It’s wednesday. Hump day. Last week we planned our first son’s 5th birthday party. This week we plan the remembrance of our second son’s birth and death.
He was born dead. They call it a “stillbirth.” He was alive about 8 hours before he arrived. Two hours later we couldn’t find the heartbeat. 30 minutes later the doctor confirmed he had died. We labored on and delivered his body at 6:00 am.
Sheesh. Heavy shit.
This morning I rediscovered a Frederick Buechner book called Telling Secrets. I wanted to read from someone sensitive and thoughtful, I hoped to find some words on grief to kind of prime that pump a little, get me thinking and feeling again. “Buechner” sounded like one of those guys.
He talks about his mom. She’s 92 and, when having trouble getting from her bed to her walker, she says things like “I just don’t know what’s wrong with me today” even though she hadn’t made it to the walker in at least a year. Buechner writes:
“It never seemed to occur to her that what was wrong with her is that she was on her way to pushing a hundred. Maybe that was why some part of her remained unravaged. Some surviving lightness of touch let her stand back from the wreckage and see that among other things it was absurdly funny.”
I want to be the kind of person who, in my old age, looks at getting older and laughs. The wrinkles, the long ear hair, the saggy bits of skin, the way my ass looks in a mirror, the varicose veins, the inescapable fact that my nose, big as it is, will never stop growing. I want to grow old and see these things and be the kind of person who laughs at how absurd it is that such a bright, strong, lovely, interesting, diligent, talented, intelligent boy with so much opportunity and so many dreams about what he could do and become, a boy with so many goddam journals full of prayers and ideas and plans could end up, at the end of it all, with terrible vision, worse hearing, such saggy buttcheeks and surprise farts. No journal writing, no big plans for the future, just hoping to god I find my goddam keys and have a great BM today.
Rowan is my first experience of death besides one other, my family’s dog. Lucy was our yellow lab. She was overweight and lush and my mom’s closest confidant. At my parents’ house there’s a cabinet with a bunch of VHS tapes. Most of them labeled something like, “Lucy in the Backyard, 1998” and, “Lucy Humps Her Bed, 2001.” My mom would have a glass of chardonnay, fire up the video camera, point it at Lucy and press “record”… The videos invariably starting with mom saying (in that excited-whispy voice all dog owners address their dogs with), “Lucy! What are you doing??” To which Lucy would do that, “I’m so excited to be here! What are you doing!? What’s that thing!? Is it for playing!? IS IT A PLAY THING!?” thing that all dogs do back to their owners. That’s how each tape starts, and most of the tapes finish with Lucy humping her bed. She was a humper.
When Lucy got old, when it looked like she was in more pain more often than we thought humane, we all got together and had a vet come over to the house. He was a ranch vet. His Jeep had big, knobby tires. In the back yard Lucy struggled while I held her down and the vet gave her a shot in her haunches. Once the shot was done I let go of her. She jumped up to her feet and came near me. I ran my hands through her hair. She seemed unsteady and decided to lie down. I crouched down with her, petting her fur. She looked at me, clearly dazed. A moment later she was gone. She was gone. Her body was there, but it was just stuff. Lucy was gone. It was just stuff.
With the ranch vet I put her body on a blanket and carried it to the Jeep. I remember how her head rocked unnaturally, her jaw rocking as we walked, when her head leaned all the way over and her tongue lolled out. Just stuff. Stuff I recognized as my old dog Lucy.
Rowan’s body was different. It came out as just stuff, but it didn’t seem like just stuff. Rowan’s body seemed like a baby. So many intricacies, the wrinkles in the fingers, the toenails, the shape of his nose… but I knew it was just stuff. With Lucy it seemed like stuff but I knew it was Lucy. With Rowan his body seemed like Rowan but I knew it was just stuff.
Maybe that’s what’s absurd about growing old, that we realize we’re just stuff. We’re capable of so much. We love so deeply and feel so much. We get our hearts broken and we try our best and we worry and strain so much about the future. We hope and we try and dream and scheme and fail and fuck it up and we have to beg for forgiveness and we get so selfish and so expansive and feel in one moment the deep connection between all of us and in the next we get super greedy… and in the end we’re just stuff. When I get old I want to laugh at that.
