Today marks the five year anniversary of the worst day of my life. I didn’t even want to write this post, but I knew that if I didn’t write today, I would never write again. I promised myself when I began this blog that, since writing was one of the only ways available on this wretched earth for me to love my baby boy…I would take it. Even if I only wrote one post a year, every year on Charlie’s birthday. So here I am putting in my one post a year, and dreading it with every fiber of my being.
I thought about what would possibly, in even some small way, help the devastated humans who visit this page, whose hearts are as equally broken as mine, because they too had to endure the heart-wrenching, soul-altering trauma of out-living their own child’s life. Then I thought of what I wished I had been told on January 28th, 2013, during those first horrific hours of waiting in the hospital room for the birth of a baby who had already died. I thought of what I needed to hear then, and knew what I needed to say now.
Dear broken Me,
5 years later, this is what grief will be like.
You will still be broken.
In the darkness of our hospital room, as we wept silently, and waited for hours in the darkness for Charlie’s tiny body to be taken out of mine, I remember turning to Reid at one point and whispering, “Are we going to be ok?” I’m not even sure what I was asking exactly. It was like we were two people emerging from ground zero of an atomic bomb that had just destroyed our entire lives. Surrounded by flying debris, blinking into the blinding light, and bleeding from gaping wounds so deep it literally took our breath away all I could think to ask was, “Are we even alive? And are we going to be ok?” It’s like I needed assurances that at the end of all of this there would still be… life. I distinctly remember thinking, “I can’t do this. I need to know that we can endure this hell on earth, and still come out on the other side.” So, dear broken me…Yes, you will be ok, and No, you won’t be. Because the “you” who walked into this hospital room late last night, is gone permanently. Take one long last look; your life as you knew it is officially over.
Five years later, you will still feel as if a part of your heart has been amputated, and there will be real and lasting pain. You will still weep constantly throughout the last week of every stinking January. You will still sometimes, be hit by waves of searing pain on moments like Christmas Eve, and special family adventures, and whenever you hear his name…pain that comes on so sudden that you can’t even breathe. You will still feel the acute agony of life without him, and the impact of this incalculable loss on every aspect of your life. You will still miss him so much that you will want Heaven, more than Earth, on almost any given day, but… you will be alive.
You will still miss him, every moment of every day, and his birthday week will be a reminder of this horror every year of your life.
This week is hung like a shadow over each new year, and each end of January is a lousy reminder of what I was doing five years ago when we were still happy. It was those last fleeting moments of happy, stacked on January 24th, 25th, 26th, and the worst, the morning of the 27th…when the innocence and naieteve of the “life-is-basically-good” mentality hadn’t yet been beaten from our lives. Now, I hate those days. “The last moments we were happy” are hellish days, and we relive them every January, right before we relive the other days…the 27th, 28th, and 29th, which truly were the worst days of our lives as we were thrown at the ground zero our own story. Yes, we feel the loss of Charlie’s presence, and the loss of a life spent knowing and loving our brown-haired baby boy every single day, but his birthday week is a special kind of affliction, because we have to relive the agony of his death (which also happens to be his birthday) and there is absolutely no escape. And then, Fred’s birthday is the very next day. Yes, I hate the complexity of this week, and I wish I could have warned the new broken me how unbearably hard this week would always be.
You will feel further from him than you ever have, and yet be closer to meeting him than you’ve ever been.
Sometimes, I still wake up and wonder, Did ALL of that suffering actually happen to us? Did I actually give birth to a full-term baby named Charlie who looks exactly like Freddo, and could have grown up in our arms if only he had lived during that fateful January? I still feel the emotional, spiritual, and psychological disorientation of loss, upon loss, upon loss, and the sorrow of a story I wouldn’t have wished upon my worst enemy, and yet God wrote and chose for our lives. And yet sometimes, the whole trauma feels so very bad, and so very long ago, that it’s hard to fully grasp that it is in fact MY life. I know that, five years ago today, I really did sit in that dark room, and hold our tiny boy as my tears poured down his face. But five years seems like a eternity in suffering years, and sometimes it feels like that moment of holding him and loving him and knowing him in even some small way, is very, very far away. As my friend Catherine once said to me, when I was still very new to this Coffin Ship of grief,
“Misty, you are suffering the death of your son. And despite your desperation, you are on a boat moving further and further from the shoreline of that day and one day the shoreline will not be visible. But the hope that we have is that we are moving from that which is broken and dead and horrible and moving toward that which is perfect and permanent. You are moving forward, moving closer every second of every day, toward the perfected Charlie. You are actually moving toward him. It is true, you will stand for a long time at the back of the boat and stare at the shoreline until it is gone. That is the way of grief. But at some point, your heart will want to turn fully, and you will walk to the front of the ship and perch yourself there, scanning the horizon for your baby boy who is being held right now by the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. That is longing for heaven. That is what God tells us to do. To long for our perfected life when we are with Him.”
I vividly remember reading those words during that first year of grief and thinking, “Clearly, I am still very much at the back of this boat.” But now, five years later, I feel like my heart is drawn far more to the moment when I will finally get to be with him again, than the moment I last held Charlie in my arms. I don’t know how long I will be stuck on this boat, craning to see heaven’s shores, but suddenly that day seems closer than Charlie’s birthday, even if it is still decades away.
God will still be good and you will still be you, but neither of you will look ANYTHING like you do in this hospital room today.
