Afterward, I walked in graveyards, clearing away trash and fallen branches. I pulled up weeds that obscured the names on old headstones, though most of the names I revealed meant nothing to me. I took special care with the graves of children. After a rain, I thumbed mud from the Lucite-covered photographs set in stones. I took the time to read a turn-of-the-century marker made of crudely hand-lettered cement. On it was an asymmetrical heart pieced together from small stones. I subtracted compulsively: death year minus birth year equals age.
I started, almost always, with the graves of my own relations: My mother’s mother, dead before I was born. Next to her name was that of my grandfather, who was still alive, though his name had been inscribed in the city of the dead for thirty-four years. My cousin, a suicide at twenty-one. His epitaph declared his heart too big to last in this world. I read his stone with ambivalent feelings: the disdain I’d always had for such sentiments; and the tolerance I now had for anything, anything at all, that eased the pain. I walked along the rows, taking care of people past caring.
Sometimes Tracy would come with me. I envied her: she seemed to know how to grieve — to let herself feel things; to take her time. She wrote letters to our stillborn daughter. She ordered photographs from the hospital and put them in a scrapbook. She talked about Abby. Most of these activities seemed strange to me, though I clumsily tried to follow suit for the sake of my mental health. All I wanted was to have my private scene at the cemetery, unwitnessed.
Abby’s was usually the last grave we visited, on the western edge of the cemetery, in a new section where shade trees were non-existent and buffalo grass grew sparsely. Around the temporary steel marker were clustered an assortment of artificial flowers, along with a miniature rosebush and a petunia, both recently planted and probably doomed to perish in the heat. I rinsed the fake flowers every day, but, despite my care, mud splashed them and became a coating of dust by the following day.
One afternoon, the petunia bore the marks of some small, nibbling animal. When I returned the next day, the entire plant had been devoured, and rabbit scat lay among the artificial flowers. As I cleaned up, I noticed a black string lying on the ground. I knelt closer, and the string resolved itself into a trail of ants. They emerged from a small hole in the ground, traveled a few inches, and vanished into another hole.
The ants reminded me of a long dream I’d had the night before, which had ended with bullies throwing black ants on my daughter. She’d looked about four. I couldn’t protect her: I was a bad father. The dream had stayed with me for hours, souring the morning.
Now I knew what it meant. Ants eat dead things.
The day Abby was born, a nurse at the hospital handed me a booklet addressing questions frequently asked by the parents of a stillborn child: What’s the cost of a funeral for a newborn? Can you take a tax deduction? What should you name a dead child? Is it OK to build the coffin yourself?
It was my introduction to a realm of knowledge I had never known existed. The answers ran like this:
You can build the coffin if you want. It might make you feel better.
Name the child what you meant to name her. Don’t save the name for some hypothetical future child.
You can claim the baby as a dependent on your taxes if she drew a breath.
General practice in the funeral industry is to charge low for a baby.
In my little town, we have two mortuaries to choose from, and I chose the one that had buried my grandmother. The man at the funeral home appeared well muscled and athletic, rather out of character in his gray suit. For $250, he sold me a baby-sized styrofoam coffin not unlike a picnic cooler, and that was all I paid for the whole burial. When he asked me if anyone would be viewing the body, I said no. He asked me if I was sure, and I told him I was. I thought it a strange thing to ask. Who would want to look at a stillborn child? That last look is for someone you’ve seen before, and no one had seen Abby except Tracy and me and some medical strangers.
Yet when Tracy’s grandmother asked if she could see the body, I felt overwhelmed with gratitude. At last, someone besides Tracy and me was saying, however indirectly, that Abby was a real person. Others had given us words of comfort that cut to the bone: When this happens, it means something was really wrong with the baby, so it’s for the best. You’ll have others. At least it happened before you got to know her. All of them seemed to imply that Abby was not worthy of our grief.
I called the athletic funeral director to ask if it was too late to look at Abby. It was.
“I’ll tell you what,” he said. “The casket’s glued shut, but I can try to pry it open.” I declined his offer; it seemed a violation. Later, when I saw the ants at the grave, I remembered the sealed styrofoam: maybe the ants weren’t getting in. But something was happening to her, by whatever physical agent. Decomposition was inexorable.
When Tracy got pregnant, we were both attending graduate school in Arkansas, a long drive from our hometown in the Oklahoma Panhandle. She conceived in October. Not long after that, she bled, and we feared we’d lose the baby. Tracy had to stay in bed awhile, but then everything smoothed out. In December I landed some work back home in Oklahoma. The higher pay meant Tracy would be able to stay home with the baby. We moved back to Oklahoma in January.
