mugs of tea. “They’ll need us and we won’t be any use to them if we’re exhausted and sick.”
I felt superhuman and empty, like all my human needs had been suspended. I felt like a ghost. I was able to walk through walls, hungerless, moaning at a frequency that human ears can’t hear.
One night, Chris drove me back to my parents’ house and on the way he pulled into an empty parking lot and threw a few doughnuts and e-brake turns. He accelerated into turns on the cold ground, his mouth a line. I held on, silently. Nothing helped.
I remember sleeping in a bed at my parents’ house, loopy and drowsy after drinking a single Blue Moon, and realizing I’d eaten nothing at all that day. I remember lying on the cot in the hospital room with a notebook and a pen, unable to think of anything to write so I wrote down the time. I remember dozing in the recliner, holding my sister’s hand. I remember my arm went numb.
It was one of the days when my Grandmother came to sit with us for a bit. My father’s mother laughs constantly, a bright-eyed Greatest Generation pragmatic optimist whose personal motto might be “We’re marching to our deaths? Better keep up the pace!” She sat at my sister’s bedside and smiled with tears in her eyes.
“I know,” she said. “I know.”
I don’t know if I was there when she told my sister about her lost babies, over and over again after my dad’s youngest brother was born. She kept getting pregnant and kept losing the babies, and after the last one, after they had a hard time stopping the bleeding, the doctor assured her that he would take care of it. She went under, and when she came back up she never got pregnant again. Sarah thought I was there when she told that story, but when she casually mentioned it later, our Grandmother’s mysterious surgery, I had no memory of it. All I remembered was her sitting in that recliner, smiling with tears in her eyes.
I hate the expression “lost the baby.” As if the child was keys or a library book. As if mindfulness or a conveniently-placed hook could have prevented it. As if it could be found again.
People say it because nobody wants to say “The baby died.” I don’t blame them, but I’ll tell you, people who have been there when a baby died don’t flinch at those words the way they flinch at the idea, sometimes unspoken, sometimes said right the fuck out loud, that they are the ones who lost their babies.
“She lost the baby.”
She did? No, but they were just right here. But she’s so sorry. But she didn’t mean to. But she did everything right. She retraced her steps.
The girls, Luella Rose and Carolina Violet, were born at night, in the same second, in each other’s arms. When my sister pushed them out, easily, we stood at the head of the bed: her husband, my parents, my sister, and me. I smelled the birth, a dark inside smell, as the Dr. Saunders murmured, “One more. There.” He and the nurse wrapped the babies in blankets.
Chris offered one of the girls to me. “Do you want to hold Carolina?”
It had been a cord accident. Nothing anyone could have done. Sarah and Chris held their daughters. I think Sarah smiled. I think Sarah wailed. People passing in that bright hallway must have known that something awful happened. We didn’t even need a purple lily on the door.
A photographer was supposed to come and take pictures of the girls. The photographer was late. It was night and these photographers are volunteers. She was on her way. She was coming. She was late.
The girls needed to go to the morgue. Sarah did not want them to go. She didn’t want them to be cold and alone, in the dark, far away from her. We wondered if someone could go sit with them until the photographer arrived. We were told that wasn’t possible. The sun was coming up.
Sarah didn’t want to hold them if they were cold. She didn’t want them to be cold. She wanted them to be warm. We all wanted them to be warm.
Finally, the photographer came. I hated her. She was late. She should have been here hours ago, in the dark, when the girls were wrapped in blankets and could have been sleeping through the night. The sun was up now and the girls looked dead. She took photographs of their hands and feet, the parts that still could have been sleeping. I hated the photographer.
I called Ryan. “I need you to come.”
“I don’t know if I can get off work.”
I called Ryan. “I need you to come.”
“I’ll try to get off work.”
I called Ryan. “Why won’t you come.”
“I understand. You need to come.”
We booked his ticket.
Ellen and Barb, my mom’s friends, took care of details. They took care of flowers and RSVPs, and Ellen offered to host the gathering at her home. They found the girls’ clothes: tiny, beautifully detailed white dresses and bonnets. “Where did you find these,” I asked.
