By Carla HarmsUpdated May 08, 2020
People used to call my mom The Baby Whisperer. If there was a baby in the room, you could pretty much guarantee that she was holding it. Nothing brought her joy like news of a newborn, and she regularly called family and friends to report the latest local births, along with names and weights. She shopped excessively for baby clothes and had a full arsenal of gifts ready for baby showers. My two sisters and I often heard laments about the fact that all her friends had several grandchildren, while she had only one. So when I called her with my own news that I was pregnant, she was ecstatic.
My mom lived two provinces away in Steinbach, Manitoba, and by the time I was halfway through my second trimester, packages with cards and newborn outfits started to arrive regularly by mail to my home in Calgary. Bags of baby gifts and supplies were delivered at visits. Daily calls about how I was feeling became the norm. When my son, Santiago, was born, I still remember listening to my mom’s voicemail at the hospital. “Thank you for making me the proudest grandma in the world,” she choked out, her voice thick with emotion.
Every parent can relate to the fog of the first few months with a baby. For me, the fog seemed to last longer than it did for most. Six months in, I still felt undone. My son had severe colic. When he wasn’t nursing or being walked in his stroller, he was crying. He slept next to me and woke up just often enough to make sure I never slept for more than two consecutive hours. My mom flew out for visits when she could and she called every day. While I staggered around the city with the stroller, downing double shots of espresso, those calls became something that I depended on—though, through the fatigue, I didn’t even realize it. She knew exactly how much my son weighed, what size of clothes he was wearing, when he was due for a check-up or vaccination, and what developmental milestones he was about to reach. While not always a physical presence, she was there for me. I guess I assumed she always would be.
I still remember the day painfully. Santiago was nine months old and his colic had finally subsided. We were picnicking with friends and their baby boy when I got a call from my sister telling me that my mom wasn’t feeling well and my dad was taking her to the hospital. I was concerned, of course, but given her flu-like symptoms, I didn’t fear the worst. I had just spoken with her the day before and she was bubbly as usual, peppering me with questions about the baby and begging me to send more pictures for her brag book. But things declined quickly. My mom had sepsis and when she was helicoptered to a hospital in a bigger city, my sisters delivered the shocking news that they didn’t expect her to live. While my husband organized flights, I paced the room. I screamed and I cried, and Santiago cried too. The doctors kept my mom on life support until we arrived. We went straight from the airport to the hospital, where we left our son with my aunt and went up to the ICU to say goodbye to my mom.
The days immediately following her death felt like a blur. I would go from feeling complete numbness to extreme grief. Every time I burst into tears, Santiago would follow suit and my husband or a family member would take him into another room to distract him. He clung to me, and I worried that my sadness was affecting him. I found it difficult to take care of him when I could barely function myself. On one of those days, a package arrived by mail for my mom—it was one I had sent containing the much-requested brag book pictures. Something about it hit hard and I completely broke down. Perhaps I realized that not only was my mother gone, but also Santiago’s grandmother.
I thought those first horrible weeks would be the worst of it, but after flying back to Calgary I realized I had only started to feel the loss. Gone were the daily phone calls. I missed all the questions about the minute details of our days and the progress my baby had made. I had to keep notes about his weight. When I found myself in tears after dropping Santiago off for his first day at daycare, my first instinct was to call my mom. I felt alone, orphaned. As reality set in, it dawned on me that since my in-laws lived on another continent, Santiago would be growing up without regular access to a grandma.
At Santiago’s first birthday, my mom’s absence was palpable. She had been planning her trip and his gifts six months in advance. At his first Christmas concert, I jealously looked around at all of the grandparents. I’m sad about the things Santiago will never know he’s missing. He will never get to bake her famous bread with her and she’ll never get to teach him to play the piano. She won’t attend his recitals, sports games or graduations.
It has been almost a year since my mom passed away. I still miss her every day. I tear up whenever I see a child with a mom and grandmother at the park or walking down the street. While I know I can never replace her, I have reached out to others to fill the void. Joining a group therapy program for people who have lost a parent has been immensely helpful. My sisters have stepped in with regular calls and texts about how Santiago is doing. They may not keep track of his progress with the militant fervour that my mom did, but they care and they ask. They send or deliver packages for him on holidays or just because, like she used to.
As for my son, he has grown into a joyful toddler. Today his teary outbursts are more likely linked to not getting an ice cream cone than to grief. As he outgrows the last of the clothes his grandma bought him, I keep looking for ways to keep her in his life. I talk about her, I sing the songs she used to sing to me, and I show him pictures of her. I may not be a baby whisperer, but showing my child love is what matters most to me, and that's my mother's legacy.
This article was originally published online in August 2017.