An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken
I have been avoiding this book since it was published in 2008.
To summarize, it’s a memoir about her first son, who was stillborn, and her subsequent pregnancy. In part I didn’t want to read it for the obvious reason — hello, been there, done that.
But there were more complicated reasons, too, not least of which was, “Why didn’t I write that book?” Of course, over the course of numerous journal and blog entries, I have written that book. Lots of parents have, unfortunately. What if she trivialized her loss, especially since she’s had a live baby since? (Unlikely.) What if her language was melodramatic or, conversely, dull? (Also unlikely; she’s a well-known published popular author, hence probably not boring.) What if it hurt too much?
Additionally, she and her husband decided to name the baby what they had called him when she was pregnant: “Pudding”. I never thought of naming Gabriel “Li’l Bean”, which is how we referred to him when I was pregnant. We had had names picked out, one for a boy and one for a girl, but we didn’t want to use one of those either. We finally settled on Gabriel for a boy; I don’t remember the name we picked for a girl, possibly a variation of Angela (for angel, obviously) or Dolores (which means ‘sorrow’).
My fears, as they say, were unfounded. (Well, except for the Pudding thing. She explains their choice, and I understand it, but it’s still a bit of an obstacle for me.) Reading this book is a lot like reading my own thoughts about Gabriel — and my subsequent pregnancy with Monkey. McCracken and her husband suffered their calamity (her word) in France, which lends an exotic twist to their horrendous experience.
At one point, McCracken writes about a man she encountered as a teenager in Boston. This man handed her a card on the subway that said I AM DEAF.
“I have thought of that card ever since, during difficult times… surely when tragedy has struck you dumb, you should be given a stack of cards that explain it for you. When Pudding died, I wanted my stack. I still want it. My first child was stillborn, it would say on the front. It remains the hardest thing for me to explain, even now, or maybe I mean especially now — now that his death feels like a non sequitur. My first child was stillborn. I want people to know it but I don’t want to say it aloud. People don’t like to hear it but I think they might not mind reading it on a card.”
My brain and heart said in chorus: THIS.
An Exact Replica… encapsulates the pain of a baby lost parent, which is not simply the loss of the baby. (It is not simple in any way.) It is the loss of everything future; it is the loss of definition (am I a mother/father?); it is the complete confounding of discovery; the obliteration of joy. These are the things that our children mean to us: future, identity, discovery. Joy. And McCracken captures it, the horror of it and yet the matter-of-factness of it. We lose and continue; we continue and we grieve, and always grieve.
I also like the chapter of the book where she talks about the kinship of baby lost parents, the “family tree of grief”. That struck me, too, and I know it’s a part of the reason why places like Compassionate Friends and A Glow in the Woods exist.
I haven’t finished the book yet; I am at the point where McCracken is writing more about her subsequent pregnancy, and the way Pudding’s death affected her experience of that pregnancy, much of which so far resonates for me, also. I admit that I am taking a pause because my FIL is going to have triple-bypass surgery tomorrow, and I’d rather put some energy into praying for him and taking care of the people who need care, than toward dealing with the emotions roiling through me as I read this book. (Instead I’ve picked up Up in Honey’s Room by Elmore Leonard.)
Because An Exact Replica… does hurt to read, it does hurt to remember. But I’ve never been afraid of my grief for Gabriel, even when it was crippling. It’s okay to revisit it through the vehicle of McCracken’s book now. The pain is something familiar; the grief is something I’ve integrated into my life. It just is.
If you have not lost a child (and I sincerely hope you have not and never do), I don’t know that you would read this book. However, if you know someone who has lost a child under these circumstances particularly, someone you are struggling to understand or help or just, you know, not to turn away from, this can be a good book for you. The writing is powerful and direct, two things that it can be hard to be when you are brought down by grief.