By Kristin Hedges, Mama of Nathaniel Lewis Hedges
I have defined myself in a number of ways throughout my life. But since having had children, I am first and foremost a Mama. Being a Mama is physical work; hard, full-body work. There are butts to wash, food to cook, hair to comb, clothes to wash, beds to make, lunches to pack, babies to nurse, noses to wipe, fevers to cool, and little people to rock. The work can be exhausting, and I revel in it.
My first baby boy, Nathaniel Lewis Hedges, died when he was five days old. I lost my child, and I became lost. My body, mind and soul aches for my baby. It is not the natural order of the world; a parent should not outlive their child. For any person who has had to let go of their child’s still body, you know the intense stabbing pain that is simply indescribable. I had no role and had no idea how to be a Mom without the physical work.
This is a story about how I found some physical work to do for my dead child. One way I was able to use my grieving Mama hands.
Nathaniel died in August of 2005. I don’t remember much about the first year after his death. I viewed the world through a constant tear-streaked lens, moving from one meal or event to the next. Somehow that year we learned about the All Souls Procession, and then the following year, The Procession of the Little Angels. I remember showing up to the event and feeling an overwhelming sense of place; it was an event where I could openly talk about my son without people giving the deer-in-the-head-lights look while clearly wanting you to stop talking. In our society it is not socially accepted to talk about dead children. We are parents like every other parent and want to brag about our children whether alive or dead. The Procession of the Little Angels was the first community-wide event I had attended that was in celebration of my dead child. Last year we learned about the Children’s Altar at The Procession of the Little Angels and were invited to contribute something to this in Nathaniel’s memory.
I do not consider myself to be artistic and struggled to find creative ways to express myself. The idea for Nathaniel’s mobile came to me in bits and pieces over time while mulling over how to best represent my son. I wanted to be able to show what he gave to the world in his short life. Nathaniel was an organ donor —the youngest in the Southwest–– and I am convinced beyond a doubt that this sacrifice was his wish. I may have had to sign papers and give consent, but it is my son who is the hero, and it is my son who saved two other children.
I started the mobile by visiting stores and collecting different pieces I needed. I wanted to represent Nathaniel, the organs he donated, and the children that live because of him. The process of searching for all the right pieces was a gift in itself; I was shopping for my son, one piece of work that was stolen from me with his death. I knew Nathaniel’s picture must be the center of the mobile. To represent his donated kidneys, liver, and pancreas I bought modeling clay and was able to use my grieving Mama hands to shape each organ. After five stores I finally found the perfect small dolls to represent the children who Nathaniel saved. I found a beautiful carved heart out of African wood that was a perfect representation of Nathaniel’s heart.
As I spent hours slowly wrapping silver pipe cleaners around my makeshift hanger mobile, I smiled. In those hours I thought about how I was finally able to make something for my son. I was never able to bake him cookies, or make him play dough, or sit and color with him, or help him with homework. I will never be able to do those things for him. But in the hours I spent making his mobile, I was able to make him something. It may be completely different than what I thought a Mom would make for her child, but that is what death does. It make everything different. The project gave me a role and physical work I could do for my son. Different or not, I will take it.
I finally had all of the pieces of the mobile collected, molded, and ready for assembly. I had to drill small holes through each organ to hang them. While drilling the final hole in the heart, it split in half…. I held two pieces of a small wooden heart in my hand… and I lost it… and collapsed in sobs. I didn’t want two pieces of a wooden heart, and I didn’t want my stupid mobile anymore…. I wanted my son!!!! I curled up in a ball on the couch, wailing, clutching my own broken heart along with this small wooden broken heart in pieces. Why is the world so unfair? Children should not die!
After some time with me lying on the couch exhausted and drained, the sobs slowly eased, and I lay there numb. I was still clutching the broken heart. I lay there thinking about my beautiful son, and I ached to hold him again. This world failed him, I failed him, and his body broke. His body broke. His body broke. It suddenly occurred to me that the broken heart I was caressing in my hand was a good representation of my son’s broken body. Death makes everything different.
I eventually returned to the mobile and finished assembling the pieces. I bought another wooden heart and successfully drilled the hole. The mobile was beautiful. The best gift of all was, during The Procession of the Little Angels, I was able to talk about my son over and over again in response to comments and questions about his mobile.
Looking back on the entire process and experience of making a memorial in Nathaniel’s honor for the Children’s Altar, I realize it was a cathartic experience. The preparation, assembly, destruction, and pure sharp grief was synonymous with my experience in the life and death of my son. At this point a reader may be wondering why anyone would want to relive that pain. The answer is that the pain is part of my son’s story, and I want to relive any part of my son in order to keep him close in my heart and spirit. And I still have this broken heart that I keep in my son’s memorial.