When the Eeriness of Trauma Can Only Be Understood Through Fiction
How Kelly Link Helped Me See Things a Little More Clearly
Recently I was reading at my favorite coffee shop and I heard two new moms talking about their babies’ growth percentiles. The babies were small, and the moms were worried. But one of the babies had gained enough weight to graduate from “failure to thrive” to “low percentile.” The mom’s tired eyes were wide and almost manic when she shared this news, and her expression was so familiar I had to look away.
Normally I would smile at the babies’ sweet faces, or coo at them. I would ask, How many months? Are you getting any sleep? But hearing those words—“failure to thrive”—dropped me into a well.
I’ve always relied on books to transport me—to take me out of time, out of my body. When I’m in pain or uncomfortable or stuck in a stretch of time that drags, I open a new book, or reread an old one, and go somewhere else. But the peculiar magic of reading deserted me when my second child was born. He had a birth defect, and the expectation of the surgery he would need at six months cast a shadow over his infancy. It didn’t help that he was a colicky baby, a terrible sleeper, an indifferent eater. He hovered at the two percentile in growth—always right on the cusp of being designated “failure to thrive.” He seemed annoyed all the time. Even when he reached the age where babies are supposed to smile, he rarely did. He didn’t seem to want to.
A wooly darkness surrounded me in those months like a heavy coat I couldn’t shed. It blunted everything, movies, sunshine. It made food taste like sand. I picked up one book after another, ready to be taken somewhere else—it didn’t matter where or when as long as it wasn’t this place and this time—but they didn’t work. I would open even my old favorites, the Brontes or Ishiguro or Sarah Waters, and feel nothing.
Then a few days before the surgery my son figured out how to pull himself up—in his crib, from the floor to the coffee table. It delighted him. He did it over and over and smiled and cackled with glee. He stopped looking so cranky all the time. Some of the dark feeling I’d been carrying around dissipated. I found my battered copy of I Capture the Castle and fell into its cloistered, fire-lit world with a sense of relief.
On the day of the surgery, my son happily pulled up on my legs as nurses and residents checked his temperature and blood pressure. When it was time my husband and I stood at one end of a long hallway. A big group of people wearing scrubs came toward us and they were all smiling. My son was grinning too, big and bright under the fluorescent lights. We all greeted each other like we were friends. It felt strangely joyful. Then one of the nurses took my son and carried him back down the hallway. She faced him toward us, so we could see he was smiling the whole way.
The waiting room smelled like Purrel and carpet powder. It had the normal things—chairs, magazines, a water fountain. It also had a tv bolted to the wall with a list of names, including my son’s, with colored bars next to them. Green meant the surgery had just started, orange meant they were halfway through, and blue meant they were done. There was also a woman with a big basket of beads and thread, so you could make a necklace or bracelet while you waited for your kid to come out.
I sat on the floor and picked up beads, looked at them, and set them back down. Every time I checked the television screen and the color next to my son’s name hadn’t changed, I pressed a bead hard against my thumb and forefinger.
The surgery was a success. That day ended, and the next one began. But part of me was still in those hours, with the Purrel and carpet powder smell, the beads, and the colored bands on the tv. I relived those minutes hourly at first. Then daily. Lots of things could bring the memory back, an overheard phrase, a smell, a certain slant of very early morning light.
Trauma is a cruel kind of time machine that way. It collapses minutes and hours; it erases context. Maybe because traumatic memories are almost entirely sensory—they sharpen whole days into a single smell, Burt’s Bees diaper cream and raw skin. One sound, a high-pitched, angry cry. One texture, a hard plastic bead between my thumb and forefinger.
My son turned one, then two. He was a spirited, happy little boy. I rarely though about the dark days of his infancy, when he didn’t sleep or eat or smile. But it seemed like I would be stuck with the memory of the day in the hospital for good.
Then a friend gave me a book, Get in Trouble by Kelly Link. One of the stories in the book, “The Lesson,” is about a couple who go to a wedding in a remote location, only to find out that their baby—due in several months by surrogate—has been born very premature. At the end of the narrative we learn that the child lived and grew up and thrived. But in the last paragraphs one of his dads says he still had a strange feeling as if their child had died, and this kid—the one that was growing up healthy and strong—was another child entirely. He said sometimes he mourned that other kid, the one who had spent all those weeks in the ICU, the one that was now gone.
The story had the strangest effect on me. I saw that the day at the hospital was a dividing line in my mind—between the skinny, grumpy baby my son had been, and the happy child he became. Because his personality changed around the time of his surgery, it was as if that was the day I lost one kid and gained another. In a way I’d been mourning the one that was gone.
After I read that story the memory of the hospital waiting room softened a little. Its edges became blunted, as if it had turned it into a memory of a memory, rather than a recollection of the real thing. I think it’s because story can do all the things trauma can. A good story can drop you into a single moment and make a room out of it. It can collapse time and context; it can transport you through touch, taste, smell, sound. But it’s a much kinder time machine; with it you can go to dark places that are like your own dark places but not exactly. That not exactly is the buffer that keeps you safe, that allows you to walk around in the dark, to see things you hadn’t before, and maybe come out into the bright light on the other side.