The Grieving House

Meghan McClure

Living Room

Her wooden blocks are my favorite part of this room. The way she stacks them, creates something, knocks it over, rebuilds. She learns her shapes with them. She learns how to make sound by smashing them together. We learn that building with blocks is a developmental milestone.

We jumped straight into parenting with our first, but youngest daughter. Past the tiny baby clothes, past the cooing strangers, past the forgetfulness of infancy. We jumped straight into hour-long tantrums in the middle of Target and toddler shit smeared on walls out of anger. With our next daughter (the second, but oldest) we jumped further, straight into parent-teacher conferences where we were blamed for what years of neglect and pain caused, years we weren’t there to throw ourselves like a wall at anyone who dare blame a child for the way their body needs and grieves. We jumped straight into every question about foster care and adoption that we were just learning the answers to ourselves.

We let social workers into this living room over and over. We let in court appointed supervisors and therapists and visit supervisors and more social workers. We let them in until I hated that room, until I hated the way I couldn’t protect these girls even in our own house. When they would leave, I would clean the room until I sweat. I would leave it gleaming for the next visit. A place where nothing could go wrong, where grief was put on hold for paperwork and court orders and the vocabulary of adults rearranging the lives of children. A room where there was room for nothing but the sparsest furniture. Because when you see the pain of children every day, you can’t handle anything else.

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Bedroom #1

My husband and I found the small wooden chair years before we became parents; we drove it across the country in the back of our car. We didn’t even know if we wanted children yet, but the chair looked so warm and small, its own tenderness. It sat in a closet for a few years. When our youngest daughter came to live with us, her feet didn’t even touch the ground when she sat in that chair. They dangled above the floor as she laughed and laughed that first day – us saying her name, her laughing.

The wooden chair sat against the wall in the first room she came to know as hers. She was 20 months old and this was her first room. It wasn’t just a brief stay in a folding play pen, not an over-used crib in a room of other beds with other kids who are between homes, but a room with a white framed bed and new bedding and pink stripes painted on the wall and books and toys collected and organized on the shelf just for her. She had only 1 word: No. She had a big belly laugh from her big round belly and even bigger grief.

In this room, sleep is rare and broken. It is replaced by screaming and crying and hitting herself and us. Replaced by her small body hitting walls and kicking and spitting and tearing at her hair. And no matter how many tricks and routines we try, it will be five years before there is a semblance of rest. Sleep will be replaced by rocking her in the chair for hours while she stares at my tired face, fighting her own body. And it will take me years to realize why she wouldn’t let herself go lax with exhaustion: she was afraid it would all be taken from her in the night again.

And the same social workers who had given us books on trauma and grief to read were the ones to question why she wasn’t sleeping well, why she wasn’t speaking, what I was doing wrong. And a new loss settled in me quietly: I could never be the perfect mother. I could never protect her from anything because the worst had already happened and it brought her to me.

Eventually we would read The Napping House and Dr. Seuss’ Sleep Book as a kind of joke and laugh because we all knew those were things that happened in other houses, but not this one. In this house, we grieved.

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Bedroom #1 – Master Bedroom

They lie on our bed, watch me get dressed, ask me questions, tell me stories. Mom, why can I see things floating in the light? Mom, why do you have boobs? Will I get them too? Mom, can I tell you a funny story? That bed that had been only ours for so long became theirs too.

When two people suffer the same loss, grief takes them different ways. Grief is not linear. Like wandering through a house you don’t know in the dark, trying to figure out where you are by grasping at whatever you can feel.

I was pregnant when the social workers told us they were moving our oldest (but second) daughter to another home. We were so close to the day her adoption would be finalized, but this is the way foster care works sometimes, on a social worker’s whim. By the time I found out, my daughter was gone, the pregnancy was gone, and my knees were bruised from all the crying on them. And I couldn’t stop thinking did the grief cause this, will this grief expand upon itself forever, what else will it take from me?

My older daughter came back 6 months later, but the pregnancy didn’t. Grief dizzied us all, took things from each of us and rearranged the hallways.

There is no way to write about things I can’t remember. I can only remember the different ways our crying sounded. How my husband’s echoed in the shower and mine hiccoughed into my pillow, sweater, blanket, whatever was soft and nearby.

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Kitchen

When my oldest daughter sits on the kitchen counter as I whisk pancake batter and whispers Thank you through her tears and then Thank you for being my family, I want to hand that thank you back. Tell her to get rid of it. It isn’t right for a child for feel grateful for something like this. But instead I squeeze her hand, let her add too many chocolate chips.

