I remember knowing in the first week after Anja died that I was not feeling as awful as I was bound to feel, that as sick and sad and anguished as I felt, it was going to get worse. Over that first year, it felt like every few days or weeks or months, a new level of shock would set in; it was that old metaphor of the onion being peeled…below each layer of grief, there was another and another and another. In the last few days, I’ve felt as if a new layer is about to reveal itself to me. I think of what happened to Anja and I feel a strange distance from it, which I know now is a precursor to a new realization of loss. Now, I am just waiting…with some trepidation for the heaviness and sorrow that I know will descend on me, but also with an eagerness, a yearning, for this is how I know my daughter, the only way I know her, through the loss of her, and there is a part of me, a large part of me, that wants always to feel the weight of that loss, the full weight of it, to lie down with her absence and wail into it. These are the days I want to open the bag of her ashes, to feel the physical remains of her once-so-real-to-me body filter through my fingers; to take out the baby bonnet with the smear of blood and fluid on it and touch it to my lips and tongue. These aren’t the ‘pretty’ days of grief, where I buy flowers, collect stones, write her name in the sand. These are the ugly, hard and necessary days, the ones my ‘normal’ friends might worry I’ve gone off the deep end, the ones my friends here know so well. She is gone – gone – and I wonder sometimes how many times I will have to realize that anew, how many times I can bear to realize it anew.
At a party last night, a friend of a friend whom I last saw nearly four years ago, when E was a baby and she was pregnant with her second: ‘Yours are exactly the same age apart as my two; it’s such a great age gap!’
Another friend-of-a-friend comes in the door, ‘I haven’t seen you guys for ages – and, oh my god, you’ve added a whole other human to your family!’
* * *
I pull M into bed with me for his last feed and we wake up together, smiling into each other’s eyes. E bounds in and snuggles in beside us. I look at my family and say, ‘We’re all here!’ meaning, just here, just now, in bed, and then the sadness and guilt washes over me. Of course we’re not all here. E feels it, too. We all do, except for M, who doesn’t know yet who is missing.
* * *
I back my dad’s car into a streetlight as I leave the parking lot at the university. There is a loud crunch-and-scrape noise. At first, I feel upset and worried and then I have the very clear thought that it really doesn’t matter, in a world where perfect little babies die, if you dint up the bumper of your dad’s car. It really doesn’t bear thinking about.
* * *
I talk to my grandma on the phone in her hospital room. I ask her about the terrible itching and I can hear my uncle in the background trying to tell me and my grandma that the doctors are working on fixing this for her. I can feel that he is scared of what is going on in a way that neither my grandma nor I are; she is dying and we all know it, but she and I are not afraid of it and we can still talk. We can really talk, and not many of the rest of them can manage this right now. I know she is dying, and I am sad about it, but it is also such a different death, after a long life, than my daughter’s. I’m not scared of it, and I don’t feel the need to avoid the truth of it. I face it with my grandma and we laugh on the phone, hang up smiling.
* * *
This morning the sky out the bedroom window was streaked all over with wispy pink clouds. Such a bright pink. Pink for her, I thought. A morning sky for my gone girl. My arm around M, I waited for everyone to wake up, for the apartment to fill with the sounds of my family, as it is.
This photo was taken November 20, 2010. It was my friend D’s birthday and it had snowed overnight and we met in the park to play and go for brunch. E was so excited about the snow; I think it was the first time she’d played in snow. We made this sad little snowman and I was so proud of him and then R made a giant snowman that put this little guy to shame. We walked with our friends to the lagoon and threw snowballs into the water. We made snow angels and went for pancakes. It was two weeks before I found out I was pregnant, after trying for a few months. It was two and a half months before my first miscarriage. This picture is framed and sits on a shelf in our living room. Every time I see it, I think: ‘Before.’ This is us before the miscarriage, and then the next miscarriage, and then the unthinkable, unbearable loss of Anja. This is us before grief and confusion and the knowledge that no matter what we plan or hope for or dream of, the universe does its own thing. This is me, three years younger, but so much more youthful.
Brooke wrote the other day about time warps. I look at this picture and I cannot believe what happened to those three years. Look at E! She is not quite two years old, and now, right now, she is at kindergarten, sitting on the carpet with her friends, singing out the sounds of the alphabet, her eyes shining and her face wide open to the world. At least there is that: I worry sometimes that I have harmed her irreparably with my grief, but then I see how she still sets out into the world, expecting love, exuding it, too.
This picture for me is the last of Before. It is the end of the short years where we were a completely ‘normal’ family. We are stronger, now. There is no doubt about that. But we are not as shiny; we don’t sparkle in the same way.
I hope it snows this year, so that we can take M out in it, build another snowman, take a picture of us After. We’re still here. Missing her, but still here.
