I’m tight on deadlines this week, so I’m grateful that Monica offered this amazing piece about the loss of her son and her struggles with faith. It’s incredibly compelling, but there is definitely a trigger warning regarding child loss.
My neighbor Sharon once arrived in my kitchen with a book of “comforting faiths.” This was a few weeks after the death of my newborn son Silvan. Sharon had suffered miscarriages herself; but unlike me, Sharon believed in a loving God who had a plan for us. Now she sat at my kitchen table fanning through her book casually, as if it were a catalogue and faith a sweater to be ordered and tried on for size.
Sharon was a great neighbor. From the day my husband and I’d moved into the house six months before, she’d been unfailingly friendly and helpful. With her big smile and fertile fruit trees, she’d hoped we’d be parents together, in and out of each other’s houses, sharing food and stories. And even now with my loss, she was proving herself willing to share—this time her faith.
Pushing the book towards me, Sharon said, “Some mothers believe that babies who die return to their source and wait to be reborn. I believe sometimes they are reborn to their own mothers.” She smiled shyly.
To be clear, my husband and I aren’t particularly religious. Though raised Catholic, I’m an agnostic; and David’s a Jewish atheist. If we have any sense of God at all between us, it survives in a humble belief that human minds are too small to comprehend the miraculous whole of the universe.
But if anything will spur an examination of belief, it’s a confrontation with death. And in this case, death was complicated by choice – we chose to let our son Silvan die. Sharon knew this. She understood the complexity of Silvan’s death. She’d even told us she would have made the same choice herself.
Here’s what had happened. A healthy, full-term, wanted child, Silvan slipped into a coma shortly after birth. It turned out that, though his labor and delivery seemed fine, his brain had been deprived of oxygen in the hours before birth. Now his brain was almost completely dead and his body was trying to follow suit. Without modern technology, he would’ve died at birth. Instead, machines kept him alive.
Through my shock and despair, I still knew I’d do anything for my comatose son – even let him die.
In the age of modern medicine, death is almost always complicated. We have so many tools for sustaining life that death is no longer a simple inevitability. In fact, almost no one in America today dies without first making a choice to forgo one treatment or another. And sometimes the line between life and death seems so blurry, or family members are in such disagreement (think Terri Schiavo), that the public gets drawn in. Often God is invoked – as in, “only God can decide.”
Fortunately for our marriage, David and I were in agreement, as were our family members. We’d all thought this issue through in the abstract. Our parents had living wills stating they wouldn’t want their own lives prolonged artificially. But our choice to remove Silvan from life support grew complicated when he woke from his coma. Now we had to defend our choice to the hospital’s ethics committee. His prognosis was as grim as ever: functioning solely on his brain stem, unable to survive on his own, Silvan might never swallow on his own let alone see, hear, walk, talk, or even know us. David and I were in agony. Couldn’t the doctors see our choice was born of love? But what if it was actually selfish? Could the doctors be wrong? And what if so many around us were right, that there really was a God, that we too should be praying for a miracle?
No decision of such profundity should be made without the test of doubt, nor should such decisions be made alone. After days of debate, we still felt that, even if there were a God, He had already decided about Silvan at birth. To prolong Silvan’s dying now felt like gambling for a miracle that God wasn’t offering, and at Silvan’s expense. And the ethics committee – made up of doctors, nurses, social workers, legal counsel, ethicists, a priest, a nun, parents – agreed with us unanimously. They shared the burden of our doubt. They showed us we were not alone. They recognized our love for Silvan.
So we brought Silvan home, held him until his last breath, and here I was weeks later trying numbly to accept his loss when Sharon arrived in our kitchen suggesting he might be reborn to me.
How did I react? With rage. “Silvan is dead,” I almost shouted.
Then I apologized because, of course, she was also grieving and people can believe whatever they want; but after Sharon left, I marveled at my ferocity. Had this been her faith bumping up against my lack of faith, or did I actually have some sort of faith myself?
Humans make meaning of tragedy. We find this comforting. But back then, I hadn’t wanted to be comforted. Not yet. Over time, I knew I would be whether I liked it or not, but back then, I simply wanted to accept that some babies live, some babies die, and that this is part of being human.
Time does heal. Ten years from Silvan’s death, I am comforted. But I’m also a mother of two more boys, which helps. I feel blessed by my boys’ existence. I feel grateful. But to whom? Has my luck given me faith in a benevolent God who wanted Silvan to die so that I could have more children? No. Life and death still feel random to me. I still believe that Silvan is gone forever. And I still miss him.
But I’m also awed by the power of stories to contain that randomness, that mystery. I believe that David and I made the right choice for Silvan. I’m grateful to the community that helped us make that choice. And though Silvan’s dead and gone from me, I still feel him here among us. He survives somehow in our love for him, and for each other.
Love. Now that’s something to believe in that’s been in my wardrobe all along, and I’m relieved to find it still fits.
Monica Wesolowska lives with her family in Berkeley, California and has taught writing at UC Berkeley for over a decade. To learn more about her memoir, Holding Silvan: A Brief Life, click here.