Goodbye is the Hardest Word
by Janine Canty
cw // babyloss
The first time grief threw on clothes and knocked on my door, I was barely twenty-four. In my bare feet on the kitchen floor. Burning a pot of mac and cheese. Sitting indian style on a puke orange rug. Playing legos with a five year old. Standing on a dance floor. Laughing into the face of my small son. They snap a picture. My son, in a white dress shirt and tie. Frosting in his hair. I have on a striped green maternity top and a dead baby in my belly.
The next day I was delivering tragedy on a bed there was no time to pull apart. My husband had hold of one knee. The nurse had hold of the other. I was screaming without sound. Crying without tears. He slipped from my body like a balloon being released. Tiny. Black hair. Long feet and curled fists. Blue. He was the first dead thing I ever saw. This 1 pound 6 oz almost boy. This miniature ghost son. His body fit perfectly in the palm of my hand.
He never felt the air.
He never heard my voice when I said goodbye.
They bring in a light blue blanket to wrap him in. They ask if I am ready to let him go.
I will never be ready to let him go.
I would have happily sat in that bed forever. Filthy with my blood and amniotic fluid. I would have sat in that bed forever to save my dead child. I would have given him my blood and breath and skin. I would have cut out my own newly numbed heart. I hand him to the nurse, gently. Supporting his little peach head. Until his weight is gone. I lean forward, watching the nurse leave the room with him. I don’t breathe. I don’t blink. I picture his mouth. His mouth that will never call me mama. His tiny, beautiful, dead mouth. The wide open mouth he'd been born with. He'd screamed without sound, too. I feel like freshly baked bread with it’s soft center ripped out.
His loss ripped through me like Goliath. Taking down everything in its path. The part of me that rode a bike and jumped rope. The part of me that sang in the shower. The part of me that believed in happily ever after, and please and thank you. The polite me. The grateful me. The happy me. The part of me that cried at sappy movie endings and kissed puppy dog faces.
I am twenty four. Burnt edges and hollowed eyes.
The second time grief struck I was a new twenty-five year old. Starving my body down to 105 pounds. Existing on lettuce and rage. Breathing in the shadows. Walking around like a prize fighter. Fists ready to wound. Arms like armor. Scooped out apple cheeks and black soul.
The second time, grief came better dressed. Suited up. Pretty camouflage that didn’t fool me for a minute. Me, who woke up at 2:00 am. At 3:12. At 4:01. Phantom kicks to my belly button, in the exact spot my son’s heart had stopped its song. Tears scratching their way down my throat.
Salt and lava.
The second time grief showed up, it didn’t have to introduce itself. My body recognized it by smell. My stillborn son’s skin. The copper of my blood. Grief was the the thing holding my broken pieces together like Play-Doh and spit. Grief cradled my bones, then let them slip to the floor. Leaving me loose and bloodless. Leaking my heart out onto a stained carpet. It took nine months, between my son’s death and my grandmother’s death. Nine months to create life. Nine months to lose life. Nine months where I sleepwalked my way through a life I no longer wanted. Nine short months where grief was the only thing left.
Grief was the thing that never left.
It begins, like a lot of these stories, with a lump. A lump in the soft skin of my grandmother's breast. She ignored it while she made carob cake, and served Breyers french vanilla ice cream on Wedgewood china. She ignored it while she scooped algae and scum out of the aquarium. She ignored it while she served roasted duck for Thanksgiving. While we folded our hands and gave thanks. Listening to the cuckoo clock, and the planes taking off from Logan airport. Until the pain became a tidal wave.
Until the pain became everything.
She shrunk. She suffered. She developed sores. She lived on tapioca and faith for two years. She wore turbans to disguise the fact that chemo left her scalp looking like a newborn bird. She died with the sunrise. Four hours after she sucked down a chocolate shake from McDonalds. She was buried in West Roxbury. In ground my mother had played on as a child. In ground where an orphanage once stood. An orphanage my mother sent letters from. Written with broken crayons and sealed with tears.
