“Autumn has been both cruel and kind to me, over the years. Events as disparate as horse races, baseball campaigns and the births of children have been disastrous and heartbreaking or wondrous and full of delight. Life just happens, you know, a personal drama in which one is at once the protagonist and the audience. In 1976, on 7 November, I gave birth to twin boys, Gabriel Francis and Jacob Collis, each tiny and perfect and doomed by their eagerness to be part of the chaotic world outside the womb.”—Jean Carroll Nolan
By Jean Carroll Nolan
SEASIDE California—(Weekly Hubris)—9/28/2015—Autumn has been both cruel and kind to me, over the years. Events as disparate as horse races, baseball campaigns and the births of children have been disastrous and heartbreaking or wondrous and full of delight. Life just happens, you know, a personal drama in which one is at once the protagonist and the audience. In 1976, on 7 November, I gave birth to twin boys, Gabriel Francis and Jacob Collis, each tiny and perfect and doomed by their eagerness to be part of the chaotic world outside the womb. They arrived a little more than two and a half months early, Jake—second born, and a breach, who got beaten up during delivery—living only ten hours, and Gabe digging in for four and a half days before returning whence he came, leaving me bereft and swollen with maternal love and milk.
I never held them. As I look back, that is the most dreadful aspect of the entire experience. It was so long ago that the head of the Neonatal Department, a handsome, tall, kind man, who looked like a Jesuit from a Renaissance painting, minus the clericals, actually sat in the waiting room with us, smoking, as we waited, John and I, to be allowed to go and see our dead son. Can you imagine? The waiting room in a neonatal unit, filled with cigarette smoke? It no longer computes, does it? That was the Thursday when Gabe died. Everyone in the unit had been kind, but it was a time when medical considerations still overrode the needs of the heart and, while John and I were allowed to stroke the baby’s legs, and arms, kiss his withered cheeks and examine the small hands, we were never able to pick him up, and cradle him, even for a moment.
However, at the time, all I could think was that two of my children—my children!—had died, without hearing poetry.
So, when the nurse came to tell us that we could go see Gabe, and we, gowned and scrubbed, for the safety of the other inhabitants of the nursery, walked, holding hands, to where our son lay, covered completely by a diaper, I gulped down my tears, uncovered the face so like my husband’s, and recited, with flourishes, Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan.” Gabe hadn’t tasted honeydew, and had neither flashing eyes, nor floating hair but, to me, always, the words sang of glory, of everness, of the dimension beyond the flesh. And so, momentarily a priestess, not a plump, heartbroken girl of 26, I spoke a powerful incantation, background music for my son’s journey to realms he would, most unnaturally, see long before I did. And he went forth with my pain and, god help me, my joy, the joy that beautiful language always arouses in me, to face eternity, his eyes closed not in death, in my interior world, but in “holy dread.”
There was no funeral. We had no money, and debts that could not be paid. We are, both of us, intensely private people, for whom personal anguish is something to be endured, alone.
Our families and friends were amazingly understanding and sweet to us, allowing us to exist in the half-light of our half-world, assuring us that they would be there, when we emerged, reminding us of sunlight and love and warmth.
Peculiarly, our nephew, Jim, a hearty and healthy four months old when all this took place, was not, as I had feared, a trigger for resentment, but rather a light in an otherwise bleak landscape. I do know that the only trips I took in that time were on the commuter train to Park Ridge, to see and hold and kiss the smiling, solid presence of that small herald from the world of babies. I had been terribly afraid that I would hate him, for being healthy, for being big, for being alive. Instead, he was the promissory note from the future I so desperately needed, and I craved holding him, was insensibly comforted by his trust and welcome. He always smiled for me. Always. Even when I was pulling him in the wagon, and we went over a small snow bump, and he fell out, right on his large head. He smiled. He welcomed my love as I drank his like an addict tying off for a fix. He saved me, though I have never told him so.
But, where was I?
