That is one of my most vivid memories.
I was wheeled out of the hospital…bags in my lap. Gift bags, a fully stocked diaper bag and a memory box.
Everyone was looking at me and crying, and I didn’t care because I was crying too. More inside, than on the outside, because the shock was still heavy.
I still didn’t quite believe that it was real. That just two days before, I’d gone in those hospital doors full of hope and excitement and nervous anticipation and here I was, being wheeled out into a totally different world.
A world I wished would just end.
When I got to the car, I stood out of the chair, and two friends from church came over to us. There were no words, just sobbing. Sobbing.
They clung to me and to my husband, crying and then John said, “I have to get her in the car. We have to pick her medicine up.”
And I got in.
There, in my backseat waited the car seat.
Matthew’s car seat.
And it was empty.
I will never, ever get the picture of that empty car seat out of my mind. It was huge, and it’s emptiness screamed at me.
“Where is the baby?????” “Why am I empty????” “Why are you driving away????”
“WHERE IS THE BABY?”
Five years ago, today, at 4:56 this afternoon, my first little boy would have turned five.
Five has hit me hard. Every year hits me hard, but for some reason, five seems to have been weighing like cement on my heart for weeks.
I think the build-up to any anniversary or milestone date always seems to be worse than the actual day, but today?
Today is hard.
Today people all over this country are wandering around from sale to sale looking to start their ‘most wonderful time of the year,’ and I am, much like the carseat was years ago, empty.
Five is a big boy. School and soccer and a million other things I’ll miss out on.
Five seems like yesterday.
Yesterday, I hung his stocking on the mantle so he’d see it when he got home.
Yesterday, I sat in the car, cold and scared to death as I looked out the window on the way to the hospital.
Yesterday, my nurse told me it would all be fine.
Yesterday, I saw my doctor’s face change into concern and the world started spinning.
Yesterday, I saw the back of his head as the nurses did CPR on him.
Yesterday, the NICU doctor told me he was very, very sick and in my head, I screamed, “YOU ARE LYING!”
Yesterday, he died without ever even getting a kiss from his Mama.
Yesterday I got in the car and the car seat taunted me.
How could it be five years? I sob as I write, seeing every.single.detail play over and over in my head. There is no, no, NO way it could be five years.
But it is. Last year, his birthday was Thanksgiving day. A day to give thanks for my many blessings, and still, my heart ached because one of those should have been the joy of watching my four-year-old blow birthday candles out.
This year, as I mashed potatoes and readied cranberry jello molds, my insides ached to bake a birthday cake. His birthday cake.
Like I wrote last year, Black Friday means something very, very different to me than it does to most.
This year, it reminds me that my beautiful, perfect son was born on this day, and he never even knew what his Mama’s arms around him felt like.
I’m so glad that if he had to die, it was in John’s arms. I am so grateful that he felt the love, and I have no doubt that John had enough for the both of us for Matthew to feel.
But today, while I am grateful for the gift he gave me in becoming a mother, I can’t help but be honest.
While people are out fighting each other to be first in line for some dumb gadget of the week, I’m at home. Wistful. Wishful.
Replaying the day he was born over and over in my head. Instead of celebrating five trick candles on a chocolate cake, I’m remembering how my entire world crashed while the rest of the world seemed to magically love each other just because it was “The Holidays.”
There is never an easy day for your child to be born and then die the next. Anniversaries and birthdays during the holidays seem just like insult to injury to me, though. As if I don’t get enough judgement through the year for not being grateful enough for the sweet little boy I DO get to raise, because it is Thanksgiving, I’m supposed to act like my heart doesn’t re-break each year. Being a military family, we have not been stationed in the same state that he is buried in since his first ‘birthday.’ Not only do I not get to bake a cake or watch him unwrap presents, I can’t even take my dead son flowers.
Hey, but instead, I can go shopping at 3 am.
The reality is that my heart does re-break each year because each year, I can remember it like it was yesterday. Each year, while some memories seem to become fuzzy, the memories I have of Matthew’s birthday are as crystal and vivid as they could possibly be. Vivid enough for me to feel like I am reliving them. Gut-wrenching enough that I can feel every thing I felt the day I had to drive away from the hospital without him. Each year, the should-haves and would-haves paralyze my insides and make my heart scream at the injustice of his death, while my outside obediently smiles and says, “I.am.thankful!” as I serve pumpkin pie.
I AM thankful, no doubt. I am always thankful. The death of your child makes you grateful for every.little.thing because you know how quickly your whole world can change. I’d defy someone to challenge my gratitude. And, I’d challenge anyone who said that showing outward signs of missing a loved one wouldn’t happen if one was ‘truly’ grateful.
Because today? Today, I am beyond grateful that I am able to hug and kiss his little brother. Beyond grateful that though the car seat was empty that day, a little over a year later, I was finally filling one with another miracle.
But it wasn’t him.
It wasn’t his car seat.
Today, I wish more than anything that I was celebrating his birthday. WITH him.
And it’s a very Black Friday indeed.
This article originally published November 28, 2015