Katy Bourne

The Day We Lost Everything

POSTED ON January 22, 2011 | POSTED IN: My Blog | 35 Comments

January 22, 1992.

My most vivid memory from that day was of standing completely naked in my living room. The scene around me was frenetic and chaotic, but I remember feeling like I was in slow motion. It was early in the morning, maybe around 5:30am or so. The front door was wide open. It was frigid out and dark. I remember the flashing lights from the firetruck and ambulance in front of the house. I can still see the firemen walking into the house with their heavy coats and crackling radios. (I would learn later that fireman are always first to arrive whenever a 911 call is made, even if there’s not a fire.) My best friend Lisa was grabbing clothes and stuffing them into a bag. I think my mother was helping her. My husband Charlie was doing something in the back of the house. The midwives were speaking to the medics in hushed tones. Everyone was talking about me but nobody was talking to me. I recall that someone, maybe Lisa, wrapped a robe around me. They wouldn’t allow anyone to ride in the ambulance with me. I have a specific memory of asking one of the medics to please stay present with me through the contractions. I remember how the driver hauled ass through the early morning streets. I can still see the team of people waiting for me at Swedish hospital and I can still hear, with excruciating clarity, the words of the attending physician: I am gravely concerned about your baby.

The rest of my memories are in fragments: little vignettes from a story that was at first horrific and then unbearably sad. I remember coming out of the anesthesia. The feeling was like swimming to the surface of black water.  Charlie’s face was the first thing I saw. Before he could say anything, I knew intuitively that my baby was a boy and that he had died. Beyond these, my recollections are like snapshots. I remember the colors and the scents of the flowers that filled my hospital room. I remember the high fevers from the post-delivery infection. I remember the nurse binding my breasts so as to stop the flow of milk. My body was so sick and so confused. I don’t know how many days I was in the hospital. My sister Martha flew in immediately, as did my father. It was the only time I ever saw my father cry.

We are the homebirth horror story. After some 14 or so hours of labor, my midwives were  suddenly unable to detect my baby’s heartbeat. We learned after the fact that our son had been in a footling breach presentation and that his dangling foot had become tangled in the umbilical cord. (Our midwives made some egregious errors. While I am not interested in debating the pros and cons of homebirth, I do believe that if we’d been in the hospital from the start, I would not be writing this post.)  At the hospital, I underwent an emergency C-section. A team of a dozen or more people worked frantically to revive one tiny boy: my son. But he slipped away from all of us. We named him “Zeppo.”  During one particularly nauseous weekend early in the pregnancy, Charlie and I holed up and watched a Marx Brothers film festival on TV. After that, we started calling the little person growing inside of me Zeppo.  After he was born, Charlie felt strongly that we shouldn’t change his name. Zeppo is the name on his birth certificate and it is the name tattooed on my right ankle.

Poppies from Zeppo’s garden.

After I finally got out of the hospital, we had a memorial of sorts at our house. Friends came bearing food, love and packets of seeds of their favorite flowers. When spring came, we planted a sizable garden. I would spend most of the next six months tending the flowers, watering, pulling weeds and nurturing this patch of earth that was to be my salvation. Sometimes when the pain was too much to bear, I would get on my knees, dig my hands into the dirt and literally hang on for dear life.

