Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Baren Bitches Book Brigade: An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination

How did I first hear about this book? It seemed like it came out of nowhere, all at once. I saw or heard a very short review of it somewhere, a review that now that I've read the book, did it no justice at all. The next day a friend mentioned seeing it at a bookstore and thinking of me, and not knowing whether to get it for me. I told her no, on the mix of that review and my reaction, clearly colored by the review, to the title of the book. For some reason I let myself believe the book was about the rainbows and unicorns, or, you know, peaceful zen side of dead baby life. Could I have been more wrong? Don't think so.

But then the bloggers I like started reading it, and saying poignant things about it. Some even liked the title. I came to understand that I was wrong about the unicorns, and that I will read it. I just wasn't sure when. And then Tash got to interview Elizabeth at GITW. In a curious way that interview made me put off reading the book for longer-- it became absolutely clear that this was a book that deserved all of me, that I couldn't just read with half my brain or half my soul. Of course then it was on the book club list, and that I couldn't pass up.

Things conspired to keep me from reading well in advance of the tour date, but I finally started last week. At first, along with being pulled in, I was annoyed with myself. For putting it off for so long. I wanted to sit with each little chapter, with so many sentences. And that was even before I got to the much-quoted "closure is bullshit" line (which I love-- can I have a t-shirt with that in bold print? Or one of those rubber bracelets? In pomegranate, of course.).

I thought of the dwarfs of grief and black humor in general. And, as proof of both my infinite geekiness and that very same black humor acting much like a gas (see, there's the geekiness again) in expanding to occupy any and all volume available to it, I immediately thought "These are not the dwarfs you're looking for." And I swear, it went around and around in my head like that. For hours. Cheerful, I know.

Happiest story with the saddest ending. For the rest of my life, I think, plurals will confuse me. A sudden harmless moratorium on babies being born. I wanted to sit with each of these, and so many more. I wanted to think and feel and be. Until, that is, I couldn't stop myself. I wasn't reading anymore-- I was drinking, inhaling, mainlining. And yet, reading each and every word, feeling the impact of each and every word. And, towards the end, anticipating.

Knowing what was coming, I was both crouching and standing tall. I knew the force of the impact to come. I didn't want it to come (hence: crouching), but I knew it had to. It had to because it already did. Warning: mush ahead, might want to skip. But here's the honest truth, truth that also applies to many a blogger for me-- by the time I've walked all the way to the final chapters with Elizabeth, I felt like I was standing on that precipice with her. To turn away now would be cowardly. And so I would do it, the calamity, I would do him, Pudding, the honor of meeting it, meeting him, standing up. He deserves no less. Each and every one of our children deserve no less.

And what of the title that was such a big hangup for me early on? I remember wondering some way through the book when we might find out what it refers to, but only in a very fleeting way. Curiously, by the time I got to where the title is actually explained (and what an explanation it is!), I was startled to find it-- I'd forgotten all about it. Funny, ha?

Now, on to the book club questions.

I understand the author's need to let us know at the beginning of the book that she had another (live) child. Generally, I liked her matter of fact tone and writing style. However, I sometimes felt like I was missing some of her raw emotions about the loss. She rushed over the first few months after the loss and hurried towards the second pregnancy, writing about the affect that the loss had on their lives through that second pregnancy. This could be because she did not want to dwell on it, or because she did get pregnant again so fast (within a year). I wondered what it would have been like to read the book not knowing about her successful second pregnancy (if that was even possible to separate out from the loss). Did you find that it took something away from the way you took her loss or took her book as a whole?

I did not find that the new baby took anything away. In fact (surprise-surprise) this is a bit of a sore spot for me these days as I find myself concerned that others might consider the Cub our fix or a replacement of some sort. I know exactly what Elizabeth means when she says "The love for the first magnifies the love for the second, and vice versa." And I couldn't agree more. I am not asking for a grief medal of any kind, for her or for myself. Nor am I saying that I am in any way worse off than a woman with no subsequent children. I am only asking for the respect individual missing babies surely deserve, as, you know, individuals, loved fiercely and missed equally, regardless of the number of subsequent children their parents had, or the timing of the arrival of the same.

I also disagree with the very premise of this question. I do not find any of the emotions missing. I recognize the raw, even if it is expressed without the use of exclamation points. More so for the lack of exclamation points, possibly. I recognize the suffocating open air flea market, even if my own trigger was never this. I recognize the drinking, and the black humor, and the movies, and the horrible unreality of having dinner with people who won't talk about the only thing echoing through your brain.

But the thing, I think, is that without the distance the year and the second baby afforded Elizabeth, all there would be is that raw pain. And while that is honest and necessary, it isn't easy or even always possible to articulate gracefully while you are right in the middle of it. A year and some weeks (and a live baby) later Elizabeth's truth is different. Her new truth, contained in the final three sentences of the book, is also mine these days. And one I wish for every bereaved parent everywhere.

