My hard drive is littered with the bodies of dead babies. Children who died while under investigation with DCFS. Some of them murdered intentionally, starved and left in closets, some of them accidents, snuffed out between the mattress and wall. I think about these children nightly, our small white terrier snoring atop my head. At least three times, I jump up and call his name or palm his middle, ensuring the rise and fall of his belly.
While reading Amelia Gray’s latest novel Isadora, I thought of one family in particular, the Elemezeyans. On April 9, 2015, a man and his wife took their two developmentally delayed sons out to Chinese food on the pier in San Pedro by the port of Los Angeles. They had another son, who wasn’t delayed, this son was off on a trip with his advanced school and his advanced life. These two who had trouble with walking and toileting they were taken to a Chinese restaurant and then afterward they stopped to look at the water. Once at the pier the father slammed on the accelerator and drove off the pier. The father’s car window was open, he and his wife were able to get out of their seats, and swim to safety. A firefighter nearby, Miguel Meza, jumped into the water and tried to rescue the boys. The mother was screaming for help, for someone to save her sons. The family was taken to a nearby hospital, one boy was pronounced dead within the hour the other the following day.
Isadora’s story is much different, it was the nanny and the chauffer who took her kids Dierdre and Patrick out for a day, and cars were much more complicated then, this knob and that knob something got stuck and they too drove into the water. Isadora proceeded to live what on an ordinary day could look like a life of excess, ordering caseloads of wine and champagne and taking a bunch of lovers. However, it’s my estimation that under these circumstances—this seems about right. Isadora made a proper mess of things.
Having had my own share of loss, I’ve sought support in 12 step meetings for over eleven years. In the literature of one of my meetings there’s this bit about helping us “deal with the problem of living.” It’s true that merely living has become a problem for me. That it isn’t, as I once thought, a superficial scrape, something I could MacGyver back together, a paper clip here, a bit of chewing gum there. I look at everyone I see in my quaint neighborhood by the L.A. River between Glendale and Silver Lake, How do you deal with the problem of living?
A large part of me feels that they don’t, I find that a lot of these people are pampered, stuffing the emotional and spiritual holes in their life with their yoga mats, and thirteen dollar juices, and Matcha green teas, it makes me think of this beautiful passage in reference to Isadora’s son Patrick.
“Patrick has steeped his whole life in palm-tested bathwater and never once met the cold which has him now. He shouldn’t have known pain for years, protected until young love had him sobbing shamefully into fistfuls of spring roses. The world feeds us sugar then crushes us in a single afternoon.”
Isadora herself was not raised wealthy and seemed to be a woman of her own means, money earned through her dancing, although her youngest child’s father was Paris Singer, heir to Singer sewing machines. When I’m not reporting on child fatalities or reading lyrical historical novels I am writing about economic violence. The Singer Company is known as one of the first companies to implement the franchising structure. This enabled their wholesalers to outsource the repairs and distribution of their product to independent agents, a model that was later adopted by the fast food industry. I only find this relevant as it tells me something about Paris, that his family got their money not just from having a superior product but by way of capitalism, in a way that requires a distancing between the heart and the mind.
One of the most striking scenes was when Isadora’s children Patrick Singer and Dierdre Craig were brought in for her to view, after being prepped by the undertaker. They were put through a process, dressed in their christening gowns, faces rouged, and made to look as if they were holding holds.
“It wasn’t a natural bond, despite how it seemed. They had been forced by the undertaker into this little play of clasped repose. I felt the hard ridge across the baby skin on the backs of their hands where he must have tightened a belt. I tried to separate the two of them and found to my horror the line of pale thread that stitched their palms together, holding Dierdre to Patrick and keeping them there. They were sewn and sealed with casein glue, fixed for my benefit.”
