I’ve started a project, an autoethnography of grief and recordkeeping. I’m thinking about how records and archives – making them, keeping them, using them – are part of griefwork. I look through my drafts folder and find this from two years ago:
“I open this page and marvel that it has been two months since I last wrote here. Once this space was a lifeline. Now, I don’t know what it is. I suppose it has become an archive. An archive of my grief, my love for you, of a community that held me up and agreed to love you, too. It is still a place where I can come to connect with you. There are so few of those. You have been such a part of the two months since I last wrote, but it is only here that a record exists. I went to New York for a few days, my first trip away from your brother and sister in over two years. On my first day there, I took care of essentials: a new book for M for his birthday from the NYPL gift shop, an American Girl doll outfit for E. And for you? What could I do for you, I wondered and then remembered St. Patrick’s, which I had walked by on my way to the doll store. I went back, walked through slowly, and found the right place to light a candle for you. I sat in a pew for a few minutes, thinking about my three children: my oldest, my middle, my youngest. Someone asked me about my tattoo at a birthday party for one of E’s friends on the weekend. I was able to tell him, able to explain your life and death, and we talked, really talked about how it has been to lose you. And then we sang happy birthday and ate cake and watched the room full of six and seven year olds go increasingly nuts. I mention my recent research – on the role of recordkeeping in grief and grieving – in class, and speak matter-of-factly about what I am learning. I write a proposal for a book chapter that will consider how your death and birth has affected the trajectory of my research, my thinking about my discipline. You are a part of everything, my love. You are a part of everything, but you leave so few tangible traces. I have to keep writing here, I think, because it is here that I make manifest the space you occupy in my heart, in my life. It is in some ways exactly what I imagined three years ago when I first wrote here – I have created a place for you, an outlet for the love and longing that has nowhere else to go – and it is more than I imagined, too, for in some real way, I have made you real here. Here, I call you into presence, into the present, and in this space, you have a strange kind of future, too.”
I’ve been thinking about records and grief for a while now, which makes sense: the collision and intersection of my personal and professional lives. At first, I couldn’t work without acknowledging, somehow, the grief. It felt vulnerable and scary and maybe even a little exploitative to make grief the subject of my research, to put Anja and my personal experience at the centre of my work identity and practice. I’m drawn now though to people who work this way, who bring the personal into the professional, who are as incapable as I have been (it would seem) of hiving off the personal from the professional.
It has its risks. I know some people who think the research I do is self-indulgent, or – here’s that word again – exploitative: am I exploiting her memory? Am I trading on trauma? Am I using her for professional gain? I ask myself these questions over and over, but I don’t know how – yet – to move away from the grief, and I feel, too, like bringing it into my work is one way of addressing the silence around stillbirth, of bringing grief into the open. And certainly, I am not gaining anything professionally by this new focus in my work; if anything, colleagues avoid me and don’t ask what I’m working on these days when we meet in the halls or at conferences.
It has other risks, too. A while ago, I requested my medical records. I wanted so badly to find something of her in them that I didn’t yet know, some little detail about her, how she looked, a new piece of evidence to corroborate her existence. I didn’t find what I was looking for. This week, I’ve been reviewing those records again, thinking about them as part of my research study, trying to capture how it feels to encounter such an intense personal experience – and to be searching so intently for a person, my baby – in such an institutional record. Two solid days of reading, taking notes, remembering, going back to journals and this blog, taking more notes. I’m working in a friend’s apartment these days, with a view of the ocean, and I take time to stare out at its ever-changing surface. I watch the seagulls swoop and soar and in the trees to my right sometimes the herons and the crows begin to fight, cawing at each other and diving in circles around the tops of the trees. I remember all of those hospital rooms and doctors’ offices: the one where I first heard her heartbeat, the one where I heard it for the last time, the room where I cried through the 20-week ultrasound, the room where I went to be assessed for decreased movement, the room where her heartbeat could not be found, the room where I laboured and delivered and held my baby, the room I was wheeled to empty cold and so tired. I remember it all so clearly though it seems so far away now. I can’t touch it the way I used to be able to. I remember the first summer after she died, looking out at this same ocean, hearing the herons and the crows fight, understanding that this world existed for other people, but feeling that for me, all there was, still, were those rooms. Those rooms were what was real and the outside world was a mystery. That has shifted, I realize now. But reading those records, all the rooms return. The sound of the doppler searching for her heartbeat, the nurse’s anxious mumbling, trying to be soothing, the breathing of the woman in the next bed, the squeak of another nurse’s shoes on the linoleum, someone closing the bathroom door, a telephone ringing, the doppler, the lid going back on the tube of jelly, another squeak as the nurse turned away from my massive belly, silence.
I put the copies of the records back into the yellow envelope they were sent in. I went for a walk, through my old neighbourhood, where I still come to take the kids to school. I’m in limbo – between a new neighbourhood and an old one, between the past and the present, between memories that I have learned to hold in a particular way and the experience of memories that could not be contained.
Maybe it is self-indulgent. It’s one way to keep her near. It’s one way to get back into that space.
I sit on a bench by the water’s edge and watch the seagulls swoop and soar, the ever-changing surface of the ocean, the yellow envelope in my bag beside me.
And then I come back to the apartment, open a new page on this old blog, start writing, anything, because this is also your space. There was that space, those rooms, and before them, this neighbourhood, our old apartment, the three of us, me, R and E, waiting for you, and then there was this space, these pages, these words, these readers and friends and fellow grievers. Without this space, I think I lose some of that space. I felt more connected to you, my girl, when I was here regularly.
This is a long and rambly post. I’m thinking aloud. Field notes. I know now that someday I’ll be glad to have hit publish.