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

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.

I remember this body

I remember this body.

 

The sudden softness of belly skin,

a tender curling inwards

over fresh emptiness.

 

A disbelief.

 

The rib cage spread wide,

trying to remember how to

settle

and close.

 

A lightness.

 

I remember this freckle,

hidden for months

under my roundness.

And the slight brown curve of the linea nigra.

 

These breasts, heavy with milk.

 

In labor I cried.

I want both my babies.

I want to birth both my babies.

 

But I had already birthed you.

 

Mothered my emptiness.

 

This body—

stretched,

worn,

but strong—

has birthed both our babies.

 

The linea nigra fades.

I have new scars now,

red stria

clawing the soft curve of my belly.

 

This body,

once hollowed by death,

These arms,

aching with your absence,

These breasts,

heavy with milk

 

nourish a new life.

 

 

© Burning Eye

Dear Joseph,

You are a big brother!

Your sister Margot is here. She arrived on Sunday, April 6, with her own story. But this is not the place for her story. This is yours.

I tell her about you in the night. I whisper to her about her brother. How he will always be a baby, because he isn’t here with us.

You aren’t here with us.

There was a moment during your sister’s labor when this settled into me with a heavy grief. I wanted to give birth to you again, give you another chance. I want both my babies, I wailed, and your mother and I wrapped our arms around each other and cried and cried.

She looks like you. There is a face she makes, after nursing, her little chin set back and her face completely relaxed. It’s remarkable, your grandpa says, how much she resembles your portrait. You look like siblings

Well, now we know the artist got something right.

She has beautiful dark hair like you. And your mouth.

Your mother takes a picture of her against my chest, your name on my necklace next to her face and mine, and my heart.

I miss you.

Mama

 

© Burning Eye

my little boy

I look at Joseph’s picture every day for a few days before Christmas. We put two of his photos on the computer, make them black and white to hide some of the discolorations, and send them to an artist who is going to do a pencil portrait of him for us. We meant to delete them right away. Keep them safe and private on the CD the hospital gave us, tucked away in Joseph’s box. And yet we didn’t.

Looking at those pictures, deciding which ones to send the artist, writing out the details of how we want him to look in the portrait, was bizarre. I hadn’t seen Joseph’s pictures in months. Sometimes I thought about them, wondered if I was ready again, but then I wouldn’t get them out. I would look at his footprints, hold his blankie, rub the soft edge of his hat.

This time I felt like I had to be objective somehow, to try and see his features as the artist might, what the contrast in the photos is like, the shape of his nose, his eyelids, his lips.

But all I could think was, That’s my son. That’s what he looks like. That is his nose, and his lips, and his eyelids.

 

That’s my son.

Now, I look at the photo that has become my favorite and it doesn’t scare me anymore. That’s my little baby, tucked in the yellow blanket the hospital gave us, his head covered in a knit winter hat. That’s my little boy, featherlight, who I held for just a little while one year ago.

Memory is fickle, blurred by the shock and despair and fear. The room is dim. A and I sit side by side on the hospital bed, holding our son, deciding to name him. We look at him and don’t want to look at him, and all we can think is he’s gone, this is not him.

I wish I could hold him again. I wish I could squeeze him gently to my chest, rock him, brush my lips against his forehead. I wish I could see his face again, so that this handful of photos, this portrait we are getting, will not become him.

I wish I could hold onto him.

 

Not sure at first about getting the portrait, now I wait impatiently for it to arrive. Every few days I ask A if she’s heard from the artist. I check the mail hoping there will be a package. I want to see my little boy, my firstborn. I want to point to his portrait and say to people, “That’s my son.” I want this new baby, his sibling, to grow up recognizing him. To say to him, as A told me she read on another’s blog, “Goodnight, baby Joseph.”

I know some babylost mamas are cautious about fetishizing their baby’s memorial things. They avoid photos and baby blankets, throw away the trinkets from the hospital, holding on only to the memories of knowing their baby and the feeling it move in their womb.

I’ve always had a strong attachment to physical things. I save every condolence card, every record of donation in our baby’s name, every scrap of paper related to his birth. I know all of Joseph’s things are not him. I know photographs and this unseen portrait are no substitute for my little boy. But in Joseph’s absence, I need things to hold. Something tangible, to help keep him present in my memory, my heart, my life.

 

© Burning Eye

Dreams

I dreamed I gave birth to a baby girl. We were in Baltimore, visiting family. I do have family in Baltimore, but in the manner of dreams, it wasn’t the family that actually lives there. I went into labor early, unexpectedly, and they took me to the hospital.

The next scene in the dream, our baby girl was in the NICU, tubes taped to her nose and chest. We took two pictures of her. Then my family drove me home.

