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Around the end of last summer, I started to write an essay about hope. I was 19 weeks pregnant and buoyant with admiration for the people in my life who had forged on with life plans – marriages, career left-turns and babies – all while staring down the terrifying unknowns of COVID-19. I counted my husband, Sam, and me among those brave weirdos. We had hoped to start a family in 2020, and come hell or high water, we were going to try. On Mother’s Day, I got to tell our mothers we were expecting.
I took the changes of pregnancy in stride, finding comedy in cravings (so much cream cheese), and making an anecdote out of puking on my birthday cake. My slouchy optimism snapped upright; what a marvel that was to me, a lifelong neurotic. This was going to be a beautiful baby and a beautiful life, unbreakable by a foundation of family, custom-made just for us. Whenever we were hit with a COVID-related mental panic, Sam and I would soothe ourselves with the honeyed minutiae of a keenly crafted vision for the future, a day where our house would throb with love in excess, cast in golden light, protected by happiness.
The August heat simmered and the lake near our house turned calm. My research for the essay circled around the constitution of everyday people who through recent ages of devastation (world wars, the Great Depression, the Spanish flu), had not given up on the idea of a better tomorrow. How else could anyone have a baby, unless they believed the world would be at least half okay at some point in the future? “Hope has such potency for human progress, bond-building, and for some of us, staying alive,” I wrote. “Hope is a bet on the positive outcome.”
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Two weeks later, I lost my baby. A boy, we found out. I don’t think there’s anything else to say about that day. It was blinding.
Coming back to the house without him disoriented the senses. Unlike the goalposts of pregnancy, with its check-ups and safe zones and developmental milestones set by weeks, grief sprawled out unmarked. From our living-room window, I looked out at the yellowed lawn and imagined it rolling on forever, blank and dry and unending. Nevermind that my body had started to take on a coldness that comes from standing outside too long with nowhere to go; my mind was plucked clean. It shivered in its nakedness. At night, Sam and I held on to each other as though we had jumped into a volcano, arms clinging tight, eyes squinted shut, breathless.
In the early weeks without our son, I seemed to levitate through the barest requirements of making it through the day. In moments of stillness as I sat out on our back stoop, staring at the swaying trees and missing him, my stomach would shudder and I would look over my shoulder, hoping for company in the form of a fallen leaf or a preoccupied bird. My world felt too loose, too untethered. Anything, really anything, could happen at any moment. I craved a borderline. It was here I had my quiet, uncomfortable awakening to hopelessness.
I put my finger on the term “hopelessness” while reading Buddhist Pema Chodron’s book, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times, a gift that arrived amid the sympathy bouquets, bars of gourmet chocolate and hot meals. Hopelessness is a good thing, Chodron says, because it suggests, “we no longer have the spirit for holding our trip together.”
This sounded bleak to me. I reread the passage again, practically turning the book on an angle to gain a different vantage point. I took it in once more, now understanding this idea of “holding our trip together” – or trying to achieve lasting security – as something unattainable and not worth pursuing.
Chodron describes hope as the opposite of mindfulness. Hope “robs us of the present moment,” whereas mindfulness means, “being one with our experience, not dissociating, being right there when our hand touches the doorknob or the telephone rings or feelings of all kinds arise.”
Hope assumes a future time and place of stability. Chodron believes nothing is stable, ever. We are groundless. All we have is right now, just this very moment. This golden, terrible, elevating, horrifying, gigantic moment. And then, if we’re very lucky, another moment more.
Losing my son sandblasted my ability to believe anything is guaranteed. Coupled with the all-consuming heartbreak of those early days, this loss of hope felt painfully alien. But over time, I began to “get the knack of hopelessness,” as Chodron says, and settle into each breath, one at a time.
Without hope, I don’t have a framework for how the future could be during the COVID-19 second wave. I also don’t have a framework for what our future children could look like or when we will get to have them. I don’t have expectations or visions to distract from the pain or the fear. I just have now.
This is not to say mindfulness is easy or that hope is wrong. But if I really think about it, the present moment has always been exactly what I needed, good or bad or boring; riding the waves of incredible anguish, numbing monotony and fitful pleasure.
Or as I remember: lying on an inflatable lounger on the lake, riding the waves with my son in my belly, letting the Jet Ski ripples loll us back to shore. At that moment, I did not have hope. I had cool water and bluebird sky. I had him.
Sarah Faye Bauer lives in Kelowna, B.C.