Saturday, May 15, 2010

Not What I was Expecting

by Bronwyn Green

I had no gossamer illusions about childrearing. I never once thought it would look anything like the glossy pictorials of celebrity moms romping through appropriately upscale parks with their offspring, the nanny discretely out of camera range. After all, any children in question would have sprung from the combined gene pools of my husband and me, and well, we’re not discrete nanny sort of people.

I expected motherhood to be messy and wonderful and breathtakingly beautiful. I planned on the grubby faces, poopy diapers and sticky hands. I expected temper tantrums, runny noses and fevers. But I knew there would be sweetly scented hair, warm, cuddly bodies, soul lifting giggles and happiness and wonder that would be beyond anything I’d experienced. While I expected motherhood to be the most rewarding vocation I’d ever have, I also knew it would be at times, hard, scary and overwhelming. Maybe it was arrogance on my part, but I never doubted my ability to mother my kids. I trusted that I would always be able to be fully present in my children’s lives, responding in whatever way most appropriate in a given situation. That confidence vanished rapidly fourteen days before my youngest son’s first birthday.

My faith in my ability to mother died along with my nearly nine month old nephew. Zane went to sleep one afternoon at the sitter’s and never woke up again. Of course, the sitter and the paramedics tried everything possible to revive him, but there was nothing that could be done. While kids who suffer sleep apnea can sometimes be revived, kids who suffer Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (crib/cot death) can’t.

In the space of time that it took my brother to utter the two words, “Zane’s dead” my world, along with the rest of my family’s, fell apart. Even though rationally, I knew that it was highly unlikely the same thing would happen here, it didn’t stop me from being terrified.

As parents, we want our kids to be happy and healthy. We want to protect them and keep them safe from all harm. The realization that no matter how hard we try, there are things we’re powerless against, is devastating. The grief that this beautiful child you adore is suddenly, randomly no more and the people you love with all your heart have a hole in their lives that nothing will ever fill, is too painful to find the words to express. The guilt that your children are alive while a loved one’s isn’t, is crippling. Parenting while constantly wondering, “Why not my son? Thank God, it wasn’t my son! What’s wrong with me that I’m even having this thought? What if? When? How can I prevent it?”, is very nearly paralyzing.

Trying to mother competently through a haze of depression, fear and sleep deprivation is easily one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I can sleep through most night noises, but silence still rouses me with a trickle of fear skating through my blood. Some nights, before I’m even fully awake, I find myself standing in my sons’ room, waiting—just waiting and listening.

After Zane’s death, I’d strain with every sense, trying to discern the sound of their breath, the rise and fall of their fragile chests. Some nights their breathing was so quiet and even, cold dread knotted my stomach. Terrified, I’d inch toward them, hand extended. I didn’t want to wake them. I didn’t want to know if they’d never wake again. I didn’t want to stand there another moment wondering. I didn’t want any of this. Forcing myself forward, I’d hold my hand over their faces. Warm and moist, their breath sighed against my skin and I’d sink to the floor, grateful to have been spared once more.

For nearly four years, I walked the hall in midnight vigil, marking the rise and fall of the moon. She was my silent companion in my weary, sleepless watch.

Avoiding scattered toys and strewn clothes, I wandered in and out of their room, thinking of the child who does not sleep, does not dream. At night, he lay in ashes in the bottom of a homemade urn, cold and alone. At night, I felt again the rasp of his papered skin under my lips, his hand cold and hard curled into my palm. At night, if I wasn’t careful, I see tiny white coffins. Morbid. Bright. They burned my eyes.

Blinking, I saw the blinding caskets were nothing more than my sons’ beds. If they didn’t stir, I’d again hold my hand over their faces. Repeating the desperate dance, I’d wait for the restless portion of their sleep cycle. Finally, the rhythm and motion of sleep would set in. They’d shift, murmuring, and I felt myself breathe. They never slept with blankets covering their bodies. Instead, they’d thrash and flop, gasping fish on the shores of sleep. And all I could think to do was draw the covers over their dreaming forms. Boneless, I’d sink into my own bed, lulled to sleep by the sound of my boys talking with and through their dreams. Even now, twelve years later, I still wake if the house is too quiet. I still occasionally peer into my sons’ room to make sure all is well.

I’d be lying if I said that I don’t still have moments of guilt that my kids are doing things my nephew never will. I’d also be lying if I said that time heals all wounds—because it doesn’t. It does dull it, but as far as unobtrusive scars go? Not so much.

However, I have come to realize that no matter what, we have a finite number of days with the people we love. There are a lot of people that I truly love, but I don’t love anyone more than I love my boys. I have no idea how long I’ll have with them or they’ll have with me. While I don’t obsess about their imminent demise anymore, I am always conscious of the big picture. For me, that means not sweating the small stuff as much as I might have otherwise. It means spending time with them every day and connecting with them at an emotional level. It means that I’m way more relaxed (most of the time) when they’re being dorks and it means not doing or saying things that

I’ll regret later. And if I do, I apologize and mean it.

