A beautiful lamentation for a daughter, selected as a notable essay in the Best American Essays of 2014 anthology, edited by John Jeremiah Sullivan.

A Stiller Ground

by Gordon Grice

11/21/2013

I walked in graveyards, gathering trash and fallen branches. I pulled weeds that obscured the names on old headstones and, when I was through, most of the names I’d revealed meant nothing to me.

I took special care with the graves of children. I put the ceramic animal caricatures back on the stones they’d fallen off of. After a rain, I thumbed mud from the Lucite-covered photographs set in stones. I took the time to read a turn-of-the-century marker made of crudely hand-lettered cement. On it was an asymmetric heart pieced from small stones. I subtracted compulsively; death year minus birth year equals age, give or take one.

I started, almost always, with the graves of my own ancestors and cousins. My mother’s mother, dead before I was born. Carved next to her name was my grandfather’s. He was still alive, though his name had been written in the city of the dead for 34 years. My cousin, a suicide at 21. His epitaph declared his heart too big to last in this world. I read his stone with double vision: the disdain I’d always had for such sentiments; the tolerance I had now for anything, anything at all, to ease the pain. I walked along the rows, taking care of people past caring.

That was my daily routine. Sometimes the woman I loved would come with me. I envied her. She seemed to know how to grieve. To let herself feel things, to take time. She wrote letters to our stillborn daughter. She ordered photographs from the hospital and put them in a scrapbook. She talked. Most of these activities were strange to me, though I clumsily tried to emulate her for the sake of my mental health. I wanted to have my private scene at the cemetery, unwitnessed, and be cured for good, or at least for a little while.

She seemed to know how to grieve. To let herself feel things, to take time. 

Usually the last grave we visited was Abby’s, on the western edge of the cemetery, a new section where shade trees were forbidden and the buffalo grass grew sparse. Around the temporary steel marker clustered a miniature rose bush and a petunia, both recently planted and probably doomed by the heat, and an assortment of artificial flowers. I rinsed the fake flowers every day. Despite my care, mud splashed them and became a coat of dust by the following day. Their brilliance evaporated. My mind crawled sluggishly into the groove of trite symbols—life is transitory as a spring rose, and that sort of thing. I despised such easy comparisons even as I dredged them from my stock of clichés.

One day the petunia bore the marks of some small nibbling animal. The next day the entire plant had been devoured, and rabbit scat lay among the artificial flowers. I cleaned things up. A black string lay on the ground, and as I knelt closer the string resolved itself into a trail of ants. They came out of a small hole in the ground, traveled a few inches, and vanished into another hole.

The ants reminded me of a long dream I’d had the night before. It ended with bullies throwing black ants on my daughter. She looked about four years old. I couldn’t protect her. I was a bad father. The dream had clung for hours, souring the morning.

Now I knew what it meant. Ants eat dead things.

2.

At the hospital the day Abby was born, a nurse handed me a booklet about being the parent of a dead child. What’s the cost of a funeral for a newborn? Can you take a tax deduction? What should you name a dead child? Is it OK to build the coffin yourself? The booklet plainly answered such questions. It was my introduction to a realm of knowledge I had never known existed.

The answers run like this:

You can build the coffin if you want. It might make you feel better.

Name the child what you meant to name him. Don’t save the name for someone else.

You can claim the baby as a dependent on your taxes if he drew a breath.

General practice in the funeral industry is to charge low for a baby. In Guymon we had two mortuaries to choose from, and I chose the one that had buried my grandmother. The man at the funeral home appeared well-muscled and athletic, out of place in his gray suit. He sold me a baby- sized Styrofoam coffin not unlike a picnic cooler. I paid $250 for it, and that was all I paid for the whole job. The athletic man asked me if anyone would view the body, and I said no. He asked me if I was sure, and I said I was. I thought it was a strange thing to ask. No one would want to look at a stillborn child. The last look is for someone you’ve seen before, and no one had seen Abby except Tracy and me and some strangers.