Near the end of April, with the pregnancy thirty weeks along, Tracy noticed that she hadn’t felt the baby kick for a day or two. This worried me, but I dismissed my fears, as I had many times over the past seven months.
Tracy couldn’t dismiss hers, though. She remembered having felt the baby kick the previous Saturday — several fast kicks. She put her sister Corey’s hand on the place where the kicks had come, to let her feel, but there was no movement. (Later, Tracy would wonder whether those rapid movements had been a response to fear or pain. She would be haunted by the thought that those kicks had marked the moment of death.)
Tracy was asleep when I left for work on Tuesday morning. When she woke, she reminded herself that babies sometimes don’t move for long periods late in a pregnancy. Corey told her that our nephew Cody had lain still in the womb for two days just before he was born. But Tracy’s stomach felt different, softer, and though she tried to explain it away, deep down she knew something was terribly wrong.
Corey and Cody accompanied her to the doctor’s office, where a brief exam failed to find a heartbeat. The nurse, an old family friend, didn’t voice the obvious conclusion, but sent Tracy to the hospital for tests.
While she waited there with Corey and Cody, Tracy held her fourteen-month-old nephew and sang “Me and Bobby McGee,” a song she’d sung to him many times before. She’d always meant for her own baby to hear it, too. Somewhere, she’d read that babies are soothed by songs they first heard in the womb.
After an hour’s wait, Tracy submitted to an array of machines: fetal monitor, X-ray, sonogram. The hospital technicians said nothing about the baby. Each did his job, patted her on the arm, and left the room without a word.
When I got home from work, I was surprised to find the house empty. I had a snack and turned on the TV. Then I noticed the blinking light on the answering machine, and somehow I knew everything. The telephone rang. It was Corey telling me to come to the hospital.
When I arrived, Tracy was getting a sonogram. The room was dim, the monitor casting a green glow. The technician moved the probe soundlessly across Tracy’s belly, making furrows in the green lubricant. The look on Tracy’s face when she saw me was almost an apology: Surely, this is nothing, and it’s a shame you had to worry about it — I hope. The green shapes on the monitor shifted with the motion of the technician’s hand, forming pictures like the radar on TV weather forecasts — storms developing, different amounts of rainfall painted in varying thicknesses of a single shade. I couldn’t see any image in the shifting green. The technician said nothing.
We were sent to a waiting room, where Tracy’s family had gathered. It was a long wait. We saw the doctor walk past the door of the waiting room, and a minute later he came back.
“It doesn’t look good,” he said. He barely paused after the sentence, but for both Tracy and me that brief silence was filled with frantic interpretation. The doctor continued: “We’ve lost the baby.”
“Here we see a double outline of the skull, another indication of fetal loss,” said the obstetrician we’d driven forty miles to see. He traced the double outline with the blunt end of a pen on the sonogram screen.
“Is it a girl?” Tracy asked.
“I don’t see any indication of a boy,” the obstetrician replied.
It was Wednesday, the day after we’d found out. Everything had been confirmed. He outlined the options: Wait for the baby to come to term, which could be two more months. (A hard two months to endure, he said.) Take the baby out by Caesarean. (Hard on the mother’s body; and you’re robbed of everything about your baby, even the birth itself.) Or induce labor. We chose the last. There was a rustling of papers as a nurse came in and out, setting up an appointment for us at the hospital.
The obstetrician inserted some sticks made of seaweed into Tracy’s cervix. They would absorb moisture overnight, he explained, expanding and dilating the cervix. Then, early in the morning, Tracy would be given a drug to start contractions.
At the hospital the next day, a nurse took the stillbirth booklet from me, turned to a certain page, and pointed. “This is a list of what some people like to keep,” she said. “If you two will circle what you want, I’ll see that you get it. Also, if you’ll look at this other list and tell me what you want to do with the baby. . . . I’ll check back with you later.”
The baby was not yet born. Tracy lay in a hospital bed, clutching a sort of joystick with a button that coaxed morphine through an IV drip. A machine with red digits rationed out the drug, keeping her from getting too much.
The suggested keepsakes included a lock of hair, inked footprints and handprints, a birth certificate, the plastic hospital bracelet, the receiving blanket, various bits of paperwork. And photographs.
I didn’t want photographs. The very thought repulsed me: a picture of a dead baby. You wouldn’t want it, I reasoned — at least, it seemed like reasoning — because someone else might come across it and, without preparation or intention, see a dead baby. Where would you keep such a thing?
