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Gowns for the Angels - Ann Kendall

Two blue lines on a little stick covered in pee – this is where dreams begin. Those blue lines set a parallel course that waffles between the walub walub walub of a six week-old heartbeat emanating from the first of many intrusive ultrasounds to the near heart-stopping panic of midnight thoughts that come in waves that rev the mind into unanswerable questions. When the whirligig of emotions comes to a stop as dawn breaks, the hands will often reach to guard the belly – from the morning, from the day, from more of the monsters that lurk.

My first roundabout with the blue lines ended in a miscarriage that wouldn’t miscarry; surgical intervention required. Eight months later, another miscarriage, though this one announced itself with an early morning wakeup call and subsequent rush to the emergency room. My chances for becoming a mother were dimming as my age was already nearing the mark that obstetricians label as geriatric. Those parallel blue lines were infinity markers – never becoming perpendicular with a new life, a few intersections along the way, but never making it past the 13th week with the strong walub, walub, walub of a tiny heartbeat. The results of these lines were only hormone plummets, blood-stained clothes, and tissue carted away in small plastic containers. After my second miscarriage, the doctor showed me the container of the “remnants of conception.” Today, I’m still not sure of the purpose of that act except the doctor wanted to show me the finality of that moment’s dream, sealed in time, without a marker. Some light candles to mark the passing of these ethereal souls, but I never did – I didn’t want the shadows of my yesterdays to enter my todays.

By March of 2014, I’d been married 13 years – and I had successfully gone on, miraculously to me (and with the help of a new group of doctors) to have a thriving, healthy baby girl. For the most part, I had put my old companion, loss, into one of those closets in my mind; I tried to write the stories of miscarriage – my own and those of others -- but I never did find the right way to talk about it, the right venue for it, or even the words. I thought by this time, maybe this season had passed and it was time to leave those stories behind; I knew in my heart and mind, that without these losses I would most likely not have the daughter I had, so perhaps it was messing with fate to even write about loss.

Every morning as I raced to get myself and my daughter out the door, I always took time to read the local headlines and because I was also working as a stringer for the local paper on human interest stories, my scans usually drifted to that section. March is often the lowest and dreariest time to be in Seattle – the dampness is constant, the wind can be fierce and the Douglas Fir boughs hang heavily, even though the rain appears to be only mist. On that March day, my eyes quickly registered the words “tiny gowns” and my brain chugged to catch up to take in the full headline, “Tiny gowns become ‘huge gift’ for grieving families.” I sat for a moment with my head tilted to the right as I am oft to do when I’m puzzling over what I’m reading on the screen; a nurse named Michelle working in a local NICU, was turning unused wedding dresses into burial gowns for babies. Time, not being on my side at that moment, called me to the door, but I just had to finish this article before I could head out. As I quickly scanned the story of these tiny gowns, I immediately began to feel those closets in my mind begin to slide open.

I read through the short story about the trauma and tragedies NICU families felt as they must bury their tiniest loved ones – and often faced the added burden of going to a local store to find a preemie-sized burial outfit. I set my coffee down and tip-toed toward the bedroom wing of our condo to see that everyone was up and rustling around, then proceeded to crawl under my bed and pull out the plastic tote which contained my wedding dress. I knew that this was an imperfect storage solution, but having moved multiple times across thousands of miles I had seen no sense in the preservation act that dry cleaners promote. I knew brides were called upon to keep their dresses for “some day” when a daughter or niece may want to wear these billows of white and cream. But I had not wanted this dress, so I’ll admit it was rolled, scrunched, and not taken care of in any way that is expected. To me, that dress symbolized all that had gone wrong with the wedding, not the joy it should supposedly bring, so this dress deserved its scrunchy punishment in its plastic; to me, an apt way to hold memories that I didn’t want to have and completely symbolic of that day.

Pulling out the creamy fabric, I was torn between the past and the future as I spent minutes, I didn’t have that day, running my fingers through the folds of the dress. Time suspended for just a few moments, but the flash flood of memories was more than I had planned for my precious few minutes that morning allowed me for myself. In holding that fabric, I was right back to that sunny, breezy cold day of our wedding in 2001 and all that led up to it – the events, the good and many bad, that brought the day about and how I felt then in 2014, and still today, that perhaps we have never escaped much that happened that year.

