More Than A Year After My Children’s Father Died, We’re Still Learning How To Transition

More Than A Year After My Children’s Father Died, We’re Still Learning How To Transition

These transitions are wistful and a little frightening. But after the year we’ve had, I greet them with reverence and wonder.
Mary Katharine Ham
By

It sounded simple enough.

“Stripes in the corner?”

“Yeah, the rest of the room will be peach, but the corner will be striped— gray and peach,” I said, seeing myself pulling the painter’s tape triumphantly from a flawless straight line, revealing my perfect DIY handiwork while wearing spotless cropped jeans and a tasteful cardigan, like the aspirational couples of Home Depot commercials.

I winced at my own imagination. Never a calm ride, my subconscious had become prone to slamming me into previously harmless thoughts, its handling downgraded to something like a clumsy bumper car by recent tragedy.

A couple.

In these moments, my stomach lurched and I stalled out, waiting for the carnie in my subconscious to restart the ride and send me back into the flow of traffic for a few minutes until I caromed off some other innocent image or got rear-ended by a memory.

A couple painting a nursery.

I shook my head and strained to turn my mind back to a flat, gray wall. The wall of the room I had shared with my husband, Jake, until weeks earlier. The room he dressed in one Saturday morning and grabbed a backpack full of spare inner tubes and power gels he never used. The room he left for a bike ride he never came back from.

It was our sad, gray room where I stood, newly widowed, the mother of a toddler, eight months pregnant. The room that was— by God—going to have a striped corner for our brand-new baby.

They say not to take on anything major within 6 months of a traumatic event. I used to chuckle when I heard this. “Well, I’m going to push a baby out of me and raise ’em by myself, but sure, I won’t get bangs or anything, I guess.”

I figured changing our master bedroom was safe enough. Something brighter, something new. I wasn’t much of a nursery designer, even with my first child who got no more than a corner either. But I couldn’t see bringing a new baby home to this stark, minimalist memory of a bedroom.

So there I was, explaining to my dad and brother how we could add peach stripes to my gray wall. As always, when devising a hare-brained scheme, I counted on my family. One of the things they immediately liked about Jake was his willingness to jump in on a scheme, too. His first project with us was the installation of a somewhat ill-advised copper countertop in our old condo.

We felt his absence on the stripes project, as the Hams endured our long-honored and usually successful process of bickering, berating, and cussing a blue streak until we landed on a pretty beautiful result. The reveal was neither as clean nor as cavalier as in the paint commercials, but the work was good and the stripes were straight.

I moved our bed into another corner, right under the only thing hung in our bedroom— a photo my husband took of a flock of gulls taking off over the river near Mount Vernon, silhouetted against a golden orange sunset. He had framed it for me because it reminded me of my favorite poem, “The Windhover.”

I pushed the crib into its cheery striped corner. It was flanked by a few of my husband’s photos and filled with gifts from generous friends, family, and strangers who, like me, wanted to brighten this new child’s world. I sat on my bed, looked around my room, smiled, and waited to have a baby.

***

I woke up at midnight with contractions. I sighed and started the timer on my phone. I’d woken up with contractions every night for a week, but every night, they went away after an hour. I looked over at the crib in the striped corner of my dark room and asked, “Well, is it gonna be tonight, kid?” It was.

The birth of my second child— and I don’t talk this way very often— was perhaps the most beautiful, magical, empowering thing that has ever happened to me. I had just lost Jake two months earlier and the midwives all rallied around me.

A team of two birth assistants volunteered to help me for free after they heard my story, and they were positive and strong. Jake’s sister, Britt, was there in his place, and had never been to a birth, but approached it just as I imagined she would— with toughness and sweetness and a dash of “Rocky IV” montage.

I had the baby after four hours of labor at my house and another hour and a half at the birthing center. I hadn’t bothered to brush up on any methods of getting through natural birth because my life had just shattered around me, so this room full of wonderful women coached me as I went. I got fixated on wearing a navy blue hoodie even though I was burning up, and wouldn’t take it off. I was drinking Cucumber-Lime Gatorade out of a brick-red mug held by my sister-in-law, sipping from a straw while draped over a yoga ball. During contractions, I focused on that ceramic mug, for some reason. It was resting on a battered wooden footstool beside the bed. During one contraction Britt moved it, and like every sitcom mom ever I screamed, “NO NO NO, PUT IT BACK, PUT IT BACK!” like a crazy person.

After the baby was born, I heard her cry and just screamed, with a giant smile on my face, “I DID IT! Oh, my God, I actually did it! We did it! We did it!” Because from the moment Jake died, I had no idea if that baby was going to term or how the hell I’d do any of this.

She was perfectly healthy, nursed immediately, and was more than happy to chill with me from the second she came into this world. We put her on my chest and wrapped her in the T-shirt Jake wore to the birth of our first child. People say you forget hard labor, but I didn’t forget my first labor. It was brutal, but I will forever have a vivid picture of Jake wearing that blue shirt that matched his eyes perfectly, looking at me for 12 hours with not one flicker of fear. That’s who he was.

I took a shower an hour after my daughter was born and the midwives remade the bed and room. They made me mini-quiches for breakfast and brought me a Starbucks cider, and I lay down with my little girl and watched the sunrise through the window.

That was 6 a.m. I brought her home at 9, to her striped corner, and my room was our room once again.

***

There she has slept for more than a year. She is almost unfailingly happy and easygoing, already athletic and adventurous, and has the sweetest little spirit. Even before she drew a breath on this earth, she and God knew exactly what I needed, exactly what I could handle, and that’s exactly what they gave me. She is an incredible gift.

Every night I sing to a little girl who never got to meet her father. I sing, “Dear Theodosia,” from “Hamilton.” It’s a song Jake never heard, but I sing it because it sounds just like her father singing to her, about the things he cared most about. “You will come of age with our young nation / We’ll bleed and fight for you / We’ll make it right for you. / If we lay a strong enough foundation / We’ll pass it onto you / We’ll give the world to you / And you’ll blow us all away. Someday, someday.”

I thought about moving her into her big sister’s room around the one-year anniversary of Jake’s death. She’d have been fine, but it made me anxious. Maybe it’s because I don’t want to mark time by that date. That day will always be important, but it is gray. The birth of our little girl is something brighter, something new.

Someone made a peaceful transition outta Mama’s room this week.

A photo posted by Mary Katharine Ham (@mkhammertime) on


This week, I moved her. She is perfectly unfazed in that beautiful, humbling kid way that is a reminder life will move even if you’re hesitant to let it. I stood in her empty striped corner. I rested my hand on a cool, gray stripe. I could feel my old life and my old pain, still present, peeking through. I’m glad the gray is still here, a reminder of our room that became so suddenly and tragically my room alone, only to become our room once again, and now my room. It’s been 16 months since he died. Today is his 36th birthday. Our life together is still here, and he is always here, even as the girls and I live through bright, new seasons.

These transitions are wistful and a little frightening. But after the year we’ve had, I greet them with reverence and gratitude. In a life where nothing is guaranteed, it is no small miracle I get to witness these passages at all, and it is my privilege.

Mary Katharine Ham is a CNN contributor.

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