Verbs of My Grief: Or, On the Flatness of Language in the Wake of Loss

By Will Watson / July 2017

Shake. An ant falls to the hot concrete in the shade of the hot metal carport. Fold. Stack on the dog-chewed arm of the Adirondack chair. Unfold another. Shake. Two ants. Fold again. Stack.

I have to repeat it exactly 42 times, and I have to be religious about it. There’s no good way to get ants out of a stack of boxed hand-me-down infant clothes except to unfold; shake loose the ants; fold; stack; repeat.

They are my daughter’s clothes. They were never worn, and they are being returned to her aunt and to her two cousins from whom they were borrowed.

I am angry at the ants. They disturbed my daughter’s room, finding a home in the corner of her closet amongst the small and pink clothes in the laundry basket that I have been halfway searching for for awhile and had forgotten about. They burrowed in the head and foot of the crib that an old man from our former church had crafted for her older brother, notching small holes and tunnels into the soft wood, and it is ruined. It would have been her day bed.

I am angry at the clothes. I shake them, and I uncover a leotard (I guess that’s what it’s called) with a gold design that says: Daddy Loves Me, or something to that tune. And I shake it violently, fold it, stack it. I pause and watch the ants spraying across the ground, and I crush a big one beneath my toe. I hate that these would have been her clothes.

Would have been. A phrase that implies a contrast, that begs for it, calling forth an open causeway of negations. But. However. She would have been, yet: she was not.

We are clearing out what would have been her nursery to make room for her little brother, who will be here in September. He will be here. But her life would have been: an umbilical cord accident one week shy of her due date brought me to this task of chasing off fire ants.

But I’m never sure which verbs to use to describe my daughter’s state of being. Perhaps she was not would have been. Instead, maybe she was. And my eldest son is, and my son in the womb is. Or maybe they all are since they are all our children despite life or death and the path either of those have forced me down. This is the tragedy of language: it restricts and is bound by the ugly push of time, and verbs can only be past, present, or future. Never can they be all-encompassing, and so they never can claim perfect accuracy. Or, I have not yet found one to do so.

But past: I remember the shock and thrill of finding out my wife was pregnant with our daughter. I remember hearing her little beating heart and eschewing the idea that her heart rate could tell us anything about her gender. But I guessed girl, and I was right. We picked the name Julianne Rachel for her, both names connected in various ways to family members dropped at different points across space and time. We established her nursery, bought things for it, took a strange drive to a trailer park in Tyler to pick up furnishings for it. My brother and I even painted her dresser and crib together.

I remember how my wife felt her kick on a Wednesday in September, and how she stopped feeling her on a Thursday, and we didn’t allow our minds to “go there” on the way to the doctor’s office on Friday morning, and the doctor told us, “I’m sorry guys, but I’m just not getting a heartbeat,” and we couldn’t move well in our shock. But I made myself forego the paralysis when I dented the car in rage, knuckle marks to this day memorializing the deep sorrow I’ve come to know.

On verbs, I don’t think would have been would be proper or accurate in her regard. It posits a falsehood: Julianne would have been implies that she had not yet attained the dignity of humanity. But read above: when we celebrated the news of my wife’s pregnancy, Julianne was is. In hearing her heartbeat and feeling her kick, she was is. When we named her and celebrated her gender reveal, she was is. A present member of our family, so close to us and real and alive, so celebratedly human and dignified from the beginning, if anything because we heard her heart beating and wondered at our own hearts and how they might beat along with hers. How on earth, then, could we call her would have been? If anything, she is and was.

But she did not become was until that poor weekend in September, and even then she still maintained her is. We held her. We looked at her small face and features and tried to figure out who she looked like. We rocked her in the delivery room chair. We laughed some in her presence, and we cried and mourned her. We still do these things. And these are things that we only do for humans who are. Thus would have been is offensively insufficient language. She is and was.

Of course, though, describing her as is fails as well. If she were is, I would not be shaking ants out of infant clothes. I would not have memorialized my grief by denting the car door. Yet I’m not sure that I can disregard is entirely. She somehow abides in my memory and in the pressure I feel in the bottom of my throat and at the front of my chest when I think of her and travel backward to the moments I shared with her before and after she was stillborn. I cannot see purple things without feeling her, and I sense her life somehow in the falling of leaves, though I cannot say why. She’s present in my son’s face and in the kicks of her little brother. Somehow, she exists in a strange location between is and was. As something fully past and concretely present.

As well, I know there exists the hope of will be, but I only say this because I know I have to. I certainly do not feel it today. I know she will be made right at the end of it. Her stolen life will be ransomed by Christ. There will be a day when I see her breathing and alive and brand new. But in all honesty, that hope does not abide with me because I must unfold; shake loose the ants; fold; stack; repeat. I can only trust this hope in a solid, wooden kind of way, a knowing rather than an emotive confidence. Tomorrow may be different. But ants and a basket of clothes make it difficult today.

I can feel the sting of was between each ant and each little piece of unworn clothing. But when I finish and go inside, I see my son, and I see his mother and the evidence of the little boy forming within her, and I feel Julianne’s sweet abiding pressure at the front of my chest. And somehow, in this moment, verb tenses–was, is, will be, would have been, was being, will be being, has been–defy their nature in a way that verbs are usually too weak to reckon: they are all mysteriously one spherical, eternal, all-encompassing tense.

And all I can do is be. I don’t know how to make sense of most of this, but so goes grief and its slanted cycles.


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  • Jeff Gayle

    Great expression of your grief my friend….Prayers…

  • Sam J. Earp

    Will…
    You don’t know me…we have never met. I am the younger brother of Terry Earp with whom I suspect you are familiar. Your blog was profound in every way….both content and style. I have been a university and seminary professor for over 40 years and have rarely been so impacted as I was with your writing. Thank you!

    My wife Norma and I lost our first child but not so far along as your Julianne. Even now so many years later the profound grief strikes my soul…. I remember we sat in the hospital crying and grieving, only to see another young couple from our church with their just born baby and all we had was our just died little one.

    On December 1st 2015, my wife of 45 years passed into and through heaven’s portals after a 15 year battle with early on-set dementia. Her last five years, she was the baby and I, her care giver. Despite the depth of sorrow I experience to this day, one joy is the sure knowledge Norma got to hold our our precious little one…and give it a name!

    Also, just an FYI…Ever since your mother-in-law told me of the new baby, I have prayed for the baby and your wife every evening during my vesper prayers…and often in my morning prayers as well. I will continue until I hear of the birth!

    Blessings of grace to you and your family…
    Dr Sam Earp
    Oh, the Earp family in Texas would know me as Jackson.

    • Will

      I really appreciate your kind words, sympathy-through-experience, and prayers, Dr. Earp. I think you and I would be kindred spirits. Hope you can make it this way for a visit in the near future!

      Will