Mixing Memory with Desire

Sure it’s National Poetry Month—and also, in some estimations, the cruelest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land. I was born in this month, and my first child was due on my birthday. Aries carrying Aries. What could be more energetic, more hopeful, more determined, more willful than that?

Destiny shifted. My son was born late—I’ve always thought this was because my body understood this was the best way to keep him alive. He died of a heart defect three days later. His placenta is buried under the tree we’d bought to celebrate his birth, a lilac.

He’d be 25 today. In the early years I often looked at my second son and imagined my two boys together, playing, bickering, teasing. I’d look for clues as to who Jake might have become by watching my surviving son.

Destiny shifted. My second son grew into a life that was different from what I imagined. My marriage ended, which wasn’t what I imagined when I envisioned parenting either son.

Jake most likely would not have remained the person I intuitively understood him to be, either.

Children turn into someone else. Some aspects of their personalities are still recognizable, but new elements come in, seemingly out of nowhere. They drop characteristics that you once thought were at their core.

When an article about Jacob’s life and death appeared in a November 1989 edition of the Boulder Camera Sunday Magazine, I received a lot of letters from older people who had lost children and had been afraid to mention it. Some of these children, like my son, were babies. I reconnected with two women from my hometown who had lost infants several years before my son died. One older woman from Boulder wrote of how she had never named her daughter, and had in fact given her second daughter the name she’d planned for her first. When she read my essay, she had just come back from a tree-planting ceremony in which she had finally given her first little girl her own name. We wrote back and forth for several years; she always remembered Jacob’s birthday.

A friend of my ex-husband’s parents wrote to me a lot also. Her son had died in a car wreck in his 30s, and in the WASPy New England environment where she

lived, she often felt she wasn’t allowed to mention his name. She was one of my most important support people, for she spoke the truth to me. It’s a lie that time heals, she said. And all our children are our children, whether they die young or as adults. Each of your cells has something—something important in knowing who it is in you and how it should function—taken out of it.

She sent me this poem, which she had copied out of The New Yorker and kept. I received it about a year after Jake died and pasted it into a 1990 journal.

After enough time goes by, whether your child is dead or alive, you feel nostalgic for the child you dreamed of. You realize that dream may be all you can know. You are mourning a shadow.


Elegy for a Child’s Shadow

Perhaps the moment included a bench, a tree with a bicycle

leaning against it, and a shadow.

From the position of the shadow, the mother

might know whether something

was entering or was just leaving. And whether,

if it was leaving, it would be back.


                                    If she had to describe

the shadow, she would say it is shaped like a sundial

in a park where all afternoon children have been playing.

Or she would say it is like a pool

where golden fish swim.

When the sun is at a certain angle,

she can hear the water inside the water,

and what she thinks of is a life

dissolving slowly

like a wafer in the mouth of a child.


                                        Sometimes death is humble,

merely a space,

tempting a child to fill it with itself.

As the grass, so plush and blue,

tempts the mother. Lying there, she hears

the sound of rain exciting the leaves

to stillness, and later,

much later, she feels the dark,

gliding gently as an eraser over her life.


                                             —Susan Mitchell


(This poem appears in The Water Inside the Water, by Susan Mitchell. Used by permission.)

4 thoughts on “Mixing Memory with Desire

  1. we only have one chance to learn what we need to be the best us we can be. The tragedy of what could be will haunt those who have a stake in the past and cannot discover what the lesson to be learned is. We can stamp our feet and say it isn’t fair. It isn’t fair because we view life from the inside looking out, this perspective chains us, and you know, it’s just not fair….peace and healing

  2. Does it sound as though I am stamping my feet and saying it isn’t fair? I don’t think pausing to mark an anniversary is being haunted by what could have been. Some things are missing and always will be. You can learn to run a marathon with a prosthetic, have a rich, full life you’re immensely grateful for, and still wish you had your real leg back, right?

  3. Nice post, Claudia. I hope to remember to copy it and send it to my sister in October, the anniversary of her son’s death. He would turned one that same month and would be about 26 if he’d lived. She had him a little longer, although he was hooked to oxygen and never really well. She has told me that October haunts her still.

  4. Claudia, I didn’t know your story until I read this post. Thank you for sharing such a powerful reflection. An older and wiser parent suggested to me that my children are not really mine. It is, however, my responsibility to love them, and nurture them, and equip them to be who and whatever they were meant to be.

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