When Tracy’s grandmother asked if she could see the body, I felt overwhelmed with gratitude. Abby was a real person, and now someone besides Tracy and me was saying so, however indirectly. Others had given us words of comfort that cut to the bone: When this happens, it means something was really wrong with them. It’s for the best. You’ll have others. At least it happened before you got to know her. All of which seemed to say Abby was not worthy of the grief.

I called the athlete to ask if it was too late to look at Abby, and it was.

“I’ll tell you what,” he said. “The casket’s glued shut, but I can try to pry it open.” That seemed a violation of the dead. I declined his offer. Later, when I saw the ants at the grave, I remembered the sealed Styrofoam. Maybe the ants weren’t getting in. But something was happening to her, by whatever physical agent. Her decomposition was inexorable.

3.

We were living in Arkansas, where we were in grad school, when Tracy got pregnant. It was a long drive from our hometown in the Oklahoma Panhandle. We had planned the pregnancy, and in October it happened. Not long after conception, Tracy bled, and we feared we’d lose the baby. Tracy had to stay in bed a while. Then everything smoothed out. In December I landed a teaching job back home in Oklahoma. The higher pay meant Tracy could stay home with the baby. We moved to Oklahoma in January. Near the end of April, the pregnancy was 30 weeks along. Tracy hadn’t felt the baby kick for a day or two, which worried me. I dismissed that fear, as I had many others over the months.

Tracy couldn’t dismiss it, though she wasn’t ready to press me with her worry. She remembered feeling the baby kick the previous Saturday, several fast kicks. She put her sister’s hand on the place to let her feel, but there was no more movement. Later Tracy would wonder if those movements were caused by fear or pain. She would be haunted by the thought that those kicks marked the moment of death.

On Tuesday morning, Tracy was asleep when I left for work. When she woke, she tried to remind herself that babies sometimes don’t move for long periods late in a pregnancy. Her sister Corey told her our nephew Cody had laid still in the womb for two days just before he was born. Tracy’s stomach felt different, softer, and she tried to explain that away. And down deep, she knew the baby was dead.

Corey and Cody went with her to the doctor’s office, where an experienced nurse failed to find a heartbeat. The nurse, an old family friend, didn’t state the obvious conclusion. Tracy didn’t say the words either. The nurse sent her to the hospital, where she waited with Corey and 14-month-old Cody.

The nurse, an old family friend, didn’t state the obvious conclusion. 

Tracy held Cody and sang to him. She sang “Me and Bobby McGee,” a song she’d sung to him many times before. She always meant for her own baby to hear it too. Somewhere she’d read that babies are soothed by songs they first learned in the womb. After an hour’s wait, the hospital technicians were ready for her. She submitted to an array of machines—fetal monitor, X-ray, sonogram. The technicians said nothing about the baby. Each technician did his work, patted her on the arm, and left the room without a word.

When I got home from work, no one was there. I had a snack and turned on the TV. Then I saw a blinking light on the answering machine, and somehow I knew everything. The telephone rang. It was Corey. She told me to come to the hospital. Before I left, I listened to the message on the answering machine, and of course it only said the same thing my sister-in-law had just told me.

At the hospital I found Tracy getting a sonogram. The room was dim, its fluorescent lights shaded by wooden blinds, the monitor casting a green light. The technician moved the probe soundlessly across Tracy’s body, making furrows in the green lubricating jelly. The look on Tracy’s face when she saw me was almost an apology: Surely this is nothing and it’s a shame you had to worry about it, I hope. Corey yielded her position at the bedside and slipped out. The green shapes on the monitor moved with the motion of the technician’s hand, forming pictures like those the weather people show on TV, storms forming, detected by shifting velocities, painted in thicknesses of a single shade. I couldn’t see any image in the shifting green. The technician said nothing.

We went to a waiting room, where Tracy’s family had gathered. It was a long wait. We saw the doctor arrive. He walked past the door of the waiting room to the sonogram room, and a minute later he was with us.

“It doesn’t look good,” he said. He hardly paused after that sentence, but for both of us the little pause was filled with frantic silent interpretation. He continued: “We’ve lost the baby.”

4.

