Monday, December 19, 2011

The last person in my family to die was Brook, and he lived for only thirteen minutes. Everything about that number seemed cruel to me. He was my cousin Nathan and his wife Hannah’s first baby, born on October 3, 2009. When Nathan and Hannah got married, instead of hyphenating their names they smashed them together into BoydMarco, making Brook the first BoydMarco to be born. They said after twenty hours of labor, he came out of Hannah screaming and kicking his legs. Nathan cut the umbilical cord while Hannah collapsed from exhaustion, seeing him only for a handful of seconds. He weighed eight pounds and four ounces and had normal Apgar scores, and after the nurses took him away, he never came back. Hannah never held him alive.


On many second dates, I am sitting in a noisy restaurant in New York City. The restaurant, of course, is never the same, but that doesn’t matter. What does matter is the inevitable questions about what my date and I see in our theoretical future. Before making any decision, I go through calculated, analytical steps, so the idea of planning for a life with someone comforts me. I’m not afraid to answer questions like where I see myself in ten years. But the question that unnerves me and, in turn, unsettles my date, is Do you see yourself having children? After learning from a few oversharing moments, I have formulated an answer that allows me to stay relaxed: If ever I was dumb enough to get pregnant, then yes, I could see myself having children. It’s not that I’m trying to be funny, or maybe I am, but because so many men expect my answer to be an unequivocal yes, they laugh. Others might be horrified, but it’s still the only genuine answer I can offer. It’s an answer that deflects the question without revealing my fear of having to hold my potentially dead newborn.


When my cousin Annie, Nathan’s younger sister, was five, Nathan gave her a book after she had a nightmare. He said that whenever she woke up terrified, if no one was awake to console her, she could read the book to calm down, which was something he did as a child whenever he had a nightmare. Before the baby shower in the summer of 2009, before Hannah unwrapped gifts one by one, pausing every few minutes to rub her inflated belly, Annie and I sat in a parked car at the end of a neighborhood cul-de-sac in Westchester. Annie was going to pass Nathan’s book down to Brook. She opened the book and read aloud the inscription she wrote earlier that morning, which she had waited to sign. Would she write Love your Godmother, “Aunt Annie, Aunt Anne, or Aunt A?” We didn’t know what Brook would end up calling her. The two of us went back and forth for fifteen minutes until we decided on “Aunt A.”


My father’s family had a tradition where they spent part of their summer camping at Baxter State Park. In the mid-1950s, they started a message box that held journal entries, notes, poems, and letters that were written over the course of the trip. They placed them in a metal tackle box wrapped in plastic tarp and buried it near a tree by Kidney Pond. Almost forty years later, a family found the box after a heavy storm washed it up. They read each note, poem, and journal entry that members of my family had left and were so taken with the history that they made copies of each paper and left a bound folder with copies buried under the tree. Nathan and Hannah had made the trip every year together since they started dating, but in the summer of 2009, before Brook was born, they stayed home, concerned about Hannah’s and the baby’s health. My family left notes anticipating the arrival of a new family member. Uncle Jim and Aunt Cathy left notes about their excitement at becoming grandparents and at Nathan and Hannah having a baby.


I sat hand –in hand beside my sister at Nathan and Hannah’s reception, our eyes on Nathan’s brothers while they made their toast to the newly married couple. It was three years before Hannah would get pregnant, and I couldn’t imagine a happier moment as they pushed through tears to describe how Hannah was the angel that pulled Nathan from the rubble. At a wedding, it seemed cliché to most, but not everyone knew the battle with mental illness our family had endured. When Nathan’s brothers called Hannah an angel, my sister squeezed my hand, as if in a silent prayer of gratitude for the joy that we were witnessing, which had seemed impossible for so long. In that moment, I naively believed the love between Nathan and Hannah had cheated disease, that the fear and desperation from their past had suddenly lifted, and that their future would be clear.


The doctors said it helps for grieving families to spend time with the baby. In my mind, I am always entering this room for the first time:

A nurse leads Annie and me into a private room, with bare walls painted the color of eggshells. There is one small window, with cheap plastic blinds shut three quarters of the way and pointing downward. It is always afternoon, always after Brook has died and the sun burns too brightly through the blinds, dousing the room in a soft haze. The nurse enters the room and Annie drops my hand. She inhales, settling her breath as she opens her arms to the baby cocooned in a teal blanket. It seems like a cruel joke to be holding a dead baby. Brook becomes a Cabbage Patch doll. The nurse places the doll in Annie’s arms with such care, as if he would crack if she dropped him. Annie cradles him, slides off his thin knit hat to rub his head. Bent over, she presses lips near his ear, and tells him how she loves him; how he is the most beautiful boy she has seen. Before passing him to me, she whispers, lips touching ear, I wish I could have spent more time with you.

