Mother Nature's Son:
the story of Liam & my afterlife
This is my bereavement, as it unfolded. Liam, my sweet and missing son. And stars & talking trees, too.
The NICU gave us technicolour eyes and ears and hearts. Knowing not just cerebrally but in the fabric of ourselves that this stuff really, truly does happen to people. Flooded with nonstop empathy for those crying out in the world, “why us?” I don’t know why. But at least I can say I know how it feels, to feel that way. And that’s something to offer: company.
The conversation stalls, suddenly unwanted by both of us. Like being at a Bill Lynch fairground and getting to the front of the Scrambler lineup just in time to see a kid puke at the height of the spin cycle. How terrifying it is to love this much, to hold pure human energy in your hands. To have it evoke such frantic wanting in you, and hope, and fear, and joy.
It could be the necessary ravings of a grieving mother, but I feel like the leaves and trunks and grasses and waves watch us as we pass, trying to tell us something. The most eerie sensation, this deliberate, conscious presence. I know it not because I'm desperate, but because it's been revealed to me as a truth I didn't need to contemplate before.
I stare at the donation card and it stares back, stuck up on the wall with all the others. From Evan & Ben & Liam. For a moment I wonder if some kind of magic will go POUF! and in some parallel universe my eldest is at playschool while I browse through the aisles pushing a double stroller.
Sometimes I reach down and touch the incision: still painful, queeby numbness. It will never let me forget that night. This purple bump-strip is the remains of a nightmare. But then… it's sacred, too. Three months ago tonight I sat with a heating pad on my back, unknowingly breathing through contractions, crying in frustration that I just wasn’t tough enough to bear twins. You know how the rest goes.
Liam comes to me alone in the kind of darkness that has nothing to do with night. Not him exactly but the demon of what happened to him, the caricature of memory that taunts and stings. The shaking woke me up but the demon keeps me fitful, clinging to me at night when I am unable to shoo it away with the blessed busyness of life.
A commenter on the last post drove by and with her head lolling out the window like a golden retriever she barked Lordy, this is depressing! and I’d never seen her before and then she was gone and it got me to thinking about declarations and litterbugs and a few other things.
He stops strangers in the street to say I ABIG BRUDDER. My widdle brudder is ABEN. He is ABABY. He no talk. They say Oh! Indeed and Well my goodness as they should, and we go on our way, the two of us walking well above the ground.
If I have to look at one more piece of paper, fill out one more form with NAME OF DECEASED: LIAM STEWART INGLIS printed on the top, I’m going on strike. Words I cannot even utter for what they refer to, like cremation, taunt me in certificate form, swing back and knock me between the eyes like boomerangs. Insult after insult in triplicate, injustice that demands bureaucratic ownership.
When Liam died, there wasn’t much we had to return. It’s not as though we had a baby blue ‘li’l sluggers’ nursery ready with two matching cribs and two carseats and two of everything else. I had figured I had two boobs, and at least for the immediate future, that would be enough. But this morning I went to a local secondhand shop to drop off our extra Jolly Jumper, the one indispensable thing we had to duplicate along with fetuses. I cried all the way there.
Stepping into parenthood, we are all blindfolded until we come out the other side. Of every hundred, one or two of us disappear into an abyss. I don’t do too well with silence, tending to fill it with chatter. But you and I, the other one or two, we speak with eyes and mouths and heart-memory and vibration, sending back and forth to one another yes, yes, I know this, and it is mine, and yours, and we share it together through a link more powerful than what else we may or may not have in common.
As I turn the corner I see her at the end of the hallway, walking away from me: the young clinician who put a stethoscope to my son’s heart and declared him gone. She has a cup of Tim Horton’s in one hand and lunch in the other and seems hurried, utilitarian. She disappears through a set of double-doors and I press my nose to his head to inhale his scent, once more just the two of us, veterans of this nonstop beige. This place is my Afghanistan.
The thing that crouches in the dark place urges pregnancy as just punishment. Another attempted gateway for a soul who tried to come through to us. Redemption. Thankfully my dark thing is chained to the wall. It clatters around but is not set loose to wreak havoc. Such a monumentous event shouldn’t be triggered because the universe dared to screw with me, damaged goods trying to prove otherwise. Not triggered from a place of post-trauma but of peace, if ever.
Last night I sat up in bed grasping to remember Liam. With each month he feels more distant, trapped down the smudgy viewfinder of a pinhole camera, fading, the memory of him breaking up and drifting in all directions. Sometimes I squint, try to see double. Sometimes I feel irrevocably messed up. fucked up. broken.
Ben is on an operating table at this moment. Maybe the same one that held Liam? Maybe. Down here on the third floor faces seem vaguely familiar, scents and industry and stacks of johnny shirts, blankets. Vacant cribs and ventilators lined up in rows through the hallways, draped in ethereal plastic that swishes as you walk past. The pre-op nurse shows me around and as she does I feign freshman appreciation like I need to know, like I didn't live here for two months.
