I hate using the word "fortune" when it comes to this subject, but I perchance mentioned in print that I wanted to review Elizabeth McCracken's memoir, An Exact Replica of a Figment of my Imagination, and lo, the Fucked-Up-Book-of-the-Month Club Fairy Godperson sent me a copy to review.
And then everyone -- I mean everyone -- reviewed it, and loved it, and what in heck is there left for me to say? And I blurt out somewhere, I wish I could just interview her and ask her some questions!
And lo, an email from Elizabeth arrives in my inbox. Would I like to interview her regarding the book? Would I!!
I realized a few pages into An Exact Replica, a recollection of Elizabeth's pregnancy with and stillbirth of her son Pudding, that I couldn't really "review" it. I devoured it, like I would anyone's story, like I would a blog, and I didn't have criticisms per se, but questions. Was her story of Pudding's death -- at term and in a foreign country -- beautiful and funny and poignant and gripping? Yes to all, a thousand times over. McCracken is a fiction writer by profession, after all. But for me it was a familiar story, one I knew the contours of already, and I longed to let her know what her exact words percolated in me, and to explore some of the frayed edges that I didn't understand completely.
Look at presumptuous me, so used to this damn blog thing that I think I can hang with a published novelist! Following is a conversation I had with Elizabeth about writing her book, Pudding, Gus, reviewers, and her dreamy set of friends. She as, as you'll see, as witty and poetic in email as she is on paper between two hard covers.
I read her book as I would a blog. And so I started there, with the reason I had questions -- both about what exactly it was she meant, and (rather selfishly) how what Elizabeth said might apply to, oh, me for instance. Spoiler Alert: Seems funny to warn you regarding a book about a stillbirth where I presume you know what happens, but I do ask rather specific questions about the book's structure, and some specific questions about topics and moments she raises.
I'm curious, did you go online at all to search for similar stories and/or find support after Pudding's death?
I honestly can't remember when I went online after Pudding died--not soon, and the timing was strange. We were in England right after with dial-up internet access, and besides I don't think I was ready. By the time we got back to the US, I was pregnant again--like, I found out the day we moved into our new house--and then I really wasn't ready. Really, I think I basically cryogenically froze my whole mourning process for nine months as much as I could, which is why I ended up writing a book-length object three weeks after Gus was born. Except writing that I think I found Niobe's blog while I was still pregnant. In fact, I'm sure I did. & I don't know how--if I was googling symptoms or science and it came up. & I read it and kept reading it. & strangely it was comforting because it was A. so well-written and B. because her reactions seemed so different to mine.
But now I like to read stories and I really, really, really like to know the names of other lost children. A bit of an obsession of mine. I think it's because while on the one hand I know there's nothing you can do for a dead child, I also think that, as the mother of a dead child myself, it's somehow my duty to think of those children. Someone warned me that if I published the book I would get every sad story in the world sent to me. So far it's been mothers of dead children, and I am grateful (a strange word, but it's the right one) every time.
One reason I was interested in whether you had been online or not was the structure of your memoir. I guess since I'm so used to reading blogs I had zero problem with how your book moved around chronologically, forward, backward, present, back again around "the great divide" between "then" and "now." (Tiny little one page chapter? Fine with me.) I've read so many blogs where people wait a few entries to get the crux of the story out, or wait until the year anniversary to go through the details, or sometimes it just comes out in dribbles here and there when they're talking about something else entirely. There are others where frankly I still don't know the details, and I wondered while reading your book if you would be one to keep those hours close to the vest or perhaps buried.
Was the structure of your book purposeful, or did it just come out that way -- with the actual story of The Ultrasound and the stillbirth at the end -- rather than, say, at the beginning, or even in the middle? Did you or your editor/publisher foresee any problems with this organization or did it seem to make perfect sense? In other words, why did you lay out the story the way you did?
[I]t just came out that way. The funny thing is that I always want to play around with time in my fiction (I'm mostly a novelist) and I can never quite manage it. I would love to come up with some high-minded artistic reason for why this book came out that way, but the fact is (and any writer who has a blog--ugh, I'm trying to avoid the ugly word "blogger" because I love the medium and hate the word) that it was just life. Sleep-deprivation, mostly. I started writing when Gus, my second son, was three weeks old. I wrote the whole thing in about three weeks. I didn't know what I was writing. I just wrote because I had to. I was sleep deprived, I was griefstruck and lovestruck at the exact same time, and I was trying to sort things out. The chapters are funny shapes because sometimes Gus was asleep and sometimes he was nursing and sometimes I had to fall asleep. What came out was book-shaped because I write books. But I imagine it's really not all that different from blog-keeping.