“Here we see a double outline of the skull, and this is another indication of fetal loss,” said the obstetrician we’d driven 40 miles to see. Our family doctor had sent us. The obstetrician traced the double outline with the blunt end of a pen on the sonogram screen.

“Is it a girl?” Tracy said.

“I don’t see any indication of a boy,” the obstetrician said.

The suggested keepsakes included a lock of hair, inked footprints and handprints, a birth certificate, the plastic hospital bracelet, the receiving blanket, various bits of paperwork. 

It was Wednesday, the day after we found out. Everything was confirmed. He outlined the options: Wait for the baby to come to term, which could be two more months. A hard two months to go through, he said. Or take the baby

out by cesarean. Hard on the mother’s body; and you’re robbed of everything about your baby, even the birth itself. Or induce labor. We chose the last. There was a rustling of papers as a nurse came in and out, offering us choices for an appointment at the hospital.

The obstetrician inserted some sticks made of seaweed into Tracy’s cervix. The idea was that they would absorb moisture overnight, expanding, dilating the cervix. Then, early in the morning, they’d give Tracy a drug to start contractions.

5.

At the hospital the next day, a nurse took the booklet from me and turned to a certain page and pointed. “This is a list of what some people like to keep. If you two will circle what you want, I’ll see you get it. Also, if you’ll look at this other list and tell me what you want to do with the baby. I’ll check with you later.”

The baby was not yet born. Tracy lay in a hospital bed, clutching a sort of joystick with a button that coaxed morphine through an IV drip. A machine with red liquid digits rationed out the drug, keeping her from getting too much.

The suggested keepsakes included a lock of hair, inked footprints and handprints, a birth certificate, the plastic hospital bracelet, the receiving blanket, various bits of paperwork. And photographs.

I didn’t want the photographs. The very thought of having such a thing repulsed me. A dead baby. You wouldn’t want it, I reasoned—it seemed like reasoning—because someone else might come

across it, might without preparation or desire see a dead baby. Where would you keep such a picture?

“In a photo album,” Tracy said. She lay on her side, her hair clinging to the sweat of her neck, occasionally whimpering with pain— something I’d never heard her do. She lay there with her fist wrapped around the morphine button, her eyes almost closed against the pain, and knew exactly what she would want later. I stood there feeling embarrassed at the thought of photographs of the dead, but my embarrassment, I would decide later, was really shame. The shame of a failed father.

I massaged Tracy’s back, because they’d said in childbirth class that relaxing was supposed to lessen pain, and because I had nothing else to do.

6.

Eight hours after the IV drip started to convulse her body,Tracy said she had to urinate. The nurse asked her how long it had been and threatened to run a catheter. As she sat up, Tracy said, “Oh!” She pushed away the nurse who was still trying to help her stand. “I think my water broke.”

Minutes later the obstetrician was back, and other nurses, and the pushing started. Tracy screamed. After the hours of helpless inertia, she was sitting up, straining her muscles, her eyes wide and bright.

“Don’t scream, honey,” the head nurse said.

Tracy thought she had to be kidding. “It seemed like a stupid thing to say,” she told me later. “I thought I should get to scream if I wanted to.”

She screamed again, and her whole body seemed to strain into that primal sound. It seemed closer to anger than pain.

“Don’t scream, honey,” the head nurse insisted quietly. “Use that strength to push.”

“Really?” Tracy said, as if someone had just dropped an interesting fact in casual conversation. She didn’t scream again.

The two women took up the trash of ruined flowers and salvaged what they could. They raked the grave level. 

I stood holding Tracy’s hand, and I cried as I never had before. The day had seemed long and tense and irritating, and now all the tense irritation unmasked itself as grief and overwhelmed me with tears. I was trying to help. Nothing we’d learned in childbirth class, nothing I’d read in the books held any relevance here. The head nurse told Tracy what to do, speaking in a compassionate whisper that Tracy could hear in spite of my blubbering. I was supposed to let Tracy squeeze my hand when she needed to. With the other hand I continually wiped my eyes so I could see what was going on.

