what's in a name

When well-intentioned people ask about the twins' names, I hestitate for a moment, then say, "I didn't give them names." Which is true, as far as it goes. But like most truths, it only goes so far.

As a child, I pored over books listing baby names and their meanings. First, it was to find names for my imaginary future children -- two boys and a girl, I decided -- whose names changed over the years from Alana to Aislinn to Augusta and from Bradley to Brennan to Bartholomew. Later, it was because I liked learning that Deborah meant bee and David meant beloved and Dennis paid homage to Dionysus, the god of wine. And still later, I justified my obsession as a kind of historical/sociological study, as I worked my way through the Social Security website, with its list of the names given to babies born in the US, arranged in order of popularity, for every year back to 1879.

In college, at the very end of Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, I read and was haunted by the phrase: stat rosa pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus. I had barely enough Latin to translate it as meaning something more or less like: all we have left of the rose is its name.

In other words, as Peter Abelard* said, long before I came to vaguely understand it, even after all the roses are gone, we can still say "there are no roses." The name persists even after the thing it names has vanished; we can speak of what is lost and of what never was. Remembrance lives longer than what it remembers.

But when the time came to give names to the twins, I finally saw the double-edged nature of Abelard's words. It was unendurable to contemplate that nothing more than their names would survive, that, for the rest of my life, I would hear the names over and over, and, each time, be reminded with a twisting pain that that was all I had left.

The first twin died before he was born, so, according to the laws of the state where I live, I didn't have to give him a name. The second twin, however, lived for four hours and because of those four hours, she had to have her own birth certificate and her own death certificate. The nurse in charge of providing such information to the bureau of statistics called me again and again as I lay in my hospital bed, doped up with magnesium sulfate and grief. Finally, tearful and exhausted, I told the nurse to just write down her own first name.

A few months later, I took the train to city hall and stood in line with smiling parents carrying babies or pushing strollers. After I finally convinced the dubious clerk that, yes, I needed a birth certificate and a death certificate, I got the official documents and walked out into the cold bright day.

I unfolded the papers, and, for the first time, I read my daughter's name. It was a name I would never have chosen, would never have even considered. It's a name that I never want to see or hear again. But it was the right name, the perfect name, the only possible name. And if you read this post carefully, paying close attention to the empty spaces between the words, you'll find that you already know what it is.


*The 12th centrury philosopher and logician, remembered mostly, if at all, for his affair with his student Héloïse and his subsequent castration by her uncle.

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