“Let us away, my child…” saying our last goodbye to Luca
This post is best read while listening to “Candy” by Paolo Nutini.
After Luca died, we knew that we had two more difficult, but essential, aspects to take care of: registering his stillbirth, and attending his funeral. We made our way to the Islington Town Hall on a sunny mid-week morning of early August, and sat in a dusty office where a lady handed us documents to read and sign, including Luca’s certificate of stillbirth. God, it was all real. Not that the physical pain and the mental anguish of the previous weeks had been just a dream, but seeing my son’s name and surname printed on an official piece of paper made me – proudly? – realise that he had been there. He had lived, albeit only inside my body, and the world acknowledged this fact. Luca was stillborn at 26 weeks and 1 day of gestation, and the UK limit to issue a stillbirth certificate is 24 weeks. What if we had decided to terminate at, suppose, 23 weeks and 6 days? I knew that the world would not have recognised my son’s existence then, and shivered at the very thought. It’s not fair that something that precious can change in a matter of hours or days, it doesn’t make sense, and it adds to the feeling of powerlessness and isolation that losing a child generates. Measures should be taken to allow parents of a stillborn baby to have their child recognised at whatever gestation they are lost.
As for the funeral, we had decided to leave the organisation with our hospital and their funeral director, but said we would attend. Our fantastic bereavement midwife, Liz, who has the rare ability to be extremely respectful and gentle whilst at the same time making you laugh, put us in touch with a lovely lady who organises baby funerals. Throughout this nightmarish journey, we were somehow blessed with a seemingly endless list of kind and compassionate people, and I will be forever grateful to the Whittington Hospital and the NHS as a whole. The new person we started to communicate with, Helen, explained our options over the phone. Daniel and I are not religious, so we thought that a Humanist funeral would be the most suitable ceremony for us. Helen put us in contact with a Humanist celebrant named Steph.
Steph first called me on a Friday afternoon, while Daniel was away in Wales and I was walking the streets of East London with Ilaria, one of my best friends, who had come from Italy to spend a few days with me. It was late August but the summer felt never-ending. We arranged for Steph to come see us at home the following Monday, so that we could chat face to face about what exactly would happen. Up until that very moment, I don’t think I had realised the most obvious fact: I was about to say my final goodbye to my son, my first born, my Luca. I was a mum, and I was going to discuss details around my son’s funeral with a perfect stranger. When I did realise all of that, I just felt numb. I couldn’t even cry. I thought to myself: “You have been through much worse so far, this is just going to be a formality. If you were able to do all that you’ve endured so far, then this is nothing.” Except, was it, really? I believe I must have been in denial.
As agreed, Steph came over to see us on Monday, and asked Daniel and myself a lot of questions. About us individually, about us as a couple, about our families and friends, and naturally about Luca. She asked us why we chose the name “Luca”. She said that the ceremony would be very simple. We could pick a couple of songs, some readings such as poems or letters, and then she would write something about us and about Luca, and read it out loud. Finally, one of us would place Luca’s coffin on the catafalque, to be taken to the crematorium. I began to sob and Daniel squeezed my hand whilst doing most of the talking. I was starting to crumble, I could feel it. Bloody hell, why wouldn’t I? The funeral now had a date – Friday the 7th of September. It was all becoming painfully real, and closing in on me. I couldn’t escape anymore, I couldn’t fake bravery or numbness or strength. I was in pieces and I was furious and I was desperately hurt and lost. I had been to two funerals in my entire life. Both my grandmothers. That was it. That was my experience of death and funerals. I briefly imagined having a conversation with my 20-year-old self, the one who only cared about university and concerts and guys.
Now Sara: “My darling Sara, one day you will give birth to a child, your child, but he will be born dead.”
Then Sara: “What are you talking about?”
Now Sara: “Yes, and you’ll have to attend his funeral, and watch his minuscule coffin being taken away to be cremated.” I can see the look of horror on poor young Sara’s face, as she is unable to utter a single word.
Now Sara: “But you can do it, trust me, you can do all of it.”
Another flood of tears arrived on Tuesday. Daniel and I were in Brick Lane for an in-store gig of our beloved Idles, as we had bought tickets before we knew that Luca’s funeral would be on the same week. Again, I was unsure whether or not to go, but I thought that a chat with Joe, the band’s singer and now a friend, and an hour of live music would do me good. Before the concert started, Liz called my mobile. We chatted for a bit about the upcoming funeral, and I asked her if I could see Luca. I just felt this urge to look at my child one last time, I felt like I really needed to. Very gently, Liz told me that Luca’s condition had deteriorated, and that the post-mortem had made him unrecognisable. My heart sank. For a few seconds, I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t even see properly as my eyes began to fill up with tears. Liz added that, of course, I could still see him, he was my son, but she said that she would prefer me to remember him as he was on the day I met him for the first time. I agreed, thanked her, and hung up. I then proceeded to get mildly drunk, and enviously stare at a heavily pregnant woman who was dancing away next to me at the concert.
