On Guilt and Photo Albums
Ten hours before the doctor said, “I’m sorry. There’s no heartbeat,” my wife and I sat blissfully unaware at our computer, about to hit “Confirm.” Unbeknownst to me, this would happened to be the last time I would be blissful, and the last time I would not have a sense of guilt coloring my every day.
The “Gillette Family Album 2013” was finally done, and in the nick of time, too! With Simon due in late February, we’d been busy painting the nursery, installing car seats, and generally doing all of the nesting and prepping new parents feel compelled to do. At T-minus 7 days until the due date, I knew that if I didn’t order our annual photo album now, I never would with Si-Guy imminently taking over our lives.
So, we added the final photos, looked at our favorite section one last time (all the pictures of the pregnancy, including the obligatory monthly shots of mom’s tummy getting bigger and bigger, and the chalkboard messages we made each week about the fruit-and-vegetable-baby-development sizes), and hit “Confirm” to order.
I wondered which would arrive first: our smiling baby, or the photo album.
We went about our day, cleaning and preparing the house. At some point, we realized Simon hadn’t moved much recently; hadn’t moved at all, actually. Concerned but not really worried, we called the doctor. We held hands driving to the hospital. We walked passed oddly silent nurses. We sat together next to the ultrasound equipment, where a doctor told us, “I’m sorry. There’s no heartbeat.”
Genevieve gave birth, we met and said goodbye to our beautiful baby boy, and we spent the following days in a fog of despair.
When I finally got back to work, the package was right there on my desk: “Gillette Family Album 2013.”
We spent that evening staring at the box, deciding whether to open it. We did, and then gingerly turned each page, bracing for the Simon section to hit.
We looked at the chronologically arranged pictures of us on trips or laughing with friends, the year progressing slowly and inexorably into the pregnancy.
We were AMAZED at how STUPID we were! How can you be smiling and laughing–don’t you see what’s coming? Isn’t it obvious?! Who are these people, even?! To this day, I look at those pictures, and that rational part of me shuts down. I honestly can’t understand why those people don’t realize what horror is about to befall them, I don’t get why they’re not calling the doctor, why they’re not demanding an early c-section, why they’re not taking action to fix this avoidable tragedy.
Like many others, we’ve struggled with guilt since our son passed away, especially my wife. We’ll probably always feel that guilt, because we are his parents and it was our job to care for him. Even though I rarely talk about it, I’ll always feel it as a dad, because I failed at my job to care for my spouse, and especially my son.
It’s easy to forget the months of diligent planning, of loving sacrifices, of careful avoidance of the things that could remotely hurt our baby; it’s easy, in that fog of despair, to block out all of the preparation, all of that work and those conversations where for months we were singularly focused on doing what was best for our child. It’s easy to get lost in the guilt, even when there’s no good reason for it.
Like many of you, that guilt for us is an overriding theme to our experience. I wish I had advice for how to deal with it, or how to feel better, but the truth is that the guilt is there, whether we “deserve” it or not. I don’t have a silver bullet for anyone — only empathy and commiseration.
I think about all of this as I open the photo album again, looking at the printed eyes of my wife standing next to me in those pictures from before.
I lean in, close enough to see the dots of pigment that make up my face.
I plead with those strangers in the pictures to realize what’s coming, to stop it.
But I also forgive them since it wasn’t their fault, knowing that no one can see the future, and no one can change the past.