Stopping for Death

Stopping for Death

 

WO Stop for Death Art

By Kristen Witucki

“Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me”

–Emily Dickinson

On a soft spring morning when sunlight dappled us through the trees, my friend, Anita, and I, both blind, took Langston, my three-year-old sighted son, to the playground at the West Virginia School for the Blind where we worked. I braced myself to cross High Street, the busy street near our house. There are no traffic lights on that corner, so the “rule” is that you wait for a break in the traffic and make a dash for it. This meant that Anita and I listened to make sure there was no traffic approaching before crossing the street. The three of us crossed without apparent incident, but I learned that death had, in fact, occurred. As we continued walking toward the playground, Langston told me, “The squirrels laid down.”

“What?” I said.

“The car came, and it ran over the squirrels. They laid down and didn’t get up. It was on its back with its belly up.”

“He must be making up a story,” Anita said.

“No,” I said, feeling myself hurtling toward an empty space even as I continued to walk in an upright position, my son’s small hand in mine. “He never spoke that way before. He saw it.”

I wanted to ask Langston if the squirrels were bleeding, if any bones were broken, but I wasn’t sure he knew what blood was or if he wanted to stare at or recall broken bones. Not seeing the damage made me reluctant to add extra horror to what he had witnessed, yet not knowing these details made me worry that I was unwittingly glossing them over.

To Anita’s credit, though she is devoutly Christian, she did not talk about death, God or Heaven. Maybe, unlike me, she held onto the hope that Langston was making up a story.

As Anita took Langston on the slides and we sang songs on our favorite swing, the weight of our impending walk home pressed on me; I didn’t want Langston to see the dead squirrels again. Maybe, I thought, one of my neighbors had buried them while we were gone.

No such luck. As we crossed back over High Street, Langston stopped in the middle of the highway and screamed. Just one lone shriek, but so different from the usual cry over small childhood disappointments. And he couldn’t move. I panicked, worried that a car would make a corpse out of him next. “Get out of the street!” I shouted. “We have to get out of the street! Now!” I tugged him to the safety of the curb, all the while thinking, “He is staring down at the face of death, and you’re yelling at him to move. What kind of a world is this?”

When we got home, I asked my neighbors to check out the crime scene for me. “Yeah, two squirrels died,” they said. “It’s O.K., Langston. They’re just squirrels.” On the one hand, I couldn’t help but agree. I had never harbored a particular fondness for squirrels, and I was grateful that Langston’s first encounter with death, aside from bugs, was witnessing the end of two squirrels, not the death of a relative, friend or pet. On the other hand, “just” squirrels? All of the adults standing there valued people over squirrels; only the child truly mourned them. I grieved for all the insects I had killed, the meat I would continue to eat. Yet I couldn’t bury the squirrels myself. I did not have the courage to get that close to the decay.

The day passed more or less as expected—nap, playtime, dinner, bath—but it was peppered with death. Langston kept replaying the scenario, running a plastic toy squirrel over with his tractor. I cringed, worrying that by allowing him to run over the squirrel again and again, I was condoning the violent act. But I was too stunned and fascinated by this development to stop him.

The reenactments led to more questions. “What is dead?” Langston asked.

“The squirrels can’t move anymore.”

“Why did they die?”

“They didn’t know you are supposed to look both ways and listen before you cross the street, and a person in a car hit them.” Was this turning into too much of a cautionary tale?

“The squirrels will be fine soon, right?”

“No,” I said, “they’re dead. They won’t get up anymore.”

I am an agnostic or atheist, depending on the day. In West Virginia, where we lived, our community predominantly consisted of Baptists and Methodists. They would have told Langston that God had wanted this, or maybe even that the squirrels, having done nothing wrong, had gone to Heaven. At the very least, Anita might have ended the squirrels’ story with more than nothingness. I had been raised a Catholic but couldn’t remember how my parents had explained death to me as a small child. Had they ended our cat’s death with a trip to Heaven? As much as I didn’t believe such an ending was possible, I longed to give my son reassurance that it was all going to be O.K. somehow. Breaking my belief in death as an end would have been an act of betrayal on my part, but sticking to my simple story of nothing didn’t make me feel any better.