“In a photo album,” Tracy said. She lay on her side, her sweaty hair clinging to her neck, and occasionally whimpered with pain — something I’d never heard her do before. Lying there with her fist wrapped around the morphine button, her eyes almost squeezed shut against the pain, she knew exactly what she would want later. I stood there feeling embarrassed at the thought of photographs of the dead, but my embarrassment, I would later decide, was really shame: the shame of a failed father.
I massaged Tracy’s back, because in childbirth class they’d said it was supposed to lessen the pain — and because I had nothing else to do.
Eight hours after the IV drip had caused her contractions to begin, Tracy said she had to urinate. When the nurse found out how long it had been, she threatened to run a catheter. Then Tracy said, “Oh!” and pushed away the nurse, who was trying to help her stand. “I think my water broke.”
Minutes later, the obstetrician was back, along with other nurses, and the pushing started. After the hours of helpless inertia, Tracy was sitting up, straining her muscles, her eyes wide and bright. She screamed.
“Don’t scream, honey,” the head nurse said.
(“I thought she had to be kidding,” Tracy told me later. “It seemed like a stupid thing to say. I thought I should get to scream if I wanted to.”)
Tracy screamed again, her whole body going into that primal sound, closer to anger than to pain.
“Don’t scream, honey,” the head nurse quietly insisted. “Use that strength to push.”
“Really?” Tracy said, as if someone had just dropped an interesting fact into casual conversation. She didn’t scream again.
I stood holding Tracy’s hand and crying as I never had before. The day had seemed long and tense and irritating, but now all that irritation had unmasked itself as grief. I was trying to help, but nothing I’d learned in childbirth class or read in books seemed to have any relevance here. The head nurse told Tracy what to do, speaking in a compassionate whisper that could barely be heard over the sound of my blubbering. I was supposed to let Tracy squeeze my hand when she needed to. With my other hand, I continually wiped my wet eyes so I could see what was going on.
Beneath the foot of the bed, a pool of blood shimmered in the fluorescent light. Most of it had fallen when her water broke, but more continued to drip steadily from the bed. I marveled at the sloppiness of it: You’d think they’d have found a way to keep it from getting in the works of the bed. The obstetrician sat on a swivel stool, crouched like a watchmaker at his workbench. He stuck his finger in to stretch the opening, and the baby’s head appeared, dark curls plastered to bright red skin, pushing through a wave of slimy fluid.
“It’s crowning,” the doctor said.
What a useless son of a bitch you are, I thought.
“Jesus, that hurts,” Tracy said, without any particular intensity. The baby came out surprisingly fast, falling audibly onto the padded shelf the doctor had pulled out of the bed. Her entire body was bright red, as if she were blushing deeply, and covered with the waxy white substance called vernix. Otherwise, she looked like any other baby. The fleshy cord trailed out with her. It was tied in a red knot.
“That might explain something,” the doctor remarked mildly.
“There’s a knot in the cord,” I sobbed.
“Oh,” Tracy said.
“Could that have killed her?” I asked.
“Yes,” the doctor said, “it could have.” He poked at the knot with a surgical instrument. “Though it’s not very tight, really.”
Shut up, you useless son of a bitch, I thought. This is an explanation; don’t ruin it.
Tracy’s mother was with us for the delivery, but she didn’t want to see Abby. She kept her eyes on Tracy’s face throughout the labor and never saw the body. When a nurse mentioned holding Abby, Tracy’s mother left the room.
The booklet the nurse had given me suggested things to do: hold the body; bathe it; rock it; take pictures; dress it; talk to it; invite the family in to see it. Touching was supposed to make the healing easier, because you need to have a tactile sense of somebody to remember her. All of these suggestions struck me as disturbing at first mention, but the booklet said I’d be sorry if I never held Abby, and that sounded plausible.
A nurse took Abby out to clean her up a bit. She returned shortly, carrying Abby in a white receiving blanket with a few stripes on it. She made a ridiculously small bundle. The nurse handed her to Tracy.
“She’s beautiful,” Tracy said, pulling the blanket away to see her face better. We took inventory. All was perfect, except for one foot that was curled into an odd position. (The nurse said that would have straightened out in a little while.) Tracy claimed her ears looked like mine.
I was still crying and not saying much. “Can we open the eyes?” I finally choked out. I wanted to know the color of her eyes, unaware that a newborn’s eyes might not settle on a color for several months.
“No, it’s better if we don’t,” said the head nurse with the strangely hushed voice.
When Tracy was done, I sat and rocked Abby for a while. An errant smudge of blood stained my shirt cuff. It wasn’t really Abby’s blood, but placental blood; still, I thought of it as hers. I’d been meaning to return the shirt because of its shoddy workmanship, but now I realized I never would. A corner of her right eye had worked itself open, and the crescent of color I saw was dark.
