By Marilyn Guggenheim
I take great comfort from this passage in Edwidge Danticat’s memoir Brother, I’m Dying:
When my daughter was born, her face blood-tinted, her eyelids swollen with tiny light pink patches that Colleen the midwife called angel kisses, her body coiled around itself as if to echo the tightness of her tiny fists, I instantly saw it as one of many separations to come. She was leaving my body and going into the world, where she would spend the rest of her life moving away from me.
Groggy and exhausted, I asked Colleen, ‘Is it normal for me to think this?’
‘Maybe you’re one of those women who enjoys being pregnant,’ she said.
It wasn’t so much that I enjoyed being pregnant. I simply liked the fact that for a while my daughter and I had been inseparable.
These words remind me that I had a bond with Elise while carrying her–one that will always remain undefinable by our experiences in this world, but a bond nonetheless. We separated when she was born too, but of course in a much more painful way–that final separation, skipping the togetherness of being daughter and mother on this planet.
But that bond we had while I carried her inside me: we were as close as we could be, though we could not see each other and I could not hear her. She could hear my voice, and her papa’s and her brother’s, and she could hear my breath and heartbeat. But this whole experience took place on a subconscious level, invisible to us in our sense-driven existence. I take comfort in the connection we had while still mourning its lost potential.
When I think of this closeness with my children that I lost with Elise, that slips away from me with each day Felix grows up, that closeness I cherish and mourn at the same time when Felix cuddles and kisses and says “I love you” to me, the words of Cindy Sheehan keep coming to mind. Cindy Sheehan was the woman who held a vigil against the Iraq war outside President Bush’s Texas ranch in August 2005 after her firstborn son Casey was killed serving as a soldier. Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with her actions, I once read of her devotion to her son that “he touched every part of me.” She carried him inside her, gave birth to him, nursed him and bathed him and helped him grow up. That sensory intimacy with one’s child is like no other for me, and missing it with Elise is what aches the most.
But it does not hurt anymore. It will always ache, but the hurt with its rage and devastation has faded away, thankfully.
All of us long to be with someone we miss, whether they have passed away from us or live on another part of the planet. And all of us have some belief in the invisible, in some form or element. My relationship with Elise is invisible, subtle, not of this world. Much more awaits us after this chaotic, contradictory life on this glorious, crazy earth.
If anyone is familiar with separation and reunion, it is Edwidge Danticat, who learned of this kind of love from her father and his older brother: her two papas. She writes lovingly of her uncle, a pastor who raised her for eight years in Haiti after her parents immigrated to the United States.
‘Death is a journey we embark on from the moment we are born,’ [my uncle] would say. ‘An hourglass is turned and the sand starts to slip in a different direction as soon as we emerge from our mother’s womb. Thank God those around us are too blinded by joy then to realize it. Otherwise there would be weeping at births as well. But if we weep at a death, it’s because we do not understand death. If we saw death as another kind of birth, just as the Gospel exhorts us to, we wouldn’t weep, but rejoice, just as we do at the birth of a child.’
This is what I resolve to do: keep hold of life and death. Like laughing and crying at the same time.