Retroactive Empathy: A Haunting

By Susanna Childress

Last January, in the middle of a polar vortex, you gave birth to a baby. The snowstorm stacked itself four feet high and iced everyone in and did not quit, not truly, till April. This child would have been your third son, Jericho, a boy you cradled against you just once, already gone. That nurse with her bangs poofed up and her camera insisted you and Josh take photos with him, your faces splotchy and distended, your hands held together under his two-potatoes’ worth of weight. Were you supposed to smile? How do you take this kind of picture? Do you hold the dead baby near your face, or at your breast, or above your head as a sacrifice to the ways you never knew you could break, could crack right open? That whole white night cuffed to a storm, when a needle slid between the knuckles of your spine, when the doctor on duty named Cheshire palmed your cheek and said, “My sister lost twins. I was in Honduras.”

You, too, have encountered loss before. When you were sixteen, your friend Mirrika veered on a back road curve, overcorrected, crashed into an oncoming van. You were dateless, straight-A Jesus-girls. In your sleeping bags you talked so much about sex you’d wake in the morning mid-moan. Don’t die a virgin. Then she did, her whole body gone bust on an S-curve in Scottsburg, and the very next day your dad made you go back to cheerleading camp. His buddies had been killed around him every day in Vietnam and he’d picked himself up. He’d gone on. You vomited in the bathroom, the stall swinging its bright blue metal door. You tripped through the routine to a Prince song, the one about doing it with a minor, the one you’d practiced flicking your hips round and round to, pom-poms hissing. You refused to fly in the basket toss. End of the day, Coach let you sit in the corner and cry.

Almost twenty years later that’s all you remember about Mirrika’s death. Where’s her funeral? Where are the worn faces of her mother, or two brothers or sister, or her step-sister, cruelly injured in the wreck, or her step-dad, or anyone else from youth group? Where are the weeks afterward? You wrote a rotten poem or two in college—dying-a-virgin poems. You kept a picture of her in your room until you moved for grad school. You went on.

More recently, a four-year-old boy down the street was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a word that makes you see blast, the shriek and boom of a missile. A painful, lethal cancer. For two years you cooked meals and cried over the updates his dad wrote and prayed and pledged money to fundraisers and wore your Kids Can’t Fight Cancer Alone t-shirt—thousands of tiny names across your torso. Once you wheeled over a pan of sweet potato burritos in your son’s big red stroller because it was too hot to carry. And it’ll sound like hyperbole, the way sick kids get deified, but you don’t care because Zane really was a woodland creature alighted in boy-form: doe-eyed, gentle; after chemo, his curly black hair coming in gray and fuzzy as a cygnet’s. His dark skin paled, he faded, and still he said astounding things to his parents. Can you give Santa a message? Don’t bring me anything this year. Save the toys for someone else. I have so many. I have so much. All over town, people lined the streets with balloons and posters, made oversized Legos for the lawn as he left in a limo, waving, for Make-a-Wish. 

On Facebook, Mirrika’s mother friended you, asked for those poems, for any photos you had of her. It took you months to respond, your apology simmering like a weak broth: you hadn’t kept the poems, you told her, and you’re a new mom again, so you’re not sure when you can get to the photo albums buried—clearly you were not thinking about word choice—in the basement. You hadn’t opened those albums, hadn’t given them a thought, their covers freckled with green and black mold. Hadn’t unpacked them since the last move, Oklahoma to Michigan, or the one before that, Florida to Oklahoma. You’d outgrown that self two or three selves ago. 

Online, Mirrika’s mother commented on every single picture you posted, cooing at the cheongsam’s high collar on your wedding gown, your graduate degrees, your firstborn, and when she asked about your life, a vague kind of vertigo eased into your belly. Creeped out, you responded without vim. I miss Mirrika a lot. You lied. Things are going well. 

The day Zane died, one of your own sons smeared his room with feces during nap—third time in a month. You growled and gagged and wept and wept. You washed down the walls and wood bed frame and tossed out beshatted trains and the big stuffed elephant and even the pillows you’d sewn out of a tablecloth from your honeymoon in Vancouver. When you got the email, the one you knew would come, sometime soon, anytime now, you sat with your hands like craters in your lap. You wanted to cry. You waited for tears, but you’d used them all up on your own shit storm.

Words are supposed to do a little work, too. Or not-words. Or working-it-out-words, pressed-together-lyrically-for-a-later-date words. With Zane as with Mirrika, it’s not that you were immature and self-absorbed and intellectually distancing—though you were. You couldn’t have known, even if you’d wanted to, even if you tried to move from one Latinate root to another, hauling your tuckus from sympathy’s ‘with’ feeling to empathy’s ‘in’ feeling. It’s that you cannot know. Not until you’re in the midwife’s office, after the ultrasound, which you knew was fucked up because you’ve been through three of these—one of them to tell you Jericho would be a Jericho—and you understand what to look for immediately, right away, every time. Your ears hear the words, There’s no heartbeat. 

Then years for the rest of what she says to land. I’m so sorry. 

Another decade. He’s dead. 

And then you’re stuck in fast-forward, the squealing black line of tape, ejecting and retracting. Everyone speaks on a helium high. Everyone moves their bodies in the little jerks and flutters you should’ve been seeing on the sonogram’s grainy screen. We’ll head over to the birthing center and induce you and have you deliver him and is there anyone you need to call and also who will be able to take care of your other—your living—children and do you want an epidural and what have you named him and we’ll need to know what you want to do with the body and will you have a service? And then it’s you, there in the same wing you delivered your other—your living—children, your body surging and you bearing down, so familiar, so surreal, the nurse with her zealous Michigan accent purples the crook of your arm to get an IV in your impassable veins, Josh trying not to cry, Dr. Cheshire’s hands on your belly when she says, Let me be your sister tonight, and you can’t say anything so you nod and the baby edges down the canal and the baby enters the world and even after the nurse cleans him and puts him under the warming lamp and kisses him and hands him to you, he is cold and filmy and you look into his face and you think, This will end me. 

You couldn’t know, couldn’t imagine—someone could spell it out for you and you still wouldn’t know how to believe it: this moment is the thinnest puckering of grief. 

You’ll wear it at the back of your neck, a great mass of hair. Like ripe marrow through the thickest to the tips of your bones, in the coil of your intestines, like a colony of bacteria. It will cling to you, and you will cling to it, and it will become part of you, and nothing and everything will be the same and no one—no one—can do a thing in the world about it but sit with you. Let you be beyond hope. (You won’t find these words until April, when the monstrous snows cease.) Be silent or bawl beside you instead of saying the one hundred horrible things people say. At the memorial, a year later, five years after that: offer to clean your kitchen or shovel your driveway or watch your kids instead of, Let me know if there’s anything I can do, because you couldn’t come up with Mop the bathroom’s blue tiles if your life depended on it. Your life is depending on some strange things these days. You didn’t know, but it always has.

You want each person you encounter to sear like a blue flame, to be capable of the extravagant empathy you need, their esophagi turned inside out, their mountain ranges trembling, their own lives upended forever, but at the same time you don’t want anyone else, not anyone ever again, to know grief like you do. To see them stranded in this dark, twining pit. Many are. More will be. You can almost spot each other, sniff it out under whatever veneer is required to pick yourself up and go on. Your own dad, the twitching ache of his fingers. Hip, pocked with a bullet. 

Oh, you’ll say, not a word now but a hollowing out. My God, pressing your fingers against the sill of your face, I’m so sorry. And you’ll mean it.

Published 2/22/14 via Awst Press

Read more of Susanna's work here.

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