sister mermaid

My friend Martha emailed me in response to one of my blogs, small talk in which I mention feeling avoided, thinking perhaps that my grief and despair were seen as contagious. She thoughtfully wrote:

"there have been times I've been at the edges of someone's tragedy, and it's a hard place to walk. You don't want to swoop in inappropriately and accidentally say something stupid or offensive. There's also knowing that you're going to carry that person's grief with you, and not everyone is strong enough to do that."

As soon as I read her words I knew she was right and I knew I’d—at least once—committed the same honest crime, or something similar.

After graduating college I briefly reconnected with my teen aged kindred spirit, my sister mermaid. She had lamentably moved to Florida the summer before our junior year. We had been like kissing cousins, two peas in a pod, fraternal Siamese twins, if that’s possible. She had been living in Eugene, Oregon. Seven years had passed since we had sat glued at the foot of tall skinny lockers gawking up at kids scuffing Nike Swoosh sneakers at the end of tight Gloria Vanderbilt designer jeans and faded Levi’s 501s—two sprites invisible to the passers by. Now, she was pregnant—beautiful, voluptuous round goddess. We went swimming together again and, like me, she was forever mermaid.

One evening, weeks later, I got a phone call. I was sitting in a hard edged shadow at the bar in my parent’s kitchen—the telephone stuck to the wall like a leach. It was her mother, whose voice I recognized though I’d never heard over the phone—quiet and southern, like puny waves lapping a Texan shore. She said the child, a lovely girl, had been stillborn. I think she told me her name—her granddaughter’s name. I was frozen. Utterly numb. I don’t know what I said or if I said anything. I must have. I can only imagine the words, “I’m so sorry.” I was shaking, felt sick. More than anything I felt helpless. “What must she be feeling?” I thought. I couldn’t even begin to imagine. So I didn't.

I don’t remember ever speaking to my friend that night or in the weeks that followed. I had no concept of what it was to love—lose—a child of your own, your flesh, tethered to you by a blood-line that exists between no other two beings. There were no words. There are no words. There can be no understanding. My mouth round and open, but silent, my heart lost trying to follow a song that was foreign to me in every way. My legs still feel heavy knowing I could have been there for her. Could have driven five hours to squeeze a cool washcloth over her forehead, brush back her hair, hold her hand, or just stand close and listen to her breathing, her sobs, her silent torment. But I did none of that. I didn’t swoop in and say something stupid. Perhaps worse, I think I did nothing at all.

from the cover of The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch
photo by Andy Mingo

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