Mom called on Saturday to tell me you were sick, that Uncle G had taken you to the hospital because you’d turned orange and that once there it was discovered you have cancer in your liver and lungs. Now, two days later, it seems you might have known this already and kept it a secret from the rest of us. I imagine you wanted to maintain some dignity, some control; you are 93 and don’t like to be treated like a child and somehow it seems that is the only way our culture knows how to treat a dying elder.
A dying elder. That is what you are. You will not recover from this and do not want to be treated, but only made comfortable until the end. I hope it comes soon, I think; and then wish it would never come. You are my grandmother. You are certainly not the stereotypical knitting and baking grandmother with the soft body and welcoming arms. You are not – have never been – sweet. Or soft. You are tough, sometimes hard, and at your core there is an anger that simmers. Your children are conflicted right now, reconciling the good memories with the bad and the very bad; they are struggling to understand what your death will mean to them and learning already how they are going to remember you. It is not an easy job and it is not a pretty one, either; there are so many difficult memories; there have been so many difficult times.
But you are my grandmother. You have always shown me love and especially since I’ve had my own children, you have also shown me tenderness – and more so since my second daughter died.
I want to ask you about your baby. I know I’m not supposed to know. After I miscarried the second time, your sister told my mother – who told me – that when Granddad married you you were already pregnant with someone else’s baby. She told mom that you went to the hospital to have the baby but came home without it (him? her?). She has no idea what happened, if the baby lived or died, or…what? I think I know the baby must have died, because why go to the trouble of getting married, of creating the cover, if you were only going to give the baby up? No, I think it must’ve died and something about the tone of your voice since Anja died confirms this for me. I wish I could ask you.
I wonder how it must feel to have kept this secret for close to 70 years. I wish I could just ask you, but you are such an old curmudgeon. And you are so angry. I imagine a scenario where I come to see you in your hospital room, M in my arms, and I ask you. I ask, ‘Grandma. What happened to your first baby?’ And you – you are filled with relief to tell and lightened by the telling and we hold hands and your eyes are calmed as you acknowledge the life and death of your first child and we cry together, remembering our children.
But what is no doubt more likely is that you react in anger, close yourself off to me, refuse to acknowledge or talk. Carry the secret to the grave.
I wish I knew. I wish I wasn’t scared to find out, scared to face your anger. Based on all I know about how it feels to mother a dead baby, I feel certain you would welcome the chance to talk, to unburden yourself, to remember, to accept that baby as part of our family. But you are still such a formidable force; you snap angrily, you ridicule, your face a mask of derision.
Is the anger connected to the baby? There have been other traumas, too, other disappointments, other terrible losses. You have lived a long, long life and it is nearly over. I stand at the window today, holding M and looking out at the rain-soaked park, and imagine you, sixty-seven years ago, holding your first living child, and I wonder what you thought, how you felt, what you remembered then. But most of all, I wonder what you remember now. I wonder what you are thinking, seeing, smelling, feeling as you lie in a hospital bed, weighing less than 100 pounds, turning yellow, full of tumors: what do you remember? Where does your mind take you? Your heart?
I remember the story you’ve told me so many times of how it was when Uncle G learned how to tweet like the birds and it wasn’t how you thought it would be at all and it took you days to recognize that that’s what he was doing, talking to the birds.
There is so much I want to ask you, now. There is so much you will take with you. There is so much we are both going to miss.
I love you, Grandma. I wish your life had been easier. I wish I was there with you now to hold your hand, to talk, maybe, but to hold your hand and tell you that I love you, that I understand – maybe – some of the anger. Mostly just to hold your hand.
This morning on the walk to kindergarten, E and I talked about how we would buy flowers after school, flowers for Anja on the 14th.
‘Anja is an angel, Mommy,’ E said, full of the authority of a nearly-five-year-old going-to-schooler.
‘Do you think so, sweetie?’ I asked, non-committally.
‘I think so. But, actually, Mommy what is an angel exactly?’
‘Well, some people believe that there is a place called Heaven, which is where you live after you die, and when you are there, you are an angel,’ I explained.
‘Do you believe that Mommy?’
‘I believe that Anja’s spirit has gone into all the living things,’ I said. ‘I believe that she is in all the beautiful things we see around us.’ (Do I? Do I?)
E thinks about this for a while, smiling. Then she looks up at me and says, ‘Mommy, I really hope Anja is not a zombie.’
Christ, kid, what are they teaching you at school?
‘She’s not a zombie, love. I know that for sure.’
‘How do you know?’ E is genuinely worried.
‘Because zombies are just a story. Some grownups like to tell stories about things that scare them, but they’re not real.’
