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Essay

I.

EVERY FACE IN THE NEONATAL intensive care unit looked apologetic and scared, like old, lonely men do on their deathbeds. A nurse told my wife Georgie how lonely she had been ever since her husband died. An intern cried alone in the far corner of the room and sent her condolences later via email. One of the doctors, haggard from the punishing night, just shook her head.

We had reached the unspooled end, where our little thread of hope ran out, and everyone was tumbling toward us like remorseful drunks, sad and fatigued and sorry. Georgie muttered her last prayer and crumpled into my arms. Our first son just lay there under the warm white lights of his hospital bed, mutely accepting the unimaginable thing that was happening to him.

He was born at home, and our midwife was relaxed and confident. Every relevant vital sign pointed to health, from first trimester to twenty minutes before birth. The contractions came in great, heaving pulses, and it was clear that this traumatic thing happening in her body was about to blow us in a completely new direction, like the concussive wind of an explosion. We were about to be made parents.

But when birth finally came, everything in my body went still. He fell out of the womb like a sleeping child falling out of bed and lay there in a heap. When our midwife turned to me I could see it shining in her eyes like the first flicker of a forest on fire. Something was wrong.

It was the first time I had ever dialed 911. She got his heart beating nine minutes later, and he breathed three minutes after that. Right after that, the ambulance came. Then came the long drive to the hospital. Then the hallway waiting room, the NICU, the night spent in a room for recovering mothers, surrounded by the tiny, wilted cries of the successfully born. It all added up to thirty hours or so.

Somewhere in that thirty-hour flash we gave him his name, the name that helped convince us that we had a future together. It was almost two years before, and we were a month into dating. We were driving to her place for dinner in the early evening.

What do you want to name your first child? I asked.

It’s kind of weird, actually, she said. The wind was coming in through the window and blowing her hair around her face. She wore big sunglasses with leopard-print frames and her big, thick curls were getting caught in them.

I like weird names. Like Georgie.

I hate my name.

You shouldn’t.

I like the name Ezra, she said, and threw a quick, insecure glance, trying to gauge my approval. Her freckles were fading slightly from her cheeks now that the summer was over, and so she had the skin-tone of a child who was only just outgrowing them.

Really?

Yeah. I think Ezra sounds really pretty.

That’s exactly the name I had picked out.

No way. For a girl?

Nuh-uh. It’s a boy’s name.

You sure?

Positive. He was a priest. They didn’t let girls be priests. Bet you our first is a boy.

Our first! Look at you, Mr. Confidence. Her insecure glance became a twisted smirk. I laughed, waiting out the moment.

It was summer, and the world was green and hot and alive, like a garden of unripe trees. Back then I believed in a predestinarian God, who ordered and arranged every moment like a complex series of dominoes, every second falling behind the other, every event, every child.

Just saying, I said, recovering. Bet you our first—if we have one—is a boy.

Hmm. That does sound nice. Our first son. Ezra. She swept the hair from her face and her eyes looked younger somehow, as if she was looking into the future as it stretched along the road we were driving together. First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the baby in the baby carriage. She followed the whole snaking length of our lives as the events fell one by one.

Later, when a nurse asked me for the name, the green world had turned to white plaster and gray machines. I handed the name over to her like it was a hundred-dollar bill and hoped it would settle things. But forces like those don’t accept bribes, no matter how large, how urgent. They just work work work, like the predestinarian God, eyes ahead as the whole heavy mass of history tumbles forward.

After everything was over, the nurses unplugged his body from the machines and handed him to us. They led us to a family room in the back of the unit, where there were clothes and diapers to change him into. Soft, peach-colored light shone through an old lampshade on a nightstand next to us, and we sat quietly together on an old flower-print sofa. Georgie and I sat there aging—in the fast, wasting way that grief makes you age—under the dim orange light, our tears falling on Ezra’s belly. Her eyes had become rough and dark, like two ancient, moss-covered trees. I dabbed some of my tears with my thumb and made the sign of the cross on his forehead.

We sat there silent for a while in the quiet mock-living room, feeling exposed and strange, like a family in a museum exhibit.

It doesn’t feel real, she said into my shoulder. Our first son. I could feel her eyes close hard as she pressed up against me.

I reached into myself for words but found only one. Ezra, I muttered into her hair, in utter amazement.

II.

In the autumn leading up to Ezra’s birth, we were poor. I had quit a badly paying job for a worse-paying job as a janitor at Liberty University so that I could finish my master of arts tuition-free. After that we decided to buy a trailer, on a whim, and moved in just a month before Georgie gave birth. Then one of our cars started coughing black smoke and the other one screeched to a dead halt in rush-hour traffic. The washer and dryer still had to be purchased, picked up, installed.

