Last week I was at a meeting of my book club – my bookclub is like everyone else’s – we get together so that we talk about everything BUT that book we all didn’t read. Our club is made up of a group of women who are connected kind of peripherally, with some knowing each other much better than others. Though I don’t know all of these women super well, they all know that I am a bereaved mother – that my beautiful son, Max, died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, 7 years ago when he was only nine and a half months old. And even if I don’t always show it, I am sure they know that I am broken in many ways by this loss. How could they not? They are all mothers too.
I find that I ask myself this question a lot, and not just about my book club friends: how can they not know how broken I am? My child died. What could possibly be more terrible than that loss? And yet, here I am, seven years later. We have had three more children since Maxie’s death: three siblings he will never know and who will never really know him. We moved across the country: a feeble attempt to leave our tragedy behind. We have managed to create very full lives: driving kids to activities and playdates and birthday parties, meeting up with friends in the evenings, taking trips with our family. We have lots of laughs and the usual parental frustrations. I guess it’s possible you wouldn’t know that we still struggle unless we told you. Although – how could you not know? Our baby boy died.
There are three new mothers in my book club. I am envious of new moms – not of their lack of sleep, or of the dirty diapers and endless doctor’s office visits or the chaos that inevitably comes along with a new baby. I am envious of their faith that everything will be fine. I am envious that they get to complain about the sleepless nights and the dirty diapers and the chaos without ever really wondering whether their baby will suddenly stop breathing and all of that will come to an end. There is an innocence in an experience that is unmarred by tragedy. I don’t have that luxury. When I find myself complaining about the stress of parenthood, I feel guilty. I have three living children – I should feel nothing about the experience of raising them but gratitude. Still, I am only human and sometimes even I have to admit that parenting is a battle some days and endlessly exhausting.
In my earlier days, book club conversations always turned to men – boyfriends and dates and potential husbands. We drank wine and gobbled down Trader Joe’s cheeses tried to read between the lines of confusing courtship communication. These days, half of us are drinking sparkling water, low carbing and mostly talking about our kids. The baby conversations are a minefield for me. So many memories of Max’s infancy and babyhood. It’s so awkward when I let myself say out loud that whatever we are discussing reminds me of Max. I try to stay vague – not really naming any of my specific kids, focusing on side conversations about other stuff.
Max died at daycare. He was going down for a nap. I know that the caretaker had already changed him and given him his bottle. He was in his crib and she was getting other babies ready. The details are fuzzy – I don’t know if that’s because they weren’t ever effectively communicated to me or because I was too raw to really listen. I know that she had a practice of swaddling him and putting him down in his crib on a Boppy pillow even though the company clearly states that babies should not sleep on one. I remember not being sure what to make of it because at home he slept in a sleepsack, on his back (until he started turning himself over) in an empty crib. He slept that way because I knew the safe sleep guidelines. I am a rule follower – I followed the guidelines. But, for whatever reason, I didn’t say anything to her. She told me how well he slept at daycare and I figured that was a good thing. He loved it there and was always beaming when I picked him up. The fact that I didn’t ask her to stop has haunted me for seven years. I should have said something. I don’t know if that would have saved him, but I don’t know that it wouldn’t have either.
Last week I got to bookclub eager to talk about the book. I had actually read it and it was really good. We talked about it for a few minutes and moved on. The usual check in with the new moms was next. Everyone is always worried about the new moms – Have they started sleep training? Are the babies getting into the swing of solid foods? How are things going at daycare? And there’s the big trigger. I zone out and my mind is flooded with images of Max. Photos of him, taken by the daycare, sent me throughout my workday. The sadness of dropping him off in the morning. The excitement of picking him up in the afternoons. His intoxicating smell – all over the bedsheets that I brought home weekly to wash. One of the moms says, quite casually, that her daycare puts her baby down to sleep on her tummy and that the baby is sleeping really well there. She is thinking of trying it at home. “You gotta do what you gotta do”, I hear. Do they not realize that I am sitting in the room? Have they not seen my Facebook post that this weekend would be Max’s eighth birthday? Have they learned nothing from my loss? I am bursting at the seams with safe sleep facts and I know that they all know my Max stopped breathing at daycare and yet, I don’t say a word. I don’t want to put a dark cloud over the evening. And it isn’t like this is the first time this has happened. My niece, who was born after Max died, had a crib full of stuffed animals, and I stayed silent. Because I don’t want to ruffle anyone’s feathers, or be that crazy mom, or scare anyone that their baby could die. Even though I know that the worst is possible….because it happened to Max…..and I will be missing him with everything that I am for the rest of my life.
I will never get to see my baby grow up. I will never know what he would be like today. He will never get the pleasure of playing with his awesome brothers and sister. The only thing that can bring even an ounce of meaning to his death is his legacy, which should be a lesson to parents. The lesson is clear: Please take the time to learn and educate yourself and anyone else who is taking care of your baby about the importance of safe sleep. You never know whether or not it just might save your baby’s life. Assume it will – I promise you won’t regret it.
In memory of Maxwell Judah Leviss
Guest post by Abby Leviss, Maxwell’s mom