Last year I befriended a woman who moved to my city to give birth at Children's with the knowledge that her baby girl would need surgery. (To cut to the chase: Her daughter, though she came close to brink -- dangling her feet off the ledge even -- survived and is now a beautiful fat one year old.) I packed up some cookies and fresh fruit and went down to the hospital one spring day to see how the parents were doing. I had no intention of "helping" really, but simply listening, which I did.
There is, as many of you know, a certain language that comes with a stay in the NICU. It's full of medical jargon and loaded with fear. But for many, it's also dripping with sarcasm, and dotted with macabre humor: responses to doctors, observations on treatments, acknowledgment of fears. It's also a kind of humor that I could see someone with no reference point not understanding, being made uncomfortable by, or even being offended by. I of course smiled and giggled (while passing out kleenex and adding my own one liners when appropriate).
The respirator machine that shakes like a hotel bed hopped up on quarters. The doctors that are so young you watch that you don't slip and call them Doogie. The lines from doctors that they have no idea will stay in your consciousness for months or years to come: "The sickest baby in the hospital." "We're not out of the woods." How many times did you discuss your child with a man in a suit while you were topless and hooked up to your double-pump?
Here at home, we had our own humor after death, too. While trying to cease lactation, Bella asked, in full voice in front of a kitchen full of people, "Mommy why are wearing Salad on your boobs?" To my husband, through tears, telling him that the receptionist at my six-week post-partum visit asked if I brought the baby: "Why yes, here she is!" whipping a box out of my purse.
Riffing off the bad lines that people fed us; musing on the irony of a relative who gifted us with alleged daily prayers at the Vatican for our unbaptized daughter whom we pulled off life-support.
"I made the therapist cry today." High five.
One reason I love my husband as much as I do is his sense of humor, and the way we can banter back and forth. We deal through a lot of adversity through humor -- it's who we are. And a week after Maddy died I realized this was a place where humor didn't work. I didn't know how to communicate with him for any length of time seriously. I dragged us into therapy.
Eventually we found the funny and the means to talk again, and when I started blogging six months later I used this voice. My voice. The only one I've ever known, the one that got me through everything from infertility to my doctorate to watching my team lose in the championship game. I needed to fall back on it, to rest on it, to rely on it, and allow it to guide me through this passage, too. I only knew how to communicate effectively with cynicism and profanity and funny. It would have to do.
In grad school, one of my advisors said a line to me regarding one of my drafts that went down as one of THOSE lines -- that get repeated and used in conversation by everyone, especially when drunk, and ultimately become quite funny:
"You don't read much poetry, do you."
No. I don't. I don't write that way either, obviously.
I was a bit surprised when I noticed that readers whom I'd describe as, let's say, "religious," began reading my blog. No more surprised than when I consistently started reading theirs in return. I think we all need to fall back on our voice, whether it's religious or spiritual, lyric or poetic, wry or fucking side-splitting. And when writers channel their grief through that voice, the one, the true one, I'm riveted. It's always raw and powerful and beautiful. It's as if this grief has introduced me to a world of different languages.
There are writers who question their voice -- question the appropriateness of humor, the need for positive thinking, or the bedrock of their religion. They swim in their voice, challenging the metaphors, pushing the limits of prose and sacredness and flat-out good taste. Others find a new voice -- a dollop of sarcasm or perhaps a streak of divinity. Even though I never questioned nor found God or the sonnet, I love these writers too.
About the only voice I can't bear to sit with is one that is obviously false, the one that hangs like a bad suit: It's glaring to me when the person brings up the Almighty in the first post and it's evident they haven't used the language in years if ever. It's painful when they drop an F-bomb and are awkwardly, overtly, uncomfortable about it. When they start in, very soon, too soon, with the happy-sunshine-y "I'm finding the positive in this," and "This has given me unbelievable perspective and strength." Or when they assume that speaking of a deceased child necessitates florid vocabulary and intricately constructed metaphors when it's evident to the reader they simply need to cough up the facts and state the obvious: My baby died. I'm fucking sad.
I know people adopt false voices for a variety of reasons -- convention, assumption, or because mom and dad are reading the blog. I feel for them. I think the only way through this mess is leaning on what you know, what is yours, what this can't take away. My voice, thankfully, did not die with my baby.
How would you describe your voice? Did it change after babyloss? Do you find yourself gravitating towards writing that uses a certain type of voice? Are there voices you appreciate even though they're not yours? Does your blog voice differ from your true voice, and if so, why?