I emailed one of my high school English teachers, with whom I am still in touch fifteen years after I graduated and who remains one of my life and parenting inspirations. The subject of my email was “Explaining Death to a Very Young Person: a Parenting Qualification I Don’t Possess.” He wrote back with comforting words, reminding me that Langston’s first encounter “with the profound, the existential, and maybe even the ‘void,'” was not an easy concept to explain to such a young person. He recommended we watch an episode of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood as a possible way into the experience. I was flooded with relief at the chance to approach the subject again with more than just my fumbling words.

Langston and I watched the “death” episode together. In it, Mr. Rogers discovers that one of his fish has died. He removes the fish from the tank and places it in a separate container of water with extra salt, explaining that he has heard it is a strategy for reviving a very sick fish. When that strategy fails, he explains that the method didn’t work this time and that the fish is “dead,” and he carefully buries it in the yard.

Langston asked to watch the episode many times over in the coming months. It gave him a definition for “death” to which he would turn again and again. He ran over his toy squirrel a few more times and created a scenario in which his stuffed monkey died from an unexplained cause and then came back to life again. Because Fred Rogers’s website said playing about death was “necessary and appropriate,” I kept my misgivings to myself. But I wondered how he could really learn about death if the story had a happy ending and the monkey lived again?

Two months later, on a visit to my friend Soxna’s house in Maine, Langston fell in love with her chickens. He loved to watch Soxna care for the hens and let them out of their coop and to help her feed them chicken feed, meal worms and Japanese beetles.

A few days after our return from Maine, Soxna wrote to tell me that Buffy, one of the chickens, had died. She had wandered away from the flock and been eaten by a fox. “Don’t tell Langston,” she added. I knew that Soxna was trying to protect Langston’s feelings, but I seized on the opportunity to speak further with him about death, one he didn’t have to witness.

“Langston, remember Soxna’s chickens?” I asked him later that day.

“Yes.” Of course, he remembered. He talked about them incessantly, and his toy chickens were his favorite farm animals.

“One of them died. Buffy died.”

“How?”

“She walked away from the other chickens and a fox got her.”

“That’s not nice! Why did the fox get her?”

“He was hungry and needed the chicken to stay alive. We eat chickens sometimes to stay alive, too.”

He ignored the possibility that we weren’t any better than foxes. “The fox was bad. I don’t like foxes.”

Langston began a new play scenario. In it, his chickens walked together in a group. Then one chicken walked away and a plastic fox leaped out of his box of animals to attack it. “Run, Buffy! Run!” Langston shouted as the chicken clambered to safety. “She got away!”he told me triumphantly. “The chicken escaped from the fox!”

Langston tossed the toys to the floor and stood up. “Now I’ll be the fox,” Langston said, “and you be the chicken, Mommy!”

In a way, it was exactly what I deserved. Against my friend’s advice, I had alerted Langston to the chicken’s death. Now I was the chicken. The chase was pretty short because, when in pursuit, Langston easily outruns me. When he caught me, he made eating noises. Fortunately, the eating remained imaginary.

That night, while I lay beside him in bed, Langston asked, “What happens to you? Do you keep growing up like me?”

“Not exactly,” I said, “I guess I just get older.” I thought about the way our minds expand as they take in new information, and our emotions stretch as they envelop new experiences, but at the time, I wasn’t sure he would understand that kind of growth. Looking back, I wonder if I underestimated him.

“And then what?” Langston asked. “Do you become a kid again?”

“No,” I said vaguely. I didn’t want Langston to grapple with my eventual death just yet. Wait, I told myself. Wait until he explicitly asks whether you’ll die, and wait until he’s fully awake! Was that inability to face up to the possibility of my own death in front of my son wisdom or merely cowardice?

Day after day, Langston asked if Buffy was OK, needing me to remind him how she had wandered away from the others and had died. The toy chickens became the favorite toy, but Langston didn’t play any form of Fox and Chicken again; the fox had become so evil that it was banished to the depths of his toy chest where he couldn’t find it easily.

Later that month, I found out I was pregnant. I wanted to stop Langston from jumping and rough-housing with me, but I didn’t want to shoo him off with a vague explanation about not feeling well. So despite all the online advice against it, I told Langston he couldn’t jump on me because I was expecting a baby.

Nine days after the positive pregnancy test, I miscarried. As my cramps sharpened and my body removed those few errant cells, I worried about what to tell my son about the baby who was no longer coming.

Sure enough, he asked me how the baby was doing the next morning. “I’m not having a baby anymore,” I told him slowly.

“Why?”

I choked up. “The baby … died.” I wanted to sob. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have told you about a baby before it was formed enough.”

