By: Elise Donovan
The following is an exert from Elise Donovan’s new book The Pearl of Great Price: A Year of Birth, Death, and Awakening. This book shares the story of the loss of her daughter Carly, and the journal entries of the year following her loss.
Twenty-one years ago today, I birthed my lifeless daughter…and an awakening.
It is early on the morning of July 4. I am sitting on my porch, listening to the birds sing the day into being, and I am thinking of the multitude of ways her death has spun me out of my comfortable orbit over the years. I awoke thinking of Carly, as I always do on this day. It is never a given on how I will feel on her birthday-her death day. The early years were hard because the pain was so fresh, and I was worn out by the effort of trying to create a family. I was desperate to fill that space her life had made in me. Some years were made easier by the chaos of family plans. Parades and cookouts and trips made it a challenge to grab a minute or two to myself, and I have never been one to ask for public acknowledgement of her existence. For many years we use to honor her birthday by dropping children’s books off at a hospital, but that faded out as our living children’s lives got busier and we began to travel over the holiday.
These days, her birthday has been made poignant by watching my surviving children grow and thrive, especially my daughter. She doesn’t know that she is sharing a lot of events with her sister, but I cannot help but picture them, so much alike at birth, side by side, getting their licenses, going to prom, clumped on the sofa with friends, laughing. My son turned twenty a few days ago, away from me, camping in some remote canyon, surrounded by friends. He is a truly content, solid, humble, loving, and kind human being who has enriched my life beyond words. He healed me of the worst pain. And yet I cannot help but wonder: Would he be here if Carly had lived? What is the nature of souls? Was he waiting for the right time? Would any of our children have shown up in our lives anyway? It is not a fruitful line of questioning, but then so many pockets of questions were opened by Carly’s death, questions I likely would not have pondered otherwise. I have become very comfortable with unanswerable questions.
I have become very comfortable with unsolvable problems. That is the awakening. The gift in this ever-evolving experience is that I can be my suffering, and with those who suffer, and allow the suffering. I Have observed that this is not easy for many people. We have short attention spans for discomfort, and we escape from those unpleasant emotions before they have told us what they need us to know. It would not have been easy for me to stick with what is had I not been tempered in the fire of grief.
The story of this book is parallel to my emotional journey. Twenty plus years ago, I was trying to develop as a writer. I was in graduate school when Carly died, but as I always had, I kept a journal of what I was experiencing. But I was not writing my thesis. I came clean with my advisor, and she asked to see the pages that I had been producing. Every bone in my body rebelled. I wrote for insight and to make light of things and to be smarter than my experience. I had been left broken and exposed by the side of that road. Reluctantly, I showed her my journal, pages as raw, messy, and unsophisticated as I felt. As I was. She sent them to her agent, and I was stunned when he said he wanted to represent me. Wait, my mind protested. It’s stupid, it’s a mess. It’s just a sad, pathetic diary. It was not “my best work.” But it was real, and those who read it felt something stir. I surrendered to the power of Carly’s story and decided to let it be what it was going to be. And I began to think that maybe it could help others get through what had been such a desolate and lonely place. Naively, I began to hope.
Forty publishers sent me thoughtful, personal notes about how moved they were by my words, but no one wanted to put their money behind them. I could not help but take these rejections personally; it felt like Carly was being spurned. All I could think was that another product of mine was stillborn, another hope that could not live outside of my mind and heart. After a while my agent gave up, and after musing over how cruelly poetic this all was, I put the manuscript in a drawer.
Over the past twenty-one years, through friends, women who have lost babies have requested the manuscript, and I have shared it. My hope is that it kept them company in their grief; they tell me it has. It is not so much the death of children that challenges the heart, it is the aftermath. It is everything that surfaces after your expectations have imploded. It is the endless questions about the meaning of the death, your life, and what you are supposed to do now. What do I do with all this emotion, this desire, this space I had opened to make memories?
And so today as a twenty-first birthday present to Carly, I am putting her story out into the world myself. There is so much to celebrate. My husband and I are a unit of strength after twenty-three years of tests and challenges. Many couples cannot weather the death of a child. Fortunately, we have, as well as a host of truly trying times I could never have anticipated. I came back to myself after a year of real despair to build a life and a family-I know others who have been lost to depression or addiction and never regained their strength or got a chance to make that family. I’m one of the fortunate ones. Despite terrifying, high-risk pregnancies, and my second daughter being profoundly ill until she was three, my children are thriving. Just the other day, I was watching a baseball game in my town, and a new acquaintance and I were talking about parenting styles. She admitted that she is more permissive than she might have been since her first baby, a girl, died immediately after birth. I gently touched her arm. “Our first daughter died too,” I responded. We locked eyes. So much was transmitted in a few seconds.
About Elise Donovan
Elise is a writer, editor and educator. After many years of teaching literature and creative writing at the college level, she combined her long-standing meditation practice with her interest in emotional development and has taught mindfulness and meditation curriculum publicly and privately for the past fifteen years.
Elise especially enjoys helping people launch their stories as an editor and ghostwriter. She has a particular interest in essays and creative non-fiction, and among other awards, is a recipient of the National Catholic Journalism Award.
She serves on the board of several progressive educational institutions, in the US and abroad. She loves to read mystery novels and explore new places through hiking and cycling.
Elise, her husband, and three children reside in Massachusetts.