Monday, December 15, 2008

I have this peripheral friend; I call her this because I know that if our paths crossed more than three times a year for five minutes we would be much better friends than we are, but as our circumstances put us miles and a river apart on a map, this is how it is. She is such a soul-searching, deep feeling person and I am always so happy to see her, fully in my heart.
Her son started at my school the year after Charlotte died; so she wasn't there for the crisis in full, but witnessed the aftermath. I hadn't met her yet, but I would see her husband walk Ben into the nursery classroom every day with their baby girl on his back in a backpack. She had been born the previous March, only eight weeks before Charlotte. Sometimes the baby would make me weep. Birdy was the only baby girl in the school that year.
I wondered about this family, but I didn't know them. I didn't know them at all until one day I visited the school with my newborn Liam and Catherine threw herself at me, tears in her eyes. I didn't know her yet, per se, but knew her as my friend Nicole's friend, but she hugged me anyway and told me that she cried for ten minutes when she heard that Liam had been born safely, and that she thought it was the best news she had heard in a long time.
This, from a stranger, a not-so-strange friend of a friend stranger who became this weird kind of friend who I like so much but rarely see, yet feel so happy and blessed by whenever our paths cross. Part of this connection is undoubtedly the fact that Catherine can say Charlotte's name and talk about her life and death while maintaining direct eye contact, which is rare. Very rare. Somehow she actually gets this.
So this Friday, our paths did cross again, we were both sitting cross-legged at an all-school sing at the school where I used to teach, and where her two children who are now 8 and 5 still go. Catherine started when she saw me, saying that it was so funny as she was about to e-mail me that morning, but had been distracted. She explained that she had just inhaled Elizabeth McCracken's An Exact Replica of a Figment of my Imagination the night before, and that she just couldn't stop thinking of me as the words dripped off the page and mixed with the other true story of love and loss that she knew so well. And then she said something which made me stop and think for a long time which was, "And I'm sorry, I don't mean to characterize you by this, that it's the first thing I think of when I think of you. "
And I thought-- why shouldn't it be? I said as much, but I couldn't stop thinking about this-- the fact that the very essence of my motherhood is in very many ways completely wrapped up in the fact that my first child was born without a heartbeat. How can it not be? How can every decision I make, every kiss and snuggle and good bye and goodnight not somehow reflect on the fact that there is a missing child for whom I can do none of these things? I think this very idea, that my motherhood is in so many ways defined by loss, is why it is so difficult for me to have a conversation for more than three minutes with someone who doesn't know that I've lost a child. When this happens, I can't turn off the subtitles in my brain:
I look like a normal person to her.
She thinks I'm just like her.
I'm not.
And so I somehow need this, this definition, and it is certainly not something to be apologized for. Imagine if someone who knows me read this book and did not think of me first? Did not wonder, with each page, if this was what it was like for me? That might require an apology. But this, this I can sit with. What almost seems stranger, from my perspective, is that to someone else it might seem somehow offensive for me to be characterized in this way. I think this is where I can see that I have come so incredibly far, that I can be comfortable with having lost Charlotte as part of my very identity. It truly doesn't tear at my heart the way it used to (at least not all the time), and I can hold her very comfortably.


Meg said...

How wonderful for you to know Catherine. I met her once. I went to her reading and gushed like a "fan" that I love her writing, and I've read Waiting for Birdy a million times! She was so gracious and kind. I wish our paths crossed ever, because I would love to be her friend. Yours, too.

Aimee said...

Oh Carol, this reminds me SOOOO much of some of our first conversations right after Sophie died. I remember saying to you, "I can't do this, Carol, I CANNOT be defined by my loss! I can't be 'the woman whose baby died.'" But do you know what?? Almost two years out and just like you, I've accepted that (okay, I've accepted it on MOST days). It is who I am. I am the woman who has a dead baby. She is me and I am her. Yes, I have living children and yes, I have a baby hopefully making (his??) way into this world soon, but even with all that. I'm Sophie's mom. And when I'm having a conversation with someone who doesn't know about her, I think the same thing--that they think I'm one of them...that this baby is my third and I'm happily, easily pregnant and blah blah blah.

Thank you for this post--it reminds me how far I have come. I am Sophie's mother. And I will survive this and be defined by this and that is okay.

Shannon said...

I swear I wrote my latest post before I read yours.

I'm struggling to find my own identity.