Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Book of Common Prayer

My mother and I have always joked that our family is good at death. My husband maintains that rather than being good at it, we are obsessed with it. To someone from Los Angeles who grew up without religion it probably does seem that way. I reply that his family is our obverse. They are a wedding family: extremely good at celebrating the joy in life and completely at a loss when it comes to death. I'd say that each could probably take a page from the other. But it doesn't really work that way.

We are undeniably good at funerals. As small a family as we are, for a long time we were top heavy with oldsters, and every year there was a great-uncle or a great-aunt or a grandparent to mourn. We still observe the rituals of an earlier time. There is no black crape over the door and we don't wear mourning clothes for a year, but we mostly follow the script that our ancestors did. We do things the way they have always been done. We have visitations at Pearson's. We have church funerals at St. Andrews, we sing "For All the Saints". We bury our dead at Cave Hill, and then afterward we have wakes at home and serve melon balls and country ham sandwiches and cheesecake brownies.

I know how to behave at a funeral in Louisville, Kentucky. I know what to wear (although my mother did complain that my black Banana Republic sweater was too low-cut for my aunt Ellen's funeral). I know how to sit on a brocade sofa with someone who is no longer able to stand for long and listen to an incomprehensible tale about something that happened in 1936. I know how to subsume my emotions, whatever they are, into the task at hand. I know how to dole out tears like hand soap; just a little bit and at the appropriate time. 

Balthazar died in a foreign country; that is, he died in Portland, Oregon. I had never been the primary mourner before, only a supporting character. My job had always been to look nice and be polite and represent the family. I had never organized a funeral, and I didn't know what to do when it was a baby and not an eighty-seven year-old with organ failure. There was no reporter from the Courier-Journal on the phone. The only family I was representing was the family that had almost been four.

I called Holman's Funeral Home on Hawthorne because they handled the arrangements when my friend Gwen's father died and she said they were good. I arranged for a memorial service at Westminster Presbyterian because I couldn't bear the thought of doing nothing. But we didn't invite family to fly in, though there was time. We didn't invite anyone, feeling strange about asking people to come when they didn't know him. We were the only ones who knew him.

I told Laurie, the minister, that I didn't want "For All the Saints". That hymn is for my grandfather, someone resting from his long years of earthly labor, not for Balthazar, who never got to do anything. I asked for Our God Our Help in Ages Past, but I warned Laurie I wouldn't be able to sing, which was a good thing since the words would ring pretty false. I asked for O Waly Waly, which I once heard Judy Collins sing at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. I asked for Ashoken Farewell and the minister found a soloist to play it on the violin. My father and I had had our first dance at my wedding to that song. At the time I wondered why the band had picked it. Was he really supposed to be that sad that I was married and leaving him? That was not the kind of dad I had at all. But for the funeral of a baby, evoking as it did all of the mothers who had lost sons in the Civil War, it was perfect.

I chose a Wendell Berry poem from a book the minister had sent. You'd think I'd be better at picking poems than I am. My mental storehouse is somehow better at collecting and remembering music. I knew Auden's "Funeral Blues" was wrong. A poem for an adult, not a child. I thought Wendell Berry was right, the way Ashoken Farewell was right. I had wrapped the child in a Churchill Weavers blanket and I would make his funeral as redolent of Kentucky as I could. Jonathan wanted the Walt Whitman, so that went into the program too.

I wore a black dress I'd bought in the fall to wear to give a talk at a book group luncheon, black tights, black suede ballet flats, and an old green cardigan sweater with a missing button. Most of my clothes still didn't fit. The minister asked if we wanted to have a coffee afterward, but since we didn't invite anyone that seemed unnecessary.

We sat there, the three of us, Jasper in the middle, Balthazar's ashes on a dais, still in the little cardboard box. I'd been on the internet at 3 in the morning for several days, looking, without success, for an attractive extra small urn.

I feel manipulative writing about extra small urns, like Ernest Hemingway with his six word short story: "For Sale: Baby shoes, never worn." I can't think of anything sadder than trying to choose an extra small urn. But it's the truth. It's what I did. All the time thinking, this is ridiculous. I couldn't make this stuff up.

