Some Days are Just Plain HARD!

My husband and I moved my parents into our home on December 20th, 2020. Mom had her third stroke in September and with Dad suffering from Alzheimer’s, they needed my full-time help. I became a 24-hour caretaker that day. For three months I lived with my parents while we waited to see if Mom would recover enough for them to continue to be self-sufficient or if this would need to become permanent. It didn’t take long before we realized that the stroke had taken away their independence. Mom looked the same on the outside, she could still walk and talk normally, but it had taken its toll on her internally. She no longer had the stamina to make a sandwich, load or unload the dishwasher, or wash a load of clothes.

We called our contractor and began planning to remodel our home so we could move them in with us. We converted our laundry room into a second main floor bathroom and changed the bathtub/shower combo in the first bathroom into a walk-in shower with a tiled stub wall so there would be no shower curtains or glass doors to worry about. My parents are so unstable on their feet that we needed that extra security in case they needed to catch themselves since my mother had fallen out of her shower in their home and pulled the shower curtain down with her. It helped to break her fall but didn’t stop her from falling. We added two sturdy grab bars and ordered a shower chair.

Remodeled Walk-in Shower

They’ve lived with us for six months now. We’ve acclimated to our new reality fairly well. Dad is 87 and sleeps more than my 80-year old mom does. He’s also diabetic so I take care of his insulin needs several times a day. I know that right now is the best that it’s going to be. As they continue to age, it’s going to get tougher.

I don’t want to deceive anyone. It isn’t easy right now. There are days that make me wonder why I took this on. Two days ago Mom vomited all over herself not once, but twice. I did five loads of laundry that day. But I did it. Let me take this moment to say thank you to all of the people who handle these kinds of messes every single day and never complain. I admire you. Especially your fortitude. I had to talk to myself through the clean up to take my mind off it.

This isn’t easy. But it is worth it. Taking care of my parents is a gift not only to them, but to me. Every day I pray for strength and patience to handle whatever the day brings. And He gives it to me. I am so blessed.

Redefining Parental Roles – the Transition from Daughter to Caregiver

Author’s Note: This piece was originally posted on 9/5/2014 on my cockeyedoptimistsclub blog which will be deleted soon.

We’ve all met them. People who are never happy, never content with the way things are. If there’s a silver lining, they’ll find (or create!) the tiny pulled thread in a one-of-a-kind piece of fabric and bother it until it’s a mess.

My Dad is the cure for people like this. His nickname is Eeyore, but only because he’s self-deprecating to the point of silliness at times. And yet, he is one of the most positive people I’ve ever known. Even through a cancer diagnosis and the months following.

Thanksgiving 2013 was a laid-back dinner for my Mom and Dad. Mom baked a turkey breast and the fixings and Dad tried to eat it. He’d been feeling poorly all week and thought he had the flu. As the days progressed and he didn’t recover, Mom worried that it was something more.

That Friday she thought his eyes looked a little yellow, jaundiced, but Dad didn’t think so. By Sunday she was sure his skin was taking on a yellow cast. She got him in to see his doctor on Monday and within a week, following multiple scans, blood tests, specialists’ visits, etc, he was told he had pancreatic cancer. AND something else that had to be fixed immediately–his common bile duct was completely blocked.

He had a procedure to try to open up the duct but they weren’t able to do that through endoscopy. So they went in surgically and put a tube in so that the bile could drain out of his body. The next week they did it again but tucked the tube inside his body for it to drain. The week after that they went in again and put in a stint so they could remove the tube.

Each time they did one of these procedures, Dad had to stop eating for hours beforehand. He didn’t eat a lot anyway, but for these he had to fast. Every time they went in, they took biopsies.

This went on until December 22nd, the day he fell for the third time and didn’t have enough strength left to even help Mom as she tried to get him back up. My father, who in August helped me landscape around my home, who worked out three days a week at the gym, who took his puppy for 12-mile walks the week before he got sick, could barely hold his head up. He collapsed and Mom called an ambulance to take him to the hospital. The doctors told them he was dehydrated. They said he needed to stay at least overnight until they could rehydrate him. They spent Christmas Eve and then Christmas in the hospital.

On December 27th I flew down. My plan was to be there when Dad was released from the hospital so that I could help out with him while he regained his strength. I was shocked at how thin and how sick Dad was when I walked in his room. He saw me and his face lit up. He said my name and smiled so widely that it relieved my fears. He was still weak, but he seemed determined to get well. His appetite slowly returned. They were pumping him full of very strong antibiotics.

