Little Emma passed through our lives that spring, under the steady glow of the comet. Her sweet head in my hand was so small.
That night, Liz and I walked and walked. On another evening, I would have remarked on the delicate cherry blossoms, the soft vanilla fragrance of evergreen clematis, or the way the cool night air rejuvenated. But Liz and I walked under the branching limbs and the clear sky. The comet, so bright, held its fire far from us.
Liz was in labor, and we had just learned that her baby, Emma, died. Her child resided for a time just under her heart.
We yearn for a life that isn't so overwhelming, but it's all overwhelming, every live, breathing moment of it. Everything moves too fast. Little Emma. Such a whirlwind, and we didn't catch her in time.
If we could slow each moment down, have the chance to hold something, a life, even briefly. But all of us fly off like the comet, each with our own brilliant, dazzling trail.
When she was finally stillborn, I held her and watched her beautiful, motionless face in my hands. In his poem, "After Whistler," Stanley Plumly says, "I think of the weight by which we are doubled or more/ through the lives of others." We are so weighted by Emma, pressed too heavily into the earth while she escapes into the blackness without us.
Maybe the darkness always has some sparkling light show, some spectacular lure into the abyss. The comet, like death, enticing us.
I remember riding in the back seat of my cousin's car as a child, traveling the long, moonless road through Ohio. Though I was small, I was determined not to fall asleep. I watched the shades of darkness pass by the window, and the stars. I saw the shooting star arc across the sky, its flickering streak of wildness taunting the earth. No one else saw it. The car kept on its fast and silent course. I said nothing.
What stories do we keep inside, and which do we release into the uncertain night? Telling is death, the experience always diminished in language.
My mother never talked about my sister, Mary, who died just after birth. When I was a child, I found a photograph of her in a box in the crawl space under the eaves. In the photograph, my father holds the baby while my other sister and brother look on. I was not yet born. They are all seated on a couch in the funeral parlor, under a painting of a herd of horses charging into the foreground. The people under the painting, my family, sit still as bones. Mary does not even look as if she is asleep. My mother isn't there.
When my mother died, decades after Mary, her shiny black hair was streaked with grey, like the tail of a comet.
What hunkers down inside our soul and waits? What is it that risks residing within us, in spite of the tragic possibilities? Some things refuse to enter our world, cannot remain in our hands, our sight, our memory. We are caught by that which remains unsharable, and elusive.
Having lived all these years on this side of a child's death, of always thinking of Mary's absence, I was suddenly on the other side, of having waited and anticipated my friend's new baby. I witnessed her overwhelming grief when they learned Emma died. I held Liz and cried with her, and comforted her in a way my own mother could never accept. I embrace my own daughters and my fear of losing them. I embrace every poem and story that resists telling.
No matter how fragile or sad or sudden, every silence that threatens the life out of us must be given its unbridled and incalculable flight.