Eighteen Years

“All of these lines across my face
Tell you the story of who I am
So many stories of where I’ve been
And how I got to where I am
But these stories don’t mean anything
When you’ve got no one to tell them to…”

“The Story”, Lyricist-Phillip John Hanseroth

 Vocalist-Brandi Carlisle

I love stories. I see them everywhere—how they shape the world, how they build or dismantle understanding and relationship, how they are always at work crafting the person I was into the person I am becoming—never allowing complacency in the “I am” because stories are alive, they are moving and never still. I give witness to their power but don’t give my power over to them. I recognize that as often as I might feel lost in circumstances that seem to have become my only narrative, that it is my responsibility to pause, to breathe, to understand, to take back the pen, and to write my way forward. 

So, telling a story should come easily. And yet, this one, that I’ve told so many times, is resisting a new telling. In an effort to begin, I wrote the line “Eighteen years is a long time” last week and I cannot seem to get past it. I cry every time I step up to elaborate and the words I know I want to share get lost somewhere in the back of my brain. Because in that diminutive and deceptively obvious sentence are embedded not only grief laden memories of a day and the immediate days that followed, but also the vast emptiness of all that has been missed in those 18 years and all that will continue to be in the years to come.

Maybe I need a different way in? Maybe just the truth—not prettied with lush language. Maybe I can start there.

On December 16, 2004, my husband and I discovered during a less than routine ultra-sound that, at 17 weeks, our first son, Nathan, was no longer alive and I would have to be admitted to the hospital that same night to deliver into the world a child who would not only never know that world, but who would also never know his really mom and dad (and later his brothers). And the weight of his loss was heavy and immediate. I wrote his story for the first time some years ago here.

The story of that day is not the story I want to tell today…18 years later. I don’t think rehashing the intensity of that grief is what Nathan would want for his mom, so instead, my work here will be to climb out of my grief and to reclaim ownership of it and in doing so also claim my freedom from an obvious story of a lifetime of sadness. This climb presents a challenge though as this is a particularly steep one—especially today—but the effort has allowed me to realize that what was once a point of vulnerability is now this area of strength. That Nathan’s tiny life has and will continue to inspire the rest of mine. But to detail that impact even briefly, I have to share the parts of the story that are harder to see—I have to reflect on how my beautiful boy and his early departure have sown seeds of goodness in me that would not be rooted so deeply without him.

“Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you

Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,

And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,

Must ask permission to know it and be known.”

“Lost”, by David Wagoner

The days and months that followed Nathan’s loss coincided with what could only be named a season of babies. It was just that time in life. I dug deep and decorated my face with smiles while attending showers and sitting in hospital waiting rooms all the while my heart was sort of a Sisyphean tragedy of shattering, pasting together, and re-shattering with every passing day. 

And then one day, I was leaving a friend’s house after delivering a fruit tray so she enjoy a healthy treat while taking care of her newborn. I got in my car anticipating a tearful drive home and what happened instead shifted my entire trajectory. 

I looked out of the window and saw the sky.

As though waiting to be noticed, the sky stood still, brilliant and blue with only a few wispy clouds and without even thinking about it the words “thank goodness for beautiful things, that sky is beautiful” came out of my mouth (out loud…alone in the car…clearly, I needed to hear them and not just think them). In that moment, I knew that my life would be so much more than this impossible grief…that there were still beautiful things in this world if I could find a way to pay attention to them…that my beautiful boy’s memory would be wasted if I spent every day immersed in the depths of this grief. 

But I also knew stepping away from grief would not be a trek down an easy path. And it hasn’t been. Here I am 18 years later still writing about it—because it is hard—even when you’ve never really met the person you are missing, grief is just hard…and lasting. What remains from that day though is a practice, a gratitude practice, that has pulled me through some of my hardest days and guided me through some of the darkest wildernesses. A practice that removes me from inside of myself and grounds me in the world—reminding me there is more in this life than a moment can hold. A daily practice that I sometimes have to force because some days are just harder (and for all kinds of reasons), but still a practice that reminds me that like Lucille Clifton wrote, “today we are possible…everything waits for us…what will become/waits in us like an ache.”

And so, what has become of Nathan’s memory? 

I see him in the faces of my own living children. I see him in the faces of every single child I teach, of every child I encounter. And in doing that, I am able to speak, to parent, to teach, to lead with greater empathy. I see myself in those around me and wonder “What aren’t they revealing in their smile? What might I be missing?” And my patience grows (I mean, maybe not when I’m driving…but still) and my vulnerability emboldens because maybe I can share something that will help…or maybe I can just listen and be present. I encounter difficult things and know that they might be terrible, but I can, in fact, survive…if I just look for the sky.

So, yes, 18 years is a long time. And yes, I would prefer it if my Nathan were still here, in his senior year, getting ready for graduation and the rest of his life. But my life and that of my family is the rest of his life, and it won’t be wasted. For that, I am willing to work hard. For that, I am grateful.

redeeming grief

In December of 2004, I lost a piece of myself that isn’t really retrievable. It was a week before Christmas and I found myself delivering my first child into a world he would never know. There will be no deep dive into the details of my pregnancy with Nathan and what determined our loss–if you want those, you can find them here.

