I’m embarrassed to admit that I have had Ghostbelly by Elizabeth Heineman since June of last year and was invited to review it for this blog. But cancer happened again (my sister, Stage 4 breast cancer, round 2)** and all of the sudden I found myself preferring to read lighter fare like Tana French’s psychological mysteries or binge-watching Netflix (Wallender, Last Tango in Halifax, Doc Martin, Broadchurch, The Fall, Happy Valley, Foyle’s War). Now having typed that list I realize that my idea of “light” may be a bit darker than most. And British.
At any rate, I finally read Ghostbelly and I am so glad I put it off. Because while it is beautifully written, it is gut-wrenching.
From the publisher: “Ghostbelly is Elizabeth Heineman’s personal account of a home birth that goes tragically wrong—ending in a stillbirth—and the harrowing process of grief and questioning that follows. It’s also Heineman’s unexpected tale of the loss of a newborn: before burial, she brings the baby home for overnight stays.”
I am not a mother, I’ve never lost a child nor experienced a miscarriage. Ghostbelly, however, did exactly what a good memoir should do: it reached beyond the personal to say something universal. Heineman’s story not only explores her own experiences, her loss, and her grief, it examines midwifery and the medical industry, and how we (as a society) deal with death, specifically bodies.
I admit that for me there was a certain cringe factor, the idea of bringing a dead body home. I remembered how horrified I was to see my mother at the funeral home, dead, not looking at all like herself, but rather like some waxed version of herself, too pretty to be dead. I was 13. None of it made sense. I remember thinking it was wrong to put a dead person, my dead mother, on display. Mothers aren’t supposed to die.
When my grandma died in 1994, then ten years later my granddad, we had a closed casket, but when my dad died in 2005 we had an open casket–his fiancee wanted that and my sister and I accommodated her wishes. Even now I wish we hadn’t done that. I did not want to have the image of my father, waxy and gray and too still, as the last image of him in my mind. Back to Ghostbelly. Here’s some of my thoughts about how the book is crafted (nerdy writer alert):
Another thing a good memoir does (in my opinion) is show the narrator grappling with the issues. Heineman does this successfully throughout the book, questioning the death, the cause of death, her decision to have a home birth with a midwife, and perhaps most importantly, how to remember, how to memorialize Thor. “Do you do it by writing about him?” she asks. Again, while this is clearly Heineman’s story, that is a universal question: how to remember and memorialize a loved one who has died. (Especially in a grief averse culture such as ours).
Heineman writes the first chapter in present tense which I think was a smart choice for a couple of reasons. First, that chapter describes the birth of her son–the birth that went horribly wrong. The use of present tense rather than past tense tells the reader that this event is still (and may always be in some way because that’s the way grief works) present for the author. Second, it is written so full of visceral, physical detail that the reader (at least this reader) was right there with Heineman.
SNOW FALLS gently on my face as they take me to the ambulance. I lie still, as I had on the bed when Deirdre had tried to resuscitate Thor. My job remains to lie still and let others do their work. My body is exhausted and my mind numb, and so it is easy to lie still. The air is cold and the sky is dark. How strange, that light and dar, cold and hot, still exist. “Outdoors is different from indoors, just like it always is,” I think idly, an feel the ice flecks of snow melt on my cheeks. (page 19)
wallowing on the page
Perhaps wallowing is too loaded a word, perhaps ruminating is a better choice. Heineman does plenty of that throughout. One of my favorite passages is where she writes about her ghostbelly:
I used to feel it most during these walks home, as I moved from the weightlessness of the water to the work of hauling it through the city. Now the pregnant belly is there again.
The ghost of an amputated limb hurts. My ghostbelly is solid, reassuring. I feel the interior boundary between abdomen and uterus. Not the outside boundary where skin touches clothing, but the inside boundary, where the belly that is me used to segue into the larger belly, the belly that had been Thor’s. Right beyond the boundary is Thor. He is not the dead Thor; he is the Thor who has not yet been born. (page 237)
As I revise and revise and revise again my in-progress memoir I think about my first chapter, my first line. (currently it is “I’m Jennifer and my mom died when I was 13.” but I’m pretty sure that is changing soon). A first line is such an important thing. It is the first impression a reader will have of the book. It’s like a “Hello My Name Is” badge for a book and an icebreaker. Heineman begins Ghostbelly with two lines that so elegantly say so much about the story:
It was all so long ago. I was just yesterday.
We know immediately that the narrator made it through the loss, but still carries that loss with her. As we all do. The more I read grief narratives, the more I realize how important these stories are. When we grieve many of us (especially us nerdy writer types) want to understand how it is for other people, not as a voyeur, but as a student. How do we grieve? What’s “normal”? And the more diverse voices we have sharing their stories of loss, of grieving, of living with loss, then perhaps we’ll get better at this. After all, we will all lose a loved one, and live with that loss at some point in our lives. So go read this book.
**my sister is still here,
still battling her cancer,
and doing it always,
with a smile.