Us mortals, we like to fathom. Make sense. Calculate. Depend on. Plan. We accept that being derailed is part of the journey, and getting back on track reinforces the predictability, the reliability of life. But when life just becomes one derailment after another, do you create a different path?
It feels incredibly unsatisfying that it takes but a minute to list the essential facts and stats about him. I remember saying—to the first shrink that we saw after—that he was perfect, but he was dead. I think I want, I need that ‘but’. I don’t want A being dead to count as a part of who he is. Isn’t that why people have such a hard time talking to us about our children, because they intuitively see their deadness as their essence?
I rarely cry when I draw, and I draw all the time. My art resonates with other women and they reach out to tell me about their moments that were so much like mine. We create a shared narrative as we tell each other about our complex feelings and slowly the words start to return. The blank pages get filled.
The day she died, I felt an ache in my heart. It intensified day by day month by month, and year by year it grew stronger. The ache was crippling and I curled up in a ball of hurt from which there was no escape. No amount of medication could ease the hurt. I feel it still, in my heart where she lives.
This is the consolation prize awarded to every bereaved parent: the mind’s ceaseless spinning, conjuring all the myriad ways your baby could die, backed by the hard-won knowledge that it most certainly could happen to anyone at any moment, and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it. Of course, this is a truth universal to all parents. This is why the horror genre has always been so effective: at its core, a thriller is an allegory for raising children in a world where, in truth, we have absolutely zero ability to keep them safe.
Perhaps the bereaved mother reaches a place of unwanted but hard-won power. I’ve generally been a rule follower, a peace keeper. I’ve never had anything I felt the desire to fight for the way I would for Cora. There’s a primal instinct to protect Cora’s legacy, just as I would protect her life. I feel like a rabid animal with my claws out when my motherhood, or Cora’s existence, comes into question. Say something dismissive, and the fuel pours onto my heart’s fire. Tell me I need to move on? I will speak out.
Could it be that I am starting to feel at peace? There will always be something raw about baby loss, a part that doesn’t heal. There is no way around that. But I find that the better I know my grief, and the more I welcome its manifold effects on my life, the less it prevents me from authentically reconnecting to people who live on the surface.
At times, people may think me depressed: I wear my tears with pride, my pain a badge of honor for having known love. At times, people may think me jealous of others: I am no longer naive. I know horrible things can strike us at any moment, and this I do not take for granted. At times, people may think me weak: Yet I rise from the wounds of my past, while they utter that they cannot imagine.
Over the past two months, as I have sat with the thought of my little girl turning five years old, I realized that she is just that—my little girl. She is not symbolic, not abstract, not a purpose or a motivation. She was not a perfect piece of our life’s puzzle, which fit perfectly to make us whole. She was a little girl, a beautiful infant, who did not get to write her own magical story.
I imagine Zia and I talking across a fire. She sits cross legged, smiling, a hot cup of cocoa in her hands. I am enthralled by her presence. I am the student, the listener. I imagine Zia and I hand in hand by the ocean. I look back and see our footprints, one bigger than the other. When I look back, she is gone.
I have my own personal super-reliable never-fail Hulk smash button. It is encountering what might be described as pain policing—telling other people how they should handle their grief and pain. Which—have you noticed?—tends to involve not making things too uncomfortable for the unaffected. I am sure I do not need to list the greatest hits of the babylost universe. Hell, we here can probably do a reasonable rendition of those as a spontaneous choir piece with three-part harmony, set to something immortal like Ave Maria or the Itsy Bitsy Spider.
Some days I prefer the ocean floor. The quiet and the dark and the endless space soothing, instead of terrifying. Looking at the infinite abyss in all directions, there is a peace in knowing that I am very much alone down there, knowing that my actions and inactions can’t hurt anybody else. Better to be chained to the ocean floor, drowning in all that Karma’s accusing me of, than to break the surface and tempt fate.
Now Wigglette will get a chance to play the role of the daughter I always wanted to raise. At first it was a comfort to know that some of that aching gap will be filled. Then came the pain from realizing that being my girl will no longer be something that is only yours. Once I get to witness her developing into a little girl, I fear that my sense of you will become even more obscure, and that I will be forced to leave some more of you behind. There will not be much left, I worry, beyond the knowledge that you were an infant and that I would have cared for you and that I still miss you deeply.
