I have one beautiful daughter, but making her wasn’t simple. I lost two pregnancies before conceiving her, and three after her, while trying for a second. I started this story years ago and dug it out and finished it just today. It attempts to put into words my belief that our children will always be with us, even if they are never born. I will always remember seeing and hearing the heartbeat of one of those beautiful babies on a screen one day, and losing it a few days later. Maybe it was a daughter. Maybe a son. Maybe one day I’ll know. The other four losses were awful as well, of course, but this one in particular stands out in my memory, perhaps because I was overseas at the time, and I distinctly remember feeling a little life slipping away from me.
I dedicate this story to all the women who have lost their unborn babies. I see you, I mourn with you. You are, and always will be, their mothers, and the guardians of their heartbeats.
The ghosts didn’t often visit, but when they came that day, Caroline spoke to them and they spoke back.
Caroline was reading on the couch, her feet tucked under her, her hand regularly dipping into a bowl of salt and vinegar peanuts. It was a stroke of genius, creating that flavour, she often thought.
The others had gone out for the evening. Caroline felt almost heady with delight at the prospect of a night spent entirely on her own. In the wake of the incident they had kept such a close eye on her that she had even peed with an audience.
But months had passed now, and she had been so normal that they had relaxed and started to believe that it might be all right again. Caroline preferred to let them think this, even though she knew otherwise. She knew they would come back, and this time she had questions.
She turned the page. The story was vaguely average. It left enough of her mind free to focus on what lay beyond. There was always a beyond, in the space between the words. You had to listen, was all.
Ssssh. Can you hear it? Can you hear what is unsaid? Come closer. Give me your hand. Can you hear it now?
A muffled thump from upstairs made Caroline lose her place. She paused mid-crunch. The lamp flickered.
Here they come. Can you hear them?
Caroline folded the edge of the page into a triangle and closed the book. She placed it next to her. She rested one hand on its hard cover and the other hand on her heart.
Can you hear it, dear one? Can you hear your life beating out its seconds in joyous, mucky thumps?
The lamp went out.
Caroline stood, placed her hand on her lower belly, and faced the doorway.
Silence. The most astounding things occur in it, she thought, as five small shadows appeared in the doorway.
Hello. Hello, dear ones.
Caroline and the shadows stood in the darkening silence. Like last time, she tried desperately to see beyond; to somehow build a mental frame on which to hang the untouchable; the unknowable. She could not.
This cannot be known, she thought. This can only be.
She walked forward, and as she approached the shadows, like last time, they shuffled into an order determined not by their size or their shape but by some other measurement Caroline knew may never make sense. And then they waited.
Last time and the time before, Caroline, unable to speak or even breathe, had stood facing the shadows for at least five minutes before something in the air shifted: a whispered disappointment perhaps, and one by one the shadows separated and altered and distorted, like clouds on an autumn afternoon, until they were wisps, then threads, then emptiness.
For days afterwards Caroline had sat with a profound sadness. She had welcomed it, not wanting to banish or diminish it in case by doing so she would also lose the memory of the shadows.
This time Caroline breathed. Then she spoke.
“My family thinks I’m mad. But if being mad means you’ll stay, then I’ll choose madness.”
For a good few minutes the shadows hung silent and unchanged. Caroline started to weep, silently and desperately. What were they waiting for?
Slowly, one of the shadows, the one second from the right, the first one, although Caroline didn’t yet know how she knew that, started to furl in on itself, twirling, round and round like cotton candy spun onto a stick, until the spinning slowed and the wisps reformed, and before Caroline stood the figure of a child. A girl.
Caroline drew in her breath, a rasping gulp that hurt her lungs. The shadow girl looked exactly like her childhood self, only infinitely more beautiful. She moved towards Caroline, who fell to her knees. A small hand reached out and touched one tear on Caroline’s cheek, then another, soft as a kitten’s paw, gentle as a breeze. A ghost is feeling my tears, Caroline thought, and the wonder of it made her sigh.
She looked at this tiny version of herself that came from Heaven or maybe Hell, and another sigh melted on her lips as she realised she could see a tiny beating heart through a fog of shifting fibres and light and darkness and cloud.
The shadow girl spoke. “Life. This is life. I am alive. Always.”
A gentle touch on her right shoulder made Caroline pivot on her knees. A little boy stood in neat blue shorts and brown roman sandals. He smiled, his front two teeth missing, and a swatch of golden hair fell over his eyes. His tiny heart pulsed.
“Me too. I live. Always.”
Caroline turned now to her left as a whisper of a breeze called her, and saw that the remaining three shadows were shifting and throbbing and tumbling until the small figures of two more boys and a girl appeared, all blonde, all achingly beautiful, all versions of her.
As she knelt the five shadow children formed a circle around her, reaching for one another’s hands with the unchoreographed grace of those who have known one another for a long time. Five small hearts glowed and pulsed as they started to turn around her, small planets orbiting a sun. Caroline watched them glow and dance and rejoice, then stood and joined the circle, grabbing small smoky hands, feeling nothing and everything, as the circle spun faster and faster and Caroline was laughing and crying and singing and rejoicing with the ghosts.
Before she was ready they started to slow, and one by one the children’s faces slid and melted and altered, bodies shifting and tumbling.
Don’t go! Please! Don’t leave me!
Caroline started to gasp and cry and shout, begging the shadow children to stay. Four of them were shadows again, their tiny hearts no longer visible. They drew back from Caroline, hovering, waiting. The last one, the little girl, the first, her face already smoky and indistinct, wrapped her half-formed body around Caroline’s, arms and legs and torso elongating, spreading to envelop Caroline fully until a tiny, ghostly heartbeat was against Caroline’s own heart.
We live. I live. I live here.
A melting sensation, warm and sweet, made its delicious way through Caroline’s skin, through her flesh, through her ribs, along her veins and arteries, and into her heart.
I live here. And so do you. So live.
And then the leaving and separating, and the ghastly wrench of that, and the first was the last in her leaving, and the embrace faded to mist and then to nothing but a sigh, and then Caroline was alone, again on her knees.
But this time there was peace embracing the sadness, and the sadness was a part of her, and Caroline felt that maybe, just maybe, she could live with the sadness instead of the shadows, and that maybe it might be possible to press that sadness into her heart along with the longing and the grief and the terror and the heartbeat, and that one day, one day, it might all become love.
Caroline got up and returned to the couch. The lamp flickered on as she picked up her book and turned the little triangle up the right way to form a complete page.