I remember how it felt so clearly. I was sitting in an office at a funeral home. I had just signed a piece of paper to approve my firstborn son’s cremation. A page that allowed my son’s body to be turned to ash in an instant. It was a terrible feeling. I was making decisions that I never imagined being faced with. I signed the paper with quiet tears rolling down my cheeks. But then I was offered another painful choice. The sweet young employee asked if I’d like to hold him one more time. I gasped for air as I shook my head no, and the quiet tears turned to sobs. Lincoln’s autopsy had already been completed. He would be cold. Hollow. Empty like my aching heart. I didn’t want to change the memory of how he felt in my arms. I didn’t want to see how he looked a week after I had to choose when to say goodbye. And I didn’t want to have to say goodbye all over again. Four years later, this memory is still so fresh. So when I was faced with a similar decision after my youngest son died, I really had to stop and think.
The last time I got to hold Liam in my arms, he didn’t look like himself at all. He had ECMO tubes connected to him at his neck, and IV lines still on one hand and one foot. He was swollen. He was purple. He was so heavy. Before going to the hospital, he was thin and delicate. He had just finally passed 7 pounds at his last pediatrician visit. He was still swimming in his newborn clothing. But those 36 hours in the hospital changed his little body. For those 36 hours, he was continually being pumped with blood and fluids. He tripled in weight, and his color and features changed.Once we were notified that he wasn’t going to survive, he continued to change more and more. They removed the dialysis machines first, and took out his feeding tube while family members came to say their goodbyes. Blood slowly leaked from his nose as I held him close to my heart. I gently wiped it away and kissed his face. After everyone had said goodbye, I allowed the doctor to cut the ECMO tubes. I sobbed as I watched him gasp for his last breaths. I checked with his nurse. I made sure he wasn’t hurting. She turned up his morphine just to be sure. I couldn’t save him, so I did what little I could for him. I held him long after his heart stopped beating. But he somehow got heavier in my arms. His color continued to darken. I gave him to the nurse so she could get his hand and footprints for us, and at that point, I thought I was done holding him. I was tired. I needed to sleep. I needed that horrible day to be over. The nurse took his prints and dressed him. He had swelled up so much that she had to put him in 6 month clothes. And then she asked me if I wanted to hold him one more time. I started to say no. I recalled being offered this choice once before with his big brother. I remembered how quickly I said no because I knew he had changed. But then I stopped and reminded myself that this is a whole new situation. An entirely new loss. A whole separate grief. I have to make choices for Liam based on our current state and not on my past. So I changed my mind. I carefully cradled my youngest son, and I kissed him goodbye. That moment was critical for me. It was my first reminder that I don’t know everything about how my grief for Liam will go. In the four years since Lincoln died, I have learned a lot about life, about grief, and about myself. But this journey is still new. Today, my arms ache for my baby. They ache to feel his weight in them again. My heart longs to protect him and care for him. I wish that the last time I held him, he had looked and felt like himself. But I am still so grateful that I got those final moments. That last quiet kiss without an audience surrounding me. And I will always be so grateful that I held him one more time.