Losing Sense
Lauryn Allison Lewis


Metal scraping metal and the slow realization that this noise is coming from somewhere deep within my own mind. A tinny voice over an intercom, echoing down deserted hospital corridors. Dr. Carlson. Code white. Dr. Carlson to Labor and Delivery–stat. The name we gave her, readapted as a mantra: Claire. ClaireClaireClaireClaire, whispered through a throat split open from screaming. Endless keening. The sound of her name bouncing back from the wall I face while I lay in bed with the shades battened down against the obscene sunlight. The murmur of my son’s voice slipping under the locked bedroom door; he asks: Where is baby? The cracking voice of my husband answering: In heaven, honey. White sleeping pills rattling in a big pill bottle just before tumbling into my paper-dry palm. The meaningless noise of fumbled condolences seeping from the telephone receiver, which I have set down on the back of the toilet and walked away from. The baby monitor ghostly quiet; when no one is watching I flip it on and listen for her cries.

Scent

Onesies and receiving blankets and tiny beanie caps washed in Dreft detergent and folded so thoughtfully inside of a white wicker drawer that I will never, never open again. Blue hydrangeas moldering away in a cut-glass vase on the bedside table. Nicotine-stained fingers. The crotchy smell of cigarette butts floating in the dregs of an empty bottle of expensive pinot noir we’d looked forward to drinking with friends on the day we brought her home from the hospital, alive. Dirty dishes in scummy, cold dishwater. The sour stench of the kitchen garbage can, overflowing. Lemongrass tea gone cold. The final days of autumn, dry, electric. My mother’s Brecks shampoo and the cigarette she’s snuck as she leans over my prone body and runs her fingers through my dirty hair. The musky smell of my limp, dirty hair. Reheated, gelatinous casseroles prepared by other people–too much of everything–starch, fat, sugar, salt.

Sight

Green-hued florescent light emanating from my peripheral vision, even when my eyes are clenched closed. A soft, cream colored blanket that I wrap around my shoulders and wear everywhere, like a burial shroud. A cream colored blanket that sometimes stops my quaking. The striking absence of her face in every photograph that’s been taken since the minute she died, which was also the minute she was born. The pink, gummy eyes of my mother-in-law as she peers into my bloodshot ones and says: You’re still so young. You’ll have more someday. One thousand times a day, imagining my hand whipping up from my side, slapping the stupid grin from every happy face I pass. Sealed boxes stacked up in the hallway; boxes I took no part in packing–boxes for Goodwill. The ghastly glow of the computer screen reflected in my husband’s glasses as he scours the internet, searching for answers to the only question that matters anymore: What went wrong?

Taste

Whiskey, neat. Juniper gin. Hot vodka. And once I’ve finally been cut off: Nyquil by the bottleful. A thick and fuzzy, filmy tongue in a parched mouth. Bile. The rusted iron edges of blatant lies that fall from my mouth at the supermarket. I’m doing just fine, thanks. Rottenness. Salty, saline tears. Failure like a chokeberry lodged in the throat. The awkward weight of flavorless food I must be continually prompted to chew and swallow. Heavily chlorinated tap water. Dreams in which her honeysuckle toes are pressed against my lips, being kissed. Words that wither and die and putrefy in my mouth before I can do anything with them. Hateful, acidic words I hold under my tongue like an ancient, patinaed coin.

Touch

Scorched, black coffee sloshing around in an empty stomach. The cold windowpane I press my forehead against while staring out on my street, struggling to comprehend how it could possibly be that the world hasn’t yet come to a screeching halt and careened off its axis. Blind fingers probing a new, deep wrinkle on my face. Hot, swollen breasts full of useless milk. A steady, scalding stream of water on my scalp. A steady, frozen stream of water on my scalp until someone finally comes and lifts me out, rubs my numb body with a rough towel. Arms aching with the overwhelming burden of nothing to cradle. The feathery weight of Claire’s tiny ashes in a tiny oaken box. The exact shape of my son’s little-boy body, cupped in the curve of my own. Clothing that binds and bunches from baby weight, and nothing to show for gaining it. Hollowness behind my navel where my daughter should be.