I wish someone would have warned me how much everything was going to change. I don’t even recognize the person I was on Charlie’s day of birth, five years ago today. Sure, we were brave. But we had to be. We were thrown into the depths of suffering, and there was absolutely no escape. Giving birth without a working epidural, with nurses who didn’t even care enough to be in the room, and a heart so broken I could barely even function…took an inhuman amount of courage and faith. And I sincerely believe that the Lord carried us through every hellish moment of that impossible day.
But we were largely running on fumes and faith. WE HAD NO IDEA that the next five years would look eerily similar to the unspeakable fear we felt that day. We didn’t understand that not just that hospital room, but our entire lives were about to become a constant battle to trust in a God who suddenly didn’t seem “entirely” safe, and to live within a body that was too sick and broken to carry life. We had no idea that it truly would be “fight or die,” every moment of every day, as a very real battle was being fought in the heavenlies over the souls of our entire family. We were just trying to survive a horrible moment, not fully understanding that it was not so much a sprint, but rather a marathon of Suffering we were facing. I wish I had known that the soul within me was going to be permanently wrecked and altered and reborn through suffering in every possible way, and that the man beside me was about to be changed just as drastically. We are not the same people, and though we are better in many significant ways, we simply aren’t who we once were, before who were were was decimated by suffering, and there is loss even in that.
Most of all, I wish I had known that our understanding of the character of the God we were clinging to, would be as altered as the broken souls who were doing the clinging. Our cord of three strands was about to have the world’s worst thrown at it, and to be tested with every possible form of suffering, from the loss of our health, the loss of everything we owned, the fear of more death, the reality of more graves, and most of all…the shaking of the foundations of our faith. It would have been nice to have a little heads up that the Lord Almighty, the New Broken Misty, and the New, Equally-Broken Reid were about to look so drastically different that we would barely even recognize them today, and that I would need to meet each one of them all over again in entirely new ways. So dear broken me, say your goodbyes.
You will find joy.
Really, really wish someone could have mentioned this to the broken me. I know that only the Lord knows the future, and anyone who promises joy apart from Him is foolish at best, and cruel at worst, but I wish God had told me that there would still be moments of genuine joy in our new life.
Joy, when God reveals glimpses of His heart to me, so profound that I had NEVER seen it to this magnitude in the old, “mostly happy” life I had before Charlie died.
Joy, as I held the miracle of Finn’s life in my arms, and looked into his baby blue eyes, even though we had absolutely no sane reason left to hope for a rainbow baby.
Joy, that Emma would chose to share about her baby brother and the sadness of this week with her entire fifth grade class, even though I could NEVER have done that in middle-school, and she is just plain crazy-brave.
Joy, that the future of this world is filled with a shocking number of fifth graders who actually know how to respond with true empathy.
And joy, that even now, as I sit here contemplating how much I HATE this week, and how much I wish my five-year-old Charlie was here, and how completely differently I would have written the story if the writing had been left to me…even so, there are moments of true joy as we stand on this side of the boat looking forward to Eternity.
As Nicholas Wolterstorff wrote so poignantly, after the death of his own son, “Sometimes I think that happiness is over for me. I look at photos of the past and immediately comes the thought: that’s when we were still happy. But I can still laugh, so I guess that isn’t quite it. Perhaps what’s over is happiness as the fundamental tone of my existence. Now sorrow is that. Sorrow is no longer the islands but the sea.”
The fundamental sea surrounding our existence was forever altered by the news of Charlie’s death on January 27th, 2013, and it will always be different now, this side of eternity. But on this long journey there, we have indeed sailed by genuine islands of unexpected, God-ordained Joy, and it is that joy that keeps us going.
But in the end, perhaps the thing I would have most wanted the fragile, broken me to know five years ago today is that…
Waiting isn’t easy.
Actually, waiting just plain sucks, because waiting magnifies whatever is already true, like staring at a roaring waterfall when you’re so thirsty you think you might actually die. This half of a decade has by far been the darkest and hardest and longest years of my life. I hate waiting to know my own son. l hate watching my other children suffer the lifelong sorrows of missing out on life with half of their siblings. I hate the constant fears that now lick at our heals like hot fire, since most of our fears are sadly not even “catastraphizing” nearly as much as they are admitting the horrors that have already happened, and fighting daily the fear of it happening all over again. Most days, I hate that we are on this boat at all, looking forward with such anticipation to a redemption, and a Forever chapter that has already been promised and waited for, but is still probably a long-time in coming.
Dear totally incapacitated, forever-altered, completely broken Me…
The wait has not been in vain.
Keeping fighting the fight to be human, in this awful place of sin and sorrow and suffering that was not meant to permanently house humanity. Keep staring at the beautiful horizon of the future, desperately trying to get to know the God- and the humans- who were alone in that dark hospital room with you on the worst day of your life. Keep living for that better Day, knowing that the one thing we have going for us in the midst of a truly horrific story, is that this is not the ending.
And a good one is still coming. Someday, your Savior will reign supreme. The islands of sorrow will finally be eradicated for all time, and joy will be the whole dear Sea.
I know that these foundational truths have in fact always been true, and believing this reality is actually the redemptive hope for every human story. But it was my precious son, Charlie James Zeller, born into the arms of Jesus on the morning of January 28th, 2013, whose life made it all poignantly and irrevocably real to me. And I am deeply grateful for his legacy. His was one of the shortest lives in human history, and yet, Charlie’s being has had the most profound impact on mine.
Happy Birthday, baby boy. I love you dearly, and look to the horizon, waiting for the day I will see your perfect face, and finally, properly celebrate your incredible life.