This is a guest post by the amazing Emily Rapp. She is the author of The Still Point of the Turning World: A Mother's Story and Poster Child. She writes so well it's mind blowing. I am grateful she's sharing her words -- and her son Ronan -- here.
All the dead voices.
They make a noise like wings.
They all speak at once.
Each one to itself.
Rather they whisper.
What do they say?
They talk about their lives.
To have lived is not enough for them.
They have to talk about it.
To be dead is not enough for them.
It is not sufficient.
-- Samuel Beckett
At the museum in the birthplace of the artist Diego Rivera in the city of Guanajuato, Mexico, there is a gallery of portraits called “Los Angelitos.” The museum itself is like a stop-time photograph from a different age. Various rooms of the house are staged although some are off limits, and visitors move through the available spaces as if moving through an imagined day in the life of a family whose furniture remains intact though its members are dead: the bedroom with thick wooden furniture and canopied crib for a tiny Diego surrounded by a braided cloth rope to ward off those who might be tempted to touch; the impressive entrance halls lined with art in gold frames; once-used dishes now stacked behind spotless glass. The only sounds are the shuffling of curious feet and muted voices in English, Spanish and German.
On the top floor of the house, in the upper rooms full of light, are the little angels, two white-walled galleries of carefully curated photographs of babies being held by parents, siblings, sole mothers and single fathers, all dressed in fancy clothes that are neatly pressed and seldom worn. In some of these family portraits, older children with dark wings of hair over their eyes lean on one elbow over the baby, who is usually on a table or in the arms of a solemn-looking parent. Solemnity was usual in the nineteenth century photograph, so this does not surprise me. I look at the dark-haired families; I stare into the faces of the children, the parents, the babies.
All the babies are dead. But because my son Ronan was blind for a year before he died when he too was still a baby, it takes me a full twenty minutes of looking at the photographs to realize the babies are dead and not just afflicted by the unique vulnerability of being a baby and having no choice but to rely on the goodness of others, of the world.
I am used to the sight of the sightless after so many long hours singing into the face of a baby who would never see me fully, never know me apart from the animal instinct he was born with that told him I was his mother. My partner has been walking silently behind me, and only when I turn around and see his beloved face do I realize my mistake.
“Are they dead?” I ask him, as if they have just died and I am asking for confirmation. He nods. His eyes are dark and glittering. He can see me.
“I thought they were being baptized.” The babies in the portraits mounted on the walls where Diego Rivera was born are wearing burial gowns that are frilly and white and as elaborate and delicate as baptismal gowns. Looking more closely I can see that the way the living person interacts with the camera is different from the stillness of the babies. In death, even their bodies are mute, although it is those silent bodies that tell the whole story of every other person in the photograph. I feel dizzy with the weird meaning of time in this lit upper room: everyone in these photographs is long dead, but in this isolated, unrepeatable, documented, mummified moment only the babies have marched forward out of measured time.
The room is suddenly loud with Ronan’s voice, the way it faded and quickened in the minutes before he died and then stopped. The way it was always a collection of sounds that never shaped into words because there was a neuron path that had been burned to the ground of his brain and, smoldering and useless, became part of a decimated forest it would take a figure from a fairytale to heal or resurrect. A forest of personality and personhood that nobody – not even he, the inhabitor of it – would ever visit or know or recognize. I feel a surge through my body of something that is not grief or anger, but a necessary numbness that acts as a net through which I view the rest of the gallery. I am light-bodied and cold. I do not want to run out; I want to see these babies the way I did not want to see my son’s face in the hours after he died but did so anyway, lifting the embroidered shroud again and again, not wanting to see, wanting to see. His eyes would not stay closed although his body was heavy so I closed them again and again, trailing the bitten edges of my nails through his long eyelashes. I was not weeping then, but choking and dreaming with disbelief, relief, release, alienation, attention. This is woe I thought then, a brief, single syllabic verb that seemed to sum up the simple, crushing fact that he had gone. I would be left to tell his story and not the other way around. A fairytale in reverse, tales of the tragic and the unexpected, tales of woe captured in the seeing eye of the camera.
