Sweet and simple, like a picture book from some other time, but I’ve made a devoted practice of turning up my nose at positivity. Doggedly charting and patrolling the boundary lines that denote my private space. Keeping anyone who would tell me to ‘manifest my joy’ out of my space. Not keeping out joy itself—never!—only those people who would insist upon my performance of it. Anti-positive is not pro-negative. Anti-positive is the staying off your feet of heart-convalescence, permission to be as you are. To breathe.
I was your world / And you were so fucking small / And even smaller when you were born / 23 weeks and 5 days / Creases on your hands and soft dark hair just beginning to grow from your sweet head / And I loved you as hard as starlight / As close as the water
I read each memory and realized the depth of love we hold for our children. It doesn't matter how long we held them, whether they died in utero or in NICU, the important thing is that they were loved and still are. A love like that cannot be questioned. It simply is the most beautiful and natural thing in the world.
The love for our children is eternal, existing amidst the fringes of lie and death. Yet the love can never be separated from the pain. To love them is to grieve them, a heavy choice that we have grown to accept. If I can embrace the blissful memory of my son, I will gladly take the pain alongside it—whether an echo, or a shout, his existence is real, and he is loved.
I am one week away from the release of my fourth book—my first for adults, and first non-fiction—NOTES FOR THE EVERLOST: A FIELD GUIDE TO GRIEF. I’m spinning. Nervous-spinning. Beset with twitches and dreams of falling and thick with memories and gratitude. Shambhala, my publisher, worked with me to prep for this busy season, and they said: We know you’re a photographer, and that’s great—how about videos? Readings, excerpts, that kind of thing. Can you do that? Always that same moment, the pause of the bereaved. How much can I say? How warm is this room?
I’ve abandoned most hopes of fitting in with ‘normal’ anything. I still come to Glow seeking the solace of strangers who understand, a refreshing contrast to people who can’t relate (at least, not yet), and to whom I cannot relate either (at least, not anymore). The line that used to feel like a demotion is now a truth I own, believe, and even embrace. You’re right, I’m not one of you.
My younger daughter, Audrey, repeats this narrative nearly every day. Claire is her doll, and Claire was the sister she never met or played with. My heart stops and my breath catches in my throat as she explains to the receptionist behind the counter or the lady at the dog park: "You don't know I have two sisters. One is named Julia, and the other is named Claire but Claire died."
From the day of the positive pregnancy test, my mind switched gears. It switched from aspirations and baby planning to PTSD and sleepless nights. Endless hours of slumber are now lost to staring blankly at the ceiling, wondering if I should give into this new week's set of worries. As my panic progresses into an all-consuming whirlwind, I contemplate tossing myself into triage as the only way to anchor my feet to solid ground.
I am hibernating. In summer, in broad daylight. In the middle of the week, in the throes of work. When the world is buzzing around me like a bee in spring, all I want to be is a neatly-curled squirrel in winter. The world is spinning, and no matter how much we try, it’s still impossible to turn time back or sprint it forward. In the middle of all this, in a thorny cage of prickly ‘aspects’ trying to make me care, I am stuck. I am dumbstruck, even as I gently flap my wings and blink my timeless eyes.
Comfort and companionship is everywhere. People you'd automatically turn to can turn up empty, like a house with all the lights out. Nobody is home. Nobody answers the door even though you know they're inside there, somewhere. You can only walk away. And people you'd never expect to be comfort-giving companions appear in your life mysteriously equipped, regardless of knowing baby death or not. Many do not. Yet there they are, standing with you.
They held hands and promised to meet again to stare at nothing—to share their experiences, stories and memories. In time, their circle grew. Other women joined them, and they built a fire on colder days. None of them had asked to be in this tribe, but they were.
This weather, it strikes me as a metaphor (perhaps a bit of a trite one, but go with it) for babylost parenthood—everything is intense, everything is intensified, and things can turn on a dime at any moment. And it occurs to me that we haven't done a check-in in a while.
My heart pumps bigger on this staging ground not in spite of what I have seen, but because of it. Thanks to it. We exist in a stand of unanswerable questions that would make all the Betsys turn to stone and yet here we are: bruised, yeah. Bit of a temper. But carving it out ourselves, our fortitude. And it's beautiful.