When Zeppo died, it was my own personal annihilation. Everything I believed in, everything I held to be true and everything I trusted was demolished or at least subject to an extreme reexamination. I was changed on a cellular level. I was left with only questions. The God as I understood it was gone. And of course, there was the grief: a deep, ravaging and unrelenting anguish. Prior to this, I could have never dreamed of an emotional pain so intense. It inhabited my body and, at times, reduced me to nothing more than an animal wailing unintelligibly long into the night. I was drowning. Every day I observed people driving to work and ordering take-out and reading newspapers in cafes. “Normal” was happening all around me, but I was dying. I was a stranger in a strange land. The anger was equally as intense; some days, it consumed me and I feared I would implode. I recall one weekend walking for miles and miles down the Oregon coast, hurling large pieces of driftwood into the water and screaming. It was an epic release of pure rage and I gave it everything I had. It was there by the ocean that I stood on the lip of the universe and flipped God the finger. At points along the way, I teetered precariously on the edge of madness. I seriously contemplated suicide, partly to escape the pain but mostly to see if I could somehow find him. The guilt intensified everything. The sense that our choices caused his death was all-consuming. My saving grace throughout was people, especially Lisa and Martha, who kept constant vigil and held me even though I was shattered into a million pieces. They anchored me to the world. Charlie and I leaned on each other as best we could, but each of us was in our own private hell: raw, decimated and alone together.

Zeppo’s garden

Ultimately, we learned a new way to be in the world. The births of Emmett and Enzo restored a sense of balance to our lives. We found “normal” again and we knew joy. We bought a house. I started singing jazz. We grew our family. We carried on. Things are different now. My father and Lisa are both gone. My father died of pancreatic cancer and Lisa succumbed to pneumococcal meningitis. She woke up feeling fluish one morning and by noon, she was gone. Both of these set me back considerably, but especially Lisa’s. She had only recently begun her own passage into motherhood; her daughter was just under 8-months-old at the time of Lisa’s death. The year after Lisa died, Martha was diagnosed with cancer. I liked to say that cancer messed with the wrong woman. I was right; she’s still here. And finally, three years ago, Charlie and I went our separate ways. I am navigating the next leg of the journey solo.

Zeppo would be nineteen years old today. I still grieve the infant but also the young man that I never got to see blossom. A day doesn’t go by that I don’t think of him. I daydream about who he would have been, what he would have looked like and how he would be in the world. Every year on Zeppo’s birthday, I buy flowers-one for every year old he would be-and take them to the water. I stand by the lake or the sound or wherever I’ve ended up, throw the flowers into the water one by one and talk to my son

This has been an exceptionally long post, and I apologize for that. If you’ve stuck with it this far, then I thank you.  I’m honored. It’s a big story to tell and I’ve never been able to relay it with brevity. But lest this amount to nothing more than a very sad post, I can offer up a few hopeful takeaways:


I came to understand the process of grieving as a force of nature and as such, that it would run its own course in its own time. To me, grief is the surest pathway for maintaining an open heart in the midst of a situation that has the potential to shut us down forever. There are no shortcuts. There is no right or wrong way to grieve. There is only time. Yet in the simple act of surrendering to the process, we can find a kind of grace and a tenderness for all things. We plunge the depths and in doing so, our capacity to touch the suffering of others expands.

The human ability to endure is profound.

This isn’t because we’re particularly brave. It’s because we don’t have a choice. I have a locket with Zeppo’s picture and a strand of his hair inside. I wear it a lot and especially when I am going into situations that are scary or difficult for me. It’s a way I carry him with me and it reminds me that nothing is harder than losing him was. I can survive anything. We all can.


When Zeppo died, our friends and family made a circle around us. Their love was our lifeline. It was clean and palpable and sometimes seemed to create an actual reverberation of sorts when we were gathered together. There were so many acts of kindness and so many people holding us. We were surrounded by unflinching compassion. On the cold, sunny February morning of Zeppo’s memorial, I stood on the front porch and looked up into the infinite blue sky. In that moment, it was if the universe opened up and gave me a glimpse of the big answer. And it was Love. There was no question. No uncertainty. It was the most profound and powerful moment of my life. It doesn’t matter who I am. It doesn’t matter what I do or if I’m successful. It only matters that I love…..that I love fiercely and enormously. That’s really all that any of us are here to do.

