It's Never Just Valentine's Day

I was feeling anxious and down all week.

abstract watercolor illustration of paper hearts on a string
Image created via Midjourney

In the passing of years since my daughters died, I have become more prepared for the "hard days" - the hardest being their birthdays.  Nelle's birthday was Labor Day weekend that particular year, so it ushers in multiple days of grief in the subsequent years.  And Iris's birthday is February 13th - the day before Valentine's Day.  As our family prepares to shower love on each other, I am slammed the day before with how she is not with us.

Somehow as time has placed more distance between me and that day in 2016, I had forgotten that it was February 12th when we were told that she had no heartbeat.  Labor was induced that afternoon, following that nightmarish prenatal appointment, and she was born at 7:42 am, after 14 hours of labor.

I was feeling anxious and down all week, with the anticipation of her birthday.  Luckily, I buy gifts well in advance, so I was not shopping for Valentine's Day, with candy and cards for my living children already tucked away in hiding.  On the morning of February 12th, I was scrolling through my Facebook memories, as is my habit every day.  From February 12th, 2016, I saw the announcement that I had made that day.

"You go through tragedy once to find out how strong you are, but twice.... We learned today that our baby had no heartbeat, at 16 weeks.  Shock and devastation don't begin to describe how I'm feeling as there was no indication that anything was wrong.  The doctors are going to do everything they can to get some answers for us about why this happened again.  I will be at the hospital for a few days."

Reading my own words hit me hard.  Her day isn't just about the 13th.  It is about the 12th, her Death Day — the 13th, her Birth Day — and Valentine's Day immediately following.

Ger and I planned to take the 13th for ourselves.  I have learned over the years that it is best not to work on Nelle and Iris's birthdays.  We thought that we would go into Chicago, maybe to the Museum of Science and Industry, where we are members, and do one of the guided tours that we have never attempted when we have kids in tow.

Of course, life never works out as planned when it comes to my daughters.  Daycare called on Wednesday and told me that Autumn had a fever.  After picking her up that afternoon, her fever spiked even higher - to the point where we put her in the bathtub to cool her down and started the regimen of alternating Tylenol and Motrin.  I didn't give up hope entirely - perhaps she would miraculously wake up fever-free the next day and we could keep our plans, but bring her with us.

That didn't happen.  She was up most of the night and as I worked to keep her fever under control, I finally brought her to bed with me to make it easier to take her temp and administer medication.  Somewhere around 1:00 am she became very alert and was talking to me as I pleaded "Night-night time - go to sleep."  By morning, I could feel the lack of sleep that I'd had, and she still had a fever.

And so I had to rearrange.  Hopeful that maybe by Friday the 14th, she would be better, I rearranged the 13th.  I pushed my Friday work meetings to Thursday and wrapped up some other work that I knew I needed to finish.  I spent Iris's birthday trying to get through as much as possible, hoping that the end result would be that I could celebrate her on the day that we celebrate love - Valentine's Day.

It was still her birthday on the 13th, and the messages that I received from people let me still set that day aside for her.  One friend, who lost her son as a newborn, sent me a message that said, "Happy birthday doesn't feel right.  But know that I am thinking of you today."  And it's true - though I had never considered it that way.  Many of my loss mom friends reached out to me to say "Happy birthday" because they know exactly how much acknowledgment means, but happy isn't the right word for the day.

Valentine's Day did work out for us.  Autumn's fever was gone, and - still banned from daycare - she was able to come with us into Chicago.  I learned was "free admission for Illinois residents" at many of the museums, so we steered clear of those, knowing that the crowds would make the exhibits hard to navigate.  Instead, we went to Eataly, an Italian market and restaurants, in an enormous building.  We walked through rows of shelves of pastas, sauces, olive oils, meats, and cheeses.  Italian food is my favorite, and I likely could have gone crazy in filling up multiple shopping bags — but I refrained.

Autumn had on a red sequined dress, leftover from Christmas and one of her favorite things to wear, along with jeans and rubber dinosaur boots.  The wind chill put the outdoor temperature below zero, so we bundled her up with a blanket as an extra layer as we walked from where we parked to the restaurant.  But as we waited for our handmade pasta to arrive, I could tell that she was fading.  She put her head down on the table, and then had no interest in her heart-shaped pizza.  We quickly finished our food and left.

Even though the day was not what we had originally planned, in both length and having a third wheel along, Ger and I both agreed that taking the time for ourselves was much needed.

The afternoon meant a nap for Autumn, but I found that I had a tightness in my chest.  At first, I was concerned that I had caught Autumn's illness and it was the beginning of feeling cruddy.  But after a bath, some focused work on deep breaths, and a cup of tea, the heaviness lifted.  I decided that instead, it was a dose of anxiety or a reaction to the heaviness of the day.

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