The third death wasn't a death at all. Not a conventional one, anyway. No body to bury. No grave to tend. There are no words of comfort offered to a mother whose children are still alive. There is no language to describe what I became during seventeen years of systematic abuse. I picked up a pen and signed away my four children to their father, my abuser. I'd been told a dog would make a better mother for our children, and I believed it. I’d been told I was nothing for so long, I didn't just feel like nothing, I became nothing. Half dead flesh, with no reflection. A voice without volume. A heart that continued to beat against my will.
This death was birthdays and Christmas. The tears I couldn't dry. The bad dreams I couldn’t soothe. My daughter's first period. This wasn't one death. Or even four deaths. It was ten deaths. A thousand deaths. This death isn’t traceable. This death is bottomless. It goes on and off inside of me like a flickering light bulb. There is no death certificate. No tangible evidence. Except on my face and in my eyes. If you look closely, you can find them there. In the places where my body grew them. Birthed them. Rocked them. Loved them.
My childhood smelled like beer. Insulin and fear. It sounded like sirens. A fist makes a very specific sound when it hits a cheek. A crack. Wet and hard. I am six. I know how to tie my shoes. I know how to dial the operator and ask for an ambulance. I know what violence does to a face. I know my mother will have a black eye in the morning. The police, who brought handcuffs for my father. My father, on his knees in a puddle of Budweiser and piss, being pulled down the stairs like a rusted slinky. The paramedics, who brought stretchers for my mother. My mother, blue flannel nightgown covered with sweat and orange juice. My mother, broken rag doll legs, being loaded onto a stretcher. Me, fingers shaking and shoved in my ears. Me, Tinkerbell underwear sopping wet with everything inside me. All the things I couldn't express. Frightened and mute. Holding my two year old sister too tightly. Wondering if this will be the time mama won't come home. My mother was never supposed to survive my childhood.
It doesn't have to hemmorage to be bad. Sometimes, all it takes is a drop.
1989, plate of meatballs in my hand. Three drops of blood in the shiny white bowl of a toilet at the Knights Of Columbus hall. My son, heavy as a boulder in my belly. Twisted umbilical cord.
2006. A tiny drop of rust in my father's sputum. A tumor grows silently. Wraps itself, like the legs of a dancer, around the tissue of my father's right lung. He begins dying in the middle of Star Market. Watching my mother steal green grapes from the salad bar.
I keep coming back to the day my father became unrecognizable to me. The day I knew the cancer was winning. The day he was more memory than skin. The day he became jutting bone, chunks of tissue missing. A single tear, balancing on his bottom eyelashes.
It was the tear that broke me. The tear became my hand. The pad of my thumb. Touching my father’s fragility. The tear became a fist. Crushing my heart and spilling my blood. I became a swallow. I swallowed and swallowed and swallowed, a single word: Daddy. I swallowed every version of this man I had ever known.
first love of my life
first breaker of my heart
terrible golf player
wild animal tamer
hazel eyes and cleft chin
bow legged, cocky walk
On his knees. Dirty and defeated. On his knees. In front of my mother. Me, newborn with crossed eyes, white linen christening gown, balanced between them like a Fabergé egg. On his knees, beside my bed, singing Me and My Teddy Bear. Teaching me the words to Our Father.
I lose all the versions of my father when I look into his face and find a frightened child. I lose all the childhood versions of myself when I look into his eyes and see his death. I stand in the street and watch the ambulance pull away. I’m holding a blue cup with his dentures. My heart is gone. Shattered like a pane of glass. Falling from my body like vomit pouring from an open mouth. My mother is sitting in a corner of the couch. Clutching their emaciated, matted fur, runny eyed, half dead orange tabby. I feel like half an orphan. While my father fights for his next breath. While my mother croons to the breathing skeleton in her arms. While I put my hands in my hair, and pull slightly. Just to change the shape of the pain in my throat. While I realize I’m going to have to put the damn cat to sleep.