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.