He was with us during the car ride to the hospital, although I didn’t realize it at the time.
What I noticed was the heaviness in the air, the fog around the car, the darkness. I didn’t know he was there, too.
I first heard his voice in these, the doctor’s words: I’m sorry, but there is no heartbeat.
And that was when I saw Death, standing tall in the shadows of the darkened hospital room. I wanted to tell him to go away, to leave us alone. But my grief overwhelmed me, and I had no words.
After 40 weeks of pregnancy, I gave birth to a daughter with a full head of flaxen hair, perfect, rosy, beautiful—a little girl out of a fairy tale.
But she made no sound.
Her eyes never opened.
I was too late. Death had delivered her first.
I ignored him those first few weeks. I refused to look at him at the funeral, and I tried not to notice him standing next to me as I packed away all the baby things, unused. But he is a hard man to ignore.
As the months went by, my rage and sadness became muted. They were still there, but I slowly, cautiously fumbled my way to some semblance of a normal life and let all those feelings be. I didn’t want to hurt anymore.
But Death still follows me everywhere, the shade to my shadow, and I cannot lose him.
He sits next to me when I’m driving. He tries to hold my hand but I tell him, “Your fingers are too cold.” He nods and smiles.
I see his reflection on the surface of a pond where geese have come to play. Death comments on the loveliness of the setting sun mirrored in the water. I reluctantly agree.
I don’t know what to make of him.
When I reach out for my husband in bed at night, Death is there between us, and a different kind of sadness takes hold of me.
Sometimes Death wraps his arms around me until no other thought can enter my mind but him.
And I must always, always stand between him and my living son.
On rare occasions, Death sits with us at dinner and makes the tears stream down my face while I’m trying to eat. Those are the worst moments; both my son and my husband share my grief, but we each have our own language, and none of us knows what to say.
Death has made us mute.
He used to sit next to me in church, while I searched for meaning. Yet, after a while, holy books and words and even faith itself (“She’s in a better place.” Well now, how do you know?) ceased to have meaning. And now Death sits home with me on Sundays, as I try to figure things out on my own, to find an answer to an impossible riddle.
He is there when we go out for ice cream, when my husband and I talk with the nice couple in front of us as we wait in line. “How many children do you have?” they ask. Death smirks at me, as if to say How will you handle this one?
I don’t know. I don’t know anymore. Do I have one child or two? If I say “two,” they will inevitably ask how old my children are. And I can’t answer that. My daughter is ageless, I always want to say, but I can’t talk about her now. Not when we’re standing in line for ice cream. They don’t want to think about Death while eating ice cream. That’s my burden.
“One”, I finally say. One is the dagger in my heart.
Sometimes I can’t contain my anger, and Death and I fight like we’re in a telenovela—I slap him in the face and tell him to get out. I never want to see him again. He’ll leave, looking all forlorn, and sometimes he even has the decency to look ashamed. But he always comes back.
It’s been almost two years since my daughter was stillborn. I find myself forgetting certain things. The smell of her. The way her hair felt—was it silk in my fingers or something else? What shade of blonde was it really? She weighed seven pounds, nine ounces, but what did that weight feel like in my arms? I have trouble remembering.
And I realize: Time is my enemy, not Death. Time leads me to forget all these important things.
But I refuse to let these memories go, I clutch at them as a drowning woman clutches at a piece of driftwood in a wild sea. These memories, however simple and brief—they are all I have left of my daughter.
She is the ghost who flits in and out of my mind; she is something faded but beautiful, like a pressed flower in a memory book.
I close my eyes and try to picture her as she would be now, not as mouldering bones beneath the earth, but as a little girl of almost-two, hair growing long and braided with flowers, a smile that could set the world alight.
In my grief, I find that I’ve become an island. It was a subtle change—almost imperceptible. I woke up one day and there I was, alone. No one could share this sorrow. It had become so personal, so unique to me, that I hid it. I cut myself off.
So I can’t be entirely mad at Death, you see. While others have moved on and urge me to do the same (never, never, I will never forget her), Death, at least—Death is always with me. His fingers are cold, his smile unforgiving, but he never tells me to get over it. He lets me cry for as long as I want. He knows the answer to “How many children do you have?” He knows the ache in my chest more intimately than anyone else, because he put it there.
And, knowing how brief and fragile our grasp on this world is, I savor life because of him. Whenever I feel frightened, timid, overwhelmed by the world and unanswered questions, I hear these words: Open your eyes. Try everything once. Be brave. Be brave. Be brave.
Death is my closest friend. He never leaves me.
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Ed: B. Bemel