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A Question Mark
"What is the death of a child?" Pedro asked.
"An injustice," I answered.
"No. That would be making a moral problem out of it. It's more. It's a question mark."
—Elie Wiesel, The Town Beyond the Wall
This is the story of what happened when Jeremy died ... and a question mark was born. It is also the story of what happened when I found a friend with an explanation, and of the time in between, when the jagged edges of confusion, denial, and sorrow still threatened me.
I did not expect to become a storyteller. And I struggled with how my friend, whose name is Elie Wiesel, would feel about my devoting so much attention to my story when seen in light of his. Here is a person, I often thought, who not only witnessed the murders of most of his family and the people of his village, but has, through the burden of memory, insisted upon witnessing the murders of six million other human beings, a million and a half of them children.
From the beginning, it seemed to me that my suffering was so small in comparison. In my imagination, I confided to Elie Wiesel this hesitation. Who am I to compare a single, tragic experience to the loss of all hope and all humanity? In my imagination he smiled slightly, a bit frustrated, and pushed back the hair that flops on his forehead. And I understood that he would speak not of comparisons, but of connections: To remember the past is to be more alive, more human in the present. To connect one's personal human experience, one's singular sufferings, with all human experience, all suffering— it is then, he might say, that we in our humanness will begin to re-create the universe.
And so I found myself committed to a bold act. I used one story to tell another. I found a familiar ghost among his dead. I assumed that Elie wouldn't mind that I borrowed his memory of the six million, of the one and a half million children, to help me recall just one infant boy. Finally, despite my hesitation, I welcomed these unexpected truths: that I had a right and a need to mourn, that my feelings were honorable and important, and that I was not alone in my agony but joined by enough tiny, unlived lives and grieving parents to fill the heavens ten times over.
And so I offer my story to acknowledge, and bless, our common mourning. If I learned nothing else from my struggle, it is that grief is meant to be shared. To bring our sorrows to the embrace of another is to make of them allies rather than enemies. Not everyone who has experienced the death of an infant, a stillborn birth, or a miscarriage will find it necessary to travel all the roads I traveled in order to be whole again, but inevitably there will be some common ground. And it is in the sharing that we begin to be healed—and even empowered. It is my hope that the story of my hard-fought understanding might resound in your wounded spirit, as the memories and wisdom of the rebbe Elie Wiesel did in mine.
Admittedly, I am anxious to tell the ending of the tale. But it is important to begin at the beginning—to call forth the past. Sometimes, when the past has eluded our acceptance and hidden itself well in the shadows of memory, it resists mightily any call to consciousness. But when we somehow summon the strength to demand its presence, it bursts forth with a clarity and fullness that is astonishing, as if it had been waiting there, untouched, to be read in detail like frames of a film.
Therefore my story begins like that of my friend, dragged from memory to consciousness and told as precisely as possible. Then, once the words have been spoken, the story moves from memory to meaning. Along the way, I have interwoven Elie's words and borrowed a powerful literary device—a dialogue that transcends the actual events. In this way his words helped bring forth mine, as it should be between storytellers.
I did not expect to give myself away, to Elie Wiesel or anyone else. That I could be so influenced by the wisdom and experience of another was a startling self-admission. But in the end, it was I who was transformed by the giving over.
Even after all this time, I am still moved, deeply moved, by all that has happened. To say that I am thankful for this journey might never be enough. But it will have to do.
Before the Death of Childhood
The tale the beggar tells must be told from the beginning. But the beginning has its own tale, its own secret.
—Elie Wiesel, A Beggar in Jerusalem
Whenever I remind Charles that he declared his love for me on our first date, he doesn't remember it. How could anyone forget something like that? I remember. We had driven up to San Francisco. There we were, walking along the street, looking for where we had parked the car. He turned to me and said, "I love you." Just like that. And even though the setting was perfect for such a pronouncement, I didn't think it was romantic at the time. I thought it was pushy.
One time when we were laughing and arguing about that night, Charles insisted that I must have said that I loved him too. But I didn't say it—then. It was almost a year later, and again we were in San Francisco, up on Nob Hill in a little park between Grace Cathedral and the Fairmont Hotel. We were swinging back and forth on a set of swings, and I told him that I loved him. From then on, our choice for one another was easy, and for me, an event that fearlessly opened up the future to whatever might come along. My fortunes began with Charles, as did my plunge into the very real complexities of adulthood.
At the time, however, my joy over our relationship was uncomplicated and expectant. He was, and still is, a very handsome man. He has the olive skin of his Sicilian ancestors, thick, dark hair, and large, brown, expressive eyes that always look a little sad. Even before we decided to get married, I thought about how beautiful his children might be.
Just as Charles can't seem to recall our first date just as it happened, he also denies having discussed the idea of our having five children. But I remember. We were sitting outside a Chinese restaurant in San Jose. He said that his Aunt Maxine and Uncle Bob had five children, and he thought that was "about right." I was thrilled. I wanted lots of children, a large family like the one in my childhood fantasies.
