Live and learn

The naked brutal truth is that what brings us together here is death. Our particular kind of death is disorienting by its very nature, by the timing of its essential untimeliness. But the other truth, one that can be no less brutal, one that seems particularly cruel in those first disorienting days and weeks, is that we are still alive. And so we have to keep going, we have to keep living. The pain with which every breath cuts? That's being alive, that's living after. But so is the eventual realization that it is no longer so, that breathing, and other things, are getting easier.

If you are not there yet, I am so sorry, and I know it's no comfort, this long view.

But this long view is where I am, four years and one day after the birth of my son, four years and two days after his death. I remember clearly that from the very beginning I bristled at anyone suggesting that this--A's death, our grief, the time then-- that this was something we just needed to get through or "live through," as an Old Country idiom goes. You don't get through this, was my retort, you learn to live with it. And so far, at least for myself, it seems that I was right.

Our one year anniversary fell on the first day of class at my then-new job. I wasn't running the course then, and I didn't even need to teach that day. But I found myself so distracted and wiped out in the days leading up to it and on the day itself, that I eventually felt the need to explain what all of that was about to my then-new boss. (Thankfully, that went well, and whatever I may think of my now-former boss, I will always remember his kindness about A.)

Yesterday, three years later, on my drive to the now-new job, I felt the familiar heaviness, familiar tightness-- the sadness, the longing. But then I parked, and I went to work. I talked about atoms, electrons, orbitals, bonds. My computer froze, and while I waited for it to reboot, I picked up the chalk and went on. I emphasized key points, and held the pauses I needed to hold to get the class to engage, to get someone to risk volunteering an answer. I read confusion on their faces and picked up my chalk again, and I drew and talked them to clarity. I explained the changes in schedule due to the past and future snow days and I joked with the class. It was, as far as they knew, just another day in the classroom. That was probably mostly time, mostly the learning to live with that time affords us as days pack into weeks and weeks pack into months. But it felt like a victory, this ability to do my job well even on this day, and it felt hard-won.

And when the class was over, I had something else to look forward to. A task, it occurred to me as I was walking back to my car, something concrete to do, not unlike that day four years before. Then the task was birthing, now-- shoveling.

You see, our cemetery only has the flat to the ground markers (and the vases that you could flip up, but obviously those are down for the season), so when a snowfall covers a section, all you see above the layer of snow are the wooden poles-- markers that the groundskeepers put in to delineate the rows through the winter months. So two years ago, at the two year mark, the winter had been snowy. It's not like we didn't notice, but for some reason, we didn't connect. It occurred to neither of us that if we went to the cemetery on the anniversary, what we'd likely see would be a blanket of snow. Which is, of course, exactly what we saw when we arrived-- snow about knee high and a few poles sticking out to mark the rows.

At first, we thought we'd just let Monkey go and put the flowers over where we estimated the grave should be. We thought she stood the best chance of not sinking into the snow. But she lost her bearings among the white, stopping a good distance from where I thought the grave actually was. And suddenly JD was following her, and then so was I. I wanted to steer them to what I thought would be the right spot. JD wanted Monkey to not feel like she'd gotten it "wrong," and so there was tension, and it felt right to no-one, and we left the flowers where I was sure he was not. Except for the one flower I walked over to the spot I thought was right, and stuck into the snow, all by its lonesome.

I felt like shit. The primal in me said I should know where my child is, I should be able to get to him. Not, you know, to him, but to his grave at least. To make matters worse, that year the anniversary of his death fell on a Friday, and of his birth-- on Saturday. Jewish cemeteries are closed on Saturdays, of course, so we went on Friday afternoon, after Monkey's school let out. So what I was left with, going into the day that marked his birth, was that awful feeling of loss and separation. Compounded-- sure, why not, right?-- by a nice round of stomach bug that swept through the house starting that very evening.

What to do with that feeling? Where to put it? I had only one answer. The next morning, as I was leaving to run some necessary errands, I also packed a small snow shovel, and I drove to the cemetery. I parked by the side gate, and I walked. When I got to the section, I stepped carefully into the footprints we made the day before. I headed for the lone flower, and I dug, carefully, right next to it. You kinda have to know that if I am telling the story, I found the marker right where I dug. If I didn't, the story probably wouldn't mean the same thing to me, and it probably wouldn't be needing telling today. But I did, and I felt that all was now right with the world. Not you know, regular people's world, but the world where one visits their child's grave in the cemetery, that world was now put right. So I sat there for a bit, and moved the flowers to the right spot, picked myself up, walked out, and drove to run those errands.