The day I flew in, my dear aunt stayed at the hospital through the night with Dad. She said Mom and I needed a good night’s sleep. After that, I started staying all night with Dad in the hospital. I didn’t want him to be alone. And I wanted to question his doctor when he came in each morning because I didn’t trust him anymore. And maybe it’s my imagination, but it seemed like they started kicking it into high gear after that. They started him on physical and occupational therapy. They prescribed him meds to bring his appetite back. And finally, on January 3, 2014, they released him to a rehab center so that he could regain his strength.

And his specialist, who told us after each biopsy that they hadn’t found the cancer yet, also said that even though he couldn’t prove it, he still felt sure that Dad had pancreatic cancer. He mentioned other things that they couldn’t explain–like immature white blood cells–but didn’t give us any other scenarios for Dad’s illness.

Mom and I were fed up but Dad liked his doctor so we kept it to ourselves. Dad stayed at the rehab center for three weeks. I had to leave a week before he’d be released but by then it was apparent to all three of us that Mom couldn’t handle Dad by herself any longer. They put the house on the market and we set a date for my return–this time to help them pack up the house and move in with me.

Dad and Mom lived with my husband, two youngest daughters, and me for three months. In that time, Dad saw numerous specialists and underwent more procedures. The difference, however, was that Dad was slowly getting stronger! His lab results improved without any treatments, he gained the weight back that he’d lost, and the tumor near his pancreas shrank so much it was difficult to find on the MRI.

In the meantime, their house sold for exactly what they’d hoped to get for it, and they found the perfect house, in the perfect town, at the perfect price. Dad says he knew it was THE home for them the moment they walked in.

Let me tell you how many miracles there have been:

1. For years, my Mom, sister, and I had tried to talk Dad into moving to our state. He was never ready to seriously entertain it enough to even list the house to see if it would sell.

After Dad was released from the hospital, we found out FROM THE PHYSICAL THERAPIST READING HIS CHART, that Dad had been SEPTIC in the hospital. Mom and I were never informed. But Dad survived even though he was weaker than he’d been since he was a small child. Dad agreed, without too much encouragement, that it was time for Mom and him to move in with me.

2. Within six weeks of the move, Mom had a stroke and was hospitalized for five days. I took care of Dad and when Mom was released I took care of her too! If they had still been living alone, I don’t think Mom would still be here with us. I doubt she would have ever left Dad to go to the hospital. As it is, I couldn’t convince her to go to the ER until the symptoms returned the second day!

3. Mom and Dad got the offer on their home and we started looking for an apartment because Dad didn’t want to commit to living here long-term. But the monthly rent was much higher than they’d imagined. So one morning Dad came into the living room and said they wanted to start looking at houses. They wanted to be in the city, but as we looked up houses in their price range, it became clear pretty quickly that what they needed in a home was too expensive in the city.

4. I mentioned to a close friend that my parents were going to look at a home in their small town and she told me that a house had just gone on the market that week. We decided to take a look and put in an offer that night. After some negotiating, a price was agreed to, and Mom and Dad had a closing date!

5. Mom, Dad, and I, with help from aunts, uncles, and cousins, packed up the house, signed the final papers on the sale, and moved 600 miles north. The owners of their new house allowed us to unload the moving truck into their now-empty house and everything else fell into place. We found out later that the owners had been telling their neighbors they were going to sell it for over 20 years. It had only been on the market 7 days when Dad and Mom bought it, and the realtor’s sign had only been up for 2 days!

6. It really is a perfect town for Mom and Dad. It’s so small that they don’t have mail delivery service so everyone has to go to the post office to pick up their mail. Dad, and his Cocker Spaniel, Buddy, walk every day to get their mail. It’s about a block away. Dad ties Buddy’s lease to a pole outside and goes inside while Buddy waits. Sometimes they walk to the convenience store about a block away from the post office. Dad does the same thing with Buddy and everyone knows whose dog he is. Mom says the only thing that would make it more perfect would be a full-size grocery store. And maybe a restaurant. Haha!

7. In the meantime, every biopsy they’ve taken from Dad has come back negative for cancer. His blood work, which used to have markers which could indicate cancer, have all returned to normal. And his new gastroenterologist now believes that Dad’s a walking miracle! He thinks that what Dad has had all along is an auto-immune disorder that attacked his pancreas (and will continue to do so until the pancreas stops working entirely). The normal treatment for auto-immune disorders like Dad’s is steroids, but Dad can’t take them because of his diabetes. Fortunately, they have pills that Dad will eventually have to take to compensate.

