Conor Sweetman

Gift Ungiven

Conor Sweetman
Gift Ungiven

A Christmas tree lay wrapped in plastic netting and bound to the top of our car.

It was the week after Thanksgiving and my wife and I could hardly wait to get the tree up. It was the beginning of Advent, one of our favorite seasons of the year—when the early night swaths you in comforting darkness and you sit with a warm drink, contemplating quiet thoughts. My wife, a few months pregnant, had just stepped out of the car.

‘Something’s wrong,’ she said, her hand on her belly.

I helped her inside and leaned with my head against the wall. As a new father, I wasn’t even entirely certain what all of the possibilities were, but I trusted her intuition, and was shaken by the worry etched into her face. Eventually she called to me, her voice cracking a little with fear, 'I’m bleeding. A lot.'

It was her first pregnancy. During a mid-morning phone call in early fall, she had tried to contain the news until we were home together that evening. But the words “I’m pregnant” spilled out, and when we finished talking I sat, dumbstruck at how my world had changed so dramatically in just a few seconds. Sitting at my desk just a few minutes earlier, I had been childless. Now, just like that, I was a father.

She glowed as the weeks passed, filled with joy at the prospect of spending Christmas surrounded by her family while new life grew inside of her. I’d see her standing with her hands cradling her belly, smiling and talking softly to her baby, and I realized that there was a connection between them that simply didn’t yet exist for me, despite how much I wanted it to. Our daughter had not yet burrowed her way into my heart the way she had my wife’s.

We started looking through baby name books, the names listed alphabetically side by side, blending together, each a slightly modified version of the one before. My wife was more engaged than I was. I remained cerebral and a bit removed, not just about choosing a name, but also about having a child. I wanted a baby, but it was still theoretical; I hadn’t felt it yet.

'What about Ahava?' she said pointing to the book. 'It’s Hebrew, for ‘beloved’.'

I wasn’t so sure. We had months to choose and I secretly hoped she’d move on to something a little less obscure. I still felt that way the evening she told me she was bleeding.

I listened as she spoke on the phone with her doctor, trying to explain what was happening, her voice calm, not betraying the fear and worry welling up inside. She hung up and paused for a moment before she turned to me, her eyes filling with tears for the first time, 'She says it definitely sounds like we’re losing the baby.'

My heart turned to ice. The winter darkness outside the window was stripped of its comfort. The cold seeped in and sank deep within me, and we wrapped ourselves in blankets. Once again, our reality had changed so dramatically, so quickly, but this time it was a perverse reversal of those moments we’d spent on the phone just a few months before. Instead of a flutter of happiness, I felt a chill spreading through my chest. Five minutes before I had been a father. Now I no longer was.

The doctor said we could go to the emergency room, but we decided to wait to see her Monday when her office opened. For the next 48 hours, night bled into day, and the heaviness inside my chest grew. At some point I removed the tree from the top of the car, but left it on the porch. We slept fitfully. I’d wake in the night to find my wife crying, her heart broken.

As the hours melted into one another, I realized I didn’t want a baby. I wanted this baby. The child inside my wife’s belly became a person. The theoretical reality of her pregnancy became a daughter I now knew I already loved, and my heart cracked. When she told me, as we lay holding each other, that she wanted to name our baby, and name her Ahava – ‘beloved’ – I said yes.

Monday arrived and we passed the Christmas tree on the way to the car. It still lay on the porch, wrapped in plastic netting. I had no hope as my wife lay down on the exam table for the ultrasound that could only confirm what her doctor had already said.

Before I saw the miracle, I heard it. I looked at the doctor and saw tears in her eyes. A heartbeat. Today, Ahava is eleven years old.

But not every story ends in a miracle, and my wife’s second pregnancy did end in miscarriage. 

'Our baby would be 7 years old this month,' she says to me as we sit next to each other on the floor, leaned against the side of our bed, the noise of our three small children filling the rooms beyond our door.

'Do you still think about her?' I ask.

'Every day,' she replies quietly, a sea of pain and loss held in just two words.

