Losing a child is not a typical topic on this blog, but when a very young child of my neighbors died suddenly, it brought to mind something my mother had said to me–that ‘mothers should never have to experience losing a child.’ She said that this event was more difficult for her than losing her parents, siblings and even her spouse.
When my mother died a few years ago, I found a brief diary, a photograph and baby shoes carefully placed in a bureau drawer that she reserved for her treasures. In this diary she had written about the loss of her child, my brother Michael Robert, who died at the age of three months. She carefully saved these precious items for almost fifty years. Rather than have her story be forgotten now, I have decided to share it with you. My personal commentary can be found at the end of this article.
Handwritten in January 1960, by Mary M. Webster of Manchester, New Hampshire:
“When I awoke and asked what I had had–“a boy,” the nurse answered with the usual “doing fine,” but with a little reluctance in her tone that just made me think she was the unfriendly type. I remember my eyes straying to the crucifix to thank God and a thought about the little Judy we had all planned, but thinking well the boys and daddy will be pleased, and little boy babies are real sweet. What were we going to call him–oh yes, Michael Robert. Michael, because we all liked the name, and Robert after a favorite brother and a nice nephew who we were going to ask to be his godfather.
The doctor had delivered babies continually that morning, so I didn’t see him at the regular time–they do have to sleep sometime. Around noontime the nurses came with the wagon-load of precious bundles. When they brought each of the mothers their baby and skipped me was the first time my heart started skipping a few beats and I was all questions. The nurse explained that mine was an 8 month baby and that all premature babies were kept in oxygen for 24 hours. I realized this was true because I had seen a nice big baby in oxygen about a month before at the Elliott, and the nurse had explained the same thing. So even then I was a bit apprehensive but didn’t really know what was going on.
During the morning Webb came–beaming from ear to ear–he had another member of his baseball team! He was so pleased to see me wide awake and feeling fine (this time) and he had seen the baby and kept explaining to me how the baby was asleep but he was a big rugged boy and looked a lot like our dear Peter. He apologized that the flowers weren’t there and said he would order them on his way home. Whereupon I made him promise not to spend the money, we needed so dearly for vitamins, doctor bills, etc. or me. It was very nice for our first children to wake up to a beautiful bouquet of red roses but I realized now with our large family that my husband worked too hard to spend our money on such luxuries, when there were necessities to be taken care of. He hadn’t had any sleep. He worked nights and had stayed up to bring the children to school, and come to the hospital. So I induced him to go home and to bed.
That evening, Doctor Provencher [this was Dr. Robert F. Provencher, Sr. who died in 1991] came to see me and cautiously told me that the cord had been wrapped around the baby’s head so tight that he felt he ought to call in a specialist to check the baby over. He was very calm and told me not to be alarmed because Mikey was premature and it was too soon to tell much. Thereupon the specialist was called and he was to check the baby the next a.m. I prayed so hard for our Mikey that night but somehow never lost faith that he would be all right. The next morning was a new day, and I greeted it with a smile and lots of hope in my heart that the specialist would have good news for me. My first day on my feet and feeling rather wobbly I was greeted by a good looking young man who introduced himself as the specialist–Dr. Jalbert. [This was Dr. Eugene O. Jalbert who died in February of this year]. He spoke too, about the cord around the baby’s neck, and about how perhaps the baby in fighting the water had would that cord so tightly around his neck. He told me that surely I must have noticed a lot of movements from the baby. I said yes, but since the previous birth had been twins, I was just very sure that this was going to be twins too (because of so much movement). He then spoke about the damage this cord had done. He felt it was too soon to say how much, but that damage definitely to the child’s brain and he would be retarded.
My first impression was one of horror, that this should happen to our beloved child that we all had so anxiously awaited, and I believe I completely forgot that the Doctor was there, and placed my hands over my face in horror and spoke to my Lord, God and said, “Oh no–please God–no.” I am ashamed to say, there was no resignation to His Will. I begged him to let me wake up and find his whole thing a nightmare. But the cold facts were there, and so was the doctor who hated to have to tell me, and said so. He told me he would see the baby again in a few days and would get in touch with me further. As it was, the baby was not even taking water, and turned blue when taken out of oxygen. I asked if the blueness had anything to do with my having RH negative blood, and he said no.
My room was a semi-private (three beds), the two other patients had heard the doctor tell me his diagnosis. They were very nice women, but actual strangers to me and I was fast losing my composure. Composure I say–I’m sure to look at me one could tell what a torment of emotion was at its breaking point. I looked around in vain for a little corner where I could let go and cry in privacy. I finally found the toilet and while approximately 7 new mothers waited for their turn to use this 2×4, I locked the door and cried my heart out.
That was just the beginning. Oh, how I longed for a private room! I had always liked people–and aside from the fact that we couldn’t afford one, I always preferred to be with other people. A hospital is a lonesome place and since this was my 13th stay, I knew how long the hours in between visits could be. But this time I needed a private room so desperately. The other two patients were kind and sympathetic but this proud old Irish heart didn’t want sympathy or kindness–just a tiny bit of privacy where I could even talk to my husband. At first I thought he had put on an act for my sake and knew about the baby, but poor Webb, he did not know and just could not believe, he said, as the baby looked so good.