Time lumbers heavily away from its morbid obsession with stupefied senses. Time made of moments and then minutes and then months in which I haunt the dark rooms of my home like a ghost, a shade, a spectral apparition of the person I once was. For hours I sit on the edge of the bathtub chain smoking, or staring through the kitchen window without seeing anything. A dozen times during these nights I pick up the phone and begin dialing numbers but stop before ever completing a full string. I want to talk but cannot. Instead I sit on the kitchen floor and lean against the refrigerator, silently cursing the early morning sky. Quinn, just starting kindergarten, becomes a quiet, reticent child. He is on a pilgrim’s quest to find me, finding instead that every night undoes the previous day’s progress, that every morning he must begin anew. In fleeting moments of clarity I recognize his fear and claw my way out of the abyss to go to him, to take him into my arms and smooth his hair and smell his still-like-a-baby’s breath. My sadness has aged him somehow; I feel it in the strength of his embrace, his commitment to hold me for as long as I will hold him, and pat my back, and say: It’s okay, mommy. It’s okay. Love you, mommy. Don’t cry.

To one in mourning, springtime is cruel in its excessive, prodigious fecundity. Spring does its reaping alongside the fallow field of my womb and so winter turns to spring and still there is no lessening of grief. I accept grief as a fixture of my existence and it is almost a comfort. I tell my husband that I will understand if he needs to leave me. I understand that I am no longer, nor will I ever be, the woman he married. My heart is torn open enough now to take it, I tell him. My heart is a fire fed by loss. I consider throwing everything upon the pyre; nothing is sacred any more. Stupidly, he stays. Night after night he presses cold compresses against my swollen, raging eyes. I must remember: his body did not hold our baby. Since losing Claire I have seen him smile, have listened while he jokes with a friend on the telephone, or hum contentedly while flipping pancakes. That I might someday laugh again is ludicrous, the way flowers reemerging from the toxic soil of Hiroshima is ludicrous, although I know that this has happened there. If I do not make a concerted effort to remind myself that my husband’s body did not carry Claire, that his body–unlike mine–has not become a hollow, blighted vessel where promise once sprouted, it is all too easy to hate him. Even with these careful reminders, there are times when I slip and my hatred for him is so magnificent it makes me lightheaded. I see with a kind of disconnected amusement how simple it would be for my resentment to capsize what remains of us. Our love is a ship that could slip under the sea, all hands lost, and with no one to witness the sinking.

Some time toward summer my hands grow weary of the menial work I’ve assigned them: grasping hair, wiping tears from blanked-out eyes. I return to work as a secretary at a doctor’s office. After all I’ve been through, the true insignificance of my workaday tasks is evident at every turn. In my mind everyone’s concerns are pithy, trivial, superficial. I take my job seriously only because I’ve very recently become a very serious person, not because I care. For seven hours a day, four days a week, patients pass by my desk in route to have their ailments addressed. They limp dramatically, or clutch their backs with one hand and steady themselves against the wall with the other. Their eyes are wide in expectation of my sympathy. Calculating their co-pays, I watch them mentally rehearse their graceful and martyred responses to the compassion they are so sure I will express. But I refuse the coddling dance. I believe they know nothing of true pain. There is nearly a year of this until finally one morning a hot flash of anger rises inside of me as I hold the door for a hobbling young man with a cane, and I realize that he deserves–at the very least–feigned consideration, something I just can’t permit him. I give two weeks notice that afternoon.

In a desperate effort to escape the debilitating guilt of having lived through Claire’s death, I decide that the remainder of my life will become a living testament to her spirit. I apply to college for the fall term, an undertaking I’d abandoned years before.

Sound

Sparrows flitting in the yew just beyond my office window, busily constructing their tiny nests. My ten a.m. fingertips zipping along the keyboard. My three a.m. fingertips clobbering the keyboard in fits and spurts and another pot of coffee percolating in the kitchen. My son’s laughter, and also, sometimes, his anger: he feels safe enough now to express what in the past he feared would break me. The cork popping from a bottle of champagne, an exchange of mutual congratulations. The sound of my soles slapping wet concrete during a jog along the lake in twilight; my mending heart beating in my ears, keeping a syncopated rhythm with my deep, even breathing. Children’s voices singing children’s songs, seeping across the avenue and through my kitchen window, thrown open. Dishes clattering into the sink, bacon frying in a skillet, a whisk spinning eggs in a bowl because I’ve awakened with enough energy to prepare a big breakfast. Scissors slicing colored construction paper; snowflakes for Christmas, red hearts for Valentine’s Day, birthday cards, animal masks. A good song on the radio, one we all know and sing together.

