she looks like you

Joseph, your new baby sister E is here. Safe and sound, born alive, still breathing these twelve days later. I wrote this poem for her, for you.

 

 

In the dark she looks like you.

Lips parted, mouth open

Tiny chin sunken.

Asleep

Or dead.

Afraid, I lean closer,

Waiting for a breath,

Peering at swollen newborn eyelids.

They are cracked,

Seeing—what? -–in the dark.

 

My mother tells me of this vision as I go into labor:

An angel bringing her to me.

I am shaken.

I hang up the phone as quickly as I can and try to banish it from my mind,

Thinking only of my father battling Death,

His vivid dream

As you lay dying inside me.

 

She meant well, my mother.

She saw it as cheerful, and safe.

But I do not think of angels this way.

 

I say a swift prayer

cross my fingers

make a sign to ward off the evil eye

 

No, I do none of these things.

I do not see the world this way.

 

I only hold your mother’s hand.

She is my comfort.

 

Maybe it is Joseph, bringing her to us,

Your mother says,

Tears in both our eyes.

I shake my head slightly.

How would I know, if it were you?

 

I search for you in the shadows of your new sister’s eyes and mouth.

I hold her thin body close,

Lips against her forehead.

I never kissed you.

 

How would I know, if she were you?

 

© Burning Eye

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today, 1/31

My sister calls to tell me being an adult sucks. She says, You’d think things like addiction, losing your job, and babies dying were rare events. But they’re not. They happen all the fucking time.

Her dog is dying. Died. Today.

Today, your due date, Little One.

Due date, shmoo date, my brain retorts. It shouldn’t mean anything. This date was always hypothetical. My sentences cycle into the conditional tense of some parallel life that I can barely imagine. Yet I try. You would have been two, if you’d been born today. We would have already experienced these firsts I have with your sister. I would have been a different kind of mother. I might have—maybe, probably—been pregnant again, or you might have even had a brother or sister that could not now possibly exist.

It feels as far away from now as a distant star. Something incomprehensible, like how we see its light even if it died millions of years ago.

Two years ago today we drove ourselves to the butterfly house and stood, fragile creatures that we were, among them and saw your paper kite butterfly for the first time.

This morning as I am getting dressed your sister fingers the black lacy lines of your butterfly tattoo on my shoulder. But it just feels like skin and she quickly turns her attention to the more interesting bumps and moles on my chest.

Your new cousin was born this morning. Another little girl. We get the news at lunch, and a picture. I search her face for you.

I will always be doing this. Looking for you. Wondering. The way expectant parents do, only your gestation has become my whole life.

It could just be a day, A says. I think she is trying to say today doesn’t have to mean anything.

But it’s too late.

Today, already, a birth, a death. When two years ago there was nothing. It was all over by then, your birth, your death. Our lives, already derailed onto those parallel tracks, and us, already hurtling here, away from you.

I realized last night I no longer relive your death every day.

But I do say good morning to you every day, and you and I, we say goodnight to your sister each night. I think of you, not so much as you would have been, but as you were, so briefly.

A faint glimmer of starlight still reaching me.

he might have liked trains

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“He might have liked trains,” she said.

And we both teared up, staring at the toy on the bottom shelf.

He might have…

Dear Little One, sweet Joseph, this would have been your birthday present. Two years old.

Instead, this will be your second stillbirthday present, bound for the pediatrics ward at the hospital, for other children to play with.

© Burning Eye

the shape of you

You have become the shape of your name.

Two syllables more familiar to me than your face—

jo

seph

 

You become the shape of each letter.

jo

The curve of J that fits into my empty arms.

The o an open place your absence occupies.

 

-seph

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.

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

Advent

A. turns to me in bed and asks, “How do you explain nostalgia to a child?” I wait to see where she’s going with this. “Like, how are we going to explain to our children why we have so many crèche scenes? Neither of us is exactly religious.”

I wonder in the darkness if I should quibble with her characterization of me. Am I religious now? I certainly used to be. I decide not to derail the conversation and turn it towards my idle curiosity about my own faith since Joseph died.

We have just put up our Christmas tree, strung lights, unwrapped some of our ornaments—there are two new ones this year for Joseph—and found places for the four manger scenes around the living room. The beautiful pop-up crèche advent calendar that A’s dad gave us this year already sits on the coffee table.

A reminds me every year or two that her mother used to put their Wise Men figurines far away from the stable, and move them closer every day. They had several crèche scenes, as did my family. We each bring different childhood traditions to our Christmases together, but this is one thing we have in common.

