17 March 2009

Out of the Cookie Jar and into the Sand

This follows the previous essay, "Shipwrecked".  John and I took this journey in February 2009.

Our son Ivan is now sand.

Since his stillbirth twenty-four years ago, we have kept his ashes in the yellow taxi ceramic cookie jar in the spare bedroom. Recently, I read a story that inspired me. It is about a man who helps his elderly mother by finally planting a sapling over his stillborn brother’s ashes. I tell my husband John: We need closure, too. It is time for us to release Ivan’s remains.

But where? Perhaps from the bridge over the Cedar River, a few blocks from our house, where bald eagles soar. Or down river, where swallows skim the water, collecting bugs. Or maybe, in our backyard garden where tombstones mark long gone pets.

Only I knew our second son as living, inside me growing for nine months nearly a quarter century before. Only I knew him as living until he ceased to move within my mountainous belly on a rainy November day in Virginia so long ago. But he was our son, John’s and mine: a wanted child, a child to join his brother, a child to care for and love, no matter what, forever. John had held his son, but only when he was lifeless and blue. John had driven his body to the crematorium to have it turned into the ash we have kept with us all these years.

Much has happened since Ivan’s death: his older brother grown into a man and married; his younger sister, now a woman. So many, many, many days of doing and making and tending strung together into twenty-four years. Most of those years in Iowa, a thousand miles from where Ivan lived and died inside me. All the while, Ivan’s ashes in a plastic bag inside the yellow cookie jar. Rarely, I would lift the lid, reach inside, untwist the tie and feel the talc and tiny shards of his residue between my fingers.

John suggests we take Ivan’s ashes to the ocean, when we go soon on a late winter getaway to a sparsely populated barrier island off the Georgia coast. I agree. It is a place we call our Shangri-La, our Eden. Repeatedly, its elemental beauty has drawn us back. It is where we reconnect with wonderment.

Once on our special island, we ride fat-tired bikes the two-mile, gravel path to the beach. We pass the salt marsh and tidal creek, traveling through woods of palmetto, pine, and Spanish moss draped live oak to the pristine sand. So much to behold on the way: armadillos foraging noisily in the understory; herons, egrets, vultures, and wood storks standing in tall marsh grass or taking flight as we pass; alligators submerged in algae pools or sunning on matted banks; a rat snake stretched out along a bleached log.

We are the only humans on the seven-and-a-half mile expanse of undeveloped, white sand. It is low tide. We walk our bicycles to the smooth, hard-packed margin before the surf breaks and foams. Riding with the wind at our backs, we sail north to where the beach arcs out into the ocean—an elbow of sand with a spit extension that is only out of the water at the lowest of low tide. This is our destination. Biking here is the closest I come to flying. Only in my dreams am I similarly blessed. This spit is a congregating spot for pelicans, gulls, and migrating shore birds that follow the coast and trust this minimally peopled place. Farther and farther out we pedal, water on both sides—waves on the right, calmer but gaining tidal ponds on our left. At this bend, currents from the Altamaha River collide with the Atlantic Ocean. The weather worsens in an instant. Wind pelts us with dry sand. The tide is rising. We are the furthest out as we dare go. John is ahead of me. When I catch up, he is tense with urgency; “We’ve got to do it now! We have to get back.” I pull the plastic bag with the ashes from the daypack. There is no time for ceremony. We grab handfuls and throw them into the air. Some so light it swirls upwards and vanishes like vapor. Particles of bone, like grain separating from chaff, hang in the air for a moment then fall, joining the infinity of sand.

The plastic bag is empty. The spit has narrowed more. Retreating, we cannot discern whether water or sand is ahead of us, whether the tide has cut us off. Our bikes lurch and slide over deepening, washboard ridges of wet sand. We struggle, pedaling into the wind.

Above the danger of advancing water, we look back. Where we had been is gone, reclaimed by the sea.


This essay was published in "Mourning Sickness, Stories and Poems about Miscarriage, Stillbirth, and Infant Loss".  My drawing, Stillbirth on Black Paper, was used as the book's cover art.