“You don’t want to know,” Barb said.
Did she buy them at a doll store? Was there a place to buy burial clothes for prematurely stillborn baby girls? I still don’t know. A lot of baffling things happen in the days after a death, and you don’t really follow up on most of them. For example, in the hospital my dad, a sweetheart of a square for whom “crap” was about as foul as it got, started saying “fuck” with frequency and fluency. He weaved this recent acquisition into conversation with me, my mom, my sisters, my brother-in-law. “What the fuck,” he said, shaking his head, two pens in his shirt pocket, his phone holstered on his hip. “This is so fucking unfair. This fucking sucks.”
At first, when I heard my dad dropping enthusiastic f-bombs in that hospital hallway with its pink-cheeked baby portraits, I mistook the warmth in my heart for humor. Now I know that warmth was gratitude. He embraced profanity because our pain was fucking profane. It was fucking appropriate. It fucking sucked.
I think I wrote part of the program? I think I might have helped to write the girls’ eulogy for my parents to deliver. I remember sitting at the computer but I don’t remember what I wrote. I remember being surprised that all I had to do was type a few certain words into Google to get what I needed. Google returns results for “infant funeral” without making you scroll past a purple lily icon or images of heartbroken nurses, or x-out a pop-up window conveying the Internet’s deepest condolences. Google simply gives you what you asked for, pages and pages of bible verses for infant funerals and song recommendations and what to cook for bereaved parents. Thank you, Google, you heartless answer machine.
I made tea and broth at my parents’ house. Hot liquids, Google told me, were the way to go. Drinkable, coaxable nutrition, comforting in its warmth. Nothing cold.
It was the week of the baby shower. Gifts from the registry started to arrive at my parents’ house, where the whole family was sleeping, curled up together under one roof with a big walk-in pantry, not that we were eating. The family organized a rapid response system whenever anyone saw a FedEx or UPS delivery man walking up to the door.
Where would we put the two car seats in their unhidable boxes? Where would we hide two cribs? We warned Sarah and Chris not to open the front hall closet.
They had just bought a minivan.
The nursery in their condo was waiting.
Chris needed a suit for the funeral. I called the local Nordstrom and asked to speak with the manager in men’s suits. After a brief hold, he picked up.
“Hello, this is Mark.”
“Hi Mark. My name is Katie. I need to bring my brother-in-law in for a suit. It is for his twin daughters’ funeral. We need this to be quick and professional. We do not want to talk about it and we do not need anyone asking stupid questions.”
Mark did not go, “Oh no.” He did not gasp or cry. I could practically hear him nod efficiently on the phone. He said, “I’ll take care of it myself. When would you like to come in?”
We made an appointment and went into the store. Mark was in his forties or fifties. I remember him with a thick mustache. He greeted us with absolutely no fanfare, no weepy nurse eyes, and absolutely no nervousness. He looked into Chris’s eyes, shook Chris’s hand, and said, “I have your room ready for you.”
Chris tried on the first suit. It was perfect. Wordlessly, Mark brought a shirt, a tie, socks, shoes, and a belt. We asked if the alterations could be done within the hour. They could. We bought everything. I said, “Thank you.” Mark nodded.
I loved Mark.
I had a list of funeral things to buy for people who needed them. I hadn’t brought anything for a funeral in the suitcase I don’t remember packing. I bought a black dress, black bra, black shoes. Sarah needed a black dress that would fit her postpartum body. Everyone needed pantyhose. It was November, and even though we had recently become the kind of family that says “fuck” in the baby ward, we weren’t about to attend a funeral with bare legs.
Sarah’s milk came in, an excruciating fuck-you from Mother Nature, a merciless reminder of the love that couldn’t be lavished on these babies, the milk they’d never drink.
I would make a quick trip to Target.
