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.
Every day as I love this baby in my lap, I think of my other baby. Poor older brother, poor missing one. I see the infant before me, the glory of the soles of the feet, the lips fattened and glossy with nursing, the nose whose future Edward and I try to predict daily. The love for the first magnifies the love for the second, and vice versa.
Now what I think that woman in Florida meant is: Lighter things will happen to you, birds will steal your husband's sandwich on the beach, and your child will still be dead, and your husband's shock will still be funny, and you will spend your life trying to resolve this.
As for me, I believe that if there's a God—and I am as neutral on the subject as is possible—then the most basic proof of his existence is black humor. What else explains it, that odd reliable comfort that billows up at the worst moments, like a beautiful sunset woven out of the smoke over a bombed city.
For instance: In the hospital in Bordeaux one of the midwives looked at us and asked a question in French. Most of the calamity (that word again; I can't come up with a better one) happened in French, which both Edward and I spoke only passably. Used to. My ability to speak French is gone, removed by the blunt force trauma of those days. I've retained only occasional drifting words. Mostly I have to look things up. The French word for midwife is sage-femme, wise woman, I remember that. This particular wise woman was a teenager, checking items off a list. The room was like a hospital room anywhere, on a ward for the reproductively luckless, far away from babies and their exhausted mothers. Did we want to speak to—
"Excusez-moi?" Edward said and cocked an ear.
"Une femme religieuse," the midwife clarified. A religious woman. Ah.
Here's what she said:
Voulez-vous parler à une nonne?
Which means, Would you like to speak to a nun? Of course in Catholic France it was assumed that we were Catholic.
But Edward heard, Voulez-vous parler à un nain?
Which means, Would you like to speak to a dwarf?
When he told this to his friend Claudia, she said, "My God! You must have thought, 'That's the last thing I need!'"
"No," Edward told her. "I thought I'd really like to speak to a dwarf about then. I thought it might cheer me up."
We theorized that every French hospital kept a supply of dwarves in the basement for the worst-off patients and their families. Maybe it was just a Bordelaise tradition: the dwarves of grief. We could see them in their apologetic smallness, shifting from foot to foot.
In the days afterward, I told this story to friends over the phone. Our terrible news had been relayed by my friends Wendy and Ann to the rest of my friends in America, and now I phoned to say—to say what I wasn't sure, but I didn't want to disappear into France and grief. I called on our cell phone from our hotel room or from sidewalk cafés in the woundingly lovely French spring. Everything hurt. We ordered carafe after carafe of rosé, and I told my friends about the dwarves of grief, and I listened to their loud, shocked, relieved laughter. I felt a strange responsibility to sound as though I were not going mad from grief. Maybe I managed it. At that moment I felt so ruined by life that I couldn't imagine it ever getting worse, which just shows that my sense of humor was slightly more durable than my imagination.
Where are they when we need them, the dwarves of grief, we said to each other later, when things were really bad.
Which is to say: I want it, too, the impossible lighter-side book. I want a book that acknowledges that life goes on but that death goes on, too. Your friends may say, "Time heals all wounds." No, it doesn't, but eventually you'll feel better. You'll be yourself again. Your child will still be dead. The frivolous parts of your personality, stubborner than you'd imagined, will grow up through the cracks in your soul.
I loved being pregnant. Whatever hormones had shaken together in my bloodstream, it was an agreeable cocktail. I devoted myself to gestating—I didn't write much but it didn't bother me. Edward cooked and cleaned and tucked me into bed. I rubbed my stomach and loved my husband profoundly. I had the sense that those last months as a twosome were as important as our upcoming months as a threesome: They felt like part of someone's happy childhood. What fun it would be to tell our kid where his parents had spent his gestation and birth. In the spring sheep and lambs, cows and calves, studded the hills, and I regarded them. I felt stupidly, sentimentally mammalian.
After the baby died, I told Edward over and over again that I didn't want to forget any of it: The happiness was real, real as the baby himself, it would be terrible, unforgivable, to forget it. His entire life had turned out to be the 41 weeks and one day of his gestation, and those days were happy. We couldn't pretend that they weren't. It would be like pretending that he himself was a bad thing, something to be regretted, and I didn't. I would have done the whole thing over again even knowing how it would end.
(Would I really? It's a kind of maternal puzzle I can't get at even now: He isn't here, and yet how can I even consider wishing him away? I can't love and regret him both. He isn't here, but now someone else is, this thrilling, splendiferous second baby, and like any mother I can't imagine taking the smallest step from the historical path that led me here, to this one, to such a one.)
