I don’t know how anyone else experiences grief anniversaries, but this is how it goes for me. Back in 1996, on April 14th I was deep in nesting mode. The baby was due in two weeks but I had my babies early so, for me, I was due any day. I had worked hard and finally fell into bed around midnight, exhausted. As I tried to relax, the baby decided it was time for calisthenics. (Note: I didn’t know at the time that our baby was a boy but I will use male pronouns for the sake of clarity and ease of writing.) He kicked and rolled, making it impossible for me to fall asleep. I wanted to press my belly into my husband’s back to let him share in the fun but I refrained. One of us should get some sleep.
At that moment, my biggest fear was that I would go into labor right then and not be able to sleep until the next day sometime. My legs and back already ached from all of the housework I’d done and I didn’t want to think too much about the pain of labor and delivery. I don’t know whether I was tossing and turning too much or what made Jay wake up, but at some point he spoke to me. I said “I just wish this baby would stop moving!” Oh, how those words would haunt me. Eventually, the baby workout stopped and I fell asleep. That was the last time I remember feeling him move.
Fast forward one year. As the anniversary of Stephen’s death approached, I struggled to function. I’d managed to return to some semblance of normalcy in the last six months but my heart was far from healed. I was pregnant again, due in June but I’d already talked my doctor into inducing me at 37 weeks. Every step of this pregnancy had been tougher than any of the other three. Fear gnawed at me incessantly. I leaned on Jay and the Lord throughout but it was a struggle.
I knew that April 15th (the day we were told the baby had died) and 16th (the day he was stillborn) were going to be tough. I’d been trying to anticipate it and prepare myself. But the pain of the 14th surprised me. It took me a while to figure out why. It was because that was the last day I knew he was alive and everything was normal. Essentially, that day was the divide between who I was then, and who I would become. The old me and the new me.
Every year since then has been the same. When April 1st arrives, I begin to withdraw. It’s a slow process. I become more introspective. Quieter at functions and even privately with my family. I don’t even know I’m doing it. I realize it when my husband starts asking me over and over if I’m okay. I realize it when my kids tell me that I seem “off.” I apologize and try to reengage. But it doesn’t last because it takes an awful lot of effort. More than I have in reserve. I am thankful for solitude. I go out when I must. Do only what I must.
I cry more. At movies. When I hear beautiful music. Looking at photographs. Talking to people who are so compassionate that it catches me off-guard. My mother gets me. She, too, has buried a child. My sister who died at 42 from a heart attack. We don’t have to say much to each other when we’re grieving. Because we understand.
I try not to do anything major on the 14th, 15th, and 16th. I take time off from work. I stay home. I go through photographs, read the cards I received after Stephen’s death, go to his grave, and mourn.
Stephen was born at 1:39 a.m. on the 16th. It was around 5:30 a.m. when we let the nurse take him away for the final time. I am not usually awake during those hours now. For the first few years, I used to wake up at 1:39 a.m. and some years I stayed awake until I could whisper a Happy Birthday to him.
Stephen’s birthday is spent quietly. I usually post a message, a reminder to all that he lived and that I still miss him. Because people who haven’t lost someone dear to them may not know that I will always miss him. Even after 22 years.
As the day progresses, I start to feel myself returning to normal. The heaviness in my heart starts to lift. I can acknowledge and remind myself now that this isn’t the first year. It isn’t the first ten years even. I have figured out how to keep going. I’ve survived for over two decades now. Not easily. Not because I had a choice. But I have family members who need me. I have responsibilities that call me back.
Today, on the 17th of April, 2018. I can give thanks for the short life of Stephen Lewis Hershberger. I am thankful for how he changed me. He made me a better person. A better wife, mother, daughter, sister, and friend. A better Christian. One who understands that pain makes you vulnerable in ways you never thought you’d ever be.
Today I am me again. The new me but me nevertheless. I’ve returned from my three-day elegy for Stephen. The outward form anyway. His lament is ongoing in my heart. After 22 years, it is just a part of who I am now. Always his mom too.