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.
Two years ago tonight we held Liam and waited for him to die. This is the worst for me, existing through the day we asked doctors to support us in letting him go. Or did doctors ask us to support them in letting him go? I can’t remember. The nurses lingered, clearing up the detritus of intervention. I shrieked at them GET OUT and they did.
In 1991, I was a twitching gaggle of nervous energy. My skin was made of sandpaper, it chafed that much to be inside it. I clung like a limpet to anyone that struck me as confident. I studied them, mystified. How do we ever find ourselves? I don't know. But we do. Right around the time that fate begins to settle itself upon us and our peers like a sucker punch. I needed to be sucker-punched.
What follows is the text of my speech, given just after a stream of 800 people and strollers and kids and balloons walked the perimeter of the beautiful Legislature Grounds, and just before the baby names were read and the balloons released. Bits and pieces of it might be familiar, if you’ve been here through the last year.
It's not unheard. I don't know how, on what plane, or in what capacity. I just know it. We are all accompanied. Mystery. Unexplained strangeness. Phosphorescents. We live among beings that glow electric, swirling and glittering in swell. How can there not be magic? How can we not be heard?
I'm over at Glow in the Woods today communing with a voice that comes from elsewhere, and feeling peace at having finally found the shape of my story of birth and death.
He was only two. The NICU had nothing to offer for tasmanian devils and steam engines. And so we always said 'When he's ready' which is parental code for 'I don't know how to go there yet.' And so it was randomly, through bedtime gloom, Ben already purring softly in sleep, when Evan proposed the Atlantis route, and when we settled on our answer.
He wandered around all day today with his pants undone. I snapped them together ten times. He'd retreat to a corner to unsnap so that he could walk around with his belly lolling out. It was one of those sights, vertigo-inducing. The crayola, the crumbs, the chub that clings to his fingers. It's altogether too much, when love is sparked from a place like May of 2007. I wonder if I'll ever just see an undone button. For his sake, I hope so. For Liam's sake, I hope not.
My brain walked away shaking its head and my heart found a field of sun-drenched daisies and spun around giggling with its arms in the air. At some point late last night, that he was ever here at all made me feel like the most blessed mother that's ever drawn breath.
They lived for four days, the beginnings of down and feathers taking root. After, mama bird dropped their bodies out of the nest, meticulous. We buried them. That was disturbing. I cried in the porch. Why did I need them to live? It's all so expected I almost can't bear to write about it for how contrived and trite it must seem. That I'm compelled to say this is not a device leads me to believe you'll think it is anyway. I can't find the shape of what it meant. Since then I've been transplanting grief.
Evan is a blur, running wild, he and his posse hunting and chasing and begging for berries. Ben sits neatly on a boulder with a chocolate cupcake, and we stand in a circle of parents who are our friends. There are fiddles and hot morning drinks and a man yells solicitously about smoked ham on baguette. They smile and laugh, arms full of green and goodness, and suddenly I can feel it stirring, that mean wind that would chill you from bone to skin.
I'm sorry. I feel like a terrible fraud for all this, for the writing here. It's not that it was contrived. I felt all these words, but tonight they make me cringe. They're saccharine and slippery and unfamiliar. I am insufferable and embarrassed. I might have made you think I have some faith, or convictions, or certainty. Or at least an ability to drum up enough colour to self-generate. I don't.
You accept, eventually, at least most of the time. Self-pity loosens its clutch, leaving you feeling blessed and content.But loss, like motherhood, is not finite. He will always be mine. He will always be gone. I will always have this phantom attached to me, not him but the death of him. And I'll never be sure who is holding the leash.
I pity myself for having had to go through that, for having to bear the memory of what happened to him. I pity my son for having been in pain. For never getting to taste chocolate chip cookies or sail on the ocean or get sand between his toes or fly in a plane across the world or read a book. He is gone, but I still want him. I made him. Just as he was, just as he is. I am Liam’s mother. What an honour.
I lean in. 'Grow, baby. Grow and grow and then go home.' Ben nods, satisfied, and she writhes some more. We stand there a while, trespassing, and then we walk away through double doors that buzz and swing, leaving behind us a near-new breast pump (FOR D’BOOBIE MILK) kindly sent to me a lifetime ago. Someone else needs it now.
I can't help it. I believe despite not wanting to. If I was accompanied—if he was—then there came a point when that accompaniment left. There's a presence, not so much a voice anymore but just a shaking head, if it had a head, and that's all. I reach out to it, for what it used to be, and it refuses, and that's an irreconcilable sort of lonely.
Edmonton is beautiful in October. Weeping golden trees and leaves all crunchy underfoot and warmth despite temperature. This was the fourth Walk to Remember, and for the fourth time, I spoke to a thousand bereaved parents in front of the bandshell at the Legislature Grounds.
The word is at the forefront: parallel. Lives, selves, outcomes. The woman who died on the gurney, the ghost. She is a good mother. She takes care of the boy who died too, and he runs, and he knows her, and they throw rocks into the creek beside their little house, the house filled with sunshine.
Fragments of clouds walking the woods, and warm graves, and observant stars, the burntness feeling like a home when everyone else fleed the stench. Grief by Tim Burton, and I was the slight, black-haired pale kid with the part in the middle.
I used to feel pink. I felt an odd sort of peace, a lightness in a vacuum. I didn’t hate myself. I’d loved him. I held him. I sang to him. I was sad, but it was a peaceful sort of sadness. I would call up the memory of his grey, spent body in my lap whenever I felt out-of-place, and it made everything slow—right—down.
There are a hundred gods, a thousand. One for caterpillars crossing sidewalks; one for the daddy longlegs trapped in a bathtub puddle; one for every empty belly, tightrope walker, contracting uterus; one for every yellowfin tuna's gaping mouth; one for every screaming mackerel; one for every tin can.
We talk about wandering, the things we've seen. Skiing, minwax, California, churches, fried food, mountains. We eat and eat and talk, and they say Liam and I say Margot, and together we decide that being open stings and hurts and incites fear and regret in the most exquisite way. Open is the way to better.
When I'm speaking, I need to focus. I find a half-dozen faces and cycle through them, one to the other, to see if they're okay and if what I'm saying belongs to them. A father sighs, his eyes wet. I can see it from here. A grandparent nods and holds her daughter's hand. It is my fifth year of speaking on this beautiful day to bereaved parents in Edmonton.
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.