Beneath the foot of the bed lay a pool of blood, shimmering in the fluorescent light. Most of it had fallen there when the water broke, but there was still a steady drip from the bed. I marveled at the sloppiness of it. You’d think they’d have a way to keep it from getting in the works of the bed and all, I thought. The obstetrician sat on a swivel stool, crouched like a watchmaker going about some routine task at the work bench. He stuck his finger in to stretch the opening. It seemed to me he had nothing better to do. The baby’s head appeared, dark curls plastered to bright red skin, pushing through a little wave of slimy fluid.

“It’s crowning,” the doctor said. What a useless son of a bitch you are, I thought.

“Jesus, that hurts,” Tracy said, without any particular intensity. The baby came out surprisingly fast, falling audibly on the padded shelf the doctor had pulled out of the bed. Her entire body was bright red, as if she were blushing deeply, and covered with the waxy white substance called vernix. Otherwise, she looked like any other baby. The cord trailed out with her, fleshy and also blushing. It was tied in a red knot.

“That might explain something,” the doctor remarked mildly.

“There’s a knot in the cord,” I sobbed.

“Oh,” Tracy said.

“Could that have killed her?” I said.

“Yes,” the doctor said. “It could have.” He poked at the knot with some surgical instrument. “Not very tight, really.”

Shut up, you useless son of a bitch, I thought. This is an explanation. Don’t ruin it.

7.

Tracy’s mother was in the room, but she didn’t want to see Abby. She looked at Tracy’s face throughout the labor, and never saw the body. When a nurse mentioned holding Abby, Tracy’s mother left the room.

The booklet the nurse had given me suggested things to do. Hold the body; bathe it; rock it; take pictures; dress it; talk to it; invite the family in to see it. Touching was supposed to make it easier to heal because you have to have a tactile sense of somebody to remember. All of these struck me as weird and disturbing at first mention. But the book said I’d be sorry if I never held her, and that sounded plausible.

A nurse took Abby out to clean her up a bit. Shortly she was back, carrying Abby in a white receiving blanket with a few stripes on it. She made a ridiculously small bundle, which the nurse handed to Tracy.

“She’s beautiful,” Tracy said, pulling the blanket away from her face to see her better. We made inventory. One foot was cramped into an odd position, and the nurse said that would have straightened out in a little while. Tracy claimed her ears looked like mine.

I was still crying and not saying too much. “Can we open the eyes?” I finally choked out.

“No, it’s better if we don’t,” said the nurse with the hushed but strangely audible voice. I wanted to know what color her eyes were, and I didn’t know a newborn’s eyes may not settle on a color for several months.

When it was my turn I sat and rocked Abby. An errant smudge of blood stained my shirt cuff. It was not really Abby’s blood, but placental blood. Still, I thought of it as hers. I’d been meaning to return the shirt because of its shoddy workmanship, but now I realized I never would. A corner of her right eye had worked itself open, and the crescent of color I saw was dark.

8.

That night I lay beside Tracy’s bed in a reclining chair. I wrapped myself in a sheet and a thin blanket and lay there sweaty and cold, my neck crimping. I slept a little. What kept waking me was baby-sound. The nursery was nearby. The cries would come, thin as wet slivers of rosewood, and I would wake. They sounded less than real, like cries on TV do. I liked to hear them.

Glass vases with thin necks lined the windowsill. A rank of white irises traced cloud-shapes against the dark of the real clouds behind them. The moon was bright. I fell in and out of dreams. In one dream the doctor suddenly realized we had two children, and he took Tracy into surgery to cut out the unborn twin. It was a boy, monstrously large, and instead of his sister’s fatal softness he had a hard skull and great predatory teeth. But he cried, helpless as a human child. His eyes were wild, ape’s eyes, nothing human in them except the need to be fed, and Tracy and I would have an unrelenting lifetime of hunger and screams.

Touching was supposed to make it easier to heal because you have to have a tactile sense of somebody to remember. 

When I woke I was not scared, only lonely. I lay awake listening to Tracy’s breathing and the cries of the distant children.

9.

