This is a story about the death of a child
What to Do with the Worst Days
After the funeral, after you’ve watched — still in disbelief — as the box is lowered into the ground (newly broken: you, the earth), after you’ve hidden your face against the shoulder of your own mother, after you’ve finally doubled over, no longer able to hear the stilted coos of sympathy, when all you can think is I have to get in there — she needs someone with her, let your husband guide you toward the car. Understand that there is no recovery. There is only each day to get through, and some will be slightly less devastating than others.
Know that you cannot leave her room as it is — a shrine to the thing you loved most. Still love. But she is never coming home. There is nothing to keep ready. You don’t have to forget, but you do have to box her clothes.
Make one pile to save: the white flower headband she always pulled off before you could get the photograph. Her first pair of slippers, tiny enough for a doll or a dream. The fleece elephant pajamas your husband bought to celebrate her first month, his voice husked with a panicky type of wonder when he said, She’s something we made. Donate the rest: her bath toys, her swing, the highchair, the unopened box of diapers you came home with just days before. Try not to be surprised by how much there is, by the amount of space one little person can take up.
Let your husband dismantle the crib. Sometimes you have to ask others to share your burdens. Sleep with her favorite teether — a smooth, rubber giraffe with a squeaker in the center — until one night you roll over on it and wake up to that sound, a deflated sort of scream beneath your shoulder. The heartbreak you feel in that moment of remembering will nearly split your body from end to end. A mercy you wish for nightly. When you find the next inhale, slip from the cocoon of a too-thick comforter and know that no metamorphosis is coming. Do not think of wings. Place the giraffe on the top shelf of your closet, beneath a wool scarf you never wear. Get back in bed as if nothing has happened. In the morning, when your husband asks how you slept, smile weakly as he pours your coffee and tell him your night was dreamless.
Give the stroller to a woman from work whose first baby is due in May. Months later, when you see her at the park with a different stroller, wonder but don’t ask what happened to yours, even though you will already know — the superstition, the worry; she will have wanted one unmarked by loss. You can’t say you blame her, but still, how can you begin to heal a wound that daily is reopened? Piece by piece, your girl is disappearing.
People — your colleagues, your friends, your in-laws, but especially other mothers — will pose their questions delicately, careful acrobatics around concerns that are too crass to utter aloud. What they’re asking without asking is what you did wrong, how they can avoid it. Understand that they are trying to keep their own babies safe, but remain stalwart in your knowledge that the greatest act of empathy is to exactly imagine your suffering and they do not want to, are not strong enough to try on your grief for even a moment.
The truth is you’ve already asked yourself this question over and over, and there is no guidepost lighting you toward discovery. You never put her to sleep with blankets in the crib. You did not feed her honey or let her sleep in your bed. You cradled gently, always supporting the neck. You loved and loved and loved with everything you had. And each morning, as a type of answer to that love, she woke ready for another day with you, until one day she didn’t. Who can say why the cruelest things happen? Why things are okay until they simply aren’t.
The months will lengthen, quiet. When her memory overtakes you, don’t put up a fight. This is best done in the shower, where your husband can’t hear you cry. It might be easier to erase her, but there is a type of comfort in hurting this much, in the way pain can grow almost into something to be loved.
The frizzy-haired grief counselor has explained that men and women often deal with loss differently. Try not to announce that you think this is bullshit. On a notepad by the phone, misspell counselor as consoler. Don’t ask the doctor if she has kids of her own. Don’t mention that you still take your birth control vigilantly. Don’t bring up that you haven’t even been able to undress beyond the privacy of the locked bathroom since the morning you found your daughter cold in the crib. It’s not that you can’t find your way to intimacy after absence, it’s just that there can only ever be one of her.
When you’re facing down the worst days, look right at them. Stare hard. Practice making your mind still. Forget about going to work, doing the dishes, brushing your teeth. Don’t say her name to your husband, whose body goes rigid in response, an exercise in control, in shutting down. Instead, think of your daughter’s laughter as she splashed in the bath or tugged your hair or tried to drink from your coffee mug. Recall the trail of yogurt fingerprints you wiped from the back of the kitchen chair. Think even of the high-pitched mew of her cry, the way it cut into you. Think of the way her face would lift toward yours, awash with relief, whenever you leaned down to bring her into your arms. Think of the exact weight of her frame curled into yours as you held her in the rocking chair in the dark, of how amazing it is, the sheer quantity of things a person can miss.
Kirsten Clodfelter is the author of CASUALTIES (Ropewalk Press, 2013), and her fiction and nonfiction have been published in The Iowa Review, Narrative Magazine, Hunger Mountain, storySouth, Green Mountains Review, The Nervous Breakdown, Brevity, Smokelong Quarterly, Salon, and The New York Times, among others. The co-founder of Rise Marketing, Inc, she lives and writes in the Midwest.
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