Ann Patchett, who is a good friend of Elizabeth McCracken’s, should never have anything bad happen to her again. First Patchett lost her beloved friend Lucy Grealy, whom she wrote about so beautifully in Truth and Beauty. Then her other beloved friend, Elizabeth McCracken, lost her child.
It was Patchett, along with another McCracken friend, Wendy, who shouldered the awful task of informing McCracken’s friends that the infant, nicknamed Pudding, had died in utero at nine months. Patchett then mailed McCracken and her husband, the writer Jonathan Edward Carey Harvey, known as Edward, boxes of videos to watch as they migrated from their temporary home in France back to the States.
Nobody should lose their dearest friend and their second dearest friend’s firstborn. Then again, nobody should lose their firstborn, and McCracken’s amazing memoir manages to convey this without much of the sturm und drangone would expect from such a tale. The trademark dry wit that made The Giant’s House so enjoyable is much in evidence here, even as McCracken unfolds one of life’s worst possible events.
McCracken and her husband were living in a dilapidated former home for unwed mothers and their children in Savary, France, when she became pregnant. The ecstatic couple made plans, bought baby clothes, dreamed up names. Throughout, McCracken felt wonderful; pregnancy agreed with her, even as she fumbled her way through the patriarchal French medical establishment with inadequate command of the language.
The book moves between that first pregnancy, the stillbirth’s aftermath, and McCracken’s concurrent second pregnancy—amazingly, she became pregnant soon after losing Pudding—with glimpses into the current moment, where McCracken holds the sleeping Gus in her lap while typing one-handed.
Much of what McCracken says echoes Ann Hood’s Comfort, another momentous book about losing a child: the particularity of losing a specific child, the feeling, forever after, of being a mother who tallies up more children than the world gives her credit for, the unwitting stupidity of the well-meaning. There is the formerly good friend who, after a three month silence, writes saying she didn’t know what to say. McCracken mentions the many people who saw her and behaved as if nothing had happened, writing:
“I felt bad that I made people feel bad for me. I was corseted by politeness…I was a character from an opera who might at any moment let loose with an aria, and generally people tried to cover it up with conversational ragtime. Some tried extraordinary juggling acts, with flung torches of chitchat and spinning scimitars of smalltalk.”
Also like Hood, McCracken writes with gratitude of the people who supported her: Edward, his family, her parents and brother, the aforementioned Wendy, her friend Lib, who sent extraordinary emails:
“At security in Copenhagen ...an extended Middle Eastern family were bidding tearful goodbyes to the ancient mother and father. The old lady from ethnic-old- lady casting kissed everyone soundly…the babes she held tight, kissed both cheeks, and planted a big wet one right on their hearts…(I) started bawling quietly and discreetly on the chaotic airport spot…I’m thinking of you and sending you many heart kisses.”
About a year later, invited to give a talk in post-Katrina New Orleans, a woman approaches McCracken and offers her condolences: her first child was also stillborn. McCracken is so grateful she bursts into tears. She is contacted by a professor and his wife, who lost a girl 30 years ago. She has gained admission into a terrible club, that of parents who remember their stillborn children.
McCracken and her husband do recover. That is, they move forward. They return to the States and McCracken’s job in Saratoga Springs. They have their bad moments, but are no less thrilled when Gus arrives, pink and healthy. Still: “Closure is bullshit.”
Indeed. The late, great Carol Shields wrote that happiness is a pane of glass you don’t know you’re looking through until it breaks. Sometimes, there is no picking up the pieces, there is only moving forward, with books like McCracken’s in hand to help light your way.