moments, waiting

I have a dream that I am driving home in the dark when I realize that I have left the road and am driving on the ties between two sets of railroad tracks. I can see the texture of the railroad ties more than I can feel them under my tires. The tracks stretch out in front of me in a slight arc towards the right. On either side of the bank is a winter wood, grey and brown trunks amidst a bare scrabble of saplings and brambles. Through the trees on my left, I can see the headlights of cars on the highway—the right road, the one I’m supposed to be on.

At least I’m going in the right direction, my brain says, before I think, No, no, no. I’m not supposed to be driving on railroad tracks!

I look behind me, unsure of when I left the road, how long I’ve been driving in these dark woods. I could just reverse. No, what if there’s a train coming down one of these tracks?

I try to see the ground beneath the trees. I wonder if its swampy, if my car will sink into ruts and get stuck. I consider calling my dad, calling the police, letting someone know my predicament.

Slowly, I turn the steering wheel and descend down the gravel bank. My car becomes some kind of super-strong all-terrain vehicle. I do not sink into mud. I crunch through leaves and over logs as I make a wide arc to turn around, heading back towards the tracks.

I look both ways, like I’m going to cross the street. I see a light coming, far away, but quickly. I wait. The train rushes past and I am relieved to be off the tracks. A minute later, another train comes from the other direction.

After this one passes, I realize I have noticed something. I think, There is enough room that I could drive on one set of tracks while another train runs on the second track. I feel reassured, pull forward and turn left, heading back the way I came.

*            *            *

I take Joseph to be framed. His portrait. But this is how I think of it: I take Joseph to be framed.

I carry him to the car, unsure of how to situate him. Face down? Face up? I end up propping him upright behind my purse in the passenger seat. His first ride in the car.

We drive to the frame shop, go in together. I put him on the counter and am pleased that the woman treats him gently. She lays out mats and frames, to match the softness of the portrait, she says. He begins to come together. Slight gray mat hugging him in close. Curved black wood cradling the outside.

Is this your baby? she asks.

Yes, I tell this stranger. He was our first. He was stillborn. I do not say how hard it was to bring him out of the house. I do not make the vague threats I want about what I’ll do if they damage his portrait in any way. I think she understands.

She asks if a week is okay. It’s okay, I nod, even though I’d rather wait and watch while she does the job, take him right home with me afterwards. Like we’ve gone for a haircut.

Do I say good-bye to him? Not out loud. I leave him sitting on the counter and walk out the door.

*            *            *

I get home and there is a wasp with purple wings dying on the deck. It turns somersaults, flashing its metallic purple to the grey sky.

*            *            *

I stay home now, alone, but I am never alone. The baby kicks in my belly, readjusting, pushing my ribs so I sit up straight. Bumble Bean is growing, healthy. This morning I get a swift, hard kick that wakes me up. Nothing like the last few days of Joseph’s life in my belly. The slowness I perceived but didn’t understand. The small shifts, less and less frequent.

I don’t want to think about it. I don’t want to think about it. But I do. Every few hours I cycle through this remembering, unsure if I should cut it off, wondering if it’s a betrayal if I do. All the while anxious to get back to the moment where this baby fills me with hope.

I can’t help but wonder, as we watch Bumble Bean grow on the ultrasound screen each week, what we missed with Joseph. Why he was so much smaller than this baby. Why he died. We didn’t watch him so closely. We didn’t know.

We won’t ever know.

*            *            *

Another dream:

A nurse in pale blue scrubs stands at my bedside. There is something familiar about her slightly-curly, blonde hair; something in the shape of her face I recognize as she bends over me imperceptibly to rouse me. She calls my name softly in a singsong voice, then says, “It’s ti-ime.”

© 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

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