My parents had a little crèche from Latin America when I was little. Its doors opened and closed on paper hinges. A lover of all things miniature, I was drawn to the ornament and played with it each year, opening and closing the stable doors on the colorful little family.

We also had a larger crèche of hard wax figurines that got unpacked out of a rickety wooden stable year after year. They were old, my grandmother’s, and some of the detailed coloring was scratched off. One of the shepherds was continually losing its head, which I tried multiple times to melt back on. The one angel that ultimately remained was missing her feet and wouldn’t stand. But still, I loved it. I played with it like a dollhouse, arranging and rearranging, strewing dried pine needles across the stable floor for authenticity.

“Well,” I say to A. I don’t really have to think about it, but I am surprised I already know the answer. “It’s about family. A new mother and father, a baby born. Christmas is about family. ”

 

I have always loved the Christmas story. Though from year to year, my relationship to it has changed—I cycle through folktale, pagan origins, Biblical scholarship, fervent religious belief in the birth of a great Light in our world, which I’ve sometimes called Christ. I am drawn to Mary, a young mother pregnant for the first time, afraid, tired, unsure of this burden God has given her. I feel tenderness toward Joseph, the man who has taken Mary and all her controversy into his house to care for her and protect her and be a father to this prophetic child. I admire the incredible faith they both had.

When I found out I was pregnant with our son, I dug out the journal I had been saving for this occasion since I was 18 and turned to the inside flap where I wrote out the Magnificat. My soul magnifies the Lord. I felt blessed. I was so happy. My journal from those months, when I wrote, was full of God. I was full of God, full of love, full of faith. Being pregnant felt like the star on top of the tree, the final piece of my life’s dreams falling into place.

I was pregnant through Advent. Like Mary, expecting a baby. Christmas was exciting. We bought our first real Christmas tree, and dreamed about how this would be our last Christmas without children. Maybe next year we wouldn’t travel, we’d make our family come to us. After all, having a little baby entitles you to certain privileges.

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When we decorated gingerbread cookies with my dad, I did myself as Mary, in her typical blue robe and blue veil. I added a little icing baby floating in my belly. (Decorating elaborate cookies is one of my favorite family tradition.)

 

How different I feel this December, pregnant again a year later. I am tentative, protective of the little sparks of hope I sometimes feel. Nowhere in my journal or my letters to this new baby do I talk about God.

It is painful to think of Christmas as the birth of anything good in the world. My first baby died on Christmas day. It is hard to think about Mary, her joyful song to God, awaiting the birth of her own baby, year after year throughout history. And yet, I’ve been thinking about her a lot lately. Remembering that she, too, lost her son. The baby she carried and birthed and raised. Something in this knowledge softens me towards her. Something in this tragedy makes Christmas a little more sorrowful.

 

This year, we buy another real Christmas tree, hang a wreath and stockings. I listen to Christmas music all day. I play my flute for the first time in months, drawn to Advent songs in the Methodist hymnal I grew up with. This nostalgia for the Christmas season is powerful. We are both surprised by how these parts of Christmas come so naturally, so easily.

Beyond that, I’m not sure how to think of Christmas right now. I am afraid of it. I am afraid it will pass like any other Christmas, that I will unintentionally shut down emotionally just so I can hold it together. I am afraid I will be an emotional wreck, that nothing we do to honor Joseph will feel right, that I’ll get angry, I’ll be inconsolable. I am afraid to feel relief when this first stillbirthday passes. I am afraid to remember, afraid I will forget.

 

And in the midst of all this, I wonder what this Christmas means for this new baby who thumps and rolls in my belly. I dare to hope that this time will be different. That the earth will turn again and Light will be reborn in our lives.

© Burning Eye

Lifeboat

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A is my lifeboat. A lot of babylost mamas say their spouse is their rock, but a rock is too hard, too rough, too heavy to be a metaphor for A. So I say she is my lifeboat. It is because I have her that I know I will live. Because we love each other, cling to each other, I know we will survive. We are both soft, bouyant, both adrift in this sea of grief.

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In this one, we are afloat in a bathtub. One evening when I could do nothing else, she held me in the bath.

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Little by little, I have overcome certain fears. Fear of leaving the house. Fear of running into someone I know. Fear of being asked where the baby is. Little by little, I have connected with other babylost parents, and I don’t feel so alone. Now, in this sea of grief where A and I embrace on our raft, there are other rafts, too. There is company in this lonely journey.

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© Burning Eye