It’s been an adjustment for all of us, this reversal of roles. For quite a while I paid all of their bills and balanced their checkbook. Mom’s hand shook so much, a side-effect of the stroke, that she couldn’t write checks. Dad doesn’t really like that I have that much knowledge about their finances, but he also asks for my opinion before they make major financial decisions. And he takes my advice. It’s a big responsibility and one that I try to fulfill to the best of my ability.

It’s also difficult to watch your parents’ health decline. They’re both rebounding from their illnesses, and Mom can handle the checkbook again, but I’m not sure if Dad will ever fully recover. Those high-powered antibiotics they gave Dad in the hospital, hurt his kidneys substantially. They’re still functioning, but at 30% less than they were a couple of weeks before he fell ill. He’s now on insulin for his diabetes and will be for the rest of his life. Mom’s on blood thinners for the rest of hers.

But they’re here, 10 minutes away from me, and I usually see them every day. When I don’t, Dad tells me how much they’ve missed me, so I know he’s gotten used to being close-by. His memory isn’t what it used to be either. And every once in a while he says something about making the most of our time because he might have to move Mom away to someplace warmer if she can’t take the winters up here in the North. Mom and I just listen because I don’t think they’ll be going anywhere. We’re doing our best to spoil them so much they won’t ever want to leave! And I don’t think they’ll ever be strong enough to live far away again.

I know the adventure’s just begun for us. I know there will be a time when I’ll have to say goodbye to these two people who’ve shaped my life with their love. Knowing this makes me treasure our time together even more. I’m thankful that I can see my parents more than twice a year now. I’m glad to go with them to their doctor appointments and help with their finances.

I thank God for the gift of time. With them. Right now.


A couple of weeks ago, I was advised by my therapist to write letters to my son, Stephen, who was stillborn at full-term. I agreed to give it a try.

Today, I wrote these words to him. I’m sharing them here with the hope that someone else who is also working through their own grief, will know that they’re not alone.

Dear Stephen,

I’m missing you so much today. The tears keep coming. Julie and your dad are being so loving and supportive as I work through this.

Your dad asked me which of these three days is the hardest for me. It’s hard to separate the grief like that. The 14th is always hard because it was the last day you were alive. Twenty-four years ago, you were happily kicking and moving and getting hiccups and getting mad at getting the hiccups. You were doing everything you were supposed to as the time grew nearer for you to join our family.

I’m just going to admit that I have so many unfulfilled wishes, when it comes to you:

I wish you were still alive here.
I wish I could have seen you smile.
I wish I could have heard your voice.
I wish I could have hugged and kissed and sang songs with you.
I wish you could've been Valerie and Brett's little brother and Jillian and Julie's older brother.
I wish I could've seen you sad or angry.
I wish I could've seen you fall in love, get married, and have children.
I wish you would have had to bury me and not the other way around.
I wish these days of mourning would not have needed to happen.

All that being said though, I don’t wish I had never known you. God could’ve taken you early in the pregnancy. He could’ve taken you before I even knew I was pregnant and I wouldn’t have grieved you at all. That thought brings its own pain.

I am so thankful that God let me carry you for nine months. He let me hold you, kiss you, bathe you, dress you, and say I love you many, many times before I had to say goodbye.

You are always in my heart, my son. I will always love you.



Does the pain ever really go away after the death of a loved one? No. It changes, becomes something you can live with day after day. You hide it deep in your heart so that you can function and everyone else thinks you’ve “gotten over it” or “moved on.”

To all of you who’ve been a part of my life and been a source of support and encouragement through the past twenty-four years, I thank you. Your love and understanding, sometimes your shoulders that I cry on, have helped me survive and find hope.

Stephen died. My love for him never will. I knew him best. I loved him most. It makes sense that I would miss him the most, too. He and I have a bond, as mother and son, that has survived this separation and will live for eternity. I know I will see him again in heaven and the pain now will be part of the joy then.

How Many Hours are in a Lifetime?

Author’s comment: I submitted this piece in 2010-11 to an undergraduate literary journal and it was accepted and published in Catfish Creek, Volume 1, a publication of Loras College. I will post reviews of the piece at the end of the work.

The day began as normally as it could when you have a child home from school with a fever. My son, Brett, was six years old and in the first grade. Since this was the third day of his illness and the fever didn’t seem to be breaking, I called his pediatrician’s office and scheduled an appointment for 1:30 that afternoon.

With no energy or appetite, he lay lethargically across my bed while I plugged a rented copy of Babe into the VCR and hit Play. I propped some pillows against the headboard and hauled myself up onto the bed to watch with him. He nestled in beside me, curled his arm across my protruding abdomen, and gave my belly and the baby inside, a few gentle pats.

