Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Barren Bitches Book Brigade: Reivew of "An Exact Replica . . . "

The only book I actively researched and purchased for myself after Maddy died was Deborah Davis' "Empty Cradle, Broken Heart." Which I should probably view better than I do (I blame my emotional state at the time), but I found a bit redundant. I kept thinking it would've made more sense to have read it four weeks prior to Maddy's birth, and I really don't know what science fiction would have made that possible. ("Why on earth are you making me read this? This if fucking depressing!") I also turned right over the chapter(s?) on getting pregnant again because Jeebus! Who the hell gets pregnant again after that mess? I shouldn't slam it too hard, though -- there were a few nuggets in there for which I'm deeply grateful.

A friend bought me Elizabeth Edwards' memoir, and I read the relevant chapters, and was overwhelmingly relieved to know someone else (someone famous, even) had also collapsed in a grocery store. Another friend bought me Alan Wolfelt's "Healing a Parent's Grieving Heart," which I actually really, really like(d), and should probably write more about.

But that's it really. I didn't start reading deadbaby blogs until about 6-7 months out when I started my own. And I found them so comforting, helpful, reassuring, validating, thought-provoking, and well written that I never even wondered if there was another book out there I was missing.

No, we're not all published novelists (though some of us are or will be) and yet I found words, themes, feelings, resonating. But mostly I'm constantly pleasantly not even remotely surprised awaiting notice that you -- you! -- have a somber, sarcastic, gutwrenching, off-topic, kleenex clutching, LOL post up and ready to read.

Which is a very round-about way of saying that when I heard about this new contribution to the inanimate method of communication -- dry pages between two covers -- regarding someone's stillbirth I thought "Meh, tell me something I don't know."

I was sent a copy of Elizabeth McCracken's "An Exact Replica of a Figment of my Imagination" to review, but realized three sentences in I should have recused myself: there is no way I can "review" a book about stillbirth any more than I can go all lit-crit on any of your blogs. Were you to write with stilted sentence structure, poor spelling, wandering thoughts, and non-sarcastic channeling of lolcats syntax, I would still read. (I may not come back. I would certainly second-guess paying for the privilege to read.) But I would read. Because I'm not there to chew on why you break paragraphs the way you do (or don't) or why you used a certain metaphor or why don't just fucking tell me what happened already.

Thankfully none of you (!) write like this, and quite obviously, neither does Elizabeth McCracken. In fact, she writes beautifully. Hers was not only an engrossing story, it was well written. It was funny -- to the point I may have snorted out loud a few times. (And perhaps it needs stated explicitly? I like my griefspeak with a sprinkle of the funny.) It left me hanging between chapters even though I knew (pit in the stomach confirming) exactly what lay ahead. The metaphors were just perfect, there were so many one-liners that resonated that they're spinning around the webverse right now, all hot and viral. Do Not Blow Sunshine Up Patient's Ass! Your friends may say, Time heals all wounds -- No, it doesn't, but eventually you'll feel better. Closure is bullshit!

Interestingly and familiarly, McCracken wrote her memoir much like a blog is structured: present, past, short chapter, long one, off-topic (husband! How we met! How much I love him! House!), baby's dead, not yet, now, (but when are you telling me what happened? Will you tell me what happened?). And thusly, I devoured it as if she was one of you. Which is to say, I just read it. Absorbed it. Swallowed it whole. Marveled in her wordcraft. Repeated her one-liners out loud to my husband or dog or whomever was in the room with me.

Of course I vigorously shook my head in agreement with most of the pithy sentences and sat in startled affinity with the passage about smoking and drinking wine after finding out Pudding was still in her, but in fact, dead. I had a very similar moment that haunts me still, finding that taboo cup of coffee in Children's moments after the decision to remove Maddy from life support. And yet there were times I furrowed my brow and thought, "Huh."

Uncovering the differences between myself and others in very similar circumstances is actually a healthy part of the process, I believe. It allows me to stand rather outside myself and focus on a particular issue, and ultimately helps me define the boundaries of my own grief. So when I occasionally stumbled or puzzled over something in "An Exact Replica" it wasn't out of a sense of judgment of McCracken, but more a way to examine my own distinct reaction.

