First tragedy, then grief, then going on
“An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination,”by Elizabeth McCracken. Little, Brown. 2008. 184 pp. $19.99.
By Deirdre Parker Smith
Sadly funny or funnily sad?
Depends on the reader.
“An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination” is a book by a writer Elizabeth McCracken, whose first child, a son, dies in her womb. She must then give birth.
She experiences just the sort of grief you’d expect, wanting to disappear, wondering what if, running away from where it happened, anger, remorse, sadness beyond description, emptiness, shock.
When she writes, it’s a year and five days later, and her second child, a son, is in her lap as she types at the keyboard.
She writes because she meets a woman at a reading who suggests, even before her first pregnancy, that she should do a book “about the lighter side of losing a child.
“(This is not that book.)”
Let me say right here, I have never been pregnant. I do know several women who have miscarried, had a stillbirth or lost a child shortly after birth.
I didn’t know what to say. One woman did not want to talk about it ó didn’t want it mentioned at all. One woman grieved long and hard ó the graveside service was absolutely heartbreaking.
So I was afraid to read Elizabeth McCracken’s book, which my book club had chosen.
I couldn’t put it down. I liked McCracken immediately, I liked her voice, the fine line she walks in telling about tragedy and what follows ó boring daily life. I liked her English writer husband, felt comfortable spending time with them.
She writes at the beginning: “I want it, too, the impossible lighter-side book. I will always be a woman whose first child died, and I won’t give up either that grievance or the bad jokes of everyday life. I will hold on to both forever. I want a book that acknowledges that life goes on but that death goes on, too, that a person who is dead is a long, long story.”
McCracken finds a delicate balance and can tell the story of her first child, whom they called Pudding while in the womb; whom they name Pudding and on his birth and death certificate.
Pudding becomes real to the reader as he fills Elizabeth’s belly. She buys quirky clothes for him, silly antiques for his room. She and husband Edward live in the French countryside in a ramshackle house, working on their latest books, looking forward to the birth and their new life in America, where Elizabeth will have a college teaching job in the fall.
It’s cozily domestic, the details of the pregnancy less clinical and more real-mother-in-waiting. We know Pudding dies, but the foreboding isn’t there. She’s telling about their lives, their midwives, the ordinariness of their days.
You think, oh, aren’t they lucky, to be able to live and work wherever they want to. Oh, isn’t life grand for them. You might be jealous ó but you shouldn’t be. For them, this is normal.
What isn’t normal happens in the last few days of her term. Pudding isn’t moving. She sees the midwife, Claudelle. She sees midwife Slyvie. She goes to the hospital. The doctor straps on another fetal monitor and says, “C’est fini.” It is finished.One midwife calls the other, “Le bébé est décéde.” The baby is dead.
McCracken’s grief follows a recognizable path, but the way she describes it makes it bearable for the reader.
One of the most moving parts of the book is the condolences her friends send by e-mail, phone, letters.
“They made me cry, which helped. They moved me, that is to say, they felt physical, they budged me from the sodden, self-disintegrating lump I otherwise was. As I was going mad from grief, the worst of it was that sometimes I believed I was making it all up. Here was some proof that I wasn’t.”
Those awful times are interspersed with times of hope and the story of her second pregnancy. They share all the fears they’ve come to know. Elizabeth goes to the ob-gyn constantly, checking every little thing. They find a female doctor in the practice who also had a stillbirth ó she gets as nervous as they do.
Each day is a day, a day closer to … to what, she wonders. She does not anticipate.
And then he arrives, whole, screaming, everything a baby should be. Everything she was afraid to hope for.
She and Edward are thrilled, and Pudding is still with them, the sadness and the happiness of him ó of a life she carried.
“… of course I thought about Pudding all the time, every day, possibly every waking hour. … But mostly I didn’t think about the details of his death. If I climbed into that pit, I’d never crawl out …”
Elizabeth learns what this grief is to her: “… I understand that mourning is a kind of ventriloquism; we put words into the mouths of our bereavers, but of course it’s all entirely about us, our wants, our needs, the dead are satisfied, we are greedy, greedy, greedy, unseemly, self-obsessed. …
“The dead don’t need anything. The rest of us could use some company.”
Could she have written this if her second son had not survived? I don’t think so.
Will all women appreciate what she says? No. For some the grief never ends. Does she have a right to use her voice to tell this story? Absolutely.
“It’s a happy life, but someone is missing. It’s a happy life, and someone is missing.
“It’s a happy life ó”