* * *

The baby had kept me awake until well after midnight with his usual antics. He would be a night-owl I was sure.

I already knew that he loved music. Every time I turned the radio on, he’d wake up and listen. Once, when my husband—a classical pianist—was performing a recital, he woke up and then barely moved throughout the concert. I could tell he was awake because I could feel his small hand, nestled low in my womb, moving ever so slightly every few moments. Perhaps he was already conducting in there.

Oh, and he hated seat belts. I would snap it closed and he would start rolling. Not that I blamed him. It went right across his head, which I’m sure didn’t feel too nice. He paid me back for this apparent cruelty by kicking every rib he could reach several times for good measure, pummeling my bladder with his small hands, and rolling from one side to another as he tried to find a comfortable position in his cramped space.

* * *

I was awake and getting Brett ready to leave for the doctor’s office when I realized that I hadn’t felt the baby move for a little while. He always slept in, often not waking up until around lunchtime, but even while he slept he moved and his twitches, hiccups, and other little motions reassured me that all was well in there. Then I remembered that often babies slept very deeply—storing up energy—just before labor began. I made a mental list of the last-minute items I would have to add to my suitcase before we left for the hospital.

I snapped the seatbelt across him and he didn’t move. I tried to turn on the radio, but it only worked sporadically so I couldn’t. For a few minutes I considered asking the pediatrician to listen for the heartbeat when he finished examining Brett.   But I dismissed it as my overactive imagination running away with me.

Brett had a virus. His ears weren’t infected and his chest was clear. The pediatrician told us to wait-it-out and we left to pick up my nine-year-old daughter, Valerie, from school.

We had a couple of errands to run before dinner, so I told the kids to stay in the car as I ran inside our home for a moment. Before I walked out of the house again, I quickly lay down on the couch and gently shook my belly to try to get some response out of him.

I waddled back out to the van. My brain was now in “automatic” mode as I drove to my husband’s office to pick up a check that he wanted me to deposit before the bank closed. I really wasn’t very aware of my surroundings; I was distracted and distant. I wanted to get home as quickly as possible so that I could try again to wake up the baby.

“What’s wrong?” My husband, Jay, asked as he scanned my face.

“I haven’t felt the baby move for a while, not even when I used the seatbelt.” He knew how unusual that was.

“Okay, well, go home, call the doctor and see what they say. I’m sure everything’s fine, but call them. And then call me and tell me what they say.”

“They’ll probably think I’m overreacting.”

“That’s why they’re there, to help you when you need it. Call them.”

“Okay, I will.”

I deposited the check before returning home. When I got home, I went to my bed and lay flat on my back so that I could really move the baby around. When that didn’t get a response, I called the doctor’s office.

The nurse reassured me that it was probably just the baby sleeping deeply. She gave me two options. The first was that I could drink some orange juice, eat something, and see if the baby responded within an hour. But by then their office would be closed and I would need to go to the hospital if I needed further help. The second was that I could come in now and they would strap the monitors on me so I could see the baby’s heartbeat and relax. I chose the second option and called Jay to tell him. I was surprised when he told me to come pick him up because I knew he would have to cancel a few of his college students’ piano lessons. I tried to talk him out of it, but he insisted.

When he got in the van, I told him that I hadn’t been able to turn the radio on. He fiddled with it and got it going. Classical music floated around us. The children were unusually quiet in the back seat.

We arrived at the doctor’s office around 4:30. The office was preparing to close for the day; there weren’t many people around. Valerie and Brett sat down at a Lego table and began to play with the toys. The nurse assured us that they would watch over them for the few minutes we’d be in the room.

She led us back and I struggled to lie down on the narrow bed. I was so big that I had to have assistance to lie down and to sit back up again. My CNM (Certified Nurse/Midwife) came in and greeted us. Her manner was reassuring and calm, but also ready to get down to business and go home.

I pulled my shirt up exposing my mountain of a belly and flinched as she squirted some cold gel on my taut skin and moved a small, black Doppler device over it. At this stage of pregnancy, it was usually extremely easy to find the heartbeat. We heard the steady beating of a working heart and I was instantly relieved. I looked at her, but she hadn’t relaxed.

“Is that the baby’s heartbeat?” I asked.

She took my wrist and her lips moved as she counted. “No, that’s yours.”

All I could think was, “This can’t be happening to me.” She moved the Doppler again and again as she tried to find what she was looking for. After a few moments she said she was going to try something else and brought out the more sophisticated portable monitors that they strap on you during labor. These were so sensitive that they could also record the pressure from the contractions. She belted them across my abdomen and turned the machine on. Nothing. She rearranged them a couple of times. Still nothing.