McCracken writes, "I would have done the whole thing over again even knowing how it would end . . . I can't love and regret him both." and I think Well, not me so much, no . . . and Yes, I do both love and regret all that is Maddy. I can hold both of those. McCracken avers, while still in the hospital nonetheless (as so many of you do, too) that she repeated the sentence "we'll have another child," and that it was "like throwing out a towline. It was like believing in the future." And I wonder what kind of sick freak am I. I sat in the hospital and thought, No fucking way. Never again. McCracken opted not to undergo any testing during her second pregnancy and I thought, Woooooweeeee, nuh uh. If I could, I'd roadmap a subsequent baby's color preferences and propensity towards hangnails. I want to know every little thing. No more surprises, thank you.

I understood her potential guilt, I understood why she chose to deal with it how she did, and it's not for me to judge, but to abide. And I do. I made some different decisions (I have pictures -- I regret they're not better; I held Maddy, in fact it was my last request and why I actually wanted to take her off life support rather than let her die connected) but that's because we're different people with different circumstances. It's not a point to critique, and these places where we diverge help me validate my experience as much as the points where we're in total, eerie agreement. And that is truly the sign of an incredible, influential piece of writing.

:::

Which leads me to my Book Brigade Questions:

The author expresses gratitude that she was able to easily conceive and deliver a healthy child after Pudding's death. Even Pudding's story, while distinct in its own right, is told through the lens of a grateful mother holding her happy sleeping baby in her lap. "I am not sure what sort of person I would be if that hadn't happened," she says. While it is impossible to hypothesize what might have been had some other course of events transpired, how has having other living child/ren either before or since your loss affected your grieving process? If you have not lost a child, how has your in/fertility affected how you view other people's losses? And do your views change if the grieving have other living children?

I feel deeply that children are individual entities. The heart swells to accept another when a family expands, and thusly, the heart breaks when any part of that expansion ceases to be. The essence of losing a child doesn't change whether you have none or five already.

However. You've all heard the turn of phrase, "Everyone grieves differently" and that's largely due to what you bring to the table (both internally and externally) and what larger story your grief is part of or becomes. To borrow Loribeth's Shoreline Metaphor, your shore will appear differently if your loss comes on top of other loss, or involves infertility, or reshapes the live family dynamic within your home, or fails to lead to a subsequent successful pregnancy. You may in fact come to grieve more than your child.

I do in fact feel fortunate to have had Bella before Maddy. This is to a large degree based on the medical premise that Maddy may have been a 1:4 genetic fuck up (if our geneticist is in fact correct on this point), and ergo I'm fortunate to have had any live children at all. But. To some degree this is a point of stupid order-of-sequence luck. Bella is not Maddy, and vice versa. It did not mitigate my grief over Maddy remotely to know that Bella was here, alive. She did not bring me joy, and frankly, I do not think that was her responsibility. Bella impacted my grief in the sense that I had a job to do the morning after we removed Maddy from life support (I'm a SAHM), and that I made the decision to go on antidepressants in order to better function as a mother to Bella. I often feel like my attention is split between two children, much like, I imagine, a mother of two living children would feel.


:::

McCracken views "A Figment" as her "calling card" -- the card that says, My first child was stillborn. "I want people to know about it but I don't want to say it out loud." She'll (figuratively) hand it to everyone who asks a stupid or just hard-to-answer question ("Is this your first?"), and everyone she generally just wants to know about her back story without the awkwardness of waiting for the segue and going through it. We obviously all blog -- do you view your blog as your calling card (do you have a calling card)? If you wrote a memoir, would it differ from your blog in any significant way? Do you think it would attract a different audience and would that change what you wrote?

Can I just say, when I read this "calling card" line, I was jealous. I want a calling card! (stamps foot) I fake that my blog is it. I say on my blog, to all the faceless people who will listen, all the things I'd like to say to the idiots in my life who push my buttons. I'd like to wear a "My Baby Died" t-shirt in order to preface every conversation. I'd love to start a global campaign to let people know that asking women about their children is potentially hurtful -- the woman you tease about "Soooo? When????" may be suffering from infertility. The woman you ask about how many may have to account for one not living. Honestly? It's none of your business.

