Metamorphosis of a Reluctant Caterpillar

Today is the 19th birthday of my son, Stephen Lewis Hershberger. But there will be no party, no cake, no candles, no singing. We’ve never even sang the Happy Birthday song to him. Because he was stillborn at 38 weeks gestation.

I’ll post his story separately so that anyone who’d like to read it may do so, but this post is about the journey since that day.

This morning I woke up and my first thought was “It was over by now. The metamorphosis was complete.” But then I corrected that thought. Because it wasn’t. Not quite.

That morning, nineteen years ago, was the most brutal day of my entire existence. I’d had to say goodbye to my newly born, stillborn son. And he was so beautiful. Perfect in every way. As I held him, bathed him, kissed his lovely, peaceful face, I marveled at his perfection. And I asked God why. Why would he go through all the trouble of making him so well, knitting him together in my womb so breathtakingly, and then take him away from me? It didn’t make sense. I held his hands, studied the way his fingers lay draped over mine, and pictured the way he should’ve been grasping them instead. I kissed his eyelids and wished with all my heart that I could see his eyes flutter open at the gesture. Could picture him stretching and yawning and squirming in my arms. Smacking his little lips as he anticipated his next meal. He was my third baby. I could picture it all very easily.

He was born at 1:39 a.m. on April 16, 1996. By 5:30 that morning I knew it was time to let him go. His body had grown cold, even though I held him close. So I told Jay to call the nurse to come get him, my heart ripping to shreds at the thought of the separation. And then I kissed him and handed him over. As I watched the nurse leave with him I couldn’t breathe. I panicked. I didn’t know how to really let go of him. This baby who was still as much a part of me as if the umbilical cord were still attached. All I could do was ride out the waves of desperation and overwhelming grief. Let the sobs and the tears break free once more. And then the numbness took over for a bit. I calmed down. I asked Jay to read the Psalms to me again, letting the soothing words wash over me. Understanding David’s pain better than I ever had before. Eventually I fell asleep for a short time but you can never sleep for long in a hospital. It was about 7 a.m. when a nurse came in to take my blood pressure and do all those normal things that they do for new mothers.

And the very reluctant caterpillar I was, started seeing things very differently. Jay turned on the television where I listened to reporter say that a singer famous for pushing the envelopes of decency had just announced that she was four months pregnant. I was furious. She would be allowed to have a baby and I wouldn’t? Pride reared its ugly head. I was sure I would’ve raised my son much better than she could raise a child.

Stephen was born on a Tuesday morning. I was dismissed from the hospital on Wednesday. After stopping at a department store to purchase clothes, a blanket, and a stuffed lamb to bury Stephen with, we headed to the funeral home and there I was overwhelmed with decisions we had to make for the funeral service. Jay and I had talked about hymns, special music, what Scriptures we wanted read, etc, while I was in the hospital. But I wasn’t prepared to pick out the guest book, funeral bulletins, thank you notes, and worst of all, the casket to bury him in. I wasn’t numb enough to get through it without tears.

We couldn’t see Stephen until Thursday so we went home. What should’ve been a welcoming time was horribly empty. My husband, a college professor, had students with recitals coming up. He tried to spend as much time at home with me as he could, but he had to help them prepare. My daughter and son were at school. Those quiet moments I’d been looking forward to as time alone with the new baby, now scared me. Then the friends and relatives started arriving. I was rescued from the aloneness. Besides, I told myself, at least I’d weathered the worst of it, hadn’t I? It had to get better from here.

Thursday arrived and I was able to see Stephen again. He looked better than I thought he would and I was relieved. Our son and daughter got to meet him for the first time. I wanted to hold him so one of the funeral directors picked him up and placed him in my arms. It was the closest I’d felt to normal for two days. I was almost happy for a moment. I could see him again. Touch him again. But it still wasn’t right. He was still too still. I don’t know how long we stayed with him that day. It was both too long and too short. I tried to memorize every hair on his head, every crease in his fingers. More relatives were arriving. We had to go home but I only wanted to stay there with him. We left and I looked forward to seeing him again the next day.

Friday morning was very busy. The funeral was at 2. We all had to be completely ready before we left but we got there plenty early since many of the relatives hadn’t seen Stephen yet. I stood nearby, my eyes constantly returning to him lying so still in his tiny casket, and wished I could hold him again. So many flowers and plants. So many dear friends and family. So many tears. But I was holding it together, for the most part. And then people started to leave. It hit me then. I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of it earlier. But all of a sudden I realized that this was the last goodbye. When I walked out, I would never see him again here on earth. I panicked. My husband was beside me. Only God knows what I experienced during those final moments. And every mother who has had to bury her child. It’s indescribable. Jay had to guide me out of the door.

And that was the final moment of metamorphosis for me. I, the reluctant caterpillar, changed that day. I entered the chrysalis and would never be the same again.

I tried to explain it to one of Jay’s cousins who couldn’t come to the funeral but called to talk with me. I told her that everything had changed for me. But she disagreed with me. She told me that time would heal me and I was still the same. She was correct in saying that time would heal me, but I could never go back to being a caterpillar again.

Change was slow. Diversions were few. I couldn’t watch the news because my buffer for dealing with tragedies was gone and I couldn’t concentrate well enough to watch movies. The Weather Channel seemed like a safe bet but the Michelin commercials, with the sweet baby riding in the tires, brought back the pain. I couldn’t watch anything for months.

One day, jealous of my husband’s escapes to the office, I asked if I could go with him and surf the internet. We didn’t own a computer at that time and I needed to know I wasn’t the only person going through this constant grief. He agreed and I spent the afternoon on the SIDS Network page reading stories of other stillbirths and infant deaths. As strange as it sounds, reading other mothers’ stories helped. It was a step toward accepting the inevitable. Stephen was gone. I had to go on without him.

It took time. A lot of time. Spring had always been my favorite season of the year but it would be six years before I felt even an inkling of joy at spring’s arrival.

The new butterfly took a long time emerging.

I am a new creature now. Time has healed me, but grief trumps time over and over again. Because I will always miss Stephen. He is, and will always be, my son. How can I be whole when he is always missing?

I am like a butterfly and on my wings are the initials of my son. They are scars of a painful metamorphosis. They are also a beautiful part of me.

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