Published on January 8th, 2020 | by Anne Bruder3
Shortly after the blustery spring day in 2013 when my breech baby arrived through a seam on my belly, and during those first nervous weeks when I still obsessively recorded how many minutes he nursed and how many diapers he soiled, I thought, every other hour, of his dying. The images of his departing were vivid, momentary flashes in my postpartum brain. He’d die from a sudden case of pneumonia. From a fall off the changing table. From a bath drawn too hot or too cold. While sleeping. While in the car. While out of my arms. While in my arms.
My fear wasn’t founded in an unspeakable diagnosis or grave living conditions. It felt, instead, like the perverse consequence of his awakening something wholly unexpected deep inside of me. Apart from this terror, I had experienced his arrival as a kind of sudden liberation, freedom from myself and my anxious mind. No one had prepared me for this, just the opposite in fact.
Women whispered about motherhood’s confinement, not about its freedom. I couldn’t have known that attending to my son’s immediate, physical needs and finding him satiated by my efforts would release me from warring thoughts that had, since adolescence, turned inward upon themselves.
Looking for some measure of reassurance that my boy would soon fatten and that I would soon stop this morbid imagining, I called my own mother, who lived six hundred miles away.
“Were you, I mean are you, then and now, terrified that we [I meant my siblings and me] were, I mean are, going to die? Like right this very moment? Or before, when we were little?” The fear in my voice and the maze of my question must have struck my cheerful mother as a bit unhinged. She paused, considering my query.
“It never occurred to me,” she chirped.
Her response, I suspect, was meant to calm me, but instead, it left me starkly alone and convinced that my worry was, in fact, unhinged. So I tried to put it away, to shove it down, to force my gaze the other way. But in trying to flee it during my son’s first months, I only made it worse, gave it exactly what it needed to grow stronger. The terribly unwanted and completely unsubstantiated belief that he would soon die roared behind as I tried to race ahead.
My rational husband reminded me that these were but thoughts in my head, vapors not to attach to, not to identify with, but instead, illusions to watch, disinterestedly, float across the sky. He was right. I’d studied meditation. I knew it intellectually. But his remedy felt impossible to heed.
As far as I could tell, my terror about my son’s mortality had spirited out of nowhere. Just a few years before he arrived, I still rode airplanes with the macabre thought that if the plane should crash, I wouldn’t have to finish my Ph.D. dissertation. I didn’t worry about my own dying nor had I consciously dreaded anyone else’s.
Then he was six months old, and still very eager to nurse all of the time. I’d spend weekend afternoons cradling him in bed, quilts I’d sewn stretched out on top of us both. As I listened to my boy pull warm gulps of milk, his body relaxed like a child’s cloth doll, and I’d find my mind quiet with the new and immediate sense our feeding something in each other.
At an otherwise unremarkable moment like so many others during that season of his life, I caught the scent of his six-month sleeping breath and watched the sunlight dapple the quilt that bound us together. Immediately, unexpectedly, I was thirteen again and it was a crisp autumn day in northern Michigan. In the first seconds of my memory’s return, I watched it through a telescope: distant, small, hard to get into focus.
But then at once it was all there. Back for the first time in almost exactly twenty-five years.
In 1988, I was an unenthusiastic member of the Central United Methodist Youth Group. That might even be a too generous characterization of my participation. My verging-on-agnostic family had switched churches several years before, taking up pew seats at a more monied Congregational church across town, but then my parents divorced, and my mom and her new husband reclaimed the Methodist church. But I wasn’t a believer, never had been. Our shifting back to the Methodists was less consequential to me than changing my locker combination.
Occasionally, though, I could be persuaded by the promise of a youth group’s forest retreat, a fiddly craft project, or better yet, by the oranges and yellows of a hayride on a bright October Saturday.
