Skip to main content

Perhaps it goes without saying that I believe in the geographic cure. Of course you can't out-travel sadness. You will find it has smuggled itself along in your suitcase. It coats the camera lens, it flavours the local cuisine. In that different sunlight, it stands out, awkward, yours, honking in the brash vowels of your native tongue in otherwise quiet restaurants. You may even feel proud of its stubbornness as it follows you up the bell towers and monuments, as it pants in your ear while you take in the view. I travel not to get away from my troubles but to see how they look in front of famous buildings or on deserted beaches. I take them for walks. Sometimes I get them drunk. Back at home we generally understand each other better.

So at the end of February, when I was seven months pregnant, we took the train from Albany to New Orleans, where I'd been invited to give a reading. …

At a reception that week, I was chatting with the exceptionally lovely, soft-spoken woman who'd donated the money for the program that had brought me there. We sat in folding chairs against a wall, a few feet from the buffet table. Just small talk. She asked me how my pregnancy was going. Then she said, "I was so sorry when I heard about your first child. My first child was stillborn, too."

My heart kicked on like a furnace. Suddenly tears were pouring down my face.

"Oh no!" said the woman. "I didn't mean for that to happen!"

I laughed and grabbed some napkins from the table and tried to explain myself, though even now it's hard to find the words. What came over me was gratitude and an entirely inappropriate love. I didn't know the woman, but I loved her. I'd felt the same thing meeting another couple on campus, a professor and his wife who'd written me when Pudding died to send condolences and to say that they'd had a daughter who was stillborn nearly 30 years before.

All I can say is, it's a sort of kinship, as though there is a family tree of grief. On this branch the lost children, on this the suicided parents, here the beloved mentally ill siblings. When something terrible happens, you discover all of a sudden that you have a new set of relatives, people with whom you can speak in the shorthand of cousins.

Twice now I have heard the story of someone who knows someone who's had a stillborn child since Pudding has died, and it's all I can do not to book a flight immediately, to show up somewhere I'm not wanted, just so that I can say, It happened to me, too, because it meant so much to me to hear it. It happened to me, too, meant: It's not your fault. And You are not a freak of nature. And This does not have to be a secret.

That's how it works. When a baby dies, other dead children become suddenly visible: Daughters and sons. First cousins. The neighbour kid. The first child. The last child. Your older brother. Some of their names have been forgotten; some never had names in the first place. They disappeared under heaps of advice. Don't dwell. Have another child, a makeup baby. Life is for the living. But then another baby dies, and here they are again, in stories, and you will love them all, and - if you are the mother of a dead child yourself - they will keep coming to you. A couple I know just lost their baby. And you will know that your lost child has appeared somewhere else in the world. I know a couple …

All those dead children. Who knows what they want?

In our better moments, we surely understand that the dead do not need anything. Afterlife, no afterlife: the dead have their needs taken care of. Oh, but isn't wanting things something else again, and don't we talk about it all the time. It's what he would have wanted. Her last wishes. Thank God for the dead; thank God someone is capable of making a decision in the worst of times: He would have liked it that way.

But a baby. Who's to say? Babies are born needing everything. They're a state of emergency. That's what they're for. Dead, there's nothing we can do for them, and we don't know what they'd want, we can't even guess. I can pretend that I knew Pudding. No, I did know him, not with my brain but with my body, and yet I know nothing about him, not even the simplest thing: I have no idea of what he'd want. And so in my grief I understand that mourning is a kind of ventriloquism; we put words into the mouths of our bereavers, but of course it's all entirely about us, our wants, our needs, the dead are satisfied, we are greedy, greedy, greedy, unseemly, self-obsessed. If your child did not survive his birth, everyone can see that clearly. I want. I need. Not him. No pretending.

I thought stillbirth was a thing of history, and then it happened to me, and yet now when I hear of a baby dying I'm just as incredulous. You mean they still haven't figured this out? I want to hear about every dead baby, everywhere in the world. I want to know their names, Christopher, Strick, Jonathan. I want their mothers to know about Pudding.

The dead don't need anything. The rest of us could use some company.

From the book An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination: A Memoir, by Elizabeth McCracken. Copyright © 2008 by Elizabeth McCracken. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York. All rights reserved.

Interact with The Globe