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By Wendy Staley Colbert
Push open one of the paneled, double doors leading into my bedroom and you’ll see angled against the corner a 19th-century-style, dark wood bureau. It dominates the room. If I were to lie down in front of it, it would stretch from the top of my head to my toes. It’s a mammoth thing. Two burly men took the drawers out and lifted it end over end to get it up the sharply-turned staircase when we moved in seven years ago. I keep the box of my baby girl’s ashes in the smallest, top left drawer of that massive bureau. It’s proof that she existed, although she never truly belonged to this earth. Some days I haven’t wanted to belong to this earth either.
My daughter’s box is smaller than a carton of baking soda. Its wrapping is shiny, smooth, and off-white, not much fancier than butcher paper. In fact, it’s wrapped up like a gift with triangular folds on top and bottom held down with scotch tape, and a label on one side. It isn’t addressed to me. The box’s label says “Baby Girl Colbert.” I suppose I could unwrap it and open it up to see the contents if I wanted to. But I don’t want to.
The box sits lying down in the very front of that tiny, upper drawer atop other mementoes of loss and love. It rests on a folded rectangle of newspaper containing my brother’s obituary. The newspaper overlays a scatter of sympathy cards from friends and acquaintances, and love notes from my husband scratched out on kitchen sticky notes late at night while I’m asleep.
In that drawer, I keep her memory box, too. I slid the sea-foam green, satiny square box to the very back of that upper-left drawer. You’d have to look to find it there. The top of the memory box is two halves that open up toward you when you pull the loose ends of the bowed ribbon that keeps it closed. A group of volunteer women at the hospital put these together for the babies lost there. I’m not sure what kind of criteria they use to decide when to make the boxes. My girl had been growing inside me for six months, so she made the cut-off, I guess.
We hadn’t settled on a name yet by the time I lost her. That’s why she’s known as Baby Girl, although my son calls her Melanie. Melanie was one of the names we considered, along with Bailey, Sidney and others – but my son chose Melanie. He was only two years old when we lost her and didn’t fully understand what happened. I retold him the story when he was eight, and he decided he liked that name best. It was important to him that she have a name, even though she’d never have a social security number or birth certificate. She’d never see me, her mother, although I saw her. I’m sure she felt me moving while she was alive inside me. I’m sure she felt my moods. I felt hers. She was a girl with spunk. She twisted and turned and was constantly in motion. Until she wasn’t.
The memory box holds a couple of white, cotton, hand-smocked gowns that the volunteer women made. They put a different one on my girl, unbeknownst to me, after I held her and stared at her, and then she started to cool, and I didn’t want to hold her any longer – what was the point? – but I did still want to hold her. I always wanted to hold her, but I let her go. I handed her to the nurse and the nurse took her from me and walked out the door. When I opened that memory box the next day at home, I wept when I and saw and touched the smooth fabric of those white smocks. I never got to choose a dress for my girl. I never got to slide the opening over her head and work her arm through a sleeve. But these volunteer women whom I never got to meet did. I remember a nurse at the hospital telling me about the memory box and suggesting that we take one if we weren’t sure, just in case we might want one. I must have agreed. But I don’t think I realized what all it entailed. How they were handling and dressing my baby after I let her go. In the moments before they burned her.
I remember the nurse asking if we wanted our baby cremated with all the other babies that were lost in the hospital that day or that week. My husband was okay with this idea. But I said no. I wanted to keep my baby separate. I wanted to take my baby home with me.
The white dress they put her in looked almost like a baptismal gown, but not as long or formal. It wasn’t a dress I would’ve chosen. They took pictures of my stillborn baby girl wearing that dress and put the pictures into built-in frames along the inside of the memory box lid. I didn’t think to take pictures of my baby. My husband didn’t like the pictures. I cried at the starkness of them the few times I was brave enough to look. I kept the pictures for several years and then threw the pictures out. My baby had edema so badly that most of her skin peeled off in my womb, and the red tinge of her in the pictures reminded me of the trauma she suffered. The doctors assured me she didn’t feel any pain, but when I looked at the pictures I cried at what she’d endured.