There is a story we tell in our family about how much Ahava wanted a baby sister. She prayed one night while my brother and his wife babysat, and we came home to find my sister-in-law close to tears. 'More than anything, I want a baby sister,' Ahava had prayed beside her bed.

A heart-warming anecdote laced with sadness, because a couple of years earlier, before Ahava was old enough to understand what it was to pray, God’s answer had been 'yes,' before it turned to 'no.'

The loss hit my wife hard, and me less so. That’s an awful thing to admit, and even worse to feel. She couldn’t escape the feeling that her body had betrayed her, and that it had betrayed the life inside that it was supposed to nurture and love. That brought with it a shadow of guilt no amount of reassurance from her doctor could dispel, and it separated her grief from mine.

She was crushed, and I was crushed. For her. I was sad, but not like she was, and that left her alone in her grief. Even after the experience we’d had during her first pregnancy, I still thought about this child intellectually instead of emotionally. Maybe that’s because we already had one child, and we were young. In my mind, the child was replaceable, but to my wife she was unique. It’s taken me years to understand what she knew right away­—this loss would forever feel like an open gap, a child who will always be missing.

As I’ve seen each of our three children grow into their own personalities, I wonder how that child with an October birthday, just like my wife, would have been unique, and my sense of loss has grown. Our oldest would have a playmate a bit closer to her in age. Someone she could bond with the way our two younger children do.

As our youngest grew, so did our dreams of a life without an infant, culminating in a desire to travel for our 15th wedding anniversary. For the first time, an extended trip felt manageable. We opened a savings account, and I began planning vacation logistics, one of my favorite activities. So, when the 'surprise' showed up two years ago we laughed in half-mocking dismay at our 'lost' dream.  But I realized something—I was happy to have one last time.

One last time to watch my wife grow with life inside her. One last set of tiny fingers to wrap around my own. One last infant to fall asleep on my chest. One last toddler to gather up in my arms and toss into the air. One last unique personality to watch develop. One last Christmas with family, my wife glowing with new life. I had to let go of our dream, but I let go joyfully. I wanted this child. I loved this child.

Then, once again, she was gone. There would be no miracle this time.

I remember the details from the weekend when we thought we’d lost Ahava. The walk to the house, the Christmas tree left on our porch, the early evening darkness of the Advent season turning from comfort to cold.

This time it’s not my physical surroundings that I remember, but how I felt. An added weight pressing me to the earth, each step heavier than the last, each emotion more acute. Legs rooted to the ground, bracing myself against waves that pull me into the depths. The sorrow near, waiting to fill each silent moment. The absence ever-present.

Unlike the first miscarriage, this loss immediately cut me more deeply than I thought possible, the loss of another child, another personality, more acute. I can’t escape knowing that the weight of another newborn in my arms, the touch of her finger clasped tightly around mine, the sight of her older siblings gathered in wonder close around her bed, will only ever exist in my imagination.

Eleven years ago, when I was too afraid to hope for a miracle, one was given. This time, when hope was all I had left, a miracle never came. That’s where I live, between the promise and fulfillment of resurrection, where blessing and pain walk with me along either side. Forever seeking protection for the ones I love, forever fearing the Lord will remove his hand from me, and allow the next blow to fall. The Lord giveth, and the Lord hath taken away.

I don’t share this with anyone. I don’t let anyone sit with me. I’ve calcified, like blood and skin scarring to protect a wound. A message from my brother expressing his sorrow remains unanswered for days before I reply simply, 'I’m just not ready to talk about this yet.'

And once again I’ve left my wife alone. I’ve robbed her of one of the most important parts of enduring the loss of someone you love, a partner. Someone who knows that there is an absence that can never be filled, who knows what it means to feel forever altered. Someone who understands the inadequacy of language in our darkest moments.

And months after we said goodbye to another child, I see my wife’s face grow dark and know she’s thinking about the baby. 'Do you think about her too?' she asks, looking for a companion in her sorrow.

'I think about her every day,' I reply quietly.

John B. Graeber
Writer & poet
Published at The Curator, The Blue Mountain Review, Fathom Magazine, and Nooga.com.
@jbgraeber