I don't think you necessarily need a live baby to get there, though I can't deny that having a live baby helps immensely. As, of course, does having an older child. I think that losing a child does change some things about our world fundamentally, one of them being the parameters of happiness. But I do wish happiness within this new definition, with the undercurrent of love and loss, to everyone who isn't there yet. And I wish I could fast forward it for you to where you get there. But I also know the trick is that I can't.

Early in the book Elizabeth talks about her second son as definitively not a "Miracle Baby" and of leaving behind her belief in luck and minor superstitions. How have your ideas of luck, prayer, miracles and superstitions changed as a result of your experiences of infertility and/or child loss? If your ideas changed, how militant are you about your new views? Do you see the changes as casualties, another thing(s) lost? Or do you perceive them as perspective gained, part of the evolving you?

This is actually my question, and I was moved to pose it both by the book and by the conversation in the interview at Glow. And so the core of my own answer comes from the comment I left there.

I am now sort of obnoxiously deliberate about confronting a great many superstitions (as well as some of the people who hold on to them, to my mother's great chagrin). I think of it as being consistent in my world view-- if nobody "up there" made the decision to take my son, than there is no ground to the superstitions either. Perhaps more to the point, conversely, if I succumb to the superstitions, it's like allowing that there is a possibility that there was a decision picking us in particular for this fate. And I just can't go there in my mind.

I also don't view this change as a loss. It's actually kinda freeing.

If you had gone through what Elizabeth McCracken had gone through, would you have wanted a picture? Why or why not?

Thinking about my reaction to the book, I found that it is not that I deal with A's death in exactly the same way that Elizabeth deals with Pudding's. In many places her sentiments are mine exactly, and in others-- not at all. Like with the pictures. Pictures are now emerging for me as the one regret about how we did things. We took our own with the high resolution camera on my blackbery. We had a better camera at home, but not by much. We didn't bring it, and we didn't ask my sister to bring hers. Now I think we took too few. But that's now, and that was then. Then we did things right, for us, then. I will talk more about the pictures soon, but for now that's not the point.

The point is that we could make a big huge table where columns are events, feelings, experiences of baby loss, and rows are people (see?-- geek again). We could find people who come close to matching our little pattern of yays and nays in the table, but that doesn't mean we would only understand them, and not someone with a polar opposite pattern. In the end, I think, we recognize each other's grief, and we honor each other and the child(ren) we each grieve. And that's enough, however we need to grieve them.

On page 94 Elizabeth McCracken writes, "I've never gotten over my discomfort at other people's discomfort" also "I don't even know what I would have wanted someone to say", and I am wondering how you have handled that discomfort when something terrible happened to you (suicide, miscarriage, failed cycle, etc.) Is it better for another person to say something cliche that makes you feel awful or is it better for them to ignore the topic all together?

Option c: it is better for the other person to think of the bereaved rather than of how the other person will look or come across. Say something thoughtful and honest, don't try to fix things, don't tell us how to feel. Don't try to say something profound-- that is about you trying to look good, not about helping us. Given how many people choose options a and b, just not making things worse is a huge accomplishment. Just say you are sorry. Try it-- it's not that hard, I promise.



Hop around to other stops on this blog tour by visiting the main list at Stirrup Queens. You can also sign up for the next book on this online book club: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro.

10 comments:

luna said...

love your answers, and a wonderful introduction too. I especially enjoyed your description of standing on that precipice with the author, as we know what's just ahead. also love your your answer to the last question with option c.

Cassandra said...

I love your spreadsheet with grievers as rows and elements of grief as columns. Cuz, see, I'm also a geek.

kate said...

I didn't even read this post or Tash's interview, b/c my mom said she would get me the book & i want to read it first. But i will let you know what i think, when i read it.

niobe said...

Okay, so this comment is just gong to repeat stuff I've already said, oh, about a zillion times. Let's number my points, shall we?

(1) I'd really, really like to find someone who grieves the way I do. I don't want to read this book, even though I'm sure it's well written and all that, because I get tired of feeling that I'm the odd one out. I can certainly understand that different people have different ways of grieving and that all are equally valid. I just wish I could discover more people who feel more similar to the way I do.

(2) "The love for the first magnifies the love for the second, and vice versa."

This sentence is like fingernails on a blackboard to my ears. I can certainly understand that some people feel this way, but what if, like me, you're not at all sure that you actually, you know, loved your lost babies? Reading this makes me want to say, "how could I possibly have loved them? I never even met them."

(3) Closure is bullshit.

I know this has resonance for a lot of people, so I'm staring at it, trying to make sense out of it. Does it mean that if I find and embrace closure that there's something wrong with me, something lacking?

I know I sound far too cranky, but, really, I'm not annoyed at you, Julia, or at McCracken. I just get tired of feeling that my heart is two sizes too small.

Julia said...