Also very much like blogging: once I actually thought about publishing the thing, I decided that I would not do a lot of revising. I don't need to tell you: what you write one month is not what you'd write the next month, or the next year. That's what kept me writing (again, I'm sure this is familiar). I wanted to hold onto what I felt then, when I felt the equal weight of both boys across my lap. I didn't want to erase those feelings through revising, or summing up. (Indeed, there's a line in the book that came out of a conversation I had with an editor who'd read the book and said that she thought that readers would want some sense of closure. I said, "You know, if there's one thing I'm certain about now, it's that closure is bullshit." About fifteen minutes after I hung up I added that sentiment to the manuscript.)
So I held onto the details of my first son's death and then birth because I wasn't ready for them yet, because they were what I was writing up to. I think if I'd discovered that I couldn't really write about those days, I probably would have put the manuscript away in the drawer. But it was writing everything that led up to it that allowed me to understand things, and then let me write about the worst days. (They still do seem like the worst days, though I know for a lot of people what comes afterwards is even worse.) Again, I imagine this is exactly the same motivation that other writers have, even if what they're writing is a blog, and not a book.
When I was done with the book, I gave it to my husband to read, and then I sent it to my agent, who is also a good friend of mine. I didn't even tell my friends I was writing it. And I said to Henry, my agent, "Listen: I wrote this thing. If you think that it might be publishable, will you tell me? If it needs a lot of work, just tell me, no hard feelings, and I'll put it aside. I've got what I wanted out of writing it, but I'm not up for enormous fiddly work with it." This wasn't something I could ask of my other friends: Hey, I've written a book about my dead baby. Um, could you tell me whether I should keep it or toss it out? But I knew Henry would be honest in his very kind way. He said that he was all for the details of the death and birth at the end, but I should add about two sentences that would suggest that I'd get around to talking about them in some form. So I did.
What was your intended audience for this book? Was it purely therapeutic? Were you hoping to connect with other babyloss mamas? (And what term do YOU prefer, by the way?) Were you hoping to educate people who might know about you and your work already about a topic (stillbirth; grief; grieving the loss of a child) that they might not otherwise care to hear about?
I don't mean to be disingenuous about audience. Clearly I wasn't writing it entirely for my own benefit. I was trying to write pretty sentences, for instance (though trying to write pretty sentences is one of my forms of therapy). But the audience in my head was distant and abstract and kindly, maybe a sort of imagined grown-up Pudding in the ether. Early on a friend made it sound as though she thought the only real audience for the book WAS other women who'd lost children. (About vocabulary: I don't mind the adjective "stillborn." I stumble over the noun "stillbirth," which somehow feels dehumanizing to me. The phrase, "She suffered a stillbirth" drives me nuts. "Mothers of lost children" is what I usually land on.) Anyhow, I was stumped by this notion, maybe because it took me a while to be hungry for other women's stories. After Pudding had died but before he'd been delivered, a friend told me that The New Yorker had published an essay by the father of a stillborn child. I am very grateful to the author, David Raeburn, because the essay meant that people had some fresh notion of what I was going through. But I couldn't read it myself: at that moment I wanted my own pain, not someone else's. Soon enough--like a week or two later--I was ridiculously grateful to hear about other women who'd lost children. But I still wasn't ready to hear stories, for some reason, and I wasn't until Gus was born. At first I was too self-absorbed, and then I was pregnant again and, like I said, sort of cryogenically frozen when it came to any thoughts about birth at all.
I never have really read that essay, though I have squinted at it, and it was like reviewing the accident report of someone who'd been through a terrible crash something like my own. & now I so associate it with sitting in the hospital in Bordeaux, I can't imagine reading it. So at first I thought, No woman who's been through this will be the least interested in this book. They have their stories, so they don't need mine. This is a book for people who haven't been through it.
I realized that I was wrong when I started reading blogs and death stories and birth stories and felt the same thing you mention--I wanted to see how other women's stories were like mine and not like mine, and I wanted to figure out what that meant. & since the book's been out I've gotten beautiful letters from women who've lost babies. (And from people who haven't, too.) Did I say this? I was warned by some people that I would get letters filled with other people's sad stories. & they were right, but it turns out I really need those stories. They mean the world to me now.
