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