The rocks feel hot against my palm and burn against my skin, a tangible reminder of pain and grief clutched in my hand. Holding them closely, I wade out into the lake as far as I can go. My two-year-old paddles by in an inflatable turtle with my husband close at his heels, encouraging him to kick. The lake is gentle and quiet today; it laps against the edges of my shorts, soaking the jean fabric and enveloping me in the water’s cooling embrace.
Eyes closed, I stand surrounded by air so hot it seems to sizzle and think about all the other babies that should be vacationing with us. Our family is missing five babies. It’s a physical impossibility for them all to be with us, but nonetheless, I see them here. I see them swimming and splashing, and coated in the smell of coconut sunscreen. With their soggy swim-diaper bottoms, and my burgeoning belly, we sit in the shade of the beach; spitting cherry pits and watching dragonflies skip across the water. Snuggling them close, I listen as the sound of their giggles matches the beat of my heart.
I open my eyes and the dreams vanish, erased by the gentle waves of water nudging against my bare legs. I look down at the five rocks that I hold in my hand. A name has been written on each of them: one rock for each of the babies that we've lost.
Landon, Kӓra, Björn, Ebba, and Avonlea.
I grew up in this lake. As a child, I spent my summers here with my grandparents, skipping stones and lazily floating my way through the heat-riddled afternoons. It was here, in this lake with ankles tangled in milfoil and feet slipping on sharp rocks, that my Grandad first told me about my grandmother's miscarriage. Their tiny son was but a 40-year-old memory, scarcely mentioned but safely locked away in my grandfather’s heart.
And it was here, with skin freckling under the Okanagan summer sun, that I heard stories about the uncle I never knew: a seven-year-old, blond-haired boy with a big grin and leukemia. He was the one who dragged my grandparents to church for the first time, transforming my family’s faith story, and pointing my grandparents to the One who could provide comfort amidst their darkest storm. When the leukemia ran rampant through his little body, there was nothing left to do but bring him home from the hospital and wait for peace.
These family secrets seemed to flow best over the water; my Grandad’s grief unlocked amidst the comforting swoosh of the waves. Floating on our little Styrofoam buoys, he’d tell me the story of Gordy’s passing. It had been summer then, too, and Grandad had been in the kitchen making tea while my grandmother sat in the bedroom beside their sleeping son. She recited Psalm 23 as the sound of rustling wings filled the corner of the ceiling. “Go home to Jesus, Gordy,” she whispered, knowing that it was time. And then he did.
It was easy to see how my grandparents’ faith and lives had been shaped and defined by this moment. Throughout my childhood summers, hours were spent around the breakfast table as we munched on freshly sugared peaches and homemade apricot jam and listened to Grandad read scripture aloud. The sound of his voice mingled with that of the wind blowing through the cottonwood trees and the waves washing against the beach. And each morning, before we were dismissed to play, he’d make us recite the 23 Psalm. This was his legacy of grief to us: the promise that through it all, there is a Good Shepherd tending His sheep. The storms would come, buffeting and bruising, but we’d never be alone.
My husband notices me wading into the lake and swims over, toddler in tow. I am the only one not in a swimsuit; my body is still shedding the remains of my last much wanted but gone-too-soon pregnancy. Together the three of us take the five stones and gently drop them into the water. The smooth pebbles float to the bottom of the lake, nestling themselves amongst slimy, algae-covered rocks. I flip them gently with my toes so that the names face up towards the sunlight, my tears mixing with the lake’s blue depths.
“The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.” I whisper the words into the wind. Over the years, this Psalm has soaked deep into my soul—a legacy of faith from generations before. Like my grandparents before me, I have now walked through the valley of the shadow of death, and like them, I too have been led to the quiet waters.
My handwritten rocks lay at my feet, the names already being worn away by the gentle pull of water. I think about the author of Psalm 23: a shepherd boy who collected his own five smooth stones from the bank of a river, and with them, defeated a giant. I don’t feel strong. I don’t feel brave. But I know what it feels like to face my own giants. It was here in the lake that my grandfather whispered stories of his grief; a decade later, it’s here that I release my own sorrows into its waters.
These stones are my reminders of faithfulness and hope, a declaration of love poured out into tangible action, and an affirmation of these little lives’ existence. Enveloped by the quiet waters, the rocks lie unseen amidst the silt and shadows; hidden but never forgotten. As the lake swirls and crashes against my legs, I am comforted by the knowledge that I have been led here.
In the water, I am reminded that I am not alone.
Guest post written by Liz Mannegren. Liz lives in Vancouver, Canada with her husband and son. She is the mother of six beautiful babies: carrying one in her arms but an extra five in her heart. You can read more of her writing at www.mommymannegren.com or follow along on Instagram.
P.S. If this essay resonated with you, don’t miss our podcast episode on infertility