But I really don't think I thought about that while I was writing. That was a concern of publication, which as far as this book goes was completely separate from the actual writing. Which is interesting to me because again, that's what I strive for in my fiction, but never quite achieve. I didn't know whether I was just taking notes for a novel, or notes for Gus later in life, or whether I was just doing what I imagine people in therapy doing, converting terrifying emotions into language and getting them out of my body. I wrote about things and felt better almost instantly. Not, you know, over it, but at ease with my worst suspicions about my interior life. Before I wrote, I worried that I was being selfish or morbid or betraying both children at once. I felt like I was doing everything wrong. Converting those worries into sentences made me see--the way reading other people's stories did, too--that my responses were actually appropriate and reasonable, considering what had happened. Writing the book felt very intimate, private, and lovely. I can't remember if I said this--about three fourths of the way through, I told my husband I was writing it. When I got to the end, I told Henry, my agent. Not until he had read it did I tell anyone else, including my closest writing friends. I don't think I could have written it otherwise.
You said you wrote this not much more than a year beyond Pudding's death, right after the birth of Gus. Has anything changed (for better or worse) in your life or your thoughts so much that you wish you could change what you wrote? If another edition was forthcoming, would you write a different introduction? Add or subtract a chapter? I understand the idea of "capturing the moment," but a book really solidifies that moment much more than a journal or blog. And this journey is nothing if not a collection of wild and sometimes wildly contradictory moments. There's room in a blog, for example, to say a few months later, "Well, you know that relative I adored? Now not so much." Or conversely, to say "Wow, you know that bitterness I raved about? I'm not feeling it so much these days. I actually enjoyed something today."
The question of what I would have put in/taken out is interesting. I did in fact revise a little, rewrote some sentences, added a section about a trip to New Orleans Edward and I took when I was pregnant the second time. I took out a couple of ranting paragraphs where I carped about well-meaning but dumb things people said. EG, "Never mind, you'll have another! You won't get off that easy!" I never experienced any real cruelty, or any deeply stupid reactions. Just a few people blurting out things, and as someone who has blurted in the past I decided it was unfair to put it in print; I think if it were online I wouldn't have hesitated, I would have vented. (It's interesting that we each think we might be more likely to vent in the other person's usual medium.) I deliberated over whether to include the one old friend I was furious at (but left her in, because I don't think she wasn't well-meaning). One of my friends said she thought I was too easy on some people, but I felt like if I started examining who I was mad at I might talk myself into psychic corners and make myself more miserable.
Two big things I wish were different in the book:
We lived in France during my first pregnancy, first in Paris, and then the countryside near Bergerac, so I had to switch doctors. (I wasn't pregnant when we made the decision to move & signed the lease.) Then I left the second doctor for a midwife who delivered in a hospital in Bordeaux. I left for a lot of reasons--and figured in an emergency, a hospital in Bordeaux, a real city, was a better place than the podunk place in Bergerac--but before I did, I had a long, long conversation with the doctor husband of one of my best friends, a GP who's delivered hundreds of babies. What's your best advice, I asked. He said that hospitals and birth were a recent phenomenon. Do you know, he asked, the first US president born in a hospital? Jimmy Carter! (This fact is etched in my brain.) He told me that the US overmedicalizes birth and makes mothers-to-be too anxious. In the absence of any complications--my only complication was that I was 39--he would advise going with what made me feel comfortable, what made sense to me. He saw nothing wrong with a home birth. I was staring out the back window of the weird old farmhouse/single mother's home we were renting at this beautiful hill studded with cows while I was on the phone with him, thinking about Jimmy Carter and comfort.
Such a calming, lovely conversation. I decided I'd rather be in a hospital (the nearest hospital was apparently no great shakes, and not all that close, and I was getting maternally geriatric) but happily dumped the doctor.
But when I came to that point in the book, I couldn't write up the conversation. I couldn't digest it. Every piece of advice he gave me was absolutely accurate and I didn't and don't blame him for giving me the opinion I'd requested. It just turned out not to apply to me. As I wrote, I kept thinking about the conversation sideways but never straight on, and so I just skipped it. It's really only now--I mean, now that I'm typing this to you--that I can see the real problem, which is that before that moment I was full of the usual anxieties of pregnancy, an average neurotic middle-aged American woman in a strange place, terrified of making the wrong decision. From that point on, I was cheerful, full of hope, reassured. My shoulders went down. I relaxed. Goddammit.
