Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Mattea Louise Swainbank

We had a daughter. Mattea was born prematurely, on September 11, 1999. She weighed 1 lbs. 13 oz. She died seven weeks later on Nov. 4.

Here is what I wrote for her memorial service:
One of the things that saddens us about Mattea’s death coming so soon is that so many of the people who have loved and supported us never even had the opportunity to meet our little girl.

And even for many of those who did get to see her, their meeting was for only a few fleeting moments during the hectic first days of her life.

As a result, relatively few members of our friends and family really got to spend time with Mattea and get to know her as we did.

For those people who didn’t have the opportunity to know her, her story might be viewed, in large part, as a series of crises and distressing events…

We learned Christine was pregnant in a hospital emergency room.

We discovered we would be having twins only to learn we would be losing one.

We mourned the passing of this child we would never know, even as we prepared to welcome the other one into our lives and into our hearts.

And our preparation was cut short by Christine’s sudden illness. In the course of an afternoon little Mattea came to be with us.

And… after only 54 days she was taken away.

Throughout this we’ve experienced a lot of sadness, a lot of pain, and a lot of grief.

But, for those of us who were able to spend the time, and to experience life with Mattea, all the sorrow and all the hardship is overshadowed by the joy she brought to our lives.

I think, in part, because so few people got to know our little girl as we did, we feel its important to share what she was like. So that everyone might get to know her a little, even as we say goodbye.
Life with Mattea was series of small, daily, triumphs.

I felt so proud to see her coming off of a ventilator or take a little more of her mother’s milk than the day before.

It was a pleasure to watch her grow stronger and larger, to mature in her body and mind.

It was miracle to hold her to my chest, flesh to flesh, so small and fragile, and hear her emit her tiny cry, until she was nestled and comfortable. Then she would grow silent and rest so peacefully in my hands.

We loved to celebrate in the daily gain of a few grams. Another day of health, a day that would bring her one day closer to coming home.

It was a joy to watch her sleeping. Mattea’s world was one of busy nurses rushing by, and warning buzzers going off all around. But it was nice to watch her sleeping so peacefully through it all, so calm, so innocent, gathering her strength for her central task of getting stronger every day.

But the truly special times were when we caught her while she was awake.

It was wonderful to see her open those big clear eyes and look out at the world. I’ll never forget staring into those eyes and seeing them stare back. So innocent, so at ease, so bright.

It was during those times that she truly had us in her spell. I remember times when we just stopped by the hospital to see her, on our way to a movie, or on my way to work in the morning. And I'd see those eyes. And that would be it. We didn’t make it to that movie and work would just have to wait until Mattea got tired, and closed those eyes to sleep.

She was so eager to try and understand this great big world, that she was so suddenly thrust into, and that was so quickly taken away.

It’s hard when you lose someone that you were planning to have with you as part of your entire life.

We loved the little baby that she was. And we also loved the idea of the little girl that she would be.

We envisioned summer afternoons lying in the grass in the park by the water, with all the flowers.

We started referring to the local elementary school as Mattea’s school.

We tested the new equipment on the local playground to see if Mattea would like playing there.

We loved our baby. We loved the little girl she would grow into. We loved the woman she would one day become.

And now we say goodbye. Goodbye Mattea.

Thank you for the joy you brought to our lives.

We will never forget you.
Mattea's service took place at the congregational church in Lebanon. It was our family church growing up, but I had never attended services regularly or enthusiastically. They opened their doors to us, and the church was packed. Hundreds of friends, family, congregants, and colleagues packed the pews and filled the balcony. They came to support us and to say goodbye to a little girl few of them had ever even seen and whom none of us would ever know. The love and support we received that day is a kindness I will never forget.

Now, 10 years later, there are friends who know us well but don't know about Mattea. It's not a secret. But it's not a detail you ever drop on a conversation. Mattea was my first real experience with loss and grief. But, inevitably, not the last. A year after Mattea we would say goodbye to J.P. Plumez at his beautiful, bittersweet wedding at the Guggenheim, a week before he finally succumbed to Hodgkin's disease. This spring we suddenly lost Gavin Symes, another close friend. Again we felt the loss of someone we thought would be in our lives forever.

I was 27 years old when we had Mattea. Most of our friends were not married yet, much less having children. We had had and lost a child. Over the years, many friends have started their own families and too many have experienced difficult pregnancies and miscarriages, the sorrow of crushed expectations, and the grief of losing a child you'll never know. These experiences are bitter reminders that as much as we feel we are in control of our lives, the beginnings and the ends are beyond our reach.

After Mattea, Christine and I didn't turn on or away from each other. We turned to each other for strength and support. From Mattea we learned the instant and powerful pull that your children have on you. We learned that we wanted to be parents. We had been through the worst and felt we were ready for, wanted to have, everything else. The doctors told us not to worry, but that we might want to wait. We waited. Or thought we waited. We measured our wait in days. Eight and a half months after Mattea's death, Isaac was born (also premature).

Now "Mattea's school" is Isaac and Leo's school. Our boys have grown up with pictures of their (big? little?) sister. Together, we pay regular visits to her gravestone. Mattea's stone is in a cemetery near us, across a narrow strip of water from the school where her brothers go now, where she would have gone. If you go during the day you can hear the children running, screaming, and playing. When I visit the cemetery I try to remember who she was. I imagine who she might be now. Mostly, I ask her to look after us and to watch over her brothers. Given what she was and what I believe, I find it odd that I imagine her to have that power. But I do. And I take comfort in it.

It's been 10 years. Good years. Happy years. These days the trips to the cemetery are less regular. In the busy business of day-to-day, thoughts of Mattea are less frequent. At times an a innocent question, and stray image, or an overblown bit of rhetoric will touch a trigger, and bring back of wave of melancholy memories. I'm grateful for those memories. I try to stop and spend some time with them when they come.

1 comment:

  1. Ben -

    I don't know what to say. Eloquent and moving. Thank you.