He Lives in You
Like most moms of the past couple decades, I raised my children on Disney films. I can trace my children’s growth by the succession of one-liners they memorized and recited from each new release, which frequently extended to entire scenes of dialogue. By the time our fourth child, Noah, was born, all things Lion King were standard fare for his brother and sisters. The soundtrack of Noah’s young life included his three siblings marching around him, singing, “Oh, I just can’t wait to be king!” Then they’d pounce on his chubby baby belly with their tiny plastic lions. Even I could put on my best Scar voice and growl, “Idiots, I will be king!” We all loved The Lion King for its combination of entertainment and valuable life lessons, from the perils of pride to the delicate balance of life. Many years later in college, Hannah would choose “Hakuna Matata” as her personal belief statement.
For the first year of Noah’s life, we happily rode around in our minivan singing “The Circle of Life” at the top of our lungs, completely unaware of how it was about to move us all. On August 9, 1997, I put Noah to bed in his Lion King pajamas and by the time the sun sank into the sea the next night, we understood the despair we’d been singing about. Noah wasn’t crushed by a herd of stampeding wildebeasts, but he was run over by a 10,000-pound Chevy Tahoe. And so it was that from the day he arrived on the planet, Noah had only fifteen months before he soared to the stars. There he joined the ranks of Mufasa, blinking down on us from the night sky while we began to learn to live with the scars.
Recently, I learned about a relatively new scientific discovery called microchimerism. Michrochimerism is the presence of cells in one person’s bloodstream that originated from a different person and are therefore genetically distinct from the other cells around them. In humans, the most common form is called fetomaternal microchimerism. This occurs during pregnancy when cells from a fetus pass through the placenta and establish cell families within the mother. As far as we know, these fetal cells remain and multiply for many decades, perhaps even forever. I’ve been pregnant thirteen times and I have five living children. Noah was the first of my children to ascend to the heavens, but he wasn’t the last. For me this means that swimming around in my body could be the cells from thirteen different babies. I am the embodiment of my children, most of whom are otherwise dead. And as I’m carrying them, they, too, are carrying me in their celestial wanderings. When my children died, a part of me died, too. I knew this. I felt this. I just didn’t know exactly how to explain why. And now I do.
About a year after Noah died, The Lion King 2 came out with it’s title song, “He Lives In You.” The theme of the song is that even in death, Mufasa lives on. Just as he’d taught his young son, Simba, Mufasa’s body had become a part of the grasslands, but his soul lived on in Simba and in all whom he’d touched in his life. Now, as we rode around running errands and missing our baby, we had a new soundtrack. “Mamela!” it commanded us. Listen! So we did. We listened. “And a voice, with the fear of a child, answers, Oh, Mamela.” And we began to comprehend. We’d lived through that first terrible night without our youngest cub and continued to take each night as it came. Our hearts were broken and our bodies exhausted, climbing that mountain of grief, but we had the strength to simply sit and listen to the soothing voice of this African man. “Wait! There’s no mountain too great! Hear the words and have faith,” he encouraged. Have faith? Slowly, we understood his wise words of hope. Slowly, we learned to sing along. With tears streaming down our cheeks, we lifted our voices and sang, “He lives in you, he lives in me, he watches over everything we see . . .”
Noah wasn’t completely gone from us. And even though we had not even one drop of African blood in our bodies, we even learned the more obscure Zulu words like “Ubokhosi bo khoko,” meaning “throne of the ancestors.” Our forebears hailed from England, Ireland, and Germany, nowhere near Africa. Carved on our family gravestones are the words of my Mayflower ancestors, “To live in the hearts of those we leave behind is not to die.” We believe that from death should spring life, so in keeping with our own circle of life, we planted Noah’s ashes with a sweet gum tree. There, they would grow to shade those words etched in stone. The confluence of these three things—our family motto, modern science’s microchimerism, and The Lion King—is commonality. They all impart the same message. In those days as I’d struggled to find peace with this, I’d glance in my rearview mirror at the faces of my young children as they sang their hearts out, “Into the water, into the truth, in your reflection, he lives in you.” And there, in that looking glass, I’d see Noah.
Kelly Kittel is an author and a mother. She’s had 13 pregnancies and has five living children, her best work beyond compare. She lives with her husband and their two youngest children on Aquidneck Island but her favorite writing space is in their yurts on the coast of Oregon. She has written many notes to teachers and has been published in magazines and anthologies. Her first book, Breathe, A Memoir of Motherhood, Grief, and Family Conflict, was published last May.