Even the word my becomes problematic. She isn’t my. She is ours, but that’s not my story. I claim her so fiercely that when she is hurt I feel it straight through the center of my belly, when she climbs too high I feel it in the tremble of my knees, when she cries I have to bite back my own burning tears. But I also know that somewhere another woman feels that through her belly and knees and tears, without end.

To want and not want at the same time is a form of grieving, realizing you can’t have both, so you can have neither fully.

What I want is for my daughters to have their birth mothers. I want for them to have never had a need for knowing me. I want for this all to be something worse than their nightmares could conjure. What I want is for their birth mothers to be at this kitchen counter, hearing their chatter and laughter, knowing what way to cut their food, how exactly they like their oatmeal, stacking pancakes over and over.

And what I also want is to hold them forever against my chest as I read them a story as they fall asleep. I want them always to hop up on my kitchen counter while I cook them their favorite food. I want every birthday to make them a too-tall stack of pancakes with sprinkles and syrup. I want to take them to their first day at college. I want to hear about every success and every failure. I want to get the scary middle of the night calls where they are safe, but need me.

I want both of these things equally and so, I can have neither fully.

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Bedroom #3

In this room there is a fresh coat of paint from a time when grief tore even at the walls.

We cannot control the way grief takes up residence in the body. The retching, the tight shoulders, the hollowed pit in your chest. I know this because I watched my 2-year-old daughter hit herself, chew her fingers bloody, slam her tiny body against the floor. I held her as she screamed, all 23 pounds of her tense as a wire, held her until her screams turned to a rasp, held her until she could not stay awake anymore. I watched as she fought sleep every night for 5 years, how she still sometimes fights against sleep like it wants to take her from us.

I watched my 6-year-old tuck a blanket around every part of her when she first moved in with us and for years after, a cocoon where we would later find her, beads of sweat visible on her entire body. I’ve seen her eyes grow still and numb. I’ve watched her run into traffic, throw herself on the sidewalk in the fetal position and scream louder than anything I’ve ever heard. I’ve watched her muscles tense in the presence of strangers who must remind her of someone. I’ve held her to me as she sobs for someone she can’t remember. Then we are both crying for someone she can’t have; we both want the impossible. Grief turns us in on ourselves. These rooms hold us while we do that.

Some rooms echo so loudly with it that we can’t hear anything else. So we patch the holes, move the furniture out, close the door.

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Bathroom

There are parts of this story that aren’t mine to tell. There are parts of this story that are still happening. There are parts of this story that have become steam on the mirror and won’t come back. And for each of those parts, I lock myself in the bathroom, turn off the light, tuck my knees to my chest, and curl into myself, protecting the hollow in my chest where, somehow, everything I’ve lost, everything we’ve all lost, is held.

In this room, a poet’s words whisper and give me permission to not name this. Demeter writes a letter to her lost/taken daughter Persephone: “This grief has waves and is cold and will not be described / with other words.*” There is no naming here. 

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Front Sidewalk

My husband and I bought this grey house with black shutters and a red door so we could open it to children. The front sidewalk is almost always littered with broken bits of chalk, scooters, dandelions picked from the yard, rocks stacked like little towers always ready to topple.

In front of this house, in view of all of the neighbors, I said goodbye to my oldest daughter when the social workers took her. On this sidewalk, the breath was knocked from me by the sound of my younger daughter sobbing something guttural and animal from the window behind me, my husband holding her and heaving his own bull-strong sobs downward. On this sidewalk where they draw with chalk on sunny days, I knocked my forehead to the concrete and shook against the wind. On this sidewalk I learned what it was to lose everything and have to crawl back to living. On that cold ground, I wanted to hold her and her birth mother and every terrified creature on this earth.

And when she came back months later, bouncing down that same sidewalk (because she bounces, always) I knew that we would always live in the echo of goodbyes, like the sound of blocks falling. That I would never be able to say any of this correctly, but I’d want to.

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*“This grief has waves and is cold and will not be described / with other words” is taken from Rachel Zucker’s poem “Letter [Demeter to Persephone].”

Meghan McClure lives in California. Her work can be found in American Literary Review, Mid-American ReviewLA Review, Water~Stone ReviewSuperstition Review, Bluestem, Pithead Chapel, Proximity MagazineBoaat PressBlack Warrior Review, among others. Her collaborative book with Michael Schmeltzer, A Single Throat Opens, was published by Black Lawrence Press, and her chapbook Portrait of a Body in Wreckages won the Newfound Prose Prize.