Just before 5, I opened my eyes to see Greg, sitting at the end of the bed putting his shoes on. And I began to cry.
He turned around to face me. “What’s wrong?” he said.
“It stopped hurting.” I answered softly.
“My incision.” I lifted my nightgown to reveal my scar, still darkened by pooled, clotted blood beneath the surface.
“Isn’t it a good thing that it stopped hurting?” he said, clearly confused.
I pulled away and sat up. Turning to face the window. “You just don’t get it.”
“I know. I think you’re right. I don’t really get it.” He placed his hands on the space above both of my elbows and gently turned me towards him.
I looked down, again at my incision, tracing its lines with my finger. “I knew all along that it would happen. But this is the first day that it’s come. Once the pain ends, all that’s left is emptiness.”
He closed his eyes and nodded.
“The pain was distracting me, maybe even in the tiniest way. When I felt pain in my belly I guess in some way I didn’t notice that he wasn’t swimming beneath. Now it’s all I can think about.”
I took a deep breath. “Now all that’s left is emptiness.”
About ten minutes later, Greg had to leave for the day’s fishing trip.
I stepped into the porcelain claw-foot bathtub and allowed my tears to mingle with the spray from the rain can showerhead. To allow the heaviness of the condensation on my skin to ever so slightly ease the emptiness in my middle.
I contemplated: my incision and the layers of skin and muscle and tissue beneath had stopped stinging.
But what about the layer of loss? What about the layer somewhere within me that ached for what was missing? That layer somehow stung more once the others healed. After I dressed for the day, I walked into the kitchen and boiled water for my hot espresso on the stovetop percolator. I carried it over to the sink and poured it into my cup, held over the edge to collect any spills.
“Ouch!” I said out loud as I felt a stinging sense on a whole different spot, as the steaming espresso dripped down my right arm. I dropped the mug into the sink and it shattered into about 10 pieces. Thankfully it hadn’t been one of the ones from Gram’s kitchen out in Mattituck. I turned the water on and stuck my wrist under the cold stream from the faucet. My cries turned to sobs. Mostly I sobbed because I realized that the burn on my arm felt good.
Oh so good.
Finally, something to cover up the emptiness.
I took a dishtowel out of the drawer next to the fridge and wet it with cold water, wrapping it around my wrist. Leaned against the counter and closed my eyes. And suddenly, on the other end of the kitchen, although my eyes were shut tight, I saw her, with her white blond ringlets standing in my kitchen. With her array of floral housedresses, I always thought that Gram looked like she stepped off the cover of one of my childhood favorites; There was an Old Lady who Swallowed a Fly.
My mind flashed back to her kitchen in Mattituck on one of our lazy Saturday mornings. Suddenly, I was surrounded by the smell of sunblock and pine needles and the hint of her perfume.
And the sight of Gram in her housedress, stirring pancake mix in a bowl as she stood at the stove. Me, sitting on the caned wingback chair.
“People are like split pea soup,” she had said.
I lifted my lips from my curly straw and laughed.
“It’s true darling,” Gram had said. “Every gosh darn recipe of split pea soup is different. You can’t order it at a restaurant and know what you’re getting, because no two recipes are the same. Some make theirs with a hambone. Some add carrots and onions. Others sprinkle cooked bacon on top. Some more stir the bacon right on in. Some even added curry. That’s the way it is with people. Some are complex, deep, thick. Some’d rather be thin, and runny. I personally like being thick. And I’m not just talking about my waist line.” She laughed. “Although truth be told, I kinda like that to be thick too. Well now I’m just rambling. Eat up those pancakes, darlin’.”
I thought of Gram’s split pea soup. And of the one that I had made for Greg a few nights after we moved into our cottage. I had brought the ladle to my mouth just as I watched out the rope and pulley window as Greg anchored the boat into its slip.
My version was watery, runny, and in fact ran right down our farmhouse sink drain because I was too embarrassed to serve it to him when he got off the boat that night. Greg needed soup that was hearty and thick. Gram’s split pea soup was incredibly hearty, and deliciously thick. And she stirred her bacon right in.
