The strangest thing about Robert is how his voice changed in the years after he died. In the beginning, it was the wailing of a newborn infant, always at the other end of the house from where I was. Sometimes, the voice laughed – the happiest little infant giggles from another room. Later, it became an older child’s voice and it sounded nearer and more plaintive. It said, “Mommy.” That’s all it ever said. None of this happened often. Maybe once every six or eight months. Sometimes, there might be a whole year or two of silence.
Much later, it was the voice of a teenage boy, startling me at moments when I wasn’t even thinking about Robert, although to be honest, there have been few moments like that in the past 30 years. The voice said “Mom” in that husky, reproving, half-exasperated tone in which adolescent boys address their mothers. That’s when Robert would have been about 15 years old, if he had lived.
I never told anyone about this because people have a way of condescending to the mother of a stillborn baby. They think it is easy to get over a dead infant because you never really knew him. Let them think what they want. What do they know about how you carry him in your heart all the days of your life?
Women tell me they believe there is something after death. Men don’t. The men I’ve known have all said there is nothing after death. They emphatically declare that only oblivion awaits. It’s as though this certain knowledge of oblivion has been given to them alone while the rest of us mortals have been left in ignorance to puzzle things over. Just as evangelical Christians believe they are going to heaven, so these men believe they are going nowhere. They have as much faith in nowhere as evangelicals do in heaven.
People said inept things: “God took him to teach you a lesson.” What kind of God kills a baby to teach his mother a lesson? And just what is the lesson? More than 30 years later, I still don’t know what it is. And if it is to be revealed, then by whom? Do other mothers whose children have died already know this lesson, and if so, why don’t they share it?
“He had lessons to learn in heaven,” a friend said. Which is it? Did I have lessons to learn here, or did Robert have them to learn in heaven? Who does God think He is that He can have it both ways?
“I believe Robert has gone to heaven as an infant and is being cared for by other people who have passed over,” another friend said. But that was no consolation. Robert should have been at home in his crib, being cared for by me, his mother.
My then-husband, Robert’s father, didn’t do loss well. He said, “I don’t feel as if I ever had a son.”
The diagnosis was placental insufficiency. The placenta was full of blood clots, the doctor told me when she received the autopsy report. After the baby got to 34 weeks, the defective placenta couldn’t support him anymore.
“Cheer up,” the doctor said. “You’re too young to be depressed.” I was 28. At what age, then, is it OK to be depressed when your baby dies? “I guess he wasn’t meant to be,” she added. “I meant for him to be,” I said. “You want to get ready for the festivities,” she said. Forget your baby’s death! It’s Christmas! When she left the room, I looked at my chart and saw that she’d written down this particular visit as “counseling.” I changed the chart’s wording. Wherever she had written “Baby Male” I crossed it out and wrote “Robert.” He had a name. He was a person.
Once, I heard a psychic on TV predict that the Soviet Union’s then leader, Yuri Andropov, would end up “bricked into the wall in the Kremlin.” That is what I did with the inept things the doctor and others said, including my husband’s remark that in the years to come, nobody would remember Robert. I bricked it all into a wall in the Kremlin.
Born Dec. 20, 1984, Robert Gregory Giannuzzi is buried at a monument for stillborn babies and neonatal deaths in St. Boniface Cemetery, at the corner of Elizabeth and Archibald streets in Winnipeg. The pastoral care office at St. Boniface Hospital, where Robert was born, erected the monument. I had the crazy idea that he wouldn’t be alone there; he’d always be with the other babies. The monument is a graceful tower whose base bears the inscription from Matthew in French and English: “Anyone who welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me.” Puffy little bushes bursting with fat, glossy leaves in summer are planted all about.
I have never met another parent there, although a lot of people visit the monument. There are always bouquets in varying states of freshness, stuffed animals, toys and cards for the babies. I left a little plush dog and a pair of blue baby shoes. These things eventually disappear. I don’t know where they go. I suppose the cemetery caretakers dispose of them when they become weather-worn. Often, there are cards in French addressed to “Zacharie.” They say, “On t’aime, Zacharie.” Sometimes, Zacharie’s mom leaves drawings that Zacharie’s sister, Emma, has made. Zacharie’s mother is as ghostly a presence at the memorial as her child. I leave cemetery vases, their points stuck fast in the hard ground, their baskets spilling over with a profusion of blue and white flowers.
An odd thing happened there a year after Robert’s death. It was winter. The cemetery was bleak, with bare grey and red granite stones sticking up through the snow. The leafless bushes were a tangle of tired twigs that made you wonder if they would ever find the energy to bloom again.
I set my flowers down at the foot of the monument. Then, I stepped back and looked up. And I saw, not the acres of stark gravestones poking up wearily across the snowy stretch of sere grass, but an emerald spread of lawn as though it were mid-July. Pots of brilliant flowers bloomed at every grave marker — red, yellow, purple, pink and white. I should have walked towards the vision, but I was afraid to move, for fear it would vanish. The cold seeped through my boots, numbing my toes, and I looked down at the ground. When I looked up again, the flowers had disappeared and the grass was covered by trackless snow. It was the only hallucination I have ever had, unless you count the auditory ones.
“Visual and auditory hallucinations are common in grieving, but considered abnormal if they persist longer than six months,” writes Dr. Joseph Holzmacher, a psychologist whose article on grief comes up at the top of a Google search.
Six months? What do you think about 20-something years, Dr. Holzmacher? I stopped hearing Robert’s voice around the time he would have turned 24. It was a man’s voice by then. It said, once or twice, quite close to me, “Mom.” Then, nothing more. Why did it stop? Did it take almost a quarter of a century for my “abnormal” brain to recover some semblance of normality at last?