“It’s as if we, you and I and others I know, have had to confront despair like a wrestling opponent, and have had to make the choice, a slap away from being pinned, to be happy or not. To make some feeble grasp at destiny or not. To utter weakly into the pit, ‘I matter’ and just get the fuck on with things or not. It’s the whisper of Zeppo. From that tiny breath in the wind comes the question. Out of that lovely spirit emanates the option. He somehow manages, despite the howling storms, to be heard.”

-Jeff Page


35 responses to “The Day We Lost Everything”

  1. Judy Jones says:

    i am so sorry for your loss. your post was beautifully written. i am deeply moved. you are an amazing person. peace..jj

  2. karen says:

    WOW Katie. THanks for sharing that. Beautifully written and heartbreaking. You are amazing. Love and hugs from the streetmans.

  3. Eloise Bradley says:

    Out of the beauty of yourself you said goodbye to Zeppo…yet still hold him close. I read your piece with tear-flooded eyes: for you and Zeppo; for this troubled world that plays at Love but does not understand it. If we only knew…it is all so simple after all.

    Heartrending exzperience, my Katie. Beautiful writing. E.

  4. Allen Bourne says:

    While I remember this time in your life, Katy, your writing here reveals to me some things I did not know or to which I was insensitive. I am thankful you felt comfortable sharing what all you went through and how you have dealt with it so that others can benefit. Love really is the answer. A

  5. Linda says:

    Dear Katy,

    The impressions of Zeppo’s little feet are heart touching. As you know, on Jan 22, 1992, Rick and I lived next door to you and Charlie. I remember being woken up by the commotion in the early morning hours of that day. We saw the red and blue reflections of flashing lights of the fire engine and ambulance. We’d had spoken with you briefly the evening before and knew this going to be the time of Zeppo’s birth. And now as we stared out the front window, we knew something had gone terribly wrong.

    We were there for the memorial service in February. I remember on a sideboard by the front door, the photo of you and Charlie cradling Zeppo and the impressions of his little feet. I remember you had a beautiful blue/purple long dress on and the house was full,
    full of friends and family. I remember you’d asked people to bring seeds in memory of Zeppo.

    That winter was hard I know. I heard you wailing next door some days. I remember that tax time pricked your world of grief. April 14, you told me you were scrambling to get your taxes together.

    Early summer came and you and Charlie designed and dug a large semi-circle garden. The seeds that friends gave you at Zeppo’s memorial turned that semi-circle into a summer of beauty and love for Zeppo and for you and Charlie.

    I’m glad to know that he is with you always to let you know that you can survive anything.

    Lots of love,

  6. Barbie Moyer says:

    A beautiful written post.

  7. […] felt in the United States. On a much more personal level, I had that very same experience after the death of my son. Everything that I’d thought was important- disagreements, goals, struggles, aspirations- didn’t […]

  8. Hilary says:

    This is a brave, brave piece of writing. Not only because you dare to reveal the immeasurable grief that touched your life, but because you allowed that grief to open your heart to life and love, with all their attendant misery, joy, and mystery. I am humbled reading this. Thank you, Katy.

    • admin says:

      Thanks for digging back in the archives, Hilary. And thanks also for your thoughtful comments. We never know what life will throw at us or take away from us. I think Hafiz said it best:

      “Everyone is trudging along
      With as much dignity, courage
      And style

      As they possibly

  9. Kristi says:

    WOW. Your story is beatifully written. It’s amazing what we can go through and still learn, grow and somehow come out stronger.

  10. rick chinn says:


    An amazing story, an even more amazing piece of writing. I am touched and moved! Zeppo lives on!

  11. Jenny Dale says:

    I had read somewhere that you did have 3 sons but know that you always talked about your two and have always been curious about the third but was afraid to ask. Now I know and I am so sorry for your loss, I know it was so many years ago, but I know it hurts like it was yesterday. Thank you so much for sharing this with me and everyone else. I Love You Katy; you are a very Strong woman!!!! <3

    • admin says:

      Thank you for taking the time to read this, Jenny, and also for the kind thoughts. It’s really quite different today than it was when it happened. However, I think of him every day still.

