My Middle Child

By Catherine A. MacKenzie

I was a horrible mother in April 1980 after the birth of my second child, Matthew, the only planned child of my three. I didn’t want to see him; I didn’t want to hold him. Why? Because his name was to have been Melissa.

I hadn’t wanted more children after the birth of my first son, but eight years later, yearning for a daughter, I discovered a book titled, Your Baby’s Sex: Now You Can Choose. The cover heralded: “The new, startling discovery announced in Reader’s Digest” and “The simple home method to help you pick your child’s sex before pregnancy.”

I eagerly purchased the book and memorized the instructions. My then-husband and I followed the formula: particular positions, optimum times of the month, foods to eat and avoid – even specific underwear for the father-to-be. I ate healthier. I planned a natural childbirth and took Lamaze classes. I almost went as far as finding a mid-wife and delivering the baby at home, but thankfully my doctor put the kibosh to that.

I announced to the world I was carrying a girl, even had my family and friends convinced. (This was before sex-revealing ultrasounds.) I crocheted pink and white afghans. I knitted pink sweaters, bonnets and booties, as did my grandmother. I sewed flowery, lacy dresses, and I bought and stuffed drawers with girls’ clothing.

My pregnancy and labor progressed according to plan, the opposite of my first pregnancy when I had screeched at the top of my lungs for three days while in the hospital. But then chaos erupted. The baby was larger than the eight-pound prediction and descending face first. I would not be able to deliver naturally. White-clothed individuals bustled about. Nurses frantically removed my nail polish. Within minutes I was in the operating room, having an emergency C-section.

When I woke, I was told I had birthed a boy. A nurse entered my room, an eight-pound baby in one arm and Matthew, at ten pounds six ounces, in the other. The poor eight-pounder appeared frail and sickly compared to my wide-eyed baby, who looked three months old. “He’s a football player!” the nurse exclaimed.

I was in shock. Angry.

I was also in dire agony.

Within hours, I developed an allergic reaction from the bandages, and sores and pus erupted on my skin from my thighs to my neck. A wire tent contraption, covered with a sheet for privacy, was placed over my naked body so my skin could heal. Apparently my condition was so bizarre that medical students, nurses, and doctors – you name it – lifted the sheet to gawk.

I was depressed, frustrated, sore. I didn’t want to see or hold my son.

I recovered and, of course, I loved and wanted my son. My dreadful disposition after his birth had more to do with the surgery and the aftermath rather than his sex. I’d never had surgery before. I’d never been on display like a circus freak, either.

Eighteen months after Matthew’s birth, without the use of dubious methods, I delivered a girl. Life proceeded. My children matured, married, birthed my grandchildren.

Despite our “awkward” start, Matthew and I formed a special bond. His brother and sister continually teased that he was my favorite, the golden child, a mommy’s boy. He wasn’t my favorite; I love my children equally and would never intentionally favor one over the other. I never considered him a mommy’s boy, either, and he didn’t like the connotation, but he’d sport a sly grin whenever they teased us. So much for middle child syndrome.

And then, in mid-December 2016, an X-ray revealed an unexpected mass on Matt’s heart. In January 2017, we received the cancer diagnosis: a rare heart sarcoma. Nine months to live.

On March 11, he died.

Two months from diagnosis to death.

Losing my son was harrowing and horrid, an experience I never imagined I’d suffer. This wasn’t supposed to happen to him; this wasn’t supposed to happen to me or to my family – those horror stories befall strangers. How could my sweet son, a hearty and healthy thirty-six-year-old, with a zest for life and everything to live for, die?

My children had never had health issues. Loss had never affected my family, nothing above the ordinary. Sure, I lost grandparents and was devastated at my parents’ deaths, but parents predecease children – that’s the natural order of life.

But not in my case.

I sat by my son’s bedside every day, controlling my tears until I returned home. I emailed doctors all over the world in the hopes of discovering a miracle. I located a doctor who implanted a mechanical heart and then a donor heart, which were to have returned his life to normalcy. But my poor son’s body, weakened from too many surgeries too soon, gave out.

All I ever desired was to be a terrific mother, doing as much as I could for my three children while letting them manage life’s difficulties as mature adults. No matter their ages, children look to their parents for guidance, for answers, for protection. But we can’t always save them, a sad fact I learned the hard way.

I mourn every day for my cherubic, blond-haired child, the baby I didn’t want – the adult I so desperately wanted to live. I regret those hours I ignored him after his birth and would give anything to turn back the clock to recapture precious moments, to hug him one last time, to say “I love you” again.

After Matt’s death, I discovered grief varies for every death. Not more; not less.


Everything is different now. My life is different – I’m different.

My wounds still ooze. I can’t imagine them ever scabbing over, but if they do, the scars won’t be reminders. My son will forever exist in my heart, my mind, my soul.

I discovered a grief quote on one of my Facebook bereavement groups. One of the lines resonates with me: “Grief is love with no place to go.”

About this writer

  • Catherine A. MacKenzie

    Catherine A. MacKenzie

    Catherine A. MacKenzie lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where she escapes from her mundane world by writing fiction and poetry. Her first novel, Wolves Don’t Knock, will be published soon. Check out her website:

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3 Responses to “My Middle Child”

  1. Maureen O'Brien says:

    Catherine, you have written a truly beautiful story. And I am sad and sorry for your enormous loss; do take maternal and ‘writerly’ pride in your expression of it.
    I was particularly moved because I too lost one of my 3 wonderful children, my eldest daughter at 35, giving birth to her 3rd child. Healthy and strong like your son. So totally unexpected. Can you offer some FB grief groups? It has been five years, and every day…well, as you say.

  2. Linda O'Connell says:

    Catherine, your emotional well written story brought a tear. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Rose Ann says:

    Thank you for sharing one of the most difficult stories to tell.

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