People who have lost loved ones often say that the deceased is still with them in spirit, or in their heart, or in some metaphysical way. Balthazar, though, is apparently still with me in the literal sense. A study conducted by researchers at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle and published in September demonstrated that fetal cells can pass through the placenta into a mother's body and travel all the way to her brain, lodging there for the rest of her life.
The researchers looked for male DNA in the brains of 59 women, ranging in age from 32 to 101, who had died. They found it in the brains of 37 of them, presumably from a pregnancy with a male fetus. Such an exchange of cells is called microchimerism. Scientists had previously been unsure whether the fetal cells could pass the blood-brain barrier in humans. It now appears that microchimerism in the human brain is common and that the cells persist, potentially for a lifetime. The oldest woman with male DNA in her brain was 94.
The purpose of the research was to determine if these foreign cells are to blame for autoimmune disorders in middle-aged women. The results weren't clear. The cells actually may be in some way protective against Alzheimer's, which would be a nice touch. For now this research exists as proof, if any were needed, that our children change our bodies forever and remain a part of us.
A few years ago Jonathan and I were driving by the Lone Fir Pioneer Cemetery in Southeast Portland. It's a small but fascinating historical site that contains the graves of many early Portlanders, including a recently rediscovered section of Chinese workers, a lot of Woodmen of the World with Norwegian names and James and Elizabeth Stephens, a transcendentalist couple from Virginia and Kentucky whose gravestone I particularly admire.
I was thinking about my friends whose son had been recently stillborn. They had buried him in a cemetery on the West Side.
"They can never move, now," I said.
Passing Lone Fir had put me in mind of pioneer women who were forced to bury their children along the trail and then climb back into the wagon and keep going. Those women would likely never have seen that place again. They could probably only have created the most makeshift of markers: a few stones, initials carved on a tree. I had understood intellectually the brutal hardship of it, but it wasn't until that day that the anguish of those women felt real to me. I imagined that if I were my friend I would want to stay as close to that patch of ground as I could.
My sister-in-law asked me, early on, if we were going to move. Not cities, presumably, although maybe a flight of that magnitude did seem necessary. I think, though, that she was asking if we were going to sell our house.
I don't know for sure, but I suspect that I was sleeping when Balthazar died. It hasn't changed the way I feel about my house. The terrible thing that happened occurred inside of me, not in the house. The house is just where I happened to be. Living with myself is the hard part.
I've always suspected that my house is a little bit haunted. It's not a ghost that I feel, but a kind of energy, to do with the fact that for many years the house was a shelter for battered women and their children. I have worried that all of that collective pain has soaked into the walls. The night we moved in I had violent nightmares, and I was unnerved for the first few weeks. But as the years have passed I notice it less.
Last fall a woman and a teenage boy appeared at the door. She spoke to me beseechingly in Spanish, and then looked at the boy, who was her son, to translate for her. She said she used to live here. She was looking for her records.
I'd often wondered about the women and children who lived here, and I was relieved to see two of them looking so entirely ordinary. There was nothing of the poltergeist about either of them. She was tiny and animated, gesturing to me urgently with her hands. The boy was skinny, the way teenage boys are, and appeared slightly embarrassed to be on such an errand with his mother. I directed them to the Volunteers of America office on Stark. I think my worries and nightmares have had more to do with my own fear of other people's suffering than with the house's former occupants or the house itself.
The dismantling of Balthazar's room has reached its next stage, and I was surprised to discover how hard it has been for Jonathan. It's not as if I've found it easy. It took me eight months to put the baby clothes in the basement. But I think the room means less to me than it does to Jonathan because I carry Balthazar's room with me wherever I go, like a backpack on a long distance hiker. In my view, I was his only real home. The room in our house, the upstairs room with blue-green walls and a view of the apartments across the street, was meant to be Balthazar's room, but for me it could be Fiona's room, or Lucien's room, or Jasper's, if he decides he wants to move. But for Jonathan it is always and forever Balthazar's room.
I have had one dream about Balthazar, four or five months ago. In the dream he was still dead, but the nurses wanted me to see what he would have looked like alive, so they took out a hairdryer and blew pink into his skin with the warm air. They propped open his eyes and suddenly he was alive. I mean, my unconscious mind still knew the truth but for a minute I saw him as if he were alive. He wasn't a newborn; he looked five months old, as he would have been at the time I had the dream. He had dark hair like Jonathan and blue sparkling eyes like Jasper. His mouth was like Jasper's too, and he was smiling. He could not have been more beautiful. I had to thank my unconscious for providing me with that glimpse of him, and I wonder: will I have these dreams periodically? Will they age progress him as if he were on a milk carton?
I don't feel Balthazar in the house. I don't feel him in his room. If he's here, he's a good-natured sort of presence. Jasper is a remarkably agreeable child, a constant marvel to his mother, who was not. Balthazar, who looked so much like him, would have been too, I like to think.
Balthazar is not in a cemetery. He has no patch of ground. Physically, at least, part of him is in his little box, and part of him is inside of me. I could put a hat on my head, put his ashes in my pocket and take him anywhere. But I see no reason to go.