But I don't have the courage, so I blog here under a pseudonym. If I could write/publish a book under my real name knowing that certain people might in fact pick it up and read it? Well. It may actually be more vitriolic than what you read here, not to mention vindictive and seriously unfunny. And I'm not sure who would read that. Part of me would love to start handing out "An Exact Replica," but I have enough differences from McCracken's experience that I'm a bit uncomfortable using it as my personal manifesto. Perhaps the benefits would outweigh the few negatives, but -- just as an example -- I seriously can't imagine the reaction of some of my in-laws reading about McCracken's friends. They'd either re-write history to re-imagine themselves as lovely supportive people, or they'd roll their eyes at the thought of writing about missing a child they never knew. Both reactions are ugly.

:::

On page 94 Elizabeth McCracken writes, "I've never gotten over my discomfort at other people's discomfort" also "I don't even know what I would have wanted someone to say", and I am wondering how you have handled that discomfort when something terrible happened to you (suicide, miscarriage, failed cycle, etc.) Is it better for another person to say something cliche that makes you feel awful or is it better for them to ignore the topic all together?

You know, two years out, you'd think I'd be used to the elephant in the room, the pause, the halted stuttering, the inevitable "Oh I'm so sorry. You know I had a [fill in with distant family member, friend of friend] who lost a [child, mother, dog, aunt]" in an attempt to bridge the gap and offer some semblance of sympathy, followed by the essential change in subject, "Damn it's cold, eh?" But I'm so not.

I have often bit my lip when the opportunity to explain Maddy has arisen because the situation is all wrong. The mother who I really adore, at a child's birthday, who laughs while she says, "Well I wondered why you had two car seats!" It just seems cruel to inform her, it would sound as though I'm pissed at her when I'm really not. So I don't.

And to be frank, I walk a very line between wanting to hear something and wanting to hear nothing. A line that's probably impossible to discern, and moves around depending on my moods and who I'm talking with. I guess I wanted to hear at least "I'm sorry" from the people who said absolutely nothing (and still haven't). I guess I want a follow up from people who originally said "I'm sorry" and can't find anything else to say. But as uncomfortable as the segue is in my head, when I do find myself talking about Maddy it's usually a relief, and I wonder when the next opportunity will arise that I can say -- or hear -- her name spoken again.

:::

Want more? You can read my interview with Elizabeth McCracken here.

Hop along to another stop on this blog tour by visiting the main list at Stirrup Queens. You can also sign up for the next book on this online book club: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro.

23 comments:

c. said...

I think I walk that fine line, too. But, I've only come to it more recently. When the loss was newer, the hurt very raw, I wanted people to say something, to acknowledge my son, my loss, my heartache. But I mostly wanted understanding. More so now, in telling people, I want them to UNDERSTAND what this feels like, I want them to recognize and appreciate my hurt and offer me meaningful support based on their understanding. It rarely happens, though. So few people get what this feel likes, they can (sometimes) offer sympathy, but it's (usually) the wrong kind. It's hard to put my story of C out there when I know that it will very likely result in me being hurt again.

I said that too, "Never again." Right after they confirmed C was dead. I said, "Never again." It was dh who said we'll have another. I couldn't even fathom it at that moment. It's hard even now - which sounds ridiculous after the events of this past year...

And since I haven't made this long enough, I had to add that I bought Alan Wolfelt's "Healing a Parent's Grieving Heart" days after C died. I remember sitting in Ch.apt.ters reading, crying, totally pained from the engorgement I was experiencing. I kept thinking that the book wasn't for me, it didn't seem relative. And maybe it wasn't, at the time. I should pick it up again, though, just to see whether I would feel the same. I know you've mentioned the book before...I've been meaning to read it again ever since.

XO.

Anonymous said...

You are such a talented writer.

I love that you are so honest, and can write with unabashed irritation at the ridiculousness of everyday life after loss.

I thank you.

monica lemoine said...

Hello Awful but Functioning - your blog title caught my attention from Real Bean. This is Monica here - founding editor of Exhale (www.exhalezine.com). Consider submitting a piece to us. You can find submissions info on our website. I am terribly sorry for the recent loss of your daughter.

k@lakly said...

I have shunned the loss books for the same reasons, tell me something I don't know but also because I didn't want someone to tell me how I was going to make it through or handle what had become my life. It is only in reading the reviews of this book that I have felt compelled to go out and get it for as you say, she writes like one of us, not to us but with us.

I often relive what I can bear to, those early days and think what I would do differently if I knew what I know now and then I wonder to myself, would any of it had made a difference in the real gut wrenching grief. Probably not, but somehow I want to do it over and do it better and I doubt I will ever understand why.

loribeth said...