That night, I lay beside Tracy’s bed in a reclining chair, wrapped in a sheet and a thin blanket. I lay there sweaty and cold, my neck cramping, and slept little. What kept waking me was the sound of babies in the nursery nearby. The cries would come, thin as wet slivers of rosewood, and I would wake. They sounded less than real, like cries on TV. I liked hearing them.
A rank of white irises lined the windowsill, tracing cloud shapes against the dark of the real clouds outside. The moon was bright. I fell in and out of dreams. In one dream, the doctor suddenly realized there were two children in Tracy’s womb, and he took her into surgery to remove the unborn twin by Caesarean. It was a boy, monstrously large, and instead of his sister’s fatal softness he had a hard skull and great, predatory teeth. He cried, helpless as a normal human child, but his eyes were wild, ape’s eyes, with nothing human in them except the need to be fed, and I knew that Tracy and I would face an unrelenting lifetime of hunger and screams.
I awoke not scared, but lonely. I lay there listening to Tracy’s breathing and the cries of distant children.
It was forty miles from the hospital to home. Tracy sat quietly in the passenger seat. After the long labor, with its violent induced contractions, they’d taken her into surgery to scrape out the recalcitrant placenta. She was in considerable pain.
A snowstorm had blown up that morning. Gusts of snow danced on the highway like white dresses on a wash line. On the car stereo, Billie Holiday sang “Summertime.” In the song, a mother was singing to her baby. She said the living was easy. She said that one day, the baby would rise up singing and spread his wings and take to the sky, but until then he was safe with his father and mother.
When we got home I removed two days’worth of mail from the box, all of it damp along the edge where snow had blown in. There were bills and business letters and correspondence from friends, as if nothing had happened.
I didn’t sit and brood about Abby all the time, but I did think of her many times a day. Sometimes I thought of her with unalloyed pleasure. Tracy and I both found the memory of her birth profoundly beautiful, despite everything. But the grief returned frequently. It would start as an irritable feeling, hardly noticeable to me (though others, no doubt, found me harder to get along with than usual). Over the course of a week or so, my irritability would blossom into a restless insomnia and an unfocused anger. Eventually, I’d find myself up long past midnight, pawing through the months-old sympathy cards and the toys people had sent in anticipation, the photos and the birth certificate and the footprints and handprints.
I was happy if I could draw tears. Tears would return me to sanity for a few days or a few weeks. But then everything would start over again, the grief cycling in unpredictable intervals. Sometimes it came as a sudden catch in my voice, or as a craving for hard-driving rock-and-roll, or as a suspicion that I had somehow killed my child. Sometimes it came as a diffuse hunger with seemingly no object, though I had an almost subliminal feeling that I could satisfy it with a meal or a drink or a sudden insight.
Sometimes it was a daydream. In one of them, I found myself holding Abby in some realm outside of time, telling her everything would be all right.
My mother admitted she was mad at God. She would go to the grave and sing lullabies and check on the flowers. If the flowers had faded, she’d ask Tracy’s permission before taking them up. Before leaving the cemetery, she always traced the name on the iron marker with her finger.
One day when Tracy and my mother went to the cemetery together, they found the deep gouge of a tire track across the grave. The tire had bent the iron marker. Tracy had a habit of putting a pretty rock on the grave every time she visited. Now the rocks lay scattered, and one of them, a rough cluster of quartz crystals, had broken. Its pieces were strewn on the road like rock salt.
The tire track led them to another grave nearby, freshly dug, heaped with wet clods of earth the color of unripe peaches: workers had run over Abby’s grave on the way to dig this new one.
“It felt like they had hurt her,” Tracy told me later.
The two women gathered the trash of ruined flowers and salvaged what they could, then raked the grave level. They even wrestled the marker back into shape.
When they told me what had happened, I went to see for myself. Then I returned home and started making phone calls. A man in charge of the cemetery agreed to meet me there.
“This is my daughter’s grave,” I said. When he saw the tire tracks, he apologized repeatedly. Then he shook my hand with an unchallenging grip and said he would personally see that everything was put right. He gave me his personal phone number and assured me he would instantly resolve any future problem for me — though, he hastened to add, he would see to it that no other problem ever arose.
I said all right and drove home, angry that the man had given me no chance to start a fight. When I got home I took a handsaw up a tree and went at a branch, my strokes frantic and ineffectual, the saw constantly jumping out of its groove and starting new cuts. I was soon tired out and sweaty. The bark was scored in a dozen places, but the heartwood remained unscathed. I climbed down and sat on the porch drinking iced tea. Tracy joined me.
