I’ve been wanting to write about this Mom for over two weeks now, but it has been hard to put my thoughts and feelings into words. Tahlequah, also known as J35 to scientists, is a Mama Orca who lost her calf shortly after birth. She became a global phenomenon as the world watched her grieve so openly.
When I first heard of Tahlequah I felt instantly connected to her. I told my husband that I wanted to fly to Seattle to try to be with her. I wanted to climb into the ocean to hold her. To tell her I knew what she was feeling and that she was not alone. She was showing the entire world what I’ve felt inside for last 6.5 months.
I checked daily to see if she was still carrying her calf and to see if she was ok. Ok meaning, still alive, because I don’t think anyone who loses their child is really “ok” in the typical sense. She continued to carry her calf for 17 days and traveled 1,000 miles with her. The female members of her pod started to take turns carrying her calf for her so she could rest and eat. They surrounded her and supported her for over two weeks.
I knew that when she eventually let go of her calf that it would affect me, but I wasn’t entirely sure how. This morning I was waiting for our Starbucks order when I saw the headline, After 17 days and 1,000 miles, mother orca Tahlequah drops her dead calf. I took a quick screenshot to send to my husband as I tried to not break down in Starbucks. Once our drinks were ready I rushed to my car and let the tears out.
Someone recently asked in an online support group that I am in what the hardest moment for each of us has been as it relates to the loss of our child. Many said how quiet their deliveries were as they wanted so badly to hear their child cry. Others said the stillness of their babies. No chests moving up and down. For me, I said, was placing my baby into her coffin knowing I’d never hold or see her again.
For Tahlequah, choosing to let go of her calf, or simply not being able to carry her any longer due to to the physical state of her child’s body, must have been one of the hardest moments for her. As I sat in my car it all rushed over me. I was back at the funeral home laying Estelle down for the last time, but wanting to hold on to her forever. I told Justin and the funeral director that if I could run away with her I would. I watched the funeral director place the top of her casket on and seal it.
I thought about asking him to take it off because I needed more time, but I also knew we had people waiting for us in the chapel. Our circle of support was waiting for us, just as Tahlequah’s pod always waiting for her. Our oldest brothers would come in soon to walk her casket to the front of the room and we’d spend the next 30 minutes talking about her short life and the entire future that was taken from us. When it was over, our other two brothers would walk her out to the car so we could bring her to the cemetery.
At the cemetery, Justin asked if we wanted to stay and watch them lower Estelle into the ground. I said yes. We watched as the machine slowly put her into the ground. Piper would say, “That is my baby sister. Where is my baby sister going?” And we’d continue to watch until her casket reached the bottom of her grave. I imagine that Tahlequah watched her calf slowly drifted away from her. Knowing that she was the only one who felt all of her child’s movements and was the last one to ever touch her child’s skin. Just as I was with Estelle.
Now that Tahlequah is no longer carrying her calf doesn’t mean her grief is over or that the hard part is past her. It doesn’t mean that a weight has lifted now that she is no longer carrying the physical remains of her calf. Instead, it is almost like her journey is just beginning. The longest road is ahead of her, as it is for every mother who has lost a child, as they continue to somehow move forward carry the greatest weight but with the emptiest arms.
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