I know that I can’t protect them from everything. They have to experience life on their own terms. But I can do my best to prepare them—to encourage them to develop their strengths and enjoy life while they’re doing it.

The pain of loss has dulled somewhat and my confidence in my ability to parent has improved. I’m not a perfect mom—not by a long shot—but I think that teaching my kids by example to be responsible to themselves and others is probably just as good. I’m a mom. I’ll always worry, but I’ll never regret.


  1. Bronwyn,

    Thank you for joining us here at the Grip and providing such a powerful and personal post.

    The story of Zane's passing is heartbreaking and I doubt I'll be the first on this list to offer sincere condolences.

    But I wanted to thank you for reminding us all that mothering is never easy and, even when it all seems to be going well, the toll on the individual can be enormous.

    Best wishes to you and your family,


  2. Bronwyn,

    I think most parents harbor the fear that a child might die, but few face this reality in such a personal way. My condolences on your loss and the struggle you've had to face since.

    Your realizations and resolutions in the shadow of that loss are an inspiration.

    Thank you for such an eloquent post.


  3. Bronwyn,

    I am so sorry for your family's loss hon.

    Thank you for sharing such a heartfelt post with us. I can only imagine the pain you must have been feeling writing it.

    I have nightmares about my daughter, especially now that my nephew has been diagnosed with cystic fibrosis. They didn't catch it until he was 12. He's 14 now, and believes that life doesn't matter, there is no point. He won't live long enough to really do anything. I am terrifed for him, and for my daughter.

    I can only imagine the pain of suddenly losing a beloved child. I know having a nephew give up on life is hard enough.

  4. What a very powerful and touching post. My heart aches with you and your family for the loss of Zane. Then I immediately give thanks that my son and daughter have made it into their 20s and thanks for a healthy 6 year old grandson (who is called by his middle name, Zane) and a healthy 29 month old granddaughter.

    I recently read the phrase "if your heart breaks, let it break open." That reminds me how fragile but worthwhile loving is!
    Thank you for sharing your trauma in such a powerful post.

  5. As someone who knows you and your children, I can honestly say they are the coolest, best adjusted children. They love their mom and know that they can come to you for everything. They play with you and their friends wish you were their mom too.

    What your life lessons taught you, made the future of your children so much more solid. You have created people to be proud of.

    In all things, I admire you.

  6. *hug*

    Thanks for sharing this painful slice of your life, of your family's life, and for reminding me how precious our time is.

    You would probably be surprised if I didn't have a song to share, right? Cloud Cult's song "Sleeping Days Pt II" is about lead singer Craig Minowa finding his son dead in his crib. This song is so beautiful, so haunting... it guts me every time I hear it.

  7. When T was five months old, the six month old grandson of my thesis advisor, whose dad was a student in my department, but not a close friend, died of SIDS. I cried for that family, though the child's actual parents weren't particularly close. And yes, there was still the guilt. I couldn't bring baby pictures to class--it would have felt cruel. And it was probably when he turned one that I quit checking T every single night. It's utterly terrifying.

    Lovely post, Bron. Big hugs to one of the most caring people I know.

  8. Very gripping and moving post Bron,

    My heart breaks at the loss of Zane and rejoices at your children obvious delight in their lives.

    We always struggle with our ability to mother especially when there are things that would harm our children that we can do nothing against.

    Thank you so much for sharing and reminding me today to hug my children one more time than I already have. They will thank you for it. ;)

    Gros Bisou,

  9. Bron, to love is to risk loss. I'm sorry for your loss and your sister's loss. I cannot imagine your pain. No one is guaranteed anything. Death can come at any age. Your perspective is why you will cherish every single moment with your children, no matter how much you want to smack them upside the head because they've just done something totally stupid. Once these moments are past, we can never get them back. I've known since I was a child that bad things happen. Not only do they happen, they can happen to the people you love and they can happen to you.
    A I said, to risk love is to risk loss.
    I totally understand how awful this experience has been.

  10. From the year I was ten years old I've also known that life is short. We were traveling during the night. Then there was a terrible car accident and my mother was gone.

    Life is precious from conception until we draw our last breath. And there's no guarantee that we will live any longer than our next breath. Say "I love you" often and mean it. Give hugs at ever opportunity. Share laughter.

  11. I grew up in a household where I was "the replacement child" for a brother killed in a childhood play accident. I knew from an early age that life was never guaranteed. I felt the same way from the day my first child was born. I almost lost my son when he was 15. I almost lost my daughter when she was 23. I lost my sister at 48. My other sister five years ago. I lost my parents long ago. I am the only surviving member of my "original" family, and I live in fear for the lives of my grandkids day in and day out.