The pastor fucked up real bad at my parents’ kitchen table, where we all sat over cooling mugs of untouched tea. His wife stared at him, panicked, as he wondered aloud if unbaptized babies went to heaven. There were different schools of thought, he explained to the grieving mother of two unbaptized babies whose blood still dripped into the heavy pad she wore and whose milk ached, undrunk, in her breasts.
Some people thought you absolutely had to be baptized, he went on.
Some people thought that babies weren’t at the age of understanding of good and evil and were therefore exempt from the baptism requirement, he pontificated.
Nobody knows, he said to the parents about to bury their babies.
My sister stared at him, desperate. I stared at him, enraged.
“... but I believe they are with God in heaven,” he concluded.
What the fuck, dude. What the fuck. I’ll never forgive him. My sister already has.
Sarah wanted a tattoo and she wanted it before the girls went into the ground. It was the week before Thanksgiving. She made calls to tattoo artists in the area and explained what happened, what she wanted. Sweet Jenny Lee said yes. I don’t know how many days had passed when Sarah got in the car and came home again hours later with a beautiful forearm tattoo of a rose and a violet, their stems entwined.
“Did it hurt,” I asked. It was a stupid question. Nothing would ever hurt again the way this hurt.
“No,” she said with a sad smile. “I’m still on the stuff from the hospital. So that’s a bonus.” We all laughed.
You should have seen the way she looked down at that tattoo, caressed its edges before it was healed, as she sat through her daughters’ funeral.
The morning of the funeral we went into a private room at the funeral home and said our good-byes to the girls, who lay together in their beautiful doll dresses in a single casket. There had been some concern as to whether it was legal to bury them in the same casket, but Sarah had been insistent. I slipped the copy of “Brave Irene” that I’d bought for them into their bed.
We all sat together in the second row. I don’t remember why we weren’t in the first. We cried and held hands so tightly our fingers went white. Chris’s parents spoke. My parents spoke.
Ella and Violet never knew hunger, cold, loneliness or fear. They lived their entire lives surrounded by love and care.
The singer got through “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” and I don’t know how she did it. We stood at the front of the room, in front of an enormous picture window that looked out over the Rocky Mountains, and hugged the mourners. Sarah’s swollen breasts must have hurt so much as person after person pulled her in for a hug. She looked down at her fresh tattoo and smiled, over and over again.
We drove to the graveside, where the wind was bitterly cold and some chairs had been set up under a canopy. We all tried to sing “Jesus Loves Me,” but the last time I tried to sing while crying was the Sunday in church after Columbine and that was the first time I learned that grief is breathtaking, voicetaking. I tried to breathe.
Suddenly, my paternal grandparents’ car alarm went off. Grandmother Margaret, my mother’s mom, a tall, strange Texan with schizo-effective disorder and a penchant for wearing her dead friends’ clothes, had been locked in the grandparents’ car somehow, and when she tried to get out, the car alarm went off. The honking rolled over the green hills of the cemetery and Granddad fumbled for his keys. I think I heard him mumble, “Oh, shit.” He silenced the alarm. Margaret lurched up the path and joined the group. “I got locked in the car,” she announced, unnecessarily. “But I’m out now.”
At the kitchen table that night, a strange relief would pass over us and we would all laugh, the whole family. “But I’m out now,” we’d gasp in thick Texas twangs, tears pouring from our eyes and our bellies aching.
Chris wanted to carry the casket to the grave. My mom grabbed my arm. “You have to hold Chris. You have to hold onto him hard. He might go down.” He carried the girls to the grave in his new suit. When the box went into the earth in November, it was cold and windy and we all tried to sing “Jesus Loves Me,” and Sarah wailed a long, keening, “No,” that sounded like it came from the center of the Earth. Her legs dropped her. Chris stood at her side and held her. I stood next to Chris and held him. I don’t know where anyone else was. We went home.
The next day (I think?) I picked Ryan up at the airport. He walked into my parents’ house, hugged everyone, and vanished into the kitchen. He opened the fridge, the pantry. He preheated the oven. He roasted a chicken, then made homemade chicken soup from the carcass. He made bone broth, bacon and eggs, steel-cut oatmeal. He cooked breakfast, lunch, and dinner. He made the grocery lists and boiled water for tea.