If you'd ask me five years ago—let's say five years ago and seven weeks—where I saw myself, five years and seven weeks in the future, I would have not mentioned a husband, children, living in six different countries. I was 35 and had never had a really serious romance. This mostly didn't bother me. I liked living alone. I even liked going to movies alone, and eating in restaurants alone. I would never have called myself single. The word suggests a certain willingness to flirt in bars or take out advertisements for oneself on the Internet: Single people are social in the hopes they won't be single forever. I was a spinster, a woman no one imagined marrying. That suited me. I would be the weird aunt, the oddball friend who bought the great presents and occasionally drank too much and fell asleep on the sofa. Actually, I already was that person.
Then I went to a party in New York thrown by Barnes and Noble, and discovered that the author of that weird illustrated book I'd liked so much was not, as I'd concluded from the work and author photo, a mid-40s balding puffy misanthrope, but a cheerful, floppy-haired 30-ish Englishman. A month later, he came to Boston to work on an art project and called me up. We went out every night for a week. At the end of the week, on our fifth date—which happened to be his 32nd birthday—he asked me very seriously if I wanted children.
The only other people who'd asked me that question were my similarly aging childless girlfriends. The answer I generally gave was: not abstractly, but if I met someone who really wanted children, and I thought he'd be a good father, and I was relatively sure we'd be married forever or at least for the length of two roughly concurrent childhoods, then yes, I would want children, yes please.
But I could tell that Edward wasn't asking idly. He has a wide forehead upon which all emotions are legible: sincerity, anxiety, apprehension, skepticism; he has passed it down to our sincere, apprehensive, occasionally skeptical second baby. My answer would make a difference.
"Yes," I said. "I think I would."
A week after that he moved into my apartment. When people ask where we met, I sometimes say, "I ordered him from Barnes and Noble."
We didn't call my occupant The Baby, which seemed inaccurate, cloying, and overly optimistic. For some complicated, funny-only-to-the-progenitors reason, we settled on the name Pudding. The baby ticking away was Pudding all September in Paris, and Pudding when we moved to the countryside in October. And then we had the amnio, and Pudding seemed to suit a little boy, the little boy we were making up day by day—me making him up literally, of course, cell by cell and gram by gram, and Edward and me making him up in conversation and dumb flights of fancy. Pudding! we'd say to my stomach. Pudding, what are you up to? Pudding was Pudding to us and soon enough to all our friends and family: Everyone called him that. I couldn't imagine naming a baby ahead of time, calling a baby by his earth name before he was a citizen of this world. But it was one of the first things we were told, after we found out that he was dead: The baby needed a name. I was sitting outside the first hospital of the day, waiting with Isabelle, the midwife we'd found to deliver the baby. We'd just heard the bad news. The baby had died. Soon we'd go to a different hospital. This hospital was only for living children.
Edward came back from calling his parents on our cell phone. He wasn't crying anymore but he had been. I told him we had to name the baby for legal reasons.
"We'll call him Pudding," he said, in one of those moments that sounds improbably sentimental to me now but at the moment was exactly right.
I'm glad we were in a foreign country. The French probably thought it was an ordinary Anglo-Saxon name, like William, or Randolph, or George.
When I was a teenager in Boston a man on the subway handed me a card printed with tiny pictures of hands spelling out the alphabet in sign language. I AM DEAF, said the card. You were supposed to give the man some money in exchange.
I have thought of that card ever since, during difficult times, mine or someone else's: Surely when tragedy has struck you dumb, you should be given a stack of cards that explains it for you. My first child was stillborn. I want people to know but I don't want to say it aloud. People don't like to hear it but I think they might not mind reading it on a card.
This, I am just thinking now, is that card.
The first time I called my friend Ann after Pudding died, she immediately asked what she could do, and then did everything, and then kept asking, and she sent an e-mail out to tell people I hadn't that was so beautiful—though I have never read it—that I got the most beautiful condolence notes in response.
"I don't know what to say," people wrote, or, "Words fail." What amazed me about all the notes I got—mostly through e-mail, because who knew how to find me?—were how people did know what to say, how words didn't fail. Even the words words fail comforted me. Before Pudding died, I'd thought condolence notes were simply small bits of old-fashioned etiquette, important but universally acknowledged as inadequate gestures. Now they felt like oxygen, and only now do I fully understand why: To know that other people were sad made Pudding realer. Some people apologized for sending sympathy through the ether; some overnighted notes; it made no difference to me. I read them, and reread them. They made me cry, which helped. They moved me, that is to say, they felt physical, they budged me from the sodden self-disintegrating lump I otherwise was. As I was going mad from grief the worst of it was that sometimes I believed I was making it all up. Here was some proof that I wasn't. One writer was so eloquent it inspired in me the only moment of true denial I remember from that terrible time: I thought, I'll save this, and show it to Pudding when he's older: It'll really mean something to him.