Other articles on grief say the same thing, that the bereaved commonly experience auditory and even visual hallucinations concerning the dead person. How quick scientists are to look for some explanation they can assure us is rational. It doesn’t occur to them that perhaps these are not tricks of the bereaved brain, but rather that the newly dead do indeed make themselves apparent to their loved ones. We seek the supposed comfort of rational, scientific explanations, even though they are not the least bit comforting, rather than entertain the possibility that perhaps something continues after death.
Here is what happens when some time has passed after your baby dies: You stop thinking that the hospital will phone you to tell you it has all been a grievous mistake, that your baby actually lived, and would you please come and take him home? You stop looking in other people’s baby carriages when you are out for a walk because you have stopped believing that you might find him in one of those. You never stop wondering, however, why their baby was lucky enough to live and yours wasn’t.
You stop hoping he might be around the next corner, the next block, the next street. You do what’s called getting on with your life. You act resilient, and people praise you for it, as though you had earned a Scouts’ badge. You learn that cars are good places to cry because nobody in the next car at a traffic light ever looks over and sees your tears.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, “A late stillbirth occurs between 28 and 36 completed pregnancy weeks. A term stillbirth occurs between 37 or more completed pregnancy weeks. Stillbirth affects about one per cent of all pregnancies, and each year about 24,000 babies are stillborn in the United States.” In Canada, the rate is 7.1 per 1,000 births.
Then, almost three decades later, when social media came along, it brought Robert back to life. Social media contains a staggering number of groups and organizations for the parents of stillborn babies. This appears at first to be an incredible blessing, because one of the worst things about having a stillborn baby is that he left no traces in the world and nobody knew him except you. But these organizations wanted to know about him: “Send us your precious angel’s name and we will add it to our list!” “It’s April, and if your special baby passed in this month, send us his or her name for our postings.” I sent in Robert’s name for December, but it didn’t make me feel any better. Some of the groups hold fundraising walks named for babies, Abby’s Walk, Oliver’s Walk, to raise money for research into the causes of stillbirths, “to honour little lives lost.” I made donations to these walks, but they didn’t make me feel better, either.
I ordered a T-shirt from one of the walks. It has Robert’s name on it, along with the names of dozens of other babies whose parents made donations to that walk. I’ve worn it just once. It only makes me feel worse. All those little lives lost. Who knows what they would have become if they hadn’t cruelly lost out in this crapshoot called birth? There are groups that hype the movie, Return to Zero, the story of a couple who experiences a stillbirth. I don’t think I could bear watching the movie. Parents post their stories on various stillbirth-related sites and Facebook pages. They are all heart-rending, every one of them. Some people have lost twins.
Some sites are run by people who make and sell keepsake jewelry, Christmas ornaments and other kitsch which you can buy to commemorate your baby. This seems something less than altruistic. Social media also offers myriad subscriptions to newsletters and updates about the latest scientific research.
Every October the past few years, I would change my Facebook cover photo to the pink and blue logo that says, “October is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month. Remembering all the babies gone too soon.” I sent donations to any number of balloon releases honouring stillborn babies, although one in Quebec refused to send up a balloon for Robert because they said I had to be present for the event.
But then, something went wrong. The excitement of having found communities where my baby mattered, even if the real world had no interest in him beyond sympathetic murmurs, grew uncomfortable. There was something amiss, something that felt ghoulish, in the fundraising walks, the online remembrances, the virtual candles burning on websites and the commemorative kitsch. It all seemed like an attempt to get me to believe that Robert was not really dead. So, one by one, I unliked, disengaged, unfollowed and otherwise backed off from all these sites.
I don’t know where Robert is. I don’t know if there is anything after death. I will never know if it was actually his voice I heard all those years. The science on auditory hallucinations says nothing about a voice changing as if the person were still alive, growing from little boy to teenager to young man. Maybe there is reincarnation and Robert has moved on to his next life. What if his new life is unhappy? But maybe he is only waiting for me in wherever it is you go when you die, and I will see him again someday on what is known as “the other side.”
Not long ago, a clairvoyant in Calgary gave me a free reading. She told me that my uncle Amrum was “on the other side” with my father, and that he had just passed over a few weeks earlier. This was true. He had died of pancreatic cancer. She couldn’t possibly have known it, though, since my uncle lived in California. Then, she said, “Who is Bobby? There’s a child here named Bobby.” She couldn’t have known about him, either, for I hadn’t spoken or written about him anywhere. No notice of his death had ever been published in a newspaper.
And I had a dream once that I heard a knock at the front door and when I opened it, a little boy was there, smiling up at me. “Oh!” I said. “So this is what you would have looked like if you had lived!” Then, he vanished.
I’ve experienced things I can’t explain. None of it had anything to do with tacky homemade jewelry, talk of angels, lists of names, balloon releases and fundraising walks. All this virtual resurrection did nothing to help me live with the pain of knowing that Robert never got to see the sunshine, run and play on the grass or know the pleasure of a cherry popsicle dripping down his chin on a summer’s afternoon.
Thirty-one years later, the only thing I come near to believing is that if Robert exists somewhere else, it is on the other side of an invisible gauzy curtain that separates the living from the unknown and unknowable world of the dead. He is forever beyond my continually seeking reach.
At St. Boniface Cemetery in December, the icy wind throws handfuls of snow in my face and swiftly freezes to death the bouquets of blue and white flowers I leave at Robert’s grave.