A couple of weeks ago, I was advised by my therapist to write letters to my son, Stephen, who was stillborn at full-term. I agreed to give it a try.

Today, I wrote these words to him. I’m sharing them here with the hope that someone else who is also working through their own grief, will know that they’re not alone.

Dear Stephen,

I’m missing you so much today. The tears keep coming. Julie and your dad are being so loving and supportive as I work through this.

Your dad asked me which of these three days is the hardest for me. It’s hard to separate the grief like that. The 14th is always hard because it was the last day you were alive. Twenty-four years ago, you were happily kicking and moving and getting hiccups and getting mad at getting the hiccups. You were doing everything you were supposed to as the time grew nearer for you to join our family.

I’m just going to admit that I have so many unfulfilled wishes, when it comes to you:

I wish you were still alive here.
I wish I could have seen you smile.
I wish I could have heard your voice.
I wish I could have hugged and kissed and sang songs with you.
I wish you could've been Valerie and Brett's little brother and Jillian and Julie's older brother.
I wish I could've seen you sad or angry.
I wish I could've seen you fall in love, get married, and have children.
I wish you would have had to bury me and not the other way around.
I wish these days of mourning would not have needed to happen.

All that being said though, I don’t wish I had never known you. God could’ve taken you early in the pregnancy. He could’ve taken you before I even knew I was pregnant and I wouldn’t have grieved you at all. That thought brings its own pain.

I am so thankful that God let me carry you for nine months. He let me hold you, kiss you, bathe you, dress you, and say I love you many, many times before I had to say goodbye.

You are always in my heart, my son. I will always love you.



Does the pain ever really go away after the death of a loved one? No. It changes, becomes something you can live with day after day. You hide it deep in your heart so that you can function and everyone else thinks you’ve “gotten over it” or “moved on.”

To all of you who’ve been a part of my life and been a source of support and encouragement through the past twenty-four years, I thank you. Your love and understanding, sometimes your shoulders that I cry on, have helped me survive and find hope.

Stephen died. My love for him never will. I knew him best. I loved him most. It makes sense that I would miss him the most, too. He and I have a bond, as mother and son, that has survived this separation and will live for eternity. I know I will see him again in heaven and the pain now will be part of the joy then.

A New Day

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.

So Many Years

Today is the twenty-second anniversary of my son, Stephen Lewis Hershberger’s stillbirth and I am working my way through the grief this day always brings. He was full-term. He was beautiful. His death was due to a true-knot in his umbilical cord.

I remember standing in front of his tiny grave, staring at the mound of fresh dirt and the nameplate pressed into the base. It brought me a small amount of comfort to be there, to be as near to him as I could get. So Jay stayed home with Valerie and Brett and I would go to the cemetery. Pretty much every day, even if it rained. Occasionally I would find myself drawn to the cemetery, unplanned, with Valerie and Brett in tow. I would sit near Stephen, watching his sister and brother play tag or gather dandelions in the green, open section of grass where there were no graves yet. This was our new normal.

That spring I planted flowers and watered them when they needed it. I also watered the flowers that were placed on the other tiny graves of the babies buried beside and near him, reading their foot or headstones, thinking of their families, and wondering about their stories. Some of the graves dated back 40+ years and it touched my heart that flower boxes were still placed on these graves.

It was sobering, knowing that even after all those years someone was making that journey to place flowers on a tiny grave. The years of my grief stretched before me and I knew I would be that someone too. That Stephen’s grave would have flowers for as long as I was able to place them there.

The grave next to Stephen’s was highly decorated. It became an easy landmark for me to hone in quickly on Stephen’s grave. My sister, Sarah, and I nicknamed it the Busy Grave. I could relate to that mom. She also missed her baby deeply. I took care to clean up any wilted flowers from that grave as well as Stephen’s. It was my way of serving that baby’s momma. We’ve never met but I feel close to her after all these years.

Yesterday I visited his grave. It was the first time this year. Snow and ice still cover his footstone. I couldn’t see his name. Spring is late this year. But it is coming. It will finally jump into the 50s later this week. 60s are expected next week. So maybe this weekend I’ll be able to go back. I’ll clean all of the leaves off and make sure it’s ready for the flowers I’ll plant soon. I’ll place the newest garden picks I’ve purchased: a colorful turtle, a vibrant butterfly, and a spinning windmill. They’ll join the other things I’ve added over the years.