Langston climbed into my lap and gave me a hug. “Maybe you can make another one soon,” he said.

His childish optimism lightened me. It reminded me that mothering Langston teaches me as I go. I am learning that I don’t always need to end his narratives for him or even construct them. Rather, we will both participate in and observe each others stories for as long as we continue on this fortuitous journey together. Maybe the squirrels, Buffy, the chicken, and that almost-embryo would never be OK, but Langston was still young enough to end his stories—and mine—with the possibility of renewal.

Kristen Witucki earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College. Her first book, The Transcriber, is part of Gemmamedia’s Open Door series for adolescent emerging readers. Her essays have appeared on Brain, Child, Huffington Post, Literary Mama and the Momoir Project, among other publications. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and son. Learn more at http://www.kristenwitucki.com.

Photo: canstockphoto

Our Eyes Don’t Work: Blind Parents of a Sighted Child

Our Eyes Don’t Work: Blind Parents of a Sighted Child

By Kristen Witucki

This is the fourth post in our What is Family? blog series in honor of the season. Your favorite bloggers write about what family means to them. Come back tomorrow for the next post in the series.

Witucki“Look,” Langston commands, “over there on the wall.  Do you see the light up there?”

“No,” I answer, smothering my desire to point out that the wall he refers to is the ceiling, “my eyes don’t work.”

“Oh,” he says and touches my nose, “your nose isn’t blind.”

I remember that my nephews and niece, along with any other little kid I’ve known, always try to offer me a solution to the problem of blindness.  “If you open your eyes,” my nephew suggested at age three or four, “they will work.”  But Langston doesn’t seem to be looking for a hole in this new kind of logic or a way to break the “eyes don’t work” mantra.  After all, he’s babbled at me since he was two months old and has probably communicated with touch since birth.  He knows the code switches which allow him as a sighted infant and toddler to communicate with his blind parents.  Langston is turning three, and already he is articulating an understanding of our differences.

In conducting due research for this essay, I ask my husband, “Does Langston ever talk to you about being blind?”

“No,” James says in a tone weighted with thought.  “No, I don’t think so.”

Naturally, this answer fills me with more questions.  Does Langston think that I’m blind but that James can see?  Do I talk about blindness too much, or does James talk about it too little?  Words, words, words.

We’re in the middle of another brief but epic bedtime battle.  I try to remember to give Langston some warning, but I’m tired.  “You may play with your farm animals for another minute, and then you’re going to bed.”

“No,” he says, “I want to play.”

But I remain firm, and after a minute, I send him upstairs where his father will change him and brush his teeth so I can take a brief break before I read and sing him to sleep.  Langston flees into a bedroom. “Langston!” James calls to him, but he doesn’t answer.  “Answer me!” James adds sternly, but Langston exercises the fifth amendment and remains silent.  This is his form of rebellion and probably the worst crime he can commit against two blind people at this stage of his life.

For a second, I feel sympathy for him.  Is he tired of always answering questions like, “What are you doing?” and “What’s that?” as often as he asks them?  Then I smother my sympathy beneath parental loyalty.  “I think he went under the bed,” I tell James quietly.  “Do you want me to get him?”

“No,” James says and roots him out of there.

Later, we are reading Pat the Bunny together.  This book was cute when he was one, but I’m bored with it and remind myself again to hide books I feel he’s outgrown or books I can’t stand reading ONE MORE TIME.  The problem is twofold: first, I forget to hide them while he’s asleep, so he finds them again, and secondly, I’m worried that he’s old enough to remember missing books, and I don’t want to sensor his reading material already.  But I long for the conflict of Owl Babies or the diversity of the animals in The Big Red Barn or even for him to pick up something brand-new. Langston clings to the bunny book’s predictability with astonishing tenacity.

We come to the page which says, “Judy can look in the mirror.  Now YOU look in the mirror.”  I guess since I don’t have a daughter, I’m spared contemplating the subliminal messaging which occurs for girls on that page, but I think of it anyway.  We’ve only read this book about a hundred times before, and Langston exclaims his usual, “There’s Daston in the mirror!”  But tonight he adds, “Mommy, listen in the mirror!”

“How do I listen in the mirror?” I ask him.  For a second, I think maybe he’s going to say something poetic and profound or that he’ll offer up a healing solution.

“I mean, look in the mirror!” he amends hastily.

“I can’t look in the mirror,” I remind him.  “My eyes don’t work.”

