memorials


every holiday season i buy a few new ornaments — usually but not always during the massive sales that start december 26. but in december 2005 i paid full price (a whopping $5) for a capital letter “e,” which s and i hung together in earl’s memory.

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it didn’t occur to me this year until almost christmas day to go back to restoration hardware (so much for living green and shopping locally) to see if they had letters again. they did! and m and i picked out a nice capital letter “r.”

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instead of a tree — which was far more than i could wrap my arms around, what with falling needles and months of vacuuming and a very toddly toddler (made more so by the fluid in her ears, a special gift from her sinus infection) — we hung garland over the arch between our living room and dining room. we hung ornaments on the garland, and found that we even started to feel festive, not to mention relieved that the fragiles were out of reach of the grasping, smashing fingers of a 16-month old. we hung the r and the e first.

it turned out to be an ok christmas after all.

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the timing on this is all wrong, since this is, by all rights, a february poem. but i find that the more i miss ruby this christmas the more i miss earl, and this poem was a gift to her from our dear friend and poet km. earl was delivered on the 21st of february, so today i remember her. my big girl. i miss you, sweet child, my first born.

Mid-Winter Grace

In February
the sky is brilliant blue and cold air,
sound travels faster: someone reports a chickadee calling from half a mile away.
Tress, undressed in this season, appear like the inside
of our lungs or a pocket of capillaries.
We belong to this place, our bodies modeled on earth,
or earth on body — who knows?

There is bodily loss and longing here
in the middle of winter,
the glory of a holiday worn off
and spring joy still too far ahead
to grasp: a hand always waving goodbye
but never actually leaving.

Consider, though, the cold air,
how it makes planes and birds rise faster
there’s more lift,
or less pull to earth.
And that sound of another calling out to you,
are you okay? take my hand.
It comes faster in February.

our evening was cut short by the drama of toddler vomit. this may be just as well since i was starting to feel a little prickly at the service. i know intentions are good and in this, of all places, it truly is the thought that counts. but i can’t help but think — as i did at the memorial service we attended for earl in 2005 — that parents of dead infants should have separate services from parents and families of older children. it’s just very, very different.

i have written before about grief’s sameness — and i still believe in that idea, that the way grief bears upon our bodies is the same (largely) regardless of the source. the depth and longevity may differ, of course, but the pure physiology of grief persists.

nonetheless, the source of grief does make a profound difference. i remember well the night i learned of my maternal grandfather’s death. his was the first death i experienced as an adult; he was my first “close” family member to die. his name was matthew and i was very fond of him even though i barely knew him. one night my mother called me to tell me he had died. i was in my small garden-level apartment in seattle, lying on the floor talking to a friend. after i got off the phone with my mother i spent the rest of the night sobbing. i had only seen my grandfather half a dozen times in my life. i hadn’t seen him in about 10 years. he didn’t even live in the same country as i did. and yet i could not still my wracking body.

the next day i bought some memorabilia, having none that were “genuine”: a sweater knitted in scotland and a celtic brooch. i wore them every day for months.

but my feelings of experiencing his death were relatively brief. for several days i walked everywhere, leaden-limbed and red-eyed. my heart felt ripped open, my insides gutted. and i knew that my sorrow was almost all for me. matthew had lived a long, full and happy life. he had children who loved him. he died at home. so i cried that someone i loved had died, that i would never see him again, that i would never get to know him better, that i had lost my grandpa.

losing an infant is nothing like that. sure i cry for me, but i also cry for s, and for m, and for the babies themselves. i cry that we will never have a complete family photo. i cry that my daughters won’t know their sisters. i don’t get to say “i wish i’d seen your smile one last time” or “i’ll always remember your voice.” i don’t have memories of ruby or earl looking at me, of feeling their breath, of watching them sleep at night. i never had conversations with them. i’ll never know a damn thing about them, except that they both had their daddy’s hands and feet and my ears. when i miss them it’s not only because they’re gone, but it’s also because it’s hard to remember that they were ever here. evidence is scant, and too few people care to help me remember anyway.

i can only guess at what it’s like to lose an older child. somewhere, i suppose, between my experiences with my daughters and my experiences with my grandfather. so a memorial service that opens with songs that have lines like “if i knew that would be our last walk in the rain…” are inappropriate for parents of dead infants. we never had walks in the rain. we don’t miss what was and wish for more of it. we don’t have any idea what we’re missing.

thinking of you tonight: aurelia, carole, cecily, meg, tertia, and other moms whose names i don’t know.

kisses sent skyward for ben, earl, joseph, georgia, matthew, mira, maddy, and ruby grace.

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it always gives me a little pang to refer to our first daughter as earl. but that really truly was her name.

s has a fondness for giving nicknames: m started as poppy (short for poppyseed, her size when we learned about her), grew into budgie magoo (with variations like budgie mac and budgie-mac-heart-at-tac-tac) and is now fair game for names that sound like any of her current words. (ap! ap!) we all have camping names (as do our camping friends) for use only in the woods (or any other time that a white trash nickname comes in handy). s is donnie ray. i’m cheyenne. our dog, abby, is shit-for-brains.

so it was that earl became earl very early in my pregnancy. it was a cold winter morning and i felt like hell barely warmed over; i was struggling to keep my breakfast down and my game face on as s and i were driving downtown to work. “how’s my big girl doin’?” he asked. “why are you calling the baby big earl?” i answered. he joked about my hormonal bitchiness, but i had genuinely mis-heard him. and so big earl it was.

shortened soon after to earl, the name somehow stuck. we didn’t know the baby’s sex and didn’t much care. earl was kinda funny and fun to say. it made us laugh. it felt good. and while we talked about names for the baby-to-be, we never called her anything other than earl.

and then she came. her delivery was terrible in so many ways. thanks to the epidural it was, physically, the easiest of all my deliveries, but we were so very unprepared for it all — the water breaking, my non-stop shaking and chills, rushing to the hospital, being told we had no choice but to deliver the baby and that she would be dead when we saw her — that in a way i think we were clinging to what little we knew. we didn’t know her in any formal way; i hadn’t felt her move yet, we didn’t know she would be a girl. we only knew her as earl, baby of our dreams. when it was time for paperwork we stayed with “baby girl” because, as much as i couldn’t bring myself to tell the nurse her name was earl, neither could i bear to suddenly start calling her something else.

9 months after her delivery the hospital held its annual pediatric memorial service. we went, along with a couple dozen other families who had lost children of all ages. those people brought pictures and posters to put on display. we didn’t. we didn’t have any. when we entered we filled out paperwork with our child’s name; as each child’s name was called, the family members walked up to the front where we each picked up a rose and a candle. our candles were lit and we slowly returned to our seats. another couple who had lost infants was there; they had lost twin boys at 22 and 26 weeks. they had pictures. their boys had full names. when it was our turn, the celebrant simply called “earl”. as we walked to the front i felt a stab of sheepishness for not giving my beautiful girl a different name, a proper name. every other child being celebrated and mourned was identifiable by a picture and a proper name. who was earl? how old was our child? what, exactly, had we lost? nobody could tell.

my heart breaks all over again every time i mention earl and i get a funny look. who is earl? oh, your baby? oh, your dead baby? oh, your dead baby girl?

but earl is her true name.