Now Stephen’s grave is the Busy Grave. And this thought makes me smile.

Happy Birthday, Stephen. I love you, now and forever. May you rest in peace, my precious son, until we meet again.

A Dream About, and Yet Not About, Stephen

Last night I had a dream. I was pregnant but not huge yet. Probably around 4 or 5 months or so. I was lying in bed on my back and thinking I should probably be feeling movement from the baby by now. At that moment, the baby started moving and joy filled me. I even took my husband’s hand, where he slept beside me, and placed it on my belly so he could wake up and experience it. He did and marveled with me. I remember feeling peace and excitement that we were going to have another little one. The extra thought, and hope, that maybe this one would be another baby boy.

And then there was fear. And pain. And grief. The baby was moving too much! What if he or she fell through a loop and got another true knot in the umbilical cord? What if we lost this one too?

I woke up. Brought out of the dream by the sharpness of that fear. Even in my dreams, Stephen is not far away. His short life and death have changed me even to the depths of my unconscious, dreaming mind. I’m not surprised, really. Just marveling at how deep that change went.

I have never, not even once, seen Stephen in my dreams. Maybe this is because the pain is always there and my brain is trying to protect me. There are many times that I wish it wouldn’t. That I could see him again, like I see my grandmother and others whom I miss. That I could spend a few more moments cuddling his tiny, beautiful, perfect newborn form. Kiss his tiny face. Whisper once more that I love him.

Maybe it’s because I don’t have any memories of him smiling at me or talking to me. No memories at all with him as a living, breathing little boy. Still, those hours I had with him were so precious. When he looked exactly like my other newborns, only much more still. And dark.

He never took a breath so his skin never took on that healthy pink glow. His fingernail beds and his lips were a deep red, like he wore fingernail polish and lipstick. But everything else was just as it should have been. He was warm and soft and so very beautiful with his reddish hair, full cheeks, cute little nose, and pouting lips. I miss him so very much.

He’d be 21 now. A grown man. But it is hard to picture him that way. I try. I compare what he would look like with his brother who is 27. And still I know he would not have looked like Brett. He would’ve looked like Stephen. And some day I will get to see him again in heaven. I will finally get the answers to the missing question of who Stephen is.

So, as mind-boggling as it is to consider, Stephen never leaves me. Not even when I dream. To my deepest core, he is still with me, is a part of me, and will be with me always.

Stephen, my dear son, I love you and will love you forever.

Thank you, God, for sending him to me, even for just a short nine months. What a gift he was and is. ❤

My Favorite Prayer

Sometimes I wonder if God smiles when I say things like “Tomorrow I’m going to spend the entire day at home.” Or maybe he laughs out loud. Because I believe he knows what’s happening around us and I believe he knows what tomorrow brings. Unlike me. I try to make plans and stick to them. But sometimes my day turns out exactly the opposite of what I’d planned. Thy will be done.

And there it is. My favorite line from my favorite prayer. The Lord’s Prayer. I’ve loved it ever since I first heard it as a little girl but over the years it has become more and more precious to me. I trust that God’s will is more important than mine, even when, or perhaps especially when, I don’t understand why he’s allowing things to turn out the way they do.

Like Wednesday. The day I planned to stay home and get some things done. Instead, I ended up driving around 300 miles as I helped my son get a new tire on his car, pick up the spare tire from the tire store that had “forgotten” to put it back in his car when he replaced a different tire two weeks ago, purchase a gas can and gas to get the car to a gas station so I could fill it up, and get the car back to my son so he could get home from work. It was an exhausting kind of day. A day where you spend most of it racing to the next destination so you can get the next thing on the list checked off, while trying to be patient, as all of those things fall into place–slowly.