All the way home, to North Carolina. We got there late at night. I went to show the photos of our baby girl to my parents.

And then I realized, We left our baby girl in Baltimore.

And, We didn’t hold her!

It’s okay, my sister said. They’ll send her down here to the hospital.

But you can’t mail a baby! I said.

How could we have left our baby girl in Baltimore? How could we have come home without her? How could we have left her in the NICU without ever holding her? All we had were these two pictures on my phone. I swiped back and forth between them, over and over. We’d just have to drive back to Baltimore. Tonight. Right now.

 

I didn’t dream about Joseph being born. Not that I remembered once I awoke, at least. I dreamed once that my belly was transparent, and we could see through into my womb. But wait! I said. We don’t want to know if it’s a boy or a girl! So I didn’t look. I walked around carefully not looking. In the images I remember of the dream, we are all chest-up, like a photograph. So I wouldn’t have seen anyway, even if I looked down.

I also dreamed about houses. These were the most vivid dreams of my pregnancy. Most of them featured a second home we’d forgotten we owned. Empty. Sometimes ramshackle. One, missing a roof. Oh, no, I thought, we’ll have to pay for a new roof. Ugh. Another, we’d forgotten to mow the grass of this second home and I was worried the city would fine us. What would we do with these second houses? I wondered in my dreams. Which one would we live in?

 

I don’t believe my dreams are prophetic. I don’t believe that because I never saw Joseph in my dreams, it meant he was going to die. I don’t believe that because I dreamed this baby was a girl, she will be a girl, or that she will be born preemie.

What are dreams? This, like so many of the things I used to believe, is in limbo. My dreams are sometimes fantastic adventure, sometimes surreal stories where one person melts into another. They are projections of my hopes, and manifestations of my fears.

A whole new set of fears for this pregnancy. A whole new world of worry, and nights, whether dreaming or lying awake, full of unease.

© Burning Eye

Medusa

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I am Medusa.

Grief, the hundred screaming snakes of my hair.

I am contagious.

The death that came from me is contagious.

Don’t speak to me. Don’t look at me. The baby in your womb will turn to stone.

 

Don’t believe me.

I cannot turn anyone to stone.

It is all myth.

The monstrous daughter of brother-sister sea gods. Or perhaps once a beautiful maiden cursed by a jealous Athena. I have read that she was African, a symbol of the divine feminine, a dred-locked mother goddess defiled and turned ugly by a conquering patriarchy.

For days a line of Saul Williams’ slam poetry runs through my head:

a symbol of life and matriarchy

                        severed head

                        Medusa

A symbol of life.

I gave my son life. The shadow of Death is so dark, so enormous, that I don’t remember this often enough. I gave our son life. I gave birth to him.

 

I am Medusa.

Exiled, reviled.

I am made ugly. Grief has stripped me of my skin, exposing tendon and muscle and blood. I remind you of your mortality.

That is the secret, how I turn you to stone.

First I steal the words from your throat.

 

I find her name on a blog. A network of blogs, really. A thread I can follow in this darkness of grief until I find another like me, and another, and another. A whole blind world of families with invisible children.

On this blog, they call themselves medusas. They say they are a glow in the woods, a cabin of refuge where they invite us in to take off the hat that hides our snakes. A place where we can look one another in the eye without flinching.

I put on this identity like a well-worn shirt. Familiar. Warm. A perfect fit.

During the day I cover my snakes with a hat. I keep in the keening, the wailing, the cries that echo inside my hollow shell. I lower my eyes so others can’t see the sorrow, the exhaustion, the red rims of my lids—not that anyone gets close enough to see. I understand it must be this way. I understand this ugliness is frightening. I am scared all the time.

 

You avert your eyes. Paralysis creeps through your eyelids, your lips curled in an awkward, sympathetic smile.

You try to hold up a mirror.

You change the subject.

You angle a foot away from me, about to take a step.

Medusa, your silence accuses. Denying me motherhood.

I am Medusa.

How dare you treat me like I am Medusa.

I exist in this limbo of contradictions. Claiming, rejecting. Straining towards the past, yearning for the future. Afraid to remember, afraid to forget. Numb yet drowning in a sea of jumbled emotions. Helpless, strong; darkness, light; yin and yang.

I gave birth to death. Surely that endows me with some mythical powers. Surely that elevates me to the status of some goddess.

I choose Medusa.

 

© Burning Eye

Death

Today my writing is at Glow in the Woods. I am so, so honored that they are publishing a piece I wrote about Death today. If you haven’t been over to Glow yet, please visit their site–it is an incredible community for the babylost, and I would be doubly lost without it.

This is a sketch I did of Death, after the conversation referenced in my post on Glow. I’ve done several now, but she’s my favorite one. There’s something in her face I accidentally got just right and can’t seem to capture again.

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