I knew I needed birds as the centerpiece for my table.
The holidays for the past two years have been incredibly difficult. On September 4th, 2015, my daughter Nelle was stillborn, at 21 weeks gestation. She was our third child, after two uneventful previous pregnancies with my two sons. With no known cause for why her heart stopped beating, we were told that there was no reason we could not try for another baby right away. As pained and traumatized as I was, all I could think about was moving forward and holding a baby in my arms. Sitting around the Thanksgiving table that year, I had found out only days before that I was pregnant again. As we counted our blessings, I held the deepest gratitude along with my sorrow.
Shortly thereafter, the fear settled in along with the cold of winter. We announced the pregnancy of our “rainbow baby” – a baby born after the storm of loss. Christmas came and went and I couldn’t shake my trepidation: what if something were to happen again? At a routine appointment when I was 16 weeks pregnant, I learned that my baby girl had no heartbeat. On February 13th, 2016, I gave birth to our second baby girl, Iris. More testing, more consults, still no explanation. Losing Nelle had nearly broken me. Losing Iris shattered whatever was left.
I grew up in the country, in southwestern Wisconsin nestled amongst gently rolling hills. The area is called “the coulee” – a word that means “valley.” We took the ashes of Nelle and Iris to the coulee. My aunt and uncle own expansive, beautiful land there. Behind their home, up a steep trail and then across a field is a sheltering oak, branches stretched outward and upward with glorious age. My grandfather’s ashes had been scattered beneath that tree, so I found solace that my daughters should rest there too.
We were told to wait at least six months before trying again, for no reason other than “we don’t know, so let’s take a break and let you heal a bit.” I started doing hot yoga, hating my body and wanting to punish it for its failure to keep my babies safe. With two living children and two dead children, a third attempt at a third child seemed to be an impossible choice, Russian Roulette, an unknown outcome.
Thanksgiving of 2016 was a bitter day for me. I could only think back to the previous year of mourning Nelle, and pregnant with Iris – so unknowing of the dark places I would be flung to after losing another baby. I drank too much at dinner, trying to numb the pain of the past year and the anxiety of what was to come.
By December of 2016, I was pregnant. I spent 9 months in agony. Every appointment was stressful and the days and weeks crawled by as a slow torture. I was reliving my grief over and over in a tangible way. Every milestone passed brought me only temporary relief, and then inevitably fear would settle into my heart again. I refused to set up the nursery, share the gender, or tell anyone about my pregnancy that didn’t need to be told. Five days before my scheduled c-section date, during my final appointment with the Maternal Fetal Medicine specialist, I still did not believe that I would be bringing a baby home.
She was born in August, my third daughter, Autumn Nadine. Healthy and perfect. Nadine is a French name meaning “hope.”
Enter the holiday season again. It has now been over two years since we lost Nelle. Slowly, I have been trying to incorporate the daughters that we lost into our lives. A few days before Thanksgiving, I decided that I needed something to represent Nelle and Iris. They could not sit in a chair, but we could have them at the table. It came to me almost instantly: birds. I fixated in my mind what they should look like: small, glass, silver, delicate. Five days before the holiday, I set out to find them. I scoured several stores and nothing fit the image I had. I turned to online shopping, vowing that I would pay whatever overnight fee necessary that they would arrive in time. Still nothing.
Finally, after searching through dozens of birds, I found a set online. They were silver metal with a pattern stamped on the wings. Each of the two birds held a different pose, which I thought better suited two unique children. But the birds were out of stock, not expected to ship until near the end of November. I was crushed. I kept looking and looking, but could not find anything that I liked nearly as much. I saw those birds sitting with us at Thanksgiving and many other holiday meals.
I had to talk myself into accepting a different representation for this Thanksgiving, and the silver birds could join us in the future. But what could be a meaningful substitute in such short order? Finally it came to me. My aunt had given me two carved wooden birds that have long been sitting on the windowsill in my living room. The same aunt owns the land where the Sheltering Oak tree spreads to the sky and Nelle and Iris’s ashes have been scattered below. The birds from my aunt would tie the place where they lie to the place where we would sit.
I briefly considered: could these wooden birds be that centerpiece going forward, not just for this meal? Did I still need the silver birds? I finally decided no, they would be fine for today, but they have been in my life for so long, never before considered as anything other than a gift that I could not “transform” them into something else. Better to start fresh with the silver birds and gratefully acknowledge these as a substitute for this Thanksgiving. Their significance would be known only to me, as I didn’t even mention to my husband as we prepared for the holiday meal. It wasn’t something that he needed, but it was something that I needed.
So along with a tablecloth, white ceramic pumpkins, and candles, the wooden birds sat in our midst as we were joined by friends for our Thanksgiving meal. We have a tradition in our house of passing around a handkerchief (dubbed the “thankerchief”) on Thanksgiving and expressing our gratitude out loud. I don’t remember what I managed to say the past two years, but this year I was able to find my heart a little more open.
Anna Burgess Yang writes to bring awareness to how pregnancy loss continues to permeate everyday life. Loss is part of her identity, but does not solely define her. She lives in a suburb of Chicago and writes at grievingoutloud.com. (Twitter: @AnnaBYang)
Featured Image Credit: Anna Burgess Yang