By Hannah Diller
She was the sweet-looking mom with baby in arms who stood in the waiting room with me outside our sons' music class week after week. Perfectly groomed, with tailored clothes, tasteful makeup, toned body, sincere smile and beaming baby, Margaret's very presence made me aware of my T-shirts (baggy for nursing purposes), legs that had no business being shown off, and baby who often needed to be jiggled and cajoled into a sunny mood. I remember her making an offhand comment once about how she'd just had to give up on having pretty nails for this phase of her life, and as much as I wanted to sneer at the thought of this girl letting herself be anything less than perfectly presentable, I couldn't hate her. She was just that sweet.
I saw her in the preschool office one day after dropping off our sons. At 8:30 a.m., she was ready to greet the day in a short skirt, knee-length leather boots, clingy top and leather coat. Baby was, of course, decked out in smocked dress with matching hat, cooing from her stroller. I suddenly wondered what I looked like to the director, wafting in clad in blue jeans and a baby sling, on the heels of Beauty Queen Mom.
One cordial exchange led to another, and while I felt pretty certain that Margaret and I were not destined to be close friends, we agreed to give our sons some playtime together. Just before the next school year started, I invited her and her kids over to our neighborhood pool. She arrived, breathless and a bit late, and confided to me without a trace of guile that "this old thing" she was wearing – black strapless tankini – was her own hand-me-down from high school. I wondered if she'd ever had braces, or frizzy untameable curls, or acne in her T-zone in high school. Nah.
As we trailed our newly walking toddlers from baby pool to big pool, trying to keep our preschoolers on the radar screen, we chatted about this and that until I brought up the topic, so common to mothers of two, of whether she thought she'd like to have more children. "I think I'd like to have one more," she said, hesitating a moment, "I don't know if you know … no, you probably wouldn't know … I had a baby who died."
She must have seen my surprise, because the next thing I knew, she was pouring out the tale to me, the chilling nightmare of a mother whose second son died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome while spending a few hours at a babysitter's house. I suddenly remembered hearing of her, without knowing her name, while shopping one day and watching the shop owner wring her hands and prepare to leave for the funeral of an infant who had died in his sleep while in another's home. At the time, I simply couldn't fathom the heartbreak. Now here was this woman, who seemed to have all she needed and then some, telling me that that story was hers.
Margaret and I practically clung to each other, bound by the grief in which her tale enveloped me, as we trotted from one side of the pool to the other, scooping up babies and calling instructions to our sons. She told me of getting the phone call from her husband while on her way to help him at his business. Frozen in denial, she'd called her dad, asked him to meet her at the hospital, because the baby was "having trouble breathing." She couldn't comprehend why she was being led to the chapel, rather than the waiting room, at the hospital. She'd had to leave her church activities for a few months because of the sight of the babysitter, a fellow parishioner overcome with remorse, was too painful for her. When her next baby, a daughter, was born, the child slept with a breathing monitor for six months. She had breastfed her for a year, determined to do everything in her power to protect this baby from another sudden death. I was embarrassed to think that, perhaps out of a need to feel superior in my own parenting choices, I'd had her pigeonholed as a bottlefeeder.
Not knowing quite what else to say, I finally asked Margaret whether it was difficult for her to talk about what had happened. "Not as much anymore," she confided, adding that although she thought of her son every day, she'd found it healing to talk about her loss. Looking at Margaret now, I didn't see a sculpted woman in a designer swimsuit anymore. In the space of fifteen minutes, she had become to me a mother who, despite having two well-groomed children and all the visible trappings of a comfortable lifestyle, still mourned daily for the child who had taken his last breaths without her. My superficial judgment of her had become my shame.
A few months later, Margaret invited some moms from our playgroup to her brand new home for the morning. We drove up the long, winding driveway and pulled up next to the house, gaping at the mists rising off the pond in her front yard. The only sound was the wind rustling through a huge weeping willow, from which an empty tire swing dangled. Inside the house, the other mothers erupted into an admiring chorus of oohs and aahs over the gleaming kitchen, the wrought iron light fixtures, the elegantly muted paint colors and knotty pine floors. "I just love that painting on your wall – isn't it from Pottery Barn?" "Oh, Margaret! This bathroom is gorgeous!" "Who did those portraits of your children?"
I followed them around, admiring all the gleam and polish, the uncluttered countertops, the subtly placed accessories. This was not a work in progress, as my own home always seemed to be. She had clearly poured her heart and soul into this place of charm and refinement, building a repository for the family memories that were to come. But the part of me that could have envied her had gone. I knew, trailing the effusive mothers that day, what none of them could have – that this haven of luxury and refinement was also the home of sorrow and loss. There would always be a voice missing from the magazine-ready playroom, one invisible vacancy at the dinner table with its glorious view of the rolling fields.
Margaret was not wallowing in her pain. You wouldn't see any lines etched on her face, any melodrama worn on her sleeve. In less than one hour's time one summer afternoon, I'd discovered that we had both far more and far less in common than I'd thought. Like me, she had her son and daughter, and like me, she struggled, out of a mother's fierce love and haunting fear, to do her best by them – despite the shattered space in her mother- heart. Sure, unlike me, she had her dream home, her closetful of Ann Taylor, her condo at the beach, her rowboat moored in the pond outside her door. A snapshot of her life would reveal nothing but pleasure. But she was no longer a photograph to me.
Hannah Diller lives with her husband and three children, including a newborn, in Austin, Texas. She homeschools her two older children in between unpacking boxes.