“I don’t think she ever wore that,” I said to my husband, Matt. “I don’t remember her in that.”
I was sitting on the couch in my daughter Havi’s room, my legs straddling a half-full bin of toddler clothes and other items on the floor. Matt was crouched between the bin and Havi’s open bureau drawers as we removed and sorted her clothes into two piles: one that her younger sister, Kaia, would love to wear, and one that we needed to keep as Havi’s own.
Matt looked at the tag: “3T.” Wordlessly we acknowledged the obvious: Havi had never grown to size 3T.
“Can you bring these blankets downstairs, love?” my husband asked me after a while.
His voice brought me back to the couch where I sat — now filling the space where Havi’s crib once stood. I turned toward my husband with arms extended to take the blankets. Instead, Matt gently placed them on the floor and we embraced. Then I bent down over my 39-week pregnant belly, lifted Havi’s blankets and walked slowly out of the room.
As I walked downstairs, I noticed an errant polka dot sticker stuck to the side of my sock. The night before, I had stood on my tippy-toes peeling dozens of sparkly multicolored polka dots off the wall in Havi’s bedroom. I watched Matt stretch for the ones by the ceiling, then over to the large sticker of the spreading tree that hung above Havi’s crib, and on to the engaging chipmunk stuck just above her changing table. Sniffle. Peel. Sniffle. Peel. A sticker collage of memories and shattered hopes and dreams. I hadn’t realized how painful it would be to physically remove them all.
We finally removed the last of the decorative stickers that Matt had put up when Havi was just about a year old. That was the time we started to sense Havi having developmental delays that eventually led to her fatal Tay-Sachs diagnosis. At her first birthday we were still hopeful and hadn’t gotten to that deepest darkest place in our minds and hearts. We couldn’t fathom losing her. But we were worried about her development. That’s why Havi’s brilliant father decided to enliven her space with bold colors and beckoning images of the natural world; we hoped they’d stimulate babbling or crawling.
We lost our firstborn daughter, Havi Lev Goldstein, on Jan. 20, 2021. Two years, four months and sixteen days after she was placed on my chest in the labor and delivery room at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. She was born on Sept. 4, 2018, our wedding anniversary.
Now it’s a Tuesday in August 2022. I am walking slowly around Jamaica Pond, just a quarter of a mile from our home in Jamaica Plain, Mass. The brown, dry grass looks flammable, more like straw really, and the pond is practically dried up. It‘s hot. We need rain.
I’m musing about Havi and Kaia’s baby brother, who is due to arrive soon. Any day now. Kaia, who turned 2 at the end of June, has been telling us that she is going to share her stuffed doggie with him, put Band-Aids on his boo-boos and even give him milk. “Maybe nap together?” Kaia adds, staring up at me with her irresistible big brown eyes. Before I can reply, she’s already run off to find her doll baby to push in her stroller. What I want to say, though, is: “Kaia, I hope that you’ll understand why our attention will be stretched after he joins our family. At the same time, know for sure that our love for you will also stretch as our family grows. You’ve already shared love with big sister Havi.”
As I watch Kaia run off, my thoughts turn to her absent big sister. I rock back and forth and commune with Havi about her baby brother’s arrival. I think, “Havi, I know you understand why your baby brother will move into your room. We struggled to find a way to keep it yours — we even hired an architect to design an extra bedroom for Baby Brother upstairs. In the end, though, Dad and I decided there was a better way to preserve your space at home. We’d move your room downstairs and create a peaceful, meditative place there. As the eldest, you’d probably have wanted to claim that space one day anyway. You’d want some independence and maybe even a little distance from Mom and Dad. Am I rationalizing our doing what felt impossibly hard? By dismantling your bedroom, we said goodbye to yet another aspect of you.”
I continue my internal monologue as I finish my first loop around the pond. “Havi, I wish you could be here to greet Baby Brother when he gets home. As his eldest sister, that only makes sense. But we know ‘things that make sense’ are a long way gone for us. I will do my absolute best to bring you into his life and to keep you connected the way you deserve to be. As I sit and breastfeed your baby brother, in the same room I nursed you every day for the first year of your life, I’ll invite you back in with us. Maybe we can laugh together about how my milk used to spray you right in the eyes, and how you’d close them and shake your head. You were always so patient with me as I learned to be a mom.”
As I finish my contemplation, I feel Havi’s grace and acceptance. My heart rate slows.
Aug. 15, 2022
We brought Ezra home yesterday. He is such a little bundle. Kaia went crazy with him. Kissing and patting him and wanting to share everything. She is amazing. It feels so natural that she is now an older sister.
I’ve been in your old room a lot. Breastfeeding Ezi and having him sleep on me. It’s quite the transition. Your photos are still on top of his bookshelves and sometimes I feel like you’re in there with me. Dad did an amazing job setting up the space; it really feels like his own room. And yours is downstairs, still being finished up. I haven’t been down yet but I know they put a fresh coat of lavender paint on today. Ezi didn’t sleep much last night. I think he’s hungry!
Wishing more than anything that our three children could be together. I know you already met your brother, though. I truly believe that.
I love you beyond.
We return from Ezra’s six-week pediatrician appointment having learned that he’s in the 70th percentile for weight, by far our biggest baby! I head straight for his room to nurse him to sleep. As I rock back and forth in the gray rocking chair in his room, I stare at the new stickers on the wall — beautiful green trees with birds soaring above the treetops. I look down to Ezra’s big blue eyes, staring up at me, and I wonder when or if they’ll turn brown like his sisters’. Change. There’s beautiful new life here. I am comfortable in his room in a way that surprises me. He smiles at me. This is new. Right on cue. Six weeks. And now I notice his left dimple. It’s so delicious and disarming. And then he unleashes another smile that widens my heart.
So what is it like to welcome a new being into your family after experiencing the loss of a child? Profoundly and indescribably precious and hard. There is nothing more miraculous than the start of a new life. And so many moments in these first days and weeks have been constant reminders of Havi’s absence. At times it feels impossible for joy and anguish to coexist, yet for us it must.
How? How to be? How can I be? A new mother? A bereaved mother? Be open to all of your feelings, I tell myself. Treat yourself gently. I think about origami. Explicitly beautiful and intricate. Implicitly delicate and complicated. Strong in its contiguous structure. Sitting in Havi’s old room, in Ezra’s new room, it is impossible to not feel like I am drowning in swirling waves of the most polarized emotions. And it is in those moments that I see, feel, hear, sense the details of life in hyper-color. Anguish and joy do not oppose, they amplify. In the moments around Ezra’s brand-new life, I am embraced by the thin veil separating our existence from the place before and the place after. These moments of mystery challenge our understanding of “being.” It is no coincidence that birth and death — the extremes of our existence — are the moments when we most honestly reconcile with ourselves.
It’s 1 a.m. I am sitting in the rocking chair in the corner looking at the moonlight sneak under the bottom of the window shade. Ezra’s on my lap, his eyes shut, breathing in quiet little puffs. Kaia’s asleep in the room next door. Hav’s impossibly big brown eyes sparkle at me from across the room. Hi Ez. Hi Kai. Hi Hav. I am a forever mother.
Our children, the ones that we can see and the ones that we can’t, will fill up our most raw and tender places if we let them in. Even as they change over time — even as they move beyond our grasp — they will teach us to be more patient, more loving and more brave than we ever knew we could be.