Brett drives 80 miles each way to his new business venture. He’d made it 25 miles north of town when he had the flat. I’d already driven 40 miles from our home in the country to meet him, then across town once or twice trying to get a good tire at a decent price, then north again to change the tire, get the gas can, fill it with gas, and return to the car again. Then I let him borrow my new car and get to work while I drove his all the way back to town to pick up the spare (the business said they had to have the actual car there so they would know which spare tire went with his car). And while I had his car I wanted to do something to cheer him up so I took it to the car wash, a really nice one that vacuums it out for you and hand dries it with towels, had his oil changed, and bought him new wiper blades since his didn’t work that well. Then I drove the 80 miles north again to his new Herbalife shake shop, swapped out the cars, and drove the 100 miles back to my home in time to pick up my daughter and take her to her RE class at our church. It was a full day.

But it was also a day with unexpected blessings because I spent several wonderful hours with my son. I got to have breakfast with him while we waited for the new tire to be put on the rim. I got to drive around with him as we traveled back and forth to his car so he could put the new tire on and put the gas in. I got to see how beautiful his new shop is and enjoy one of Herbalife’s delicious shakes. I got to meet his business partner, his partner’s girlfriend, and their newborn son. And I got to see his smile when he saw his clean car and I told him what else I’d done for him.

But that wasn’t all. He also had a surprise waiting for me in my car when I got in. Earlier in the day a pack of cigarettes fell out of his coat pocket while he was in my car. He’d smoked in the past but had quit and he was embarrassed that I knew he was smoking again. I wasn’t really surprised. The amount of work he’s put into getting this new business started has been quite stressful for him. And just last week he and his girlfriend broke up. Mom’s know things, kids. Even if we don’t say anything, we still know. So when I opened the door and saw the pack of cigarettes in my seat with a note attached, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The note said: “Help me quit. Throw these away, and call me after 5. Love you, Brett”

I think it’s the best gift he’s ever given me.

I called him after 5 that day and every day since. He hasn’t smoked another cigarette. He knew it was time to quit. His grandmother died of lung cancer in 2012 so our family is acutely aware that they are deadly. He just needed a nudge. And it came from an unexpected day with his mom.

Thy will be done.

Thank you, Lord.


My First Horse!!

For most of my life I’ve wanted to own a horse. I know, I know, most little girls (and maybe a lot of little boys?) want a pony at some point in their lives and I was no different, but my desire to have a horse didn’t go away as I grew up. I always had a dream to live out in the country and own horses.

Eight years ago the first part of my dream came true when my husband and I bought 12 acres out in the country. The farmstead was already home to two horses (neither of which came with the property, darn it!) so we knew it was perfect. When the owners offered to sell one of the horse feeders already in the corral, we jumped at the chance. But that was as close to owning a horse as we would come. Until last Friday!

Meet Maximus:

Maximus We transported Max to our farm on Friday, June 19th, and while we were trying to get him stabilized in the trailer before even leaving his previous owner’s farm, he banged his head on a bar in the trailer and cut himself on the forehead. The owner, who was in the trailer with him trying to calm him down when it happened, looked it over and told me how to take care of the wound when we got him to my farm. And we started home.

I was so excited. I’d originally planned to give him a bath when we got him settled and then let him roam his new place. By the time we unloaded him, he was trembling from nerves. He hadn’t been hauled for a long time so it was a hard trip for him. I put some medicine on his wound and we let him go. No bath, he needed to completely heal first.

And so our journey as new horse owners began!

Over the next few months, or maybe it’ll be ongoing even after that, I’m going to try to document our journey. I’ll share our experiences (and will even try to keep track of expenses) so that maybe I’ll help someone else to avoid our mistakes and learn from our adventures with Maximus.

Not a Kid-person

Loved this post and wanted to share! =)

Spero Nest

About a year ago my husband and I were walking through Chicago with our new baby, Gu0627_0190s, when a man stopped us, asking for money for a nearby school.

“You like children,” he inferred, gesturing at the baby.

“Well, we do have five of them,” I said.

“Five?! Whoa, you love kids! You’re crazy about kids!” He exclaimed, shaking his head in disbelief.

I think it’s accurate to say that I love my kids. Sometimes I am crazy about them.  I am not, however, naturally crazy about kids in general. I am not a “kid-person.”  Kid-people gravitate towards children; they are naturally interested in what kids say; they want to give gifts; they find candy, frosting, and balloons desirable; they want to watch kid’s movies with or without children; they enjoy babysitting and are natural smilers.

I am very grateful for kid-people–they make the world a welcoming and bright…

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How Many Hours are in a Lifetime?