I hated all the urns. The ones for kids were so cheesy, with teddy bears and Mary Engelbreit-looking angels on them. Then I started feeling guilty for having such thoughts. Was I really considering a matter of taste with regard to my dead baby? But yes. My dead baby would not be a cheesy one. He would be dead in the style I preferred. I ordered a Ukrainian wooden box from Etsy, but it didn't arrive in time.

Gwen's husband had cut some lilacs from their garden and arranged them in a simple glass vase, which stood on the dais next to the ashes. I was glad I'd thought to bring them. All the funerals I'd gone to, the church had been filled with flowers, but the day before the service it occurred to me that it was because people had sent them, and then other people had transported them to the church. The flowers people had sent us three weeks before were already droopy. But a single vase of fresh lilacs was more appropriate anyway.

There were a few other people there, members of the church. Someone I'd been on a committee with. An older couple I recognized but didn't really know. The education director. The music was played and the poems read, and the minister spoke of Balthazar's journey being done. Jonathan and I both cried unceasingly. Jasper patted one of us, then the other. My grandmother would have called them 'love taps'. For three weeks Jonathan and I had been taking turns losing it and I worried what Jasper would feel, seeing both of his parents utterly incapacitated at the same time, but there was nothing to be done. Then Jasper cried, too, and we patted him. I kept my arm tightly around him. For him or for me? I don't know.

Balthazar was cremated, not buried. My first thought had been to bury him at Lone Fir Cemetery on Stark Street, but Jonathan wanted him cremated. My mother asked if I wanted to bury his ashes at Cave Hill.

"She's saying that he is a part of her family," my therapist said.  It was a powerful symbolic gesture, offering him a coveted place in the family section, but I said no. I said that his home was here, and that I couldn't bear it for him to be so far away from me. I thought that eventually we would take his ashes up Top Spur, maybe scatter them at McNeil Point on Mt. Hood, but neither of us had the heart to do it this summer. We may never have the heart to do it.

The way people live is always changing, but death hasn't changed. The emotions of grief and loss have not changed. In the midst of life we are in death, and it must be acknowledged. Balthazar had a nice memorial service, as right and appropriate as any funeral in my family. Even if when my mom and I said we were good at death we didn't know what the hell we were talking about.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012


A couple of people responded to last week's post, in effect saying, I don't know how to be or what to do and I'm sorry that I've failed. It made me feel kind of bad, really, because I've been on the other side of it, too. Every time I've reached out to a person in grief, I have fucked it up.

I knew a girl in graduate school whose father was an English professor at Williams, where I went to college. I didn't know either of them very well, but the girl's writing was all about a father dying of cancer and when I checked with a friend who worked at the college, she confirmed that the man was, in fact, dying. I was twenty-four and pretty emotionally clueless but I had been told, or had read, or had somehow picked up that when a loved one dies, you have to say something to the person right away. You can't just pretend that nothing has happened; it's the worst thing you can do. So when I saw her in Dodge Hall a few days after her father's death, I walked up to her and said, "I'm really sorry about your dad."

I don't know how I expected her to respond, but she immediately burst into tears, said, "I can't handle this," and fled the building.

That's not the part I feel regret about. I am sorry that in our society it's not OK to burst into tears in public. I wish we had a socially sanctioned way to publicly mourn. The thing I feel badly about is that after that I avoided her. I felt awkward and uncomfortable and I had the suspicion that despite the best of intentions I had made things worse for her. As if I was important enough to make things worse! I wish I had approached her at a later date and made it clear that her response was completely understandable, that my feelings weren't hurt, that I was available if she needed me for anything. But I didn't.

When my best friend from Louisville's husband died suddenly of a stroke, leaving her a thirty-seven year-old widow with an eleven month-old, I dropped everything and flew across the country. I told my parents I was coming and I grabbed two and a half year-old Jasper and I left the next day. I went to the visitation and the funeral. But then I went back to Portland. Then what? Did I call her? Did I send her cards or leave her messages? Did I think, having made the gesture, that it was over? I don't remember, but I suspect that I didn't do nearly enough. Just recently she told me a story about a co-worker, someone she liked but wasn't even particularly close to, who had called her every few days for a year after Pete died. She left simple messages, "I'm thinking about you, you don't have to call me back, just wanted you to know." Lisa never called her back, but she ran into the woman not long ago and told her how much those messages had meant to her. Why wasn't it me who did that?