Oh, yes. No funeral. No tiny white coffins. No Victorian sentiment. No closure. We wanted the boys’ bodies used for medical research, in the hope that the future would be different for babies like them. We saw no reason to do anything beyond what the immediate present demanded. We were like the swan parents I read of, many years later, in a book the title of which I cannot recall, who raised four cygnets to a good age, and then lost them, in the course of a tumultuous three minutes, to an attack by seagulls. We were bruised, dazed, unthinking, and running on automatic pilot.
But, we were young, and resilient, as the young are. We recovered. It took time. I went to bed for three months, or was it four? All I knew was that life as I had known it was over. I watched soap operas on television, and thought as little as possible, and ached. John became a fairly good handicapper, drank a little more than the usual too much, but never so much as to be an additional worry for me. We left each other to grieve. We shared a specific, unspeakable anguish, and survived a cold and bitter winter seeking solace in physical love, old, classic movies, books, and food. It was an odd period, one of which I have no true memories. I watched myself, rather than being myself. I did not want to go out; I did not want to be part of the world.
I read Dorothy Dunnett (whom I recommend unreservedly, both the historical novels and the mysteries), and Dorothy Sayers, and Mary Renault. John read Nero Wolfe novels and Thucydides and, from time to time, we exchanged books, talking with great passion about things that did not sear the heart in the present.
Eventually, in the course of a wet and capricious March walk, John saw an ad for a billing clerk posted on the door of a tinning and plating company only three blocks from the apartment (to which we’d moved in preparation for parenthood), and I went back to work.
It is one of the great debts I owe him, this difficult man with whom I’ve forged a life. He let me grieve until grieving more would have been deleterious, and then, ever so gently, prodded me. He knew just where the line was between appropriate grief and self-indulgent lunacy, and he helped me walk across it. I resented his help greatly, and was infinitely grateful for it. He, too, saved me. Life, the force that allows mice to thrive under the subway tracks, and weeds to force, impossibly, their tender green shoots through concrete, once again swallowed me, lured me into the dance, made me a player again.
By the first anniversary of their birth, I was, insofar as possible, healed. Irrevocably changed, but capable of laughter, capable of fun, capable of engagement.
We had no photographs. Today, I suppose one would post the experience on Facebook, or tweet one’s anguish on Twitter, but we had only the hospital bracelets, and the cards that identified the boys in their isolettes by which to recall them.
And, of course, our memories.
In 1981, having moved to California and bought a house, we also bought a wood stove, for heat. When John built the cement and block platform for the stove, we ceremonially broke up various pieces of family memorabilia to place in the platform, pieces of a box in which his grandmother kept her paint brushes (such an artist, she was!), and a note from my father to me, written when I was twelve, letters from both John’s father and mother, a handkerchief of my mother’s, pieces of all those whose existence was essential to ours.
The hospital bracelets and the cards were there, too, when the house burned down in 2011, and every tangible, physical memento of our boys’ existence was gone.
By that time, of course, we had not only children, but a grandchild, and we were, to the extent we will ever be, grown-ups. We had endured things as difficult as the loss of those boys, had survived griefs that could not, from the vantage point of that time, be anticipated.
We have shared our lives with dozens of animals, with children, with children’s friends, with friends chosen and acquired as adults, cared for parents in extremis; celebrated, mourned and been part of countless births and deaths.
We have cemented our relationship to Lucy, daughter of Olduvai Gorge, by shared experience. We are human, we are sentient; we grieve and we laugh and we wonder and we rage.
I wanted, always, to write a poem for Gabe and Jake, but it would never come. Or, so I thought. However, the truth is that every poem I’ve ever written is full of those five days, of those two souls, of that experience.
Like war, the death of a child is not something that leaves one. The pain is always there, but also—can I actually write this?—the gratitude. I was fertile, and I gave birth to beautiful, huge—(for their developmental stage, they were titanic, at 2 ½ and 2 ¼ pounds) —delicious boys, and I had, even at that time, even in that anguish, the sense to recognize that as a gift. I was grateful, even then. And I thank the universe, and those two souls, for making me a part of their story.
Note: The photo accompanying this essay was taken by Monni Must, and derives from http://michiganradio.org/post/grief-healing-and-one-photographers-final-family-portraits. (View Must’s work at her site, naturallymonni.com.)