As the two-year anniversary of Balthazar’s death approaches, I have been thinking a lot about the idea of redemption. Though Merriam-Webster defines redemption simply as the act of making something better or more acceptable, redemption is still an old-timey, Jesus-y word. It’s invoked in all kinds of contexts in our secular society: Lindsey Jacobellis is looking for redemption in snowboard cross; a former gang member finds redemption directing a center for homeless youth. And yet no matter what the story, the redeemed appear as if bathed in celestial light, touched by the hand of God.
Which makes the obverse also true.
A baby’s death is such an extreme event I’m not sure that it’s appropriate or even possible to talk about it in terms of redemption. Can it be made better? Will it ever be in any way acceptable? Still, from observing the Facebook pages of other mothers I know, having another child appears to be, if not the path to redemption then at least the sine qua non of healing. The parents still suffer, of course, and always will. There’s no taking that away. The lost child can never be replaced. But by virtue of the fact that the new baby would not exist without the loss of the other, he or she creates an entirely new, joyful future for the family.
It’s not a secret that this was the form I hoped that redemption would take. I asked my husband to try again after Balthazar, and he said no. It’s hard to know how I would have reacted to secondary infertility, or miscarriage, or another stillbirth, or any other scenario in which I failed to produce the requisite “rainbow” baby. I suspect not well. Maybe Jonathan’s right and that would have been the path to madness. But that’s all speculation.
For a long time I wanted to wear a sign that said, “I want another baby, and there’s no medical reason I can’t have one. It’s him!” With a big arrow pointing to the space next to me. But I don’t feel that way so much anymore, maybe because the space next to me is now empty. I’m creating an entirely new future for myself, and I don’t spend as much time thinking about it. But redemption? I can’t imagine what that would even look like.
Not long ago one of my Facebook moms, someone I met in a research study out of the University of Nebraska, posted a shout out to all of her friends who’ve had “rainbow” babies. Which I can tell you is pretty much every single woman I know who lost a child this way. Every. Single. One.
I usually just “like” the photos of the adorable children and leave it at that, but I must have been feeling particularly beleaguered that day, because I “liked” the post, as usual, but then I also said, “Please also have compassion for babyloss moms who don’t have “rainbow” babies and never will.”
My Facebook friend deleted my comment. That’s the kind of sad story you should just keep to yourself, you know?
Even if, like me, you lost your Christian faith somewhere along the way, it’s hard not to feel that redemption shines God’s light on you, deserved or not, and that to fail to find it leaves you in shadow, outside the halo of grace.
An alternate scenario was that my memoir would become my rainbow baby. But I’ve had to rethink that as well, because 20 editors have rejected the manuscript, with variations on the same theme:
“It’s hard to bring this subject to the reader unless you’re Joan Didion,” said one, which in translation means: we will tolerate this kind of anguish from famous essayist, but not you. “Other memoirs of this type have struggled to find an audience,” said another. Until they said that I had no idea that Elizabeth McCracken and Emily Rapp had poor sales figures. My personal favorite, though, is this one: “Its readership is limited because it isn’t redemptive enough.”
It’s an interesting situation, to have your life declared too dark for public consumption. I don’t know what to say except that I object.
One of Jonathan’s friends, who is a documentary filmmaker, said that an audience isn’t looking for the Hollywood ending necessarily. There doesn’t have to be a “rainbow” baby, he said, but I have to have learned something by the end, something along the lines of, I’m grateful for what I have.
I’ll tell you this: I am a better person because of Balthazar. I’m more compassionate, kinder, quicker to help others. I am more open, more vulnerable, more emotionally available, more able to receive help. But to sugar-coat it and pretend that the price wasn’t more than anyone should be asked to pay; well, I just can’t do it. To pretend that I’m actually grateful that my son died, I can’t do it. Would I trade it all to be a clueless mom of two, untouched by tragedy, the kind who would unknowingly say stupid shit to someone like me? Yes I would.
I’ve lost a lot. More than my baby. My place in the world, my idea of myself, who I thought I was. I’ve been stripped down to the bone. I’ve been forced to say, well, I have my health and my brains and, for what it’s worth, my heart, and that’s going to have to be enough somehow.
I suspect that I’m not alone. I suspect that many people are experiencing something similar without knowing how to talk about it. Some of them might be interested in reading about those feelings. It might make them feel less alone. How many, I don’t know. Maybe not enough to satisfy the Viacom Corporation, but more than a few.
Maybe the solution is to wait until redemption finds me. Maybe it’s to take the book to a small press, the literary equivalent of indie film. I am going to look at the manuscript and see if I can rewrite it. But I think it would be a disservice to truth and to all the people out there whose lives are happening outside the confines of the acceptable narrative to tack on some saccharine passage or chapter to make other people more comfortable. That’s not me.
I’m grateful for what I have. It’s not easy. It’s day to day. Sometimes minute to minute.
Is that too dark?