The day began as normally as it could when you have a child home from school with a fever. My son, Brett, was six years old and in the first grade. Since this was the third day of his illness and the fever didn’t seem to be breaking, I called his pediatrician’s office and scheduled an appointment for 1:30 that afternoon.

With no energy or appetite, he lay lethargically across my bed while I plugged a rented copy of Babe into the VCR and hit Play. I propped some pillows against the headboard and hauled myself up onto the bed to watch with him. He nestled in beside me, curled his arm across my protruding abdomen, and gave my belly and the baby inside, a few gentle pats.

* * *

The baby had kept me awake until well after midnight with his usual antics. He would be a night-owl I was sure.

I already knew that he loved music. Every time I turned the radio on, he’d wake up and listen. Once, when my husband—a classical pianist—was performing a recital, he woke up and then barely moved throughout the concert. I could tell he was awake because I could feel his small hand, nestled low in my womb, moving ever so slightly every few moments. Perhaps he was already conducting in there.

Oh, and he hated seat belts. I would snap it closed and he would start rolling. Not that I blamed him. It went right across his head, which I’m sure didn’t feel too nice. He paid me back for this apparent cruelty by kicking every rib he could reach several times for good measure, pummeling my bladder with his small hands, and rolling from one side to another as he tried to find a comfortable position in his cramped space.

* * *

I was awake and getting Brett ready to leave for the doctor’s office when I realized that I hadn’t felt the baby move for a little while. He always slept in, often not waking up until around lunchtime, but even while he slept he moved and his twitches, hiccups, and other little motions reassured me that all was well in there. Then I remembered that often babies slept very deeply—storing up energy—just before labor began. I made a mental list of the last-minute items I would have to add to my suitcase before we left for the hospital.

I snapped the seatbelt across him and he didn’t move. I tried to turn on the radio, but it only worked sporadically so I couldn’t. For a few minutes I considered asking the pediatrician to listen for the heartbeat when he finished examining Brett.   But I dismissed it as my overactive imagination running away with me.

Brett had a virus. His ears weren’t infected and his chest was clear. The pediatrician told us to wait-it-out and we left to pick up my nine-year-old daughter, Valerie, from school.

We had a couple of errands to run before dinner, so I told the kids to stay in the car as I ran inside our home for a moment. Before I walked out of the house again, I quickly lay down on the couch and gently shook my belly to try to get some response out of him.

I waddled back out to the van. My brain was now in “automatic” mode as I drove to my husband’s office to pick up a check that he wanted me to deposit before the bank closed. I really wasn’t very aware of my surroundings; I was distracted and distant. I wanted to get home as quickly as possible so that I could try again to wake up the baby.

“What’s wrong?” My husband, Jay, asked as he scanned my face.

“I haven’t felt the baby move for a while, not even when I used the seatbelt.” He knew how unusual that was.

“Okay, well, go home, call the doctor and see what they say. I’m sure everything’s fine, but call them. And then call me and tell me what they say.”

“They’ll probably think I’m overreacting.”

“That’s why they’re there, to help you when you need it. Call them.”

“Okay, I will.”

I deposited the check before returning home. When I got home, I went to my bed and lay flat on my back so that I could really move the baby around. When that didn’t get a response, I called the doctor’s office.

The nurse reassured me that it was probably just the baby sleeping deeply. She gave me two options. The first was that I could drink some orange juice, eat something, and see if the baby responded within an hour. But by then their office would be closed and I would need to go to the hospital if I needed further help. The second was that I could come in now and they would strap the monitors on me so I could see the baby’s heartbeat and relax. I chose the second option and called Jay to tell him. I was surprised when he told me to come pick him up because I knew he would have to cancel a few of his college students’ piano lessons. I tried to talk him out of it, but he insisted.

When he got in the van, I told him that I hadn’t been able to turn the radio on. He fiddled with it and got it going. Classical music floated around us. The children were unusually quiet in the back seat.

We arrived at the doctor’s office around 4:30. The office was preparing to close for the day; there weren’t many people around. Valerie and Brett sat down at a Lego table and began to play with the toys. The nurse assured us that they would watch over them for the few minutes we’d be in the room.