Once again trying to sleep despite several neonatal emergency alarms, knowing that two floors above someone else's nightmare has come true. Fighting the 2 AM urge to wander the empty halls in my sweats, press UP on the elevator, go to room 702, hold her hand. I will my spirit to do so, curled up in the dark.
Through all this many of you at one time or another said 'you're so strong', as if you wouldn't be. But you would. When you're in it and the doctors say follow me you follow, and when they say do this, you do. You get swept up in the system, both propelled and abandoned at the same time. You have no choice but to bear it.
I spend a lot of time with my face against Ben's, cheek to mouth, mouth to ear, cooing, knocking up against his flesh with mine because I hope it soothes him, reminds him of shared space and company that calms. Or maybe I'd like a little of that for myself, and I take it from him.
Everything that touched me is in that old box, the sailmaker’s chest, ventilator tape and monitor leads and a snip of the fuzz from the top of my head and an inkpress of my foot, and I know you stare at that box from the outside but you don’t open it. It’s okay, mama.
As Evan leaps circles through the house squealing “3-2-1 BLASTOFF!” Ben is agog. Seeing it turns my heart to mush, two brothers slipping into big and baby roles. Evan thinks Ben is hysterical. Ben thinks Evan is a superhero. And I think what they say about the capacity of hearts is true, that the mathematical effect of procreation is measured not with division but with multiplication.
You are both a victim and a masochist. You imagine a pulse like in apocalyptic movies that sweeps over populations of picturebook mommies and daddies, rendering them limp like rag dolls, not hurt but hit by an explosive wave of acknowledgement that forces them despite their whole, healthy children to pause for a moment, to be touched by this blackness.
When it’s time to go home he has to be peeled away in just the same fashion, hands full of crafts and artwork and new songs and stories. As I pull away, Ben snoring in the backseat, Liam finds me as he always does, forever perfect, forever unblemished by stink and tantrum. Don’t be stupid, says the voice. Ben will drive you nuts sometimes, and Liam would have too. How would you have coped? You would have been a snapping, snarling mama. Maybe even still, just with two.
He holds his rocking brother’s hand, an anchor for his injured reflection who twitches and lolls. I watch as his thumb gently strokes his brother’s, his wrapped fingers pat-pat-patting reassurance where little is likely to register. The ferry lurches as it pushes away from the terminal and I finally manage to look away, having learned a little bit more about love.
'I don't get it,' a friend wrote yesterday. 'Not only do I not 'get it' -- it pisses me off when people say there's a God. People who would ask for intervention, who would put more stock in some imagined higher power than in real people. If God's so great, why did Rwanda happen, and why did Hitler happen, and why does random tragedy strike good, honest people when they least expect?' (friend: one. God: zero.)
Autopsy. A file or a binder or a stack of papers that quantifies the spent flesh and blood of my baby. Just how extensive was the mush of his brain? How full of shrapnel was he, exactly, from the explosion of my placenta?Or as I hear it in fitful sleep: We were wrong. He didn’t have hydrocephalus and the bleed was correcting itself and you wouldn’t have had to suction out his airway every day and we told you he was dying on life support but as it turns out, his lungs weren’t collapsing after all. Oops.
One day the blackness lifted. My family said Oh! Good. Everything is alright now, you’re better. I don’t know about that. An anvil fell from the sky, pinned me under its weight for a few weeks. And one night someone came along and hauled it away, and so I’ve gotten up and kept walking. But I can’t promise there won’t be another anvil, or a grand piano, or something else equally disheartening to look up and see hurtling towards my head, all with YOUR BABY DIED spraypainted on it in sloppy block letters.
I lay in bed awake and it came to me as it does: I still can’t believe I had twins, that they came early, that I have this scar, that my babies were in incubators, fed through tubes, cut open by surgeons, that one of them died in my arms. The dark bit that feeds off the sadness amplifies the memory of a lifeless Liam on my lap, forces me to replay and recoil and wrap myself around the ache. But last night a soft, affectionate voice cut through like the ringing of a bell: Stop it, mom.
This doctor in particular is as human as he can be. But like the rest of his kind he must be evasive, preemies being all about speculation and speculation being all about unscientific guesswork. Which leaves them sympathetic but muzzled in the face of desperate parents who sob please tell us everything will be alright despite every indication that no, everything will not be alright.
Community, resources, and reflection for parents of lost babies and potential of all kinds. One of us, only half-joking, said this will be a place where us medusas can take off our hats, none of us minding the snakes. Babylost mothers and fathers, this place is yours.
I founded Glow in 2008, a year after Liam's death. It was and still is a safe space and a warm room. Here's a distinct set of writing that dives into the after-life of loss, beyond what's here: shared bumps, reckonings, and turns of the kaleidoscope.
The woodstove is always on. Comfort, solidarity, and a safe space for bereaved parents. Any time of day or night, talk to each other in the discussion forums at Glow.