Proof of Life
By: Brooke Taylor Duckworth
In a cedar lined dresser drawer in my bedroom, I keep a purple box the closes with a ribbon tie. It contains an impossibly tiny nightie and a sweet little hat that looks like it would fit a doll. These are the clothes my daughter Eliza wore in the hospital, after she was born without a heartbeat.
If you look closely at the nightie, you’ll see there is a smear of blood on it, and I remember how her nose started bleeding a little bit and how distressed I was—how horrifying it was to hold a baby who wasn’t breathing whose nose suddenly started bleeding, and how I just instinctively wiped it with a tissue.
There are moments when motherhood trumps grief and no matter how your world has just been shattered, the practical duty of wiping your baby’s nose is paramount.
In the early days, I would take these clothes out and smell them. They didn’t smell like Eliza. They smelled like a hospital that did its best to cushion the agony of our grief, that treated our daughter with love and held her as though she were the most sacred thing—which, of course, she was. But they weren’t hers. They weren’t clothes I had chosen for her. In our panic and fear heading for the hospital, we didn’t even bring a bag (rookie mistake, and one we would no doubt have laughed about if our story had had a happy ending). They weren’t clothes I particularly liked, but they had touched her little body and they were as close as I could get to her in the days that followed her death.
I would sob as I held them tightly, waiting to pull them out of the drawer until I was alone in the house so that I could howl that ungodly wail of a desperately grieving mother without upsetting all the people who were trying to hard to take care of me.
In the years that have passed, those clothes have long since lost that scent that could transport me back to that hospital room, and I rarely remove them from their drawer. They still touch such a bruised and tender part of me that it takes enormous emotional energy to run my hands over the soft fabric, to marvel again at the tiny perfection of her body, to remember what it felt like to touch her impossibly soft flesh, the coolness of her skin so completely wrong. Although I treasure those keepsakes, they are mementos from such a raw and fragile time that revisiting them often is too difficult, even now. They are mementos of my grief, and most of the time I keep them hidden away.
What I needed were mementos of love—proof of her life and of the love we felt for her even after she was gone.
One of the many things I grieved when Eliza died was the lack of evidence that she had lived. We had things, of course, we’d prepared for her arrival with baby showers and Amazon orders and Target runs, but we had so few things that were hers.
To my surprise, in the months and years that followed, we didn’t stop collecting things that became mementos of Eliza. I wondered at first if such a collection was morbid—was it odd to make a shrine to a dead baby? For a while, I had everything that reminded me of her sort of grouped together, things I could touch and hold while longing to hold my baby. As time went on, these things were dispersed around the house, moved to places where they seemed naturally to fit.
The display—like my grief—didn’t have to be so concentrated. It was ever present, but easier to manage in smaller pieces.
I ordered a print of her name in the sand, taken at sunset on a glorious beach in Australia by the talented CarlyMarie and had it printed large and framed. I scanned the footprints that were done at the hospital and had them reproduced by an Etsy artist in a glass ornament that I hung among family photographs in a gallery wall along our staircase. A friend sent me a beautiful ornament inscribed with Eliza’s name and pink blossoms that resembled the magnolia tree outside our home—the one that bloomed each spring except for the spring after we lost our baby. I hung it on our bookshelves. In the days that followed her death, I was given a necklace with her name on it, and over time my jewelry box filled with mementos that included her name or represented her in some way—a little duck charm, a necklace inscribed with the words, “Be brave, for I am always with you,” a monogram bracelet with the letter E.
As our family grew, a friend created a print for us with our wedding date and our daughters’ birthdates, and Eliza is listed along with her sisters. I found Eliza’s photographs, like her clothes, to be too intimate to display, to close to grief, so I had her portrait sketched from a photo and I framed it and hung it on the wall next to baby pictures of her sisters.
Our home still holds these echoes of Eliza, these little proofs of life that mean so much to me.
I wonder sometimes what a stranger would think who came into our home. How would they make sense of the prints and mementos that we display in honor of Eliza? Would they be able to look around the walls and bookshelves and read the story of our family—a story that includes a baby girl we loved so much but didn’t get to bring home? As I display family photographs, vacation souvenirs, and the detritus of a life with small children, I include Eliza as intentionally as I include all the things we love, admire, or want to remember.
Because Eliza has become such an integral part of my story and my identity as a mom, it feels natural to me to have her presence woven throughout our home.
While I will always wish that I had a series of photographs marking her growth from baby to toddlerhood to preschool to elementary school, I do take some comfort from the permanence of her memory here. I am glad that the far-too-brief moment of her physical presence was captured by an artist in the detailed lines of graphite pencil, just as the fleeting moments of the newborn stage were marked for her sisters by professional photographs.
These material objects can’t possibly represent our love for any of our children, and they certainly can’t capture the depth of our loss.
Jewelry inscribed with a daughter’s name, a teddy bear filled to match her birth weight, the loveliest painting of a butterfly… such things are sweet mementos but are cold comfort in the wake of losing a child.
And yet now, as years have gone by, and my grief nestles in among the joys that have followed and the hustle and bustle of ordinary life, I’m grateful for the permanence of these things in my home. Even if I’ve seen her portrait so many times that I can simply pass it by as I haul another load of laundry upstairs, it’s important to me that it hangs there as proof that she existed.
There are elements of losing a child that are impossible to articulate or communicate with anyone who hasn’t been there—moments of grief and anguish that we hold in our hearts as a means of protection and self preservation.
Mementos of my grief are important—they are part of my story. And so I tuck them in a drawer close at hand, where I know I can reach them. But mementos of life and love are important, too. And those I put forward in my home—in my jewelry box, on my walls, on my bookcases. Here is proof of life. My first daughter’s name was Eliza and she is as important a part of our family’s story as the rest of us. I don’t get to put her initials on monogrammed dresses, or write her name on countless school forms, but I’ll never forget her. I hope that my home reflects all the people we love, and when you look around these walls, she certainly numbers among them.
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