She led us back and I struggled to lie down on the narrow bed. I was so big that I had to have assistance to lie down and to sit back up again. My CNM (Certified Nurse/Midwife) came in and greeted us. Her manner was reassuring and calm, but also ready to get down to business and go home.

I pulled my shirt up exposing my mountain of a belly and flinched as she squirted some cold gel on my taut skin and moved a small, black Doppler device over it. At this stage of pregnancy, it was usually extremely easy to find the heartbeat. We heard the steady beating of a working heart and I was instantly relieved. I looked at her, but she hadn’t relaxed.

“Is that the baby’s heartbeat?” I asked.

She took my wrist and her lips moved as she counted. “No, that’s yours.”

All I could think was, “This can’t be happening to me.” She moved the Doppler again and again as she tried to find what she was looking for. After a few moments she said she was going to try something else and brought out the more sophisticated portable monitors that they strap on you during labor. These were so sensitive that they could also record the pressure from the contractions. She belted them across my abdomen and turned the machine on. Nothing. She rearranged them a couple of times. Still nothing.

Next, she told me that she was going to get an ultrasound machine and left the room.

My eyes sought Jay’s. His brows were furrowed over his eyes, which were intent on my face. He squeezed the hand that he’d been holding since we arrived.

The CNM backed into the room pulling a cart with the ultrasound machine on it. She turned it on, and I didn’t notice immediately, but she had the screen turned to her instead of me as it usually was every other time we’d used it. She picked up a different device and started working it across my belly.

After a few moments she turned to me. “I’m not as experienced at using this machine as the OB/GYN’s are. I’m going to go find one of them to help us.”

She returned with an obstetrician who knew exactly what she was doing.   She studied the screen briefly and then turned the monitor screen to me. “I’m sorry, Ma’am, but it’s not good news.” She pointed to a spot on the monitor. “Here’s the baby’s heart. It’s not beating and it’s dilated.”

As I think back on those words that were spoken to me on April 15, 1996, they are concise and terribly easy to understand. But at that moment I struggled to make sense of them. “You mean my baby’s dead?” I asked. My eyes were locked on hers. Her face reflected a cautious sympathy.


With that single word, a very specific part of my soul—the part that contained all my hopes and dreams for this baby—began to die a slow, excruciating death.

Small revelations broke through my sorrow. I stifled the sobs long enough to choke out a question for my husband. “You mean, now I have to go through labor for nothing?” It was a nonsensical question, but I panicked as I considered the hours of labor ahead of me.

His voice was rough with grief, stress, and most of all worry for me, as he answered, “Yes.”

With a great deal of effort I pulled myself together. We had to talk with my doctor and find out how to proceed. She gave us two options to consider. Since I was nine months along, they could give me medications that would start my labor, or I could go home and wait for my body to go into labor on its own. I needed time to think, so we left. As we drove home, we talked about names; we didn’t want to use the ones we’d already picked. We hadn’t wanted to know the sex of the baby—I liked that reward after the laboring was over—so we needed to allow for both possibilities. We decided if the baby was a girl we would name her Elizabeth Joy, and if he was a boy, Stephen Lewis.

We arrived at home and Jay started making the phone calls to relatives and friends. Each time he explained what was happening, it was like another slash to my heart. And I realized, as I listened to him tell people over and over again, that I didn’t want to wait for labor to begin. I needed to get it over with. I called the doctor and told her what I’d decided.

We walked into the hospital around 7:00 p.m. At 10:45 they induced labor and at 1:39 a.m. on Tuesday, April 16th, Stephen Lewis Hershberger was born.

Stephen weighed exactly seven pounds and was twenty-one inches long. He was beautiful with reddish brown hair, long fingers that were shaped like mine, full cheeks like his brother’s, and the little ball at the tip of his nose that resembled his Papa’s. But his lips and the beds of his fingernails were a deep red and his skin was a dusky gray instead of pink. And he was too still. Stillborn.

We knew after his birth what had happened. While he was still very small, a knot had formed in the umbilical cord, and on April 15th it had pulled tight, cutting off his oxygen. So I held him and told him how sorry I was that I hadn’t been able to keep him alive. Guilt was added to the sorrow. I felt that, as his mother, I should’ve instinctively known something was wrong in time to save him.