Anyhow--flash forward, the book comes out, and one review refers to me "bouncing around from doctor to doctor," and another one refers to my choosing a midwife as a "fateful" decision, and I really wish I had made it clear that I sought actual medical advice. I probably will change that for the paperback--that is, I'll write a sentence or two.
Another thing: there's a line late on where I wonder whether I think about Pudding every waking hour and I conclude, "Probably." Now I think, Yes, of course I do. He's just always with me. I think I wrote that sentence out of a combination of sleep deprivation--I was agonizingly aware of every single thought that came stumbling into my brain--and guilt. Surely with such a nice little boy healthy in front of me, it was selfish to be thinking about the boy who wasn't. I felt like I couldn't quite admit to thinking about my first child so much. Which seems idiotic to me now, especially since I'd written an entire book about the first child.
& I had no idea that in the US they no longer give out the medicine to dry up milk; I would have mentioned that. There I was in a French hospital; they gave me some pills; I took them, and they worked. I never had to deal with my milk coming in. I can't imagine it. So maybe that needs half a sentence, too, since I don't want people jumping to the same conclusion that I did, that no woman need go through such a thing. I learned I was wrong from Julia's blog, I Won't Fear Love.
I find this fascinating (from a very macabre perspective, I know) because my background is history, and women's history, and it's been drilled into me from early on that childbirth was the leading cause of death for women in this country until well into the 20th century. (Jimmy Carter may be the first president born in a hospital, but now I'm curious as to how many of their mothers and daughters died in childbirth.) So I have no romantic preconceptions about childbirth (much like I imagine men don't have romantic preconceptions about swigging a few shots of whiskey, biting a bullet, and having a limb amputated with a tree saw) and couldn't see myself in ANY situation other than a highly medicalized (is that a word?) one.
But fat lot of good that did me. I took advantage of every test, every last thing known to us now, and birthed in a highly respected hospital down the street from the nation's top children's hospital. I'm grateful for this, because like I've written, even if they uncovered no answers, I rest easy knowing they did everything possible, and we all received the best care.
And yet, like you, I feel I approach this background rather sideways but with some visceral need to bring it up -- I don't want people writing of my child's death as though *I* missed something or could've done something different or didn't avail myself of the technology or -- from the neighborhood I live in now where homebirth is the norm -- the smug looks that seem to say to me, "see where THAT got you? At least you might've enjoyed yourself." But I'm very defensive about it -- about my care. I think we all are, regardless of what that care was. To me it's been a necessary factor in being able to look through the rear-view mirror and absolve myself of guilt.
I guess what I'm trying to say is: I would've chosen differently for very different reasons, and yet I sympathize and understand your point entirely. Funny thing, that.
Well of course the funny thing is: I never would have gone with a midwife without a medical doctor's endorsement.
The New York Times review of my book made me insane, and not just because it was written by someone I kind of know who should have recused herself. The last time I e-mailed with this woman, I was 8 months pregnant for the first time, and she was 7 months pregnant. She mentions in the first paragraph of the review that her first child "stopped kicking" on her due date (leading some people I know to assume her child died, too; I think she even got a condolence card), and she's the one who called my decision to go with a midwife "fateful." I felt like the subtext of the review was, "I, the smart reviewer, had trouble and so went to see a doctor and so even though I had a traumatic experience, my kid was fine. The dumb author of this book, on the other hand..." So even though the review was mostly positive and people come up and congratulate me on it, all I can do is grit my teeth and wish I could punch the reviewer in the nose. & I'm happy to go on record as saying so.
She also felt like I was being too polite in not blaming a midwife who did, it's true, make a pretty bad decision in sending me home to "relax" for a few hours (very French, that). But I made a decision, really within minutes of knowing my child was dead, that I couldn't blame her, because then I would end up blaming myself more than I did already. I could blame nobody or everybody. It was like a switch that I flipped in my head. I understand that this is one of my emotional peculiarities, that I'm able to do it, just as I'm aware that the fact that other people's babies didn't bother me in the months after my baby died is also just part of my psychic constitution. These days, every now and then my brain hits a pothole: I think of a brand new moment when, had I made a different decision, I might have changed everything (for example, we decided to move to the country to save money when I was upset after a novel I wrote fell apart; just two months ago I realized if only I'd done a better job with that book, we would have stayed in Paris with the American doctor who wanted to induce me...). When this happens, I get highly distraught, and then preoccupied and mopey for two days, and then I can flip the switch again and tell myself that there's no point.
