Cindy and Melissa, seated side-by-side across the circle from me, lost babies. Not fully-formed ones that wake you up at night but the makings of, like mixed ingredients in a broken oven—no magic, no cake. Not uncommon for first-time mothers. The real tragedy was these middle-aged women, friends, one married the other not, were out of chances. Loss is such a misnomer as they knew exactly where their hope had gone—on the bed sheet, in the bathroom, on the car seat as they were driven to the hospital. Weeks later they got tattoos. Melissa lifts a pant leg just above the ankle and shows us a yin-yang symbol and the word Believe. Believe what?
Eight months ago Brian, my husband, a man I love, “lost” our two-year-old in the back yard pond, a mud hole really. He frantically searched the house while Izzy lay face down. A few weeks after, he tried to take his life. He said it seemed like rightful payment. I disagreed.
It is an active choice to love my husband, a choice to remember he is more than the worst day of my life. He was, at one point, also the best. What if time was not linear and the order reversed? I still love Brian I just can’t look at him so I’m living in a sunny one bedroom on Glover Street just past the ACE Hardware.
Sometimes I pretend it was I who was doing yard work, pulling at a weed that wouldn’t come. That it was I who reached for the trowel and hacked at the ground while Isabelle wandered—a split-second moment, that was all. How can I not forgive a moment? If I can claw my way to forgiveness I lose one instead of two and how can that not be better? But were it not for the one I would still have two and therein lies my problem.
Marilyn, our group leader, says forgiveness is a daily practice, a re-learning from morning till night and then a starting over again. I smile, say nothing. Two books in the case behind her catch my eye, The Joy of Cooking, The Joy of Sex, by two different authors, the organizing principle being joy, I suppose. Joy is now something for other people, I think, which makes something hard in me go harder still. And I know it’s this hardness, this unyielding, that will keep me dead inside.
“I did crazy, bat shit things,” I tell the group, “but nothing will ever be as bad as what he did and so I can’t hit a limit, find the wall, the place that will tell me to stop punishing him.” I take breaths as if I’ve been running and look around hoping something will appear to make it better. Erika, the religious one, rests her man hands in her lap, one atop each thigh. Her face is long and she sits upright. If Lincoln had a daughter this woman would have been her. She whispers something breathy followed by, “Amen,” and for the first time I turn to her and say, “What.” A statement, not a question. It startles her.
Her eyes widen. She moves like an owl, that big head turning, body still. “God loves you, you know,” she says, “I don’t get the feeling you know that because if you did—“
“Thank you, Erika,” I say, interrupting, “but you know I don’t believe any of that.”
“I know you don’t,” she says, “so I will believe it for you.”
Upon joining the group we were not prepped on anyone’s tragedy. “That is no one’s business but your own,” Marilyn told us when we first gathered, the scar on her cheek inching like a worm as she recited the ground rules. It was up to each of us to tell our stories in good time, in the way we chose as that’s what leads to healing or so we were told. Erika has yet to share which makes it easy to hate her. If I can hate her more than anyone, if she can be my repository, I feel like I stand a chance.
Cindy, petite, blond, almost pretty with too-close eyes and childish teeth, goes on about the expense of the fertility treatments and how the bills keep coming and how she and her husband have nothing to show for it, literally. Her story reminds me of when Brian and I put Rocco down and the $200 charge that showed up on the next month’s VISA bill. All the little reminders that stick you when you think you’re minding your own business.
Outside in the world I see women keeping up the good fight in heels and designer jeans, matching handbags and manicures. But in here there is none of that except for Beth who walks in quietly off the pages of a women’s magazine— cheeks high and smooth as a filled sail and long straight hair, dark and shiny like an Asian’s only her eyes are Caucasian. And that nose. Probably not real but even so. Her face is the kind that could sell clothes or creams or motor oil. Every session she sits and takes out two pressed handkerchiefs from her Birkin, says nothing and cries. When the hour is over she puts the handkerchiefs away and leaves, expertly navigating on those four-inch spikes, perfume cloud trailing.
The only man in the group is Ethan, choir-boy handsome with short-cropped wiry brown hair. From a distance the top of his head looks sculpted of hardened mud. He lost his wife, but there is a wait list for the widower’s meeting so he crashes ours. He’s young for a widower, late thirties, doesn’t say much, wears a mask of compassion for all our losses. He had his wife for seven years. Bike accident. Who am I to rank grief, but I do.