I look down at Brook, dead and heavier than I thought, in my arms. His forehead is frozen crinkled at the top, just like Nathan’s I think. It gives him the strange appearance of being alive, but then I imagine a live baby—how the forehead crinkles when a baby yawns. Or when a baby cries. I picture Brook as he dies, mouth opened for air, screaming, tightened eye slits—the permanent wrinkle in his forehead, evidence. I trace my fingers over his pale arm, cold, lifeless to the touch; his skin tinted yellow with seeping stains, patched green like clumped algae. Bruising, I wonder, but will not confirm. His hair is wispy and brown like Hannah’s. His arm skin folds near the shoulder and elbows. I want to kiss him, but when I get close he smells clean and he disappears like a ripple in water; much too clean, like the smell of fluoride at a dentist’s office. Is this what he would taste like if I pressed my lips to his skin? I pass the dead baby back to Annie.


On October 3, 2009, after hearing the news that Brook has died, I imagine Hannah in a hospital bed, eyes closed, blankets gathered in a hump around her belly—now empty but still protruding. I imagine how her insides feel with no extra heartbeat, no kick, no tumbling. Her breasts are swollen still with milk. What will happen to her milk?

I recall reading a memoir about a woman who was forced at sixteen to give her baby up for adoption. She wrote that afterward she did not internalize the tragedy of her loss until the moment when she had to squeeze her breasts and squirt her milk into a sink. I imagine, over and over, Hannah bent above a sink, her belly like a loose sack rolling over itself with so much skin in the way, Hannah squeezing her hardened breasts into a sink basin, no suckling, no teeth.

I can’t stand the image. Can’t stand the sight of Hannah, the bump in the sheets and her full breasts.


In my mind, I am always holding onto something, grasping at a shirtsleeve, trying to pull someone close. This is how I want to save Hannah.

My legs move as if I’m wading through tar-laden water as I search for someone in white. My legs are slow and my knees buckle and click with each step in the hospital hallway. I grab at a nurse and watch her face move from surprise to horror as I dig my fingernails into her forearm.

“What are you doing about her milk?”


I tighten my grip around her arm. I can only make out the blurred edges of a face: peach, blonde hair, a smeared red lip, and maybe two dark spots for eyes.

“Her milk. Do something. She has no baby to drink it.”

“Calm down. It will be fine.”

“Her baby is dead. She still has milk in her breasts. You have to…”

“Calm down.”

“Just get it out! You need to do it before she wakes up! Just get rid of her milk!”

I can hear shuffling, feel the ground move below me. An arm tugs at my waist, walks me over to sit down somewhere, a cushioned chair beneath me. I tremble in arms, bury my head in a folded elbow that cradles and rocks me back and forth.


On the night before my twenty-sixth birthday, nearly two years after Brook’s death, I dreamed that I was caring for the Gulliver children, who I used to babysit. They were two little girls, Louisa and Charlotte. In the dream I bathed them in a tub and took them out, one by one, wrapped up in pink terrycloth towels. I rubbed my hands frantically across their shoulders with a towel, drying them off as they giggled back at me. I smoothed my hands over their slicked-back hair, and braided it while they sat on the lid of the toilet. I pressed my lips against the tops of their heads, smelling their freshly shampooed hair, before leading them back to their bedroom. Before tucking them into bed, we had a pillow fight. At some point, and it may have been Charlotte’s idea, they asked me to stand on the floor and throw them onto the mattress, into their pillows. We piled pillows and stuffed animals into the center of their beds. When I picked each girl up to throw her, she landed on her feet, cracking her bony legs. The girls started crying and I could hear their bones cracking, but I kept throwing them on the bed, hoping their cries would turn into laughter. I didn’t stop until the comforter pooled with their blood and bones stuck sideways through broken skin. I woke up in a sweat, sure that I had killed them, sure that I had heard the crunch of their little bones.


On the first anniversary of Brook’s death, there was no tombstone to visit. Nathan and Hannah had spread Brook’s ashes across a river near Draper Pond at Baxter State Park. I imagined them driving in a 1994 navy Volvo, the backseat littered with pretzels and sandwich wrappers, Nathan’s eyes fixed straight on the highway, Hannah gazing out the passenger window. When they approached the entrance to the park, they would pause. They would stop and read the inscription before entering the park and they would think of Brook: Man is born to Die, His Works are Short-lived, Buildings Crumble, Monuments Decay, Wealth Vanishes But Katahdin in All Its Glory Forever Shall Remain. They would get back in their car and think about their precious boy. They would camp out by the river near Draper Pond, where his ashes had long settled into the sediment; had washed downstream, cupped the banks, flat shouldered against earth, and risen to the water’s surface, pressing palm to brook.




Courtney Cullinan Robb w

Courtney Cullinan Robb worked in finance for three years while living in New York City. Her work appears in Shadowbox and Linger Fiction, and is forthcoming in Apt. She is also the recipient of the Melanie Hook Rice Award in Creative Writing for work on her novel, and was nominated for the AWP Intro Journal Awards in nonfiction by Hollins University, where she attends the M.F.A. program in Creative Writing.


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In memory of Kurt Brown

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