I love, love,love these comments, Tash. I too found there were differences in how McCracken approached things vs myself... I can recognize & accept those differences, because I think there is more that unites us than separates us.

At the same time, you have a point about using her words as your own "personal manifesto" -- I wouldn't want an "outsider" to think that my thoughts & feelings & choices were exactly the same as hers. It WAS like that for me, but in some respects, it was not, and I'm not sure anyone who hasn't been here themselves wouldn't recognize the subtle differences.

Loved how you worked in the shoreline metaphor too. : )

Annie said...

I really appreciate your comments on the book and thoughts in response to the questions. I am having trouble responding because I think I need some time to read your words again and just sit and digest them a bit, just as I felt about the book.

I hadn't really thought about it before, but this book really does seem to be like a blog, like something I would've stumbled across on the Stirrup Queen's list. Her story felt so familiar, not so much in the details but in the way it was written.

Rachel said...

I am sorry for your loss.

I love what you said about her book being written much like a blog is, because it is so true, I just hadn't thought of it that way.

I'm headed now to read your interview.

Lisa b said...

I really cannot imagine how difficult it is to be faced with people's inappropriate reactions to the death of your child.
I was at a one woman show last night. Basically a comedy based on her book about the birth of her first child. At the end she briefly mentioned her second son, who had been in the same NICU as our daughter. After the show I ran into a friend of my husbands and commented to her that I knew the actress through our children's hospital stay. She stood there sort of stunned and didn't say anything.
Which I would say is preferable to saying something stupid.

Another Dreamer said...

Very insightful.

"She did not bring me joy, and frankly, I do not think that was her responsibility." I love that perspective. I doubt people realize what that would mean, if the living children were meant to sustain the parents... they just don't bother to think of those types of ramifications.

"But as uncomfortable as the segue is in my head, when I do find myself talking about Maddy it's usually a relief, and I wonder when the next opportunity will arise that I can say -- or hear -- her name spoken again."

This statement is beautiful. I think it sums up what you were saying. People get so uncomfortable, they avoid, they divert... and don't realize that sometimes woman want to talk about the children they lost. Say their names out loud.

Thank you for you insight.

luna said...

I love your answers and especially the prologue preceding them. I especially appreciate the part about how recognizing where your experience diverges from hers (or others) even serves as validation. excellent and always eloquent writing.

Anonymous said...

My oldest son (now 6) is my calling card. I have three boys, 2 'before' and one 'after'. Whenever someone says something about me having 3 boys he pipes in with,"we had a sister but she died."That causes one of 2 reactions: an unconfortable "I'm so sorry" or their story about the baby they lost. Way too many of the latter.

-e

Lollipop Goldstein said...

Wow--these thoughts are incredible and I have a feeling I'm going to revisit them a few more times this week and sit with them so I can fully unpack it.

This line: "I often feel like my attention is split between two children, much like, I imagine, a mother of two living children would feel" made so much sense to me. It brought such clarity to me.

Melissa said...

i can completely relate with walking a fine line between wanting to hear nothing and wanting someone to acknowledge what happened. Or someone who tries to understand a little...

i loved your post, your writing style, and your ideas. I'm so sorry for the loss of your daughter.

it stinks that other people make our grief worse without even knowing it.

ezra'smommy said...

I still want the calling card.

Cassandra said...

Your global campaign sounds like a fabulous idea. I will admit that as recently as a year and a half ago (which would be 5.5 years into my own infertility) I asked someone if they had children. To be fair, we were strangers who had to suddenly spend 6 hours together, so I was running out of topics. But not long after that, my husband declared that he would never again ask anyone if they had kids, and I agreed that it was a good policy.

I would never ask anyone the question that we get most often, of when we are going to have kids. I've even been asked that when secretly pregnant, and been stumped as to how to respond.

I do think that I've asked people how many children they have, not considering the possibility of loss. Unlike most thoughtless askers, though, I would be more than happy to hear whatever the real answer is, to hear whatever they wanted to share. Most often, I think people don't want to hear the real answer, but instead are just making conversation because it seems like an easy topic.

Anything can be a loaded question, depending on who you ask, right? Are you married?: My wife was killed; No, I'm a spinster; No, the government won't recognize my relationship as legal. What do you do for a living?: I was just fired.