Next, she told me that she was going to get an ultrasound machine and left the room.

My eyes sought Jay’s. His brows were furrowed over his eyes, which were intent on my face. He squeezed the hand that he’d been holding since we arrived.

The CNM backed into the room pulling a cart with the ultrasound machine on it. She turned it on, and I didn’t notice immediately, but she had the screen turned to her instead of me as it usually was every other time we’d used it. She picked up a different device and started working it across my belly.

After a few moments she turned to me. “I’m not as experienced at using this machine as the OB/GYN’s are. I’m going to go find one of them to help us.”

She returned with an obstetrician who knew exactly what she was doing.   She studied the screen briefly and then turned the monitor screen to me. “I’m sorry, Ma’am, but it’s not good news.” She pointed to a spot on the monitor. “Here’s the baby’s heart. It’s not beating and it’s dilated.”

As I think back on those words that were spoken to me on April 15, 1996, they are concise and terribly easy to understand. But at that moment I struggled to make sense of them. “You mean my baby’s dead?” I asked. My eyes were locked on hers. Her face reflected a cautious sympathy.


With that single word, a very specific part of my soul—the part that contained all my hopes and dreams for this baby—began to die a slow, excruciating death.

Small revelations broke through my sorrow. I stifled the sobs long enough to choke out a question for my husband. “You mean, now I have to go through labor for nothing?” It was a nonsensical question, but I panicked as I considered the hours of labor ahead of me.

His voice was rough with grief, stress, and most of all worry for me, as he answered, “Yes.”

With a great deal of effort I pulled myself together. We had to talk with my doctor and find out how to proceed. She gave us two options to consider. Since I was nine months along, they could give me medications that would start my labor, or I could go home and wait for my body to go into labor on its own. I needed time to think, so we left. As we drove home, we talked about names; we didn’t want to use the ones we’d already picked. We hadn’t wanted to know the sex of the baby—I liked that reward after the laboring was over—so we needed to allow for both possibilities. We decided if the baby was a girl we would name her Elizabeth Joy, and if he was a boy, Stephen Lewis.

We arrived at home and Jay started making the phone calls to relatives and friends. Each time he explained what was happening, it was like another slash to my heart. And I realized, as I listened to him tell people over and over again, that I didn’t want to wait for labor to begin. I needed to get it over with. I called the doctor and told her what I’d decided.

We walked into the hospital around 7:00 p.m. At 10:45 they induced labor and at 1:39 a.m. on Tuesday, April 16th, Stephen Lewis Hershberger was born.

Stephen weighed exactly seven pounds and was twenty-one inches long. He was beautiful with reddish brown hair, long fingers that were shaped like mine, full cheeks like his brother’s, and the little ball at the tip of his nose that resembled his Papa’s. But his lips and the beds of his fingernails were a deep red and his skin was a dusky gray instead of pink. And he was too still. Stillborn.

We knew after his birth what had happened. While he was still very small, a knot had formed in the umbilical cord, and on April 15th it had pulled tight, cutting off his oxygen. So I held him and told him how sorry I was that I hadn’t been able to keep him alive. Guilt was added to the sorrow. I felt that, as his mother, I should’ve instinctively known something was wrong in time to save him.

We took pictures of him. I tried to memorize every little wrinkle in his hands and feet, the shape of his ears, and fingers, and toes. How do you cram a lifetime of loving into a few hours?

The nurse gave me a peach quilted bag. It contained a little yellow sleeper, a blue flannel blanket, a tiny stuffed giraffe that some church ladies had sewn, some booklets on dealing with the death of a child, and a typed note offering their sympathies.

I gave Stephen his first and only bath, dressed him in the yellow sleeper and wrapped him in the blanket. Afterward, the nurse offered to take some pictures of him in the hospital bassinet, with the little stuffed giraffe. She took some great pictures, and one of them—my favorite—is framed on my bedside table.

Through the minutes and hours I held him, our pending separation hung over me like a suspended tidal wave. I knew it was coming and I knew I couldn’t do anything to hold it off forever.

At around 5:30 a.m., I told Jay that I knew it was time for me to give him up. He buzzed the nurse and told her. I held Stephen’s hand, stroked his face, and kissed his tiny head once more before she carried him away. When she walked out of the room with him, the tidal wave surged in, burying me.

I didn’t think I could survive. I didn’t know if I wanted to anymore. It was hard to breathe. Jay held me, rocking me gently. I asked him to read to me from the Psalms again. They had calmed me down while we were waiting for Stephen to be born. I fell asleep to his soft voice reading the poems that David had written all those centuries ago.