After a short drive south of town, into the just-barely rolling hills, a dozen or so young Methodists and our two leaders piled out of the church vans. Middle-aged and austere, with a wide-brimmed hat pulled so low that I could barely see his eyes, the farmer greeted us and then headed alone into the nearby barn to hitch his team to the hay-wagon. In turn, we shot like arrows to his fence line, and waited, if not patiently, then dutifully for him to prepare our ride.
Most of us climbed up his three-rail fence and let our middle-school legs dangle, our faces turned to the autumn sun, soaking up its last bits before the perennial Michigan clouds lowered their beige weight for the next six months. This afternoon’s brightness, its oranges and yellows, and the giggling, kindly Christians almost convinced me that I should join the youth group in earnest. The farmer’s sweeping fields, dotted with spirals of hay for the team that he was now harnessing, seemed like the backdrop for a picture postcard inscribed with a psalm or a verse about bounty and beneficence.
Now clutching my nursing boy in my Kentucky bed, I felt him halfway between sleep and wakefulness, and myself drifting somewhere between memory and meaning-making. I thought about how long it seemed that we sat clustered on that farmer’s fence, but that might just be the way that memory bends time. I could just barely hear us talking about sitting on that fence forever, wondering if something could be amiss with the horses, and then just as quickly we were laughing mercilessly as we watched a clumsy kid try to mount the top rail and fall backwards in the grass. I could feel the rail’s rough wood on my palms and the cotton turtleneck warm on my neck.
Surely, though, it was just ten minutes later when the farmer emerged from his barn, his team hitched and facing us kids on the fence just fifty or so yards up a gently sloping incline. He stood beside his horses now, on their left side, checking their bridles and adjusting their reins. We didn’t move from our perch on the top rail. The farmer, we somehow intuited, planned to drive the wagon toward us, turn his team along the fence line, and receive us on the back of the wagon. He must have done just that dozens, maybe hundreds, of times before. Boy Scout troops, 4-H clubs, kindergartens, maybe his own children all surely clamored for a ride.
But then, like a sudden, violent eruption, his horses spooked. They bolted. Headed straight for the fence line towing that ancient, heavy wagon. A dozen children, legs dangling, perched on the top rail.
I remember a scream. We leapt off that fence. All of us, even the clumsy boy. Flying off the back, into the paddock. Off the front and to the left, away from the wild, careening team. It would have been just a matter of seconds, but stretched in the chaos, those seconds seemed like whole minutes.
Just as we’d instinctively jumped to save ourselves, the farmer, a father and husband himself, tried to slow his team from the front, to save us as well. He, though, just one body, one man, was no match for his sprinting animals. Instead, caught up in the hurdling mess of horses and wagon and reins, he was swept along in the tumult, a minnow in a river’s bubbling rapids.
When the whole mass neared the fence line, the self-preserving horses cut dramatically to the right, but the weight and the momentum of the heavy wagon, with its antique wheels set in forward motion, was too much. It couldn’t comply with a right-angle turn. It smashed explosively into the fence. The horses, now freed of their harnesses, raced on.
The farmer, who no doubt saw us sitting on his fence’s top rung, legs dangling, just seconds before, did everything in his power to slow the team, but the bolting horses and the hurdling wagon were propelled by a force far greater than his own.
As the wagon slammed into the fence, he was violently dashed between fence post and wagon, then wedged there with all the wagon’s weight, the life draining out of him, crucified on his own fence, by his own horses. A dozen children looking on.
His skin paled. Turned gray. Someone sprinted to the house, to call the ambulance. Our leaders shouted at us, fruitlessly, to try and free the farmer, a task that seemed nothing less than impossible. We gathered on the wagon’s side and tried, with little hope and smaller muscles, to heave its mass away from the fence.
But just as quickly, our frantic leaders yelled that we should let him be, that moving the wagon could make him “bleed out” instantly. I remember that phrase, new to my ears, “bleed out.” So instead, we waited, now again near the fence, near the dying farmer, for the sirens that seemed never to come.
