Woman floating underwater
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After a stillbirth, a deep, unbearable grief and a need to find and tell stories

When Lidia Yuknavitch’s daughter died, the author felt like she had sunk to the bottom of the ocean. And resurfacing was a lengthy, treacherous process

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By Lidia Yuknavitch on

The night before my daughter died, I swam in the same swimming pool where I had qualified for Junior Nationals as a competitive swimmer when I was 14. That night, the University of Oregon pool was almost empty, which was a wonder and a delight. When the lap lanes are nearly empty and you are a lifelong swimmer, it can feel like a gift. A whole pool to yourself. A body in water, freed to feel a full self. I rolled my belly through the waves, weightless. Nothing makes me feel more alive and free and calm than being in water.

At that time, the cement walls of the pool had cartoon ducks painted on them; the logo for the University of Oregon is a duck, and these ducks were sort of Disney style, only they looked kind of mad (because fighting ducks), and they all wore yellow and green shirts with big “O”s on them. The pool in the early 80s was fairly rundown. Kind of grime-slicked. But it had six lanes and a shiny black line on the bottom to follow and the familiar smell of chlorine so, even at beyond nine months pregnant, I was home. My better home. My home away from the abuse called father.

That pool isn’t there any more, I learnt recently at a campus tour with my 16-year-old son. Well, it’s still technically there, but the college has repurposed it as some kind of campus-wide filtration system. The new pool in the redesigned Rec center is glorious. I instantly wanted to veer away from my son’s college tour when I saw it – my entire body still pulls toward water no matter where I am, or who I am, or why. Mother, wife, daughter, writer, teacher, swimmer.

The day my daughter died, the day she emerged from the birth waters of my body into the waiting hands of the doctor and nurses, still small thing, born dead, I could still smell chlorine on my skin from swimming the night before.

Sometimes I still wonder how I lived through that day and night. And then I remember how we are all living and dying over and over again, because grief, because loss, because humans out of the water.

What I remember most acutely about that actual day and night, and for many days and nights after, is that I felt like I had sunk to the bottom of a dark ocean. No, really. While I could not particularly see or hear anyone around me, I could see the indigo to black depths of an ocean floor. I could see the submerged earth floor. I could walk on it. I did not imagine I had simply truly left the regular world.

What I want to write to you about is not my daughter’s death, but about what that death and grief were generative of.

A lot has been written about the psychology of grief and loss and trauma, and different categories of psychosis that people experience – soldiers, veterans, prisoners, refugees, rape or domestic-violence victims, or the loss of husbands, wives, sisters, brothers, lovers, indigenous traumas and the daily trauma, grief and loss that people of color face every single day in America, and, yes, the grief of people who lose children. The medical and psychological data is thorough. Sometimes, though, I wonder why there aren’t more stories from us about where we went when we were mentally and emotionally gone. How we dislocated from one reality and relocated in another. How, for the rest of our lives, we do not “fit” into the stories people tell about how to be a person, how to navigate a relationship, how to belong to a community, and yet we still carry important stories. We are misfitted the rest of our lives and yet, as misfits, we still have something to give.

Sometimes I still wonder how I lived through that day and night. And then I remember how we are all living and dying over and over again

There is no part of my life – not childhood, certainly not during my teens or young adulthood, when I became a whirling dervish of self-destruction, and not in my thirties, forties and now my fifties – where I have felt like I fitted into the kinds of stories we tell ourselves about who we are: mothers, wives, daughters, teachers, writers. Like so many other people out there – and trust me when I say there are legions of us – I never found a comfortable storyline or place to be where I didn’t feel like my skin was crawling, or like I might just be disintegrating a molecule at a time from the inside out. I have tracked the possible reasons for this state of being a misfit, including how some of us come from abusive backgrounds or broken ones, some of us experience trauma that fractures our storylines and some of us are, by nature, simply differently wired than those well-adjusted folks who seem well-suited to walk the mainstream paths in life. Still, others actually just thrive at the edges of culture because the centre spits them out. But something that is true for me, beyond coming from an abusive household, beyond the traumas and fractures I’ve experienced as a woman who has made mistakes and moved toward self destruction, and beyond my particular hard-wiring as an outsider, is that, the day my daughter died, well, I experienced a kind of supernova of truth: you don’t even fit the story of life. In you, in your body, in your story, death came first.

How to fit into any story after that? Many other mammals will know what I mean when I ask that. So, let me tell you what can come from her birthdeath. To do that, I have to talk to you about water. I have to describe to you the depths.

Shortly after I was released from the hospital, I started to have what some people would likely call visual and auditory hallucinations. It was not the first time in my life that I saw and heard things that were not there, but it was the most acute and long-lasting. What I saw was literally an ocean floor, an ocean where I could breathe underwater and an underwater earth floor that I could walk across, as if the weight of my grief kept me grounded and drowned. And yet I did not feel dead. I felt alive underwater.