I can’t hide it anymore. There is something in there. Sixteen weeks. Time to turn my frayed emotions on, whether I want to or not. Even if it will hurt me in the end—even if piercing disappointment, crippling trauma, and irreparable loss is all that I have come to expect from pregnancy and motherhood.
Us mortals, we like to fathom. Make sense. Calculate. Depend on. Plan. We accept that being derailed is part of the journey, and getting back on track reinforces the predictability, the reliability of life. But when life just becomes one derailment after another, do you create a different path?
It feels incredibly unsatisfying that it takes but a minute to list the essential facts and stats about him. I remember saying—to the first shrink that we saw after—that he was perfect, but he was dead. I think I want, I need that ‘but’. I don’t want A being dead to count as a part of who he is. Isn’t that why people have such a hard time talking to us about our children, because they intuitively see their deadness as their essence?
I rarely cry when I draw, and I draw all the time. My art resonates with other women and they reach out to tell me about their moments that were so much like mine. We create a shared narrative as we tell each other about our complex feelings and slowly the words start to return. The blank pages get filled.
The day she died, I felt an ache in my heart. It intensified day by day month by month, and year by year it grew stronger. The ache was crippling and I curled up in a ball of hurt from which there was no escape. No amount of medication could ease the hurt. I feel it still, in my heart where she lives.
This is the consolation prize awarded to every bereaved parent: the mind’s ceaseless spinning, conjuring all the myriad ways your baby could die, backed by the hard-won knowledge that it most certainly could happen to anyone at any moment, and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it. Of course, this is a truth universal to all parents. This is why the horror genre has always been so effective: at its core, a thriller is an allegory for raising children in a world where, in truth, we have absolutely zero ability to keep them safe.
Perhaps the bereaved mother reaches a place of unwanted but hard-won power. I’ve generally been a rule follower, a peace keeper. I’ve never had anything I felt the desire to fight for the way I would for Cora. There’s a primal instinct to protect Cora’s legacy, just as I would protect her life. I feel like a rabid animal with my claws out when my motherhood, or Cora’s existence, comes into question. Say something dismissive, and the fuel pours onto my heart’s fire. Tell me I need to move on? I will speak out.
Could it be that I am starting to feel at peace? There will always be something raw about baby loss, a part that doesn’t heal. There is no way around that. But I find that the better I know my grief, and the more I welcome its manifold effects on my life, the less it prevents me from authentically reconnecting to people who live on the surface.
At times, people may think me depressed: I wear my tears with pride, my pain a badge of honor for having known love. At times, people may think me jealous of others: I am no longer naive. I know horrible things can strike us at any moment, and this I do not take for granted. At times, people may think me weak: Yet I rise from the wounds of my past, while they utter that they cannot imagine.
Over the past two months, as I have sat with the thought of my little girl turning five years old, I realized that she is just that—my little girl. She is not symbolic, not abstract, not a purpose or a motivation. She was not a perfect piece of our life’s puzzle, which fit perfectly to make us whole. She was a little girl, a beautiful infant, who did not get to write her own magical story.
I imagine Zia and I talking across a fire. She sits cross legged, smiling, a hot cup of cocoa in her hands. I am enthralled by her presence. I am the student, the listener. I imagine Zia and I hand in hand by the ocean. I look back and see our footprints, one bigger than the other. When I look back, she is gone.
I have my own personal super-reliable never-fail Hulk smash button. It is encountering what might be described as pain policing—telling other people how they should handle their grief and pain. Which—have you noticed?—tends to involve not making things too uncomfortable for the unaffected. I am sure I do not need to list the greatest hits of the babylost universe. Hell, we here can probably do a reasonable rendition of those as a spontaneous choir piece with three-part harmony, set to something immortal like Ave Maria or the Itsy Bitsy Spider.
Some days I prefer the ocean floor. The quiet and the dark and the endless space soothing, instead of terrifying. Looking at the infinite abyss in all directions, there is a peace in knowing that I am very much alone down there, knowing that my actions and inactions can’t hurt anybody else. Better to be chained to the ocean floor, drowning in all that Karma’s accusing me of, than to break the surface and tempt fate.