One month after my mother died, I got pregnant. My husband and I already had a young son and were planning on trying for a second child when my mother was diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer, 15 months prior to her death.
“You and me, we’re going to be okay,” my mom would say, weaving together her cancer battle and my desire for another baby. Because of her obvious joy at knowing our family would continue and my desire to fight her death sentence with new life, our struggles became intertwined.
Trying to get pregnant while watching my mother fight cancer meant I was constantly negotiating with the universe, begging for the perfect convergence of factors that would allow my mother to meet her last grandchild. We were both running out of time. I was 38, she was 68. She was too young to die, yet she was dying. I was fighting against my own biological clock yet didn’t want to get pregnant at the wrong time, because my mom might need me.
By the time I conceived, mom was gone.
Throughout my pregnancy, I would think back to the final days and hours of my mother’s life, spent at a hospice center. I held her hand and watched her chest rise and fall dramatically — her breathing labored.
When she was awake we would make small talk and I would hold her bony hand and feed her ice cream. When she became unresponsive, I would tell her how much I loved her and couldn’t bear to lose her. I told her I was sorry that this was happening to her. I told her how much I wanted a baby, and that if we had a girl I would give her the middle name Candace, after her. I held my mother’s hand and wept. Never did I think that I would lose her so soon, or that I would witness her death so closely.
My siblings and I had planned a memorial service for my mom a couple of months after her death. And while it felt strange to be pregnant at her funeral, the hope for new life — a baby to be named in my mother’s honor — kept me afloat.
But an early ultrasound revealed the fetus was measuring small and the pregnancy was likely unviable. When I went back to the doctor a few days after the service, there was no longer a heartbeat.
I felt dumbfounded by my own bad luck.
After a while the idea of being unlucky didn’t sit well with me, and instead I came to understand a deeper, less forgiving truth: life was not a series of wishes granted or denied, but came down to biological forces we couldn’t control.A genetic mutation that leads to cancer is as random and immutable as a chromosomal abnormality that renders a fetus unviable. And experiencing one major loss doesn’t inoculate you against future losses. These two truths converged in a way that made me painfully aware of my own powerlessness.
My mother, my baby — in the end, I lost them both.
The last few lines of a Mary Oliver poem I read at my mother’s funeral run through my mind when I find myself holding on too tightly, desperate for certainty and control: “Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
I think of my mother carrying her good luck charms to her chemo treatments — special rocks and homemade bracelets from her grandchildren — in the hopes that these talismans would imbue the rough biology of her illness with a magic beyond science. I think of my own desperate wish that a new baby would make my grief easier to navigate.
The sadness of these losses engulfs me still, but it has also brought me to a place of deep surrender, a place where love and letting go converge.
Gabrielle Schafer is a writer, editor and musician. She lives in Chicago with her husband and young son.