Jay was my rock through the storm. He couldn’t keep the rain away, but he shared his strength so we could get through it. I needed him more than I ever had in our thirteen years of marriage. And while I gratefully acknowledge this, I also have to confess that at times he made me really mad. Like when he insisted on talking about the funeral while we waited for labor to begin. I was holding onto a delusional hope that maybe they were wrong, or maybe this was just a nightmare. But he kept asking me what hymns I wanted, what scripture verses. It made me want to lash out at him. But I didn’t. I couldn’t, because I knew that he was trying to help me.

I found out later that day, that Jay and I both had a feeling something was going to happen to me during labor. It had crossed our minds that I might die. We hadn’t said anything about it; neither of us wanted to scare the other. But since I was still alive, it was a reason to feel just a little bit of relief during this oppressive time.

The days ahead were torturous. I didn’t know how to handle the grief. I cried so long and so hard that my diaphragm felt bruised. It hurt even more to breathe. One morning, while I was still in the hospital, I walked into the bathroom and when I looked into the mirror I was shocked. The face that was staring back at me didn’t look like mine anymore. The pain in her eyes—my eyes—made me wince. I tried not to look in mirrors after that.

When I was released from the hospital, we drove straight to Herberger’s to pick out the clothes that Stephen would be buried in. From there we went to the funeral home to drop off the clothes and plan the funeral. We had to pick out the programs, decide the order of the funeral, and then—as if all of that weren’t enough to deal with—we had to pick out his casket.

I wanted to tell them to stop, to give me some time to think about it, but we couldn’t. The funeral was in less than forty-eight hours. So I picked the small, white, steel casket to bury my son in, and when I found out that the casket I was standing beside was going to be the casket he was buried in, I kissed my fingers and placed the kiss on the pillow that his head would rest upon.

Friday morning, April 19, 1996, was the day of his funeral. Family and close friends met us at the funeral home to view Stephen for the last time. I don’t know why I didn’t think of it ahead of time, but I vividly recall the moment after everyone else had left the room, when I realized that in a few minutes I was going to have to say goodbye to my son for the last time.

We were truly out of time. I knelt beside his casket and told him again how much I loved him and that I would always love him. Jay helped me up, and slowly walked me from the room.

It was a cold, blustery day with the high only in the thirties; quite a shock after having several days of temperatures in the seventies. After the funeral, a handful of family and close friends stood with us beside Stephen’s casket at the gravesite. We stood, huddled in our heavy coats, shivering against the bone-chilling wind. Three young men stood on the other side of a copse of trees, leaning on shovels and speaking quietly together. Their services would be required again after we left.

“Ashes to ashes; dust to dust.” The pastor said, sprinkling dirt on shiny white metal.

Jay placed his hand on top of the casket. I placed a kiss.

* * *

On Saturday and Sunday our home was a study in opposites: tears and laughter, loud children and quiet adults, hellos and goodbyes. The first time I laughed, I was surprised by how good it felt. This realization was instantaneously followed by guilt. What kind of a mother was I?

My milk had come in the morning of the funeral. My breasts were so full that every time someone hugged me, pain lanced through my chest and into my back. I didn’t have breasts anymore—I had boulders.

I alternated between Advil and Tylenol every two hours to try to mute the pain I was enduring from more and more milk being stored in already full milk ducts. I stuffed my bra with ice packs that had to be exchanged about every thirty minutes. Hormones don’t understand stillbirth.

* * *

After our relatives left to return to their homes in other states, I had to learn to deal with my new reality. Valerie and Brett went back to school and so did Jay. I was left at home, alone. Before Stephen’s death, I had been looking forward to those hours when the older kids would be at school and I could have a few uninterrupted hours with the new baby. Now I dreaded the silence. I knew what I was missing—what I should have been doing. And as the permanence of death settled into my mind, I got angrier. I’d been unsuccessfully fighting the growing anger since the day of his birth.

As the days dragged by, I drew away from Jay. I didn’t want him to know how I felt. How I was mad at God and questioning Him. And, because he was able to go to work every day, he seemed to be getting over this tragedy so much quicker than I was. That also made me mad.

I still tried to be a good mom for Valerie and Brett.   I did most of my crying when they were at school, but I couldn’t help but cry occasionally around them, too. We talked about Stephen whenever they wanted, but they were also handling his death well. I understood that, even though they’d seen and touched their younger brother, he’d never been a part of their lives. They had other concerns.

* * *

“Mom, if I died like Stephen, would you cry as much for me?” Brett asked, standing in front of me, staring up at my tear-streaked face. I was sitting in the kitchen, listening as Jay informed others about the death of our baby. I looked him straight in the eyes as the agony of just the thought of losing Brett or Valerie pierced through my hazy brain. I silently prayed, Please God, not them, too.