I want to be someone who laughs at that because I’ve always been someone who laughs. Even in that hospital room. We had Rowans body wrapped up in one of those striped hospital blankets. Mellisa was holding him. I remember when I cracked the first joke in that room. I remember because a few other bits had come up in my mind that I wanted to say, that I thought would be funny. They came up like uprooted things from the bottom of a lake, bobbing on the surface for the first time. It’s hard for me not to say them but I, of course, knew not to. Until a very calculated moment.
I had the sense the room might be ok, we might be ready for the first light hearted bit, but it was still a massive gamble. This was my son. He had died. My wife was holding his body. Her mother and our midwife, two legends among women, had been with us through the whole ordeal and were in the room. Wouldn’t I be the shittiest guy if it still wasn’t the right time to say something light? Would it reveal the truth about me, that I’m an insensitive, inane, flighty and unfeeling person? Is that the truth about me?
I made a faith call. That is not the truth about me. I can make jokes and feel deeply, and while we’re at it, heaviness is not more true than lightness. Both are necessary. They make each other tolerable. They work together. This was the rally call in my head, I was psyching myself up. I was going to say the first light hearted thing and represent the balance of all things in the face of death! (I was pretty riled up about this, like I was about to do the most deeply human thing ever.) So I said the lil’ joke which, of course I don’t remember, but it had something to do with the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches we were eating. It wasn’t a very good joke — I never promised anything about the quality of my jokes. I watched as my wife, her mom and our midwife all did the same thing. They each went through the same process in a second: Is this ok? Can we laugh right now? I think we can. And they giggled a little. It felt like a necessary step in the grieving process. I’ve always been someone who laughs. This was the first time I realized how important it was.
Rowan’s body. Lucy’s body. My body. My wife’s body. When all of us grow old, when the wrinkles and the sags and the grey hairs and the groans and the difficulties and the limitations build up, I want to be someone who laughs at the absurdity of our stuff-ness. Someone who laughs and welcomes in the next generation to dream and scheme and one day have their first surprise fart that catches them off guard and begins the process of discovery that awakens them to the realization: “oh shit, I’m stuff. I’m funny and bright and hopeful and there is more to come… but I am also stuff.”
Remember puppy love? It’s so good. Everything’s so emotional, such a thrill. That’s because you haven’t fucked up that love yet. You haven’t been with it long enough for the selfishness to turn sour, to get short and brittle and biting with a remark, to be like: “I’d rather do that thing over there, but now I have to not do that to do this thing with you over here. Fine.” When we bring ourselves to any kind of love it’s going to get a little f’d up over time. Not ruined, just roughed up, weathered, tempered. All loves experience this. It’s natural.
I never got a chance to fuck up my relationship with Rowan. Never had one of those stupid, greedy moments… the ones you have to apologize for. I never got to hurt his feelings, but it feels like I still could.
My greatest fear is that I’ll somehow whore Rowan out to get something I want, an emotional reaction from someone, a sympathy, to elicit some care or specialness. I spoke at an event in Portland, afterwards a friend came up and asked why I didn’t share about Rowan. I had thought about it, was planning on including a story about him, but decided not to. I didn’t want it to seem like I was using Rowan in any way.
My friend said in a simple and thoughtful way: you should have. He was right. I should have. It was a good place to do it, a great crew of people, my first speaking gig after losing Rowan. When he said that it didn’t feel like “ah shit, I messed up.” It was more like, “you’re right, I can’t be afraid of that forever.” My friend helped me recognize that I have the freedom to speak about Rowan. A year later I’m still learning about this freedom to share. I am still careful, but less anxious.
There are so many points of view I can have about Rowan, but what I feel the most is I am just grateful. It seems so easy for me to say, “I am grateful for Rowan.” I can imagine it sounds rediculous. “Soooooo, the thing you feel most about your son who died is grateful? Glad he’s not alive? Glad you never got to hear him cry or giggle? What exactly are you grateful for?” Let me try to explain.
I don’t think I’ve written yet about Rowan’s proud eyes. I had walked upstairs to our bedroom in our house in Oakland; I needed to get my shoes or something. I was so tired. My body’s experience of grief was this deep lethargy, so blunt and heavy, hard to move. I was so tired from the walk up the stairs that I sat at the foot of the bed. I sat there staring at nothing. I slowly leaned back and lay down on the bed, feet hanging off the edge. I stared up at the ceiling and slowly my head fell to the right and I saw the crib. It felt like I was seeing it for the first time. This is the crib our first son, Aiden, was weaned in. I took it apart up in Portland. I kept all the screws and bolts in a bag because I knew I’d need to put it back together again. We moved it from Portland to Oakland because we were pregnant and wanted to be closer to my family. We put it together in our bedroom because the floor plan of our house in Oakland wasn’t all that great. We setup our whole life for Rowan, preparing a place for him, preparing ourselves for him. He was going to change everything, and he never got to be in that crib.