We took pictures of him. I tried to memorize every little wrinkle in his hands and feet, the shape of his ears, and fingers, and toes. How do you cram a lifetime of loving into a few hours?

The nurse gave me a peach quilted bag. It contained a little yellow sleeper, a blue flannel blanket, a tiny stuffed giraffe that some church ladies had sewn, some booklets on dealing with the death of a child, and a typed note offering their sympathies.

I gave Stephen his first and only bath, dressed him in the yellow sleeper and wrapped him in the blanket. Afterward, the nurse offered to take some pictures of him in the hospital bassinet, with the little stuffed giraffe. She took some great pictures, and one of them—my favorite—is framed on my bedside table.

Through the minutes and hours I held him, our pending separation hung over me like a suspended tidal wave. I knew it was coming and I knew I couldn’t do anything to hold it off forever.

At around 5:30 a.m., I told Jay that I knew it was time for me to give him up. He buzzed the nurse and told her. I held Stephen’s hand, stroked his face, and kissed his tiny head once more before she carried him away. When she walked out of the room with him, the tidal wave surged in, burying me.

I didn’t think I could survive. I didn’t know if I wanted to anymore. It was hard to breathe. Jay held me, rocking me gently. I asked him to read to me from the Psalms again. They had calmed me down while we were waiting for Stephen to be born. I fell asleep to his soft voice reading the poems that David had written all those centuries ago.

Jay was my rock through the storm. He couldn’t keep the rain away, but he shared his strength so we could get through it. I needed him more than I ever had in our thirteen years of marriage. And while I gratefully acknowledge this, I also have to confess that at times he made me really mad. Like when he insisted on talking about the funeral while we waited for labor to

begin. I was holding onto a delusional hope that maybe they were wrong, or maybe this was just a nightmare. But he kept asking me what hymns I wanted, what scripture verses. It made me want to lash out at him. But I didn’t. I couldn’t, because I knew that he was trying to help me.

I found out later that day, that Jay and I both had a feeling something was going to happen to me during labor. It had crossed our minds that I might die. We hadn’t said anything about it; neither of us wanted to scare the other. But since I was still alive, it was a reason to feel just a little bit of relief during this oppressive time.

The days ahead were torturous. I didn’t know how to handle the grief. I cried so long and so hard that my diaphragm felt bruised. It hurt even more to breathe. One morning, while I was still in the hospital, I walked into the bathroom and when I looked into the mirror I was shocked. The face that was staring back at me didn’t look like mine anymore. The pain in her eyes—my eyes—made me wince. I tried not to look in mirrors after that.

When I was released from the hospital, we drove straight to Herberger’s to pick out the clothes that Stephen would be buried in. From there we went to the funeral home to drop off the clothes and plan the funeral. We had to pick out the programs, decide the order of the funeral, and then—as if all of that weren’t enough to deal with—we had to pick out his casket.

I wanted to tell them to stop, to give me some time to think about it, but we couldn’t. The funeral was in less than forty-eight hours. So I picked the small, white, steel casket to bury my son in, and when I found out that the casket I was standing beside was going to be the casket he was buried in, I kissed my fingers and placed the kiss on the pillow that his head would rest upon.

Friday morning, April 19, 1996, was the day of his funeral. Family and close friends met us at the funeral home to view Stephen for the last time. I don’t know why I didn’t think of it ahead of time, but I vividly recall the moment after everyone else had left the room, when I realized that in a few minutes I was going to have to say goodbye to my son for the last time.

We were truly out of time. I knelt beside his casket and told him again how much I loved him and that I would always love him. Jay helped me up, and slowly walked me from the room.

It was a cold, blustery day with the high only in the thirties; quite a shock after having several days of temperatures in the seventies. After the funeral, a handful of family and close friends stood with us beside Stephen’s casket at the gravesite. We stood, huddled in our heavy coats, shivering against the bone-chilling wind. Three young men stood on the other side of a copse of trees, leaning on shovels and speaking quietly together. Their services would be required again after we left.

“Ashes to ashes; dust to dust.” The pastor said, sprinkling dirt on shiny white metal.

Jay placed his hand on top of the casket. I placed a kiss.

