To those who ask the number of children Michelle Wilbur has, she tells them seven.
On Aug. 26, 2017 Michelle gave birth prematurely to one-pound fraternal twins.
The next day her son Jackson, the younger of the two by one minute, died in the newborn intensive care unit at Crouse Hospital, the result of burst lungs.
Tobie, the other twin, spent the ensuing five months in Crouse before being released for two weeks and then airlifted to Upstate University Hospital, where he stayed until this past December. Doctors performed three separate brain surgeries on Tobie. In addition to experiencing several strokes and impaired vision, he had developed hydrocephalus, a build-up of excess fluid in the brain’s ventricles.
“He was not supposed to survive,” Michelle said.
Along the way, in March of last year, Michelle’s mother fell into a coma and soon after lost her roughly 20-year battle with liver disease.
During that stretch, Michelle and her family split time between their current home in Fayetteville, their former home in Massena and the Ronald McDonald House Charities.
A 37-year-old single mother, Michelle also raises her daughter Gretchen, son West and adopted identical twins Natalie and Corinne. Her eldest daughter, Marissa, is currently away at college.
Michelle, who previously served on the board of directors for the Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York, now looks after her children full-time.
“Right now, I’m just kind of taking it day by day,” Michelle said. “I like to have things well-set, and they’re not, and I’m having to live trusting each day is going to be okay, and the next day is going to be okay.”
As a form of healing, Michelle manages to set aside several hours a week for writing letters to Jackson and her mother, all of them labelled with the destination “Heaven.” She began this practice the September immediately following her son’s death.
“It was just natural for me to start writing,” Michelle said. “For me to be able to write to them makes me feel like they’re still here.”
She also puts a return address on the ones sent to her son, whom she affectionately calls “Jack.”
“It sounds weird, but I always thought, at least he’d know where to come back,” Michelle said.
Situating herself in the parlor of her Fayetteville residence, she writes about how much she misses her departed loved ones and inquires into their well-being. Sometimes she’ll share parts of her day. Other times she’ll question life.
Her letters, written in cursive, range in length from half a sheet of paper to multiple pages. Depending on the week, she’ll finish two or three letters to Jackson and at least one to her mother. Her middle children also write letters when they can.
Starting late last year, the post office started returning the Michelle family’s letters, each one deemed undeliverable for containing an improper mailing address.
Michelle, who belongs to East Side Moms of Syracuse on Facebook, posted on the group’s wall in early November explaining her situation.
She asked if anoyne knew Heaven’s address, never imagining she would really get an answer.
One woman suggested Michelle mail her letters to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. Another member sent her two international stamps.
The very next day, in the check-out line at a local T.J. Maxx, Mindy Epstein of the Fayetteville area overheard Michelle conversing with Natalie about their situation and the idea of mailing the letters to the Wailing Wall. Epstein mentioned she herself had lost a child and that her son Ryan was heading to Jerusalem for a 10-day Hebrew school field trip this month.
“Life is so weirdly intertwined,” Michelle said. “There’s not just happenstance.”
Upon speaking with Ryan, Mindy messaged Michelle that her son would personally deliver her entire collection of letters to the Wailing Wall, effectively saving her hundreds of dollars.
“It’s very emotional for me,” Michelle said. “That her son was willing to take my letters was amazing. I was completely flabbergasted.”
Michelle said the gesture restored her faith in humanity, calling it “selfless.”
“It’s one of those things that I just kinda marvel at that it happened,” David Hinshaw, Epstein’s husband, said.
Using the international stamps gifted to her, Michelle mailed one letter written to her son and one to her mother. She gathered together the hundred or so remaining letters, sealed them in envelopes and handed them over in March.
“It was very hard for me to let go of those letters,” Michelle said. “There’s something very personal about turning over your thoughts.”
Michelle said she doesn’t know anyone else embarking on a trip to Jerusalem anytime soon. Regardless, she said she will continue writing letters.
“I’ll have to buy stock in international stamps now,” she said.
Aside from the letters she writes, Michelle channels her energy through painting nature scenes. She has further coped with Jackson’s passing by setting out a basket for him on Easter and filling his stocking for Christmas.
“It’s really hard to explain the loss of a child,” Michelle said.
Her own mother lost a son, Brian, suddenly and without explanation when he was four months old. Michelle said the last conversation she had with her mother, which took place last fall in a Canton park, concerned the connection between Jackson and Brian.
“In some aspects she helped me to understand how to grieve Jackson but also how to live still with the children that I have,” Michelle said. “I know people have different views on what Heaven is, and for me, it’s very comforting just to think about my mom and son together.”
This story was originally published in The Eagle Bulletin.