“My eyes work,” he responds, as if he can transfer me a vision of myself with those words.

“Well,” I answer, “who do you see in the mirror?”

“Daston!” he shouts again.  “Where does Daston come from?”

“Where do you come from?” I return the question, because sometimes he asks questions to hear himself ask them, but he already knows the answers.

“I come from Mommy and Daddy,” he announces.  And for a moment, that’s all that matters.

Kristen Witucki earned her MFA in creative writing from Sarah Lawrence College. Her first book, The Transcriber, became part of Gemmamedia’s Open Door series. Her non-fiction has appeared in Huffington Post, Literary Mama and the Momoir Project. She teaches English, creative writing, and Braille. She lives in West Virginia with her husband, her son, and her Seeing Eye dog. Visit her at www.kristenwitucki.com.

To read all of the essays in this series click here.


Hearing Langston’s Smile

Hearing Langston’s Smile

By Kristen Witucki

Langston ArtI stood in front of the changing table wearing just my underpants and nursing bra. My husband James stood next to me so that he could learn how to change Langston’s diapers by touch. James was fully clothed in corduroy pants, a polo shirt, and a fleece pullover. Despite my lack of clothing, I was sweating in our overheated apartment — just knowing what James wore made me sweat even more. My stomach felt like a leaky balloon that wouldn’t fully deflate, my groin was still caked with blood from the recent birth, and my swollen feet felt like they couldn’t hold my weight another second. My fingers smelled, not unpleasantly, of the diaper rash ointment I applied religiously to Langston’s perfectly smooth bottom. His newness and fragility still made me tremble.

“When you put the diaper on,” I was explaining to James, “the two pieces of tape always need to be under the baby so that you can close the diaper from the back.”

Mom, who was watching in the doorway, said, “I have to take a picture of this demo, but don’t worry, I won’t post it on Facebook. I’m going to head home now. You two seem like you’ll be okay on your own.” I wanted to argue, to beg her to stay through the weekend, at least, but I didn’t. After all, I was supposed to be the mother now.

Because we are both blind, most of the doctors and nurses James and I encountered when Langston was born were skeptical of our parenting ability. Too tired to advocate, we kept ourselves surrounded by a pod of rotating friends and family members, until we convinced the medical personnel that a protective membrane always encompassed our family’s nucleus. They cleared us to go home on the Monday after Langston’s birth. Mom stayed with us for four more days. She woke up with me around the clock and helped Langston keep his hands away from my nipples so I could feed him. She changed some of his diapers and cooked simple meals from my childhood: grilled cheese and canned tomato soup, homemade meat loaf and baked potatoes. When mom came, towers of still unopened baby gifts filled the apartment, which, combined with her mothering presence, temporarily added to the chaos. Her laptop and work things took up part of the kitchen table, and an air mattress engulfed most of the living room floor at night. When she left, the homey clutter was gone. The gifts were organized, the air mattress was put away, her work things were in the car, and we were alone with Langston.

I didn’t realize that my mother’s baptismal gift of privacy was the beginning of the reverberating isolation of early motherhood, the kind when shouting into the cave only intensifies your own echo, and your only hope of escape is the bond you forge with your child. Surprisingly few people interrupted our privacy, given the number of visits friends and coworkers promised before Langston’s birth. Later people blamed their distance on the holiday rush and then on winter — Langston was born on the last day of November. And by springtime, he wasn’t new anymore. But I sometimes wondered whether the advent of social media made many of my sighted acquaintances feel as though they had experienced this new person in all his glory right from the convenience of their own screens. From the moment he was born, my relatives and the friends who visited took photos of Langston for me to post on my Facebook profile. I welcomed the pictures, because Langston, as a sighted child, might someday appreciate those glimpses into his early life. But displaying those for all of my friends, may have accentuated my loneliness during early motherhood.

I inwardly panicked on the day James returned to work when Langston was seven weeks old. It wasn’t just, “Who will change diapers and get the baby to sleep so I can have a break between feedings?” In a few short weeks, I had seesawed from longing for privacy to longing for adult conversation — any conversation beyond soothing a baby’s cries.

