Image: Author’s eldest child, Beatrice, three weeks before she died at 35 weeks in utero
James Dean died in his Porche Spyder 500, after a collision at the intersection of what is now State Route 46 and State Route 41 about a mile northwest of Cholame in southern California. In September 2005, on the 50th anniversary of his death, the intersection was christened the James Dean Memorial Junction. Anna Nicole Smith overdosed on sedatives at the Seminole Hard Rock Casino in Room 607. This room is a tourist destination for those obsessed with the Play Boy model. Phil and I, on a drive back East, passed through Ferguson, MO. We stopped. I wanted to see where Michael Brown had died — the four hours he was on the street and the exact start of the protests. Five days after Appomattox, John Wilkes Booth shot and killed Abraham Lincoln in the president’s private box at Ford’s Theater. A tour of this theater costs $3 and lasts 30-45 minutes, but the private box is now closed to visitors for preservation reasons. People care about where other people die. The location of the last breath or heart beat or brain wave matters.
For those who care about Anna Nicole, there is debate about whether she finally expired in the ambulance or the room or the hospital or a gurney. When going about my day, I wonder where people are dying right now. I see a park bench and think who found a body there and when. I cut behind a dumpster in an alley on my way to my favorite coffee shop and I see what I think are feet under cardboard. They are not, but last year on my way home from work, I was detoured from my usual route by a host of flashing lights. I later learned someone had died in a house on that street because one of my students saw paramedics removing a body bag. After this death, the house was sold to developers who tore it down and built a boxy, typical Denver, modern thing. This makes me sad.
Children do not breathe in utero. When aliveness begins for those inside their mothers is contentious. Babies have gills for a time and are surrounded by fluid, but in their final trimester, they attempt breaths. If for whatever reasons you are a high-risk pregnancy, doctors will examine these breath attempts on fetal stress tests via ultrasound. You can see the child’s mouth open and the lungs attempt a thing the doctor’s say is breathing. The baby must attempt a certain number of these breaths in a given amount of time. If the breaths are not attempted, the doctors will pursue further study, including 24-hour monitoring and hospitalization. Both of my girls were high-risk pregnancies. There was much surveillance.
I’ve had this premonition since I was a child that I would find a stranger dead or dying in a public bathroom. I haven’t yet, but now the librarians at the Denver Public Library carry Narcan, because they kept finding people near the edge and wanted to be able to bring them back. The first creature I watched die was this tiny puppy who’d been sat on by his mom. We called him Town Cryer, TC for short, because he whimpered all the time. I held him in the back seat of my mom’s Suburban while he had seizures all the way to town. We chose to put him down. One of my aunt’s is a vet.
At some point in the 34th week of my pregnancy with my eldest daughter, she died. I woke up that morning anxious anxious anxious. That night Phil had had a dream that night that something was being taken from him. He’d even woken up screaming. I told him to go to work, that everything was fine, but my nervousness only thickened as the day went on. When he got home, I was on the futon on the side porch curled up crying. Oyster didn’t know what do. Between sobbing gasps, I told him I thought we should go to the hospital, but that I still didn’t think anything was wrong.
My grandmother gave birth to five children in the 1940s. Four of these children are still living, but John—no milk stayed in him. The doctors sent my grandmother home with a handheld breast pump. They kept him. They told her to use it and bring in what she could. She pumped until her hands hurt. My grandfather drove her milk to the hospital. John never made it out and she never saw him again. At the autopsy, they discovered he had no small intestine. I hope John and my girl Bea are together.
September 11, 2016 we found out. The doctors told us there was no hurry and that we could go home and think about it. Thinkabout what. I wanted to be induced immediately. I was holding death. Phil said he needed out of the hospital because the midwife with the news was wearing a color purple that had rubbed him wrong since a bad acid trip as a teenager. I told the lady at the front desk we would be back. I remember making sure to smile. We must have ridden the elevator down. We must have said things, but I don’t remember. I needed to pee and as we were jay-walking Colfax I lifted my skirt and peed in the median under a pine tree. Phil started laughing, and I re-started crying. I left my underwear there. We were stocking up on snacks at the gas station before going into labor and our baby was dead.
My mother believes celebrating a pregnancy will hurt the baby. When pregnant with me, the only preparation she allowed was the purchase of a large container of Vaseline. I am 32 years old. They still have it. It is starting to separate and return to its constituent parts. I had a baby shower for Beatrice. My mom refused to come. One of my aunts threw it in Niwot. She used plastic glasses she’d saved from her wedding 40 years previous for the punch. They had cracks. She made us wash each of them and replace them in their original boxes. She kept saying for the next party, for the next party.