It was 40 miles from hospital to home. Tracy sat quietly. After the long labor with its violent artificial contractions, they’d taken her into surgery to scrape out the recalcitrant placenta. She was in considerable pain.

A snowstorm had blown up that morning. Its gusts danced on the highway like white dresses on a wash line. On the car stereo, which had been a birthday present to me the week before, we had Billie Holiday, and she was singing “Summertime.” In the song a mother is singing to her baby. She says the living is easy. She says one day the baby will rise up singing and spread his wings and take to the sky, but till then he’s safe with his father and mother.

When we got home I took two days’ worth of mail from the box. All of it was damp along the edge where snow had blown in. There were bills and business and letters from friends, as if nothing had happened.

10.

I didn’t sit and brood about Abby all the time. I thought of her often, many times in a day. Sometimes I thought of her with nothing but pleasure. Tracy and I both found the memory of her birth profoundly beautiful, despite everything. But the grief returned frequently. It would start as an irritable feeling, hardly noticeable to me, though no doubt others found me harder than usual to get along with. Over the course of a week or so, my irritability would blossom into a restless insomnia and an unfocused anger. Eventually I’d find myself up long past midnight, pawing through the months- old sympathy cards and the toys people had sent in anticipation and the photos and the birth certificate and the footprints and handprints.

I was happy if I could draw tears. Tears would make me feel sane for a few days or a few weeks. But everything would start over, the grief cycling in unpredictable intervals. Sometimes it came as a sudden catch in my voice, or as a craving for hard-driving rock and roll, or as a suspicion that I had somehow killed her. Sometimes it came as a diffuse hunger that seemed to have no object, an almost subliminal feeling that I could satisfy myself with a meal or a drink or a sudden insight.

Sometimes it was a daydream. In one of them I found myself holding her in some realm outside of time, and I was telling her everything would be all right.

11.

My mother admitted she was mad at God. She would go to the grave and sing lullabies and check on the flowers. If the flowers faded, she’d ask Tracy’s permission before she took them up. Before she left the cemetery she always traced the name on the iron marker with her finger.

One day, not long after Oklahoma’s fitful spring returned, Tracy and my mother went to the cemetery together. They found the deep gouge of a tire across the grave. The tire had bent the iron marker. Tracy had a habit of putting a pretty rock on the grave every time she visited. The rocks were scattered, and one of them, a rough cluster of quartz crystals, had broken. It lay scattered on the road like rock salt.

The tire track guided them to another grave nearby, freshly dug, heaped up with wet clods of earth the color of unripe peaches. Some workers had run over the older grave on the way to digging the new.

“It felt like they had hurt her,”Tracy told me later.

The two women took up the trash of ruined flowers and salvaged what they could. They raked the grave level. They even wrestled the marker back into shape.

When they told me what had happened, I went to look for myself. Then I went home and started making phone calls. A man in charge of the cemetery agreed to meet me there.

“This is my daughter’s grave,” I said. When he saw the tracks he apologized repeatedly. He shook my hand in an unchallenging grip and said he would personally see that everything was put right. He gave me his personal phone number and assured me he would instantly resolve any problem for me, though, he hastened to add, he would see to it that no other problem ever arose.

I said, “All right,” and drove home. I was angry because the man had given me no chance to start a fight. When I got home I took a handsaw up a tree and worked at a branch, my strokes frantic and ineffectual, the saw continually jumping out of its groove to start a new cut. Soon I was tired and sweaty. The bark was scored in a dozen places, but the heartwood remained unscathed. I climbed down and sat on the porch drinking iced tea. Tracy joined me.

“Caring for a grave is a lousy substitute,” she said.

12.

Someone told me my dead grandmother would watch over her in heaven. I took comfort in that, even though heaven struck me as implausible. I pictured my grandmother in the dress they buried her in, which she’d never worn in life. I pictured Abby on her lap. But I couldn’t see Abby’s face, because I had forgotten it.