As the ambulance crested the final hill, we thrilled at its arrival, but our leaders ushered us quickly back into the vans, surely to give the paramedics room to work but also to protect us from seeing a body drained of its last vitality. They drove us back to the church annex where we huddled in grim silence, dutifully following their commands to write condolence cards to the farmer’s family.
At thirteen, I wasn’t close to my family. I don’t recall ever talking to them or anyone else about that autumn day. My family rarely talked about death at all. When I was eight or nine, I learned that one of my parents’ friends committed suicide only by eavesdropping behind the kitchen door. Ashamed of my spying, I didn’t dare ask about it at the dinner table or before bed. For my surgeon father, after all, death was a grim biological fact. For my mom, it just didn’t bear mentioning one way or another. Their parents, my grandparents, lived long lives. The first one died when I was in my twenties, and one is still sharp at ninety-nine. So I suspect there never seemed a natural occasion to untangle death’s mysteries.
When the farmer gruesomely perished, I had neither the language nor the practice to hold what I’d seen in my head, let alone to try to parse it with my parents. It was, quite simply, incomprehensible. So without words, tears, or warning, it vanished completely. And it remained so until that autumn afternoon in 2013 when it came bounding back as I clutched my very much living boy to my breast.
When the yellows and oranges of that autumn day returned to me twenty-five years after I had sat on that fence, I was unprepared to contend with them. I wasn’t even entirely sure what they entailed, let alone meant to me. As my son slept, his fleshy, pink folds, warm against my chest, pulsed with contented life. But now nearly as palpable, were that farmer’s limp legs, dangling just above his own fertile ground, his slow death unfolding on my memory’s vivid reel.
I spent the next days and weeks wondering how it was possible that I had forgotten the farmer, how he had slipped from my brain for more than two decades. I worried about the recesses of my mind, where things brutal and grotesque could be lurking.
Only slowly, as I searched fruitlessly for archival news stories of the accident or narrated every detail to patient friends who would listen, did I begin to notice that I thought a bit less obsessively of my son’s death. Each time that I spoke the memory aloud, I coaxed it further from the wild currents of anxiety toward something comprehensible, a terrible farming accident unfortunately witnessed when I had few resources to make sense of it. In stumbling toward language to describe it as a vivid introduction to human fragility, I wrestled it from the mythical into the merely tragic.
The memory had been wedged, invisible but persistent, just beyond my ken. It slept until the moment I could comprehend it, when I loved my boy ferociously, a feeling I’d not known before. In becoming his mother, a farmer of a more precious sort, I finally knew what it was to be always awake, aware, scanning for dangers, driving the heavy machinery. Picturing my son’s death had become incantation and flagellation all at once. If he died on my watch, I’d be forever responsible, haunted by my failure. I’d be the alternative to the farmer who sacrificed his life for ours. But, I wondered, in heaving his body between wagon and rail and inadvertently dying, had he also saved himself from having to live with the blood of children on his hands?
In finally, intuitively knowing the value of my son’s life, of human life, I began to make sense of the terror that had recorded itself in images alone. Over the next few years, as I continued to untangled that autumn day from my more healthy concerns for my son’s wellbeing, I tried to ensure that he would have both the language and the practice to talk with me about his own fears. But in not wanting anything to get stuck for him in quite same way, I overcorrected.
On a dark January evening in 2017, I was getting my now-four-year-old boy ready for the shower. He cocked his chin toward me, the way kids do when curiosity takes over.
“Mommy, why did the Shakers lose one?”
Apparently unfazed by the specter of death, he queried me with the same casual interest that he showed when we talked about NASCAR a moment before.
The question isn’t nearly as strange as it sounds when you know that his dad is a scholar of unusual nineteenth-century Christians. So I made a quick calculation that he’d earlier told our boy about the death of one of the last Shakers, a celibate sects whose numbers, naturally, were dying out.
I was, though, struck by his formulation of death. “Lose one,” he’d said. The idiom seemed to distance him from death in a way that didn’t quite make sense for my very literal boy and my attempts to talk openly about death and dying. But I assumed that he’d parroted his dad’s language from earlier. Surely, I’d imagined, he’d meant to soften the stark edges of death for our son.
