I stare, paralyzed, at the stroller laying neatly collapsed in the entryway. It is the first thing that the new parents who live upstairs will see when they walk in the door, and I wish I could will it away.
Yet I cannot remove it, even as the thought of the couple confronting the weight of it is unbearable. And so the vacant stroller sits. And while it sits, they stay away.
I have not seen them in three days, but I have seen their infant Brandon, swaddled and resting on my fiancé Konstantin’s porcelain embalming table, as if down for an afternoon nap.
Konstantin had spoken to the medical examiner before the autopsy: “I know I don’t need to say this to you, but please, be gentle.” The medical examiner understood, but no autopsy is gentle. And so Konstantin set to work, bending over Brandon’s small body for hours to undo the intrusion that the medical examiner had wrought, making the infant into the whole and perfect baby that he had been for forty days.
I have spent many hours in the embalming room as Konstantin works. Sometimes I am there merely to keep him company. But more often than not, I have lent a hand washing and dressing the bodies of the deceased, smoothing their hair, straightening their ties, tying their shoes, lifting them into caskets, on the faith that the families would feel, would know in their bones that their loved one had been cared for. I find satisfaction in this. In death, bodies change. Funeral directors work to minimize what families can see of that difference, knowing how quickly grief can transform into distress in the real and physical presence of death.
Indeed, grief has many layers. It is not possible to parcel it out into digestible doses. The first is beyond control, but how, already wrapped in loss, does one consciously step deeper into its thickness? Picking Brandon up from the medical examiner’s office, this is the wave that Konstantin instinctively wants to block. Gazing at the inert stroller in the hallway, I share his feeling.
In the embalming room, three of us, Konstantin, his assistant Shalimar and I—each one of us parents—went through the known ritual of creating mementos, blotting Brandon’s unlined foot on an inkpad and making a print, carefully pressing each toe onto the paper. After several tries, we got a print that is just right. I tucked one of the discarded efforts into my bag. It is not perfect, but it does not belong in the trash.
His hand, with each newborn finger reflexively wanting to curl around a hand, a few strands of hair, a toy, anything, was trickier to print. We laughed, cajoling him, because in true infant fashion, Brandon’s hands did not cooperate. It took two of us to get a solid print and then a plaster impression.
Newborns, so small, hold weight beyond measure. Their presence permeates a home in the most delightfully disheveled way: a burp cloth casually tossed on the sofa, a mug with an inch of cold coffee forgotten on the bathroom sink, gifts opened but not yet used piled on the dining table, awaiting whichever small milestone is reached and that crucial teething ring or the darling six-month outfit is suddenly just right. New parents straddle the exhausted immediate right now of the present and the exciting just wait of next week, next month, next season, and it shows in everything around them.
I know that life is precious and precarious. I have had both diseases and miscarriages, and have felt fear for my unborn babies’ health. Once each was born, completely healthy, my fears shifted. Nightmares about the penetrating sadness parents endure when their children go out into the world and are exposed to its dangers invaded my waking hours and my sleep. I wept over images of mothers cradling their drowned babies and toddlers after the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean, half a world away yet palpably resonant parent to parent. With my firstborn in my arms, I spent many hours contemplating the grief of Matthew Shepard’s parents, who could not protect their 21-year old son from hatred so strong that it kills. I learned, as all parents do, that life holds dangers that mothers and fathers are unable to ward off.
But never once as a parent did I worry that my child might go down for a nap and be overtaken by a fatal threat within her. Not once. Because that fear is so far beyond imaginable to be paralyzing. How could I parent in fear that my child might simply stop breathing? I could not, and so I built a home and planned a future in which my children would grow and thrive, as expected.
Brandon’s parents had those same hopes and made those same plans. And yet, in the space of an ordinary Thursday afternoon, they endured the unimaginable. The timeframe is seared in my memory, from their first text on a Thursday afternoon that something was suddenly wrong and that they had rushed Brandon to the hospital, to the hours I spent ignoring the gnawing inside me as I tried to push away thoughts of the anxious terror they were living, to the feared pronouncement coming through on my phone late in the evening: Brandon has passed away.
And now, the loss irreversible and total, several days later they must return to a home marked by a silent absence so profound that every item wails its presence. A home stripped bare of the tiny being who, for forty days, had taken up residence and transformed it irrevocably. His stroller cannot stay, like Miss Havisham’s ever decaying wedding cake in Dickens’ tale, in the hallway, waiting for him to come home. Whether setting it aside for a possible sibling or finding another family to give it to, grasping the pain and removing the carriage demonstrates trust in the fact of life, and our ability to create hope out of grief.
But the grief, it is deep, and it is messy. The only way past it is by walking straight into its force so thick that some cannot make their way out. I worry about my neighbors upstairs, with whom I suddenly feel bound in grief, having held their son’s cool hand and held them. I want to pull them through, to solve the riddle of the stroller and everything else their little boy brought into their lives, joyful, hopeful memories and mementoes now ringed with loss. But no one can do that work for them.
Instead, we made impressions with Brandon’s fingers and toes, the same ones his parents, like every parent before them, surely counted silently the day he was born, holding their breath in the face of such perfection. We created reminders that he was, that he lived, that he was loved, that his being from the moment of conception was imbued with hope.
When I left the funeral home that day, Shalimar was washing the ink of off of Brandon’s tiny palms. She picked him up, tenderly saying, “Come on, little man, let’s get you cleaned up.” She bathed him gently, and for a few moments the cold white embalming table, with the warm water streaming from the thick industrial hose, felt like so many baths that she had given her son, that I had given my children, that Brandon had received from his own parents in the warmth of their home. When Shalimar was done, she patted him dry, gently swaddled him in a receiving blanket, and laid him down, waiting for his parents to hold him once more and say their final goodbyes.
Ann E. Wallace lives in Jersey City, New Jersey, where she and her fiance Konstantin are raising three daughters, ages ten to fifteen. Her writing is shaped by her experience as a survivor of ovarian cancer and as a woman living with multiple sclerosis, as she delves into the ways that individuals and communities bear witness to illness, loss, and trauma. She teaches English at New Jersey City University, and her recent work has appeared in Intima, Transformations, and WordGathering. She finds respite and regeneration in gardening, running, exploring new places, and, of course, writing.