Monday, March 30, 2015


My roommate Laura and I joke that we like to birth our children in the spring, like ruminants. It seems the appropriate schedule: become pregnant in the summer, stay cool and (relatively) comfortable through the winter, and deliver when the trees begin to bud. Between us we have four boys, all born in March or April, like lambs. In what feels much more like synchronicity than coincidence, we each have only one boy living with us. 

I met Laura at the gym. I don’t remember introducing myself to her, or the first few times we worked out together. What I do remember is standing with her at a party at Ecliptic Brewing, there among the vats and pallets, breathing in the smell of yeast, telling her about Balthazar and listening to her as she told me that she was adopted and had placed a child for adoption when she was a teenager.

Laura’s son is sixteen and living in California. She thinks of him often. She worries about him. She pores over the letters she has received from his adoptive family over the years, looking for clues to his well-being. The adoption agreement stipulated that she not make contact with him until he was eighteen, but last fall he found her on Facebook and they began a tentative correspondence. Contact with him is the thing she wants most in the world, but it is also terrifying, building this new relationship out of what was sundered all those years ago. 

Laura has gathered into her life many women with similar life experiences. One afternoon at brunch, her friend Tamera shared with some of the women congregated in her living room a piece of her own adoption story.

“I left the hospital without my baby,” she said, and in that moment I got it. Connection made, I began sobbing uncontrollably. Placing a child for adoption, I now understand, is an occasion of tremendous loss for the birth mother, not unlike the death of a child. Our stories are not the same, but they loop and intersect and touch at points. A birth mother may leave her baby to be raised by others, but there is notwithstanding a deep grief in the unnaturalness of it, the wrongness. There’s a reason Laura and I are friends. There is a reason the narratives have converged at this moment. 

Laura calls Makani and Jasper the children we parent. Because the other children are present all the time, we just don’t get to raise them. 

I mark the time of the season of Balthazar’s death with the vernal equinox, as I’ve done for my own birthday my entire life. I’m aware of its approach in the changing landscape. Spring has come early to Portland this year. Everyone’s Instagram is full of quince and cherry blossoms, magnolia, dogwood, forsythia. 

I remember the rain the day he was born. The view outside the hospital window was of a parking lot and there wasn’t anything green visible, only gray, everything distorted by the drops sliding down the pane, blurred and disconsolate like a Gerhard Richter painting. Inside the room a post-apocalyptic future of antiseptic white. 

I remember the lilacs at his memorial, cut from a friend’s bush. My cardigan with the missing pearl button was spring green. 

I left the hospital without my baby. 

I don’t worry about him any more. I don’t even dream about him, or I haven’t in a long time. My unconscious mind has not age-progressed him, as I once thought it would. I have no idea what a three-year-old Balthazar would look like, be like. My imagination apparently can’t stretch that far. 

I also mark Balthazar’s time on the church calendar that I don’t consciously follow. Balthazar’s birthday falls on Good Friday this year, though I didn’t realize that until this week. 

I collect Annunciations on the web site Artstack, which allows you to select and save images, the Pinterest of art. I have Fra Filippo Lippi, Fra Angelico, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Rogier van der Weyden. Depending on the artist Mary looks frightened or smug or preoccupied or overwhelmed. I love this moment, this improbable moment when the angel Gabriel comes to Mary and says, Hey, guess what? In the Lippi, at least, the angel Gabriel is kind of hot. You can imagine teenage Mary flirting with him a little. Smacking her gum. Umm, I’m going to bear God’s child. OK, whatever you say.

I do not collect Pietas, the classic pose of Mary holding her dead son’s body in her arms. Too overwrought, too baroque. Too gruesome, too Catholic. The sky as dark as night at four o’clock in the afternoon. The curtain of the temple rent in two. The complete absence of hope, when no one, not Mary, not Peter, not the other disciples, not the women, could imagine anything good ever happening again. It’s one thing to reenact that moment in a ritual, already knowing the next chapter in the story. It’s another thing to actually feel it in your own life. It’s not a place to linger, if you can help it. 

In this season of unbearable despair and inevitable renewal, I’m reading Blue Nights, by Joan Didion, about the death of her daughter Quintana at age thirty-nine. It didn’t get as much attention as The Year of Magical Thinking, her book on the death of her husband John Gregory Donne, but, perhaps unsurprisingly, it resonates with me much more. 

Before Blue Nights I read Paula, by Isabel Allende, about her own daughter’s death, and liked it much less. Allende is emotionally florid but tends to let herself off the hook. Those affairs I had, the times I left my children for months at a time? They were fine! Look how much we all love each other now! Before she got sick my daughter was perfect! Now she is an angel. 

Didion never lets herself or the reader off of the hook. 

The reviewers all speak respectfully of the book as Didion’s clear-eyed look into the abyss, and in their voices I hear the skittishness of all of the New York editors who passed on my memoir. They are respectful because she is Joan Didion, but they’d like nothing better than to back slowly away, because they don’t want to hear about her Good Friday moment. They don’t want to hear about the loss of self that her child’s death forced her to contemplate, the loss which we all inevitably face. 

Quintana Roo Dunne was adopted. Didion acknowledges that the feelings of abandonment adoptees experience might have played a part in her daughter’s psychological problems, her self-medication, her early death. In Blue Nights she refers to parenthood as “the enigma of pledging ourselves to protect the unprotectable.”

That’s the message of the Pieta. I pledged to protect the unprotectable, and I failed. Because I am human, I failed. Here, in my arms, is the broken evidence of my failure. Is there consolation in the beauty of the composition? For the artist, for the viewer, most certainly yes. For the woman holding her son, there is none. 

I left the hospital without my baby. 

And then we come to Easter. I’m supposed to bake a lemon meringue pie. I’m supposed to fill Jasper’s basket with various iterations of a stuffed tiger. I’ll use the new beanbag chair as a lure to get him to nestle in my lap for awhile, lanky and awkward and smelling of boy sweat and wontons. He will tell me what he thinks we should do about ISIS, and ask me to name my five favorite countries in the world based on their system of government. 

No gaudy trumpet lilies. Just some white lilacs in a glass vase on the bookshelf. 


  1. 'I pledged to protect the unprotectable, and I failed. Because I am human, I failed.'

    Me too.

    Thank you for writing about your friend, about the two books and the differences between them and about Balthazar. I liked Allende's writing a lot when I was younger but now I feel I have little patience for letting anybody off the hook, myself or otherwise. Perhaps the Didion would suit me better these days?

    Thinking of you and of Balthazar this season.

  2. Can we take responsibility for the work that is ours while also practicing compassion for ourselves? That's the challenge.

    Thanks for reading.