We decided to spend the summer in England, and chose North Norfolk because Edward had grown up there. We spent one week drinking heavily and smoking, and then we gave ourselves a shake, switched to a fish diet, daily exercise, and work. We were writers: We wrote. We ate local crab and local seaweed. We swam at Holkham Beach, an amazing stretch of sand that Edward remembered from his boyhood. We went to pubs. We saw children everywhere, of course, and babies. And Edward would always say, "I hope we can have another child," and I would answer, "Me, too."
Work, walks, wine. On the one hand it was comforting and even lovely, especially the long walks we took along the Norfolk coast, and on the other hand the very usualness, the loveliness, the freedom to do what we wanted was a kind of torture: Look at your unencumbered selves. After most deaths, I imagine, the awfulness lies in how everything's changed: You no longer recognize the shape of your days. There's a hole. It's person-shaped and it follows you everywhere, to bed, to the dinner table, in the car.
For us what was killing was how nothing had changed. We'd been waiting to be transformed, and now here we were, back in our old life.
Years before, I'd given away an antique postcard that said, beneath a drawing of a pine branch:
For thee I pine.
For thee I balsam.
(I regretted giving away that postcard almost immediately. The recipient didn't deserve it. Me in a nutshell: I don't regret a single instance of giving away my heart, but a novelty postcard with a really good pun? I still wish I hadn't.)
Now I pined, and pined. I pictured myself: a pine tree. The trail of the lonesome pine. I saw myself green and leaning on the beach, inclined toward my unreachable darling. To be deciduous would be better—I could stand brown and brittle, and then naked, and then in the spring I would start over again.
Actually, that's sort of what happened.
At the end of August we packed up the few things we'd brought with us to North Norfolk. We spent a few days in Suffolk, with Edward's family, and then a few days in London, then a few days in Boston. September 5 we drove to Saratoga Springs. The movers arrived and unloaded our stuff into the house. When they finally left, I went upstairs to the bathroom and took the pregnancy test I'd been carrying around in my purse all day, and brought it down to the kitchen as it developed to show Edward.
Well, what do you know. This baby would be due in May.
But before this: The day we left we got up at 5 a.m. and drove to Holkham Beach, the wide, bowl-shaped beach of Edward's childhood, and of our summer. On the way there, hares jumped along the edge of the roads—early risers? Going home to their burrows after a night of hell-raising?—and I prayed I wouldn't hit one, that this wouldn't be the first day I struck something living with a car. I didn't believe in omens anymore but still. We worried that someone else would have beat us to the beach. But we walked through the scrub pines to the sand and then over the great expanse of sand to the water's edge all alone.
The sky was peach and gold, a teacup of a morning, just enough clouds so as not to mock us. Why isn't there a dawnish equivalent for the word dusky? That's what the light was, beautiful and dawnish. We found a spit created by the receding tide. A spit curl, really. It spiraled around. We walked to the end of it. Edward had already removed the screw that kept the wooden urn shut. He took off the lid. The ashes were in a small white container like a film canister. We opened it up, and then we cast the ashes upon the water, hoping they would—what? He wouldn't return to us but someone would. It was tremendously comforting. Fingertip after fingertip, we let him fly.
It probably sounds ridiculous to observe that I was at that moment already a day or two pregnant, as nearly as I can reckon it. If this morning appeared in a movie, I would spit on it for its nauseating symbolism, the author taking liberties with probability to Give Hope to the Audience. I'm a cynic. I've had to go back to the e-mails I wrote that afternoon, to Ann and Lib and my parents, to make sure that it all really happened.
So: I will report now that when it was done we turned back and walked to the car, and passed by the first birder of the morning, a man in his 60s, and his grizzled dog. And that we got in the car, and then we decided to drive through the miles of parkland around Holkham Hall. We drove through the gates, past the pub we'd liked, and into the grounds.
Then Edward said, "Look!"
Huddled together under a nearby tree were about 30 does. In my memory they look slightly worried, twisting their heads over their shoulders—to look at us? Wondering where everyone else had gone to? All our married life, Edward will say, "Look," and point, and it will take me several moments: He has spotted the heron, the big brown hare, the cardinal so red it can only be called cardinal red. He grew up in the country. He sees the wildlife. I reflected on this truth as I watched the beautiful kaffeeklatsch of does worry beneath their tree. Then I looked to my right.
In the wide open, in a dip in the land, were hundreds of deer. Hundreds. Fawns, does, stags, everyone, in a giant herd, the stags marshalling the edges.
"Look," I said.
The deer moved around each other. They shifted but they didn't flee. We could see another car stopped on the other side of the pack, and two people on foot. We bipeds held still.
