I’m going to write about my daughter once in awhile, but I’ll do it in a way that will not be in order and not make much sense, but might nevertheless be of use to somebody somewhere. The things that are occupying my mind to day are the many things said to myself and my wife when our daughter Grace was stillborn. I’ll do these one at a time, because it’s too much to write down all at once, or it’s too much to think about all in one piece, or I’m too lazy or distracted to do it any other way. At some point I’ll put them all together and they’ll live on a page of their own, either in the flesh on on the web, but for now I’ll just start to pick them away one by one, like a scab that refuses to heal.
I kind of think this first thing someone said would actually be the last thing if I were to put them all into a big list, but it’s the thing that bothers me the most, so I had to get it out there first.
“It must be difficult having lost all that potential.”
Honestly, this is perplexing. Potential what? Potential energy? Potential wailing and worry and teenage angst? Potential orthodontist bills? Trips to the mall? Potential background checks of potential boyfriends?
Yes, somebody actually called my daughter a loss of potential. It was somebody who should have known better. Somebody I respected. And it bothered me for a long time. (I guess it still bothers me.) To call my child “potential,” as if she was an amorphous glob of fuel ready to be used up. I suppose it’s possible to think of humans this way: everyone is just stored up potential until their future is realized. But it seems remarkably low to me to refer to a dead child this way—almost completely devoid of human emotion. How utterly complex the human landscape that someone would attempt to empathize with me in a way that appears to reflect no fucking empathy whatsoever.
Had this remark not been spoken by someone I thought of as capable of empathy, I likely wouldn’t have been so turned off. (Also if he hadn’t kept repeating himself, as if trying to convince me that this was really the way I should be looking at it, that my child’s death was really just a loss of potential.) Why does grief turn so many people into giant bags of idiot? Even those who have experienced grief can be morons. I myself can look back at my life and I wonder how remarkably stupid I’ve been. I don’t remember how stupid I’ve been, but I bet I’ve been pretty amazingly stupid, and there should be required class on how not to be insipid when someone close to you is grieving. There should be a class that you have to take every other year, just to make sure you remember all the good stuff.
Then again, there are many many people around me who didn’t turn into idiots, who did exactly as they should have done. If they couldn’t think of what to say, they said nothing. They hugged us or brought us a meal. They burrowed their heads and hearts away and tried to avoid the specter of death as it cast its long shadow over their homes and churches and life insurance policies. These people did not invoke my ire. Maybe some of them who disappeared from my life altogether were cast as minor villains in my unwritten memoir, but as my daughter would say today, “I feel them.” I know what it means to run from death. I know how to cross my eyes in just the right way so that the entire scene becomes blurry. I know how to find the mirrors in a room and avoid visual contact with them for fear of witnessing the visage of encroaching sorrow. I know, I know, I know. I’ve done it. I’ve been that person, I’m almost certain of it.
So cast me aside. It’s okay. Swath yourself in pumpkin spice lattes. You absolutely have my permission. Set yourself apart from us, but don’t expect me to buy popcorn from your cub scout when you SPAM your entire address book with a plea to send him to summer sleepover camp. I feel you, but your compassion has boundaries, and so does mine. Yours may not go so high as to care for the grief of a friend, but mine does not go so low as to give a shit about your offspring’s summer babysitter.
That’s crass, right?
Well, fuck it. I get to be crass. I’ve spent too long worrying about how people will think of me if they hear what my heart is saying. I’ve spent too long protecting people who absolutely do not need protecting. If you are worried at all that I’m talking about you, then I’m probably not talking about you, because you probably give a shit. Giving a shit is an important step. I hope that just giving a shit shows, even if you walk stupidly through life thinking that children are just potential humans, entirely blind to how dismissive that may be.
I’m guessing the guy who wondered about my daughter’s potential gave a shit, and that’s why he was so insistent on my hearing what he had to say. He was trying to reach out so hard to connect with me on this one point that he missed his target and accidentally put his own eye out. Sometimes, if you give a shit, reaching out is enough. Just connect. Don’t try so hard to make sense of it for me, to explain what I might be missing about my daughter. Because I don’t care even one little bit what potential you think my daughter may have realized. The only thing I ever wanted her to be was alive.