I left at 5:45 to clean toilets until the afternoon and then wrote papers until the early evening. Georgie buzzed about the town gathering nesting fodder, praying the cars would hold up long enough to welcome our child into the world. We were surrounded by the stoic demands of adulthood, by bills due and pending. Saturdays, we huddled around the computer staring at our balance statements and sighing.

How are we going to do this? she asked one Saturday.

We should pray, I replied, having run out of answers.

And after that?

Well, I don’t know. What can we do? Wait, I guess. God knows we need this stuff.

I took a hard swallow of my beer, which was fortifying my faith. I was reading the columns we had made on a sheet of paper in my college-ruled notebook. One short column was labeled “Income.” Another, longer column read “Bills.” I bit the corner of my thumb.

I’m sorry, she started again. It’s just that sometimes I want to know exactly how this will work out.

Well, me too, but who but God can know that, right? I’m doing all I can. Don’t you see me doing all I can?

I didn’t mean to upset you.

I’m sorry.

I know.

There was an uncertainty hanging there between us, as we were swallowed slowly between the cushions of our second-hand couch, an uncertainty about whether we actually had the means to have a family.

We won’t always be poor, she said, and forced a smile.

She set her head on my shoulder and pulled me toward her. I could feel the little tapping on the surface of her belly of a tiny heel. She made a sudden, surprised noise and smiled again, this time for real, the kind of smile that emerges at the surface of a very long dream.

No, we won’t, I agreed, that familiar feeling of a benevolent destiny settling all around us, like a scattering of wind-blown leaves.

She sighed like a leaky tire and flattened herself against me. Baby, are we going to be good parents?

I hope so, I told her and laid my cheek against her head, all the while sinking slowly on the springs of ideals that were gradually wearing down.

III.

Our trailer was full of empty spaces when we returned after the funeral. Ezra’s furniture had been taken and stored away by a friend, and Georgie went to work moving other furniture into the empty spots right away, hoping to speed her recovery. But memories of him spread through her body like the desire to eat or drink. Gas in her belly felt like him kicking. Pain throbbed in her breasts from the food that he wasn’t there to eat. She drank tea to dry up the milk and looked through the window at the springtime, trying to think of living things. But it was no use. You look away with your eyes, but your whole body keeps remembering.

Like the way I could feel him in my fingers when I touched the clothes he died in. Like the way his pictures felt like mirrors when I kissed them. Like the way other toddlers took on his shape to taunt me, stuck out their tongues at me and ran. Grief is nomadic; it wanders your body looking for places to work. It crawls into your head and rattles around like a rock in empty Tupperware. Your hands seem far away when you reach for things. It makes everything you touch feel like a door to an abandoned home.

For a while afterward I couldn’t sleep, and I also had a tiny cough, so I got some codeine-laced cough syrup and drank it straight from the bottle. I turned in bed for hours. My head became an old projector, images flickering on and off. Deep into the evening-morning divide I looked over and saw him, standing at the foot of the bed with his eyes closed, as if he had just woken from a very bad dream. I lurched up in bed and he vanished into the dark, empty space all around me. Then Georgie woke up, still stuck in her nesting habit, and went to sit for an hour on the couch. I called in sick to work, laid my head in her lap and finally fell asleep.

We staggered out for ice cream one night and little children seemed to be everywhere. We ran into a mother of three from our church, who shifted uncomfortably when she saw us and said, He’s with Jesus, her eyes wide and terrified. Two of her children were getting dipped cones, sweat droplets and big tank tops hanging off them, and she held the other one tight to her hip as if to save his life. They were adorable kids, and we could see why she was afraid. We rubbed our eyes and thanked her.

But we got tired of it, because it was always like that. Like people were trying to resurrect him, and we had to keep trying over and over to bury him. In the ground, in our brains, in the streets around town, wherever we went. We had to keep burying him everywhere.

IV.

A lot of friends came over in the weeks after, bringing things. They hesitated at the door sometimes, or left the car running. But they were there—they needed to be. It was as if a fire had gone out from us and surrounded the town, and they ran right to us, into the center of the fire with tiny buckets, bewildered and worried and trying to help.

