Hilltown Postcards

A Brief Life

My saddest moments as a mother

We followed a nurse as she wheeled Jacob’s incubator into a small room at the hospital’s neo-natal unit. The doctors agreed he could die. Whatever tests they did confirmed our baby’s brain did not function. Only the machines and medicines had kept him going these sixteen days.

I stood beside the nurse as she lifted Jacob onto a padded table. He still had his breathing tube, but she had disconnected the IV drip and wires used to monitor his tiny body. She let me dress him for the first and last time. Hank handed me the paper bag we had already brought once to the hospital, and he returned to his chair, stone-faced, but his eyes gave away his misery. His hand rested on the seat of the empty chair beside his.

I removed the neat pile of clothes Jacob’s older brother wore when he newborn. I slipped the cloth diaper, folded into a small square, beneath his bottom, pinning the sides with pins with plastic ducks near the fasteners. The nurse held the nightshirt, the kind that crosses in the front, then snapped. The soft white cloth hung on him, as did the flannel nightgown I sewed. That baby was nine pounds when he was born and didn’t wear it very long. Jacob weighed less than two because he was born nearly three months too early.

The nurse lifted Jacob as I spread a flannel blanket and the quilt I had made, laying him in its center, so I could pull the corners into a tight package. I always bundled my babies this way, sometimes in several layers, old-fashioned perhaps but I thought it made them feel secure. After being contained inside me for so long, I offered them this transition.

For Jacob, this is the way he would be buried, wrapped in these soft, white clothes. He wouldn’t know or feel them. But these things mattered. 

I told the nurse about the bag that would go with him to the funeral home. It contained toys our other children chose to put in his casket. I wept when they brought me the toys, the smallest ones they had: a stuffed rabbit, a matchbox car, a chew toy, and a rattle.

Jacob was ready, and I sat beside Hank with our backs to the window and doorless entry to the rest of the ward. The nurse removed his breathing tube. I expected a small gasp, but Jacob did not make a sound. She placed him in my arms, and I held him as I had done during my visits here. I looked into his small, still face as the nurse explained that even without the respirator his heart would continue beating. She would come back to check.

The nurse wanted us to know our son could not have gone on, that we had not made a mistake letting him go. “It’s not because his heart is strong,” she said. “It’s from the medicine. I just wanted you to know that.”

I held him and then when Hank was ready, he did. We took turns.

Jacob’s heart beat two hours more. 

This was the first time I witnessed death firsthand. I only knew three blood relatives who died in their old age. I was a child then, and after the news was told, I didn’t know how to feel, except for my grandmother, who I saw every day and would miss. I thought it would make my parents sadder if I was sad.

Now Hank and I waited with our infant son as he died. We cried openly. We talked mother and father talk, kissed his face, and cried and sang lullabies. We talked about his brothers and sisters. We said nothing, waiting, wondering how long his heart would last.

The nurse returned several times, bending over us as she listened to his heart through a stethoscope.

She shook head.

“Not yet,” she said.

Sounds from the other room distracted me. A baby in the neo-natal unite was having a seizure. People were tending to him. No one came into our room except the nurse. They must have all known. This must be the room where parents wait for their infants to die.

I felt Jacob’s body lose its warmth. The skin of his face darkened. The nurse checked again, but his heart beat still.

We kept going, finding new things to say, things that we hope would comfort his spirit. I felt his body grow colder. The blankets or the heat from our bodies did nothing to warm him. His skin was violet. Our baby did not look as if he was sleeping or at peace. He wore the same expression he had since he was born. Empty.

Finally, the nurse confirmed what we already knew. Jacob was dead. She took him in her arms, and we left the room, crying hard, holding onto each other. That was April 23. Jacob lived sixteen days.

Two days later, we buried Jacob at the North Cemetery on Cold Street in Worthington. We invited no one. It would be just our five children and us. The late morning sun shone through the branches, bare still as Hank drove to the cemetery. Daffodils rose through the dried bleached leaves near the headstones. 

The man from the funeral home arrived in a boxy tan station wagon. The director, the father-in-law of the building contractor who Hank worked for, said he would handle the funeral at no charge. The hospital would have taken care of his body, but we said no. It was not enough.

I watched the man from the funeral home walked around the rear of the station wagon. He opened the tailgate. A small, white box was in the back. With its lid and embossed cardboard exterior, it looked more like a gift box than a baby’s coffin.

“Where are the flowers?” I asked.

“Flowers? I’m sorry, ma’am, I don’t have flowers.”

“I ordered a blanket of flowers.”

He apologized again. It was not his fault. I should have asked about it when I called the florist. I felt tears start again. The man’s face was red.

“It’s OK. We’ll get it later,” Hank said.

It wasn’t okay, but there was nothing we could do. I nodded, and Hank bent to pull the coffin toward him. He cradled it in his arms. Our oldest daughter burst into tears. Hank gave me a stricken look. The other children were silent. They had never experienced death, except the one of a pet. They were sad about their brother because we were sad, but the baby inside the box their father carried was some sad mystery.

But our daughter was fourteen. She helped me with the other babies. She was there when two were born. She understood.

