Friday, January 11, 2008

The Question

I have had the answer prepared to the question since Liam was about, oh, maybe 4 months gestation. I read it in a little, tattered green book that I had borrowed from my support group in Springfield. The book was called, "When a Baby Dies," and it was about 20 years old, published by the SANDS (Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Society) group in England. I came across this little story about a family in England whose third child had died and the parents had let the elder children, who were I think 6 and 9 at the time, decide what to do with the baby's body. They told their children, you have two choices when a person dies. You can choose to return the body to the earth, and so we would put our baby in a little box and bury her beneath the ground so she could return to the earth. Or, we could choose to return her to the air, in which case we would put that box on a special fire which will turn her body to smoke and return her into the air. How simple and lovely they made it sound. This huge, huge decision which rocked my world to its core: what will you do with your baby?
This was, as an aside, the moment that I realized that my life was over. The social worker asked me this, told me this, you will have to decide if you want your baby to be cremated or buried. This was the moment where I slipped from my stunned numbness, leaned over my still-pregnant, laboring belly, and began to heave with the hugest, deepest sobs, because all I wanted to do was bring my baby home.
We did, however, choose to cremate Charlotte, and this decision was made based purely on the fact that we ourselves would choose cremation over burial, so it only made sense to choose this for our child (who thinks of such things?).
I have wondered when Liam would ask where Charlotte was. Where her body was. He knows her body isn't here anymore, but he sees her pictures all over her house so he knows that she once was. We have always told him that a person has two parts: the body, which makes you walk and run, etc. and the spirit, which does the thinking and the feeling. We told him that when a person dies, their body stops working but the part that does the thinking and the feeling goes to live in the stars. We don't really have a heaven concept, just the idea that the spirit is still lurking around somewhere, that sometimes she's here, and sometimes she's there, and we never quite know where she might be.
But he never asked the question.
Even though I had the answer prepared since before he was born, I still worried about the question. I think it's because I still feel uncomfortable, having given my firstborn daughter over to a crematorioum to be reduced to a tiny, white urn of ashes. It wasn't what I wanted to do. The idea still scares me and makes me feel that deep, bottomless feeling in my belly that this cannot be happening to me.
So the other night, we are lying in his bed together in the semi-dark, with the sloped ceiling cradling us in his warm, quilted bed. The lullaby CD is playing and we're just lying there, just quietly, because he wanted some company. He asks me then, "Why were Charlotte and Henry born on almost the same day?" Henry is Liam's best friend, and Charlotte's soulmate, they brewed together in the womb while me and Henry's mom took yoga and ate cinnamon buns and planned for our babies' lives together. They were born a day apart and a world apart, and never met, of course. But now Liam is Henry's best friend, and Beth and I smile to see them together, the link between the lost and the found. So I explain this to Liam, how Charlotte lived in my belly while Henry lived in Beth's. "So will Charlotte turn 5 when Henry turns 5?" he asks. Yes, I say. She will. "But does Charlotte keep having birthdays even though she doesn't grow?" he asks. I explain to him that a birthday also counts the number of years since a person was born, and so even though her body doesn't get bigger, this still happens.
"Do we still have Charlotte's bones?" he asks.
This is it. He loves dinosaurs, and he understands that when something is dead, sometimes you can still see the bones. So I tell him.
"No, we don't have Charlotte's bones. Are you wondering what happened to Charlotte's body after she died?"
He nods, and curls his body a little deeper into the comma of my belly.
"When a person dies," I explain, "You have the choice to return their body to the earth, by burying them, or to return them to the air. Daddy and I chose to have Charlotte returned to the air, and so some people helped us and put Charlotte's body on a special fire that turned her into smoke and returned her to the air. And because her body wasn't working anymore, it didn't hurt, and so she turned into smoke, and we have a little jar with the ashes that are left."
I take a deep breath, and wait for the reply.
"Can wood turn into smoke?"
"Yes, honey, it can."
"Can paper?"
And we list into silence again, the lullabies playing in the dark.
How simple it is to be three, when it seems okay that your sister turned into smoke just like the logs in your fireplace, and where any answer is a good as anything else, as long as your mom is really listening to you and answering the questions that you have. I hugged him tight to me, remembering that the things that seem most complicated to us adults sometimes don't seem so strange to the children around us. And my little boy fell asleep in my arms.


Birdies Mama said...


I loved hearing you tell me this on the phone, but to read it again made me cry. There is so much beauty in this, and Liam, oh Liam (and Aiofe & Charlotte is/are) he is just so absolutely precious, more than precious actually but words fail me right now.


Becky said...

What a beautiful thing.