Sunday, September 23, 2012

Crazy Lady

I recently read Elizabeth McCracken’s memoir, An Exact Replica of a Figment of my Imagination.  It recounts her experience of losing her firstborn child to stillbirth and her subsequent pregnancy, which ended with a living baby. There are a couple things where my perspective differs from hers, but much of what she says rings true. Below is a quote from the memoir.

Here is a character from a gothic novel; the woman with the stillborn child. Her hair is matted and black. Ghosts nest in it. Her white nightgown is mottled with book. In her hands is an awful bundle: the corpse she cannot bear to put down. She sings lullabies to it, rocks it in her arms. She says in a pleasant but tremulous voice, "Would you like to see my baby? He’s such a nice little baby. Such a little, little baby. Shh; he’s sleeping."

In the immediate months after A was stillborn I often felt like this gothic novel character. At the time, the image that popped into my head was that of a turn of the century insane asylum patient. The disheveled woman standing alone in the corner, eyes focused on some invisible point, talking quietly to herself, rocking slightly back and forth. Then, unprovoked, she blurts out, falls to the ground, curled into a ball she’s screaming and sobbing, shaking with emotion, unintelligible words break through the wails. She is inconsolable. The staff tries to get her into restraints but she is not present in their world.

The physical, hormonal, emotional and mental need to nurture was near constant in those early months. I often found myself in the fully prepared nursery - clean sheets in the crib, diapers stacked at the changing table, tiny clothes hanging in the closet, home-made mobile quivering from the ceiling. I would hang over the side of the crib, stroke my hand across the flannel-sheeted mattress, thumb the ultra-soft security blanket and cry. I would rest my head directly on the changing pad and just sob. Most times I would grab the fuzzy, hooded snowsuit size 3 months and sit in the family heirloom rocker. I would cradle that piece of clothing as if it was my son. I’d position the hood so that it held the shape of his infant head, running my finger along the side of the hood as if his soft cheek were there. I’d tickle the toes hoping against hope that his strong little feet would materialize inside the fabric. I’d read books to him this way. Or sometimes I just stared down as enamored mother’s do imagining what he’d look like.

Because we did not find out A’s gender until delivery, we did not own a lot of baby clothes. What we did have was all newborn to 3-months size. When I sat down to rock him over the spring and realized that he’d definitely have outgrown the snowsuit I was distraught. It felt like the severing of one of the few connections I had with A. I had personally bought that snowsuit just a couple weeks before he was born. Just he and I out shopping, one of the few articles of baby clothing that wasn’t a gift. I picked it out myself. It was his snowsuit. I couldn’t just go out and pick out another bunting the next size-up. It wouldn’t be his. It wouldn’t be the same. I had to face that my boy was really gone. Accept that’d he would have grown so much by then that I cannot know what he would have looked like.

Surely if any of the neighbors ever saw me alone in the nursery rocking and talking to my phantom baby they’d think I’d lost my last marble.

Even now when I want to push the last remaining co-workers or relatives to look through A’s photos I feel like that gothic character, “Would you like to see my baby? He’s such a nice little baby. Such a little, little baby.” Some of these people probably think it’s lunacy to have pictures of your dead baby and unconscionable to urge others to look.


  1. More and more, I am realizing how very out of place and disturbing pictures of dead babies are to people. What seems completely common place to me is absolutely horrific and inappropriate to them.

    I showed my younger brother (almost 25 year old) a picture of my son. What I thought was the "best" looking one that showcased his almost aliveness. I have this photo on my phone, and have times been very tempted to show people who knew I had a baby and have since stopped asking how I am these days...but I stop myself. They won't see my son. They will just see a very evidently dead baby.

    I showed my brother. I pretty much forced him. I saw his face in shock, but he tried to contain it. I told him to be honest in how he felt...even if it would hurt my feelings. I needed to know what was real, and what was clouded by my bias love. He said, "remember when daddy was on his last day with cancer...and he had those vacant yellow eyes? Well that image pops into my head sometimes when I'm doing the simplest of things. And I guess some things you just can't 'un-see'.

    I knew what he meant. All he remembered of his nephew was my pregnant belly and the handful of ultrasound pictures. Now, he has an image that he would rather not associate with him. But what can I do. That's my son. That's his nephew. That's all I have. In his very dead state, in a flat picture, that's all that's left. And I know it's sad. I want him to remember how sad this all is. He's a young guy, seemingly un phased by the death of his first and only nephew. I need him to be changed, to be's still so hard for me. And when he wants to just hang out like we used to, and he asks me 'what's wrong?' I want to put his picture in his face, and say 'don't ever forget'

    Sorry to spin off there. But I felt every word you wrote above. You are not crazy. I have jumpers and a few one-sies that were bought specifically for my A. Ive laid them on the change table, stroked them, imagined him, wondered over and over if I'd got the size just right. I washed and hung, folded and put away all these little things when he was still alive. I was so full of anticipation and I yearned to cradle his new was heart breaking, and very therapeutic to make my way through the drawers and cry and wail, and touch and smell. I didn't know where he's all I had to reach out to what I knew he was.

