A post on Glow in the Woods.
You have become the shape of your name.
Two syllables more familiar to me than your face—
You become the shape of each letter.
The curve of J that fits into my empty arms.
The o an open place your absence occupies.
We say it differently, your mother and I.
She, a rich vibration of sound;
I, a whispered second syllable. Sibilant s.
e that tucks into my womb, pressing against my heart.
The ph an exhale, a sigh, a longing.
The artist sends us a small preview of Joseph’s portrait. It arrives by email. She wants to know if it’s what we want, if it’s okay, if it’s right. Anne shows me the picture on her phone. A sweet little sleeping baby nestled in a cloud of blanket and winter hat.
Is that my son?
I recognize features. His little chin. His newborn nose and the shape of his cheeks. His skinny neck where the blanket is pulled back, hand tucked up.
Is that my little boy?
I don’t know,
I don’t know,
I don’t know.
How am I supposed to know? I only held him for an hour.
The portrait so different from what I expected. But what was I expecting? Is this what we wanted
To see what our baby would look like if he were sleeping instead of dead. To see his skin glowing with life instead of discolored from lack of oxygen. To be able to look at him and see a beautiful face instead of a bruised one.
Joseph, oh, Joseph, does this look like you?
I am confused and distressed. Should Anne write the artist back? Should she tell her it’s okay? I shrug over and over. And if it’s not okay, why isn’t the portrait okay? How could I ever pinpoint what about it is wrong?
I don’t know what my son looks like.
I will never know what my son looks like.
I can look at his few pictures; I can look at his portrait. But I can never go back to the hospital and peer at his face, study him, memorize him. I can never go back and hold him again.
This night, I lose Joseph all over again.
Grief catches me from behind and rips an icy knife through my heart. I am cut in two but cannot fall away—Grief’s arms hold me tight around the neck and my middle, taking my breath away.
All week long I am the stricken woman in Kathe Kollowicz’s sketch Death Comes for a Woman.
I didn’t know it could still be like this.
It is a few days before the portrait arrives in the mail. We glance at the package all afternoon and through dinner, just sitting there. Anne wants to open it but I’m not sure yet.
She tells me she’s been thinking. Maybe this is what it’s like for adoptive parents, she says, when they meet their baby for the first time. They say, This is my baby, but they have to get used to who their baby is, what their baby looks like.
She says, I’d like to adopt this image of Joseph. He’s a cute little baby.
I watch her cut away the tape and pull back the cardboard.
And I recognize him. The softness around him already becoming familiar. His face clear and peaceful. Is he dreaming? It’s almost as if the artist has put a faint smile on his lips, but when I study his mouth, I can’t prove it.
Is this what you would have looked like, Joseph?
Sleeping, had you been able to sleep. A few days old, resting in my arms, or your mother’s.
Is this you, Joseph?
Every few days, I go to sit in Joseph’s room—the purple room, we call it; the art room; the grieving room; the nursery-again-someday. I sit in Joseph’s glider and look at his portrait.
Adopting his face.
Getting accustomed to seeing my son.
© Burning Eye
Writing at Glow today.
Friday is Joseph’s due date. I am surprised to find myself thinking, He would have been a year old.
Most days, Joseph is always only a baby. An infant. I do not track him against his friends-that-would-have-been. I do not think, and now he would have smiled, and now he would have laughed, and now he would have walked. He is my little one, my little boy; he is Baby Joseph.
He was not born alive. He never turned a day, a week, a month old. His due date was not.
But today I think, He should have been a year old.
I am caught in a dark swell of grief that I wasn’t expecting.
* * *
Thursday my mother tells me I’ve done everything right, complimenting me for my mourning. I squirm under her gaze, under her implicit judgment. She thinks I’m special—that’s her job, she’s my mother. She’s prone to cheesy idioms and exaggerated adulation. You’re just the bee’s knees.
She says I’ve done good work this year.
She doesn’t know how close under the surface the tears are this week. It’s not her fault—I haven’t told her.
“I’m still doing it,” I say.
Wednesday I am the first one to arrive at yoga. The teacher asks me, “How are you?” and I hesitate—actually pause mid-step—realizing.
“I’m okay,” I lie.
I spend the whole class wishing I were at home so I could let go and cry and cry and cry.
I think at the time that this is the start of this wave, but looking back later I can tell it had already started to build quietly against the ocean floor. The 25th, maybe. The 27th. Thirteen months.
I think at the time that this is the end of this wave, but still it washes over me. I tread water still. I cannot yet touch bottom.
* * *
Monday talking on the phone to my sister, my not-quite-four niece S asks to “see me.” We switch over to FaceTime and she peers into the tiny screen and chatters in the way not-quite-four-year-olds do. She hugs my sister around her neck and says, “I love you, Mommy.” They have a philosophical conversation about being lovey-dovey and being mean, and how when we’re tired or hungry we get grumpy and say things we don’t mean.
Then S looks back into the phone and says to me, “We’re going to light Baby Joseph’s candle tonight. We’re going to make a wish for him.”
My sister gives her daughter a teary look. I haven’t heard S talk about my son since he died, since those first confusing weeks when she kept asking where the baby was.
“We’re going to wish that he was alive,” S continues. “And we’re going to wish that we could have Christmas with him.”
“That’s a really nice wish,” I say.
What else is there to say?
© Burning Eye