For a long time now, I have been afraid to write about this book. This short memoir is Elizabeth McCracken’s account of the crushing, world-altering loss of her firstborn. To comment on that pain, and the bravery it takes to recount it, seems almost presumptuous. Thankfully, I don’t write critiques, I write recommendations, though this remarkable book deserves the finest review.
I am including this book in my short and spiritual series (see Marriage and Other Acts of Charity and Help Thanks Wow), an inclusion that might surprise the author. She and her husband, the writer Edward Corey, are resolutely of no religious observance; she notes that their only discussion of religion during her pregnancy was an agreement to neither circumcise nor christen. But it completes my trio because I believe this book asks one of the hardest and most necessary tasks of us: to look directly at the pain of another person and bear witness to it. This is the task that enlarges our hearts and strengthens our spirits. It may not be why we are all here but it is one of the things worth sticking around for, to see and be truly seen by others.
This memoir is some of the best writing about grief that I have encountered. It is impossible to make meaning out of the inexplicable loss of a newborn baby, the pain seems so raw that it’s surprising any writer would take it on. But McCracken knew she was “…not ready for[her] first child to fade into history.” She lets us know on the first page that since the stillbirth of her child, she has given birth to another. Knowing that, as she wrote this memoir, she held the sibling of her dead child in her arms was what got me through the book. Because though the writing was lovely and even, at times, humorous, I would not have been able to read it if I hadn’t been sure that she had been able to have another child. I just wanted to feel like I didn’t have to worry about her floating around unmoored by loss. I needed to picture her tethered to the comforting, needy presence of a nursing child.
But as she explains, for her family, there will always be someone missing, a silent relative. The healing can only ever be incomplete. And we crave closure; we want to know that we can bounce back, completely, and that others can too. But grief, like happiness, forms us, and denying that pain separates us from each other. McCracken asks us to face the anguish in ourselves and others. I was reminded again that we can only offer to each other our imperfect selves. Our condolences will always feel woefully inadequate, but our whole hearts willing to hear stories of calamity will be enough.