I descend from the top staircase of the museum, through the rooms of modern art and sculpture, and out into the street where it has been raining for hours, slowly and lightly. Our clothes smell like the strong detergent used at the lavanderia where we have had them washed by a young mother whose three-month-old baby coos and kicks in the cot next to a long line of washing machines. He was fussy when we went to collect our clothes. I put my finger on his forehead and he looked at me with his dark, seeing eyes and then fussed a bit less. “Look how well you can calm him,” my love observed. This compliment flattened me, for what good is a mother whose child has died?
It has been almost a year since I closed my son’s eyes. The week before we arrived in Mexico I found in a dresser drawer I was cleaning out after a year of stuffing into it receipts, underwear, and stray gym socks, a single red mitten that was his, and the shirt that I cut from his body after his death, printed with rockets and planets arranged in a whimsical pattern, a little boy’s dream of space, of the beyond. I have been moving both items around in various drawers for months, always wondering what happened to the pants. Where are the matching space pants? But I never bother to actually look for them. “Ronan’s not an angel,” I say all the time, to anyone who will listen. “God doesn’t have him.” Who does?
It is Christmas in Mexico, and all around this city with its winding, cobbled streets and ringing bells we have watched people marching purposefully to cathedrals, holding their baby Jesus figures decked out in festive costume and plucked from the home crèche to be blessed by the priest. It is mostly men who do this ritual shuttling of the doll, their precious, inanimate bundles wrapped in brightly colored blankets printed with the image of wide-eyed animated bears and Hello Kitty.
Dry leaves cross the Zocalo, the plazas, the polished holiday shoes of the living children headed to Mass or headed home.
Angels. Perhaps they exist in some other world, but it is not enough. Rebecca Solnit, in her book The Faraway Nearby, quotes Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, writing in her journal in March 1815 about the death of a child: “Dreamt that my little baby came to life again - that it had only been cold and we rubbed it before the fire and it lived. Awoke and found no baby. I think about the little thing all day.” The parents of the dead babies in the photographs hold them as if they are alive, as if they are looking for a fire before which to rub them awake, their faces drawn with resignation and an unspoken ambition to solve the unsolvable. Sometimes I hold the plaster cast a friend made of Ronan’s hand and pretend it is warm and real. I trace the creases in the palms and examine the white material of his fingernails for imagined dirt. Guanajuato is known as the haunted city because of its museum of mummies. We do not visit the mummies, a deliberate and necessary avoidance. We’ve heard some of them are actually not so old, which is somehow more horrible, and that their families don’t have money to bury them. A newer mummy is scarier than one that has long been dead.
My love and I hold hands in the street and kiss on the corners like other couples. In the bakeries we select hot loaves of bread and glistening pastries with silver tongs and arrange them on a tray.
At night, when the otherwise non-stop dance party on the roof next door to our rented house takes a brief hiatus and we are able to sleep, I have dreams in which Ronan is helpless in some foreign land. Someone is putting him on a plane but they don’t know how to care for him, how to support his head, how to feed him, and he will die. People want to hurt him, but I don’t understand why and this makes me murderous. People are trying to blind him with acid although he is already blind. They want to hurt him, tear at his vulnerability, cross every boundary of cruelty, and in my dreams I try to kill them with my hands, bombs, knives, rockets, words, anything that can be fashioned or shaped into a weapon. Sometimes Ronan speaks in the dreams but I do not remember what he says when I wake up, and then I am frightened: by my rage, by my violence, by impotence that is the loss of love. I thrash around, slobber and pant, and cannot be coaxed back to sleep.
The sounds of the techno music and shouts of the living mix with the imagined voices of the unnamed dead babies, who leap from their portraits and form a circle on the floor of the well-lit upper gallery in the home of the dead artist, in a country where skeletons walk with the living in artwork, and inside the circle sits my son, telling a story of what we need to know, although nobody can stay awake or asleep long enough to hear what he’s saying. Only the babies cheer him on with their language of coos and kicks and hiccups; beholden to no one, they say only what they want to hear. Ronan keeps turning the pages of a book that nobody else can read, his own story, the story of ordinary babies and ordinary time, and the people who are left behind to mourn both.