I’m told he cooked Thanksgiving dinner that year, all of it, nearly single-handedly. I have no memory of that day, the meal, if my dad wrote a toast as he does every year. I don’t remember a bite of dinner or dessert, a gulp of wine, what anyone wore, or who was there. Did we eat at 2 or at 6? Did we have any guests? Chris’s parents had flown in for the funeral. Were they there? I don’t know.
I shared a draft of this story with my mom and she told me something I didn’t know: “Ryan came to me and said, ‘Give me your Thanksgiving recipes. Tell me what you make.’ He could have just cooked his own Thanksgiving for us, but he cooked our Thanksgiving for us. I’ll always remember that.”
That makes the one of us.
Ella and Violet were born on November 18, nine years ago.
In the years since the lost Thanksgiving, there have been more babies, more miscarriages, more turkeys and gravy, more baby showers, more funerals, more missed calls that stopped my heart and turned out to be questions about movie trivia, more phone calls that could have been anything but were the worst thing. For a long time it seemed like everywhere we went, the radio played some version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” and nine years in I don’t automatically cry or make up a reason to step out of the room until the song is over.
Somewhere over the rainbow, skies are blue. And the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true.
In the years since our girls died, I’ve been on the other end of the phone more times than I can count. Work friends, old friends, mom friends, relatives. And whenever a friend lets me know through text (“Not this time,” or “Not pregnant anymore :(”) I am both heartbroken and grateful for our girls, who left us far too soon, but who left behind a precious gift for the people who love them.
Parents whose babies don’t live know that they are a walking nightmare for parents whose babies do live. To describe the loss of a child as devastating is to describe the Grand Canyon as large. It’s true but paltry, a single pebble of a word, tossed into a deep, winding, complex chasm that is at once fixed and constantly evolving.
The living parent’s pain is unspeakable, but it needs to be spoken. The girls gave me the gift of an instinct to walk toward these parents instead of running from them. Crying together, laughing together, eating together, walking through the world together is the only way to reach across the vast, bottomless canyon that surrounds the living parents of lost children. Because those parents are desperately alone. Because even if they have learned to be comfortable with the death that makes your legs go numb with terror, they still live. And dammit, they want to go see a movie at the theater where they bring you wine. Are you game?
A few years ago, my sister was at a neighborhood barbecue with a number of other families and five sets of twins among them. In a circle of casual chit-chat with several other moms, one woman exclaimed, “I thought I wanted twins when I got pregnant, but now I just think, oh God, what a nightmare! Right?” She laughed.
“I just looked down,” my sister told me. “I didn’t want to make her uncomfortable.”
I said, “Don’t you ever wish you could say ‘Yeah! But you know what would be EVEN MORE NIGHTMARISH than twins?’”
My sister jumped in. “Dead twins!”
We both laughed a real, full-body laugh.
So I guess at the end of this entire story, when I ask myself why I wrote this thing, there are two answers: First, to remember our darling girls, Ella and Violet, and to share their story with you. A story about “the daughters we lost,” might not be considered polite small talk. But you know what? Fuck polite small talk. These daughters are beloved, and at some point they were not lost. There are stories about them that will make you smile, even crack you up, if you can hear them. The children who were loved and gone too soon are not Bloody Mary, for fuck’s sake. They’re not Voldemort. We can say their names. Their parents wish we would.
The second reason I wrote this is to ask you to run toward people in pain, even if their pain feels fatal. Listen, if you’re reading this then you made it through my pain and you survived. Even if death and grief scare you the way Ryan was scared, you can show up. And even if they never remember you did, you can cook their Thanksgiving, somehow.
Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep is a nonprofit that partners volunteer photographers with parents of stillborn infants. For these parents, these photographs are an important remembrance of their children. Our family treasures our photos of Ella and Violet.
Share is a national support network for families surviving pregnancy or infant loss.