Yes, everything was a dark shade of blue. I had a long white nightgown on. I’ve never owned a long white nightgown, so that was weird, but I’m telling you, I could feel it – the fabric against my body. What I could not feel, at all, was anyone or anything around me in regular life. Not my husband, who by then had already begun to drift away in terms of our relationship, and not my sister, who was literally the person who saved my life, if by saving a life we mean staying present inside the worst thing that has ever happened to me. I could feel the wet of a world where I walked around like a water ghost. I could not feel driving a car. I could not feel going to the grocery store. I could not feel putting my clothes on, or eating, or talking to people. I’ve referred to it before as zombie grief numbness. I’ve seen other people nod in recognition.

But the place – well, the underwater place – had exactly the things you might expect it to have, likely because it was coming from the same place dreams come from, the depths of my subconscious imagination. And since I am a child of water, I have loved water since I was old enough to walk, and thus swim, this world I conjured was oceanic. There were shipwrecks and deep-water creatures. Some real and some I’ve never seen before or since. There were whales and coral reefs and sharks and manta rays. In some places on the ocean floor, there were canyons that dived down into blackness and nothing. Stay with me. Stay. There were jellyfish brightly neoned and graceful, big as a house. And waves. Not like the waves you see on the surface of the ocean. More like places in the water where different shades of blue gave way to one another in great swells and slow turns. Stay with me. Seaweed as tall as buildings making slow “S” shapes in rhythmic pulses. Crabs sidestepping across the sand floor and blowfish puffing up and not one whale but 20; blue whales and gray whales and killer whales and humpbacks, sperm whales, belugas and, yes, even a narwhal making its myths. Sea turtles and starfish and octopuses and a submarine. I don’t know whose submarine. It just sat there, lodged partly in the sand like a giant thought that took a dive and never resurfaced. Does it sound like I am making up a story? Good. Because what I am trying to show you is how storytelling came to me.

During this period of my grieving, from the outside I am positive – I just looked like someone who had lost touch with reality

My daughter died the day she was born. From her death, I became a writer.

Recently, my 16-year-old son acquired a VR headset, and the underwater ocean scene? The eye of the whale coming close to your face? It made me wail. You see, I’d been there before. I now have high hopes for the possible trauma- and grief-healing potential of virtual and augmented realities.

During this period of my grieving, from the outside I am positive – I just looked like someone who had lost touch with reality. I mean my gaze had that blankness thing going on. I went on long walks to nowhere. Or to water – the rivers in Eugene, Oregon, where I’d slip in with all of my clothes on and ride current for no reason, or the swimming pool… where no one ever asked me who or how I was once they saw me in water. In water, I looked fine.

It’s true enough, at a certain point, I started walking away from my rental house at night and sleeping under an overpass with homeless people for a while, a long while, so I guess you could say that I entered psychosis, or so they tell me. But sleeping with homeless people was a lot like peopling the ocean with mammals I felt close to, mammals who I could understand. Homelessness is another kind of underwater, if you think about it. Something in the deep dark just underneath the surface of the okey-dokey people streaming along freeways in their cars.

What I mean when I say I wish there were more stories from people about where they went when grief dislocated them for the regular order of things, where they went when they could not fit the stories around them any longer, is this: I want to know the stories deeply enough to be transformed. What has come from all my years of teaching, and all the people who have read things I’ve written, and all my listening to the bodies and stories of people who have suffered loss is this: our misfit stories transform loss into life and love. Storytelling isn’t a pill or therapy or a cure. But narrative does remind us that we are all children of water, before the breach.

Those misfit stories. Those people living in between life, loss and death stories. Like the man who told me his father’s fist nearly destroyed him and his brother until the day he realised he could drive, and that meant he could drive his brother into any other world. Or the woman who wears a flutter of wrist cut scars like faint white butterflies up and down her arms, who writes crime novels in which no hero saves anyone, ever, and all victims have to imagine an alternative reality in order to survive. Or the transgendered man who told me that the military revealed to him how masculine and feminine are not a question of body parts, but of balance in each of us – and how war is the opposite of child.

The Tiktaalik fish from the late Devonian period had fins that didn’t quite fit. Their fins had basic wrist bones and rays a little bit like fingers. Not exactly like fingers – you’d have to use your imagination to picture it. The fin was able to bear weight and was also fixed to a massive shoulder. Tiktaaliks also had primitive lungs as well as gills. They are the earliest form of fish that had a neck, with a pectoral girdle separate from the skull. 375 million years ago, a fish began to move on to land. The Tiktaalik is a transitional fossil, meaning it’s an example of an intermediate animal, evidence of a creature moving from one form to another, a misfit creature, not quite what it came from, not quite where it was going, and yet maybe everything imaginable.

I hope to hear more stories. I hope to hear all of them.

The Misfits Manifesto by Lidia Yuknavitch is published by Simon & Schuster


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