"I've never seen a stag in the wild before," Edward said. I said, "Well, then."
Finally we drove away. We had to get on the road; it was time for the rest of our lives. On the other side of Holkham Hall, the mawkish entity orchestrating all of this threw in for good measure a clump of stags—15 stood behind a knoll, and when we passed by they ducked down like juvenile delinquents as though to hide, though their antlers still forked up.
I don't believe in omens. Still, it's nice to see nature try her best to persuade you.
But if you ask me whether this felt like closure, I'll tell you what I've come to believe:
Closure is bullshit.
When I was pregnant the second time, I was invited to give a reading in New Orleans. At an afternoon reception, I sat and chatted with the woman who'd donated the money for the program that had brought me there. We sat in folding chairs against a wall, a few feet from the buffet table. Just small talk. She asked me how my pregnancy was going. Then she said, "I was so sorry when I heard about your first child. My first child was stillborn, too."
My heart kicked on like a furnace. Suddenly tears were pouring down my face.
"Oh no!" said the woman. "I didn't mean for that to happen!"
I laughed and grabbed some napkins from the table and tried to explain myself, though even now it's hard to find the words. What came over me was gratitude and an entirely inappropriate love. I didn't know the woman but I loved her.
It's a sort of kinship, is all I can say, as though there is a family tree of grief. On this branch the lost children, on this the suicided parents, here the beloved mentally ill siblings. When something terrible happens you discover all of a sudden that you have a new set of relatives, people with whom you can speak in the shorthand of cousins.
Twice now since Pudding has died I have heard the story of someone who knows someone who's had a stillborn child, and it's all I can do not to book a flight immediately, to show up somewhere I'm not wanted, just so that I can say, "It happened to me, too," because it meant so much to me to hear it. "It happened to me, too," meant: "It's not your fault." And, "You are not a freak of nature.: And, "This does not have to be a secret."
Over the past year, and over my second pregnancy, of course I thought about Pudding all the time, every day, possibly every waking hour. But mostly I didn't think about the details of his death. If I climbed into that pit I'd never crawl out.
Then it was early April.
Then it was mid-April.
We'd known I'd be induced all along, and I'd said that I wanted to avoid the end of April, particularly the 27th, not for my own sake but for the kid's: It seemed like a too weighty fact to have in your biography, being born a year to the day after your brother who didn't survive.
On April 30, I had my first real crisis of faith. "This baby isn't moving," I told Edward, and I called the practice, and they told me to come in, and the nurses rushed me into the nonstress test room, and everything was fine.
A year and three days after the morning I checked out of the hospital in France, I got dressed in a pair of stretchy black pants and a stretchy black top and put on lipstick and asked Edward to take my photograph: I hadn't posed for a single picture for all of this pregnancy. I stood on the porch and smiled. It was a lovely spring day. Then we walked to the hospital in Saratoga Springs so that I could be induced that morning.
At 7:36 that evening the doctor placed a toasty warm squalling wet baby on my chest, and Edward and I were laughing, and laughing, and laughing. He was actual! An actual baby, pulled from the dream of my body into the shocking wakefulness of earthly life. Maybe he thought the same of us: all that warmth, those dim voices, the love taps, the questions—I thought I'd made you up.
"It's a little boy!" said Edward.
"Did you see?" said Dr. Knoeller.
"A little boy!" Edward told her.
He was small and skinny, 6 pounds and change, 20 inches long.
In the hospital room, we tried out names.
"August," Edward said. "We could call him Augie, or Gus. Gus, I think."
That night, when Edward went home to get some sleep, I tried it out. The baby was in his plastic hospital bassinet, swaddled into a neat and uncanny little package. I could only see his head in its mint green cap. "Hello, Gus," I said. "Hello, Gussie. Hello, Gusling. Hello, Gosling."
Sometime around 2 a.m., it had settled in my mind, and so I told the baby the story of his older brother. I really did. This isn't literary fancifulness. He was a little, little baby, and I told him the story out loud, not knowing when we might tell him again. I wanted him to know how glad we were to see him, and how sad we were that he'd never know his older brother.
"I think your name is Gus," I told him, and of course now I can't imagine why we thought his name could ever be anything else.
And now I'm thinking of that Florida lady again, the one who wanted a book about the lighter side of a child's death, and I know: All she wanted was permission to remember her child with pleasure, instead of grief. To remember that he was dead but to remember him without pain. He's dead but of course she still loves him and that love isn't morbid or bloodstained or unsightly, it doesn't need to be shoved away.
Elizabeth McCracken is the author of Here's Your Hat What's Your Hurry, The Giant's House, and Niagara Falls All Over Again. This fall, she will be a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University.