“Rough day babe, anything good for dinner?” He said after wrapping me up in his arms lifting me in the air and planting a kiss on my lips that had just sampled that split pea soup.
I wondered if he could taste its lingering flavor, and if he’d know the secret of its runny green trail that was currently careening down through our pipes. “I wasn’t in the mood to cook tonight; how do you feel about getting a bite to eat at Buoy Burger?” I said grabbing my cropped denim jacket off the iron coat hook.
“Sounds like heaven,” he had said.
I thought of how people grieve differently. My grief sure was hearty and thick. Just like Gram’s split pea soup.
I sipped my last sip of espresso, somewhere between my kitchen and Gram’s in Mattituck. Somewhere between the surgical recovery floor and the maternity floor.
Somewhere between motherhood and not.
* * *
Stillborn. I despised the word. But somewhere along the way I had devised a way to explain what happened to my first born child who died while I was in the early stages of labor without having the word become lodged in my throat.
My first born child was still born. That was the key. I had to separate the syllables. She may not have ever breathed a breath of your air but she was still born. She may never live to wear the cotton onesie pajamas that I held up at my baby shower for you to ooh and ahh over but she was in fact, still born.
Ten years later I still find myself straddling a fence of sorts. With all encompassing grief on one side and what at times feels like undiluted peace on the other. I recall a million and one things that took place both inside and outside my thoughts during that first year after Ashlyn died, but the thing that stands out the most is the feeling of emptiness. Most recovering from a c-section anxiously await the day that the pain subsides. I remember that day as one of the darkest of my life. An empty, still mid-section where for nine months someone used to swim just on the other side of my skin. An empty, cavernous cabinet where BPA bottles once stood. Like negative space in a painting, nothingness made up the whole of who I was. Emptiness was how I was defined those days.
Looking desperately for something to fill the void, I wrote in my diary because it felt good. And I learned quickly that she may not be there for me to teach the deep, profound lessons about life that I had planned to impart, but that I in fact was the one learning the lessons. I wrote fast and furious each chance I got because I didn't want to forget a single one of them. I saw myself as a big oak tree. Motherhood personified with towering branches that would one day bloom, God willing, however Ashlyn would always be the thick roots that would dictate the direction they would grow. I knew in time my roots would be covered by mossy grass, and the joy of healthy, living children but despite how soft and green the grass and how hearty those branches, I didn't ever want to forget what my roots were rooted in. So I wrote. And I quickly came to the conclusion that without ever speaking a single word, Ashlyn was teaching me monumental lessons about life, and thus began my labor of love (pun intended), The Littlest Guru. It became clear to me that the way to overcome tragic loss is not to overcome it at all. Not to arrive at some other side, however instead to allow onself to be transformed.
In time I re-worked my diary entries into the fictional account of Nora Kate Evans and her husband and the coastal seaside town that they live in, where fishermen sit at the local watering hole, their elbows endented in the knotty pine of the bar's surface and loss hangs in the air like the thick, moist clouds suspended over the harbor. Nora is a reader and a writer and an editor at a small publishing house off Main who loves stories so much that she tries to climb inside them. Her diary entries begin each day with sharing of the coffee that she had for breakfast, and the wine she had in the evening, its structure symbolic of the way her muddled mind works: living among the proverbial past in the pages of classic novels or with her sights set on the future, she's simply unable to live in the space between. When her own story veers off course from the plot that she predicted, as tragic loss tends to do, everything she's ever known suddenly changes. Waking up on the surgical recovery floor, not the maternity floor, she decides she isn't meant to be on either, and rather in some space between floors. She wades through the wreckage of the life she once knew, and sets up shop in that space, bravely grappling through to one day reach the maternity floor. The words in her diary the bricks and mortar. Invited to jump right in and transform along with Nora, The Littlest Guru throws a rope to those who are tumbling backwards into a deep, dark hole and invites them to grab on. To take back the control and change the way that loss plays out in their lives.