“Caring for a grave is a lousy substitute,” she said.
Someone told me my dead grandmother would watch over Abby in heaven, and I took comfort in the idea, even though heaven struck me as an implausible notion. I pictured my grandmother in the dress she was buried in, which she’d never worn in life. I pictured Abby on her lap. But I couldn’t see Abby’s face, because I had already forgotten it.
So I got out the photographs the hospital had sent us, the disturbing Polaroids with the blood red lips and the better ones with her face the way I remembered it — or would have remembered it, if everything weren’t slipping away from me. You don’t remember her face, I told myself. Now you remember only photos of her face. You held her for only half an hour; you’ve held the photos longer than that. I found I had developed an idea of her personality, based on nothing but the face in the photos. She was a serious little girl, I thought, given to wrinkling her brow irritably at the silliness of others; the sort of person who listens closely when you speak and then asks blunt questions.
One morning in April, I lay in bed hoping the phone wouldn’t ring. I needed work, but I hoped nobody would call to give me any that day. It was two days before my birthday, and a little more than a week until Abby’s birthday: one year old.
The day was misty and cold. I warmed some vegetable soup and sat down on the couch in front of the TV. When the picture came on, I saw an aerial shot of a building from which a section seemed to have been bitten. I soon gathered that the building was in the capital city of my own state, that some people were dead and others lay bleeding on the street. The dead were numerous, and many of them were children.
In the ensuing weeks of news coverage, one of those children came to stand for all of them. She was one year old. An often-reproduced image showed her, newly dead, in the arms of a fireman. A single idea came to dominate the captions that accompanied her image: the heroism of the rescuers.
That’s not what it means, I thought. That’s not it at all.
In the eastern part of the cemetery, where most of the graves lay, there were a few stands of pine. One day, in a pause between rains, I watched a flock of birds wheel above gray puddles. Reflected in the puddles were multiple images of the sky: the jagged line of pines; the stacked clouds, solid as cut limestone; the dark birds arcing. They made a tight turn — how did they synchronize? — and were suddenly absorbed by the still trees. It took my eyes a moment to pick out the individual birds perched silently among the boughs.
As our car crept along the narrow lane toward the cemetery exit, Tracy and I discussed the birds. They seemed always to be there. I thought they were crows. I had once seen crows picking through the rubble of a car wreck, the auto’s windshield broken into blood-smeared pebbles of glass that gleamed under the birds’ dark, delicate feet. I’d seen them at the carcasses of mule deer and coyotes on the highway. How appropriate that they should roost in a cemetery, I thought.
Tracy thought they were grackles. “They’re smaller than crows,” she said. “And look how their heads are midnight blue instead of black.”
I will never forget her, I found myself thinking. I will never forget, I will never forget. But I would, wouldn’t I? When I died.
That thought had been hurting me like a fresh bruise all day. When Tracy and I are dead, no one will remember that a girl named Abby ever was. I thought of my youth slipping away, of the fact that I, too, would one day be buried in a cemetery — maybe this one — among the ants and the crows in the pines. It was the old but always fresh insight: that the death of the child is also the death of the parent; that nothing taken by the ants can ever come back.
“These birds never seem to make any noise,” I said aloud. “If they’d say something, you could tell whether they were crows.”
Just then, one of the birds rose from the ground, flapping at an indolent pace. It seemed as if it would crash, but instead it cruised a few feet above the road, crossing in front of our windshield. Grasped in its blue-black feet, complete, as yet unmutilated, almost surreal in the crisp perfection of its details, was a baby cottontail rabbit. The bird brought its meal to the ground in front of a red granite headstone.
“Drive on,” Tracy said. “Fast.” She was pregnant again, and easily made sick.
The spring warmed up, and every night the TV newscasters numbered the dead from the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City. Friends and relatives who’d been in the city on business recounted their stories, except for one man who’d helped dig out the children. He kept silent.
One night, the news was interrupted every few minutes with tornado warnings. I didn’t much care. We get a lot of tornado warnings in Oklahoma, and who has time to run for shelter with everyone? Outside, the air was muggy and gray and smelled as if it might break into lightning. I had a backache — not the kind that really hurts, just the kind that tells you there’s rough weather on the way. I walked in the yard, watching a scatter of ants scramble in advance of the rain. What were they in such a hurry to do? Probably they meant to seal themselves in against the storm. Then why were they all outside the den?
I had recently read about the Torajan people of Indonesia, who inter dead children in cavities hewn in trees. The tree slowly closes its wound around the child, and keeps growing in the child’s stead.
I watched the clouds and the ground by turns. As the storm stacked up, the ants vanished, as if absorbed into the earth.