The muse leads me down unexpected paths tonight. The spark was a series of archival photographs taken of my grandmother and her siblings nearly a century ago. The one at left, in fact, is one hundred years old. That's my great Aunt Margie bundled up under all those furs and bows. Even at one year old, she took the world straight on despite such petty indignities. She was a formidable person reared by formidable women, and the genealogical record she so remarkably preserved and from which these images now come is in my keeping.
Shall this be a winter's tale, then? A whimsical look at Edwardian fashion and children being children in a timeless wonderland? I though I was going there with you.
But this is also a dark time, here at the turning of the year. A time of renewal and somber reflection, maybe, but for me and for others I love a time of grief and loss as well. Our eldest child, a little girl we named Cora, was stillborn during this season of light and hope, and nearly 8 years later the grief is still fresh when I allow myself to feel it. And now an old and recently reacquainted friend has lost her firstborn to stillbirth - a daughter they named Sophie - and I cannot turn away even if I wished it.
The loss of a child is a solitary grief. There is, to be sure, the outpouring of love and sympathy and even the most distantly connected are affected. Those who have suffered such losses themselves recognize that dark place of the heart and understand it is impossible to know its unique impacts on another. Only we can live our own lives, only we can take that final journey for ourselves. And only a person who has suffered the death of one's child can know what it will mean to bear that unique burden. We have to figure out how to do that ourselves, too.
When my great-aunt Margie was born, before anti-biotics and prenatal screening and a universe of medical advances, there were many more families who had lost children and many more failed pregnancies than is the case in much of the world today. There were many more mothers who died in childbirth. Take a walk through any older graveyard and what strikes you most are the many graves of young women, the heartbreakingly small stones of infants and young children. People did not expect every pregnancy to be successful, every child to outlive its parents. How they bore these losses I cannot imagine. Faith, resignation and social conditioning alone do not explain it.
So now here we are, you and I, in a place I hoped to avoid, a place I would spare anyone if I had the power to do so. I used to be much better at disassociation; you might even say I had a talent for it. I am thinking tonight about my friend, and her little girl, and my own children (the living and the dead).
Shall we linger here, in these unsettled lands, with the icy wind scattering all questions unanswered? Or shall we skate out over the dark water, the black ice after a hard freeze, the speed of our passage bringing tears to our eyes that even grief could not dislodge? I remember ice like that, its unmarred surface gleaming like polished stone above a flooded cranberry bog. My skates scored that obsidian plane in silver crescents, picking up speed, flying over the drowned plants that the ice would help preserve until the Springtime of their resurrection. For a few exhilarating minutes there was nothing else in the world but the sound of my blades, the bite of the air, and my approach to that distant shore.
Emily and Elias are learning to skate. I held each of their hands the other day as we teetered out among the other free skaters at the high school rink. I was bent and anchored to their faltering, twisting path. But their eyes were shining. I knew that there would be many falls before the end, but they knew they were skating and believed they would soon do so on their own. And so they lift me up.
Another winter, another snowfall. More children have joined the first, facing the new day and whatever it brings with the mantle of love and fists full of snowballs. Yours, perhaps, or mine. Let us leave them to their play, these timeless children with sparkling eyes. For now, it will suffice.