My days were all nursing and diaper changes, but during the snatches of time when Langston catnapped, I turned to the internet for companionship and support. To make room for baby things in the apartment, I had sold my desk, and now, after Langston was born, I sat cross-legged on my bed, the laptop propped on my knees. The bed was a cozy nook around which my activities could center. I could let Langston sleep next to me while I typed, or I could set up his activity mat beside me so he could stare at toys and kick his feet. I sometimes nursed him on the bed, too, propped up against pillows and the sometimes creaky headboard. But since James had gone to work, the bed was unmade most of the time, and the old quilt, comfortable but flattened by use, was crumpled back, exposing sheets that had enough holes in them to feel unattractive but not enough holes in them to throw them away. I was never interested in making the bed, but when James failed to get around to it, it reminded me of our newly disheveled routine.

One such day on the unmade bed, I received one of my perky weekly emails from BabyCenter, supposedly tracking my baby’s progress. This email cheerfully told me that my first reward for all the sleep deprivation was coming soon in the form of my baby’s first smiles.

Just then, Langston wailed again, even though he had barely slept for twenty minutes. I picked him up and wanted to cry along with him. Suddenly my longing for adult conversation and my pride in having learned to care for my son were eclipsed by my having missed something so small but apparently so monumental. I began to obsess over all of the things I couldn’t do. I couldn’t see which toys he preferred as he stared at the silken bars over him on the activity gym. I couldn’t follow his photographed progress on Facebook. And worst of all, without being able to see and respond to those smiles, I was not a real mother. I was just a milk dispenser and diaper changer. I would meet needs, thereby satisfying the skeptical medical personnel, but I would not be able to create a foundation for love. I imagined all those other mothers, smiling back and forth conversationally with their babies while my mouth felt cracked with the tension I felt inside. Not only was I not connecting to the outside world except through a computer, I was not connecting to the inside world of Langston’s life as a developing sighted baby.

On Valentine’s Day, another work day for James, neither of us bothered to give each other valentines. I wanted to ignore the holiday in support of those it left out. However, I was feeling left out myself, wishing James had chosen to stay home with me, choosing love over work, even though his work directly enabled our love for our new baby. Langston and I were on the unmade bed again. I had already nursed him three or four times that day, had changed countless diapers, and gulped down food and water during his brief naps.

I was bored with the repetitive music of the activity gym, one of the few electronic toys I allowed Langston. Even though he was still so little, I could feel my boredom seeping into him, making him fretful. So I picked up my Victor Reader Stream, an accessible digital audio player and recorder, and pressed the record button. I could feel the baby watching me.

“Daisy, daisy,” I sang, “give me your answer. Do.” The song was one my mom had taught us when we were little. Suddenly, Langston sang an encouraging note. It was little more than “aaaaa,” but I knew he was listening.

“I’m half-crazy,” I continued, my voice wobbling off key as I suppressed my emotion beneath the song, “all for the love of you.”

Again Langston sang, “ooooo, aaaaa.” As I finished the song, he responded to each line, and for the first time, I experienced the validation of call-and-response through the sounds of my son. “Are you singing?” I asked him. “You can sing it. That’s some good singing.” He answered each sentence with a musical variation on “aaa,” not imitating my music so much as he was imitating the act of singing, maybe inventing his own song. It wasn’t the first time I had sung to Langston, but suddenly we were conversing. I knew I was smiling at him and that he was smiling back.

After James returned from work and took Langston to give me a break, I uploaded the recording and posted the link to Facebook. I was overwhelmed by people’s responses, because unlike the photos in which I was a mere bystander, I had nurtured forth those early syllables. I was behind the camera. I was a mother.

The recording did not shatter our solitude. After all, people could now hear as well as see the baby right from the convenience of their own screens, and although it may take a village to raise a child, I’ve accepted that motherhood is, for better or worse, about the mother and the child, as it should be. But that recording was Langston’s first smile, and my first social and emotional connection with him.

Author’s Note: Two years have passed since Langston’s first smile. I showed him the recording of himself approximating song notes as a baby, but he’s more interested in hearing the more recent recording of himself saying “Hi.” Someday, though, Langston might ask about his infant self, and I’ll be able to give him a layered account of the experience. Langston knew I was blind from his earliest days, even though he couldn’t articulate it — just as I learned to mother him, he learned how to thrive as my baby, and I’m profoundly grateful.

Kristen Witucki earned her MFA in creative writing from Sarah Lawrence College. Her first book, The Transcriber, became part of Gemmamedia’s Open Door series. Her non-fiction has appeared in Huffington Post, Literary Mama and the Momoir Project. She teaches English, creative writing, and Braille. She lives in West Virginia with her husband, her son, and her Seeing Eye dog. Visit her at www.kristenwitucki.com.