Niobe, you know the funny thing? More than a few times reading that book I thought "ha, that's so much like Niobe." And other times, obviously, not. I think what I was trying to do with the matrix analogy is say that I think if we get down to the nitty gritty, very few of us have the exact same grief profiles, so to speak. More than that, I think some of these elements group together, and it is possible that they are the visible ones here on the great wide internets. I am not sure how much of a similarity would make you feel better, so I am not sure whether you really do or don't want to read this book. You know how a lot of fortune tellers are just gifted psychologists and start in generalities and fine-tune what they are saying based on the reaction from the person they are "reading"? And how the person being "read" helps them by clutching onto the things that sound right and promptly discarding/forgetting the things that don't? The things I highlight in my review will be, in a similar way, the things that hit the spot with me. And I wonder if you read the book would you not in contrast hold on to things that are much more like you. For example, Elizabeth and Edward went away for the whole summer after Pudding's death and lived where nobody knew them and talked to essentially nobody about what had happened. I thought, of course, of how that might've been something you would've done, given an option, no?

(2)-- this one's also funny, I think. Not ha-ha funny. To me not knowing is what is so sad about this whole dead baby thing. For the longest time I couldn't explain what I missed about A, since, just like you say, I didn't meet him, I didn't know him. And then it came to me that that was exactly what I was missing-- getting to know this child, seeing the love that he claims by right of being my son reflected off the zillions of things he would do and be. Curiously, I think Elizabeth might have a completely different take on this, since she and Edward made up stories about Pudding when he was in utero, they had an identity for him, and so I think they might be missing that identity, or watching him smash that identity to smithereens with his actual being...

(3)-- I very much think this depends on what your definition of closure is. I said in my comment to Tash's book club post (have you seen it, btw? she has an interesting bit there on feeling validated even in the differences between herself and others in DBL) that I don't regret A because it didn't occur to me that I could, that I have this option. I am so firmly in acceptance that I think I can be written up in a textbook as an abnormal case. And truthfully I have been there, in acceptance, from moment one. Some shrinks say that getting to acceptance is closure. Which in my case would be just laughable. I don't spend my time wishing things would be different. Closure, right? Well, not to me. I think I call bullshit on closure because I don't see ever being able to be the me from before. I think I will never again have certain feelings, certain levels of feeling. I am ok with that, but I don't think being ok with that is closure either. I think closure to me means being able to put everything about the experience into a box, lock it, and stick it into a dark corner, from whence it won't bother me again. And that I just don't believe is, for me, realistic. All our experiences inform the person we are continuously becoming, and that is why I don't see being able to separate out my deadbaby strands, and that is why I don't see closure as realistic. It's not that I am not ok, it's that I don't think I need to lock anything up in order to be ok. Does that make sense or am I just blabbering now?

And also? I know some things make you feel that way, but from where I am sitting (in my office-- I should be working!) your heart is by no means any number of sizes too small.

Tash said...

Heh, I just want to hug -- in my cynical, most unhuggable way -- Niobe's black little heart and give it a black little cupcake.

I was thinking about your matrix (nice!) and then thinking Niobe and I probably have some similar check marks -- that might surprise her once she saw them lined up like that. There are also some points where I wish I had been given the option to have a Niobe reaction -- I've often said I'd love to had a lobotomy and forget the entire mess from conception forward. Because I do love and regret and didn't enjoy it. But she was here six days, so I don't really get that luxury of the forgetting. I know people say it scares them to think they ever would, and oddly I too wish I had better photos -- but probably because, like I said, that was my hand of cards.

You know, I really appreciate how much this book is making us all *think*.

Karen said...

I love the spreadsheet idea, too. I adore anything in rows and cubbies and tidy boxes.

I feel very similarly to you here: "Perhaps more to the point, conversely, if I succumb to the superstitions, it's like allowing that there is a possibility that there was a decision picking us in particular for this fate. And I just can't go there in my mind" I always felt infuriated at people when they told me that what was happening to us was God's will because he has a plan for our lives. Give me a break, if God is omnipotent then can't he implement His plan without breaking all of our hearts? Like you, I just can't go there in my mind. I have to believe that infertility comes from the crap the universe throws at all of us, that I wasn't singled out for it.

loribeth said...

Fabulous answers. I love your idea of the table & matching patterns of grief, too. It's so true that we all have our own ways of dealing with things & there is no "right" or "wrong" way. No matter how you slice it, it hurts. It doesn't matter whether I twisted my knee & you broke your ankle -- we're both still hobbling around, right?

I also loved this line: "The horrible unreality of having dinner with people who won't talk about the only thing echoing through your brain." Been there, done that...!!

Kristin said...

I love reading everyone's take on this book and seeing how similar and how different we all are.

And, from one geek to another, I love your spreadsheet idea.

CLC said...

Great thoughts on the book Julia. I am glad you enjoyed it. I am making my brother read it right now. I will be curious to hear his perspective since a.) he's a male and b.) he hasn't lost a child. But he's a writer, so I know he will at least appreciate her writing, if not so much the subject.