    I'm thinking of you. I think of that babe growing. I think of your A.

    Sending my love, for all it's worth.

    1. Thank you for the "spin off" Veronica. There still a few relatives who, nearly a year later, have not seen A's photos. Some offer excuses about how they're not "good at that sort of thing." Others simply never take me up on the standing offer to sit down and share his album. For many months I have pushed folks to look because he is their cousin, nephew, great-nephew, great-grandson. And their refusal felt like a personal slight. How can you love E and I yet not want to see our firstborn child whose arrival you excitedly awaited? It felt like they were denying my son.

      But then I discussed it at length with my counselor and she put it this way. Some people just aren't capable. It isn't that they don't love E, me or A; they just can't express it in a way that overtly acknowledges A. She thinks if I force such people to look at A's pictures that they will be so uncomfortable and effected by the experience that they will come to fear me. They'll be scared that even in jovial holiday gatherings I'll spring on them some deep, emotional request or situation. She thinks it's best not to push these people. But it is still very difficult for me to accept. It still feels like a personal offense.

      I also get mad when people look at A's photos for the first time and don't cry. I want them to be forlorn. I want them to be torn apart by the harshness of A's sudden, inexplicable, unjust death. I want them to shed their comfortable ignorance and for a brief time and realize the gravity of what's happened and what E and I live with each and every day.

      "Sending my love, for all it's worth." It is worth a lot. Thank you again for reading and for sharing.

  2. This post and Veronica's reply make me realize - not for the first time - that I haven't done enough of the crazy lady. It is GOOD, I think, to be that crazy. How could you not be? We didn't have anything really for A. Because we knew she was a girl, and had a closet packed to the ceiling with girl clothes, we didn't feel we needed anything. I wish so much that I had bought her a dress so that I could hold it now and cry. The last Sunday before she died I wandered into Baby G*p and looked at all the cute dresses and newborn cuddly things, but stopped myself from buying something we didn't really need. I bought a three-pack of newborn onesies that was reduced like crazy - the only things that were every only hers. We burned one with her, one is in her memory box and one I keep under my pillow, still. I recently had the same realization you've had: that onesie would be packed away now had she lived, grown out of months ago. What's happened to us is a f**ing tragedy; we should be crazy and everyone else should step back and let us be, respect the crazy, in fact. And be thankful they can just watch it from afar.

  3. I read that book shortly after Nathaniel died and loved it. So many of the images she paints rang true for me, too. But I do pull out pictures of my dead baby. I just did, on my blog. I didn't for a long time, out of fear that other people would be haunted by the image of Nathaniel, and out of fear that I would be perceived as the crazy lady with the picture of her dead baby. Oh well. So, I'm what Elizabeth McCracken didn't want to be.

    It's been 14 months today, and just last week I had full blown crazy days. I was so glad to read about your ritual of rocking the snow suit. I have a "heart to hold" - a 6 lb, 3 oz heart shaped bag full of buckwheat and lavender that I made for myself shortly after Nathaniel died. Something to hold, and to ease the ache in my arms. I had to sleep with the heart for months, and last week, I pulled it out, wrapped it in a receiving blanket, and rocked it for several hours during the day. I thought the same thing - that if the neighbors saw, they would think that I had gone bat shit crazy.

    I don't feel as crazy as often as I did a year ago, or six months ago. But I do feel crazy enough often enough. I don't know when I'll feel sane again, if ever. How can I? My baby died.

    1. Suzanne I am blown away by your "heart to hold"! What a brilliant idea! I assume Nathaniel was 6 pounds 3 ounces?

      For weeks after A was born I could still feel the weight of his body in my arms. But that has faded. How lovely to have something representative of your son to hold, cuddle, swaddle and rock. It's so much more substantial than a snow suit.

      And I agree with you about McCracken. I am grateful to have A's photos for myself and to share with others. To each her own, right?

  4. I just saw a story about a panda at the zoo in Washington DC whose baby died a week after it was born. She has been cradling a plastic toy all week and this is on several news networks as a touching story. Imagine a story on a bereaved human mother cradling a snowsuit or a 'heart to hold.' Somehow I don't think it would get presented the same way....

    1. Excellent point. I have to put forth great effort to recall my pre-stillbirth perspective on the world. When I do and I consider dead baby photos or the story about Rick Santorum bringing his stillborn baby home I realize that would make the pre-stillbirth me very uncomfortable. But now that I'm living it and have a huge online community supporting such ideas and practices, it all seems so natural and normal. This is the danger with operating in two distinctly different worlds. I have to remember which one I'm in at all times before I say a single word or truly open my heart. Because even the best-intentioned non-bereaved people still balk and no matter how much explanation or tears I could pour out they still won't come around; they'll never get it.