School

“I’m sorry your baby died.” Gregory sidles over to me on the playground, stands close but not too close. He fidgets with his fingers, shifts back and forth almost imperceptibly from foot to foot. He’s always doing this, little nervous movements. He usually gives me a hug—one of the only kids in fifth grade who still hugs teachers—but it must be too hot today. “Was it a boy or a girl?”

Gregory is not in my class, but he stopped me in the hallway nearly every day of my pregnancy to ask if I knew yet if I was having a boy or girl. Every day I told him I didn’t need to know, it was going to be a surprise, but he’d ask again the next day, like he just couldn’t believe I was for real.

“A boy,” I say. “His name is Joseph.” As I say it, I wonder about the is, if  Gregory will notice I used the present tense. I put my fingers on my necklace, engraved with Joseph’s name, and hold it out a little so he can see.

“Joseph, oh,” Gregory says. “That’s a nice necklace.” He sounds much older than his eleven years. “I’m sorry your baby had to die,” he goes on. There is a pause. “Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a magic spell that could bring him back to life?”

Oh, oh. A little catch in my throat. “Yes, that would be really nice,” I say. I choose my next words carefully, try to keep my voice from cracking. “Is there someone you’re missing, too?” I ask.

“My baby sister,” Gregory says immediately. “She would be ten this year.”

Of course. He is not the first student who has told me about a brother or sister who died. I am glad the sun is bright and I am squinting, and no one can see how close to tears I am. “I’m sorry your baby sister died,” I say.

I watch Gregory wander away and I wish I could take him home with me. He is quiet, sensitive, compassionate. I know last year there were reports of abuse at home, an uncle or boyfriend beating him up to make him more manly. This is why he is always shifting, always moving, ready to duck or flee. It is hard for me, in these situations, not to think of the word deserve. As in, his mother doesn’t deserve to have children.

Gregory couldn’t have known his sister, but he’s still missing her. I love how easily my students talk about their dead brothers and sisters, how they count them in their tally of siblings still. One of my students says she has four brothers. “One of them died, though,” she adds, like she’s stating his hair color or eye color.  “I think it’s called SIDS.”

Some of them were born still. Some died as infants. Some have died older, too. Some seem to have died years before my students were born. But they are still a brother, still a sister. Gone, but not forgotten.

“You never get over it,” the mother whose baby died of SIDS says to me, my first week back at work after Joseph died. “You never get over it, but it gets easier. You learn to live with it.”

Another mother, one of the conservative Pentecostal families, told me she’d been praying for me. At the end of a parent-teacher conference, as she was leaving the room, she turned back around. “We are so sorry for your loss,” she said. “We know God will give you strength.” Tears filled my eyes, and I didn’t know what else to say other than, “Thank you,” over and over as I walked her out the door. Thank you for thinking of me, for praying for me, for not saying any of the wrong things even though I know you and I differ on so many theological issues. I felt awkward, grateful, moved.

These are not the only parents who have reached out to me. A mother of a student I had last year mailed me a letter through the school. Her son was one of my favorite students, one of those smart, charismatic, bad boys. His mother was a force to be contended with, a protective she-bear always at my door over some incident. We didn’t always see eye to eye.

In her letter she told me about her own stillbirth. She told me to call for anything I needed, any time, because she knew what I was going through. Then she apologized for writing me, for possibly adding to my sadness with her own story, for bothering me.

When I finally saw her at school, a few weeks after I was back, it was during dismissal. I was walking my whole class up the hall to the buses. She stopped and gave me a hug, asked me how I was doing, and it was all I could do not to lose it completely in front of all my students.

I had another teacher break the news to my students when my baby died. First thing Monday morning when I wasn’t back at work. I’ve always been open and honest with them, and I knew they needed to know. They’d watched my belly grow bigger, commented on it even though I told them it was impolite to talk about anyone size, pregnant or not. They’d been sweetly worried about me, too, not wanting me to jump or turn or twist and hurt the baby. I knew, too, they could handle the news of my loss, because so many of them have had their own losses. They are babylost brothers and babylost sisters.

They sent me a package of cards while I was out on medical leave. A lot of roses and flowers and a hodgepodge of phrases clearly copied from what some teacher had written on the board. They’re not very good writers. And then, a card with a cartoon picture of a baby’s head, with that one curly hair on its head, and the big question underneath, “Boy or girl?”

Sometimes, the innocent question from a child comes at exactly the right time. What an adult might have judged as insensitive or inappropriate at a time like this, the child went ahead and asked what was most on her mind—well, was it a boy or a girl? It gave me the opportunity to write them back, to tell them I’d had a sweet little boy and named him Joseph.

My first day back, I cried, and half of them cried when I started crying, but we got through it. Since then, I have tried to tuck my grief away at school, let myself get carried away with the busy distractions of each day—delight in them, get frustrated by them, try to inspire them, teach them, mediate their childish but important dramas.