Which is to say: it makes me crazy, too, when I feel like someone is going over what I did wrong. What they're looking for, of course, is evidence of their own luck and safety. I'm sure I did such things too, Before.
Well, that's a supremely unhelpful thing to say. I wish I could point that reviewer -- who I'm sure thinks that by reading your experience that she's now free from this tragedy simiply because she'll make better choices -- to a few writers who had extremely monitored pregnancies who still wound up with dead children. Wonder if she'd still find a find a point of difference ("a fateful decision"). I haven't read that review yet, but it sounds as though she missed your discussion of Maud, who drank copiously during her pregnancy (which paralleled yours). She clearly missed the part about how in addition to guilt, babyloss mothers grapple mightily with cosmic questions of luck and fate. Circumstances be damned.
Which leads me to my next question: In the book you speak of only one lost relationship in the aftermath. Which I find . . . amazing. (My jaw may have dropped.) It seems people whose social lives are untouched are exceptions to the rule, and most women find their social circles change rather drastically and not infrequently there's a dramatic falling out with friends or family members. So my question is, has this situation changed since the writing of the book? You said this book was going to be your calling card (and might I add, I've often wanted a t-shirt that reads "My Baby Died"), but has it gone too far with anyone? Has anyone accused you of wallowing by publishing? Wondered why you did this, why you spent so much time -- especially given that Gus was there when you wrote it? Misread your subsequent pregnancy and child as the happy ending that negated the entire subject of Pudding? (Or are your friends and family the stuff of fairy tales, and can I meet them?)
Well, one of the other things I didn't know when I was writing the book is how awful people can be to parents who've lost babies. I knew about the silence and I knew about awkwardness, but what I've heard what other mothers and fathers of dead babies have gone through--my God.
But maybe it's just this: my friends were extraordinary, but what was out of a fairy tale was my ability to go underground. We went to a small town on the coast of England & I scarcely had to see anyone for four months after my son's death. That was huge. For some people, I know, this would sound awful, but it was exactly what I needed. So while I was at my most vulnerable (not, of course, that I'm invulnerable now) and people were at their most clueless (not that they're always clueful), I didn't need to see them. I didn't have to go back to work. I didn't have to see all the people who had seen me pregnant. My only responsibilities, really, were to Edward and to my grief. I was not "better" when I emerged but certainly people, less frightened by my possible explosiveness, were by and large less awkward.
Nobody ever said to me, "It just wasn't meant to be." Or, "God wanted your child for an angel." Or, "God has his reasons." A friend of mine who lost her first child last year told me that she asked her grandmother, who'd lost her second child, for help, and her grandmother said, "Heaven is happier with babies." Nobody said, "Well, you were kind of old to have a baby."
I have one beloved friend who wasn't awful when Pudding died but was hugely awkward, and I sort of thought, Well, I'll never feel close to her again. And then when she read part of the book in a magazine in August, she wrote me the most beautiful and heartfelt e-mail (I was in Scotland, and that was the only way to get ahold of me). She apologized for her awkwardness and said, She hadn't known what to do, and that she wanted me to know that the saddest day of my life was also the saddest day of hers. She said it had felt inappropriate to her, to feel so sad. And then she talked about me and Pudding--it was an amazing note. I cried when I read it. It was as though I hadn't realized that I still needed that kind of condolence, and somehow it had been set aside for me, waiting, as intense and fond and loving as it would have been in April and May of 2006, and I did still need it.
& there's one friend--not tremendously close--with whom I corresponded a while after Pudding died. She'd had a daughter a month before, after a very, very complicated pregnancy and a long complicated fertility journey. I think she'd had two miscarriages. We'd been e-mailing while pregnant, and continued to afterwards. She wrote me a really unthinking e-mail over the summer (about how she'd never seen her partner happier in all the time they'd been together), and I stopped e-mailing her because it got under my skin; then I sent her a group e-mail when Gus was born. At which point she sent me an e-mail that said, "That's great! Does that mean I can send you these pictures of [her kid] that I've really wanted to but haven't been able to?" & then sent them before I could say, "Well, you know..." It included pictures of her daughter's first birthday party from the month before. So I've never written HER back--speaking of people who assume that the healthy birth of the second erases the death of the first.