This reminded me of a time I took a client to view her dead baby. I was a case manager in a transitional housing program for homeless women, I was also just a scared person pretending I knew the right thing to do. The client, who I’ll call Patience, crept into the viewing room, down the white runner, like a child getting ready for a surprise. Then she got scared and ran back to me. She wasn’t ready. She held my hand and I walked her back in. I felt the blunt edge of her fake nails against my palm. The walls were lined with movie theatre drapes. She walked up to the baby and picked her up. She cried and said she was sorry. “Sooo Sorry.” I left them alone and went back to my seat in the foyer. Then I heard her, “I’m ready to take pictures!” She sounded happy.
She held up the little corpse. They put dark black make-up on her that didn’t match her caramel skin tone. She looked like a fake baby. A little knit hat flopping forward and back. She was delicately dressed to cover up stitches and tears in her skin. Patience sat there posing. Propping her baby up.
“She peed on me.” Patience moved her baby Queen to the side revealing a wet mark on her pants. She was grinning from ear to ear. Did she think it was just a nightmare? Did she think her baby was alive this whole time?
She posed for the picture. Held her upright. I took a couple of pictures and then stood close as Patience rubbed her fingers up and down the baby like a mother inspecting for bruises and life. Her finger slipped into a hole between the stitches in her baby’s wrist. The little knit sleeve rolled up revealing the stitches and the place where her little baby hand was severed from her arm, the tip of Patience’s finger caught between two stitches.
“Take her! Take her!” she squealed. The baby caught on her finger, she flapped her arm up and down jerking the infant body with her.
I placed the baby back on the towel. Her eyelids were no longer there, just a sheet of make-up to cover the vacant holes that were once eyes. Like a cracked cake doctored with frosting. There she was, Queen L. Smith, determined dead secondary to three blows to the head, multiple rib fractures, and a broken wrist. Three-months old. My hands were shaking.
“Life is a glorious beast, the sea its Leviathan eye. I stand worse for wear before you, wearing the world, having done battle with this animal, but now I know to ride it. I pull myself as close as I can, I take its fur by the root as it runs and hold my head up as we go, because life is a beast bucking mad to crush its cargo, the journey’s only purpose caught in glimpses along the way.”
This passage brings me to my most important lesson in life. It’s the bloody pulsing mess at the core of all narratives. Most of my young life just happened to me. When I was 21 my brother Kenneth was sick. His HIV had developed to full blown AIDS. I was living in Oakland on 53rd and San Pablo by the Mac Arthur BART station and he was living near Dupont Circle in D.C. I needed money and I felt I needed it quickly. I took a job stripping in Little Italy in the city. This was not an excellent way to make fast money for someone who hated her body and could not dance. When I finally got my hands on what I felt to be a sufficient amount to get a plane ticket I called Ken to let him know I was on my way.
I’ve cut here the bits about getting robbed and drinking tiny bottles of liquor too often or too early, and losing a girlfriend I liked a good deal. My brother’s roommate answered the phone and informed me he had already been dead a month. I thought about all the times I’d been handed a problem and my first impulse was to anxiously dive in to fix it, and then to ride the problem, to dance against it, to move with it, and really my ultimate solution was there on the kitchen floor. I did that thing that I was so terrified of doing up until that point, I let the grief in, I think I was afraid that the grief would take over, that there would be no end. In some ways that is true, there is no end. But that grief did lessen over time. I don’t know how long exactly I remained on that kitchen floor sobbing, I’m sure a piece of me is still there. The lesson here is to surrender. It is only on the other side of grief that I could find the rest of life. I think this is what I love most about this book, that you could have an ugly life and a pretty life and everything in between but there is no one way to be about it, just do you.
Melissa Chadburn has written for Guernica, Buzzfeed, Poets & Writers, Salon, American Public Media’s Marketplace, Al Jazeera America and dozens other places. She is a fellow for The Economic Hardship Reporting Project. Her essay, “The Throwaways,” received notable mention in Best American Essays and Best American Nonrequired Reading. Her debut novel, A Tiny Upward Shove, is forthcoming with Farrar, Straus, & Giroux.