It was Halloween. It had been raining for days, a hurricane-driven, whipping downpour. The James River had flooded the tobacco warehouses in downtown Richmond. A sodden sweetness of steeping tobacco wafted uptown to our house. I had spent the afternoon making Jules’ costume: a blue corduroy cape with red satin lining, a fake-fur beard with an elastic strap and an aluminum-foil-covered Masonite saber. He was three and this was his first trick-or-treating. With his candy bag bulging, pirate Jules splashed gleefully through puddles in the blustery darkness. I slogged, big-bellied, behind. As we rushed to get back inside, uneasiness snagged me: the baby hadn’t moved. The baby had been still. Utterly still. No kicks. No flutters. No hiccups. No elbows to my ribs. No knees to my bladder. Had it been for the whole day?
Later that night, I lay on the daybed in the study. Our nurse-midwife, Nancy leaned over me. A stethoscope connected her ears to my eight-month mountainous belly. Nothing. No sound of life.

For a week, I was pregnant with a dead baby. Jules and I stayed home indoors as it continued to rain. We played trains, made little boats glued together from scraps of wood, and read and reread the latest stack of library picture books. I grappled with the unthinkable: the baby would never move again. As Nancy had instructed, I drank increasing doses of blue and black cohosh tea to encourage my body to push the baby out.
At last, my uterus took up a lazy rhythm. At last, the sky was cloudless and calm. The silver maple in the front yard had turned completely gold, but had not yet dropped a
leaf. My parents came from out-of-town to care for Jules at a hotel. Mirabai, another midwife who was experienced in complicated home births, came from Yogaville—Swami Satchidananda’s ashram in the Blue Ridge Mountains—to assist. She arrived just as my water smacked the bathroom floor.
I lay on a low futon in my art studio, a room that was to become the new baby’s bedroom. I had painted it the color of tomato soup, the color of the womb. Sunlight sneaking through the closed Roman shades made the room glow like a fleshy hull. Nancy and Mirabai swathed my back and belly with flannel compresses soaked in a warm ginger brew. John held me and murmured encouragement. All of us breathed in unison. And then the baby slid out: silent and blue. He was broader and hairier than his brother. His eyes were dark and sunken beneath transparent eyelids that were fused shut. His mouth was flaccid--it knew no sucking. His fingers were curled and stiff, their tips wrinkled and boggy. He and I lay side-by-side, shipwrecked, the cord still connecting us by the un-birthed placenta.
Later, I wiped him dry and swaddled him, as if he were alive. We named him Ivan. I opened the shades and watched the leaves drift down from the  maple outside, and we shared a holy silence.
Stillbirth on Black Paper

28 February 2009

The Champ

This was written in June 1998 and broadcast as a commentary for KUNI Iowa Public Radio.  My drawing is of my mother Betty Milner, the champ. "Betty, at the Walker 1980" is pen and ink.  I recently found it in her files.

My shirt? You like it?  I got it half price.  My shoes?  Oh, they're new.  I got them on sale.  I learned this from my mother--to get stuff for cheap.  Full price is for spineless creatures without grit.  Good stuff is cheap stuff.

As a child, I traipsed behind my mother through discount stores searching through piles of disheveled merchandise.  We also shopped high-end department stores in the adjoining suburb. We'd walk determinedly past the tantalizingly displayed full price goods to the jammed sale racks in the back.  My mother perused the goods with a keen eye.  If an aberration in quality was detected--an undone seam, unmatched plaid, or unsymmetrical lapels, my mother would let loose her practiced indignation on the closest salesperson, making a jab for an even lower price.  Nailing a deal was triumph.

While my mother's shopping stamina was astounding, her indecisiveness was painful.  Once home, she brooded over the rightness of her purchase, at times continuing to search for a like item at other stores to convince herself that she had the cheapest of the best.  We stood on what seemed like endless return lines.  Even though she had post-graduate training and a professional career before she became a full-time homemaker, her value and competency as my father's helpmate seemed hinged on her shopping prowess.  The money she saved was the prize. Her quest for the quintessential bargain was insatiable.

When I visited my then 78-year-old out-east, we hadn't shopped together for two decades.  My time was limited.  I was willing to do the unthinkable: pay full price.  At the cashier, my mother looked pained.  The woman ahead of us had presented a coupon that entitled her to 10% off.  Before I knew it, my mother pulled one of her legendary punches, finagling the same 10% off for me--without the coupon!  I left the store with the clothes I needed and a discount I was ambivalent about.  My mother left like a champ leaving the ring.