I read the entire Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy the week my son died. We were in a hospice facility, a pale green room at the end of a long hall, with a big window that overlooked a lush park in full mid-June bloom. When we checked in, the center director warned us, “The volunteers may hover a bit. We’re not used to having babies here.” Indeed, the staff and volunteers had gone to great lengths to make the room cozy. Someone had assembled a crib and dressed it in soft, yellow sheets. A blue teddy bear sat in the corner, tags still stapled to its ear; a baby comb and brush set, new in the box, perched on the dresser. Who paid for all of this? Is there petty cash? Can they return it after Luke dies? I had learned long before to forgive myself these kinds of disagreeable thoughts. The mind takes itself to indiscriminate places to survive the unthinkable.
Luke’s violent seizures had stopped, but the fat drops of morphine that the nurses squeezed under his tongue made him sleep nearly all the time. He looked peaceful, and for that I was thankful, just as I was thankful for the crushed ice machine in the communal lounge. I had experienced this same phenomenon when my father died in hospice ten years before: when one is living at the bottom of a deep well of pain, life flattens out. Even the slightest bit of pleasure—the satisfying crunch of an ice pellet between your molars, for example—becomes remarkable, a gossamer lifeline to a world that seems a galaxy away.
As Luke rested on the new sheets of his crib, I stretched on the single bed beside it, staring at my Kindle as a steady stream of visitors came to whisper their goodbyes into Luke’s tiny, shell-like ear. His babysitter visited often, bathing Luke, singing to him, just as she had nearly every day of his short life. Sue, his home-healthcare nurse, pressed a tiny carved Buddha into my hand as she turned to leave for the last time. She was getting married in Thailand in a few months and invited Josh and Hannah and me to come. “We’ll try,” I told her, unable to imagine who I would be on the other side of this experience. All of the atoms of my being felt held together by the thinnest membrane that would surely dissolve upon Luke’s death. What could possibly be left to board a plane to the other side of the world?
Often, I’d lay Luke on the bed beside me and curl around him like a parenthesis, just to be near him, to let him know I was near. I read once that newborns could recognize their mother’s smell. Such a carnal skill, I had always thought. When do we lose those animal instincts? I wondered if they still lived within Luke and prayed that somewhere in that twilight between life and death, my pheromones wafted into his brain and told him he was not alone.
Occasionally I’d peek around my Kindle and watch as Josh tried to coax tiny bites of baby food into his son’s mouth, nutrition that Luke neither wanted nor needed at that point, though I couldn’t bear to break that unwelcome news to my husband. Luke’s tongue had become coated in a thick, white film. I remembered this, too, from my dad’s dying days, how troubled I had been by this single feature in the face of all of the other distressing physical changes unfolding before me. And just as I had done with my father a decade before, I dipped a tiny sponge in water and swabbed Luke’s mouth, hoping to provide some comfort, needing to be of service. Sometimes, I’d carry him out to the garden so he could feel the late spring sunshine on his face. I rocked him for hours. Through it all, he slept.
It is the cruelest waiting game there is, a purgatory that if examined too closely will turn you inside out.
So I read. I started with the lovely Anastasia Steele tripping off an elevator into Christian Grey’s office in Fifty Shades of Grey and barreled right on through until the happily-ever-after of Fifty Shades Freed. Admittedly, it wasn’t great literature, but Ana’s on-again, off-again romance with the mercurial Christian was an escape hatch out of that hospice room where only death awaited, to a world with young, attractive people, private jets, first love angst, and yes, lots and lots of orgasms. It was inarguably a far better scene than my current circumstances.
Three-and-a-half years prior to that inauspicious week, during another dark time in my life, I similarly escaped into a book, albeit an undoubtedly more respectable one. Mentally and physically exhausted after Hannah’s birth and suffering from what was later diagnosed as postpartum depression, I begged off care of my newborn and slunk away to the bedroom to rest. Sleep, however, was elusive. As soon as I closed my eyes, visions of all of the terrible things that could befall my new baby and thoughts of all of the ways in which I could fail her thundered into my mind. I lay on the bed, heart hammering, a metallic taste souring my tongue.
The only effective distraction was reading, so while loved ones assumed I was getting much-needed sleep, I hid under the covers and sank into Mary Doria Russell’s acclaimed novel The Sparrow. I spent hours with the book’s hero Father Emilio Sanchez and his friends as they traveled to the alien planet of Rakhat, and I only left the intrepid travelers when my leaking breasts reminded me of my obligations as a new mother.
Like Fifty Shades would years later, The Sparrow provided escape from a reality that was too much to bear. But beyond that, Russell, an anthropologist by training, imbued the story with themes that spoke directly to the swirling disquiet in my brain: the trepidation of embarking on an uncharted journey, the paralyzing fear of losing what one loves most, the aching quest for meaning in our lives.
Three-quarters of the way through the book, Russell describes the conception of the first human baby on the alien planet of Rakhat like this:
“Later that summer, as rain fell, such a moment shimmered and paused on the brink, and then began the ancient dance of numbers: two, four, eight, sixteen, thirty-two, and a new life took root and began to grow. And thus the generations past were joined to the unknowable future.”
Upon reading those words, a description of the very miracle that had just occurred inside me, I closed the book, wept, and fell into the deepest sleep I had had in nearly a year.
I read the sequel to The Sparrow several months after Luke died. I was swollen with pregnancy, soon to give birth to the little sister Luke would never know. The Washington, DC, area was abuzz with baby panda fever. The National Zoo’s giant panda had just given birth and all eyes were trained on the Panda Cam. When news broke that the week-old cub had died, I locked myself in the bathroom and cried so hard I threw up.
That night, in bed, I read a scene between the novel’s protagonist, the now-lapsed Jesuit priest Emilio Sanchez, and his friend, Father Sean Fein. Emilio is being asked to return to the planet that, at the end of the first book, had become a nightmare for him. When Emilio declines in rage, his friend responds gently: “Pity the poor, wee souls who live a life of watered milk—all blandness and pleasantry—and die nicely asleep in ripe old age,” Father Fein tells Emilio, who has become a shell of his former self. “They live half a life and never know what strength they might have had.”
Deep in my belly, underneath my broken heart, my baby moved inside me. Oh Emilio, my last journey ended in disaster, too, I thought. Let’s see what kind of strength we might have. . . .