two and a half (the loss of you)

Walking through the house claiming rooms. Touching this, touching that. Standing on tiptoes to see over. Crouching down to peer under.

Your chubby legs, in shorts for the summer, lengthening. Able to climb onto the sofa without a stool, then onto the bed. Sitting at the table sometimes instead of your high chair.

Your babbles. Your first words. Complete sentences.

Coming around the corner into the room where I stand, calling my name.

Singing songs with vague words, rushing the parts you don’t quite know. Wonderbwidges falling down, f-a-l-l-i-n-g d-o-w-n. Patting your head, clapping your hands, stomping your feet.

Building cities of blocks and Duplos. Towers, houses, cars. Engineering bridges, airports and train stations, roads to and from. Refusing to clean up so your city stays sprawled on the living room rug for weeks.

Jumping on the bed. Throwing yourself backwards, flopping, rolling. Tickle fights. Hearing you laugh. Your giggle.

Resting your head on my shoulder when you are sleepy, or hurt, or sad. Your hair against my nose. Head hot and sweaty.

The weight of you in my arms, heavy.

*            *            *

Joseph was two and a half yesterday.

Joseph never would have been two and a half yesterday.

I still get caught in these subtleties of tense and mood. Are we speaking hypothetically? I ask myself. Possible? or probable?

This grief gets lighter, I think, but more specific.

*            *            *

There are still a handful of people, outside of the family, who remember. Someone remembers to acknowledge my first pregnancy. Joseph’s name spoken here and there. A friend who texts me now and then. I know Joseph is held in the hearts of other babylost friends, even if they don’t say it. Because I am this way, too. Remembering, quietly.

© Burning Eye

losing you all over again

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

The Loss of You

You as a big brother.

Explaining to you that my growing belly means you’ll have a little brother or sister someday soon. That ease, the assumption that our future is certain. “There’s a baby in there,” we’d say, patting the taut skin. You, believing the impossibility of this miracle, putting your tiny palm flat until the baby kicks and you giggle, or yelp in surprise, or kiss my skin and the baby underneath.

Peering into my belly button as my belly swells to check on the new baby. “No, it’s ready yet,” you might announce, like your cousin S did, as if checking on a cake in the oven.

Your mother bringing you to the hospital to meet your baby brother or sister. Wild-eyed, excited, disoriented, a little scared. Not knowing how much your life is about to change.

 

© Burning Eye

 

The Loss of You

Your first plane ride, all the way to California. Being those people at security, unable to get the stroller to fold. Carseat knocking knocking against my legs as we hurry to make the connection. Watching your face carefully as the plane takes off and the air pressure changes. Apologetic glances to the other passengers when you cry.

Hearing you cry.

Introducing you to Uncle J, and Aunt A, and your cousin O. Comparing your faces, cheekbones, the coloring around the eyes. Listening to stories of O at your age, wondering how much is genetics and how much is just babies are babies.

Learning which parts of you are you, which parts are me, which parts are him.

Walking through their neighborhood, teaching you the names of west coast plants. Pointing out all the colors in the yards filled with flowers. Stopping to let O collect rocks, having to explain to her that they are too small for you to play with just yet.

Seeing what you’d do with their dog. Pull fistfuls of his fur. Poke his eyes. Lean your open, drooling mouth towards him to give him a kiss.

The way you roll onto your belly, lever your knees under you, push up and rock. The way you look around, deciding what is tantalizing enough to begin to crawl.

Watching you crawl.

Tucking you in to the pack-and-play, your legs kicking in your sleep sack. Singing you a song. Saying a little prayer that you will sleep in a strange place, with new sounds, strange smells, a different slant of light.

Watching your eyes close, your mouth fall open in slumber. Wondering what you are dreaming about as we listen to your breath, look for the rise and fall of your chest.

Your breath.

 

© Burning Eye

The Loss of You

Seeing the way your face changes, loses its newborn wrinkled alien-ness. The way your eyes lose their puffiness, how your nose stretches out. Your cheeks filling out, fattening up. Your face smiling, first involuntary, then on purpose, at all the delight in the world.

Your face at six months, seven months, taking on its new shape. Theorizing which features come from me, which come from our donor, joking which ones come, impossibly, from your mother.

Your face at one, snaggle-toothed, awkward. Watching it resolve into itself, your mouth forming words, opinions, wants. Your determined look as you put your head down, ball up your fists, and run that blind, head-first little-boy run.

Your face at three, four, five years old. Counting freckles. Searching for dimples.

Your face lengthening in adolescence, a darkening upper lip, the first hairs of a beard perhaps. Watching you rub your chin proudly.

Your face as an adult. Seeing who you become. Looking backwards at baby pictures to find the face of who you were always waiting to be.

Knowing you.

© Burning Eye

The Loss of You

 
Watching your mother hold you, rock you, soothe you. Passing you off in the middle of the night. Competing for who can change a diaper the most efficiently, who can snap onesies faster, who can stuff squirming arms into little sleeves.

Mother-baby yoga, and mother-baby pilates, and daycare, and all the friends we would have made.

Shared school vacations with your cousin A, the same age as you. Evening conversations with my sister, commiserating and complaining about the cousins’ nth grade teachers.

Being bossed around by S, the oldest cousin on that side. Maybe she would direct you in plays. Maybe she would make you chase her around the house and then slip out the front door and laugh as you kept running in circles, looking for her. Maybe she would teach you to ride her balance bike. The rules of helmet safety. Call you a little kid.

Thanksgiving at the beach, watching you eat sand. Being the oldest cousin on that side.

Showing you off at my 10th college reunion, and your mother’s 10th college reunion. Sharing stories of new motherhood with old friends.

Swapping birth stories. Hours of labor, minutes spent pushing, number of stitches. Delivery room battles, hollering, the funniest thing we said to our spouses in the throes of labor pain.

Maternity leave skype-while-nursing with R and her baby. Hikes with T and her baby. Comparing feeding habits, sleep habits, growth, hair, weight, every day with A at school.

My coworkers saying, “I told you so,” when they found out you were a boy.

Showing pictures of you to my class.

Telling my students how much hair you were born with, when your cousins were bald. That’s genetics, I teach. That’s your DNA, that code we’ve been talking about.

The birth we had planned. Waterbirth. Unmedicated. Uninduced. Your mother and me and our doula and my sister and C. Focused, deliberate, one contraction at a time. All the breathing I practiced. Changing positions. Easing you down the birth canal. I would look at your head crowning in the mirror. Touch you. Maybe your mother would catch you as I pushed.

Taking you to the park by our house. Pushing your stroller as the redbuds pop and the forsythia tickles my nose. Counting daffodils.

The woman with a baby down the street who was supposed to be my friend. I pass her house every day. I’ve never met her.

Walks up to Beef Burger to buy softserve ice cream the way my family used to walk us to Zesto’s for a dip cone. We would walk home, licking, dripping, sticky.

Holding you. Kissing your cheeks. Uncurling your thin fingers.

© Burning Eye