Today I'm going to do something I haven't done before. I'm going to review a book. You see, I've recently read something that I so vigorously devoured that it has to be shared here. It's a memoir called An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken. The tagline reads: "This is the happiest story in the world with the saddest ending." And it recounts her journey through the stillbirth of her son and subsequent pregnancy that followed soon after (basically along the same timeline as mine).
In terms of a review I just plan to say it's so worth the read. And not just for people who have lost a child. Or for people who have lost anyone at all. It's just a good read. It's so insightful and raw and real. She tells a beautiful story (though I wish it wasn't true), and it was one I nodded along with, at times actually saying out loud: "Yes! Absolutely, yes!" At times crying (okay, sobbing -- like put the book down and cry for a little while sobbing). And at times even laughing. Out loud. With a few tears streaming down my face. Because the reality is, this shit is sad. But the pregnancies, the crap you deal with after, in hindsight, can have these gloriously sad laughable moments.
Mostly, I want to write about a few (a lot) of the quotes that stood out to me and provide a commentary for how it made me shout out "THANK YOU FOR GETTING ME" as I read. (Spoiler alert: Her second child is a boy, too, who she gets to bring home this time -- But she spoils this in the first 6 pages, so I don't feel guilty spoiling that here).
"Every day as I love this baby in my lap, I think of my other baby. Poor older brother, poor missing one... The love for the first magnifies the love for the second, and vice versa" (7).
Sometimes I worry I detach myself a little from this baby. Only to snap myself out of it and give him a rub. Sing him a song. Read him a book. Say good morning. I don't mean to, but it happens. And it's so refreshing to read about how for McCracken, the love she has for one doesn't diminish the love for the other, even though he's gone. I think that may be my fear. That this new baby is supposed to "replace" Ryan. But I know in my heart that'll never happen. And it was good to read that in practice it doesn't have to be that way either.
"I'm not ready for my first child to fade into history" (15).
I suppose this ties into my last point. I know in my heart Ryan is irreplaceable. And I can only hope it's that way for people on the outside of myself. Which is why I suppose it doesn't sit right with me to say "Yes, this is my first" when asked. Because he's not. He'll be my first lots of things hopefully. But he'll never be my first baby.
"No more talk of angels. I can't stand the tendency to speak of dead children as such. I do not want him elevated to angel. I do not want him demoted to neverness. He was a person, that's all" (32).
The word "angel" as a term of endearment is forever ruined for me. No child of mine will ever be affectionately called "angel." You'll never hear me utter: "Good night sweet angel" as I lay my baby to sleep. I don't think I've ever said that Ryan is an angel now, or that he was born an angel. I don't ascribe to "My son has wings." And I don't begrudge or judge the people who do. But I can't think of my son as anything less than the sweet baby he was. I don't want him to be anything else. So perhaps this is a gentle early warning... but should the time come that this new baby comes home with me, and I get to post a plethora of photos of him every single day, please never say: "He's such an angel." Because I likely will correct you about it.
"I can't remember how long we'd know that [he] was dead before we declared that we would have another child, or which one of us first said it... It was like believing in the future instead of in the place we were at that moment" (40-41).
I'm not sure I've ever said it here, but we had this conversation within two weeks of losing Ryan. I'm not sure now how that makes me feel, but I'm sure it's something along the lines of how McCracken describes it. We were ready to start our family. I didn't know what else to do but to continue to try. And by trying we weren't denying Ryan's existence, but instead looking to the future. I remember this day, this conversation, so vividly. At the dining table, head bent over food I still could barely eat. Tears on my cheeks. We've come so far from that day.
"Every day of my second pregnancy I thought of [him], of course. But I tried not to think of the exact circumstances of his death... If I remember, I will walk to the nearest hospital and ask for a nice bed in the psychiatric wing... just keep me, nurse, for a few months" (56).
This was one of those "Yes! Absolutely yes!" moments. I'm hyper-aware of this new little one. I find myself reclining in staff meetings or in the car, my hands on my belly, feeling for the slightest movements. And he doesn't always oblige me. Which just means I have to sit longer... This is pregnancy after loss.
"Sometimes, when I think back on those days I forget that I wasn't just a woman who had lost a child, I had given birth to one, too, and was recovering" (67).
