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.
Last night I dreamed my babies were born too soon. They were from another planet. They had acorns for knees, and elastic legs, and didn’t cry. I stared at them and they stared at me with the giant, almond-shaped eyes widely reported by abductees. They knew everything there is to know. Then I woke up.
This first year, I don't know if I've got it in me to pretend that May 5th wasn’t the most catastrophic day of our lives. I want to wake up to a kick in the head from my three-year-old as per usual and tap my barometer and make the calls to say “Why don’t you just come over for some tea and something sweet and I might even have some little candles in the junk drawer and we’ll see…”
Split neatly down the centre, I am cast out of both camps. One baby died, one baby lived. Furiously bitter among the usual folk, sheepish and humbled among the medusas. He is my blessing baby and my shadow baby. He saved my life by filling my arms, calling for me in the no-man’s-land between midnight and dawn for contraband giggles, drinking my milk like a dog with a bone as I sobbed.
When people create something bigger than themselves the analogy is always birth. Labour of love, my baby, gestation. But this was easy. The women, the concept, the plethora of ideas and must-dos and insight and reflection all clicking into place beautifully, as birth has not always done for us. Go to Glow in the Woods today and wish us a happy birthday, won’t you?
Last night I thought I’m going to look back at those pictures, see just how small Ben was when he was born and was aghast as the rest of the world must have been. Now that I know him beyond the abstractions of the NICU—his giggles and his big brother idolatry and his koala bear hugs—the realization of how close we came to losing him is a vice around my throat.
Ben projectile-barfs peas and hummus and I don’t get there in time with the bowl and the moment the digestive hose is emptied he cracks himself up, spitty pea-goop dripping off his chin. Liam waits for me patiently, as he always has, and I run the dripping cloth back and forth across the white plastic with tears in my eyes, wishing I had twice the highchairs, twice the barf.
They are peaceful and not minding me but still ask 'Why are you here? You don’t know us. We are too long dead for even your great-grandparents to know us.' I press my palm through the grasses to the cool mud underneath, through layers of insects and prickles and wildflowers and through that palm I speak back to them 'Because you have answers I want.'
I fell apart a few weeks before their birthday. Then that day came and went and in the past six weeks I’ve lamented everything except Liam. What to do with this life. What to do with an unwanted minivan. How to ease off on paying work in the interest of possibly dream-fulfilling work. How to ease off on paying work after losing ten thousand dollars on a minivan that is apparently unwanted by everyone else, too. How to shake this angry pallor.
As we tied the canoe to the roof for the second drive home this trip, a large butterfly wanted to be followed so I did, lying on my side on the beach, admiring as it preened and sunbathed on the sand. 'I am all joy! My wings, they are mine! They catch wind and eyes! I am beautiful.'
Souls travel in packs, I like to think. They drift in and out of lives, drawn magnetically to one another across dimensions and by what we think of as turns of fate. By that reckoning, my son knew I was there and loving him, and was not afraid even though his physical body was so desperately compromised. By that reckoning, he was all that he was supposed to be.
We walked through those halls today and despite the institutional pallor and dreaded alarms I was reminded: there is warmth and refuge there. Liam was poked and prodded incessantly but he was also cuddled and fed and sung to, loved not just by us but by his blessed den-mothers.
I was a long-ago nurse in a hospital of the same vintage, dark wooden floors scrubbed to shine, massive windowpanes that opened up and out by pulley. I passed through a closed door and into a ward full of babies and to the first crib in a long row. I knew him as Liam, knew him as mine. He was plump and sleeping. I gathered him in my arms and nodded to the other people there, and they nodded back.
It was another dream, significant because I do not dream, or at least not that I can remember. I was on a train with no windows, nor any sense of movement. Liam was with me, toddling. He was alone. There were no other babies. Just empty cribs, and passerby, and him.
Standing there on my own after the speech, I had nothing to do but notice her. She hesitated and then crossed the stretch of grass tentatively, birthing that awkward moment: too far away to speak and fill the empty space, but close enough and closer still to create a vacuum of intention like the breathing pause before a jump into water.
What do I say to bring light to an unknown number of grieving parents? For those who believe their babies are with God, and then for those who believe their babies were turned into random dust, all in the same crowd? For those ten days out and ten years out?I settled on these words, some of them familiar, in case you’d like to see them.
In the muscle memory of our souls we've all been marginalized. Each and every one of us has had miserably timed turns at being poor, or protestant, or mentally ill, or black, or differently abled, or female, or jewish, or iroquois, or gay. In all those states we were born as a living, breathing expression of hope and renewal and love just as we were. In all those states we have been denied by each other. Too many of us forget to remember.
Up until 2 AM as usual, but without the 7 AM wakeup of little bodies tussling in my face. I wait inside this house surrounded by the echo of autonomy that comes not from the presence of self, but the absence of them, and despite the bliss, my stomach turns with wanting. In the meantime I drink wine and eat homemade carrot-brie perogies, and stomp indiscreetly and listen too loud, marinating up to my neck in what once was, and what might still be.
Souls travel in packs, I like to think. They drift in and out of lives, drawn magnetically to one another across dimensions and by what we think of as turns of fate. By that reckoning, my son knew I was there and loving him, and was not afraid even though his physical body was so desperately compromised. By that reckoning he was all that he was supposed to be.
My heart lurches with love for Ben, propelling up and up and up, and then it slows and hangs suspended, switches directions and falls, reeling at what we lost in Liam. There would have been two. There should have been.Ahh yes, there it is, said my head. There’s that hole in your chest again, the wind howling through it and out the other side. Hello, hole.
I fill my mind with streamers, blue ones, and cake, a damn fine cake it will be. And Saturday’s cleaning in advance of Sunday’s toddler infantry. And tiny Elton John star-sunglasses, because for a second birthday and first party it is fitting to add superfluous bedazzlement to a dazzling boy. I don't think Liam minds a bit. (pause. sigh.) Who am I kidding. He’s not here.
Two years ago today. There is no exit. The sign on his incubator said INGLIS TWIN B and Hello! My name is Ben and I realized I had never known despair. Sixty mornings I turned from the elevator and down this hallway. Sixty times I had to remind myself it was real.
Liam’s hydrocephalus had just been diagnosed, deemed manageable, brain surgery a distant possibility. Both boys were strong in terms of breath, if not quality of life. Until two years ago, my son grew tired and began his letting-go. Or from another angle, his injuries found their second wind.
A lovely, perfect young maple catches the light at that time of day and at this time of year, a crown of sun. The day after he was gone I looked out our door and saw it. It felt like a gift. It was staring back at me, breathing, smiling, witnessing. I pressed my hand to its trunk and it hummed. Everyone who comes to our house, children especially, gravitates toward it. Bodies duck under and climb and run around it and when they do, the tree swells with happiness.
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.