  12. Chris says:

    Dear Katy. Brave, beautiful, and heart breaking. Some of us were there with you. Others privileged to read this are there now, too. All my love, Chris

    • admin says:

      Thanks for the comments, Chris. Can you believe it’s been 21 years? There’s something about that milestone that compelled me to repost this yesterday. Obviously, things are very, very different now. But I still think of him every day and the longing never goes away.

  13. Dina Blade says:

    Dear Katy,
    My deepest heartfelt condolences. Thanks for sharing this story. Sending you love.

    • admin says:

      Thank you, Dina. There was something about the 21 year mark that compelled me to post this. I still think about him every day, wondering and wishing he were here.

  14. Karen Stuhldreher says:

    Katy–I remember when I learned that you had another son who had lived and died before Emmett and Enzo were born. I remember thinking what a remarkably strong woman you are to have endured that loss. It is something that I think about often. As so many have said here, your writing of this is pure and moving and beautifully done. You inspire me to live and to love as best I can. Thank you for that.

  15. admin says:

    Thank you for the kind words, Karen. I miss Zeppo and think about him every day. At 21 years, I wonder what kind of young man he would be. I am happy to say that Emmett & Enzo restored a sense of balance and joy to our lives. But I still think of Zeppo every day.

  16. Amy Lu Keen says:

    This was painful and beautiful to read, Katy — heart-wrenching and heart-warming. We knew one another in High School when my last name was Skaggs. I remember a brash, funny, sweet girl. You grew into a lovely, deep, very dimensional woman. I’m so glad you had a loving family and dear friends during this horrible time, and that you came out the other side still kicking.

  17. […] to pancreatic cancer–the bitch mother of all cancers), my dear friend Lisa, my neighbor David and my son Zeppo all died way too soon. In the case of Lisa and Zeppo, their deaths were sudden and especially […]

  18. Reema says:

    Dear Katy – you are such a vivid writer. I know we’ve talked about this, as a mutual friend of ours recently went through similar heartbreak, but reading this put me there in the moment with you. I’ve told you before, you are one of the strongest, most incredible women I know. You can get through anything – this is proof. xoxo

  19. Mary says:

    It was the saddest day. Listening from 2000 miles away. I felt like I was drowning.

  20. […] (and lyric) from a song by Shawn Colvin– “Steady On.” This mantra worked for me years ago, when my infant son slipped through my waiting fingers, only to brush quickly past this life and on to something greater. These two simple words “steady […]

  21. […] had suicidal ideations but I have only seriously contemplated it once. It was in 1992, after the stillbirth of my first child. Prior to that–even as someone who had suffered from depression–I could not have conceived of […]

  22. […] is the ultimate exercise in non-attachment. I learned that immediately, on my first day as a mom. As wrenching as it may be, be prepared to let go completely. More than likely, it’s […]

  23. […] very first lesson I learned as a mother was that there would be great sadness sometimes. I also experienced a harsh reminder of the nature of impermanence. These lessons are […]

  24. […] go viral (Thank you, Richard Sherman), a few that have generated a fair amount of engagement and one that gets a handful of hits every single day. Interestingly, the posts that seem to get the most […]

  25. […] to have answers, only observations. I’m simply a fellow traveler who has navigated her share of darkness and survived with grit, heart and humor miraculously intact. So, when things get […]

  26. […] the bullshit” and focusing on what is real for him. I too have experienced that clarity. When my baby died, almost 25 years ago, I was stripped completely. I’ve never been more devastatingly vulnerable, […]

  27. […] never get over. You just learn to live with whatever it is. I think about Zeppo every day. Still. Losing him changed me […]

  28. Wally says:

    I read this every year on January 22 and I cry every time. Love you, my friend.

  29. […] years ago, my first child was stillborn as result of an umbilical cord accident. I was forever changed by his death, and the experience of […]

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Katy Bourne is a Jazz Singer and Writer.