Someone taped a postcard of a white leaf floating on a purple pond to our door. This is how the hospital let’s people entering know that something bad has happened inside. My friend Tara-Shea had a stillborn daughter at another hospital in Denver. The post card on her door was a snow scape with small red bird. I wonder how these images are chosen, what committee meetings for appropriate image to connote the biggest grief of your life must look like. Red bird, purple pond, white leaf, snow scape. Their goal is kind. The hospital does not want you to have to correct each person’s labor-and-delivery-celebratory-default as they enter your room, but they are so inadequate for the chasm just opened in your soul.
My cousin Marta lives in our grandparents’ house. Brick in an old neighborhood and layered in paint and bubbly with soft edges. A wide median and slow cars. Before I was born, my parents lived across the street with the hospital my dad first worked at catty corner. My grandmother used to feed me an apple using a spoon. She would scoop out the white in curlicues. The texture was shaved ice but not cold. I eat an apple like this when I am sad. I wanted this apple when I was in labor with my eldest, but they would not let me eat.
In the hospital, there was a window about 20 feet down the hall. We would walk there and look out. There was a vegetable garden in raised beds four stories down. Phil knew the woman who tended these beds. We saw her pruning the tomatoes. Her vegetables were used in the hospital cafeteria. The nurses kept bringing me hot blankets. They were in a silver cupboard in the hallway. There were a few hours when I couldn’t stop shaking.
The morning after, a woman with a tea and cakes cart. She was teenagery. She told us about her teas. I got a cookie-sized chocolate cake. Inducing labor takes a while. They kept putting pills on my cervix. The next day they would put a balloon in me, force dilation, then pop my water.
After we lost Bea, I wanted to climb into the earth — not really to be buried alive, but rather to confront the very stuff. The Earth has seen more loss than any single person. She gets it. We went on long hikes in the Medicine Bows near Laramie just to put one foot in front of the other and then drove the extra bit to Yellowstone to see the earth bubbling, its breath spurting on schedule. We were on this trail nearing tree line. Oyster was nosing for marmots and Phil wanted to go further to get to the top. I sat down beside the trail and let them keep going, but soon I was hyperventilating. I couldn’t see him or the dog anymore and I didn’t want to be left behind by anyone else I loved. Gasping I ran up the trail, yelling their names. He came back and I was so grateful and then furious with my daughter for going somewhere I could not.
Pregnancy is a house and my daughter died in this house. I am her room 607, her James Dean Memorial Junction, Michael Brown’s bit of pavement, and Abe Lincoln’s box at the theater. Initially this made me sick. I was disgusted with my body for being a place of death. I felt haunted and wanted out. I told Phil this. We were huddled on the brown couch in our old house hugging each other against the world. Oyster had her head on my thigh. As I cried, he was quiet for a while. Then he surprised me. In a small voice, he said that he was jealous. He said I knew her, that I had been her entire world.
Pregnancy is the possibility of life and the possibility of death. As the mother of two girls, one in this world and one beyond, I think about those Victorian mothers in Dickens novels who kept having children just to keep some of them alive, but didn’t name them until well into childhood because it would be easier if they died. I’ve always loved cemeteries. My grandmother used to take us as kids. She would bring tracing paper and crayons and we’d make rubbings and have a picnic with the dogs. My daughter had an autopsy and a cremation, but she isn’t buried somewhere. She’s in a nice wooden box with a cursive B on it on a bookshelf next to the ashes of our old dog Ginger. There’s this great cemetery in the tiny town where Phil and I met. I found a gravestone there with a typo that the engraver had bothered to correct with a small carrot to the corrected spelling.
My here-daughter is a year and a half. She is small for her age, but large in spirit with dirty blonde hair and Pacific blue eyes. When people see me with her, one of the first questions is whether she is my only. I never know how to answer. Sometimes I say yes, but sometimes this feels like a betrayal to Bea. Other times I say no. For some people that is enough, but others will want to know how old my other child is. Sometimes I make something up or I say the age she would be if she were here. Other times, I tell people that we lost a child. That shuts them up. They get uncomfortable, shuffle their feet. Some leave the room. Part of me takes great pleasure in their discomfort and says eat that, this is my reality.
In a dream about six months after Bea’s death and birth, I was thinking about zippers and imagining Bea as half a zipper and being able to zip her up with me, so we’d make a nice alternating pattern of teeth and she wouldn’t be gone and then I could be warm against the sharp wind of grief I was living in.
Sarah Boyer is a mother, poet, and teacher who lives in Denver Colorado with her farmer partner Phil, their dog Oyster and toddler Leveret. She has one book of poems called howard which deals with sickness, diagnosis, and the difficulty of bodies out from sunnyoutside press in 2016. Check out this link to read more about this book.