“Brett, if you died, I would cry even more,” I answered honestly. He gave me a timid, relieved smile and nodded his head. I opened my arms. “Come here, bud.” The smile grew as he walked toward me and reached his short arms as far around my bulging belly as he could. I enveloped him in my arms and laid my cheek against his hair. “I love you, son.”

“I love you too, Mom.” His arms began to loosen; he patted my side a few times. I quickly kissed the top of his head before I released him. He ran off to play.

His question became a talisman against the thoughts of giving up—wishing for death. I couldn’t leave them motherless.

Valerie, a few days after the funeral, told me she’d seen Stephen the night before. I said, “In a dream?” I was immediately jealous. I wanted to see him again—even if it was only in a dream.

“I’m not sure. Is Stephen an angel now? Is he wearing white?”

“I don’t know exactly how it works. Maybe that’s a question for your dad. Why? Was Stephen wearing white when you saw him?”

“I think I woke up last night, or I dreamed I woke up, and Stephen was floating in the doorway of my room. He just looked at me; he looked so sweet. When I blinked, he was gone. I really miss him, Mom.”

* * *

Two weeks after Stephen’s death, Jay got a phone call from one of his co-workers whose wife had just had their second child, a daughter. I was very glad that their baby was okay, but my arms were so empty. I started to cry while he was still on the phone and left the room. After he hung up, he came to find me. I was furious. In my mind, I’d been singled out by God. How could He love me and put me through this?

Jay could only tell I was very upset at first. My anger was manifesting itself through torrential tears. He tried to hug me—I pushed him away. He tried to get me to talk to him—I clamped my lips closed and shook my head every time he asked me a question. He sat quietly beside me on the couch, watching my leg swing back and forth in agitation. He finally let out a long sigh. “Cindy, I love you and I want to help you. But I can’t if you won’t talk to me. Please don’t shut me out.”

There had been many times in our marriage when I would recall the vows I had made on our wedding day. It had been easy to repeat after the minister, “For better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death do us part,” because I couldn’t imagine a time where they would be hard to fulfill. I had thought I loved him so much. Now, as I sat beside this man who was trying to show me how much he loved me, I was reminded of them again. I had to make a decision. Was I going to continue to shut him out and slowly kill our marriage? Statistically, I had read that something like seventy-five percent of marriages fail after the death of a child. I could see why. Or was I going to let him in and let him help me?

“I’m not sure you really want to know what I’m thinking right now. You’ll know what a bad Christian I really am. And He’ll know, too.”

“Cindy, doesn’t God already know your thoughts? Will He be surprised at anything you tell me? And, honey, He’s big enough to take whatever you have to say. Just get it out.”

So I did. And Jay wasn’t surprised or angry or hurt or appalled. He just listened, and asked questions. I couldn’t answer one of them yet: “Can we trust God?”

My mom called and I told her, too. She also asked me a question: “Is your anger hurting God?”

Mom’s was easier to answer. I knew that my anger wasn’t hurting God, it was hurting me. If I didn’t want to become one of those bitter people who can’t get over the bad things that happen, then I was going to have to let my anger go. But how? I set that question aside.

Can I trust God? Do I still believe? It didn’t take all that long for me to have my answer. Yes, I do believe. Yes, I can trust Him.

That day was the turning point. I realized that God loved Stephen even more than I did, and His Son had died once, too. He could understand my grief. I gave Him my pain, my anger, and my bitterness. It came down to a matter of my will against His.

“Thy will be done,” I finally prayed, and He gave me peace.

It’s been fourteen years since Stephen’s short life changed mine. I now have empathy toward other people’s suffering that I never had before. And, when a friend of mine had a stillborn son a few years after Stephen, I walked through the pain with her.

Every April 16th, if you were to visit his small plot in Evergreen Memorial Cemetery in South Moorhead, you would find a rose lying across his footstone, and a small gift that reminded me of him. One year it was an angel, another it was a whirligig that I could picture him blowing on, yet another it was a bouncing butterfly on a pole because he would have been at the age where he would have been chasing them.

And in the summer, geraniums bloom continuously on top of his grave.


