Photo: Thomas Langdon/VSG Images
Once upon a time, before I knew anything about the subject, a woman told me that I should write a book about the lighter side of losing a child.
(This is not that book.)
I was giving a badly attended fiction reading at a public library in Florida. The woman wore enormous denim shorts, a plaid shirt, a black ponytail, and thumbprint-blurred glasses; her husband's nervous smile showed off his sand-colored teeth. They latched onto me, the way the sad and aimless sometimes do: I haven't been a public librarian myself for more than 10 years now, but I retain what I like to think of as an air of civic acceptance. When the reading was over and the rest of the audience had dispersed—if five people can be said to disperse—she gave her suggestion. She really did say it, in a voice that seemed as thumbworn as her glasses: "You should write a book about the lighter side of losing a child. You're very funny."
I couldn't imagine what she was getting at. A joke book for the bereaved? A comic strip guide to outliving your children?
For instance, she explained, her son was dead. Just recently she and Al—her husband, who smiled apologetically with those appalling choppers—had been on the beach, and Al had been eating a tuna sub, and a seagull came and stole part of the sandwich. And so she knew that the bird was the soul of her teenage son. Al nodded in agreement.
"And I laughed and laughed," the woman said flatly. "You should write a book with stories like that," she said. "It would be a big hit."
She was a childish, unnerving person. I imagined that she'd been trying people's patience for some time. At first they would have been sympathetic, but after her son had been dead for a while, they'd grow weary of her bringing him up as though the calamity had just happened. Well-meaning friends would look uncomfortable at the very mention of his name. So she had to come up with new and sneaky ways to work him into conversations with strangers, at book readings, at the grocery store, at train station information desks, to telemarketers. You have to move on, beige-toothed Al might have said, you can't mourn forever. Then she could say, See? I'm not mourning: I'm laughing. I'm looking on the lighter side.
And now she wanted an instruction book.
It seemed like the saddest thing I'd ever heard, back before I knew how sad things could get.
A child dies in this story: a baby. A baby is stillborn. You don't have to tell me how sad that is: It happened to me and my husband, our baby, a son.
Still, I'm coming around to understanding what that woman in Florida wanted.
A baby is born, too. That is to say, a healthy baby, our second child. The first child died on April 27, 2006, in France. The second baby—a biological fact lying across my lap asleep at this very moment as I type one-handed—was born one year and five days later in Saratoga Springs, New York. Not a miracle, I insist on it. A nice everyday baby, snoring now, the best possible thing: dreamt of, fretted over, even prayed for. A ginger-haired baby who conducts symphonies while sleeping, sighing at the dream music. (Those hands! They underscore closing arguments in dream baby court; they hail dream baby taxis.) We ourselves didn't pray (our religion is worry; we performed decades of it) but some of our friends did, and the mothers of friends, and nuns on two continents, our nuns-in-law. Such a beautiful funny-looking monkeyish longed-for baby, exactly who we were waiting for.