The Visitation

Tomorrow is an optional memorial of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and next Wednesday is the feast day of St. Benedict. To honor both these saints, I offer “The Visitation,” an autobiographical short story I wrote about the late miscarriage of our son, Benedict Jordan, in 2007.

 When my sister-in-law comes through the door, the sight of her is a visceral shock. She wears a snug-fitting shirt with an equally snug sweater, which is open just enough to frame her pregnant belly in a V. She hugs me, and the difference between us is known not just by my mind, but by my body, too.

“Doesn’t she look great?” my mother-in-law asks, waving a hand toward Beth’s stomach. We nod in perfunctory agreement. I do everything to avoid looking at her, but Judy repeatedly brings the conversation back to Beth’s pregnancy. My only defense is to go numb.

My sweet children race over to their aunt, marveling at her pregnancy. They lead her to the couch and surround her like magpies, clearly in awe of her condition. Not even the numbness can protect me as they chatter lightly about my unborn niece. I silently beg God to keep them from saying something innocuous about their own brother, who died just two months ago. Mercifully, they don’t.

Beth asks to use my computer, to read her e-mail, I think. But it’s actually to check her weekly pregnancy report, to see how big her baby is this week, to see what new parts are marvelously alive and functioning. Judy tells her she should e-mail me a copy, but Beth brushes her off, pointing out the obvious: Misty’s been pregnant before and probably knows it all by heart. Yes, that’s it exactly, I think.

We sit before the fireplace, across from one another in matching red couches. Judy sits by Beth, practically glowing with pleasure as Beth describes how the baby is the size of a large cantaloupe. Suddenly she smiles. “She’s kicking,” Beth says. Judy rushes to feel the flutter, but the baby refuses to cooperate. She interminably rubs her hands across Beth’s belly until she’s rewarded with a kick. I live in terror they will ask me if I want to feel it, too.

I plaster a smile on my face and check out mentally. I wonder fleetingly why they’re unable to see me despite my facing them full on. With each new revelation, my heart constricts until it freezes; it’s  better to feel nothing than to contemplate the differences between our bodies. It’s easier to pretend it doesn’t matter to me than to face that I don’t matter to them.

The urn that originally held the ashes of our second son, Benedict Jordan.

Then my husband reaches up and retrieves the urn that once held our son’s ashes from the mantle. I see him pause for a moment, his hands lovingly caressing its cool porcelain, before turning to his sister.

“You never got to see this, Beth, since you couldn’t come to the funeral,” Tom says, handing it to her.

My heart begins to beat frantically. I feel lightheaded and short of breath as he hands her the only visible reminder of our unborn child.

Beth’s face becomes a mask of displeasure and she turns her head away. “Oh, I can’t…I can’t see that…take it away,” she says with disgust. “It took me a whole hour to get out of the store that day when you called and told me what happened.”

In a second, I’m angrier than I’ve ever been. “Yes, it sucked for me, too,” I blurt out. I can’t help myself. Judy and Beth both look slapped, as if suddenly aware I’m in the room.

Beth reluctantly takes the urn, glancing at its small ceramic statue of a boy briefly before handing it back to Tom. She crosses her arms, as if to ward off further contact.

A cold rage fills me. I fight the urge to grab the urn and flee upstairs to the safety of our bedroom. I imagine wrapping it in a soft blanket and burying it in the deepest recesses of my closet.

As if aware that decorum requires an inquiry, Beth asks: “So, how has it been for you?”

I want to say something sophisticated and proper, maybe even diplomatic. I want to look strong. But before I know it, I hear myself saying: “It’s been pretty terrible.”

“Oh, no, I mean, how have you been physically?” Beth says. “Have you healed up?” Just in case you thought I was asking about how this has really affected you. I just want the superficial details.

 The question is a stunner. Everyone feels it, but no one says anything. I glare at her and mumble that I’m fine. Mother-in-law changes the subject and in less than five minutes, it’s over. My son’s short life is shortened even more.

When we finally go to bed, I’m furious with Tom. “How could you bring that up with them?” I ask hotly.

“I never expected them to act like that!” he retorts. But I know better. We both do.

It’s easier to be angry at my husband. More than anyone, he knows what the night has cost me. But I know I can’t blame him, not really, because even I know my anger is displaced. He was a fool for wanting their acknowledgement, but it’s a foolish desire that’s filled my heart, too. It’s not his fault they can’t honor even these basic needs.

The rage keeps me cold until everyone else is asleep. Then the hot, stinging tears arrive, coming so fast they drip straight to the pillow with no time to course a path down my face. Is it possible to hurt this much and not die from it? I wonder. As a child, I was trained in the art of crying silently around others, and it serves me well now. I weep bitterly for my dead son. Two months, two short months and already he’s forgotten. Then I realize the truth: to be forgotten, one must first be known.

In the darkness, all things come to bear on me—the traumatic delivery, the regret that I didn’t hold him longer, the horror of my suffering being invisible to others. I think about Jesus, about the strangers who stood along the streets of Jerusalem and watched dispassionately as he carried his cross to Golgotha. Their faces blend in with the ones sleeping quietly in other rooms of my house, faces unmoved by plain suffering, that see nothing reflected in the pain of others except their own discomfort.

But God sent others, too. Mary Magdalene. The apostle John. The women of Jerusalem. Simon. Mary, the mother of Jesus.

Mary. As a motherless Catholic, it has always been easy to embrace her. To a degree. After all, how much can I really have in common with a perfect, lifelong virgin with only one child?

The Father took our sons. But maybe she knew Easter was coming, I think. I don’t.

For now, though, that shared agony is enough. I can almost feel her soft hand caressing my wet face, telling me gently without words that Good Friday will not last forever. And that my loneliness does not reflect the full truth. Suddenly I hear the weekly phone calls from a woman in our parish, asking how I’m doing. I remember my Baptist friend with more children than me caring for ours so I can sit with a book and cup of coffee at a local cafe. I see a frail old Jewish man struggling up from his knees during his first Catholic Mass, the one he offered as a memorial to our son. I see Mary visiting Elizabeth.

Years ago, a priest told me that joy is possible in the midst of great suffering and I was sure he was a loon, then. But now I understand. In the midst of the fury, my heart soars with gratitude. As if in response, my husband reaches for my hand, gripping it firmly in the darkness. The storm passes. But not before I thank God for sending the mother of my Lord to me, not just in sorrow but through the kindness of others. ™


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