When Daniel Raeburn and his wife Rebecca met they fell in love. “Of all the women I’ve ever met," Dan told a friend, “she’s the first one who felt like family." But at Christmas, as they prepared for the birth of their first child, she was tragically stillborn. This the story of how the two both clashed and clung to each other through a series of unsuccessful pregnancies before finally, joyfully, becoming parents.
Vessels is an unflinching, enormously moving account of intimacy, endurance, and love.
One night Bekah said, You’re not just angry. You’re angry at me.
I’d managed to hide this, but only from myself.
I remembered our first big trip together. Zion, where we’d stepped inside a slit in the Earth’s crust. The slit was a hundred feet deep, so narrow we’d had to walk single file. When our shoulders brushed against the stone, we were brushing against the Jurassic Era. We rounded a bend. A skeleton, ten feet above our heads. A fawn. A flash flood had lifted her up and driven her into a crease in the rock. We took a lot of photographs that day, but not of the fawn. We knew we’d never forget her.
We’d spent days in the canyons’ mazes. Now she was sitting across the kitchen table from me. I learned one thing in the wilderness, I said: whenever I found myself lost, to stop and sit still until I could remember the last time I knew where I was and where I was going.
When was that for you I said.
She was quiet.
For me, it was the morning I finished writing the Imp about Mexico. That, and the day I asked you to marry me.
Irene’s birthday, she said. And the day after, when we got back from the hospital. Before we had to start seeing people.
She was right. All we’d had to do then was grieve. Now we had to live.
Or survive. At first I didn’t recognize a guy who lived in our building. His head was shaved white, his scalp stitched together like the hide on a baseball.
Kids, he said. Out front the other night.
They didn’t take his wallet. They’d just wanted to hit him.
A few days later somebody taped a notice to our lobby door. Kids had singled out more than thirty people at random and beaten them. Avoid leaving the building before school, after school, or during lunch hours. The warning faced in from our lobby window, so people who walked by couldn’t read it. Whoever’d posted it didn’t want the kids to know that they had people scared.
In April two girls jumped a woman. She was found next to her shattered cell phone, her baby crying in its stroller. Some of my neighbors were shocked: Girls had done this. I wasn’t shocked. I’d seen girls tear each other’s hair out. I’d stepped over clumps of bloody braids on the sidewalk. The next day seven kids beat a man. By the end of April more than forty people had been beaten. By the end of May, fifty-five.
Every weekday Bekah stood in front of the high school across the street, waiting for the bus that took her downtown. I didn’t wait with her, and she didn’t ask me to. That’s how deadened we were. We’d eat breakfast and say, Bye. I’d hear the stairs groan, the lobby door bang shut. Then I’d listen to a piece of music that had been left for dead.
The man who wrote it was the youngest of eight kids, four of whom died. When he was nine his mom died. Then his dad died. He was sent to a conservatory, where he learned to compose and mourn at the same time. He grew up and had seven kids. Three died. His wife died. He remarried and had thirteen more kids. Seven died. Twenty kids, and ten died.
The music was an ecstasy of agony. It sounded like it was agonizing over life itself. Was it really worth the living? I was asking myself this question, and no answer made sense. Sense wasn’t the point. Sensations were. That’s what the music gave me: the feeling that even though life itself means nothing, living is everything.
The cellist playing it had been born a hundred and twenty-eight years ago, on the day after Irene’s birthday. When he came out his face was black, the umbilical cord a noose around his neck. He survived, but his mom’s next baby didn’t. It died. So did the next. And the next. And the next. And the next. And the next. And the next. And the next. Eight kids in a row died. At age twelve their brother found what I was listening to in a secondhand shop, where posterity had more or less left it. He took it back to his room and practiced it in private for twelve years. Then he played it in public. When he did, he resurrected it. We can’t think about Bach’s six suites for cello without thinking about the boy who adopted them: Pablo Casals.
I’d heard that name before. Where? I remembered the voice in my head, the one that’s always been a part of me, but also apart from me, even though it’s mine. An inkling led me across the room. I rolled open the drawer in my filing cabinet. There was the folder with Irene’s name. Inside it was the booklet with the cross-eyed teddy bear. The literature. Inside that, the bald statement that had struck me:
“The main thing in life is not to be afraid to be human." Pablo Casals.
I listened to him and Bach religiously. I got rid of the records I’d grown up with. The historical record. Records by bands named for psychological disorders, insecticides, suicides. Bands whose names ended in -ide, period. Named after battlefields, combat, the ‘Nam slang that meant zipped into a body bag. A record with a song about drinking black coffee and staring at the wall. The last time I’d listened to the song I’d been sixteen years old, driving my car sixty miles an hour upside down, in midair. Not on purpose, but not accidentally; it was an accident that was bound to happen. I was wearing an army field jacket and no seat belt. As the car and I turned end over end three times and crunched down onto the highway in front of oncoming traffic, black coffee and staring at the wall became the last words I’d ever hear.
But they weren’t. An upside-down paramedic appeared. You all right?
He couldn’t believe it either.
In the twenty years since, I hadn’t listened to the song.
I didn’t need to. I heard it in my head every time I drank black coffee and stared at the wall, which I’ve done every morning ever since.
I stacked my records in front of a record store clerk. He said, Would five hundred dollars be too much of an insult?
Yes, but I said No. Record stores had been my favorite form of financial suicide. One last time wouldn’t kill me.
The only time I hesitated in this purge was when I came across my favorite album. A double album. Twin records, from the Twin Cities. I’d once told the documentarian that listening to them was like loading both barrels of a shotgun with black licorice, sticking them in your mouth, and pulling the trigger. The band had translated their name into the language of another country. It was Do You Remember?
The album had a junkyard on its cover. Crushed cars. I tossed it in with the rest. I’d always love it. That’s why I had to get rid of it.
- (Spoiler Alert but we want to leave you with the hard-won hope. This recounts marriage and living after the subsequent birth of a healthy baby.)
I looked at her. I saw Irene. I remembered her. Then someone snipped the umbilical cord and the memory was gone; only the thought of it was left. The baby spluttered and choked and turned pink. An internal organ had become a human being. She cried. Then I cried.
“That is happiness," Willa Cather wrote: “to be dissolved into something complete and great."
I’d read this sentence fifteen years ago and I didn’t realize that I’d memorized it until the day I poured Irene’s ashes into her urn when it had come back to me. It had come back again on her birthday, and now her sister’s birthday.
We named her sister Willa.
Give InKind is honored to include this powerful excerpt about men and perinatal loss by award-winning author Daniel Raeburn. Raeburn’s work has appeared in numerous magazines, including The New Yorker which first published the essay that inspired Vessels: A Love Story.
Editor’s note: As someone who has experienced stillbirth and remained married, I will say that this book is the most perfect articulation of relationships after a loss – it tells a diamond-hard and ultimately loving truth about how couples cope. The complexity that Raeburn permits readers to interpret is a gift. Raeburn allowed me to understand my husband’s experience. And this helped us immeasurably as we continued to build our family – even years out.
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