When Tanja's baby died, I went to her house a couple of times. Once I went with a mutual friend and brought food. Once my husband and I stopped by unannounced. Jonathan went to the shed, where Jed was building his son a coffin. Tanja was in the dining room with a friend from work. They were going for a drive, did I want to come? They were very polite but obviously wanted to be alone, and I was horrified at the idea that I might be intruding. No, I said, I'll just find something useful to do here. So I cleaned out the refrigerator. I wasn't sure if it was helpful. Was I using the wrong cleanser, was I discarding things they still wanted? It was all I could think of to do. It was the thing I would least want to do, under any circumstances. After that though, we didn't go back. We weren't sure how many times it was OK to show up at someone's house, someone we really really liked but didn't know intimately, without an invitation. We didn't want to be pushy. Was it good that we went to their house, or was it intrusive? Was it wrong that we stayed away after that, or was it respectful? They are too kind to ever tell me of my mistakes. 

My current theory is that  everyone fucks up in the face of grief. Everyone. Everyone says the wrong thing, and does the wrong thing. There is no way to do it right because there is nothing right about it. I think all you can do is try, with an open heart. The well-meaning gaffes are easy to overlook. Ignoring what happened, out of fear of making a mistake, really does hurt more.

Now I just found out that someone I know a little and like very much has cancer. Will I handle it well? I doubt it. I'll try, and I'll fuck it up, and just hope that's OK.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Before the Cock Crows

Today at the coffee shop a woman recognized me from when I used to go to church. I asked after her kids but I couldn't remember how many she had.

"No, I only have two," she replied cheerfully, when I asked if she had three, "unless you count my dog." She asked if I still went to church and I squirmed a little bit and said I was still a member but I hadn't been in awhile. Whenever I see anyone from church I always feel guilty, like I've been caught playing hooky. Then she asked The Question:

"You just have the one, right?" I said yes, and that it was nice to see her, and went back to what I was doing. Then on the way home I cried, feeling distinctly like Saint Peter.

"I'm sorry," I said to Balthazar. "I didn't mean to deny you. I just don't know what to say."

My friend Tanja has said that she never knows what to tell people when they ask how many kids she has. Does she have one, referring to w, her only living biological child? Does she have two, w and L, her stillborn son? Does she have three, w, W and O, her living biological son and her two stepsons, or does she include them all and say she has four?

My problem is not quite so complicated, but I still don't know how to respond when the question comes up. I hope someday to get to a place where I can say matter-of-factly, "I have a seven year-old and a baby that died a few months ago." So far it isn't working out that way. A lot depends on the other person's reaction. When I went to polliwog to return a couple of baby shower gifts, I told the owner that I was returning the things because my baby had died. He looked up, startled, and said he was sorry, but otherwise didn't react. And I was shaky, but OK.

But then a week or so later in pilates class, an instructor I hadn't seen since I came back to pilates said, "So, Elizabeth, have there been any changes in your body I should know about?"

"Kelli didn't tell you?" I said in dread. I prefer to have an advance man for these things. He said no, Kelli hadn't told him anything. "Well, there's nothing I can tell you about in front of everyone," I said, kind of hoping he'd drop it.  Instead he took me aside, which was really about two feet away from the rest of the class and afforded no privacy at all, and then I had to tell him. He hugged me and I instantly lost it, despite the fact that I barely know the guy. He got teary and that made me sob even more. And then after all that I had to sit back down and take the class, and he had to lead it. The lesson, I guess, is that the nicer someone is the worse it is, for both of us.

I live in terror of moments like that. Partly because I'm embarrassed. It's just not done in our society, to cry all over people. Also because I think I should be able to control myself in public a little better by now. And because it hurts, a lot, to have to do it over and over. But it also hurts to pretend it didn't happen just to make the wheels of social interaction turn more smoothly.

