Discover more from Hold the Olives 🍸
The Baby Era
Some forgotten years
Mom and I have had our bitternesses lobbed back and forth my entire adulthood. Now in her last years, we try to be gentle with one another, but some wrinkles have been so hard to smooth that they’ve burnt in place from too harsh an iron. Scabs that never scar over.
Worse, I suppose, would be to no longer have a child to be curious about. This is the situation for the protagonist of the book I finished yesterday, Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt. In it, Tova is a retired widow with no remaining family as she plans her twilight years. Her son Erik died on the Puget Sound when he was eighteen. In the half century since, she’s had to shoulder on with this unbreachable barrier of his death. I suppose she’s as well-adjusted as any bereaved parent could be.
Time does that–the buffer of decades can soften and change our experiences. Time may not heal all wounds, but it can teach us how to live with them. A phantom limb, harrowing abuse, loneliness, dead children, unforgivable choices.
I have been lucky at least to hold no meaningful memories of my baby, as she never came home from the hospital. Nine days. A whole week and a half. I have spent years trying to remember how I felt then. I journaled, I wrote poems, I wanted to memorialize her in some way–to not forget. I presumed that was what I should do as a parent. I should carry a torch in her memory, forever.
I realize now with a wider societal lens that this was a culturally conditioned belief. There’s no right or proper way to parent the living, much less the dead. As I meditated and wove in and out of depression, as I wrote countless words to make sense of it all, I realized that the clutching to memory was selfish.
The further the years pulled me along from it, the less anyone needed to know about it at all. The less I thought about it. The less and less it weighed me down.
I’d tried to own my bereavement: I took over publishing a local monthly newsletter for bereaved parents: Lifeline for Bereaved Parents. We enlisted new subscribers by trolling the obits (dark, I know). I’d pop into a support group but didn’t want to bond over this extremely private thing. I moved to San Francisco for a clean slate. I bleached my hair blonde. I had few confidants aside from my notebook.
Somewhere between five and seven years later, I was able to emerge from the fog of trying to make my grief my whole personality. I read lots of self-help books. I went contradancing, which allowed me to be with people, gave me a structured way to allow strangers to hold me and my numbness. I found a way out.
My mother never forgot though. She still clutches to what could have been. Every visit: “How old would she have been now?” Nang. She calls her Nang, a Laotian endearment for daughter. “I don’t remember,” I replied last week. I was tired of this game. If she cared so much, she should really keep the calendar. I’d moved on.
She’ll always only be nine days old in my head. There’s no need for counting after that. Besides, my brothers gave her a grandchild each.
“Did you never get pregnant again?” I huffed in response. “Thinking about it?” Not this again. I’m almost fifty and am still getting asked about squirting out babies. “We’re not trying, Mom,” was all I could muster. I mean, using birth control is the opposite of trying. I didn't tell her I’m on birth control.
The Baby is so far behind me that it’s become part of the gray area of my becoming that never arises in conversation. Most folks who know me don’t know this about my past. And the reason is because it doesn’t matter to me whether they know or not.
In the small town of Sowell Bay, Tova likewise lives with the shadow of her deceased child while making a life for herself. But everyone knows a shade of what happened, and they treat it as a taboo.
I’ve experienced this too. The way the grannies in the living room whispered about the one that I’d lost as they prepped their betel leaves and tobacco purses. I’d be in the kitchen with some chore or eating their leftovers, clear within earshot, but not invited into the conversation. I felt marked.
Eventually the words changed. Mom stopped using the term “we lost her” and replaced them with “she left us” or “she didn’t stay”, which I think is more true. My mom still carries the torch. Or maybe this is how it must be in refugee families. A way to account for the time, the gains and losses of separation. Someone must remember.
Simply moving on is never going to obliterate the overwhelm that we with ghost children press and tuck into careful pockets of our psyche, hoping they do not come loose, lest we lose it. We have our triggers.
That my fiancé knows this history of mine is important. As a chief guardian of my heart, he can warn me if a movie might be rough and why. “There’s some baby stuff in this one,” he might say. Most days I’m not fazed. Even when we don’t know in advance, at least with books and movies, there’s an option to stop.
But when the aunties play cards and need your life updates, there’s no pause button. When Tova is at brunch and a guest drunkenly brings it up, there’s no delete key. There is just bearing it.
I must admit though that this novel is about so much more than this woman’s lost child. Read it for a meander through the decisions that make us human. Did I mention that it’s half narrated by a giant Pacific octopus named Marcellus?
My child is memorialized by a mossed tablet engraved with her name and lifeline near a chain link fence in a shady corner that St. Michael’s Church provides for the graves of the indigent and innocent. It’s been decades since I’ve visited.
I wrote the following poem (and posted it to Instagram) in 2020, after friends lost their baby. I’m sometimes tasked with consoling grieving parents, which I hardly ever do; I don’t think I even know how. Writing is about as close as I come.
The children who do not come home with us
Starlings formed a black but penetrable cloud I could not catch
I sang a lullaby about horses.
Every day I drove past the farm to count the sheep.
Some days I forgot how to count
And still the hills like a song
Groove into my bones
A riverbed for tears we know will come
Tonight, lightening burnt a house to the ground
And of all the lives it had to choose,
It chose none
The pieces of which smoldered
And curled into the sky.
Photos from Mom’s recent visit:
Mom helped me clear the hedge of creeping vine
The Aunties we grew up with, reunited again
Mom and my nephew Cypris (the youngest grandkid)
Note: this post contains affiliate links (purchases benefit CAL)
If you’d like to support my writing, consider leaving me a tip here.