Nothing I Hold Onto
When our fifth child and third daughter, Teresa Elizabeth, was stillborn on May 22, 2017 my heart broke open, and I fell into an unknown space. She was delivered at 11 pm that night with a double nuchal cord, containing a true knot. Unbeknownst to me, her source of life had become the cause of her death while in my womb the night before as I prayed the Divine Mercy Chaplet.
Hours after the delivery, she was removed from my room to be bathed and have her pictures taken. Solitary images to capture the miracle of her existence. Her small and beautiful, utterly perfect and delicate frame. Her dark curls, petite chin, red rose lips, and tiny hands. She was exquisite. I still can’t get over how beautiful she was as the little baby that had been growing inside of me for 38 weeks.
After the nurses took her for that short time, I felt completely empty. For the first time since her conception, she and I were physically separated. There was a deep hollowness within that can still be felt when my mind returns to that space. After she left, my husband, Mark, climbed into the hospital bed with me and cradled me along my left side. The tears we shed were endless. The pain was primal and unbearable. As he held me close, he put on the song, “Nothing I Hold Onto” by Will Reagan and the United Pursuit. Looking back now, the lyrics to that song became our first prayer together after her death. As the song played, the following words repeated over and over in my mind and in my heart and rose upward with each tear that fell:
I lean not on my own understanding.
My life is in the hands of the Maker of heaven.
I give it all to You God, trusting that you'll make something beautiful out of me.
And I will climb this mountain with my hands wide open,
I will climb this mountain with my hands wide open.
There’s nothing I hold onto. Nothing I hold onto. Nothing I hold onto…
The next day, May 23, 2017—We had to walk away from Teresa and return home empty handed. Without choice, the journey up this mountain had begun the day before when we heard the words, “There’s no heart beat.” We had begun the ascent.
The days to follow brought forth an unfathomable darkness. We lived in a fog as we made funeral arrangements, planned her funeral mass (the greatest gift other than saying yes to her life that we were able to offer to her), and waited for Saturday to arrive when we would lay her to rest.
We celebrated her life at Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church. The church where our marital union had begun thirteen and half years earlier. The church she visited practically everyday, growing inside me, as I was employed by the adjoining school. The church where we completed together our First Saturday consecration to the Blessed Mother just earlier that month. The church where I had roses blessed on the Feast of St. Therese when I found out she was growing within me. This church, on the day of her funeral mass, was filled with hundreds of people who arrived to support us and the life of a little one they never met. It was beautiful. It was dignified. But it was such a hard climb.
We chose to lay Teresa to rest at Sacred Heart Cemetery in Broussard, just a mile from our home, which had been our church parish shortly after our wedding (and is so now). Traveling back to Broussard from Fatima is the same route as the journey from LGMC to our home would have been. However, this time, we were following a vehicle holding our baby, instead of her being inside ours. We arrived to her plot, which is located in the mausoleum behind the graveyard. She is laid to rest on St. Paul Walk, next to an image of the Sacred Heart, at a height low enough for our five living children to reach.
May 27, 2017 was a hot, windy, and humid Louisiana day. As we approached the seating area for our family at the burial site, my swollen and tired eyes were surprised by the number of family and friends who had arrived to be with us in such an intimate space. We had asked our close friends, who happen to be extremely talented musicians, to lead worship for her burial. Music has been, and is, such an integral part of our family and marriage. We needed the gift of their songs more than they will ever know. I remember feeling so carried by the voices that day, as I myself couldn’t sing.
As our pastor led the Rite of Christian Burial, our friends began praying Teresa’s song from the hospital, “Nothing I Hold Onto.”
As my new friend, Kelly, often says: “Being open to life, also means being open to death.” This is definitely a truth I have reflected on in the months following the day Teresa died, but in that moment, at her burial, I didn’t want to be open. I wanted to clench my hands so tightly and take her back. I didn’t want to pray the words, “There’s nothing I hold onto.” I didn’t want to “climb this mountain with my hands wide open.” I didn’t want to be on this journey. I didn’t want to “give it all to God.” I wanted Teresa.
In the early stages of my pregnancy, I specifically remember praying before the Blessed Sacrament the following words: “God, I want this baby and this pregnancy to glorify you and to glorify life. When people see me, I want people to know that you are the God of life.”
Ironically, however, the words “I give it all to you God, trusting that you’ll make something beautiful out of me,” are basically the words of my prayer that day in the chapel. Only, I didn’t know what I was offering. I’ve come to realize, also, that maybe that was Teresa’s prayer, too. “God, make something beautiful out of me. I trust you, God. Make something beautiful out of my life.”
And perhaps for us all, “God, make something beautiful out of the story of our lives, trusting one day that when we have climbed to the top of this mountain, we will gain the reward of eternal life.”
I would be amiss to deny the fact that I’ve wanted to understand. I’ve had so many questions. I’ve wanted answers. Trusting God has been so incredibly hard and difficult. It's a daily struggle. Yet, through it all, I have felt the door of my heart opening ever so slowly to Jesus, who on the other side, so gently and patiently knocks, waiting to enter in to usher in healing and His love.
This past week, I publicly sang the above words for the first time in almost 22 months with our church congregation. I didn’t just sing them. I proclaimed them. With hundreds of voices joining in worship, my mind and heart went back to the summer heat. It went back to the tears, the wind, and the tiny white casket covered in orange and pink roses. And I remembered the peace that passes all understanding that was felt in a vulnerable moment of pain and surrender when I thought I was telling God no, but in all actuality, I had already given Him my yes when I said yes to Teresa--both in gaining and losing. In receiving and giving back. The song has been on repeat every day since.
Teresa’s life is “in the hands of the Maker of heaven.” I want mine to do the same.
And I want to find her, and healing, and what’s at this journeys end “with my hands wide open,” giving my grief, her story, her life, our story, back to God…so He can make something beautiful out of it all.