 Next to the cash register at the coffee shop the owners keep a Christmas card picture of their three year-old daughter. It got me thinking about the Christmas card and what I'm supposed to do about that. How do you compose a Christmas card with a hole blown in it? Dress Captain Zimbo in a onesie? Put a bow on the cat you got because your baby didn't come home? It feels wrong to leave him out. But it feels morbid to include him. Merry Christmas from Jonathan, Elizabeth, Jasper and...

Do I say I have one child or that I had two? The lady from church who was just being friendly probably did not need or want to know. On the other hand, by withholding that crucial information I'm guaranteeing that I will not become friends with her or ever make a connection. Because the only way you can know me, now, is to know about Balthazar.

Thursday, September 6, 2012


It was inevitable that my mom, despite a truly heroic effort, would say something wrong in the aftermath of Balthazar's death.

Mom: (struggling to articulate the enormity of my loss)
"It's a tragedy, Elizabeth. After all, he was almost a real baby."

Me: (too shattered for the meaning of her words to fully register)
"He seemed like a real baby to me."

Other than that, no one has suggested that my loss is less than if Balthazar had been born alive and died minutes later, but of course it is different. He did not receive a birth certificate or a death certificate. We got a "Certificate of Remembrance" which I guess is better than nothing, but what are we remembering if he was not born and he didn't die? I listen to the stories of the parents in the grief group whose babies were critically ill for days or weeks and try to decide if what happened to them is worse. I think it must be, but how would I know?

From the experience of my three pregnancies I've come to believe that life doesn't begin at conception, but neither does it wait for that first breath. So when does it happen? It's a politically loaded question and since I am staunchly pro-choice it's something I've tried, I'm ashamed to admit, to avoid thinking too hard about. Now I'm online Googling "ensoulment".  The places your children take you.

So here's what Wikipedia has to say about ensoulment: beliefs about when it occurs vary widely. In the time of Aristotle the male fetus was considered "ensouled" at 40 days, the female at 90 days. Some cultures believed that life begins at the quickening, between fourteen and twenty weeks. A lot of people cite fetal viability as the moment when a fetus becomes a person, but fetal viability keeps moving backward, saving younger and younger babies, as well as varying from pregnancy to pregnancy.  It's possible now, but not guaranteed, that a fetus at twenty-three weeks can be saved.

Then there are the Stoics, who apparently didn't think you became a full-fledged person with a consciousness until you were fourteen years old.

Where does it all leave Balthazar? Was he "almost" a real baby? Was he a "real" baby? We don't seem to have the language for his in-between place.

Sometimes I search the internet for hours trying without success to find something interesting to read. And then there are days like yesterday, when I found this article about consciousness that seems to speak directly to me. Daniel Bor, author of The Ravenous Brain, believes that the neural pathways between the thalamus and the prefrontal cortex, which are necessary to create what we would consider consciousness, are not in place until around 33 weeks gestation. Before that, he says, a fetus is not conscious in the way that we understand it and does not feel pain. He also mentions in the essay that a fetus in the womb is sedated by chemicals produced by the placenta.

So when Balthazar died, according to Daniel Bor, anyway, he had a consciousness, but he was sedated. That's less painful to imagine than a lot of scenarios. Plenty of people go out that way these days. 

I'm not a neuroscientist so I can't evaluate the science behind the 33 week claim, but it makes intuitive sense to me. It certainly feels right that at 37 weeks and 5 days Balthazar was a person with a consciousness. Right, but horrible, because then he was not a "almost a real baby" but a person who died. But I think that's true.

Or maybe I'm just trying to find evidence of Balthazar's, for lack of a better word, personhood. Maybe it's confirmation bias, me looking for something to prove what I believe in my heart. Maybe I'm just jostling for position on the hierarchy of grief, leaving the parents who lost a child at 32 weeks on the other side of the divide. Will their grief be less because some scientist tells them their fetus was pre-consciousness?

Daniel Bor's research into consciousness has also made him a vegetarian. I'm not ready to follow him there just yet.