Thursday, May 6, 2010

Seven Candles, Burning Bright

Today is the seventh anniversary of the birth and death of my first child. There was a time when I thought it would get easier each year. Now I think, it doesn't.

First comes a frantic stemming of the tide. But it comes anyway—a massive tidal wave of grief. I cry for days. I mean, really, why not?

One of the most challenging aspects of this whole affair (yes, there are many) has been the inherent loneliness that comes with being the bearer of something so miserable that most people won’t touch it with a ten-foot pole. From the get-go, the edges and depths of this experience were something only a few of my contemporaries even tried to comprehend, let alone address. I can count on one-and-a-half hands those who have really gone there with me in seven years, and several of them are bound to me by blood, married to me, or I had to pay.

Perhaps the death of a baby is just one of those life-situations irrevocably fraught with peril. I’ve always known that everyone did what they were able. But that didn’t make it any less lonely.

One silver lining of this whole affair (yes, there are many) is my chickens. Not just their blessed existence, of course, but their reaction to this day. I always intended for our family history to be something that was out in the open for them—not overly dramatic, but truthful. So once a year we go to the cemetery to visit the brother they never knew. And each year, I am surprised and delighted by the ways that Noodle and Little transform the experience for us all.

Last weekend, Chicken Noodle began the planning. “What will we bring to him? Ooo—candy,” she moaned, like it was crack cocaine.

“How about a bouquet?” said Chicken Little, who is three and prides herself on her growing vocabulary.

“Candy,” sighed Noodle, still lost in an imaginary-sugar-induced fantasy.

“Candy,” agreed Little with a reverent whisper.

“No, I know,” said Noodle, who is five and has to have the last word, even if it means trumping her own idea. “We’ll bake him a cake. But we’ll eat it! At his cemetery! And we’ll leave him one piece right there by his name. And we’ll put heart candles on it! And we’ll sing”—she broke into a warbling tune—“’Happy birthday, lovey boy!’”

All I’ve wanted was for someone to validate his existence, honor my pain, love me there, and make me laugh. I could never have guessed that it would be my own children who would do this the very best of all.

Off to bake a cake…


  1. Gorgeous chickens! Tears and a full heart for your daughters, your son, you.....your family.


  2. Thank you, Kim, for this beautiful memorial. The Japanese have a ritual called Mizuko Kuyo for infants stillborn, dead in childbirth, or aborted. They also have a more general Day of the Dead event - Obon. So many cultures are so much wiser than Americans regarding tragedy. My parents lost their first daughter to suicide at age 29 but never mourned her publicly. I think that was a mistake.

  3. Here's to children: those we embrace physically as well as the ones we hold in our heart.
    Much love-

  4. Everything is so simple to children. Your chickens show how love and grief and joy can be together on this anniversary. My grandmother's first son was stillborn and I knew nothing about him until I was 15, when we buried my grandfather in the same cemetary and I found his headstone and asked someone about it. It is good that you have shared this with your daughters. Peace be with you today, Mom.

  5. thinking of you on this very important day.

    Robin R in PDX

  6. Well, I haven't sampled many other cultures, but I will say that this one is challenging for the grief-stricken. Sometimes I'll think, oh, I am just expecting too much of people, I need to ask for what I need, or accept that they just don't know what to say. Then I'll have an experience where I'll mention him (which I do very rarely) and there is absolutely no response--total silence, or a quick change of subject, as if I've said nothing, and I am like--really? That's the best you can do? Death is terrifying to Americans. But really, it can be beautiful and joyous and an opportunity to feel and see things so much more meaningful than we usually allow ourselves. I have always said that it was the most devastating and blessed experience of my life, simultaneously. I would not be the same person I am without that day.

    Thanks to you all for your comments...they mean so much.

  7. A beautiful memorial service, Kim! I had no idea about this very big part of you and I'm glad that you've shared it now. What a wonderful way to commemorate the day with your girls; such a warm memory coming out of this tragic loss--and hopefully a tradition that you can continue to carry out for many years to come.

  8. I remember you pregnant with the Whunk. In San Francisco - trying to walk to the ocean. I think of him every May.

    Love - Jessa

  9. We walked a million miles that day. Wow, that seems like several lifetimes ago... xoxo!

  10. I know exactly what you mean.

    I've had several losses, and no one, not even my partner, really seemed to appreciate that it was real, and it happened, and there was a person involved.

    Until and except for my surviving children. I don't make a big deal out of it, but it's part of my history, and it's part of "our story", and they certainly noticed, with the most recent loss, that I was pregnant twice with only one baby at the end of it all.

    They include our lost-children in some of their art. Not all of it. Just like sometimes they include ALL of our pets, deceased and living, and sometimes they don't. But they're there.

    Sometimes they ask me about them.

    At Christmastime, they insist on some of the ornaments being hung for each of the ones who aren't with us.

    What's interesting is that not too long ago, we buried my partner's grandmother in a family cemetery that's been around for many generations.

    The kids and I walked, and read gravestones.

    There were commemorations of infant-deaths, stillbirths and even miscarriages *everywhere*. It was amazing.

    In times when some of the families couldn't afford a headstone for each person, there would be a line, sometimes engraved on the back of a family stone, commemorating the perinatal losses.

    I wonder if the mothers insisted, or if it was a family thing.

    I kind of suspect the mothers had it done on their own time.

  11. Wow. Anonymous, who are you? I want to invite you over for lunch.

    That was so beautiful. And familiar.

    Noodle is still asking, two weeks later, if her brother can hear what we say. She tells me regularly that she misses him.

    What is that--that kids get it? And is it just that they are our own kids, or would any kids be this open if we presented them with this story?

    Your cemetary story blows my mind. Now I want to go and look--have these things been there all along, and I've never noticed?

    Maybe, if that were true, it would make me more forgiving of the people who seemed to have never noticed what happened to me.

    No matter what, this reminds me that my own children have given me gifts unlike any I'll ever receive from anyone else, ever. These will be the relationships to define me.

    Thank you. You made me cry, and feel more known.