“Cynthia Hershberger writes candidly about the pain she experienced delivering a stillborn child in her nonfiction piece, “How Many Hours Are in a Lifetime?” She relays the events without relying on sentimentality; instead, she remains straightforward about details like her son’s “dusky gray” skin and the first and only bath she gave him before the doctors took him away. Hershberger’s struggle to reconcile her grief with her faith is moving, and her attempts to regain a normal relationship with her family are honest.” Review by Sarah Gzemski (Susquehanna University ’13) []

“And the perfect coda comes a few dozen pages later, with Cynthia Hershberger’s equally moving personal narrative about her own stillborn boy child, Stephen. I did weep when I got to the end of this; Catfish Creek gets my warmest applause for publishing this heartfelt story of the most difficult of griefs confronted squarely, but ultimately with the strength of faith.” Review by Julie J. Nichols []




In many ways it made perfect sense. Light flashed across her closed eyelids and she heard a muffled sound immediately afterward. She opened her eyes. What had she just been thinking about? She blinked, trying to remember. Her husband rolled over, facing away from her. She thanked the Good Lord above that he no longer snored. A miracle if there ever was one.

Lightning flashed and thunder rumbled, gathering strength and momentum until the house shook, the windows rattling in their panes. The bed trembled beneath her. A transformer box out on the curb near their window exploded in a shower of sparks, drawing her attention outside. The street lights winked out. She barely heard a thing.

Frowning, she reached up, pulling on her ears to try to get them to pop. They must be stopped up for her hearing to be so poor. She stuck her fingers in her ears and wiggled. She yawned and moved her jaw from side to side. Nothing seemed to help. Maybe she’d have to go see Doc in the morning.

Lightning flickered outside like a child playing with the light switch. She wasn’t scared, particularly, but in between the flashes it was pitch black in the room and she wasn’t used to it anymore.

Of course, she’d grown up on the farm without street lights. Many a day she’d had to visit the outhouse in the black of night. But that was before she married Charlie and he whisked her away to Springfleld. She yawned again and turned to her side. On the bedside table sat a portrait of an elderly man and woman surrounded by younger men, women, and children. She didn’t recognize them.

The furniture looked familiar though. And the patchwork quilt covering her. She rolled onto her back again. Memories stirred and fled with the lightning bolts outside her window. They must be visiting Charlie’s parents, she decided. They often stopped there when they traveled, and their anniversary was coming up. An important one too.

Was it their first? No, they had their two boys already didn’t they? Yes, Chuck and Roger. And Mildred. Right. Three kids. Maybe it was their fifth anniversary. Charlie loved to surprise her. Where would he take her this time? She hoped they’d leave before the kids woke up. She hated saying goodbye to them. Tears formed in her eyes, just thinking about it.

She reached up to brush them away and froze as the strobing lights revealed withered, knobby, and trembling hands covered with age spots. Mesmerized in horror, she wiggled her fingers, wincing as pain echoed her movements. She brought one hand up to her face to feel the soft, wrinkled skin across her cheekbones.

“No,” she muttered. “I’m not old yet.” A nightmare. She must be dreaming. “Fear thou not; for I am with thee—” She tried to concentrate. “Fear thou not; for I am with thee—”

The faded quilt lifted like a wave rolling beneath lily pads. Charlie reached out and pulled her to his thin, bony chest. She relaxed against him. When had he lost so much weight?

“Be not dismayed,” Charlie’s deep voice rumbled in his chest. “For I am thy God: I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness.” He kissed her forehead. ”It’s okay, Maudie. It’s just a thunderstorm. It’ll pass soon, my love.”

“Thank you, Charlie.” She kissed his cheek. “How long are we staying at your parents’ house? And which anniversary is coming up? I’m so tired I can’t think straight.” Draping one arm across him, she snuggled closer. Charlie was getting downright scrawny. She needed to bake him some pies or something.

He didn’t answer, just stroked her hair. She let him do that for a few moments, then raised her head so she could look at him. But the storm was blowing over; the lightning came more infrequently. She couldn’t see him so she reached up and touched his face. His chest quivered and a sob broke from his lips.

“Charlie!” She crawled up higher so she could kiss him. “What’s the matter?”

He said something she couldn’t hear.

“What was that? Please stop mumbling and speak where I can hear you.”

She felt his chest shaking as he chuckled. “I’m not mumbling, babe. You’re deaf as a fence post!”

“I am not deaf. I can hear you perfectly now.” She slapped his chest lightly. He always teased her so. “Now why were you upset a minute ago?”

“A moment of weakness, my love.” He swallowed. “You asked me what anniversary is coming up?”

“Yes. I’m having trouble remembering. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”

“Oh babe, I love you more than I did when I married you sixty-two years ago.”

She froze. “Did you say sixty-two years?”

“Yes, Maudie. Sixty-two years.”

She shook her head. She was still dreaming; still stuck in this nightmare. In many ways it made perfect sense.