Five

Nelle’s birthday did not arrive slowly as it has in past years. Usually, I could feel the weight of the day creeping up on me. It would be September. I would start to look ahead to our annual trip to the coulee, and the tree where we scattered her ashes. So there was planning, preparation, and looking ahead to her birthday.

This year, because of Covid, a trip to Wisconsin was not an option. Because of Covid, the day seemed to arrive without much warning. All of my mental energy has been focused on keeping my family safe and sane for the past six months. Suddenly her birthday was upon me, and I had not given it much thought.

Yesterday, when I was reviewing my “On This Day” memories and I saw the announcement that we made on social media that our baby had died. I hadn’t forgotten that Nelle’s birthday was the 4th, but it had slipped from my mind that the 3rd was the day our world – and everything we thought we knew about pregnancy and childbirth – crashed.

I felt a bit guilty that I hadn’t approached the day as I had in years past. I knew that as years went by that the day wouldn’t bring about as much raw sadness as it did in the beginning, but my mind has been so preoccupied.

But also, I’ve never thought that losing Nelle, and then Iris, would be the only trauma in my life. And this – a global pandemic – has been a slow, persistent trauma. We’ve lost so much about the way of life that we worked hard to build. So the trauma of baby loss has now been overshadowed by what we are currently experiencing. That assuaged my guilt a bit, that I am currently processing and living something incredibly difficult. Nelle would understand.

Every year I seem to come across someone who “doesn’t know” around her birthday. Today, it was mentioning that I was picking up a cake and had someone ask me “Oh, is it for a birthday?” Yes, it is, I replied. My daughter was stillborn on this day five years ago. I can say that now, and don’t dance around the answer. But in putting those words out into the air, I felt the gut punch of loss that I have felt so many times over the years.

As I went to Whole Foods this afternoon to pick out a cake, I stopped at a forest preserve along the way. By the lake, it almost felt like there was no Covid. People could be outside, spaced apart, at picnic benches and in the grass, without masks. So many people were enjoying the sunshine.

I looked around the lake until I spotted a tree. I wanted a tree with branches spread to the sky, that could stand in the place of the tree in the coulee. I spotted one and walked to it.

Right as I approached, the sky became quickly overcast and a brisk wind rustled through the leaves and grass. The sunshine that had greeted me when I walked onto the path to the tree was gone. I didn’t regard it as a somber moment, but immediately thought it was Nelle saying to me “I’m here. I am with you.”