Wednesday, September 12, 2012


I was walking home the other day and I noticed an 18-wheeler parked outside of a neighbor's house. It looked like he was taking delivery of some sort of classic car. And, you know how it is when you see something a little bit out of the ordinary, I did a polite amount of rubbernecking and moved it a good, neighborly neighbor ought to.

Well, 6 houses down, there was nothing like polite neighborliness. At the red-brick faux English cottage on the corner, another of my neighbors stood on his front porch just bold as brass, staring at the proceedings...through BINOCULARS!

He was in this tattered pair of shorts and a v-neck undershirt. Clearly the plan was to stay indoors and swank about in comfy clothes on his day off but, a truck! A delivery! Honey, where are the daggone binoculars?And then, BAM, out to the front stoop.

I have binoculars for occasions like this too but I employ them judiciously. Darken the room. Bend the curtain ever so slightly. Stay a good foot back from the window. Musn't let the neighbors spy on me while I'm spying on them.

Upon seeing my neighbor just letting all of his curiosity hang out in the open, I experienced a bit of a thrill. Maybe panic but mostly delight. A laugh bubbled up and I was suddenly full of love for my fellow beings. Remember when Roberto Benigni won the Oscar and gave that crazy speech about making love to the whole human race? It was sort of like that—only in clear, American English with less lust. What is better than just throwing off the shackles of politeness and doing/saying the first nutty thing that pops into your head? Abso-fucking-lutely nothing.

A few days later we had an orientation session at the elementary school around the corner. The whole thing was geared toward new families which meant a whole lot of amped-up kindergarteners and first-graders being forced to sit and listen while adults prattled on about safety and communication before they could see the classrooms. The squirming! The sighing! The full-body displays of honesty!

Watching my tiny neighbors emote so freely I remembered that I felt like this every day when I worked with kids. When they first start out, they are so awesomely themselves. A whole set of people who want nothing more than to grab those binoculars and stare at the neighbors. Hell, forget the damn binoculars. They'd just walk all the way over and start asking questions...even the shy ones have plenty of questions.

And we train it out of them. Or maybe we let them grind it out of each other.

We want to know about each other but we don't know how to ask.

Because it's not polite to ask, we end up making all sorts of impolite assumptions.

At best this keeps everyone at a low simmer at all times. At worst it splatters all over the place into vitriolic political campaigns and ridiculous budget cuts to important social programs.

Of course there's a babyloss angle to all of this but it's not all about R for me. It's more about understanding what's true...what's really true rather than something that someone suggested once that morphed into truth because no one ever talks about it out in the open. Urban myths. Stereotypes. Hurtful silences. Whatever you want to call them.

C told a couple of the parents from the soccer team about R. I'd decided that I wasn't going to mention R preemptively because it didn't seem like the thing to do while we were all practicing our beckenbauers. But I should have known that C would see all of the other kids with their siblings and that she'd want them to know that she has a sister too.

I felt so exposed when she brought it up—my whole narrative right there in the open. The mother who can't provide a live sibling and overcompensates with too many toys and ass-kissing and soccer coaching. A person to be pitied for her bad luck and the cascade of bad choices that followed. My decision to talk about R so openly suddenly seemed misguided. How could I tell my daughter about something that makes full-grown adults squirm?

It's probably worth noting here that C's close friends and all of the kids in our family talk about R as is she's just another person they know. As you already know, it's completely possible to get comfortable with your dead baby/relative/friend/acquaintance.

I had this long follow-up email composed that hit all of the main points I'm covering with this post. I deleted it and sent something with the basic details and a thank you for listening to C talk about her sister (even though a stunned silence isn't really listening and I had to do some damage control on the ride home). And I felt even more exposed. Now I tell my living daughter about my dead daughter and I'm too chickenshit to tell the soccer parents that I'm proud of the way that C talks about R.

But it doesn't really matter. I was a pigheaded jerk about these things before the family death parade revved up a few years back. I would have run away from a conversation about babyloss so fast that I would have left my shoes spinning in a cloud of dust like a cartoon turtle and his abandoned shell.

There are no words that can make a person without a dead baby understand what it's like to have a dead baby.

R's little life and terrible death makes everyone else seem so much more precious. It takes so much effort to keep my nose to the grindstone of the mundane, to pepper people with nitpicky questions about work and the receipt at the grocery store when I just want to congratulate them on not dying. Even the people who mostly piss me off. But they don't seem to notice what an achievement each breath is.


There are no words that can make a person without X understand what it's like to have X.

That sentence can probably be adapted to just about any situation that's ripe for misunderstanding—and it might be the source of most of the hurt we inflict on each other. Bigotry of all kinds emerges from this place.

There may not be words but we should still try. Unwillingness to ask and answer questions about uncomfortable things cheapens our lives and diminishes our regard for each other. Not to go all political on you but, how will we ever get to a place where we respect each other if we spend more time laughing at a crazy old man yelling at a chair than talking about the serious implications of limiting access to quality healthcare or the full cost of ensuring quality healthcare? How can so many people treat a national election with real consequences as if we're selecting the homecoming queen? Because it's easier than asking a question? Because it's easier than hearing an honest answer?