But honestly I have not had the horrible, horrible things I've heard about. On the other hand, my family generally plays things pretty close to the vest--sorrow, joy, etc.
Someone did once say to us, when he found out that I'd written a book, "Life is for the living. What about Gus? What will he think?" And Edward said immediately, "I hope he'll see how much he was longed for and how much he was loved. And that his parents wouldn't lie to him."
And so we won't. Maybe the book's partly so I don't chicken out, but I've since spoken to people who have found out as grown-ups that they had a sibling they never met, and it's hard for them in a different way than always knowing would be. I don't want to lie to him the exact same amount I don't want to make my first kid disappear, so that decides it. We don't have pictures, so it will be a matter of telling him. But we don't know when or how.
I was also curious, because you didn't say in the book, if you did anything to mark or acknowledge Pudding's "birthday" (or the day you learned of his death) or if you will in the future. I know it came close (too close, perhaps) to Gus' birth, and that may have tempered anything you may have wanted to do.
We didn't do anything to mark the first anniversary of Pudding's death or of his birth other than huddle on the sofa and feel paranoid. I like to pretend that I am no longer a superstitious person, and certainly I've given a lot of them up, but some part of my reptilian brain thinks, If only I hold very still, if I don't call attention to myself in any way, then danger will pass over me. I don't think it was a conscious decision to not tempt the Evil Eye, but. Some people sent flowers, which I hadn't been expecting but which I was very grateful for.
And on the end of that subject, what has Gus' pregnancy/success given you? My friend C. at My Resurfacing admitted that she was a bit reluctant to read your book knowing you had a subsequent successful pregnancy -- and I'll confess I was a bit a too. She notes, and I concur, that you don't romanticize it, nor does it negate the individual who died preceding it (as we well know from others in our corner of the blogverse). However, it seems to me there's a sort of mental restoration or correction that comes from a subsequent success. One, I might add, that some of us reading your book will never get to know. You speak of talking about another child immediately following Pudding's death, and that idea being your "towline" and "believing in the future." I hate to ask counterfactual stuff along the lines of "what if Gus hadn't happened," but could you answer more in the affirmative -- did Gus' pregnancy/life give you back your ability to plan a future? What did this success give you?
As far as wondering what life would be like without Gus--well, that feels as dangerous to me as wondering how life would be different if I hadn't left Paris, or the United States, or if having insisted on seeing the midwife in the morning I'd insisted she send me immediately to the hospital, when my first child was still alive. But I will say: having great joy come after great sorrow is easier on the heart than the other way around. No doubt in my mind. It doesn't make the sorrow or the loss less, I want to say quickly, but--well, easier on the heart is the only way I can think of it. A happier second marriage, security after wretched poverty. It doesn't matter. Better to have your sorrow mitigated by joy than your joy rearranged by sorrow.
But as we said earlier, every little difference in biography changes the whole story. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to be a mother of a little baby and not absolutely obsessed with death. I'll never know. On the other hand, I also will never know what it's like to try to tend to one child while in the worst throes of mourning another; I will never know what it's like to look at two children, one born Before and one born After and wonder what kind of difference that makes; I will never have to wonder what that sense of restoration, of feeling that the universe has bent back in favor to me, feels like.
Still, Gus is not a happy ending. It feels disrespectful to both my boys to consider him an ending of any kind. I'm still lousy at thinking about the future. I suppose one of the profoundest changes in myself since Pudding died is that I have completely lost the ability to be comforted by statistics. This may not sound like much but for someone who's resolutely agnostic it feels as serious as a believer losing faith in God: that thing that convinced me that I was safe and protected from the calamities of the universe--gone. And will never come back, I don't think.
... This question woke me up at 2AM. I kept coming close to it--of course it belongs in the list of things I'll never know. I started writing, "I'll never know what it's like to be left with no children living," but I looked at that sentence and thought, Well, there's no guaranteeing that, evil eye, etc., etc. I don't know. I can't turn around and look at myself and imagine not having had Gus, but I can think about women who have lost their first children and then never had another living child and feel the deepest--I wish there were a better word than deep to go with sympathy--the most enormous sympathy, and I can hope that as slow as their path is to a life that is mixed grief and happiness as opposed to only grief they somehow find that slow path. I do think that if I had never had any children at all, I would have been perfectly happy--a different kind of happiness, of course. But to have lost Pudding, and then not to have Gus? Or to have lost the first, and then the second? I don't know. I don't know.