My husband's solution is to never ask anyone anything. But then he comes across as not interested (which, frankly, he often isn't). Personally sometimes I would rather ask and be open to the real answer.

Oh, and I really enjoyed your interview with McCracken!

Julia said...

I am glad now I didn't read anyone's posts before writing my own. I see that you and I hit a couple of similar themes. (I didn't hit the in-laws theme, but if I had, I think it would've sounded much like yours.)

And you know I wholeheartedly agree about other children not carrying responsibility of healing (btw, not a fan of that word either) the parents. We actually had to tell Monkey to cut out trying to make us laugh, cause, say it with me-- it wasn't her job, and it was ok for us to be sad and crying. But I do think it's easier to find that new place of happy but sad, sad but happy if you do have living children, or if you have one or more later. I am not sure I was either eloquent enough or clear enough on what I meant when I wrote about this part. What I meant is exactly your point on compounding grief. I stick with the idea that we have children because we think our lives will be better with than without. So to have an extra helping of grief over not getting to parent a living child, I think that would absolutely compound the grief over the death.

I also very much like your discussion of differences and similarities. I remember the love/regret issue from your interview at Glow, and just then I did a huh of my own-- neither position was resonating, until I realized that I don't have to go either/or. I seem to have found yet another way. I seem to have a third position-- one where I am so set in the reality of what happened that I don't even have the option of considering a what if of it never having come to pass. I don't regret him because it had not occurred to me that I could.

Elizabeth McCracken said...

Tash, thank you once again for such thoughtful & lovely writing about Figment.

A woman whose child was stillborn and has had no living children sent me some beautiful pins she designed--the equivalent of a black armband, I suppose, but lovely, an enamel heart encircled by gold and black. She was envisioning a world where everyone would know to be tender with someone wearing one.

Karen said...

It's my first time visiting your blog and my initial impression is that I love your voice. Your post was a pleasure to read for both substance and style.

Thanks especially for the link to the shoreline metaphor, it's perfect.

Kristin said...

Tash...these are brilliant,insightful comments. For me, my disbelief wasn't that I said never again. Its that I kept trying again an again and again. Before I started down the road of loss and infertility, I never thought I'd be the one that pursued a pregnancy and child so doggedly. Once I took that detour and ended up in the land of loss and IF, pursuing it so doggedly is what it took to bring me peace of mind.

I think what I loved most about this book and this book tour is it really drives home the different ways people deal with loss and tragedy.

I am so very sorry for your loss and I am touched and honored that you are willing to share your story and feelings with us.

Susanna said...

Wow.

I found your blog through a comment on Flotsam. Your writing is great.

Ahuva Batya said...

Tash, I am hen-pecking this morning to tell you how much I have missed your beautiful, sometimes painfully honest writing. I can identify with the dicotomy of wanting people to at least acknowldge my loss instead of ingore it, but each acknowledement making me squirm in discomfort.

Lani said...

thank you tash for this beautifully written review of a book that had a very strong impact on me. i read it almost immediately after silas died and kept having those moments of - yes, she gets it. that validation and also that feeling of how we deal with this grief process differently. and i guess thats why i do read so many blogs- to see what others are doing, how they are getting through this or how much i relate to what their feeling at any given moment.
i took a blog break this week, not on purpose, it just happened. i had a crappy week. not sure if one is related to the other, but maybe i need to read the blogs to feel some peace.
i too want a calling card, an armband, a tshirt. i too want to speak silas' name every chance i can get, i too want those who have forgotten to see how i'm doing lately to check in.
its 4 months today. my arms ache, my heart aches and time is not healing just yet.

Erika said...

Thank you so much for your words about this book- I read it over Thanksgiving, and loved it. But, like you said, every person has a different experience in their grief over the loss of a child.

My identical twin daughters were both stillborn in July 2008, and for me, there was never a moment when I could say, "I will have identical twins again"- so that image of the baby across the lap- for me, that was just not going to happen because I wanted my identical twin daughters- and there is no way to ever have that experience of raising identical twins again...

I definitely agree that having a living child has not spared me grief over losing my girls- rather, as a SAHM, it's my job to wake up and have a purpose to my day. I really get angry when people say, "Oh at least you already have a child."

The book is overall beautiful, and I have recommended to many friends who have lost children. Elizabeth McCracken has a gift for words that is like no other...