This blog series is aimed at positivity so it seems odd I would bring this loss up at all, but I promise, it comes with good reason. You see, this year, Nathan, had he not been so sick, would be old enough to attend high school…and since I am a high school  principal and teacher, this weighs heavy. I walk around my school each day and I watch the antics of my freshmen–I hear the silly giggles, still tinged with junior high joy; I see the awkwardness settling as they begin to figure out high school; I reassure their parents that their kids will in fact mature and that they will find success. And I do all of this with a bit of an achey heart these days because I should be more deeply involved in this scenario than just the voice of principalian experience (and yes, I just made that word up…). I should be walking campus tickled by the laughter of my own son and his friends…I should be the parent in need of reassurance. In the midst of this realization, I felt my grief, which I have spent so long taming, rediscovering its roar.

Sadness was welling up and I was struggling to push it down.

This was so much harder than I thought it was going to be…and I spent the summer preparing for it!

But as we have wandered through these early weeks of school, I have learned to live my gratitude (which is what redeemed my grief all those years ago). These days, I walk around campus and instead of feeling betrayed by loss, I feel even closer to Nathan than usual. It is almost as if he is present with me just a little bit more each day. Instead of what ifs, I just feel grateful that I have the chance to work with, teach and help all of these kids who are as old as he should be. It is my gift back in some strange way.

I have spent the last 15 years of my life trying to figure out the purpose to my grief, and while I may spend the next 15 years trying to do the same, I have learned a few things. When I harness my grief to offer empathy to those who are suffering, the loss is less. When I view my students through the lens of “If this were Nathan, how would I want someone to treat him in this moment?”, I am a better teacher and human. When I transform grief into gratitude, my loss is vindicated. When Nathan feels alive in my heart, when I recognize that I am still his mom, his death doesn’t feel so vacant.

People question my sort of annoying optimism regularly. I feel like if they understood the loss and the illness and the sacrifices endured, those questions would dissolve. I have every reason to live angry with the world. I choose not to. That isn’t easy. It is a daily decision; it is an active lifestyle and it is imperfect. But optimism and seeking gratitude allow me to see greater purpose in the difficulty, in my life. It allows me to put myself on the side and to see beyond the periphery of the moment, of the wounds. It allows me to seek positivity each and everyday. It allows me to truly live.

And that is what Nathan would want most for his mom anyway. I can’t deny him that.

(and because I haven’t offered enough poems lately…here are a couple…“One Art” By Elizabeth Bishop“Lost” by David Waggoner (okay, for real, if you don’t click on this link you need to read this line–life changing! “…Wherever you are is called Here,/ And you must treat it as a  powerful stranger,”)


Today, October 15, is pregnancy and infant loss Remembrance Day, so instead of my usual classroom focused post, today’s blog is far more personal and one I haven’t really shared so publicly. But, today, it felt right. Read at your own risk. It’s pretty emotional.

“ —Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture

I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident

the art of losing’s not too hard to master

though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.”[1]


Losing things would seem to be a fault, yet it has always been one of my greatest talents. Quite honestly, it is an art I’ve perfected.

I can still see my six-year-old self pouting and tearful over a lost doll. I knew that once my indiscretion became public I would suffer the disappointment of my mom, the frustration of my dad (that doll had cost money, you know), and the derision of my brother. There was only one thing to do, only one place to turn. I turned my downtrodden gaze upward and sent a desperate prayerful plea to St. Christopher (and probably to my guardian angel too…) to help me find her.

I’m not entirely certain if I ever did find this particular doll; however, this moment sticks out in my mind because it was the first of many prayers for the loss in my life.

The trauma of lost dolls soon evolved into the struggle to find car keys (in the refrigerator? Really?) and credit cards. I became quite good at coping with these losses: stay calm, retrace your steps, pray for guidance, retrace your steps again, ask for help, and eventually find (or replace) what has been lost.

And so my life went for the first 28 years or so. Loss couldn’t touch me, couldn’t shake me—I was good at it. In my 28th year, however, it would seem being good at it wouldn’t be enough. Loss took on new meaning and with that so did my life.


Nathan died before he was born. He died before there was a nursery, before baby showers, swaddling blankets, and pacifiers; however, he also died before suffering the pain his earthly life promised with absolute certainty. This is a pain that, as his mother, I bear for him every moment of my every day, and I do so with gratitude.

The brief flicker of this sweet little life has forever altered mine; for while I delivered Nathan into a world he’d never meet, he and I shared 17 weeks together. Those weeks were filled with intensities of joy, nausea, first movements and hopes of the life we were to have as a family. Those hopes, a fulfillment of a year of frustratingly futile efforts, were real the moment the test finally flashed “PREGNANT” and I never once questioned that he might leave too soon.


“Ma’am, I promise, these symptoms are normal in early pregnancy. Just calm down and take comfort in the fact that things are going so well!”