Is it that we worry about looking foolish or seeming ignorant? Is that preferable to being ignorant? Or is it that we truly don't care about each other?

It seems like the only question we all seem to be able to ask is something along the lines of, “why don't you just...move on...forget about what I did?”

That last one. That's my old fallback position. It would be so much easier to get along if everyone was like me.

Because the world needs so much more of...this. (that's sarcasm, folks)

Looking out from the shores of babyloss land it just seems like the gaps that exist between us are so important. It's not about finding those magic words that will make us all understand each other and love each other a little bit better. It's about seeing the gaps and focusing on love and tolerance anyway.

I'm interested in radical honesty—which isn't really in short supply among the babyloss but it's still something that I struggle with here and in IRL. I need some inspiration to get going. Have you seen anything equivalent to a neighbor standing on the front porch with binoculars lately? Do you have something you've been wanting to say but don't know how to say it?


  1. I LOVE this post. From the chasm we feel being bereaved parents to trying to bridge it by staring at and exploring why it exists.

    This is exactly how it feels
    "There are no words that can make a person without X understand what it's like to have X."
    But doesn't everybody have their own X?
    Even if my X is losing my baby girl and it feels like the most terrible thing EVER.

    Thank you for making the point that this crazy f@#$-up grief can be just as unifying as it is isolating.

  2. I simply cannot put into words how awesome this post is, T. I want to shout it from the mountaintops, share it on all available social media (but I wouldn't, without your ok, of course). But damn, woman. You are speaking amazing truths in stunning ways.

    I can't think of any neighbors with binoculars stories (but I DO have a pair of my own for such occasions...)

    As for radical honesty - I am not grieving my father's death. There. I said it.

    Dear anon - I wish I could remember, daily, that everybody has their own X. I feel like that was a revelation I had in the rawer days of my daughter's dying, and I do feel it empowered with compassion that I hadn't had before then (shoes spinning in a cloud of dust like a cartoon turtle and his abandoned shell - yes, that.)

    And somehow I've let that realization fade. Every person has an X.

    Um, T. You rock.

  3. We live in an apartment downtown in a big city and we have seen some incredible things going on in the apartments of our neighbours. We long ago put away the binoculars!

    The thing I want to say but don't know how to say is this: I want to be able to tell people that when they don't ask how I'm doing, really doing, and they avoid all talk of A, I am holding it against them. I want to tell them that I still hurt, still miss my baby every day, and that that does not make me morbid, or creepy or a crazy dead baby lady, but for the people that can't handle dead babies, all they hear is morbid, creepy, crazy, so there is no getting around it.

    This is a very interesting post. Radical honesty. My daughter talks about her dead sister so matter-of-factly. This picture is for the person in our family who died, Baby Sister, she says, organizing photographs. But then, she won't talk about it outside our family, and I wonder how she knows: how does she know that outsiders aren't comfortable, would prefer we keep it secret, quiet. She is only 3: how does she know?

  4. Hmmm I have so much to say but can't quite formulate it into a neat comment?

    But I also love the way that children are so openly curious. I had a few kids come up to be and ask about Jessica's oxygen and their parents would try and kind of shoo them away. But I didn't mind. They were only saying what a lot of people wanted to know. Why was it there? Was she going to die? Did it hurt?

    And I often, often, often want to ask. But I don't know how? I find it especially difficult when I see people crying in public and they are on their own. Because I always want to ask but I'm worried that I'm just intruding and I wish I was still that kid that would just have waltzed up and asked why they were crying. But she was ground down long ago.

    And it's interesting. That C has talked about R before you felt . . . comfortable? When perhaps you didn't necessarily 'want' her to? Because J can't do that yet. Her speech is too incomprehensible so I can understand when she says something about Georgina but the world at large, the world that doesn't even know she has a sister or her sister's name, would have no clue. I don't think you're chickenshit and I think I might know how proud you are? Just a little? Because I'd be proud too.

    I think the world does need more of . . . this. I know I'd be happier.

    And everybody has their own X. But, somehow, that doesn't often seem to make my own particular X any easier to bear? Like M says, I know it but it fades in and out of my field of vision. Perhaps if it were right up there, right up front, it would be unbearable and I'd just collapse. All those Xs.

    The neighbours across the green have a TV projector in their bedroom that takes up the whole wall. If they leave their curtains open, I can watch their TV pretty comfortably. Will report back more when I've located some binoculars.

  5. I love this. I actually find it really helpful to do a lot of internal reminding myself of other people's X. As in, 'Everyone has their shit.' And like Catherine, it makes my x/shit no easier to bear. But it just is, right?

    I hope Kindergarten has been off to a gentle start. I wonder what my E talks about with his friends in terms of Calla--I can only imagine.

    I am totally a nosy neighbor. In the spirit of keeping the neighborhood safe, of course. Right.

  6. Thanks so much for this. I worry about what I am doing to Dot's honesty under the guise of good parenting. Even things like "use your indoor voice, sweetheart" and "try to stay in your seat while we're eating dinner" seem to hint that what she feels is, if not wrong, then inconvenient.

    I feel like a lot of my own honesty was squished out of me by a carefully nurtured emphasis on the importance of being nice and well-behaved and helpful. Which is maddening because real help, I think, needs some real honesty behind it.