Published on February 15th, 2019 | by Adina Giannelli1
There Will Be An After
Eight years ago, you were in a Target proscenium holding up a baby who had stopped breathing, blood pooling outward inexplicably from her nostril. You do not know it at the time, because you are in a state of shock, but she is dead. And everywhere you walk from that point forward is full of ghosts. How can your infant child be dead? Dead children happen in movies, in books, in other places, to other people. People who’ve been bad and unlucky, people who leave their child in a car, people who were born in the wrong place at the wrong time. You were good and diligent and chock full of certain kinds of privilege. You were an overeducated white woman born in the wealthiest and most warmongering nation on the planet. You wouldn’t leave a dog in a vehicle. But your daughter is nevertheless dead, so all of those advantages didn’t get you very far. You too were bad and unlucky. You too were born under a bad sign.
And for eight years you have lived in the space between. Born under a bad sign: you are, of course, still here. Not in the least dead. You are proof, of course, that life can and did and does go on. But you rend your hair and rip apart your days. You spend your nights wondering why. Your body takes itself hostage and you lose your ability to concentrate. Your mind suffers; your heart suffers; your grammar suffers. You struggle with pronouns. She, her, hers. You struggle with plural. My children — you correct yourself — my child.You struggle with tense. The cosmic roles are reversed; your child has become your ancestor, your forebear. Your descendent in life, your antecedent by way of death.
Eight years later and against your better judgment you find yourself President of another child’s PTO, a child who would not exist, could not exist, without this death. His life maps onto hers in strange and inexact ways. Almost every one of his classmates has a sibling in the second grade, which is where she ought to be. And so it is. Every time you walk into that school or buckle him into a booster seat or tuck him into bed at night, she is there, in ways as real and permanent as she is gone from the world. You mostly fail, but your entire life is a commitment to reconciling the two things, the two lives, the two people who can never be reconciled.
The school’s hallways are ghosts and the backseat is ghosts and the bedroom you never enter is a ghost. The girl that you dream of is a ghost. You can go weeks or months without visiting the soft green cemetery plot where she is buried, beside another baby girl who lived a summer ten years earlier. She’d be 18, the baby in the neighboring plot. In nearly a decade at that cemetery, you never meet that baby’s mother. The baby (yours) is gone from the living and buried in the earth. She is still in your heart but in and beyond your body, something else resides.
You call it pain, which is really a manifestation of love, your ability to lose everything. There are those among us living, and there are those among us dead. And there is space for your suffering, to the extent that you make it, because there is not enough space for other mothers’ suffering. When you are called upon to confront your suffering, you are forced, among many other truths, to see that you are privileged, that your loss is by definition protected. So as you grieve the death of the child you barely know, you also grieve the meaning of human life, whose is valued, and why.
You can go months or years without discussing this child with another living person, which makes you feel incredibly guilty. And these are the wars we wage. You noticed at a certain point that it was becoming impolite to complain. So you endeavored to get over it. Her death was seen as an aberration, an exception; and so for a time you were entitled to suffer, for even as it made people uncomfortable, yours was the right kind of suffering.
You gave this child life; you did not take her life; in some ways, she gave you yours. You do not dream about her anymore, the person she might have become. You feel guilty, as though you’ve forgotten her, but maybe the reason you don’t dream is because she was never gone. Maybe everywhere you go you take her along with you.
“When I was Talya,” her brother says, and you try to explain that he is not and never was his sister, that they were each individual people, infinite and whole, but what do you know, anyway? You have no way to prove it, no way to really know. Maybe he knows something that you don’t, which is that everything is connected, that there was a time before him, and that, though you hope dearly never to know it, there will be an after.
“Isn’t it bad enough that the beloved, with whom you have experienced genuine joy, will eventually be lost to you?” Zadie Smith wrote in “Joy,” an essay published a few years ago in The New York Review of Books. “Why add to this nightmare the child, whose loss, if it should ever happen, would mean nothing less than your total annihilation?”
Only Smith’s characterization is not borne out: in literature, as in life, the death of a child does not mean a parent’s total annihilation. Your pain and your punishment is not the fact of your annihilation; on the contrary, you are compelled, against your body’s wishes, to go on. And this is where your mothering resides. It was when the baby died—not when the pee stick revealed her existence or at the painful moment of her birth—that you became a mother, for that was the moment at which your bond to her was sealed. The circumstances were beyond limited; they were dire. But the possibilities of maternal love are unconstrained by death. Perhaps more often than we realize, they’re enacted in it.
Eight years have passed, and we are on the verge of an imperfect spring, a time when life begins anew. Every year as you approach what would have been a birthday you are overcome, less with sorrow than with dread. You are angry because life is precious and undervalued and taken with impunity at every turn. And you are insulated from that even as you suffer from it, and worry after it, and seek to rage against it. A brick is not a wall. A moment is not a movement. One dear old friend suffers two consecutive miscarriages after a beautiful perfect baby. Another is heavily pregnant after the stillbirth of another beautiful perfect baby. The entire world seems senseless to you now. The winter is long and your body is cold.
Still. There is a point in New England winter when it has gone on, seemingly forever, and it is not quite spring, maybe not even, climatologically speaking, near spring, and yet you are close in your heart, you can feel its sense, spring’s ghost approaching you. You desire it so much, from the depths of winter, that you might will it into existence. You can feel it, if not in the air or wind chill or absolute temperature, in your mind’s eye. You know what was, and what your body believed might never come again. You are desperate for a heat you have not felt in months. And on a sunny day, when the sky hints at warmth, you remember.