The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How a grieving orca made ‘ghost mothers’ like me feel visible

Carol Smith with her son at Seattle Children’s Hospital in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit in February of 1987. He was in the ICU for about five weeks. (Family photo)
Carol Smith with her son at Seattle Children’s Hospital in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit in February of 1987. He was in the ICU for about five weeks. (Family photo)

For 17 days, the orca mother carried her dead baby off the coast of Vancouver Island. People around the world watched, transfixed, as she refused to let her calf drop into the Salish Sea, even as its body grew lighter and lighter with each passing day. Sometimes, the calf would slip off as she swam. Then the whale — known as J35 to researchers but Tahlequah to the rest of us — would dive, scoop her baby up and lift it to the surface. When she grew tired, other whales in her pod carried the baby for her.

I work in a Seattle newsroom, and for more than two weeks, we were on a kind of vigil. Orcas are not only a symbol of our state and an indicator of the health of our waters; they are also animals we feel a certain kinship with. Day after day, we discussed what angle to pursue next on the baby orca story.

Sometimes, in news meetings, I had to turn away so people wouldn’t see my face. I am a ghost mother: My only child, Christopher, died unexpectedly when he was 7. Before she disappeared again into the deep, the whale made briefly visible the world I live in every day.

There are few people more invisible on Mother’s Day than a mother who has lost her only child. Every time it rolls around with its glitter cards and cheerful bouquets and celebratory waffle brunches, I go into mourning, not only for my son but for my role as a mother. There is no English word for a parent whose child has died, no equivalent of “widow” or “orphan.” A child’s death is said to be a parent’s greatest fear, so no one wants to admit that children die, perhaps for fear that it will happen to them or invite some curse on their own household. So many times, people have told me, “I don’t even want to imagine . . .” their voices trailing off.

The silence goes both ways. In the early days after Christopher’s death, I stopped saying yes when people asked if I had children. I didn’t join in other parents’ conversations about their kids; my presence made people self-conscious. I stopped saying his name out loud, hoping to avoid questions, because people shrank away from me once they realized he was gone. But this is the thing: He isn’t gone. The child who made me a mother hasn’t disappeared for me. I am still a mother, and I still celebrate being his mom.

My mom was deeply flawed. I miss her every day.

Christopher was born with failing lungs and kidneys, the result of a congenital birth defect. By all accounts, he was not supposed to live longer than Tahlequah’s calf, who died a half-hour after she was born. But he did live, and by the time he came home for the first time five months later, his father and I knew this much about him: He was a stubborn, happy child who could make friends with anyone, even if they came wielding needles to do his daily blood draws. He lived a life of fierceness and joy. Though he was profoundly deaf, he was not silent. He filled our lives with laughter and exuberant sound. We learned language together, bumbling through our early attempts at signing, until we could understand each other. “Same,” he signed on the day he graduated from kindergarten, pointing at me, then at himself.

People say you truly become a mother when you hold your child in your arms for the first time. I say it is when we first learn that mothering will be a long process of letting go. My own reckoning with this came early and abruptly, when Christopher was still an infant in intensive care at Seattle Children’s. One evening, coming back from the hospital cafeteria, I heard an alarm over the loudspeakers about a code, signaling a medical emergency, in the neonatal ICU. I rushed toward the unit. Through the window, I could see a phalanx of yellow gowns huddled over Christopher’s Isolette. When I started to go in, a nurse stopped me at the door. Frantic, I pleaded with her to let me do something, anything. I still clung to the illusion that being his mother conferred some magic power that would allow me to keep him safe from harm. But all I could do was haunt the waiting rooms and hope. His life was his own, and he would lead it separate from mine — a wrenching separation, but an inevitable one.

My letting go continued after his death. For months afterward, I would get in a hand-me-down Subaru and drive aimlessly through Seattle and its outskirts. I drove familiar routes, past where he was born, past the house we lived in when he was a baby. I drove north to Edmonds, where we’d watched the ferries slide across Puget Sound. “Car boat,” he’d sign, hooting in excitement. For many years afterward, I bought toys for him, ones that matched the ages he would have turned. Christopher had loved to sprinkle the plants with his plastic watering can until he, too, was soaked, and on the bottom shelf of my potting bench, I kept a set of children’s gardening tools I’d bought him for his eighth birthday, the first birthday that never came. The year he would have turned 10, I bought a Rubik’s cube. I still sometimes reach for his hand when I cross a street.

The mysterious lives and enduring allure of whales

A whale carrying her dead young is not unusual, though Tahlequah carried hers for an unusually long time. It has been more than 25 years since my son’s death. But my grief is no less heavy for having carried it longer. It’s just that I have found a way to distribute its load, placing it just so on my body until it is a part of me and does not weigh me down. It’s this way for many of us who have lost children. The heaviness builds strength, like lifting weights, until we can shoulder more without collapsing.

But there are things that make it easier to bear, especially on Mother’s Day. I don’t need waffles or bouquets, but I do need to be a mom. It helps when you ask me about my son and use his name. It helps when you let me brag for a moment about how bubbles made him laugh, or how proud he was the first time he hit the ball off a tee. It helps when you remind me that I was a mother and when you talk about all the ways those of us without children, by choice or circumstance, still put mother energy into our lives and work. Don’t be alarmed if your questions bring on tears. Those are tears of gratitude.

I go sometimes to a support group for mothers who have lost children. I don’t always remember all the names of the other women in the group, but I do remember their children’s names, because I hear them so often in the stories that pour out. The group is where I can be Christopher’s mother again, say his name and not fear that people will flee. The former nurse who runs the group refers to us collectively as “the moms.” We are a large and largely unacknowledged tribe — those of us who have lost children — and we carry our young forever.

Last summer, in the midst of the pandemic, news circulated that Tahlequah was pregnant again. Photos of the whale’s baby bump sent a little ripple of joy through our newsroom. Friends and I exchanged excited texts. When she had her new baby a few months later, it made me so happy that I did a little celebratory dance alone in my living room. Because becoming a mother — whether your child is still with you or not — is something to celebrate, no matter what.

Twitter: @clsmith321

Read more from Outlook:

Eye-opening acts of empathy in the animal kingdom

Men also grieve miscarriages. We have no idea what to do about it.

Parenting with a disability makes me feel like an ‘impostor’ as a mother

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