Week 474: For A Child Born Dead, by Elizabeth Jennings

This one has mixed associations for me. Our firstborn came into the world over fifty years ago now, but in many ways it seems like yesterday. My wife’s contractions started soon after midnight, and having had a tricky pregnancy she was whisked off to hospital by ambulance while I followed after. On arrival she was directed to a ward and I to some sort of fathers’ room, where I spent a rather uncomfortable night trying to sleep on a couple of plastic chairs. (My wife wishes to point out that her own night was also not entirely without discomfort). In the course of this I chummed up with another young first-time father.

In the morning my wife was moved to a delivery room and I sat with her through a long hot June morning until around half-past two in the afternoon we were gifted with the never to be taken for granted miracle of a lusty new life coming into the world. I left the room walking on air after holding my firstborn son, and bumping into my friend of the night before told him all about it, remembering at the end to ask how his had gone. ‘Oh, ours was stillborn’, he said quietly, and I saw then his stricken young face.

I could think of nothing to say except ‘Oh, I’m so sorry’, apologising as much for my own tactless happiness as for the cruelty of chance, and perhaps there is nothing more useful anyway to be said in such cases. Yet at least this poem makes some attempt to grapple with that strangest and blankest of griefs.

For A Child Born Dead

What ceremony can we fit
You into now? If you had come
Out of a warm and noisy room
To this, there’d be an opposite
For us to know you by. We could
Imagine you in lively mood

And then look at the other side,
The mood drawn out of you, the breath
Defeated by the power of death
But we have never seen you stride
Ambitiously the world we know.
You could not come and yet you go.

But there is nothing now to mar
Your clear refusal of our world
Not in our memories can we mould
You or distort your character.
Then all our consolation is
That grief can be as pure as this.

Elizabeth Jennings

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