This strange-but-true, yes-but-no existence is accurate for me, but it goes against what most people know to be true in their own lives. Even the term “bereaved mother” hits me as a contradiction, an oxymoron. It sounds wrong, yet I know firsthand how devastatingly real it is.
Big news: we are on Facebook now! Find us there, if you like. And raise your hand for the old-fashioned mailbag, too, for our very own book club full of love and warmth on this rough road. I love the idea of the people of this Glow community being first to hold this book. Some of you are in it. We hold each other, after all, in this world-crashingly illuminated mess.
Each title carefully lined up over the years— wife, career-oriented woman, home owner, expectant mother—is stripped from me, and I am left in the aftermath, as naked and afraid as a child, with nothing to show for it but my own bewildered mind, and the question that repeats itself relentlessly in my head: Who am I?
Despite all my pleas and prayers, death invades my imagination so sharply that it becomes more potent than my reality. At any time of day, while I am driving, cooking, reading, working, just merely trying to put one foot in front of the other, death dangles the other shoe in front of me, daring me to avoid dropping it too.
I wasn't sure if I could contribute anything positive to the anthology, considering my overall experience in hospital was not a pleasant one. But the night before I was due to respond, I remembered just one thing. A single moment: in the delivery room, my doctor and anaesthetist took care with my baby. Not as a stillbirth or miscarriage, but as a baby. They asked her name. A bereaved mother knows the significance of this simple act of acknowledgement and kindness.
I thought another child would stitch some of my wounds closed. I thought she’d allow me to walk confidently into the next baby shower, naturally ask spontaneous questions about the pregnancies of others, not cringe when I walked past the New Baby section of a greeting card aisle. I thought I would stop crying behind closed doors when so-and-so announced she was pregnant. That none of this resolved neatly is another revelation, another betrayal.
I begin to wonder if perhaps no one sees me. I don't utter a word, but no one says anything to me either. Maybe I am an apparition. Maybe I have died and am floating around looking at other people carrying on. Maybe I am visiting from another planet. Maybe my species cannot be identified by the human eye. No one seems to notice I exist. I am not sure if I do either.
I bear the weight of each new loss while they dare to continue to draw hope (for me!) from what happens to the average woman. Perhaps I could hear the compassion in their hope if they were willing to acknowledge my interlaced fear. Right now my own hope is too desperate, too fragile. I reluctantly allow some slivers of it in, but these moments feel intensely private.
Perhaps there is another reality out there, across some vast time-space divide, some wormhole that had been breached when the nurse could not find his heartbeat. Another place, where I meet my son alive. Where I can watch his chubby little fingers curl around my husband's hand. Where I watch him enter into fatherhood, where I am properly reconciled into motherhood.
I look at the documents open on my computer. I need to write a story. About what I can do. How and where I fit. How much I want this. I picture myself, a broken me, as a piece in the giant machinery of an organization. Maybe my cracks will not show from a distance. Once I’m part of the bigger puzzle, maybe I will fit in and play my role in completing the picture. But for now, I need to tell my story the way it is. No, nothing positive really came from the loss. But it sucked the wind from under my wings. I am trying to get a little bit of it back. I hope I do it with you.
We are among each other, even when it feels distant. We pass each other on the street, sit together at concerts and potlucks, perhaps never knowing. Sometimes, with a plate of barbecue on our laps, we blurt out something we generally try not to, and the other doesn't flinch but puts a hand on our forearm and says 'Oh my god, you too?' Uncooperative bodies and recurring nightmares, c-section scars, syringes full of gonadotropins for polycystic ovaries, urns we can't imagine keeping or dispersing. We are us.
My son wants the brown bear in every picture. 'It feels like she’s my sister,' he says. The brown bear we love so much. The one that should have been hers. Merry Christmas Zia Bear. +++ To you, I won’t say Happy Holidays. I’ll say live. It's all we can do now. Live, rambling on about the ache in our hearts and souls. Ramble on the untold story. The incomplete tale. Hers, mine, ours.
“We must not see any person as an abstraction. Instead, we must see in every person a universe with its own secrets, with its own treasures, with its own sources of anguish, and with some measure of triumph.” Signing up for my seminar, students don’t exactly expect to be discussing the inherent dignity and value of every human life. In that discussion, and in coming back to the quote throughout the semester, I hope to help my students develop some immunity against the very human desire to redeem the uncomfortable stories.