“I fell out of love and then she got killed,” Ethan says. I envy him and how romantic love can turn on and off. “I feel so terribly…guilty.” This last word comes out as if squeezed from a tube. He presses fists to thighs and looks as if he is either going to cry or relieve himself but then his face smoothes as if something passed through. No one says anything for a while, one of those textbook moments where you let the telling be the therapy, those moments where you feel so vulnerable, so alone. This man is lucky, I think, while I am lucky’s opposite. Life feels terrifying again, too random, too deep and infinite like contemplating the edge of space and in that terror I reach out because to do nothing feels cheap.
“It’s not your fault,” I say.
Ethan looks at me. “I feel like it was. We had a fight right before she took off.”
“That’s awful,” I say, but can’t stop thinking how I would change places with this man any minute of any day.
Sometimes the not doing becomes the doing. The more I don’t see Brian, don’t talk to him, the more I can’t. “It’s like we’ve time traveled,” I say, “and he’s caught in some fold, some ripple. So the other night I sat down with a bottle of Glenlivet, a tin of sardines and some crackers and I called him.” I look around the room. Everyone perks up, that age-old fascination with what happens next.
“When he answers I ask, ‘Is this the man who killed our baby?’” There is an audible gasp in the room. “I was drunk, no excuse, I know. And he says, ’Annie?’”
“’Well, is it?’ I say. Then neither of us said anything further so I laid the phone down without hanging up and went to sleep.”
Erika raises her hand. She is the only one in the group who does this no matter how often we tell her not to. “Erika?” Marilyn says, in that lovely voice, so knowing and even, “you have something to share?”
“Yes,” she says, so quietly I lean forward to hear her. I start to think she does this on purpose, to draw me in. “I feel compelled to say, to state,” Erika pauses then resumes, “I’d like to gently say to you, to ask you to consider,” she lifts her eyes to me for a second before dropping them back down, “that Brian lost a child, too.” That horsey wooden face, her stringy unkempt hair, for a moment she appears as ravaged and beautiful as a statue I once saw by Donatello. “I will pray for him as well,” she says, and as if unplugging, closes her eyes.
I stare at Erika’s closed lids and take in a long, deep breath until my back muscles ache. I hold breath inside until I hear my heart because it gives me something to focus on. If an outsider were to talk in at that moment it would appear as if we were all joined in prayer or silent meditation when really it was anything but that.
“Annie?” Marilyn asks. I am startled to hear my name. “What do you think about what Erika said?”
“It pisses me off and,” I swallow, “it makes me sad. You see, I miss the man I hate. Everywhere I turn I hit a wall. I feel locked in like one of those paralyzed people who only communicate with blinking eyelids. You know what I mean?”
I look to Marilyn who nods. “Go on,” she says, in that voice that makes me want to crawl into her lap.
“No matter where I turn, every minute of every day is hot and the doctor says no more pills.” I tongue my cheek, the rough area I bit down on yesterday. “How do I get out of the fire?” After saying this, in my mind’s eye I see the image of that famous monk. I’d seen it on a museum wall once. He’d doused himself and lit a match. Diaphanous orange ate his robes, his skin, his bones. At least when he was done, I think, he died.
“I get it,” Beth, the beauty from the magazine, says. Her participation is like that scene from Awakenings when all the catatonic come to life—shocking, delightful. “I never wanted kids. I told Larry, the minute I met him, ‘I don’t want kids.’ He told me,” and in a man’s voice she says, “‘That’s fine. Who’s asking?’ That’s so Larry,” she laughs. “So when I got pregnant—I used a diaphragm, but, to be honest I’m not sure I put it in right. When the test showed up positive we talked about it. He gave me the option, without any pressure or judgment to get rid of it.” She shakes her head. “What was I thinking? I have a friend who refuses to eat anything with a face, anything with a real mother. Thinking about ending my pregnancy was like that, it became too recognizable, too specific and I just couldn’t. So I stayed pregnant and surprisingly I loved it. It shocked me.” Beth smiles, remembering. “I got big as a house, gained seventy pounds and I loved it. Go figure.” She runs her fingers through her hair which cascades like hair on a commercial. Then she gets quiet. “Chad was born with a rare genetic disorder. He was seven years and twenty-three days old when he died. And to think I could have never had him.”
Death happens every second of every day—young, old, premature, natural. How is it we kid ourselves? Why are any of us surprised? There is an order yes, but how often is it followed? Who are we to feel slighted? In some ways maybe, this is how it goes. “Did Wild West women grieve as hard when babies died?” I ask the group. “Seems back in those days you had lots of them—no birth control, long winters, the need for able bodies. So many things took them, if it wasn’t disease then they got kicked by a horse. Sometimes I wonder how many children would I’ve had to have to make Izzy matter less?” […]
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