It’s not that I don’t think my students can handle my grief. It’s more that I just can’t let myself go there. It’s too far of a distance to travel from “functional” to “grief.” Instead my grief hums along under the surface, a constant vibration that’s almost comforting to me throughout the school day. Until I get in my car at the end of the day and the layers I’ve built up around me—layers of strength, patience, an attempt at armor—can slough off with the miles of my drive.

© Burning Eye

Advertisements

Accidents

I don’t believe in fate.

 

I don’t believe in omens, or signs, or that our night dreams come true, or that if I pick up a penny showing tails I’ll have bad luck. I don’t believe everything happens for a reason. Not everything is “meant to be” and a coincidence is just a coincidence.

 

Accidents happen.

 

This is what I have to tell myself in order to make sense of life and death. Of my life and our baby’s death. Mother Nature’s laws dictate that everything dies, and sometimes accidents happen that bring that death sooner than expected.

I first learned this truth when my friend Hans died three years ago. He fell off a roof while installing solar panels. God did not take Hans for any reason—Hans was one of the most gentle, caring souls I have ever met. His smile made thousands of friends. Hans died in a tragic accident. Accidents happen. End of story.

I tucked that story away in my heart and didn’t let myself search for further meaning. I severed those neural pathways in my brain so that each question dead-ended in that one word: accident.

It’s one half of our baby’s cause of death, too. Cord accident.

 

But I’m still trying to read the events of my life as some sort of sign. When I get sick and have to cancel my trip to Asheville one weekend, I wonder reflexively if this is the universe’s way of telling me I wasn’t ready to go back there. That maybe I wasn’t ready to face sitting on my sister’s couch, where I last felt our baby move. Maybe I wasn’t ready to walk into my parents’ guest room where we waited an agonizing hour to count his kicks that never came. You’re sick, the universe must be saying, to spare yourself the pain of physical place triggering memory.

            I’m still looking for reasons.

 

            And how can I not believe in omens?

Two nights before our baby died, my father had a dream that Death was knocking at his window. He woke himself up with a roar and a violent shove as he lunged up in bed to try to keep Death from coming in.

How can I not believe that sometimes dreams are prophetic?

 

I catch myself still in this old way of thinking. Reaching out to touch A’s face, to squeeze her shoulder, search for her smile, a hug. She is my light in this darkness. Surely we were meant to be. Surely every moment of our lives led up to our joining, finally, when the time was right.

I want to look back and see meaning. I want to be able to follow one thread in the tapestry woven by the Fates and see how it all fits together. I want to find the reasons and see what was meant to be.

But I want to pick and choose. If A and I were meant to be, then our baby was meant to die, and I cannot accept that. I cannot exist in a world with such logic.

 

We talk of Schrodinger’s cat, of this alternate reality we have been thrust into. In some other world, maybe, we brought our baby home from the hospital and are living the happy life we’d planned. But we cannot exist consciously in both places at once. That other life is gone, and here we are with empty arms and broken hearts and so many questions that have no satisfactory answers.

Accidents happen.

This is not satisfactory, either.

There is little comfort in it. There is a world of comfort there, too.

 

“How are you doing spiritually?” the grief counselor asks.

My whole sense of the world is turned upside down, shaken up like a snow globe. In the swirl and clouds, I can’t see yet where things settle out. I can’t see what is still fixed firmly to the base and what has come loose or where it will land.

I used to believe in a God who acts in our lives. Not a capricious puppet master who moves us around on life’s stage for entertainment or revenge, but one who does move us sometimes, who can intervene through the power of prayer. A force for good who will come if you call.

I’m not sure what to pray for anymore. I’m not sure if I should keep wishing on eyelashes, railroad tracks, shooting stars. None of them did any good while I was pregnant. None of them saved my baby’s life. There’s not even any point in worry—and I was raised to believe there is moral virtue in worrying. Anxiety is futile. Accidents can still happen.

Knowing that doesn’t make life any less terrifying.

 

I don’t see this as a crisis of faith. I still have faith—what else is there left for me to possess? I still believe in God.

I believe in a God who weeps.

I believe in a God who loves.

I still pray veni sancte spiritus and God be with us, even when I don’t feel God’s presence.

But it feels more like momentum, this belief I have. A giant wave that I’ve been riding since Joseph’s death. Its roots are in the deep ocean of my past, when I could summon a Living God’s presence whenever I needed. The wave is still rolling because that’s what waves do, the time and place of their breaking determined by the physics of ocean depth and current and the geographic position of the shore. The water gets more and more shallow, an echo of the way I feel God.

 

“Two or three things I know for sure,” Dorothy Allison writes in her book of the same name, “and one of them is…”

I know that all living things die.

Babies sometimes die.

And there are accidents.

Beyond that, I cannot say.

© Burning Eye

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A and I went to the woods on Mother’s Day. We left Joseph’s name in the woods in a few places. A took this picture of the shadow of my hands, at the top of a mountain. The day was good. It was good to be outside. Good to be with A in the sunshine in a beautiful place.

© Burning Eye