Who was that?

When Catherine W. came into this community, I found her comments here and there, nestled amongst the others. Her insight and the haunting beauty of her words blew me away, and I wanted to know more of her story. It unfurled, moment by moment, through the months. Then, as though my prayers were answered, she began writing her blog Between the Snow and the Huge Roses. I think I speak for many of us when I say that it was as though her words were always here within us and around us, like the Poet Laureate of the Heartbroken. Her girls were born so early at just over 23 weeks, given impossible odds. One survived. One did not. She writes about that liminal place between lucky and unlucky, grieving and rejoicing and the intersection of all those emotions at the same time. I hope you join me in welcoming Catherine, as a regular contributor to Glow in the Woods. --Angie

One thing love and death have in common, more than those vague resemblances people are always talking about, is that they make us question more deeply, for fear that its reality will slip away from us, the mystery of personality.

From Swann’s Way -  Proust

I have to confess that I have not read any of the seven volumes of Proust’s ‘In Search of Lost Time.’ I don’t expect I will ever read anything that comes in seven volumes; life is short and time’s a-wasting. But my eye caught upon this quote in an interview with the novelist Francisco Goldman about his most recent book, Say Her Name. It is a semi-fictionalised account of the unexpected death of his young wife, Aura, in a freak surfing accident.

He summarised. The fundamental questions in death are: who was that person? Where did that person go? Who was that? And in love, it is the same: why does this one person, out of all the millions on the planet, suddenly merge with me so I effectively want to be her all the time? Why does this one person so enthral me? What is it? What was that? Who was that?

My mind, as it tends to when questions of love and death arise these days, immediately jumps to my daughter. Whose personality was, perhaps, more of a mystery than most.

When I have mourned the death of an adult, I have felt the tug of the specific. The particularness, the peculiarities of that person. And, when they have left, the question hangs in the air: who was that? I mull over characteristics and search through memories. With time, I have often gained some degree of resolution to that pivotal question, at least a partial answer.

But three years after my daughter’s death, this question is still keeping me up at night. Scratching my head in bewilderment. Wondering. Who was that?

photo by quinn.anya

My daughter. My half made girl. Whose brief life was so tentative and flickering.  Supported by whirling, whispering machines that gasped and kept time for her. This person who I am so in love with that I have tried over and over to inhabit her body, to live her short life. Imagined myself into that plastic box. Sometimes I even feel that it was me lying there, our identities have become so confounded.

Who was that? This person for whom I have been in mourning for nearly seven times as long as she ever lived. Already disproportionate according to some. But I suspect that multiplier is only going to increase. 

My husband and I were the only mourners at our daughter’s funeral and we were early.  We walked around the outside of the crematorium before the service. There were labelled spaces around the pathway, for the flowers that we hadn’t thought to bring. A space had been laid out for ‘Baby Georgina W.’ I couldn’t help wondering why she needed a qualifier.  Nobody else being cremated there that day had a preface. No middle aged man Joe Bloggs, no teenage girl Jane Doe. Only their names. But the babies, they all had that descriptor, a capitalised Baby, pinned to their fronts.

This type of loss has a nomenclature all of its own. It has qualifiers. Not just simple death. Miscarriage. Stillbirth. Neonatal death.  A different brand of death.  I still can’t decide if these terms are dismissive, diminishing, acting as a kind of Death Lite, or if they indicate that a death so very terrible has occurred that it needs to be somehow singled out. Death Ultra Ultra Heavy – handle with caution and step away as quickly as you can, thankful that this one isn’t yours to deal with.

Because the mystery of personality, the question ‘who was that?’ has a slightly sharper edge to it when a person whose life was very brief is under consideration. Sometimes I think the world at large cannot decide whether the loss of a baby is rendered insignificant by the brevity of their lives. Or made even more tragic, rendering the whole topic taboo.

That sigh, the exhalation that often comes when I add the qualifier ‘at three days old’ to the opening statement ‘my daughter died.’ That sound of relief that always seems to say to me, “oh phew, three days old, well that’s ok then. That is not as bad as the death of a three year old. Or of a thirty year old.”

Those words that so many of us have heard, “it’s not as though you knew her.” From the mouth of my doctor, a few weeks on, “It’s not as though you lost your husband. It could have been so much worse.” But he neglected to mention how to quantify the difference between husband death and daughter death and I was too sad to ask.

I ask, who was that? They say, why do you even ask that question, you couldn’t possibly know the answer.

My daughter’s life was very short and brutal, existing between the hazy ground of late miscarriage and the shadowy life sustained by maximal intensive care. A few short months in my womb, where I had barely started to feel her movements, followed by three days in the desperate world of the NICU.  My husband and I sat, craning forward over the desk, foolishly eager and optimistic, opposite the hospital consultant. He gently explained that there was nothing more that they could do, it was time to stop.

As she was dying, I felt I knew her in a way that I have never known anyone else. Perhaps because her entire life was spooling out in front of me, nearing its completion.  But I felt that she was not only the premature infant, dying in my arms. Her corporeal form shed away and she was simply . . . herself. At all ages and at no age at all. Looking back, I’m not sure how much of this experience was fuelled by post partum hormones and shock. But, at the time, I felt we had met. In a way that I have still not met either of my living children and, perhaps, never will. I hope that I will not see their lives complete, come full circle, as I did their sister’s. Time stretches their limbs and works on them, changing them inexorably and mercilessly. But not on her. The child who is, simultaneously, both the eldest and the youngest in the family.

In other circumstances where I have felt determined to get things right, to respond correctly, to inhabit the moment, weddings, birthdays, surprises, I have felt a veritable agony of self consciousness. And death is one situation where there is no ripping up and starting again. I was going to hold my daughter, just once. She was going to die, just once. And everything I had to say to her, everything I could hope to glean about her, everything I would ever know about her, well, that was the hour. It should have felt terribly pressurised. But, as my daughter slowly died, observed by strangers, I held her. And, amidst that strange calm, I felt that I knew her.

Do you ever ask, 'Who was that?' How do you answer that question? In what ways did you feel like you knew your baby(ies)? Or do you cringe even thinking about that question? Does it feel impossible to truly know a baby? How has that affected your grief and the ways you see your baby?