"Do You Like Olives?" What I Wish I Could Ask My Son
I have the most incredible book for you. It’s as though the author had you in mind when they wrote it. Each chapter is a mystery, full of twists and turns that you’ll never anticipate. It’s going to break your heart, but in the best of ways. You’re going to fall in love with the main character. They are so complex and you get to watch them grow from chapter to chapter. You’ll be so influenced by them that you’ll feel like you’re growing right alongside them, and I wouldn’t be surprised if you are. I would have given you this book sooner, but I didn’t think you were ready. I’m so excited for you. It’s going to change everything.
That’s what it felt like when my wife and I found out we were pregnant. For years we were terrified of the prospect. It felt like the death-knell of all our dreams. If we got pregnant, how would we travel to Japan? When would we get scuba certified and dive the great reefs of the world? Would we have to give up all those nights with a bottle of wine split between us, those early morning ascents of Colorado 14ers, our sleep in general?
But then something began shifting, internally, for the two of us, over the past year.
Maybe it’s been watching our parents grow older and knowing that someday we will wish our kids had had more time with them. Maybe it was seeing couples travel with their baby strapped to their backs, watching little ones with fishing poles in hand or running off with tent stakes, that has made us look forward to inviting our children into all the things we love. We began to see having a child not as the end of our story, but as the beautiful adventure of the next chapter.
We were making the internal shift from “pregnancy is bad and means we’ve lost our freedom” to “this is something amazing, something we want.” We knew that we couldn’t be totally prepared for all that this would mean, but for two strongly independent people even making that shift was life-changing.
I started thinking about what this would mean for me: a father. Suddenly the stakes got much higher on just about everything. I needed to be able to provide for my family in new ways. More intimidating still, I needed to be able to impart value on a developing mind. From being a good person, to being strong, inquisitive, loving, and grounded. I needed to come to terms with what I believe about faith and food and philosophy and storytelling in ways that I never had wrestled with before. As Jonathan Safran Foer wrote in his work Eating Animals, “Feeding my children is not like feeding myself: it matters more.”
I was coming to terms with the depths of what a father is, how I would take up the role, and I tried to anticipate much of what I needed to know as I strained to lift the fabric of time and catch glimpses of that undulating future.
And then early one morning in February my wife called me into our bathroom where she stood holding the positive result that changed our lives forever. We were going to be parents. No, we are parents. There, inside my beloved’s womb, is the growing body of my, of our, child. It couldn’t be denied. We believe that child has a soul, right now, a soul that lives outside of time. We believe that we each do, which means we are parents to that soul, long before we hold the child in our arms.
Two souls in one body. Two hearts. Two sets of hands and feet and eyes and lungs. In a moment we became parents, pregnant with new life, new possibilities, and the whole world felt like it had turned on its head. I knew what pregnancy was. I had no idea what pregnancy is.
I have the most incredible book for you.
We began to look at development photos that matched where our little one was, week to week. Vitamins, no alcohol, no caffeine, careful with which essential oils she used, what are we going to do about the office when we make it a nursery?
We shared in the joy with family and close friends, knowing that the first trimester is dangerous waters. We had a sense that we were going to have a son, and every day the miracle knit itself together. Finger nails, spinal cord, beating heart, we loved this little person and wondered what they would look like.
My son and I almost shared a birthday. Two and a half hours separate the day he entered the world from the day I celebrate mine. As I stood in our bathroom looking at his body in my wife’s hand it felt like my whole world had stopped. Except that while her body went into labor, this isn’t called “birth,” it is called “passing.” You need to be alive to have a birthday, and my son wasn’t alive; in fact he hadn’t been alive for the past week, but we had only learned this in the last 24 hours.
On March 30th, around 11 pm, my wife almost fainted during her shift at work and was sent to the Emergency Department. I got a ride over as soon as I heard. We feared what might be happening. Somewhere inside we might have told you that we knew. There were no tears when my wife saw the ultrasound, no tears when there was no heartbeat, no tears when we were informed we had had a missed miscarriage and that our son’s heart had stopped a week ago.