This, I’d quickly judged, was one of those critical moments in parenting, when I was determined to do better by my child than was done to me. If he was going to trust me with his questions about death, I was going to give him every answer he craved.
“Oh sweetie, did Daddy tell you that one of the last Shakers, Sister Frances Carr, died in Sabbath Day Lake yesterday?”
“Yes. Why did she die?”
I had heard the news on the morning radio and felt determined to gloss the death for him, to make it normal, neither confusing nor haunting, but appropriately solemn. I wanted him to keep coming to me with his questions. I didn’t want to worry that he’d learn life’s most painful truths eavesdropping behind my kitchen door.
“She was really, really old. Maybe almost ninety. Her body was worn out and it just stopped working.”
“Was she old like Great Baba?”
“Yes, old like Great Baba, who is nearly one hundred and his body, too, will wear out soon.”
This seemed to satisfy him for a moment. But then it opened up more questions, all of them tumbling out, one after another as quickly as I could supply answers:
“Why Sabbath Day Lake?”
“What is the sabbath?”
“How can the sabbath be a lake?”
“Where is Maine?”
“Did they really shake?”
“What is church?”
“What does prayer sound like?”
“What is God?”
And then back to the beginning, as if I hadn’t just contorted myself through a dozen sprawling answers, “Why did she die?”
By now we were in the shower together, stripped naked and jockeying for more of the hot water. As I crouched low and soaped his legs and mopped his face with the warm cloth, I tried to parse each question carefully, worried all the while that I wasn’t getting it quite right, that I was building one confusion on top of another, like a skyscraper without girders. I told myself that how I answered his questions right now would surely determine whether he, too, would be haunted by fears of his own child’s mortality three decades hence.
And so I stumbled through each answer, digging us ever deeper in more confusing terrains. Ridiculously, I reasoned that it seemed critical to clarify differences in modern Christian sects and the distinction between kinds of prayers. Only when I was down a bottomless rabbit hole about the presumed authors of the Hebrew bible did I realize that I’d overshot the mark.
Later his dad asked me why I didn’t just say that a church is where people sing and God is the superhero in a story many people tell to feel better. But in my desperation to be honest, to ensure he had no confusion, I’d spun a drunken spider’s web.
Eventually, we dried off, brushed our teeth, got into his twin bed, and opened Brambly Hedge, a cheery collection of stories about mice along a hedgerow.
Fifteen minutes later, convinced that he was now deeply asleep, I started to stir. Then his voice rang out of the darkness:
“Mom, why’d the other team score more hoops?” At first it seemed a non sequitur. But then in a rush: “hoops?”, “lose one?”, Shakers? Then instantly his father’s hometown team: the Lakers. I turned on the light.
“Wait, Augie, were you asking me about the Lakers or the Shakers?”
“Yeah, the Lakers. Why’d they lose one?”
And there it was. Basketball and death. Antique Christians and jump shots. They were no different than his pair of blue Matchbox trucks. All were questions to ask, conversations to prolong, consequences to consider.
“Well, I guess the other team was just better that day.”
He rolled back over and fell deeply into sleep. I got up and called to his Dad.
“Have you been talking to Augie about the Lakers or the Shakers?”
“The Lakers. But yeah, he confuses them, the Lakers and the Shakers.”
I got into bed that night musing to myself about how I’d narrate my absurd conversation for a friend whom I planned to meet early the next morning. I knew that in my retelling I’d make myself even a bit more neurotic. Maybe I’d claim that I’d opened the onion skin pages of Genesis or described embalming to my four year-old. I could tell her that I felt his wide eyes penetrate my dripping skin or that he’d slipped through my soapy hands when I lathered his little feet. More than anything, though, I knew that I needed to start the story at the beginning, with the yellows and oranges of that autumn day so long ago.