Because Andrew’s father booked the plane tickets
we came, and because his family cooked
their New Year’s sauerkraut, we sat
at their vinegar-scrubbed table chewing cabbage
stewed in salts, stacked plates in oily dishwater,
and played fourteen rounds of Dutch blitz.
asks for a family photo this year. Thank heaven.
In October the funeral photographer told us she stayed home
her first holiday without her son, a transgression
we could never get away with. Not even a few weeks later
when I ended Thanksgiving screaming
after my steel-eyed grandmother said I could not use Jude
as an excuse for stress. I had been so careful, not wanting
to offend anyone until then. I apologized to nurses
for asking too many questions, to my OB for making her
turn off “Clair de Lune,” our wedding song, on her birthing playlist
and so in silence my body closed like a jackknife
with each rush of heat telling me to push. I apologized
to the photographer when I was not yet ready
to pose and hold him. My finger tested
the feel of his owl brow crusted
with my blood, until finally I could make my arms a basket
for the sudden weight of his tiny body.
I had been so careful
stepping out of the way of all my brothers-in-law
who had crowded our house in their funeral suits.
Too many rooms
when we first came home from the hospital
to the emptied nursery, the swingless living room,
kitchen stripped of bottles and bibs—
too small now for the cluster of people
making small talk about movies and food.
I almost refused to walk
into the church and read my eulogy
to classmates, neighbors, coworkers, family members,
the babies who would have been playmates.
We stood in the parking lot beneath a blank sky
unfolding over us like a tent
and filled its ceiling with balloons.
The family now gathers around the taxi
in a halo of prayer for safe travels and healing.
Andrew and I load up the luggage. I follow him
onto the plane and choose the next available seat
two rows behind. We pitch into metallic sky.
I place a hand over the soft flicker at my belly—
my own heartbeat, but I pretend still.
Grief is letting nothing
shock you: how easy it is to cry in front of strangers
how effortlessly they ignore you. How heavy
an hour sits in your lap, how abundant timelessness feels
until exhaustion unravels you.
I am no longer shocked
by how easily I sleep, or how seamlessly I entered grief then
and let it close its braids of water over my head.
All I could think about was pain pooling steadily into the birth room,
and not waiting for it to reach my bed, I fell into it, I let it press
against me, making room for me. I held my breath
counting the minutes before the burn would reach my lungs, and
asked God to prove that he still loved me.
Before the nurses returned to wheel me out of the room I heard it:
I already have.
Suffering, I once believed, was a human privilege,
but in that moment I watched as God
died, as God witnessed. I felt tears and reached
towards my face
in search of them
in search of the desire to cry, to push, to watch Andrew
lift Jude to the camera and try to smile
to say I love you to the rows of faces
bowed beneath shafts of reading light
Andrew’s head tilted forward in sleep
the hollow of me where our son once slept
and the voice assuring my soul that it is well.
Shannon Nakai’s work is featured or forthcoming in Cincinnati Review, Tupelo Quarterly, Atlanta Review, Midwest Review, Cream City Review, Porkbelly Press, 35 Tips for Writing Powerful Prose Poems (CreateSpace), Gulf Stream, and elsewhere. She is senior reviews editor of Tupelo Quarterly.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.