You decided not to do any testing in your second pregnancy. And from what I gather, this choice had more to do with amnio risks than anything, but I remember a few sentences there too about other factors as to letting this particular screen go. I know many, many other mothers who made the same choice the subsequent pregnancy: no amnio, no gender determination. Part I'm sure is a defensive mechanism to put some distance between you and the child, but I'm wondering . . . . what else?
With Gus both my husband and I both felt--we really didn't even have to discuss it--that whatever we could do differently this time, we would. We were in a different country, different doctor, different everything; I think feeling like we were putting a single foot in a similar old footprint seemed too much. I did have an amnio with Pudding, and it came back absolutely ordinary; we did find out his gender. My second really was the one-day-at-a-time pregnancy. Knowing gender would have been thinking about the future. I didn't want to think about the future, because look where it had gotten me. The practice I went to was half doctors, half midwives, and I had to see a midwife once, and then made it clear I didn't want to see one ever again. I wanted DOCTORS. I wanted possibly awkward, emotionless, highly-degreed DOCTORS.
I do feel like that--no matter the universals--every little change in our stories makes our reactions different (and interesting). It seems so different to me (and harder, at least considering the kid I do now have) to have had a living child already, and so different to me (and harder) to have a child born living who then dies. Our anxieties land in different spots at the very least. I was remarkably unanxious about Gus's birth itself, because giving birth the first time was tremendously sad, but not full of anxiety: When Gus was born with the cord around his neck, I was kind of stunned that I hadn't even thought to worry about birth complications. What did I know? My first experience held no surprises at all.
Was the decision not have photographs taken yours or the hospital's? (Was it made available?) Are you ok with this now?
They did offer us the chance to take a photograph, and we said no, and I have never once regretted it. You were talking about how you'd want every test in the world if you got pregnant again, and how that might make you unusual among women who'd lost a child; someone told me that my absolute peace over a lack of photos was unusual. I feel like my brain has done a better job than a photo possibly could have, even though I always hear that faces fade from memory. I've retained my motherly focus on his face, not a photographic one, and that's what I want. Besides,a photo of the body of my child would not be a photo of my child--which is perhaps a strange thing for a non-religious person to say. But it feels true: not him. I have since heard of a couple who, after a few months, looked at the photo and it was enormously upsetting to them--they had remembered a child not so beat up by the birth process.
I might--MIGHT--feel differently if I'd had access to professional photographers who specialize in such portraits. But probably not. Maybe four months after Pudding died, I looked online at some pictures that had been posed as though the children were still alive, and that really, really upset me. I have a constitutional aversion to make-believe (and that might be strange for a fiction writer). Though maybe if I looked at them now I would interpret them differently, maybe they would look to me like anything but make-believe. I did see a beautiful montage of photos of the birth and delivery of a still child recently, which I found so moving and right. So my head might be in a different place these days.
And we said no at the time because we were both worried we'd look at it all the time.
I asked the question about the photograph because: it seems as I read other bloggers' commentary on your book that there are so many places where they shout, "Yes!" Be it "Closure is Bullshit," the desire to have our OB charts marked "NOTE: do not blow sunshine up patient's ass," the calling cards we all wish we could hand out. For me it was your bottle of wine and a smoke while still looking very pregnant, in the space between finding out Pudding had died and delivering him. If Children's had a cafe, I would've run to the same indulgence (and I've never smoked in my life), but as it was, moments after making the decision to take Maddy off life support (and hence bringing my pumping to a close), I ran and got the biggest cup of "fuck you universe/I love you, comfort food" coffee I could find.
But there are moments in reading your book where I scratched my head and thought, "huh." And the photo was one of those places. (Interesting, you mention Niobe as someone whom you felt did things quite differently, and yet you two are two of the only people I know who don't have photos.) Another was when you riffed on your ability to do it again knowing the outcome, because you feel you couldn't "love and regret him both." (I can, and I do.) Rather than pick apart all of these, I'm wondering if you're familiar with enough other stories now to compare your experience with, and I'm wondering if there's a topic where you often think, "Yes, it was just like that, that must be such a universal feeling," and one where you often find yourself thinking, "Wow, I didn't think that at all. I'm really peculiar in that regard."?