People of course brought greasy and fried comfort foods—we were in Virginia, after all. But they also brought, sent, or otherwise just pummeled us with money. They paid off our hospital bills, bought us a car, sent us on vacation. It was as if they were dumping money on us to douse the flames, because the fire spreading out to them was ruining their neighborhood, their city, their world. It was eating every innocent, pleasant notion about the world in its path. It had already eaten most of their Bible studies. It was eating the admonitions right out of their mothers’ mouths.

Brooke and Jessie came over, Jessie carrying a three-ringed binder stuffed with envelopes. Her hair was short and tied in the back, her blue eyes severe and red and angry. She trembled as she spoke. I’ve cold-called people, I’ve emailed, I’ve set up a Facebook group you may have heard about. Jack started a fundraiser—he’ll be collecting at church tomorrow. If you need counseling, that’s covered. Do you need counseling? I don’t know how much that costs. But whatever. Whatever it is, it’s covered.

Her fingers rattled like empty shell casings. I found this funny somehow. My body felt like a paper birdhouse filled with hummingbirds. It was something like the giddy lunacy of a recently concussed brain; something was badly calibrated in my synapses. I laughed and laughed. Georgie was mute with awe, like a toddler watching a musical. Her mouth was open slightly, and she made occasional involuntary noises.

Brooke sat nervous and quiet on the couch, her eyes darting around the room like chased prey. She had been there when it happened, in that very trailer, had listened with me in the driveway for the ambulance, had stood there in silence and waited. She was the type whose body always craved movement—dancing, climbing, running, anything. She worked as a nurse in the ER, for the rush and for the travel money. Just a week before, she had seen a child who had been accidentally run over by her parents. Then Ezra happened, and now she looked still and spooked, as if trying to avoid the detection of the world’s grim forces. While Jessie explained the ways and means and purposes of every cent she had squeezed out of people’s hearts, her binder contents splayed everywhere, Brooke made herself smaller and smaller, until she was taking up a meager part of the room, the corner of a chair, a little spot of carpet. She had that look like every place was suddenly unfamiliar to her, because that place was her own body, and a body must always come to rest eventually, in some strange, hard place, in a driveway, in a hospital.

I knew that feeling. Georgie knew it, too. Since Ezra left, her belly was like Christ’s empty tomb and she was Mary Magdalene. Sometimes she just stared into it and wept.

What have you done with him?

When Jessie finished, Georgie and I looked at each other and cracked little jack-o-lantern smiles. Georgie laughed and covered her mouth and shook a little. Our heads were buzzing with little sparks.

I can’t believe what I’m hearing, Georgie said.

I don’t want you to pay for a damn thing, Jessie said and slammed the binder shut. We took her hand. Without a sound, Brooke gave us her hand, too.

V.

We took a weekend trip to Staunton, a hip little town where people actually managed to make a living blowing glass and weaving tapestries. The trip came out of a different binder full of money, from people we knew even less well than Jessie’s people. They put us up in a bed and breakfast that won an award and then paid for all our meals at the most expensive restaurants in town.

Again, we shook our heads.

See? Georgie said, tears shining in her dark eyes. We won’t always be poor. God is providing for us. Her voice was full of dreams.

Staunton in the evening is all old brick and brown light seeping through painted windows and spilling out into the streets. Muffled music and warm, charbroiled air drifted down the cobblestone street that cut downtown in half. There were trees everywhere, overhanging the brick of historic buildings and scraping across old church spires. Bells rang out each hour from them, to the tune of old Protestant hymns.

We ate dinner that first night at a place where upper-middle-class couples in boat shoes went to get drunk slow and listen to bluegrass bands sing about romantic poverty. The music was in a special room, and people at the bar looked up from their drinks as we were escorted there. We ordered three courses, marveling and joking with each other about the prices, and we drank to our strange luck as the band played.

People sipped martinis and tapped their khaki-creased knees and smiled in restrained ways and no one left their seat, weighed down by the unspoken conventions of their class. There were candles on the tables and the waitresses wore all black and had tattoos on their hands. The walls were smooth and dark, except for a brick backdrop behind the band, who wore jeans and plaid and had long hair and stared at their instruments in a dumb, dreamy sort of way.

We ate and drank through dinner and dessert and didn’t talk at all about Ezra for the first night in weeks. We didn’t talk about money either, or work, or the future. We didn’t talk about children or the dishes or our student loan debt. For one night our world became nothing but beer and steak and music and the miraculous company of the one you had fallen in love with.