The next 24 hours were more like flashes of color and emotion than anything like real life. Words seemed to have lost their meaning. There wasn’t space for concepts like loss, heartbreak, and labor. Our world became the size of a hospital room. Pain, cervix, saline, blue gloves, plastic wedges… I tried to help as she vomited everything she had, then dry heaved everything she didn’t. I remember calling and cancelling our dinner reservations, like my brain wanted something normal to do. There wasn’t space to understand or grieve.
The ER doctor tried to do a manual extraction of the “tissue.” Our nurse told us how she had had a miscarriage at the same time as us, and how the four natural births she had gone on to have were nothing near as physically painful as her miscarriage. Still, there were no tears. There were no categories for what was happening. We didn’t know to be grateful that the doctor couldn’t get the body out. We didn’t know that if they had we might not have been able to keep his body.
Back home the following night at 2:30am, my wife calls me into our bathroom. The same place we learned that we were pregnant not so long ago. A lifetime ago. The body of our son, in my wife’s hand. Perfect, human, broken.
It’s going to break your heart.
That world that had been turned upside down was ripped apart. Grief like I have not known came crashing down and smothered us, smothered me. There he was, that unknowable future, and gone already. My chest is ripped out and lying somewhere on the floor. I am four years old and not strong enough to hold up my world. I did not know what heartbreak was.
We placed his body in the world’s holiest matchbox, and held each other and wept.
A few days later we buried Patrick Samuel in the mountains behind my home. Surrounded by family we blessed his body, we spoke the broken words of broken hearts and prayed more for ourselves than for a soul whose fate we do not question. And then time betrayed us and refused to move like it should. Hours became days and weeks became minutes. Tides of loss and grief came in and out. As C.S. Lewis wrote in A Grief Observed:
No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing. At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps, hard to want to take it in. It is so uninteresting. Yet I want the others to be about me. I dread the moments when the house is empty. If only they would talk to one another and not to me.
Others began to share their own stories of miscarriage with us, and it felt like nearly everyone we knew has been touched somehow. I want to fall at the feet of those friends who have shared their stories with me before, I did not understand. My wife is a nurse, so we know the statistics, that somewhere between 20 and 50 percent of pregnancies end in miscarriage, with so many of them unnoticed. We know that it is often nature’s way of ending a non-viable development. That does nothing for what it really is.
It is a person. A promise. A new beginning. A life. A dream. And real, true, sometimes overwhelming grief.
It may sound strange, but I’ve become grateful our story went the way it did. So often men and women experience miscarriages in dramatically different ways. For the woman, there was life inside you, there was the physical experience of being pregnant, and the loss is palpable and real. I’ve heard stories of husbands who never saw a body, never had a tangible experience of presence and therefore never really experienced loss. The mind breaks and takes the brunt in ways the heart cannot. It’s traumatizing in entirely different ways.
I’m so grateful I got to see him.
I’ve found myself asking impossible questions lately. I want to know answers to things that can never be. I want to sit my son in my lap and ask him what he thinks about the feel of a cold stream moving around his feet. I want to know his favorite time of day; do you wake full of life and excitement like your mother, or do you stay up late into the night and look up at the stars like your father? Do you have a cowlick like me?
Do you hate the smell of mushrooms cooking? Where do spend your time? What kind of stories do you like? Do you chase dragonflies or do they scare you as they dip and dive? What is your favorite color, your favorite season, your favorite dinosaur? Do you like olives?
Did you feel pain?
Do you miss us?
Do you think me silly for asking you questions that you can’t answer, for shedding tears when you are well and whole? I want to flesh out the person that I anticipated knowing on this side. I want glimpses of the story, of the book that was promised to me, when all I got was a book full of empty pages.
All of those things we thought we were giving up: the alcohol and caffeine, the travel and adventure, the personal freedom, we know meant nothing. I would give them all up for one more day with my son.
Then slowly, gently, we found ourselves wanting to say “yes” to life again. It won’t replace what we have lost. It won’t change our story. But we don’t want death, or the fear of another death, or of another after that, to be the final word. We will hope and open ourselves up to whatever story that might bring.
It’s going to change everything.