“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