As an only child, I spent many hours daydreaming about what it would be like to have more people around. I already had an extra bed, intended, I was sure, for a little sister. When I was very small, I lived with two imaginary friends. A little later on, I drafted plans for huge families living wonderfully together in sprawling houses where I shared the best bed-room with one of my many beloved siblings. Eventually, I was embarrassed by my secret imaginings, and I turned to the occasional friend who was allowed to spend the night to fill the empty bed, moved close to mine, and share the whispered intimacies I believed to be the domain of real sisters.
But no one could come to my house on special nights— like Christmas Eve. It was such a silly thought, spending Christmas Eve with a friend, but I imagined it anyway. Waiting for Christmas morning with a houseful of brothers and sisters was one of my favorite fantasies.
A month after the movie in San Francisco and his declaration of love, Charles invited me to his family's Christmas Eve gathering. I couldn't believe I had a date to Christmas. My parents couldn't believe it either.
Charles' entire family—grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, as well as his parents, his two sisters and their families, and his little brother—welcomed me and the other "dates" (Charles has lots of cousins) as if we had always been part of the group. They were very lively and quite direct, as I caught snatches of arguments and confrontations going on as naturally as the warm Christmas greetings they were sharing. I wondered if this was the way big families were, so robust and unrestrained.
We got married on June 26, 1971, exactly one week after I graduated from college. Our family and friends toasted to our good health and to our many children-to-be. We raised our glasses while everyone cheered. I remember thinking, Is that what comes next ... our many children? Suddenly bestowed on me was the blessing and authority to create the family I had always imagined. I looked around at our closest friends. Nancy and Gerry had been married for a year and were anxious to start a family. Donna and Robert had been married two years longer, and were beginning to worry about the fact that they hadn't yet conceived a child. And Terry and Rick, whose wedding we would celebrate late that summer, were laughing about how Terry might follow in her mother's footsteps and become pregnant quickly and often. Apparently, the path before all of us had been happily determined.
Our friends and family toasted us, again and again, sending us on our way. At the time, it seemed so simple. The future was taken care of; the past could be abandoned easily. We were swirling around inside today, and it was, for the moment, glorious.
Charles and I returned from a month-long trip to Europe and rented an old, comfortable apartment not far from the college. On the day we moved in, we were greeted with an endless array of boxes and, to our surprise, Robert and Donna, who lived in an apartment below us. So during those first few hectic months, when Charles was settling into his job with the family ranching business and I was back in college pursuing a teaching credential, we could share our new life together with others who seemed to be just a little ahead of us.
Donna was deeply concerned about not being pregnant. She and Robert were talking about taking some tests that sounded, at best, unpleasant. As for me, although having a child was not in my immediate plans, neither had I ruled out the possibility. Donna's fears unnerved me. Would we have similar troubles? How soon should we start trying, if only to prove that we were capable of becoming parents? The implications of success were only fleetingly considered.
Meanwhile, Nancy and Gerry announced that their waiting was over. The telling seemed like half the fun; their first child was due in September. Gerry was pleased, but Nancy was, indeed, radiant. Suddenly her future was full of meaning, and she was completely ready for the baby's arrival within a few weeks of discovering she was pregnant. I couldn't help but share in her exuberance and decide, sometime during those days, that I dearly wanted to have something just as exciting to tell and to feel those wonderful feelings too.
Our unspoken ambivalence toward family planning quickly paid off. In March 1972, nine months after our wedding, Charles and I discovered that we were going to have a baby. Of course, by then, it seemed like a great idea. The family was excited, the grandparents ecstatic. It was fun to be pregnant: new clothes, new expectations, a name to choose, a room to ready. We moved into a small old house in downtown San Jose, and after finishing my teaching program in June, I settled down to a summer of waiting.
We went to childbirth classes where I learned to breathe deeply and Charles learned how to nod and say, "You're doing fine." Still, I was afraid of the event. But then Nancy had her baby—a little boy they named Gregory—and seemed to survive the pain we had worried about many times together. There was my baby shower, where Nancy brought Gregory, who stole the show from the expectant mother. I wished that I had been first to deliver. Nancy was already thin and back to business as usual.
The baby was due on Halloween. I had thought that was a little odd, but of no real significance to our child. As the time drew nearer, I felt the glow of pregnancy disappear. My body strained to accommodate a large and active baby. I remember telling Charles that there were no words to adequately describe the last weeks of pregnancy. And I still had the delivery to look forward to.
October 31 came and went. I stayed up all night waiting for Pasha, our German Shepherd, to have her puppies. She worked very hard, but by morning she had delivered only two. Just before noon I phoned Charles—two more had arrived. By the time Charles came home that evening, there were eleven. At ten o'clock that night she delivered her last puppy, a stillborn male. I held him in my hand and observed his perfect features: He looked just like his brothers and sisters. Pasha had been too tired to push him through the birth canal quickly, and he had probably suffocated there while she struggled to bring him into the world. Pasha lifted her head and watched me while I wrapped up her puppy in a towel and carried him away. When I came back, she nudged me gently and gave a little whine.