Mother’s intuition comes more naturally than expected, well, at least it did for me. The refrain of reassurances issued from my well-meaning nurses never proved satisfactory. Somewhere, and maybe only in my heart, I knew that something was terribly wrong. Still, I proceeded naively with confidence.


“Oh dear, that is fluid around the brain! Where’s your doctor? Out of town? We need a doctor immediately.” And with that, the sonographer darted out of the room.


It was the day before Thanksgiving and in a fleeting moment, there we were being worked into a perinatologist’s already full schedule. Suddenly my intuition seemed to be correct after all, only it didn’t feel so good to be right. I felt sick.

This particular doctor, though brilliant, was ambivalent and unwilling to offer diagnosis until Nathan showed further development, which meant four weeks of waiting and wondering. We knew something was wrong but treaded around admitting it out loud.

I spent that Thanksgiving keenly aware that our poor baby would probably never have a “normal” life. I ached with jealousy for those around me with healthy pregnancies and babies. New feelings of loss, of being cheated as well as the anger over that loss replaced those early emotions of euphoric joy and hope: Fulfillment replaced with vacancy.

I struggled in this way for several days, when suddenly in all of my blind self pity, a moment of clarity shed the scales from my eyes to reveal the truth about the love a parent feels for a child.


stay calm, retrace your steps, pray for guidance, retrace your steps again, ask for help, and eventually find (or replace)what has been lost


I was standing in the kitchen, opening the refrigerator door when I understood for the first time that God grants gifts of many kinds and that it wasn’t up to me in what kind of package that gift might arrive. I knew in this flash of honesty that no matter what ailment our child might suffer, no matter what affliction might complicate his circumstances, I loved him completely, unconditionally and that love would translate into meeting his each and every need with devotion and unspeakable emotion. I found my child again and in doing so I found out something pretty important about strength and about parenting as well.

I gathered and rebuilt myself around this new found gratitude and love.


“So, Mrs. Clark, do you have any questions for me today?”

It had happened two days before and I knew it in the moment it occurred.

There is an uncomfortable pause after his question as the unspeakable must be spoken and neither the doctor nor my husband and I care to go first.

I was driving home from a Christmas party and was suddenly breathless as if all of the life had been sucked from me.

“I’m so sorry to have to tell you this, but we have been unable to detect a heartbeat. You will have to deliver your son tonight. I want you to know that this is in no way your fault”

He didn’t move again after that, and I knew what that meant, only I couldn’t face that terrible truth. Not until I absolutely had to.


No one prepared me for this loss. They prepped me for “problems”, for “difficulties”, even for “abnormalities”, but no one discussed this possibility.

How was it to be believed?

How could it not be my fault?

Everything I’d lost up until this point had been my fault: Barbies casually kicked under the bed, barrettes accidentally thrown away, credit cards carelessly left in my back pocket.

I should’ve done more, been better.

I should’ve kept him alive, and now I had to deliver him lifeless and forever sever our time together as one. It was as though I was suffering one loss mentally, emotionally only to realize that there would also be a vast physical loss as soon as delivery was complete.

Twenty-four hours later and with my stoic husband by my side singing me through the pain, we delivered Nathan into our presence only to have him wrapped up and whisked away –leaving us empty-armed with “keepsakes” of lifeless pictures, a tiny tape measure, and, at my request, attempts at hand and foot prints. These tokens were all things that I was desperate to possess, yet in truth they were only a small compensation for the vast emptiness left behind by that baby boy.

Yet somehow, I found a strength I’d never known after enduring this most excruciating day of my life. I was proud of that strength and clung to it with fury all the while never suspecting that it was my love for Nathan that endowed me with it.

When the adrenaline waned, I had this moment of feeling barren and painfully alone. This moment turned into days and stretched into months. I felt cheated and abandoned, and this irreparable loss seemed to be “disaster”.


“Who knows how long I’ve loved you/ You know I love you still/ Will I wait a lonely lifetime/ If you want me to, I will…../ Love you forever and forever/ Love you with all my heart/ Love you whenever we’re together/ Love you when we’re apart”[2]


As it turns out, it was my overwhelming love for that beautiful boy which was in effect the root of all my pain and the source for what would be all my healing as well.

This love reached farther than any I had ever known possible and this love did not die with the body. This love was not lost and in finding that, I discovered the one thing that was mine forever.

Nathan would be 13 this December, and he is part of my every day. Sometimes it’s simple things like when a child of a friend who was due within a week of him loses her first tooth and I realize that we should be celebrating the same thing. Other times it’s the moments when my two healthy thriving boys, now 8 and 10, give me fits, patience is lost, and yet I’m able to retrace my steps and find the presence of mind to be grateful for every moment I am allowed to share with them.

Then it’s the precious moments of solitude when I just whisper “I love you” in my heart and I know that he hears my quiet prayer.

I live my life painfully aware of the consequences of loving deeply and eternally grateful for that love because, in the end, that is what enabled me to finally master the art of losing. With that love, there is no disaster. With that love, Nathan is forever with me. With that love, I live a fuller life. With that love, I am complete.

[1] From Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art”

[2] From The Beatles’ “I Will”