She and I both went through a lot that weekend – the weekend we found out she had a growth in her chest that was pressing against her heart and lungs, the reason her movements had slowed to next to nothing, the weekend we learned that there was nothing they could do, that she wouldn’t make it through the weekend. We found out her birth date and her death date would be one in the same. I stood on my knees on the hospital bed to push out my dead baby, and she dropped there on the mattress underneath me, looking more like she had fallen out a window. After we had held her and they had taken her away, blood kept draining out of my body. Too much blood. I felt calm and relaxed as my blood pressure plummeted. The blood was still coming and the nurses changed the sheets again. I wasn’t thinking about what was happening with my baby in the next room or down the hall. I was thinking it was over. I was thinking I might die. I kept hemorrhaging and doctors filled the room and a panicked nurse snapped her fingers in front of my glazed-over eyes and said, “Hey, stay with us here.” I was barely conscious, too weak to move, and felt strangely serene while the terror and urgency and chaos swirled around me. My husband stood by the bed holding my hand, the concern in his eyes the purest expression of love I have ever experienced.
My cervix was closing and the placenta was still lodged in my uterus. The placenta – the thing that was not really a part of her and not really a part of me – but that had connected us and nourished her and almost killed me – had to come out. After a couple of other doctors tried unsuccessfully to get it out, the most senior doctor was called. Even as I skimmed along the surface of consciousness, feeling the comfort of the sticky warmth draining out of my body between my legs, and feeling somehow deeply satisfied with the frayed tether I held to earth, something inside me realized this was the critical moment. If the doctor could find the placenta and pull the whole thing out, I would live. If she couldn’t, they’d anesthetize me and cut me open to get it out, and with my blood pressure so low, and having already lost so much blood, I’d likely die. I pictured my towheaded, two-year-old son at home with my parents, about to have his first full night away from me, possibly at this very moment sitting on my mom’s lap in the rocking chair in my bedroom reading Goodnight Moon. I thought, Let me live. Let me go home to my son who is alive. Let me at least be his mother, if I can’t be hers. The doctor reached her arm way up inside the tunnel of me, grasped the corner of the placenta with her fingers and tugged firmly and steadily until the placenta emerged in her hand in one piece from inside that tiny, hidden compartment of me.
I closed up and the blood stopped gushing. I realized that day that part of me was comfortable with the idea of leaving the earth the same day as my daughter. Part of me was at peace with that. But the stronger part of me chose that day to stay. To live to tell the story to my son and show him the evidence of his sister’s existence. To return to the room with the bureau.
In the middle of the bureau is a large cabinet that houses a television that I never turn on anymore. Two wide horizontal drawers run underneath the TV cabinet. Open the bottom-most drawer, and you’ll see a rectangle of white paper the size of a nametag with the tiniest inkblot human footprints you’ve ever seen. They’re about the size of a cat’s paws. On the back, someone wrote in pencil “Colbert Girl.” Judging by the placement of her big toes and the arc of her soles, it looks to me like her right footprint is on the left side of the paper, and her left footprint is on the right. There wasn’t much that went according to plan that day. We couldn’t seem to get anything right.
My son never got to see her. The only thing I’ve shown him so far are her footprints. I keep them there in the bottom drawer of the bureau so he can easily open it and see them if he wants to. He knows they’re there, but he’s only looked inside once or twice.
It’s been ten years now, and I’m almost ready to throw out the memory box, with the dresses I didn’t pick out for her. I haven’t thrown the gowns out yet, but I think some day I will.
I’m not ready to let go of her ashes yet either – to release them to the earth. I’m not sure I ever will be. And I’ll always keep her footprints – to me, the most real reflection of her.
When I pull open that tiny, top left drawer and hold the surprisingly lightweight box of ashes in my palm, I’m reminded that someday my body will be gone, too – existing for a time only in a loved one’s memory while they’re still alive. Then gone. Gone for good. Someday, my body, too, will be reduced to a pile of ashes.
Until then, my body keeps moving in the world, creating stories, each of my feet stepping and pressing against the earth, as my daughter’s never could. Until, finally, my daughter and I are no longer hidden out of sight in a drawer in a bureau. We are truly part of the earth. We belong.
Wendy Staley Colbert’s personal essays have been featured in Salon, Whole Life Times, ParentMap, This Great Society,Writing in Public, Feel More Better and Writing Is My Drink and in the anthologies We Came to Say and We Came Back to Say. Her essay “Shopping for Breasts” will be featured in Kerry Cohen’s anthology, The Dressing Room, forthcoming from Seal Press in 2014.