I got out the photos the hospital had sent us, the disturbing Polaroids with the blood-red lips and the better ones with her the way I remembered, or would have remembered if everything weren’t slipping away from me. You don’t remember her face, I told myself. Now you remember the photos of her face. You held her for half an hour; you’ve held the photos longer than that. I found I had an idea of her personality, which I based on nothing but the face in the photos. She was a serious little girl, given to wrinkling her brow irritably at the silliness of others. The sort of person who listens closely when you speak and then asks blunt questions.

13.

One morning in April I lay in bed hoping the phone wouldn’t ring. I needed work, but hoped nobody would call to give me any that day. It was two days until my birthday, and after that it would be one more week to Abby’s birthday: one year old.

The day was misty and cold. I warmed some vegetable soup and sat on the couch in front of the TV. When the picture came on I saw an aerial shot of a building from which a section seemed to have been bitten. After a while I gathered that the building was in the capital city of my own state, and that people were dead and others bloody on the street. The dead were numerous, and many of them children.

In the ensuing weeks, one of those children came to stand for all of them in the newspapers and magazines. She was one year old. An often-printed image showed her, newly dead, in the arms of a fireman. A single idea came to dominate captions of her image: the heroism of the rescuers.

That’s not what it means, I thought. That’s not it at all.

14.

To the east, where most of the graves lay, were a few stands of pine. One day, in a pause between rains, I watched a flight of birds wheel above gray puddles, and reflected in the puddles were multiples of the sky: the jagged line of pines, the stacked clouds solid as cut limestone, the dark birds arcing. The birds made tight turns—how did they synchronize?—and suddenly were absorbed in the still trees. It took my eyes a moment to pick out the individual birds standing silent in the boughs.

As our car crept along the narrow lanes of the cemetery toward the exit, Tracy and I discussed the birds. They seemed to always be there. I thought they were crows. I had once seen crows picking through the rubble of a car wreck, the windshield broken into blood-smeared gravel and gleaming under their delicate iron feet. I’d seen them at the carcasses of mule deer and coyote on the highway. They should roost in a cemetery, I thought. It would be a nice symbol.

Tracy thought they were grackles. “They’re smaller than crows,” she said. “And look how their heads are midnight blue instead of black.”

I will never forget her, I found myself thinking. I will never forget, I will never forget. But I will, won’t I? When I die.

That thought had been hurting me like a fresh bruise all day. When Tracy and I are dead, no one will remember that a girl named Abby ever was. I thought of my youth slipping away from me, of the fact that I too would one day be buried in a cemetery—maybe this one—among the ants and the murder of birds in the pines. It was the old but always fresh insight that the death of the child is also the death of the parent, and that nothing taken by the ants can ever come back.

“These never seem to make any noise,” I said aloud. “If they said something, you could tell whether they’re crows.”

Just then one of the birds came up from the ground, flapping at an indolent pace. It seemed as if it should crash, but instead it cruised at four feet, crossing in front of our windshield. Grasped in its blue-black feet, complete, as yet unmutilated, almost surreal in the crisp perfection of its details, was a cottontail rabbit kit. The bird curved its flight to the ground in front of a red-granite headstone.

“Drive on,” Tracy said. “Fast.” She was pregnant again, and easily made sick.

15.

The spring warmed up, and every night on the news they numbered the dead from the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City. Friends and relatives who’d been in the city on business recounted their stories, except for one man who’d helped dig out the children. He kept silent about it.

One night the news was interrupted every few minutes with tornado warnings. I didn’t much care. We had a lot of tornado warnings in Oklahoma, and who has time to run for shelter with every warning? Outside the air was muggy and gray and smelled as if it might break into lightning. I had a backache. Not the kind that really hurts, just the kind that tells you there’s weather out. I walked in the yard, watching a scatter of ants scramble against the coming of the rain. What were they in such a hurry to do? Probably they meant to seal themselves in against the storm. So why were they all outside their den?

I had recently read about the Torajan people of Indonesia. They inter dead children in cavities hewn in trees. The tree slowly closes its wound around the child. The tree keeps growing in the child’s place.

I watched the clouds and the ground by turns. The storm stacked up. The ants vanished, as if absorbed into the dry ground about to take the rain.

Originally published in This Land, Vol. 4 Issue 22. Nov. 15, 2013.