ring the bells that still can ring
forget your perfect offering
there is a crack, a crack in everything
that's how the light gets in
- Leonard Cohen
I heard the lines above last night, a melodic crescendo, and was stunned into reverie. Down to the sour smell of smoke and sawdust that were in the air that night, I was, for a moment, transported viscerally to the time and place they'd last crossed my consciousness. Three summers ago, almost. With old friends, gathered from our scattered points around the globe, for a weekend of talk and wine and beer. It was nine weeks after he died. I was supposed to be thirty-five weeks pregnant for that visit: instead, I was raw, raging, humbled...unmoored. but with those friends I felt comparatively safe and we talked about him, a little, and they talked about him, a little, and there was no sweeping under the carpet and I felt freed by that, grateful...even welcomed the strangely soothing balm of the eight month old boy one couple had in tow. The group of them were some touchstone of normal - of the me I had been before - in a time when there was none, elsewhere in my life.
But then Leonard's voice broke in through light chatter and mild drunkenness on the second night of our gathering. ring the bells that still can ring, he intoned, gravelly and sage. and suddenly I was choking on smoke and tears, and I bolted from my chair and went stumbling across the yard in the darkness, almost blind. What fucking bells? Seriously, what bells were left? I was broken.
I'd lost my job along with my child. I was struggling to find a place in a community we'd moved to only months before, struggling to find other work, struggling to get up the courage to leave the sanctuary of the house on a daily basis. I was a parentless child and a jobless professional...and we'd left our old life behind on another continent to come home and have a baby. Without that baby, I could not figure out how to go forward.
I'd been, I think, in the denial stage of my grief. I looked back to my friends in the circle of light on the deck, and realized, there really is no going back to normal. fuck me gently. And then I went inside and mixed myself a Southern Comfort Janis Joplin would've been proud of, and sat, numb, staring, bewildered.
The thing about grief - and in particular, the keening loss that was deadbaby grief for me - that blew my mind was how it robbed me of any clue about how to continue to live my life in a meaningful way. I understood, factually, that I still had a reasonable semblance of a life, if one in a bit of a shambles at the time - but I could not connect to it. I groped for the bells left to me to ring and came up clutching air. It wasn't the overabundance of a sheltered life in my previous incarnation, either, that left me so bereft even of my self, of my survival instinct, my resilience: I'd been violated before, just by living...betrayed, divorced, disappointed, grieved. But I'd never been stopped up short.
I wonder, sometimes, what it must have been like to grieve a child back in the days of our great-grandmothers, when infant death and pregnancy loss were common and maternal death a fairly regular outcome of childbearing. I imagine it was still a lonely, isolated thing for many, particularly given the stiff upper lip with which loss would've been expected to be met in many communities and circumstances. And yet...other than the fact that fewer of us would be present in this company of mourners, lost as we would have been along with our babies...there would have been one key difference between then and now: we would not, could not, have gone into pregnancy without realizing that a loss of this scale was very possible.
I realize, finally, three years on, that that has been the crack in everything, for me.
That pregnancy was fraught with bleeding from the early days. At six weeks, I was told I was probably miscarrying, and sent home on bedrest. It felt surreal, but not shocking. I knew women miscarried. I knew a number of women who had miscarried. My partner had already lost two, with his first wife, so I understood full well that the risk of that loss was part of the bargain I'd gotten myself into. But when the bleeding resolved and the docs said all clear and I sailed past fourteen weeks with no further complications and a perfectly normal ultrasound, I was naive enough to believe that I was pretty much going to be bringing a baby home. I wasn't sure that baby might not have some minor health issues or delays...I worked in special ed, I knew not every child fits every norm, but to even consider seriously that my baby might die seemed beyond dramatic, frivolous, macabre.
Such are the miracle assumptions modern science has taught us to espouse. All other truths and possibilities - especially those that involve dead babies, unsavable, for no apparent reason - are silenced in the mainstream discourse surrounding pregnancy and birth, these days. There is no norm left to us, and so we are unwelcome and awkward and exposed in the societal conversation surrounding how babies are made, marginalized because we can be, because medicine has made us anachronisms, relics.
In retrospect, I see now that I've dealt with every other sorrow that's come my way in life by telling myself I expected it. Each time, it was at least somewhat true. Nature and experience shaped me as a cynic of sorts, a Cassandra, attuned to the emotional and relational roadbumps that littered most of the paths I ever chose. I got wounded along the way, but seldomly truly surprised. And that helped. It didn't assuage the pain, not necessarily in the moment, but it left me semi-intact, with bells held in reserve still to be rung. Until I was blindsided by the death of a child who had at least a 75% chance of survival even at the moment of his untimely birth, I had never had all the bells torn from me at once...even the small, cold, brass one marked i saw it all coming. Without it, and without the baby in whose basket I'd piled all my hopes, I was - for the first time - bereft.
Last night, listening to Cohen and time-travelling, I wondered about what seems to me now like the naive and sheltered discourse that surrounds pregnancy in our day and age and culture. And I sang along, frog-voiced but loud, proud, forget your perfect offering. there is a crack, a crack in everything.
We embody the crack in the perfect offering of modern pregnancy sold to us by Parenting Magazine and BabyCenter and What to Expect When You're Expecting. We embody it because our children are not here to.
The logical conclusion, of course, to my stretched analogy is, then, that we are how the light gets in. A part of me likes that.