When Doctor Provencher came he said we should pray that God would take our baby. Because of his lack of muscle tone he didn’t brace himself against us as other babies do but snuggled right down in the corner of our arms so nicely. Even Webb used to say–‘He knows those arms of yours.’ — He would stop crying right off. Little Janice said one day–“Mommy, why does Mikey always stop crying when you take him?” (The children loved to hold him, as a matter of fact they used to argue over whose turn it was–and he loved them so –he would watch every move they made and listen to them talk to him as if he understood it all. After being held for some time like all little babies he would get tired and when he would cry they were very willing that I should take him immediately.
When I held this warm, happy child, I knew a happiness I had never known. Not all the startling diagnoses in the world could detract from the fact that we were very happy parents, with a wonderful, beautiful, child. We naturally worried about various things, but felt that God had performed a miracle because after such a final diagnosis to have a warm, alert happy child who knew we loved him, and showed his love for us in many ways. He would coo and talk to us as all little babies do. I would give Webb his supper before the rest because he had to leave for work, and Mikey almost always had his supper with his daddy. He had no difficulty taking his solids–he loved his cereal and his fruit and he took them beautifully. He so obviously enjoyed his meal that his father used to talk to him and say things like, ‘Is that good, Mikey? Wouldn’t you like a plate of beans, Mikey? ” Mikey would never fail to look at his father and answer him and what always surprised me was that he wouldn’t choke on his food. I was always cautioning Webb not to talk to him at this time because he might choke on his food trying to answer him, but Mikey would swallow his food, answer his father and look forward to the next one. It was a very happy time for all of us. Mikey so obviously adored his father as his big brother Peter before him. And Webb never got tired of holding or talking to Mikey. he had the patience that only a father who dearly loved his son could possibly possess.
He had wonderful suction for a little baby. As a matter of fact he loved to suck his thumb and later he would make a few vain attempts to capture it and would finally make it he would make such a noise sucking it we would tease and call him our little ‘Porky Pig’ because you could hear him in the next room.
One night as the children knelt and I sat holding the baby for the family rosary (as I often had to because Mikey would start to fuss at this time), we were all reciting the rosary and Mikey kept searching our faces and listening to our voices. He must have known all the time our prayers would be answered. Without any warning Mikey made a noise very much like an exclamation of some sort and we all laughed (not meaning to be disrespectful to the Almighty) but feeling sure that Mikey wanted to join us in saying the rosary. After the act of contrition every night our children would say ‘Please God–make our Mikey better.’
[My mother does not write in her diary about the night that Michael Robert died, or perhaps she did, but she destroyed or threw away that section of her story. She told us later that Mikey had woken up crying very early in the morning, it was still dark outside. She had fed him, and while he was nestled in her arms, he suddenly died.]
Even at this writing my heart cries out for little Mikey. We miss him so much. And though people tell us we would be heart broken when he couldn’t accomplish things other children could (and we know we would because at three months we had experienced those heartbreaks). But the love for your child and that look in his eyes when you cuddle him and bathe him and take care of him is worth all the hearth breaks in the world! No mother who has never known heart break will ever know the great joy that comes when her baby is able to raise his head, when he isn’t even supposed to or some other unexpected accomplishment.
My heart was aching with real pain that a mother feels when she has lost her child. One day feeling miserably lonesome for our little Mike, I stepped to the window to see the children play. Our little Janice had skipped up on the steps and her little ‘boy friend’ Michael Kittredge followed very casually. Michael asked , “Did your baby brother really die?” “Yes,” Janice said. “He’s a saint,” said Michael. “He’s an angel,” said Jan. “He’s a saint,” Michael said once more. “All right then, ” said Jan, “He’s an angel and a saint.” “Is your mother sad?” he asked. “Not today,” answered Jan.
Somehow his [Mickey’s] bureau just magnetized me. I had to go and look at his little clothes–to reassure myself that this wasn’t all a dream–that our little angel had really come to us and gone. This ache in my heart told me it was so, but how could everything be changed so soon? No crib in the bedroom, no bassinet in the bedroom, no car bed in the living room, no baby clothes on the line, no baby bottles in the refrigerator. No baby to bathe, feed and love. Hugging his little booties or soft pink nightie didn’t bring him back. Oh, how I ached for the feel of his warm, cuddly body in my arms. He just seemed to be long there and he would look so loving and content.
(end of my mother’s diary).
My mother was a woman of courage. She almost never took the ‘easy way out,’ and she always put her family’s needs first. In later years when my mother would speak about Mikey, she would say that she would never have foregone the experience of having Michael, even if she had known in advance what the outcome would be. His presence in our family changed and shaped how we all felt about people with disabilities. We became, I think, more accepting of the frailties of others. Thank you Mom, and Mikey both, for providing a lovely lesson in tolerance, empathy, and unabashed love.