    Life is, indeed, a gift, and not guaranteed to go beyond today. Kiss your kids, grandkids, hug your friends and family. Never let an opportunity to say "I love you" escape you. It might be the last you get.

  12. Amazing post, sweetheart. Being a new mom is already an ocean of uncertainty--to live through a family tragedy like that at such a vulnerable time ... well, I'm sure what you revealed is only the tip of the emotional iceberg.

    You're one of my favorite moms, and now I've been blown away once again by the way you share your world with words. Thanks for coming on, hon. *kisses*

  13. @ Ash - Thank you for your condolences. Also, thanks to you, Lisabet and all of The Grip authors for having me as a guest. I have to admit, this wasn't the post I'd intended to write, but I think it was the one I needed to write.

    @ Craig - Thank you for your kind words. It probably sounds corny, but having Zane in our lives even for a short time made a huge difference in all of our lives.

    @ Michelle - Thank you very much. I am so very sorry about your nephew's diagnosis and his reaction. That absolutely breaks my heart. Sending you hugs and hope for all of your family.

    @ Martha - Thank you so much. I love that phrase you shared. It's absolutely beautiful. And the fact that there's another Zane running around enjoying life - that makes me really happy.

    @ Mia - Thanks sweetie - that means a lot coming from one of the strongest people I know. I'm so glad you adore my kids, too. And I am so proud of them.

    @ Chris - Oh hon - I'm not at all surprised that you have a song. I'm going to be listening to it later...when I'm alone because I'm betting it's going to make me sob.

    @ Cindy - That poor family. I wouldn't have felt comfortable sharing baby pictures, either. Big hugs to you, too.

    @ Cyn - Give your kids a hug from me too - they'll probably be really unimpressed now.

    @ Julia - You're so very right. We're not guaranteed anything, and I would so much rather risk loss than not love.

    @ Anny - I can't imagine losing my mom like that. :( I firmly believe lots of laughter and hugs at every opportunity.

    @ Fran - Oh honey - I know someone who was also 'the replacement child'. I can't imagine that kind of hell. I'm so sorry for all your losses, but I love your philosophy of never letting an opportunity to say "I love you" to escape.

    @ Dev - Thanks so much, hon. I really appreciate it. And I love the phrase ocean of uncertainty - it's the perfect description.

  14. Bron, honey,

    I cried the first time you told me this story...the next few times whenever we chatted about Zane...and I'm still crying from your eloquent words. Such a beautiful, heartfelt post.

    I can tell you that for the first year of each of my kids' lives, they slept either on me, beside me with their body snuggled to mine, or in a swing or somewhere I could see them. Never did they spend even a moment in a crib for this very reason. I'd read about a number of studies in England where they'd made correlations between a child's breathing rhythm and that of mother's. It was suggested that if they could hear and feel their mother's (or father's) heartbeat, their risk of apnea was reduced...

    I don't know if it's true, but it was one of the few things that gave me any kind of peace when they were infants.

    And yes, I still check each and every one of them before I go to sleep, though half the time they're still somewhere in my room...on extra beds or in mine...but I don't mind. I know, all too soon, those days will be gone and while I'll enjoy not getting kicked at night, I'll miss that closeness. That reassurance that all is it should be.

    You know how much I adore you and your boys... they are lucky children indeed. You're strong, compassionate and more beautiful than words. I know somewhere, Zane is smiling for all the love you still show him.

    hugs and all my love,
    ps... I think you should include a spoiler alert next time.. I had to run downstairs to get more kleenex...

  15. The death of a child is one of the darkest pains I know. It eats all of the warmth from a person inside to out. The fact that you not only went through that, but raised those wonderful boys we all love to hear about... you are an inspiration. It's true, we should never waste a single day on regret or a single moment with our loved ones.
    Hugs both tight and warm and wishing you a lifetime filled with love,

  16. This is a beautiful post, one of the best I;ve seen. Thank you.


  17. Dearest Bron,

    Thank you so much for opening your heart and sharing your terror and grief. I do not have children myself--partially because I'm convinced I'd be horribly overprotective--but I felt every horrible minute of doubt and concern.

    Admiring your great sense of humor, I never expected you to provide us a guest post like this when I invited you to contribute. But I am so glad that you did...

    Much love,

  18. @ Kris - if it makes you feel any better, your comment made me cry. Thank you, honey for all your friendship and support. I'm not sure how lucky my kids are - but I definitely know that I am.

    @ Anna - that may be the best description I've ever heard - eating all the warmth from the inside out. It describes the feeling perfectly. Thank you so much - for the hugs and your kindness.

    @ Garce - Thank you so very much. It was hard to write, but I'm glad I did, and I appreciate your kind words.

    @ Lisabet - It surprised me, too - it definitely wasn't where I thought I'd go with this post. And thank you again for inviting me to participate.


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