I recently went to the ob/gyn for a checkup. The nurse practitioner who knocked softly on my exam room door turned out to be Geri, who was on call at Sunnyside the day Balthazar was born:
“Geri, one of my midwives, rushed into the room, looking stricken. She couldn't seem to get over the fact that I had had an ultrasound six days before.
‘And your mother was worried,’ she said. ‘She wanted you to move up the ultrasound.’
‘She worries about everything,’ I said, wanting her to leave my mother the hell out of it, shaking off her implication that my mother's anxiety was in any way supernatural. At the time I felt amazement that at such a dramatic and terrible moment I could experience anything as trivial as irritation. But of course what I registered as irritation was no such thing. It went much, much deeper. The invocation of my mother was more than I could bear, and my survival depended on getting her out of that room.
I was pretty sure I would be hearing for the rest of my life how my mother had known what would happen. I could hear her voice in my head, saying 'I knew something was wrong. I've always been intuitive.’ She was going to want an award for being right, and I wasn't going to be ready for that for a long, long time.”
That, honestly, was all I remembered about Geri’s part in the day. I don’t even remember if she checked in, after. All of the medical personnel were a blur to me at that point. They were kind, they were respectful, they did things. And they were nothing to me. I didn’t see them, or hear them, though I spoke to them and did what they asked me to do.
It had been almost three years since I had seen Geri, but we picked up pretty much where we left off. In the implosion of grief it’s easy to forget that these losses are traumatic for caregivers too. Her blue eyes were filled with tears when she walked into the examination room, where I’d been sitting and scrupulously not looking at the fetal development chart.
“Elizabeth, how are you? I’m so glad to see you. How does it feel being back here?” she asked, sitting down on a stool next to the examination table so that we were on the same level and so that I could see her kind, angular face.
“Terrible.” I choked a little bit on the word, the way Jasper does when he’s feeling sorry for himself.
“I imagine it would be terrible,” she said, and I assured her that I had been back to Sunnyside several times for physical therapy, so it wasn’t as if was my first time back in this kind of office. I didn’t mention that the first time I’d gone back to Sunnyside, they’d had to move me out of the exam room and into the counselor’s office because I couldn’t stop crying.
“I don’t want to make this more difficult for you,” she said. “But I wanted to share how I was feeling with you. How’s Jonathan?”
Then I had to tell her that Jonathan and I had divorced. She said she was sorry, of course. I said that I had wanted to try again to have another baby, that he hadn’t, that we’d been to counseling but hadn’t been able to work it out. Which is an extremely reductive way to describe what happened, but she didn’t have six hours.
“I remember you both that day,” she said, startling me. “You were so stoic, and his emotions were very much out in the open. You were making decisions right from the start.”
The truth is, you don’t get to decide how to be at such a moment. You are more yourself than you have ever been before or ever will be again. There is no self-consciousness, no analysis, no effort, no superego. There is only you and the horrific thing and your relationship to the horrific thing.
Here is the parent of a child with cancer, in Lorrie Moore’s story People Like That Are the Only People Here:
“Everyone admires us for our courage,” says one man. “They have no idea what they’re talking about.”
I could get out of here, thinks the Mother. I could just get on a bus and go, never come back. A kind of witness-relocation thing.
“Courage requires options,” the man adds.
The Baby might be better off.
“There are options,” says a woman with a thick suede headband. “You could give up. You could fall apart.”
“No you can’t. Nobody does. I’ve never seen it,” says the man. “Well, not really fall apart.”
Later in Moore’s story the man’s statement is undercut by the individual stories of the parents of the children with cancer: divorce, abandonment, job loss, alcoholism. When something terrible happens to your child, the falling apart, it seems, happens later, a slow-motion unraveling.
For the twenty-four hours I spent at the hospital, it was like I temporarily had Alzheimer’s. All of my intelligence and humor and most facets of my personality were washed away, and what was left was remarkably similar to my great-aunt Elizabeth, who in the last years of her life was a mannerly shell of a person. She had to keep up a running monologue during every fifteen-minute car ride to remind herself of the words for ‘tree’ and ‘dog,’ but ‘may I trouble you’ and ‘if you please’ took no effort at all.
I was really damn polite, I remember that. But there was also this:
“The Mother has begun to cry: all of life has led her here, to this moment. After this there is no more life. There is something else, something stumbling and unlivable, something mechanical, something for robots, but not life. Life has been taken and broken, quickly, like a stick.”
So was it slow, or was it fast? Can it be both? The breaking had its own insistent rhythm. Slow, then fast, then slow. A quiet meandering interrupted by a great percussive smash, followed by a dirge played by a single violin.
Geri later mentioned that her daughter was studying social work and had said something to her about how some couples are able to lean into each other in a crisis while others lean away. The structural weakness must have begun long before, the way the foundations of a building are undermined by water for many years before it becomes apparent. And there is no one moment, of course, but a hundred, a thousand. An accumulation of moments over the course of a marriage that culminate in two people in a hospital room, alone, mourning a child they made together.
I don’t want to end there. I want to make a deft turn, something about how the two people involved grieved and cried and kept living almost in spite of themselves. How they wrote some things and loved their surviving child and helped other people when they could and saw beauty in the world and at times felt joy. But sometimes you just have to close the curtain and walk quietly away.