* * *

On Saturday and Sunday our home was a study in opposites: tears and laughter, loud children and quiet adults, hellos and goodbyes. The first time I laughed, I was surprised by how good it felt. This realization was instantaneously followed by guilt. What kind of a mother was I?

My milk had come in the morning of the funeral. My breasts were so full that every time someone hugged me, pain lanced through my chest and into my back. I didn’t have breasts anymore—I had boulders.

I alternated between Advil and Tylenol every two hours to try to mute the pain I was enduring from more and more milk being stored in already full milk ducts. I stuffed my bra with ice packs that had to be exchanged about every thirty minutes. Hormones don’t understand stillbirth.

* * *

After our relatives left to return to their homes in other states, I had to learn to deal with my new reality. Valerie and Brett went back to school and so did Jay. I was left at home, alone. Before Stephen’s death, I had been looking forward to those hours when the older kids would be at school and I could have a few uninterrupted hours with the new baby. Now I dreaded the silence. I knew what I was missing—what I should have been doing. And as the permanence of death settled into my mind, I got angrier. I’d been unsuccessfully fighting the growing anger since the day of his birth.

As the days dragged by, I drew away from Jay. I didn’t want him to know how I felt. How I was mad at God and questioning Him. And, because he was able to go to work every day, he seemed to be getting over this tragedy so much quicker than I was. That also made me mad.

I still tried to be a good mom for Valerie and Brett.   I did most of my crying when they were at school, but I couldn’t help but cry occasionally around them, too. We talked about Stephen whenever they wanted, but they were also handling his death well. I understood that, even though they’d seen and touched their younger brother, he’d never been a part of their lives. They had other concerns.

* * *

“Mom, if I died like Stephen, would you cry as much for me?” Brett asked, standing in front of me, staring up at my tear-streaked face. I was sitting in the kitchen, listening as Jay informed others about the death of our baby. I looked him straight in the eyes as the agony of just the thought of losing Brett or Valerie pierced through my hazy brain. I silently prayed, Please God, not them, too.

“Brett, if you died, I would cry even more,” I answered honestly. He gave me a timid, relieved smile and nodded his head. I opened my arms. “Come here, bud.” The smile grew as he walked toward me and reached his short arms as far around my bulging belly as he could. I enveloped him in my arms and laid my cheek against his hair. “I love you, son.”

“I love you too, Mom.” His arms began to loosen; he patted my side a few times. I quickly kissed the top of his head before I released him. He ran off to play.

His question became a talisman against the thoughts of giving up—wishing for death. I couldn’t leave them motherless.

Valerie, a few days after the funeral, told me she’d seen Stephen the night before. I said, “In a dream?” I was immediately jealous. I wanted to see him again—even if it was only in a dream.

“I’m not sure. Is Stephen an angel now? Is he wearing white?”

“I don’t know exactly how it works. Maybe that’s a question for your dad. Why? Was Stephen wearing white when you saw him?”

“I think I woke up last night, or I dreamed I woke up, and Stephen was floating in the doorway of my room. He just looked at me; he looked so sweet. When I blinked, he was gone. I really miss him, Mom.”

* * *

Two weeks after Stephen’s death, Jay got a phone call from one of his co-workers whose wife had just had their second child, a daughter. I was very glad that their baby was okay, but my arms were so empty. I started to cry while he was still on the phone and left the room. After he hung up, he came to find me. I was furious. In my mind, I’d been singled out by God. How could He love me and put me through this?

Jay could only tell I was very upset at first. My anger was manifesting itself through torrential tears. He tried to hug me—I pushed him away. He tried to get me to talk to him—I clamped my lips closed and shook my head every time he asked me a question. He sat quietly beside me on the couch, watching my leg swing back and forth in agitation. He finally let out a long sigh. “Cindy, I love you and I want to help you. But I can’t if you won’t talk to me. Please don’t shut me out.”

There had been many times in our marriage when I would recall the vows I had made on our wedding day. It had been easy to repeat after the minister, “For better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death do us part,” because I couldn’t imagine a time where they would be hard to fulfill.   I had thought I loved him so much. Now, as I sat beside this man who was trying to show me how much he loved me, I was reminded of them again. I had to make a decision. Was I going to continue to shut him out and slowly kill our marriage? Statistically, I had read that something like seventy-five percent of marriages fail after the death of a child. I could see why. Or was I going to let him in and let him help me?