On Wednesday, I ventured into Central London alone – which is only five stops away on the tube from where I live, but at the time it felt like the other side of the world – to buy a dress for the funeral. It all felt surreal, like an out-of-body experience. I bought an expensive black dress from French Connection. I never buy expensive dresses and I hardly ever shop at French Connection. I was just hoping with all my heart that the shop assistant would not ask me “What’s the occasion?” as I was clearly looking for a formal black dress. Luckily, she didn’t. I went home with my expensive purchase, which I didn’t even particularly like, and sank my tears into my pillow.
Friday arrived. It was a gorgeous, but chilly, sunny day. I woke up, showered, straightened my hair, and applied some makeup. I tried with all my strength not to feel stupid – I feel stupid most of the time, these days – and kept telling myself that it was OK if I wanted to feel beautiful for my son’s funeral. There was nothing wrong with that. The only thing that was wrong was the funeral itself. The death of my son: that was horribly wrong. Daniel wore his wedding suit, which has now seen both the best and the worst day of his life. We took a cab to a florist in East Finchley from where I had ordered a wonderful wreath, and then took another cab to the Islington Crematorium. It all felt more and more final, but I was still able to hold back the tears. I kept reminding myself that I was wearing mascara, and didn’t want it to get ruined. Outside the chapel, a glass panel displayed the day’s ceremonies. My heart skipped a beat when I read “Baby Davidson”. Steph arrived, and we sat for a few minutes in a room beside the main chapel, waiting for the previous funeral to end. We hadn’t invited anyone else to join us, we just felt it was too much of an intimate moment and only needed each other. Then, it was our turn.
We chose to play “Spring” from Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons" to greet Luca in his coffin - we didn’t want anything too gloomy, and Luca used to kick a lot whenever I played Vivaldi to him. The beautiful chapel was full of light and music when the funeral directors brought Luca’s coffin in and placed it on a small table. I decided I could start crying, screw the mascara and everything else. I could cry and scream and sob as much as I wanted and needed. My son, whom I’d carried in my belly, and fed, and nurtured, and growth, and loved, for six months, was inside that tiny box. He was so close yet so impossibly out of reach.
When the music ended, Steph said a few, beautiful words about us and Luca. She didn’t know us, yet her words were so truthful and accurate that it made me smile amidst the tears. Daniel stood up and read a poem I had written for Luca, then I stood up and read a poem that my mum had chosen for Luca, in Italian. My voice quivered and I was shaking. My head was spinning, it all felt absolutely impossible. I sat down again next to Daniel, holding his hand tight, while Steph said a few more words. Our second and last song was played. Daniel had chosen “Country Feedback” by R.E.M., a curious choice given that I’m the huge R.E.M. fan and he isn’t. But, he said, I played that song on repeat after we were given Luca’s final diagnosis, and he couldn’t help but feel like that was the most fitting way to say goodbye. I believe it's the part when Michael Stipe sings "It's crazy what you could have had, it's crazy what you could have had. I need this, I need this" that made both of us cry hard each time we heard that song. Because it just felt so true to us and to our story. While the song was playing, I stood up and read Luca a letter I had written to him the previous night. I read it quickly and softly, more like a whisper. Daniel took the coffin and placed in on the catafalque. I arranged a few items on the coffin: a teddy, a drawing I had made of me and Luca, my letter, and the poem I had composed for him. Finally, I read him “Elsewhere”, by Fernando Pessoa, as a way to wish him well on whatever journey he was embarking on without us.
That was the end. Outside the chapel, the day was still bright and windy, and I began feeling a bit more at peace. Another goodbye, the very final one, and my heart could perhaps start to heal a bit.
“Let us away, my child,
Away to Elsewhere.
There days are ever mild
And fields are ever fair.
The moon that shines on whom
There wanders happy and free
Hath woven its light and gloom
Seeing things there is young,
Told tales sweet as untold,
There real dream‑songs are sung
By lips we may behold.
Time there's a moment's bliss,
Life a being‑slaked thirst,
Love like that in a kiss
When that kiss is the first.
We need no boat, my child,
But our hopes while still
No rowers but fancies wild.
O let us seek Elsewhere!”
Elsewhere, Fernando Pessoa.