Being alive, afterwards.

I wrote it in the year after Charlotte's birth, when I found writing in the third person to be the easiest way to tell my story. I called myself Clare, keeping the number of letters and the initial consonant the same, but otherwise foisting my story off on someone else. I think it speaks to survival. 
~ Carol McMurrich, Charlotte's Mother & Founder of Empty Arms


Clare’s memories of coming home were snapshots: scattered, disheveled images with no distinct chronology or organization. She had described these recollections to somebody once, comparing them to the memories one often has of early childhood, when pictures of faces, smells of grass and apple juice, or the taste of saltwater can tie a person to a frozen moment in time, a memory one can be certain is real even when there are no surroundings to it. Clare felt just this about coming home, although there were so few reminders to tie her there.

Clare had been told that there were probably a multitude of reasons why she could not remember the self that had emerged from the hospital on that warm May afternoon. First was the birth itself. Perhaps as an evolutionary advantage, there is often an amnesic quality to the aftermath of birth, or even the experience itself. Many mothers over time have experienced this; some who have had extremely difficult childbirths cite their hazy memories as the probably cause of their subsequent children whom they had sworn off having during their labors.

But in addition to the birth experience, Clare had been told, her mind was sheltering her from the intensity of the painfulness of her experience. Clare had become, in a heartbeat on that May day, the survivor of an unbearable accident: one that left her alive and her daughter dead. This accident was too unbearable to recall in its full clarity, lest her already gaping wounds begin to bleed again.

But as much as Clare’s mind fought to protect her from her own history, her heart longed to remember. Knowing what her life had been like in the aftermath of her daughter’s death somehow seemed like a tie to her little girl, another way to make Charlotte’s brief life more real to Clare. And so, on the long winter nights of that December and January, Clare fought her subconscious, fishing for the memories that might help her to piece together the remains of her broken heart.

There was the light. It was May, and the days were long, the sun rose early, and their house seemed perpetually filled with light. But the heavens poured with tears, for nearly three weeks after coming home it rained ceaselessly, and so the light in the house was not pure, it was a filtered, bluish light, cold and grey. Clare rarely looked out the window intentionally, but the light was there, casting the reflection of the steel-grey sky onto all the surfaces in her home. For may weeks it was the color of her world as the rain tumbled down.

The sounds in the house were still ones. Clare recalls almost nothing about the way she or Charlie sounded or interacted but she can hear the others. They are padding around in the kitchen, stealing out onto the sun porch over the creaky old floor, they were washing the dishes intentionally, trying not to knock cup against plate or spoon into glass. They whispered in hushed tones, Clare knew they were talking about her but she didn’t care. And every so often, there was music that Charlie put on . There were two CDs they could listen to. Clare liked the sad ones, the ones that gave her a new reason to cry. There was one about cutting down wisteria and another about lost dreams and they had listened to them again and again as the seconds of their new, unwanted life ticked on, and the rain poured down.

Clare could taste the sweet, sticky taste of that May’s strawberries, mixed with a hint of cinnamon and cold lemonade, The smell of lilacs drifted through her mind as she thought back to herself then, a self she could not bear to be.

And Clare could feel her body-- her ravaged, miraculous body, both lacking in the life that had once dwelled within her and swollen with the insatiable desire to sustain that life. Clare could close her eyes and pull herself back to the weakness she felt as she moved, the instability when she rose from her seat, the pain when she lowered herself down. But mostly she could feel the emptiness, the hollowness of her abdomen, the stunning lack of movement, the flatness of her once rounded body. And that body, refusing to believe, not knowing where Charlotte had gone, futilely working, converting Clare’s strawberries and cinnamon buns and lemonade into the rich, perfect milk that filled Clare beyond her capacity, spilling down her front, staining her shirts, and tearing apart her heart like nothing else could. She could still smell that milk.

And Clare remembered herself, standing in front of her bathroom mirror, eyes reaching from her swollen breasts, to the red marks her daughter had stretched across her belly, and up to her face. Clare can remember the shudder she would feel each time she looked in the mirror and it registered that she was the sad, sad woman looking back. It was not a stranger whose hollow eyes revealed unspeakable trauma, it was not someone else’s cheeks chapped by tears, it was not somebody else’s mouth that turned down slightly at the corners. Clare would think, sometimes, when she looked at herself, that she had never seen someone look so sad in her entire life, and that in itself would make her sadder and she would leave the bathroom and return to the sofa and smell strawberries and lilacs and hear the soft voices and feel empty inside and wonder how she would ever make it for the rest of her life.

And it’s in this context, sometimes, of taking herself back to the feeling of lead weight on her chest, to the physicality of a completely broken heart with no supports, that Clare realizes that right now she is making it. It is only when she remembers being paralyzed with pain, too hurt to speak or interact with anyone but Charlie or to walk or eat, that Clare knows that a new part of her has opened. She can never bring herself to say that things are better, because Charlotte is still gone and that won’t get better. But in fighting back the amnesia that separates her and May, she learns that a new part of her has grown, like a new branch on a tree, and that part is beginning to live again.