In December 2000, during a raging snowstorm, I gave birth to a baby at 25 weeks. She weighed about as much as a bag of sugar. Not much more than half a kilo. She was living at the edge of viability; we were living in Minneapolis, Minnesota, far away from friends, family and everything we knew. We called her Maia. I’m looking at a Polaroid of her now: it’s all we have. Two large brown eyes peer out from the confines of an incubator. There is no mouth. It’s covered with a gag of white sticky tape, yellowed with spittle, holding two large blue breathing tubes in place. She died when she was nine weeks old. Next to the picture, what remains of her ashes are nestled in an iridescent art-glass vase, etched with a single pink lily, a copy of which is seared into my arm, the memory of her pain made flesh. Dan, my husband, and I travelled to the most beautiful places to scatter her ashes, but we spent the next several years floating in the ether ourselves. In the midst of the worst of the grief, I turned to the letters, poetry and prose of writers who had lost children, people who understood what it was like to drown in self-pity, hopeless longing and utter despair.
As I write, my two-year old daughter is crying out in her sleep and will not relent. She brings me inexorably into the present. “Mummy! Mummy!” she calls from her transitional mattress on the floor, “I want a cuddle mummy!” So I go into her room, kiss her and tell her: “Lola, mummy’s here, everything is going to be alright.” I check on Daisy, Lola’s older sister, snoring quietly in her flowery bed, and I lie down at right angles to Lola’s belly button, reaching up to stroke her head and reassure her. The carpet’s a bit itchy, but I don’t think to change my position: I’m somewhat addled; it’s my birthday after all, and we’ve been enjoying the Burgundy, a good bottle Papy brought back from France and gave me to celebrate in style. I get up a little too soon, telling Lola I’m going to come back, but Dan hears the protests, goes in to kiss her goodnight and tells her what she wants to hear: yes, Lola, daddy will sleep with you in your room, fold down the spare bed next to yours, cuddle you all night if he has to. Sucker, I think. As Lola’s cries turn to song – I can hear her singing Old Macdonald – I sit down to carry on writing, and I can’t help reflecting on what Barbara Kingsolver might call my outrageous fortune.
Kingsolver is just one of the writers I related to after Maia died; another was Mark Twain, whose own daughter, Susy, died when she was in her early twenties. I found extracts from both Twain and Kingsolver, side by side, in one of the diaries I kept with me. So much of the writing I devoured during that time was devoted to grief, and often it would be presented in the form of a journey. Shipwrecks were a common metaphor. I wrote in my diary’s margin: “amazing how the writing I love talks about ships and shipwrecks. Obvious I suppose. But so true.” The contrast between the Twain and Kingsolver extracts I’d copied down in my diary demonstrate that there is a transition from raw sorrow (Twain) to coming to an understanding of sorts (Kingsolver). We have to find our own way through it. Nine years on from Maia’s death, I’m finally ready to write my own memoir: it is a journey into and out of a void, a story about grief. There may or may not be shipwrecks in it, but there’s definitely a snowstorm.
From a letter Mark Twain wrote to a friend after the death of his daughter
(Note: the underlining, caps and comments are all mine, as I used them in my diary):
“Do I want you to write to me? Indeed I do…the others break my heart, but you will not. You have a something divine in you that is not in other men. You have the touch that heals, not lacerates.”
(I want THIS in a friend.)
“And you know the secret places of our hearts. You know our life – the outside of it – as others do – and the inside of it – which they do not. You have seen our whole voyage.”
(Amazing how the writing I love talks about ships and shipwrecks. Obvious I suppose. But so true.)
“You have seen us go to sea, a cloud of sail, and the flag at the peak. And you see us now, chartless, adrift – derelicts, battered, water-logged, our sails a ruck of rags, our pride gone. For it is gone. And there is NOTHING in its place.”
From “High Tide in Tucson”, by Barbara Kingsolver
“In my own worst seasons I’ve come back from the colorless world of despair by forcing myself to look hard, for along time, at a single glorious thing: a flame of red geranium outside my bedroom window. And then another: my daughter in a yellow dress. And another: the perfect outline of a full, dark sphere behind the crescent moon. Until I learned to be in love with my life again. Like a stroke victim retraining new parts of the brain to grasp lost skills, I have taught myself joy, over and over again.
It’s not such a wide gulf to cross, then, from survival to poetry. We hold fast to the old passions of endurance that buckle and creak beneath us, dovetailed, tight as a good wooden boat to carry us onward. And onward full tilt we go, pitched and wrecked and absurdly resolute, driven in spite of everything to make good on a new shore. To be hopeful, to embrace one possibility after another – that is surely the basic instinct. Baser even than hate, the thing with teeth, which can be stilled with a tone of voice or stunned by beauty. If the whole world of the living has to turn on the single point of remaining alive, that pointed endurance is the poetry of hope. The thing with feathers.
What a stroke of luck. What a singular brute feat of outrageous fortune: to be born to citizenship in the Animal Kingdom. We love and we lose, go back to the start and do it right over again. For every heavy forebrain solemnly cataloging the facts of a harsh landscape, there’s a rush of intuition behind it crying out: High tide! Time to move out into the glorious debris. Time to take this life for what it is.”