Published on April 13th, 2016 | by Katherine Thome6
BABY REMEMBER HIS NAME: Katherine Thome on Birth and Grief
“And you shall call his name John.” Luke 1:13
“Well, should we call him John? Jack for short? Or just Jack?” my husband asks as he leans back on our faded blue damask sofa. He pulls at the loose thread on a throw pillow. It’s our nightly time together after we’ve sung six lullabies to our daughter (because she’s six—a holdover from when she was three and got three songs because she was three) and rubbed over 250 small circles on her back.
“John, with Jack for short,” I say. I get up, walk across the living room and stop. The grain in the pine floor moves and flows while I stare at it. I already forget why I’ve risen. It was always a certainty that I’d name a son “John” but tonight I am overcome with fear for this boy I’m carrying. My hands shake. Cool sweat drips from my sternum to my navel. “But, what if…?”
I am nineteen weeks pregnant with him; our second child. We’re through the stressful first-trimester “advanced maternal age” testing phase. The just-in-case-you-aren’t-terrified-already phase. Everything is “normal.” Yet I remain consumed. Anxiety—rational and irrational. I can’t calibrate my concern—I am equally as afraid of the trace of mercury in ONE tuna melt as I am of my unborn son’s being cursed to die young. When you are responsible for an unlived life ordinary perspective ceases to function. There is no scale. The meridians segmenting the hemispheres of magic and logic no longer serve to divide your thoughts. Everything is real and illusory, reasonable and impossible. In my pregnant visions, I finally understand how magical realism came to be.
My daughter, a healthy, rambunctious six-year-old, is named after my maternal grandmother, as Irish tradition dictates. Eleanor, my grandmother, died young, when my mother was only eight. But, that was the 1950’s and I’ve heard horror stories in which doctors didn’t even tell women they were dying of cancer until they figured it out on their own. No, they told the women’s husbands. The world is different now—I hope. It’s never occurred to me to fear that Ellie will die young of cancer, as her great-grandmother did. I worry that I may die young, leaving her without a mother. As with mothers everywhere, anything happening to her is far and away my greatest fear. With this boy, something feels different.
Tradition dictates that my son will be named John. But this is not only the name of my grandfather, it is also the name of my father. My father, John, called “Jack,” died at forty-four. It was the day after my eighth birthday, the day before my First Communion, and two days after my unborn son’s due date—February 18th. February is a busy month around here and I won’t be allowing a scheduled C-section on February 20th. My mother was eight when her mother died. I was eight when my father died. What will my son’s eighth birthday bring? Will his name have anything to do with that?
In my mind’s eye, I picture my son. The boy in my mind runs through a hose in a back yard. He is sunlight in coloring, with white-blonde eyebrows. He is grinning. I hear his mouth open into a delighted squeal. This child doesn’t look like my father did as a child. Daddy, as a boy, was tall with flaming red-Irish hair and big ears. Rather, my imagined son looks like his own Daddy did and his sister does—blonde hair, blue eyes, ruddy cheeks.
Yet, how can he be himself when everyone who knows him will think of the other Jack, the one that died? What if he dies young?
What if he isn’t at all like my father—who was whip-smart, sarcastic enough to teach a five-year-old the meaning of “facetious”, justice-seeking, and a lover of the Mets, modern art, post-modern architecture, mid twentieth-century American fiction, French brandy, and his children? What if my son prefers blocks to books, math to Machiavelli, business to the law? What if his sense of humor is slapstick rather than subtle? Will this new little Jack only hear comparisons from his family? Unspoken and unacknowledged, shadows follow us wherever we go. I know this worry is irrational. But what is real: Will calling him that name—the name written by his hand in my copy of Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary—make me sad every time I think of it? Am I trying to honor my father or bring him back?
Over the next few weeks, I let the question roll around in my head. Athena poking at Zeus’s skull. It whacks at the inside of my temples with its spear. I take a Tylenol—I’m not ready for it to burst forth into the world. I am not ready for this child—no one ever is. I’m still missing my father. He’ll never know this little boy who already moves inside me, swimming, and hiccuping. He won’t see the print out of the ultrasound showing my son, supine, waving his tiny fingers at a family he doesn’t know is watching. Then again, he never saw my daughter’s either. That’s how it is with people who die young—they are forever with us only in their absence.
“Mommy, we can’t call him Brian because that’s Daddy’s name and then they would both answer when we called them. Too confusing. We should call him Jack.”
“You think so?”
“Yes. Like your Daddy. Or we could call him Jeddidiah—like the little guy in Night at the Museum—cause THAT baby in you is really a LITTLE guy.”
I laugh. She’s right, of course. Ellie combines the literal world with the spiritual one in a way I’m not sure she even understands yet. It is my daughter who brings me back to this world from the precipice of my anxiety, from the depth of memory, as she has from the moment I saw her on a gray, black and white ultrasound screen seven years ago. She saves me from the darkness. With her, it is impossible not to live in this world, with the people who are here, alive and walking through the world with me. Perhaps my son will be just like that, another earth-bound tether to keep me from spinning into outer space.
“Jack, it is then.” I say to her. Just let him be o.k. Please. I say to myself and to the darkness.
update: John (Jack) Thomas Thome joined the world a week late on February 28, 2016. 8 lbs, 1oz and 21″, safe and healthy.