We were set to have the tiniest wedding ever, according to me. We planned to marry in his house on New Year’s Eve in the afternoon – so a formal wedding dress was hardly called for in this venue, and in those days I had plenty of occasion to attend cocktail functions, so buying a short dress was my comfort zone – and it would address an afternoon wedding just fine. On my first foray into shopping to find this dress, the most beautiful flapper-esque red silk dress floated effortlessly into my arms, the fitting room, and a shopping bag (and it was on clearance, so yeah to me for good shopping). Upon arrival at home, my future husband decided he wanted to wear a tuxedo for our vow exchange, upending my short red-dress dreams and off to the bridal shop I went with my roommate in tow. I did what I could to hang onto my dreams of slinky red satin as I waded through the aisles of meringue and corsets, each one’s skirt more gargantuan than the last. But then I spotted it, and coffee creamer swirly white skirt and embroidered lace bodice that was more sunflower hippie that breath-stealing satin.

This all may seem rather flighty and superfluous so far – girl doesn’t want dress, girl buys dress anyway to make future husband happy, girl gets married. But this was the Fall of 2001, in Washington, DC. Saying nothing was normal, doesn’t begin to touch all that took place during what are usually the most beautiful months in this powerful city. This was a city brought to its knees by terror and we were marrying in the aftermath. My future husband’s college roommate died that day in the North Tower in New York City. We had not planned to marry that Fall – but everything changed when planes dove from the sky to kill and destroy. So, I bought the dress. We competed for any minister that was available. We chose to marry quickly, at home, because everyone we knew was doing it –because all around us, destruction rained heavily. Not one person in our circle of friends was unaffected by tragedy on that dark day.

In the background of all this community death and turmoil, darker familial issues were deeply brewing – my future husband’s family was not thrilled with our union as they were convinced, I was either pregnant or after him for his money (which I have yet to find that treasure if it exists). As Christmas approached, a battle royale commenced, and unspeakable (or so I thought) words and actions overtook the holiday and remaining wedding plans. If you’ve ever imagined nightmare future in-laws, mine are gold medal champions – there is no Hollywood movie equivalent to measure them by. On Christmas night, my future husband had to disinvite his family from the wedding – things were blowing up fast.

But on December 31, I put that dress that I didn’t want on “walked down the aisle” of the home’s staircase and became a bride and a wife in front of a few friends and family members. I did not, however, wear the correct under slip for the creamy chiffon as when our dear friend caught the beautiful rays of December afternoon sunlight wafting through the living room windows – let’s just say the video says a lot. I ate the wedding cake I hadn’t wanted, but family had insisted, “weddings aren’t weddings without cake,” and thankfully turned out to be delicious. Those 14 people in attendance said it was all beautiful, but to me, it was just okay – the background of the day was simply overwhelmingly sad and distressing.

By March 2014, I was mostly but not entirely over the heartbreak of the wedding experience. But I knew that the nurse in the article was an angel right here on earth, turning distress into beauty – a little respite from a growing list of daunting tasks for parents faced with unimaginable grief by creating something new from something used, old, and sitting in boxes and totes across the city. I never loved that dress, but I knew I loved the babies I lost to miscarriage. I also knew that death in the NICU of one of my beloveds would’ve killed me in every sense but physical – I would’ve been irretrievably broken. I knew had to get my dress to nurse Michelle so she could sew my love of babies into the heaven-bound souls she met in her work. Michelle became my conduit to giving that dress a real life, where love, not turmoil, reigned.

I stopped on my way home from work that day, bought a padded envelope and a pile of thread to send along with my dress for this dear nurse-seamstress. A month or so later, she emailed me a photo of her creations – 12 micro-sized burial garments had sprung from her fingers and knowing hands, to wrap a dozen fragile bodies that were called away all too soon. The wedding dress I never wanted finally found a purpose – shrouding precious hands and feet – in the “would-be love” of an earthly embrace. All those miscarriage stories I had hoped to write, are now closed; the trauma remains, somewhere in my mind, but mostly it is replaced thoughts about the transformative power of a sewing machine, and that maybe that dress had a will of its own – certainly I could’ve donated it long before the idea of angel gowns was planted in my head on that March day. I think the dress wanted to live to its mission – to envelop, to hold, to comfort and to give wings to the life it was meant to launch – but its fabric was perhaps sewn first into a garment, that wasn’t its calling. Now it is free, to be with those that need it most, swaddling the little hands and little toes in perfected repose – hovering somewhere above. I know now, that writing about gowns for these tiny angels, is the best way to honor the souls that my body couldn’t manage.


Ann Kendall's creative work has appeared in Humans of the World, Faith & Form Magazine, Thought Notebook Journal, Wanderlust and Hemophilia News Today. She is an Assistant Professor of Literature and Languages at Heritage University in Toppenish, WA and is currently pursuing her MFA at Bay Path University focusing on creative nonfiction and poetry. Instagram @akendallwriter.


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