It was time to be brave. I lifted the youngest onto my hip.

“Let’s all hold hands,” I whispered to the others, and we followed Hank in a crooked line over the dry grass.

The man from the funeral home stayed behind.

Our son’s grave was in the cemetery’s newest part, up from the tilting gray slabs for Worthington’s earliest settlers, their names and dates worn away by the elements, and the middle where the relatives of the town’s natives now rested. 

The day before, Hank and the two older boys dug his grave. It’s not the custom in our town, but the cemetery commissioner agreed when Hank asked. Work makes him feel better. He couldn’t do anything in the hospital to help our son. But he could wield a shovel to carve a box-like hole large and deep enough for a baby’s coffin from the rocky, clay soil. The three of them were gone a few hours. I stayed home. I could not watch.

Hank placed Jacob’s coffin on the ground. The children clustered close to me, the tops of their heads shining in the sun, as their father pulled a paper from his jacket pocket. He read the words he wrote the day before about Jacob and what he meant to us. 

I listened, stunned by my sadness and the simple but profound words of my husband. Hank ended his speech. Birds, moved by their spring homecoming, called from the trees. He bowed his head. We waited. Then he stooped to set the box inside the hole. He placed the paper on its lid. He stood. Our sad eyes met.

Hank turned to get the shovel he had left near the pile of dirt. We watched as he filled the grave, the dirt and pebbles drumming lightly over the white coffin, until a soft mound rose. Then we walked downhill toward the car. The man from the funeral home came to wish us well.


Good-bye Two

Two is the name of the cat who lived with us for 12 years, and sadly, our time together ended Christmas Day. She was too ill and weak, and so we chose to do the humane thing. Yes, we are so sad. Let me tell you about our cat, and you will understand why.

We found Two in a shelter in Northern New Mexico called Taos Feral Feline Friends, where its director had cats live in rooms in her house, except for the feral ones who had a separate building. Leanne brought us to the so-called old and obese room, and this black cat came up to me immediately. She started talking. I told Hank, “this is the one.” He wanted to look around, a fact I reminded the cat several times.


Two on my lap from NM to Massachusetts.

We usually give our animals human names. She came with the name Dusty, but that didn’t suit us. So, we named her Two, in honor of the two best cats we owned, also black. Actually, her full name was Dusty Two Cats. (I believe she was named Dusty by her previous owners, whoever they were, because she loved to roll in dust.)

We discovered that Two, who we suspect was Burmese, was a chatterbox who tried her best to communicate with us verbally. I swear she said “no” and “I don’t wanna.” We tried but failed to get her to say “yes,” however.

She also understood when we said “eat” or “out.” I am not making this up.

Unfortunately, her previous owner had her front paws declawed — something we would never do to an animal — so we had to keep that in mind. If she wanted to go outside, we were with her, especially in Taos where coyotes are opportunity feeders.

Not having front claws also hampered her hunting abilities, but lizards were catchable. As for birds, she waited patiently until one hit the large front glass of our house and dropped to the ground.

She drove Hank nuts when she escaped inside the culvert on our driveway.

We solved that situation when he and our son, Zack, on a visit, built a secure fenced-in yard. She liked to sit beneath the tall covered gate — that’s a picture of her above  — and even once ventured onto our 36404_1503605437102_4658278_nhouse’s roof. Hank climbed a ladder to coax her down, but typically she did it when she was ready.

What else can I tell you about Two?

When Hank had hernia surgery she sat on his lap, pressed gently against the incision, earning her the name Nurse Two-Two.


Ab anxious moment for Hank watching Two on the roof of our home in Taos.

Probably because of that experience and the fact he was home more than me, she clearly favored Hank. Two and I had our relationship although it was clear I was second banana. I wasn’t hurt.

During the winter she would sleep between us, under the covers with her head on the pillow.

She loved baking in the sunlight or beside the wood stove. Another of her favorite spots was the ironing board, especially when we were trying to iron. She didn’t play with toys and typically, wanted to be in the highest spots of the house.

During our cross-country move from New Mexico to Western Mass., she spent almost all of the 2,400-mile trip on my lap after she complained vehemently about being in a carrier.

To get out attention she sat on a newspaper or book that we tried to read, or in my case, walk across the keyboard.

Two would sit on Hank’s lap, his legs extended for more than an hour while he watched TV. I was impressed. Ten minutes was my max.

She had her favorite napping spots. Last night, I looked at the chair in our front living room and 10550038_10204551590536752_4851730321312986156_oimagined her there, curled and relaxed.

The list goes on. Two was a member of our family and so much a part of our life. She trusted us. We trusted her.

This year she had two bouts of a urinary tract infection that required antibiotics. But her decline began in late fall. She was, by her records, 17 or 18 years old. She still ate and drank water but toward the end, she began distancing herself until we decided we needed to let her go.

During the past week, I think about feeding her when I get up or that she’ll be watching in the living room window when we come home. The list goes on.

As I’ve said before, the hardest part about loving an animal is losing one.

Will we get another cat? Yes, someday. But this cat will have a tough act to follow.

Good-bye, Two. We loved ya.