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