It was cool and damp that evening, and on the way to our room I could feel my beer-soaked blood rushing through my body in a way it hadn’t since Georgie and I stopped falling in love and started falling headfirst into adulthood. She laughed and skipped like a child, but her heart hung in her body like an old, battered catcher’s mitt. The mourning process was still at work in our bodies, nomadic and busy, but it had made us somehow more usable, softer to one another. Georgie was looking in with her newly weathered eyes at all the painted things in the windows of the shops and grabbing my arm and saying Let’s buy it all, this whole town and even its pretty street lights and even its stars. Then she would laugh, remembering that we only felt rich, and that past midnight our carriage would turn into a pumpkin again, and that we would soon return to that old cliché of moving on with our lives.

Our room overlooked downtown and we threw the windows open right away. There were flowers on the table, with a card from another friend expressing love. The bed was covered in soft, new linens, and we threw pillows everywhere and then tackled one another. I let her win for a while, feeling in the flexed muscles of her belly the returning strength of a recovering mother. Then I flipped her over onto her back, held her by her wrists and just looked into her eyes, right into the sullen history trapped there, into her first breakup and her first car accident and her parents’ divorce, and Ezra, above all, wailing his little plea of mercy to the world—all of it, the whole tender, wounded mass, until we both started to cry.

And for a few seconds it was just me and her and there was no suffering in the world, even no world at all. I kissed her deeply, quickly, like a drunkard drinking or a glutton eating. I kissed her like I did when we were dating, before I became naïve enough to believe I would never lose her, and that I would never feel lonely again, and that I could therefore relax a little. I kissed her with a deep, sad ecstasy, as if I knew finally that she, too, would die one day.

VI.

Georgie asks me sometimes what it will be like when we meet Ezra again. I tell her what I believe our tradition teaches. I say that at the Resurrection Jesus will piece him together, body and soul, so that both are healed. I say I hope he has her smile. I say that he may look like an adult for all I know, but that I don’t know much. She asks where he is now, like I know. I say his body is in the ground and his soul is way up in the sky, but those things are only pieces of him, like our memories. I tell her where he is, that he is still waiting, like all of us, to be made whole again.

She doesn’t know what to say to this, and I am glad, because I don’t really know either, though I think and think about it.

Where is he?

He is in this memory I have, set in our tiny bedroom. Georgie’s naked on the bed with him, and his eyes are big with the surprise of just being born. There are strangers in the room but no one feels awkward. Our midwife is there, along with an assistant, and they are dabbing some homeopathic remedy for trauma over everybody’s foreheads. If you just walked in, you would think they are blessing all of us, drawing little crosses on our foreheads with a bottle of something called “Recovery.” Even the paramedics, young, ambitious volunteers, receive this blessing, and they laugh and shove their hands in their pockets.

Georgie is tangled up in dirty sheets that the spring is pouring sun onto through the window. She is with her child and is just looking into his eyes, which have opened briefly, and she is seeing all the way to the bottom of him, down his whole brief history, the war he fought within himself to be with her. He is making that thin squeal that was his one statement to the world. She is listening quietly, not wanting to interrupt.

Brooke is there and we pass Ezra over to her and she has to adjust him to support his tiny head. She shifts around like a stack of papers, trying to get a good look. For a moment she is completely present in her eyes, looking at him, meeting him. He will not meet many people in his life, but he is meeting her, right there in that room. She looks serene and at peace with the world, her body rocking like a tree in a steady breeze.

Even as we pass him around the room the breath is leaving him. There is almost no time left in him, nothing in his dark eyes but a world with no moon and no sun, where the stars are falling right out of the sky. And she is holding him—that restless girl with no steady place under her feet is holding him and wishing he wouldn’t die like the others, wishing maybe deep down that no one would die at all. At that moment we are all there, at the front of our eyes, peering down at him like a herd of goats around a newly born kid. Then she passes Ezra back to his mother, and she stands back to watch her friends slowly become parents.

And there is so much love in that room. There is so much love in that room that you believe all of a sudden that that same love could burst open the grave of every child, or everyone who once was a child, or everyone in the whole world, and that they would all sound exactly like Ezra did when he let out his tiny squeal.

Then we get dressed and walk toward the ambulance, the trees around us recovering from a long and foolish winter. Then Ezra feels the heat from the sun for the first and last time. Then we smile and say hello to him, though we are really saying goodbye. And the heavy metal doors of the ambulance are shutting, and we are driving slowly down a long road to the hospital on what is, overall, a very beautiful day. We sit in that lumbering, iron ambulance, and we wait, still wait, for the time when he will, finally, be healed.


The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

  • mothering spirit

    This is the most breathtaking and beautiful thing I have read in ages. So many words want to tumble out – of yes, and us too, and the death and the glory all at once – but for now all I can get out is thank you.

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