i don't know what to say

Gus and Zoey are our children.

No, that’s not it.

Gus and Zoey were our children.

No.  That’s not right, either.

Gus and Zoey are our children, but were our babies.  Because they will always be our children, but whatever else they are, I do not think they are “babies” anymore.

Many months after Gus and Zoey were born and died, and months into the process of trying to have children again, I was not sure how to talk to myself about what happened.  I referred to Gus and Zoey’s deaths as an it.  “Before it happened…” “When it happened…” “After it happened…”  But it is not an it.  It is a they.

Of course, I knew this from almost the beginning.  Our return from the hospital had felt like a defeat: our family was the same size it had been when we left home more than six days before.  Reading all the emails that were waiting for us was a good diversion—in fact, just seeing how full the inbox was distracted me from just how full the house was not.  But one message underscored it.  It was from a former colleague, saying how sorry she was to hear about our losses.  Plural.

No one had put it that way yet.  Not even M.  Not even me.  

I tried to stay mindful of this—that it was Gus who died and Zoey who died, and not Gusandzoey who died—but I couldn’t.  Throughout the pregnancy, and then after, thinking of them as a Gusandzoey was the only way I ever came to know them.  One time, a woman who had lost her adult child counseled me that I could still honor the twins by doing things they liked.  I smiled and nodded, a little ashamed at how easily I faked my empathy, and thought, they didn’t like anything.  They weren’t here long enough to like hiking more than skiing, or Chinese over Italian.  That may have been when I realized it: I could miss them, but never know them.  Or rather, I could know them, but only as an idea.

Also, the thought that I had buried two individual babies—the one and also the other—was probably too much.  It would require more of my mind than I had.  We’ve all experienced this, I think.  As persons and maybe even as a people.  After all, there were hours and miles between the blast that destroyed Hiroshima and the one that destroyed Nagasaki, yet we talk about when America dropped “the bomb.”

So I came to talk—and think—about all of it in the singular.

Last spring, I tried to explain some of this to my friends Jack and Elizabeth on a visit back east to introduce them to my college town.  Walking up Main Street, I told them I was only recently feeling Gus and Zoey's distinctness from each other.  I told them about finally appreciating that I had buried not one, but two babies.  I told them about the enormity of that, the strangeness, while we walked past the shops and restaurants that were not there when I was there.

"That was the hardest part of the funeral for me," Elizabeth said.  "Seeing the two tiny caskets side by side."

That’s when I felt something split inside my head the way heavy air can be split by thunder.  Brought back to the funeral, but seeing it through Elizabeth's eyes, I told Jack and Elizabeth something I had not told anyone else until that moment—not even M., not even myself:

That when I picture the funeral, I usually picture one coffin. 

I did not add that when I do see the second, it is less distinct, a gray, coffin-shaped shadow peeking out from behind the first.  Of course, I've always known there were two.  After all, there was that bit of madness when the funeral director rushed up to the grave, double-checked his notes, and had the coffins swapped, so that Gus would be buried in Gus's grave, and Zoey in hers. 

But just as the one way to describe their deaths is really two, the two are really four.  I realized this a day or so after Elizabeth’s remark, when remembering what a two-year-old said on our last visit to the cemetery. 

It was the one-year anniversary of our losses.  The gravestones had just been placed.  This was our first time seeing them.  Friends from the support group were already in the cemetery, having visited their son, who was stillborn almost four years ago. 

They were waiting for us at Gus and Zoey’s graves.  M.’s mother and stepfather were with us; our friends’ two-year-old daughter was with them.  She knows about her older brother, and about Gus and Zoey, too. 

After we talked for a while, and after our friends had shown us the products they keep in the car to clean their son’s grave, and how they cleaned Gus and Zoey’s for us, we began saying our goodbyes.  “Is there anything you want to say to Gus and Zoey?” our friend asked her little girl, holding her.

There was.  She blew kisses at the gravestones.  “Happy birthday, Gus and Zoey,” she said.


How have the ways you describe your loss changed over time?  Have you been surprised by how you remember (or misremember) events immediately following your loss?