This one actually made me grimace a little because it is so true. A regular postpartum woman gets in her car after her partner has carefully loaded all the bags and baby in a carrier into the car. She goes home. Gets settled -- which I imagine involves plenty of couch time for nursing and healing your bits which have really been assaulted by the whole process. It's not that way for those who have lost. At least it wasn't for me. Two days full of visits to the funeral home and cemetery and picking out flowers for his memorial because I just didn't trust anyone else to do it right. Then the memorial itself. We wanted to lay him to rest right away. It was nearly a week before I could "relax," but even then, such little relaxing took place. To relax meant to sit at home without a baby to care for, and no one wanted to be dealing with that sad reality. So we tried to keep busy....
"After most deaths, I imagine, the awfulness lies in how everything's changed: you no longer recognize the form of your days... For us what was killing us was how nothing had changed. We'd been waiting to be transformed, and now, here we were, back in our old life" (97).
This is still true for me some days. The days when life seems to continue on as normal and I can't help but think: "If he had gotten to stay, here's how today would be different." Rich and I for a short time before Ryan arrived mourned the loss of our "old lives" as a childless couple. And now, we mourn our "new lives" as a childless couple. (Though not really childless -- but you get what I mean). Life went right back to "normal" and that was the shittiest.
"No, I insist: other people's children did not make me sad. But pregnant women did... I have nothing in common with you, I thought. That shows I had already forgotten the one lesson I'd vowed to learn: you can never guess at the complicated history of strangers" (111).
I still struggle with this one. I assume all pregnant women I see are blissfully traversing their pregnancies without any real idea (informed by true experience) of the horrors that can happen. And I'm probably wrong 25% of the time. At least that's what the statistics say. And I want to be better at not envying every pregnant woman of her harmonious pregnancy. Because you never know. Someone could be looking at me in envy. (HA! Imagine...)
"Once you've been on the losing side of great odds, you never find statistics comforting again" (115).
I've discussed my feelings on pregnancy stats before so I won't get into it again here. But I was struck by her eloquence with this line so I included it. It was another head nodding moment.
"I can't wrap my brain around losing a child and learning only then whether you'd lost a son or daughter..." (118).
She goes on to keep the sex of her baby a secret until delivery -- a decision she calls an "odd form of optimism." Which is an interesting way of looking at it. But as I've said before, I needed to know because I need to know my baby NOW. As much as I can. And her quote here is exactly how I feel.
"Twice now I have heard the story of someone who knows someone who's had a stillborn child since [he] has died, and it's all I can do not to book a flight immediately, to show up somewhere I'm not wanted, just so that I can say: It happened to me, too, because it meant so much to me to hear it. It happened to me, too, meant: It's not your fault. And: You are not a freak of nature. And: This does not have to be a secret" (136).
This is everything I've ever said about the community of women I've found since losing Ryan. It's not misery loving company. It's mutual understanding and freedom of isolation. Any chance I get to shout out how much I love my fellow loss-moms I will!
"The worst thing in the world had already happened. He was dead. Everything else was easy" (155).
I was sitting on the end of the hospital bed after an ultrasound that confirmed Ryan had no heartbeat when I looked at Rich and said: "I have to deliver him now." I was calm when I said it. I remember so clearly like I wasn't quite in my body anymore, but watching it happen. He was horrified. And in a sort of disbelief that there wasn't another way. But of course there wasn't. He was a fully developed, full-term baby. You deliver babies. And aside from one point in the labour process where I remember crying that I couldn't do it -- not the actual labour, but the delivery of my dead son -- I wasn't afraid. It's true that the worst thing HAD already happened. He had died. The rest seemed and was pretty normal. Almost.
"I asked [my friend] to call my [other] friend Wendy and to split the calls to my other friends between them. I read aloud telephone numbers. Why am I finding this harder to write about than anything?" (165).
McCracken's brief interruption where she asks the reader (or herself) this question struck me because I had two answers for her (since I was crying as I read it):
1. It's a reflection of the beauty of some of the friendships that grow from the profound loss. I know I had a few in particular that deepened their depths and cemented our friendship forever;
and 2. It's an example of one of the robotic and mechanical duties that had to be done much too soon after dealing with an unspeakable loss. Why can't we just crawl into a hole for a few months to cope with the feelings instead of having to take care of business? Because if we didn't, phone calls, emails, messages, would pour in asking if our babies have arrived yet. That's why.
So I guess you can see how incredibly impactful this little memoir was for me. Basically, I strongly recommend it. You'll probably giggle when she talks about the Dwarfs of Grief. And you'll probably shout "Yes!" when she brainstorms her idea for business cards that read "My first child was stillborn." But mostly you'll feel like you have a friend who "gets it." Or if you haven't been in her (our) shoes, you might walk away understanding us a little bit better.