Fast forward two years, to this January. In the last three weeks we've had three snow days. It wouldn't take a genius to figure out there would be thick layer in the cemetery. This is where I decided that what I wanted to do was shovel ahead of our planned visit. But with minor snowfalls threatened every other day or so, I didn't want to shovel too early. And this brings us back to me getting in the car after my class yesterday. I had a job to do. I and my trusted shovel were going to make it so we could put the flowers right on the marker this year. An hour, I figured, 90 minutes at the outside.

I know I am not alone in feeling that the day he was born was the best of the worst days. I was thinking about just that after my class on the way to my car. From there I went on to contemplate why, if he wasn't born until well into the evening, the whole of that day doesn't seem so bad. The answer, it seemed, was that I had a job to do that day. I had to birth him, and there was work in that, and single-minded concentration, and anticipation. Not entirely unlike what lay in front of me, I realized. A task, physical and defined, requiring concentration and likely not a small amount of determination. A is buried almost at the far edge of the section, so getting to him is not a matter of swinging the shovel a few times. But an hour, I figured, 90 minutes at the outside.

I began to reconsider that estimate as I drove through the cemetery, snowbanks higher than my car in places. Three snowdays in three weeks. Pulling up to the baby section, it looked grim. But as I got out of the car, I noticed a dip in the snowbank a bit in front of me, where the new addition to the baby section was recently cleared. As far as I know, that whole section, about the same size as the original, only has one occupant for now, at least that was the case when last I looked, in late November or so. The dip in the snowbank wasn't just a dip-- from there led a trail of footsteps, human or animal I couldn't really tell, although if I had to bet my life, I would probably go with a deer. The footsteps, as my incredible luck would have it, went right where I needed to go-- toward the back part of the sections, right to where the old and the new meet. From there, I knew, I could dig my way to A's grave.

To understand why I felt so lucky you should probably know that my worst fear as I planned my digging expedition in my head was that I would accidentally dig a path that would have me walking on other graves. The dead, I know, don't care. But I do. The serendipitous footsteps literally showed me another way. I could dig through the new section without worrying where I dug-- I knew about where the new boy is, and the steps steered way clear of that spot, and in the back of the old section I know the locations of the few graves that are there pretty well-- it should be easy for me to avoid them, I reasoned.

Part way through the project I stopped to take a picture. The wider part is me digging to follow the narrow-- what I found there.

It took two hours and fifteen minutes to get all the way to the grave, and to dig around it wide enough for JD, Monkey and me to stand there together. There is a certain dead baby pride in finding that your aim is still true, that even when the snow lies higher than the tops of the marker sticks, you still know exactly where to dig for your son's grave. When it was over I took off my gloves to find that my hands have been stained black-- apparently the lining transfers. And I quickly realized that my feet were soaked through. Neither of these things registered until I was done. Singleminded much? Just a bit, I guess. Though I did stumble upon a few not entirely useless thoughts.

First, by the time I was damn near done, it occurred to me that it was a shame I did all the digging by myself. I've long maintained that the first few days were harder on JD than they were on me. He'd waited through that whole pregnancy to meet his son, and then his son died, and there still was nothing for him to do except bring me water. I, on the other hand, had things to do--give birth, tend to engorged boobs, tend to other parts. Purpose. All he had to do was sit around and breathe the sharp air. And here I was, four years on, occupied with another purposeful endeavor, again by myself. There is clarity in the snow field in front and a shoveled path behind. There is satisfaction in doing what little can be done on a day such as this. And so I felt bad for having that all to myself, and should we encounter another winter generous in snow, I've already suggested to JD that we go shoveling together.

The second not entirely useless thought is really a rather obvious metaphor. But I am going to say it anyway. Driving up to the cemetery I expected to have to lay my own path. It turned out that I didn't have to, at least not all the way. I found a trail to follow, though I still had to put in considerable work to get to where I needed to go. And that reminded me that though it may feel like it, we are never the first to walk the path of baby loss, and, sadly, we will not be the last. We each have a unique trajectory, but others have passed nearby. Sometimes their presence or their footsteps are obvious, and we find comfort in that obviousness. Other times, the presence of others is but a shadow, a divergent trail going off into the woods, an echo of voices carried on the wind.

And at the risk of clubbing this metaphor into complete unusability, we may not know when or how, but we each make it slightly easier, slightly more bearable for someone else at some point. Whether it is because our words, typed in anger or sadness, or joy, or longing and released to the wilds of the internets hit the spot with someone somewhere, or because we once said something to someone that caused them to be more considerate of others. Or even because if we are so lucky as to become pregnant again one day, we tend to walk tenderly with it, mindful of both the fragility of what we carry in us and of the potential hurt that seeing another's happiness may bring. And so, as we've said many a time to each other, I am so sorry you have a reason to be here, but I am so glad you found us. 


How long has it been for you? What traditions have you developed so far? Have there been others who've helped you along the way?