“I’m not sure you really want to know what I’m thinking right now. You’ll know what a bad Christian I really am. And He’ll know, too.”

“Cindy, doesn’t God already know your thoughts? Will He be surprised at anything you tell me? And, honey, He’s big enough to take whatever you have to say. Just get it out.”

So I did. And Jay wasn’t surprised or angry or hurt or appalled. He just listened, and asked questions. I couldn’t answer one of them yet: “Can we trust God?”

My mom called and I told her, too. She also asked me a question: “Is your anger hurting God?”

Mom’s was easier to answer. I knew that my anger wasn’t hurting God, it was hurting me. If I didn’t want to become one of those bitter people who can’t get over the bad things that happen, then I was going to have to let my anger go. But how? I set that question aside.

Can I trust God? Do I still believe? It didn’t take all that long for me to have my answer. Yes, I do believe. Yes, I can trust Him.

That day was the turning point. I realized that God loved Stephen even more than I did, and His Son had died once, too. He could understand my grief. I gave Him my pain, my anger, and my bitterness. It came down to a matter of my will against His.

“Thy will be done,” I finally prayed, and He gave me peace.

It’s been fourteen years since Stephen’s short life changed mine. I now have empathy toward other people’s suffering that I never had before. And, when a friend of mine had a stillborn son a few years after Stephen, I walked through the pain with her.

Every April 16th, if you were to visit his small plot in Evergreen Memorial Cemetery in South Moorhead, you would find a rose lying across his footstone, and a small gift that reminded me of him. One year it was an angel, another it was a whirligig that I could picture him blowing on, yet another it was a bouncing butterfly on a pole because he would have been at the age where he would have been chasing them.

And in the summer, geraniums bloom continuously on top of his grave.

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.

Fabulous Footloose Farm Flock

Our feathered friends out here on the farm (I’m loving alliteration today) are enjoying their last few days/weeks/month of free-range living. Not because we’re going to do anything drastic to them, but because most of them don’t like walking in the snow. Up here in northern Minnesota we’ll eventually get hit with several inches of snow that won’t melt until March or April and our coop door will no longer stay propped open.

Thankfully, our chicks and the duckling have grown up fast. It’s astonishing to watch how quickly the little critters mature. The day-old chicks we received on May 11th are now as big as all the other chickens. Some of the young cockerels (another word for rooster) tower over their elders. The duckling is almost as big as his (or her but I’ll use male pronouns since our daughter has named him “Huey”) parents, which is astounding since he hatched the last week of August.

Here are some pictures of the young chickens, beginning from the day they arrived.

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The hens have just started laying eggs this past few weeks. Their eggs start out small and will slowly increase in diameter until they are “jumbo-sized.”

A pullet egg beside two eggs from experienced layers.

A pullet egg beside two eggs from experienced layers.

For the first year, they’ll lay one egg about every 25 hours. In late summer after they turn one year old, they’ll molt and from then on will lay an egg about every other day. Until they get too old to do that. I read somewhere that you can figure out which hens aren’t laying anymore by measuring the distance between a hen’s pelvic bones. In a large hen, it should be possible to fit three or four fingers between the pelvic bones if she’s still laying. But I’ve never even tried to find out. I guess I figure they’ve given me hundreds of eggs in their lifetime and when they’re done, they still deserve a nice retirement. We still have a few hens from our very first clutch seven years ago.

Here is a picture of one of the old Barred Rock hens. We lost our last cock from that clutch this past spring.

Old Matriarch

Old Matriarch

I like diversity in our chickens, so I order a different breed every time. It makes for a colorful yard and it also makes it easier to identify individual birds. We have one old Buff Orpington hen, Tilly, who lost her eye as a chick. I make sure to feed her apart from the others since she’s last in the pecking order. Yes, there really is such a thing. Chicks start working through that when they’re a few weeks old. The mellower the chick, the lower in the pecking order. The aggressive ones get first dibs on everything but none of our 60+ chickens goes hungry. The hanging feeders in the coop always have layer rations in them. And thank God for heated waterers or supplying water to them throughout our winters would be tough.

Finally, I’ll end this post with some other “Footloose” pictures from laid-back moments in our farm life.

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