‘OK, Mommy.’ We hold hands and walk down the tree-lined block. At the corner, we run into a little boy from her class and his mother and baby sister. E and Z start talking excitedly to each other. For some reason, the topic of zombies comes up again, and it turns out there is some movie character(?) zombie who is funny(??) and can talk to dead people(???). E and Z start chanting, ‘I can talk to dead people. I can talk to dead people.’ Z’s mom smiles at the zaniness of children; I try not to grimace. My poor kid. She wishes she could talk to dead people; she knows death in a way that it is obvious very few of her peers do. ‘I know, Z,’ she says, ‘let’s go to a place where people get dead and we can talk to them.’ I wonder what she would say? I wonder where she thinks that place is? I wonder how her nearly-five-year-old mind reconciles the real death she has experienced and this fascination with death that so many of her friends are exploring.
We go into her classroom, hang up her coat and switch her rubber boots for indoor shoes. The classroom is cheerful and noisy; her teacher is happy to see her. Every morning, for the first fifteen minutes of the day, families are welcome to stay and participate in what the teacher calls ‘Noisy Reading.’ I love this time of day. We find a cozy spot and E picks out a book called ‘Chestnut Dreams.’ I open the book and start reading…Anya. The little girl in the book’s name is Anya and she has curly chestnut hair and green eyes and E looks at me in wonder. ‘Her name is Anya. Maybe that is my baby sister. That is what she looked like if she didn’t get dead.’ We read the story. I say the name Anya over and over and over again and it feels good. To have an excuse. To use the name without worrying that I will make someone uncomfortable, without being made to feel morbid or strange.
The special helper rings the book bell and it is time to put the books away and say goodbye. E says ‘hi’ to her friend, I, who is absorbed in saying goodbye to her mother and doesn’t respond. There is a flash of hurt in E’s eyes, but she runs over to another friend, D, and says, ‘D, do you want to sit next to me?’ D crosses her arms over her chest, her face furious, and yells in E’s face, ‘No!’ That is it for E; she comes back to me, her face crumpling and reddening. She buries her head in my lap and sobs.
And I wonder, as I always do, how much of it is what we see on the surface – rejection by friends; the start of a busy day – and how much of it is what she knows and keeps secret when she is out in her world – the death of her sister, the sadness in her family?
I offer to take her outside, for a hug and a chat, but she rallies, wants to stay and finds someone else to sit beside. She waves and smiles as M and I go.
M falls asleep in his carrier on the walk home, so I veer away toward the water, get a coffee and walk under the red and yellow trees by the seawall. The ocean is glassy, grey, still. It is a beautiful morning. I turn back up the park path toward our building. I look into the red leaves of the Japanese maple trees. I think about how I told E that her sister is in all the living things. I try to believe it. I practice: I say, tentatively, quietly, yearningly, ‘Hello, sweet girl, my love, my baby.’ I whisper it to the tree, to the sky, and finally, the tears come.
Two years ago on November 10, we had our 20-week ultrasound with Anja. That was the day we found out for certain we were having a girl and began to plan a whole life with our two little girls, our sisters. I remember walking out of the hospital holding hands with R and feeling giddy: sisters, another little girl, just as I’d secretly hoped. We went to a place we always go to and R had a beer and I ordered hot chocolate and they brought me a whole bowl full of whipped cream, and then we went to pick E up at daycare and told her, finally, that she would have a sister. ‘We can call her Balloon!’ E yelled, on hearing.
One of my best friends is pregnant now. Her baby is due March 26, so she is living out the exact same series of weeks I lived out 2 years ago. She had her 20-week ultrasound this week and found out she is having a girl. Today, we went over for brunch and brought bags and bags of baby clothes. We sat in her living room after eating and went through the bags, holding up the tiny little clothes, remembering when E wore them, or – not so long ago – M. I thought about how we never did anything like that with M. We never once sat around and celebrated the promise of him, never held up little onesies and imagined him wearing them. And I thought about the girl we were waiting for two years ago, the girl who was also supposed to wear these clothes. Two years ago, we helped the same friends move out of a different house, except I didn’t help, because I was 20 weeks pregnant. I sat on the same couch I sat on today, reading books to E and imagining how it would feel to snuggle two girls.
R showed me a picture on his computer this evening after E and M were in bed. A new baby, lying on the blanket we call ‘snail blankie,’ eyes wide, skin pink. I couldn’t tell, at first, if it was M or E. ‘Which baby is that?’ I asked R.
Of course, I knew without any doubt which baby it wasn’t.
‘Today is Remembrance Day so we should extra-specially remember Anja today, okay, Mommy?’
Okay. Yes. I remember you little Anja. I remember you, as you were two years ago at this time. Your vigorous kicks. The promise of sisters. A whole bowl of whipped cream. A baby named Balloon. Ours.