Janine Canty’s work has appeared at The Manifest-Station and The Weeklings. She lives in Northern Maine where she is a self proclaimed word geek on a mission to break down barriers, one essay at a time.
The day I delivered my stillborn son began with a shower. I allowed a nurse with a French manicure to bundle me into a wheelchair like an ill child and push me into a sterile bathroom. Like this was a thousand other ordinary mornings. Like Christopher had oatmeal in his hair. Like Michael and Heather were threatening to kill one another over the last 4 fruit loops. Like my husband was screaming for clean socks. Like I didn’t have a valium hangover. Like my insides didn’t feel like decaying meat. Like my arms and legs didn’t feel like strangers, and I hadn’t forgotten what to do with them. The nurse wore a blue scrub top. Her breasts were the size and shape of apples.
I’m not a boob gal, but I refused to look at her face, her eyes. I didn’t want to see pity. I didn’t want a reflection of my grief. Grief’s fire thundered through my core. In the place where my son’s heart stopped its beat. She knelt down and took my dead hands in her own. I recoiled from her touch like a frightened fox. She held on to me tighter. She had a smoker’s husky voice, its tone gently firm. “Your body needs comfort.”
Comfort. A foreign concept when your body has turned on you. When it has become a vehicle of death. I wanted my skin to crack with sweat and neglect. I wanted my hair to be weighed down with 200 pounds of grease and filth. I wanted my physical self to match my spiritual self. I hated my body. The thing I held responsible for killing my child.
“In the next few months you’re going to forget yourself.” Her words were talons trying to pluck my heart from hell’s furnace. “The grief will grow if you water it with self-hatred. Don’t let it. This was an accident. You did nothing to cause this. It just happened.” Her voice cracked on the last word. Shocking me. Bringing my eyes up to hers. brilliant green-blue. Tan skin. A pink watch. Hair the color of leaves in the fall. She wasn’t looking at me with pity. I didn’t see my grief in her eyes. I saw understanding. Damp skin framed in compassion. My throat was sore and raw from hours of screaming. My fists were clenched. My fingernails had dug into the tender skin of my palms, leaving behind an angry red calling card. Like an SOS in the sand.
My voice sounded like a rusty hinge. “You…too? ”
“Lost a baby girl six years ago.”
The body remembers everything. The weight of a newborn on your chest. The taste of pancakes on the first day of school. Curling your toes around warm puddles of water. Like this was a thousand other ordinary mornings. I traced the shape of my son’s still body with ivory soap. I imagined the things I wouldn’t see until hours later. Timothy’s tiny curled fists. Feet like a dancer’s. Long and graceful, with a high arch. My pointy chin. His father’s hair and mouth. My hands memorized the feel of him. My fingers caressed the stretch marks this pregnancy and the others had left across my pelvis. The tattoo of my children on the drum of my belly. I leaned on the wall and let the water run silvery fingers down my scalp. The nape of my neck. The tired, sore, skin of my breasts. Which would fill with milk in three days. Offering comfort and nourishment, no eager mouth to give it to. I felt the slow slide of soap down my arms. My thighs. Taking dead skin cells and sadness away with it. I wondered briefly if this was where pipe rot comes from–not an excess of food and waste but the unsung grief of a thousand mothers. She handed me a towel around the green plastic of the shower curtain. I buried my face in rough terry cloth. Smelling bargain tide and alcohol.
She asked: “How do you feel?”
I answered: “Clean.”
Your body needs comfort. Five years later her words come back to me as Colt Justin slipped into the world on them. He had my pointy chin. He waved tiny fists with the rage of a prizefighter. His lusty wails were a brand new song: I named it hope.
Photo credit: “Kingdom” by Katharina Schffr is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.