Trigger warning: child death
It is the time of night when its silence is not disturbed by whispered words, but by exhaled breaths. You shift in discomfort when loud snores disturb your delicate sleep. You extricate yourself from your husband’s loveless embrace and head to the adjacent room. In its musty darkness, you find him in his cradle, staring at the glow-in-the-dark stars, as he always is. His open eyes glaze over everything in their sight. You take him in your arms and softly close them. You whisper forgotten lullabies in his ears, swinging him with the hesitant delight of a new mother. You hold him close to your heart, clutching his tiny body with determination. When you have convinced yourself that he has fallen asleep, you slowly shut the door and head back to your room, where your husband does not see you shedding tears like birds shed feathers.
A mother’s heart is never at rest without seeing her child asleep, even if her baby is dead.
When you wake up in the hospital, you see him lying in the bed next to you. He is lovelier than you imagined him to be, when you felt him stir in your womb. You ruffle the wisps of curly hair hanging on his forehead, your fingers playing with the tiny toes curled in a peaceful sleep.
When the nurse snatches him away from your arms, you notice his blue skin. You realize that in all the time that you have been hugging him, he has never exhaled a breath.
Tears slip out of the doctor’s eyes, too, but not because he sees you plunging into a darkness too profound and terrible to come back from. It is the first time he has delivered a stillborn, and he is afraid of it affecting his record. Words come tumbling out of his mouth as he teaches the interns. Suffocation. Fetal death. Intrapartum stillbirth. Uterine haemorrhage. Your child will be nothing but a medical tragedy, a case study for science in the future.
He cannot have died. How can death embrace someone who has never really lived? But even as tears threaten to spill into your heart, you pull your baby closer. If you hold him close enough to your racing, sobbing heart, you can almost pretend that the heartbeat is his.
You are not given any birth or death certificates- just a white sheet declaring stillbirth. Impressions of dead fingers and signatures confirming the news. The space for the name is left blank, but the doctor advises you to fill it, because you will need one for the tombstone. But you will not entrust a baby to the unfeeling nurture of the earth forever. Alive or dead, you will make him stay with you. He will always stay in your arms.
He has been kept in the chilling frost of the mortuary. You rush in and hold him in your arms, rubbing his back to warm up his body. They ask you whether you want to know how he died, for closure. But the only thing that you want to know is how you can keep him now, because you do not plan to let him go.
It is difficult to keep him hidden in the beginning. You come to his room only in the dead of night, when the shadows beside the rotating fan feel like the presence of spirits. You curse the screeching wooden door and step outside, always afraid that your husband will follow you. The smell of his flesh disintegrating feels like a breath of fresh air. Standing still, you wait till the milk he will never drink overflows and soaks your clothes. With a strange deliberation, you wipe his unfeeling frame with your wet dress, certain that he will not hunger for your milk now.
Every day, the stench grows, until your husband cannot bear it. He smells flesh deteriorating, decomposing and rotting; even the walls smell of a decaying corpse. He calls the maintenance staff to check the drainage system. The worker, a superstitious, middle-aged woman, steps into the house and looks into your unusually bright eyes. “It’s not the drainage,” she murmurs over her shoulder. She is pretending to fix the pipes, since your husband refuses to let her go unless all the ducts are fixed.
“The smell is of the dead,” she confesses hastily, afraid of offending any lurking spirits.
As if you did not know.
Three days later, his body begins to putrefy. His blood deadens and darkens. You embalm the body and keep it in a coffin. You do not close its lid, because you do not want him to suffocate again.
Five weeks later, the chaplain comes to visit you. He brings along a woman who has “gone through the same loss”. But you know now that grief cannot unite people in any way; your husband can attest to that.
You know, legally, that you have done nothing wrong. But when you think about the chaplain looking at your dead child, you feel the panic rising in your throat. Shaking your anxiety away, you begin to plan. All you need is low humidity and a suitable temperature…
When your husband opens the freezer that night to eat ice-cream, he gets an unpleasant surprise.
You do not want to attend his burial, but you cannot resist the opportunity to see him again. When they lower him into the coffin, you remind yourself that he cannot feel the jolt. When they start throwing mud into the pit, you bite the inside of your cheek and pinch your arm to stop yourself from screaming. Your husband flinches when the screams build up inside you and escape. His fingers tremble, but he does not say anything. You ask them to stop throwing the dirt for a minute.
“Can I-“ You steel yourself for this last goodbye. “Can I hold him in my arms one last time?”
Blue is not your favorite color anymore. It reminds you of a tiny nose struggling to breathe, lungs collapsing with the effort, skin tinged with blood that is not red. It reminds you of the color of the sky the day you buried him, beside the thousands of people who have left the people they love behind. It reminds you of his eyes, beautiful but lifeless.
After two months, your husband starts to worry. He tells you that it is unhealthy to stay grieving for such a long time. But he does not know that you go out to the park every evening. That you sometimes look at the pigeons poking at their chicks playfully and feeding them with their mouths, the injustice of being denied the simple joy threatening to break you. That you often walk for hours with his picture in your hands, afraid of forgetting the precise color of his eyes, or the softness of his delicate body in your arms. That you sometimes visit the park beside the cemetery, certain that you can feel him shifting uncomfortably in his grave. That you are afraid of the worms in the ground decomposing his lovely flesh into the wood of the coffin. That you sometimes sit up in the middle of the night screaming, afraid that your memories of him will gradually slip away like time. That whenever you see a mother walking her baby in her stroller, your throat clogs up with grief beyond words, because you can never do it with yours. That you stare at them wistfully for so long that the mother turns away coldly, shielding her baby from your gaze. That when you try to tell overprotective mothers that you are one too, the words die out as soon as they form in your mouth, erasing their essence and leaving the bitter taste of loss behind.
Can you call yourself a mother even if your child dies?
You do not tell your husband any of this, not because you think that he won’t listen, but because in your mind, he is right beside death in stealing your baby from you.
You often stare at the little children on the swing, wondering which swing your baby would have liked the most. You wonder if you could have recognized his laughter in a crowd of children. You stay on the bench sometimes, the shrieks of laughter and the squeals of joy ringing in your ears like a siren, long after the children have gone home chuckling, clutching their mothers’ hands like lifelines. After the silence has descended into the mist above the park, you sit on the swing, its hinges creaking alarmingly with your weight. You blink your tears away and pray to the whistling wind that your baby can hear you from his grave. Then, very slowly, almost as if you have forgotten how to do it, you sing his lullaby for him, so that he can fall asleep.
Even when he is gone, you can hear him. At night, while you find shapes in the shadows, you hear giggles in the crook of your arms. When you are walking on the road, you hear him slip on the sidewalk, a purple bruise which will be kissed away by time. When you immerse yourself in the tub because the tears burn and freeze on your face, you hear the water rippling, and small hands tapping on it playfully. When winter gives way to spring, you do not notice, but he does, his wonder giving way to innocent curiosity. When sadness pierces through the broken shards of your heart, you hear him speak softly to your broken spirit, and you feel his tiny fingers holding onto yours beyond death.
You hear a lot of sounds, but he does not make any of them.