It was like I was seeing the crib and all that the crib meant for the first time. In that moment I could picture him in there. He was looking over at me, a pacifier in his mouth and these wise, all knowing eyes. Those eyes were clear, they saw it all and they communicated so clearly: he was proud of me. He was proud of how I was handling things, how I was processing, how I was loving mom.
One of the heaviest things a man can experience is when his child is proud of him. All I want is to do right by my son. I so badly want not to fuck things up, but I am also me. I get greedy, short, brittle, unkind, selfish. This undergirds the experience of a young man who wants to be Good™. And here’s my son’s eyes… “I’m proud of you. You don’t have to be sad for me. I don’t get anything from your sadness. I see you. I see you fully. I see how you feel and how you think and what is true about you and I am proud of you, dad.”
That moment felt like this passage in C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed (Lewis had lost his wife. I changed the pronouns.):
And suddenly at the very moment when, so far, I mourned [Rowan] least, I remembered him best. Indeed it was something (almost) better than memory; an instantaneous, unanswerable impression. To say it was like a meeting would be going too far. Yet there was that in it which tempts one to use those words. It was as if the lifting of the sorrow removed a barrier.
Why has no one told me these things? How easily I might have misjudged another man in the same situation. I might have said, ‘He’s got over it. He’s forgotten his [son]’, when the truth was, ‘He remembers him better because he has partly got over it.’ …
Looking back, I see that only a very little time ago I was greatly concerned about my memory of [Rowan] and how false it might become. For some reason — the merciful good sense of God is the only one I can think of — I have stopped bothering about that. And the remarkable thing is that since I stopped bothering about it, [he] seems to meet me everywhere. Meet is far too strong a word. I don’t mean anything remotely like an apparition or a voice. I don’t mean even any strikingly emotional experience at any particular moment. Rather, a sort of unobtrusive but massive sense that [he] is, just as much as ever, a fact to be taken into account.
It was just a vision, a hallucination, the ego in grief constructing an escape hatch from the darkness. Maybe, but it still changed me forever. There are no moments in my life I can point to the way I point to that one. It’s a numbered page in the book of my life that I can turn to and say, “this right here is when the character realized a truth about himself that will define the arc of the next act.”
That, more than anything, is my point of view on Rowan. I have the hat he wore in my office. I have another hat his aunt knit for him, a hat he never got to wear. We also have a collection of flowers that friends gave us. I hung them around the house and they dried and are still intact today. We also have his ashes, but none of those relics communicate as much to me about Rowan as that one memory in the bedroom with the crib and a grieving dad halfway hallucinating, halfway touching the deepest truth any of us can touch… that we are OK.
A year later I don’t know if we’re processing it all right or not. I don’t know if there are cracks in us right now that we’re not addressing. Cracks that will, like a windshield, slowly creep across our selves until we’re unsound. There is fear about tarnishing his memory, not holding him dearly enough, not feeling about him deeply enough. I still get like that, into a kind of anxious shame. “Am I fucking this up? Would I know it if I were?”
Into that fear the absurdity of our inevitable stuff-ness — the surprise farts, the deep scheming about solid BM’s — almost laughs for me. Into that dark anxiety about who I am and if I’m “doing it right” Rowan’s eyes send off a flare, illuminating the whole scene, revealing the source of the taunting and worrying voices as busted, old, abandoned loudspeakers from some million year old civilization long gone… untrue Wizard of Oz posturing.
As I take notes about Rowan on my phone, the autocorrect keeps trying to turn “dies” into “does.” Even my iPhone wants me to get over it and move on, and we are moving on. I’m so proud of us. So proud of my wife and myself. I’m so proud that we get to move on with Rowan. That there is a pushing onward with Rowan. That it’s not something we try to forget. That our pregnant friends ask us for advice still. That it’s not a name we try not to hear. That it’s not an overly precious, “must feel very, very deeply” kind of thing. That it’s both a quiet, still, immense kind of thing and a human, “laughing in the morgue” kind of thing.
For showing me how brief and absurd all this stuff is.
For eliciting from me a love I didn’t know I was capable of.
And for proving to me that I am ok.