June 11, 1970: John’s brief life and death changed everything. The myth of motherhood that I had chosen, or perhaps that had chosen me, was short-circuited. Each day diminished itself with what was missing. I sometimes thought I heard the faraway cry of a baby. If not the mother of John, this child I enfolded into my dreams and with whom I envisioned my family’s future, then who was I? There would be no more babies. I knew this from the moment I learned that my child was dead. Emotionally, I did not have the courage to carry another child inside me for nine months, to grow to love that child the way I grew to love John, knowing that the same fate could befall another pregnancy. What was I going to do with the rest of my life?
Summer was a blur. I was a mother on automatic pilot, navigating bruised knees and bologna sandwiches and the backyard sprinkler. It took enormous energy each day to quell the tears banked behind the dam of my eyes. The God of the hospital gurney had evaporated. I didn’t want Robert, Kathleen, or Dennis to see me sad. I stuffed tissues inside my bra to absorb the milk that continued to gush from my stone breasts in spurts of longing whenever I thought of my dead child. Building a fortress around my grief, I pushed on. Women with infants asleep in the baskets of their grocery carts evoked a jealousy so intense that I turned away from them. I envied my friend Ginny even as she wept beside the crib of her son who was born with Down syndrome.
I said, “I’ll trade places with you.”
Boxes of baby clothes I had saved were sealed, put out in front of the house, and picked up by the Salvation Army.
The door to the future snapped shut.
I doted on Robert, Kathleen, and Dennis. I became obsessed with their health, afraid that I would lose them, too. I didn’t want to let them out of my sight. I tormented them with endless questions about their health. I developed sneaky ways of feeling their foreheads for fever by kissing them or casually brushing back their hair. But they were on to me. One night as I imposed my check-up on Robert while he lay in bed, he turned his head abruptly and said, “Leave me alone.” As he moved away, my hand slipped and my fingernail ripped into his eye. My neurosis about his well-being ironically led to a regime of antibiotics, pain, an eye patch, and a scar that would flare once again into infection years later, when he was away at college.
I tried to pray, but it was as though I left God in the delivery room of the hospital. I read William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience. I wrote to Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, the great proponent of positive thinking, at his church in New York. He answered my letter, but the words could not penetrate my sadness.
Finally, the summer ended. The three children went off to school in a flurry of corduroy and vinyl book bags. I watched from the front stoop as they turned the corner and disappeared. Going back inside the house, I locked the door, truly alone for the first time since June. There would be no interruptions until the children returned for lunch, three hours later. I had no conscious plan, but found myself heading straight for the bedroom. I fell on top of the sheets and buried my face in a pillow. I heard myself sobbing. Unbidden, accumulated tears came and came. I couldn’t stop them. I didn’t try to stop them. For over two hours, I cried with abandon. I feared I was breaking down, whatever that meant.
At some point, I reached for an envelope on the nightstand and rummaged through the drawer for a pencil in the still, shade-darkened room. Some impulse to write had emerged from the grief. A poem poured forth from the deepest part of my being, a simple poem about a mother and the son she could not have. I had never written a poem before, nor had I ever thought about doing so, but as if possessed, I found myself scribbling madly on the back of an envelope. As I did, the fog began to lift, revealing to me a moment of faith in the existence of another world and the futility of trying to comprehend it in the present one.
This is what I wrote:
I wonder oh my little one
If you know how much you’re loved
Of all my thoughts about you
And what it would be like
To have you here to love and share
This puzzle which is life
The joy, the ache, the love, and pain
That would never cease to grow
That sometimes seems to choke me
When I allow it to do so
There are feelings deep within me
Reserved for only you
That will always be a part of me
No matter what I do.
It’s painful to remember
But that serves a purpose too
It puts me in touch with a wonder
The reality of you.
Will I know your little face?
Will it greet me with a grin?
In some far and distant place
When we’re all at one with Him.
By the time I wrote the last word, I stopped crying. I still didn’t have my child, but in a strange way, I did. Although he could not exist in my world, he existed on the page; he existed in the poem. Here was a record. He was born, he was loved, he was real and he would never be forgotten. The poem told me I had hope. It was a hope of knowing him in another dimension. I no longer had to keep him fastened like a little button to the forefront of my mind where I couldn’t lose him. I could let go and keep him at the same time. All at once, absence and presence were commingled.
In a subtle way, through the rhythms and language permitted by a poem, I had finally prayed. It was in writing that poem, my prayer poem, that I took another tentative step forward in my struggle with faith. A long time would pass before I realized that others had discovered the secret I thought was mine alone, that the act of writing mediated pain; the act of writing healed; the act of writing could be a prayer.
John’s brief existence would lead me to poetry, and then to the emerging field of poetry therapy, and eventually to a graduate degree in psychology and a career in psychotherapy. But more importantly, before that, John’s brief existence would lead me to a dirt road in Yarmouth, and two little boys, who, like me, during that summer of grief, also could not cry. John’s brief existence would lead me to my whole self.