You may still find my reaction odd--but it's not that I would go through my pregnancy with my first child and his death, should some ghoulish apparition--Cher, perhaps--asked me if I wanted to Turn Back Time. I have no idea what my answer would be, and I'm glad that I don't have to make the choice. Perhaps that's the same thing. I mean, I do renounce regret, absolutely. It does no good. He's dead and in this unchanging earthly dimension, I don't regret him.
My biggest eccentricity in all of this--as far as I can tell--is that within two weeks of Pudding's death, looking at other babies (and their mothers) wasn't all that painful. I'd lost a specific boy. I think I could have walked into Babytown and addressed the citizens and chamber of commerce and shook the mayor's hand without blinking: I knew I would never see the person I was missing. That particular longing was equally awful in the presence of grown-ups or babies. Made no difference at all. Even as I experienced it, I knew that was unusual .
& the things that stick in my head as possibly universal are, if I remember correctly, precisely the things that Niobe wrote about not agreeing with--wanting the comfort of other people, wanting to hear the name of your child from other people.
What does strike me as universal: the shock of finding out that some people will simply not mention that you were ever even pregnant, the confusion over what to say when someone asks you how many children you have, the need to explain that the children existed. & the strange feeling of being an untouchable.
The pictures. It's funny, it had never occurred to me that not wanting a picture was unusual, until Sarah Bain (who blogs at Geography of Grief) asked me about it. All along, when I've heard about pictures of dead children--not sick children, not children who will die--but those already gone, I haven't understood. I particularly don't understand prominent displays of pictures of dead children. (I can't really parse it, since I don't consider myself religious in any sense--but I'll repeat that a picture of my son's body would never seem like anything but a picture of his body, and not of him. It would be like a picture of his gravestone on the wall, if he had a gravestone.) But I don't understand in the way that I don't understand Spanish: I know that for other people the pictures are full of meaning, and my lack of comprehension is utterly without judgment. I do understand the photographs are beautiful and neccessary to the parents of those children. I can see that they're beautiful. I don't think they're morbid or weird. It's just that the meaning is somehow emotionally inaccessible to me.
Again, like Spanish. & I imagine that's how it is for all of us, when we scratch our heads at someone else's reaction. We don't doubt the reaction; we just don't speak the language.
Though in the end my guess is I wrote a book for the exact same reason people want and require and love those photographs. Proof, for myself and for other people. A way to keep the child from disappearing for good.
I'm quite embarrassed to admit to you (in public, nonetheless) that I've never read any of your novels. And of course I now have a keen interest in doing so. But I'm wondering, will this experience change your work in any way? And I'm thinking here of both the obvious like creating characters that undergo something similar; and the more subtle, like characters or plots or themes that perhaps shift in unexpected ways or don't proceed to end like they should? Are you done writing about this, or do you think it will pop up, one way or another?
Once I thought about it, I was absolutely appalled at how many children I had, over the years, killed off in my fiction. I can only blame my essentially Victorian sensibility. My third novel is particularly bad in this regard, and features a drowned 2-year-old (based on a historical drowned child). I think I mention in Figment--the novel I was working on the summer before I got pregnant with Pudding featured yet another drowned child, this one five-months-old, based on a story that someone told my aunt Liz years and years ago, which she told me as a child: he claimed that he had drowned his identical twin brother in his bathtub: his mother stepped out of the room, and came back to find one boy sitting atop the other, his arms clasped over his head in triumph. This image had never left me, though--again, I'm having this revelation as I type to you--it strikes me at this moment as impossible. What mother would tell her surviving son the story like that? Anyhow, it wasn't a major part of the book, but when I went back to it after Pudding died, I was grateful for that kid, and the ability to write about a dead baby in as much detail as I wanted to.
I don't reread my own work anyhow, but I haven't reread any of the Fictional Dead Children passages from my old books. Still, if I think about them I think I might have gotten it mostly right. One of my dearest friends said to me, not long after Pudding died, "It's like what you wrote in The Giant's House [my first novel]." I said, Huh? And she quoted some passage I'd written about grief. In response I wailed, "I MADE IT UP! I HAD NO IDEA!"
But, as you know, you're never the same after losing a kid. So I imagine my fiction is already different and will continue to be.