In this week's New Yorker, Daniel Raeburn tells of Hemingway once boasting that he could write an entire novel with only six words: "Asked to prove it, he took a napkin and wrote, 'For sale: baby shoes, never worn.'"
At ten words, the subtitle of Raeburn's article comes achingly close to replicating that literary feat: "Irene Raeburn: born December 28, 2004, died December 24, 2004."
As I was reading it, I couldn't decide what to quote from it, it all rung so lucidly and emotionally true. What would someone need who suddenly found himself needing to read an account of a couple's experience with the stillbirth of their daughter? The reflection on the time and signs before the baby died? The decision and agony of inducing a natural delivery in the maternity ward? The numb mourning and awkward announcements to friends and coworkers?
I figured the most important and useful thing would be to quote from a couple of months after their baby's death. It's that numbest of times, after the comforting crowds have gone home, when the feelings of loss can really sink in. That's when Raeburn and his wife attended a "perinatal loss" support group meeting at the hospital:
Under humming flourescent lights was a conference table with coffee and untouched cookies, ringed by twenty or so frightened faces, one of which was flashing indignant looks and leaking angry tears. The woman said that she'd lost her girl and now everyone wanted her to pretend that her girl had never existed. The rest of the room seconded her complaint. We finished each other's sentences. At last we were among people who could understand us. Society was on trial and we were the jury.
Everyone outside the room seemed to think that having another child would somehow erase the loss of this one, that death was some kind of math problem to be overcome by procreation. Everyone was supportive, but they were all secretly hoping that "it" would get better, that "things" would go back to normal, as if normal were an option, as if normal even existed. If one more person encouraged us to put it--it!--behind us, we might just lose it.
I asked the room, "What do you say when people ask you if you have kids? If I say yes, they're going to ask about them. If I say no, I"m lying."
Nobody knew how to answer my question.
[7/5 update: The New Yorker just published "Vessels" online, along with a followup essay by Raeburn--about the birth a few weeks ago of their new daughter, Willa. Thanks to the editors--and the Raeburns.]
"Personal History - Vessels" by Daniel Raeburn, The New Yorker, May 1, 2006