"It's okay, Pasha," I told her, "you've got enough babies." She seemed to contemplate my words, and then, exhausted, she put her head back down. I envied her. It was over and she could rest.
Two more weeks went by. The puppies grew and thrived, but I was losing interest in any babies other than my own. In spite of the familiar terror, I felt ready. This I remember, that all concerns about pain were overwhelmed by impatience. I was ready to have a child, at any cost.
Remembering the Week
He burrowed in his memory, and searched carefully. He turned pages, weighed episodes, examined the faces buried pell-mell in his depths. Finally he knew, from the trembling of his heart, that he had found what he wanted.
—Elie Wiesel, The Town Beyond the Wall
On the night of November 11, while celebrating our neighbor and dear friend Robert's birthday, I went into labor. I felt as though we were finally performing our parts in the play, after months of rehearsal. There were lots of laughing and worried looks, especially from the men, as I calmly finished my piece of birthday cake while everyone else timed my contractions. Charles' anxiety got us to the front door eventually, and after saying a hurried good-bye to the roomful of friends, we went home to pick up my long-packed suitcase, and to make sure that this was the real thing.
It was. My water broke as we walked into the house; the contractions speeded up and intensified. Nevertheless, when we arrived at the hospital we were informed that we had a long night ahead of us.
I slept on and off as the hours wore on. Next door to me, a young Mexican girl screamed periodically in Spanish. A nurse came by and tried in vain to comfort her. She looked at me and rolled her eyes, her annoyance evident. I decided that I would not scream, no matter how much it hurt, so that the nurses would not talk about me to the other patients.
Finally, at about six in the morning, I began to progress. The nurses were full of praise—how brave I had been, how easy my delivery would be. I was pleased. This was working out just fine.
Both my doctor and his partner were off duty for the weekend, and another doctor whom I had never seen before came to say he would be delivering our baby. Dr. Simpson seemed nice enough, though a bit distant, and probably sleepy. He had been waiting for me all night. I felt badly about that.
The nurse came in with good news. I was ready for a caudal, an anesthesia that numbs the body from the waist down. While we waited for it to be administered, Charles and I congratulated each other on the ease with which we had met this challenge. I had done a great job; he had been a wonderful coach. And now it was almost over. I wondered what the baby would be like. The caudal was given, and the intense pain, which I had been controlling with the breathing exercises learned in class, slowly diminished to nothing. A nurse came in. She could see the baby's head; I was ready.
Once in delivery, I chatted with everyone, free of pain, feeling proud and excited, cooperating as much as I could. Charles came in dressed from head to toe in hospital garb. Underneath the surgical mask, I knew he was smiling.
The baby, a boy, arrived at 8:12 A.M., Sunday, November 12, 1972. Charles and I cried when our son cried for the first time. I held him for a moment, then the nurses insisted that he be taken away to be cleaned up and weighed. I fell asleep on and off while Dr. Simpson finished his post-delivery work. Someone came back with the news that the baby weighed 8 pounds, 15 ounces.
"No wonder I have so much sewing to do," the doctor said. He looked up at me. "What's the baby's name?"
"Jeremy John Fumia," I said firmly. I love that name.
When I arrived in my room in the maternity ward several hours later, the numbness had begun to wear off and with it my good spirits.
"It's your first and he was big. It's to be expected," the nurse attending to me explained.
The pain got worse and worse, and I felt that if I moved I would surely break in two. My head began to ache—a side effect of the caudal.
Charles came in with reports on how the news had been received by our families. Would I like to be the one to call our friends, Nancy and Gerry, or maybe Robert and Donna? I managed one phone call, but did not enjoy the telling. Charles brought gifts, but they diverted my attention only momentarily. Where was my baby?
Finally, at about eight o'clock, twelve hours after delivery, a nurse brought him to me. I sat up painfully, but willingly, and reached for him. The nurse regarded me with a hint of exasperation.
"This is your first? Well, we have a procedure."
One little foot protruded from the tightly wrapped blanket around the baby and on it was a hospital bracelet.
Excerpted from A PIECE of MY HEART by Molly Fumia. Copyright © 2000 Molly Fumia. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Foreword by Ann Dunnewold, Ph.D.
A Question Mark
Before the Death of Childhood
Remembering the Week
Breaks in the Silence
Entering the Night
A Child at Dawn
Dialogue between a Son and His Mother
Our Common Mourning
Posted January 15, 2006
The loss of a child is a devastating event. No parent should have to ever experience such a thing. I read this book in hopes that someone else would have experienced the same feelings such as myself. Mumia is a wonderful author!!! This book is really helping me deal with the death of my first born son.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.