Scent

Chocolate chip banana bread cooling on the windowsill. Spring’s exhalations: lilac, hyacinth, tulip, bluebell and daffodil. French lavender soap bought from Mertz’s Apothecary: lotions, powders, perfume; the aroma of personal maintenance and self-preservation. Clean sheets. Pine sap, peppermint, the cloves we push into oranges and pile in a bowl for the Christmas table’s centerpiece. The sulfurous smell of spent sparklers. Wood smoke and charred marshmallows and lemon verbena on our skin to keep the mosquitoes at bay during the last, late-summer camping trip. The aftershave on my husband’s cheek when, for a few moments each morning, I press myself to him and wish him a safe, happy day. Sweat and soil while digging in the garden. Marinara Bolognese simmering slowly for hours on a back burner. The sidewalk dappled by warm rain, reflecting the scent of stone and water. Cut green grass. The smell of wind and electricity clinging to my son’s clothes, just coming in from climbing trees on a gray autumn afternoon; the chamomile tea with honey he asks for.

Sight

Boarding passes in a blue envelope for a trip to Manhattan I take with a good friend. A tiny oaken box on my dresser, beside a photo of my son when he was smaller and dressed as a pirate for Halloween. The long string of A’s running down the right side of my college transcript. Hundreds of pages in a green, three-ring binder: stories I’ve written, and rewritten, expanded, condensed and polished to a deep, warm glow like cherry wood. A reflection I glimpse in a shop window, one of my own face, beaming. The red dress I buy for my eighth wedding anniversary, and gold shoes to go with it. The name Claire written in my handwriting on a blank sheet of paper, the perfect balance of its letters, its perfect weight and shape. The sky on fire at sunset. A night-moth seen in broad daylight, coming to rest upon a pitcher of sun tea. My son’s skinned knee, his voice warbling: Fix it, mom. The brightly colored novelty band-aids I keep close at hand for this exact purpose. Impressionists paintings, viewed in languid succession. The city skyline at night, all neon and twinkling lights.

Taste

The rounded edges of a song I sing to my son before bed. A hot, soft, salty pretzel with yellow mustard and a icy domestic beer with a smooth, frothy head at a Cub’s night game. The chocolate truffles I make in winter, sprinkled with pink, Peruvian salt, sprinkled with cayenne pepper, sprinkled with candied violets, or ginger. The spicy, whole taste of my husband’s lips on my lips, becoming suddenly animated. The woody, chewed number two pencil I hold between my teeth while doing line-edits. My teeth as a dam holding back some of my love, verbalized; the parts that might make others blush, make them feel loved too forcefully. The salty tears of joy swallowed through a smile. Skunky, mellow marijuana smoke when the work is finally, completely, thankfully done. The citified night air blowing through the wide-open car window, clinging to the back of my throat. The perfect elotas bought from a food cart at the beach. The metallic tinge of an ice cube melting in a feverish mouth, just before the fever breaks.

Touch

The body pulled from bed heart first–long alert–bursting to get started. Deadly serious determination that I hold like a smooth, black stone in my hand and brandish at any who might attempt to stop or stifle me. One thousand butterflies fluttering in the brain just before taking the stage to read a story, hot lights and the electric zing of a microphone in my hand; the audience dissolves and I see only my daughter out there, twirling in a yellow sundress. The perfectly round shape of my son’s head in my palm while I rinse the soap from his hair, the exact same shape of Claire’s head, only larger. Or my finger tracing the shape of his sleeping eyes, almond, just like hers were. Falling into nubby flannel sheets for an hour of sleep before waking up to pack lunches, feed the cat, fold laundry; the day will be trying, but the midnight writing is its own reward and recompense. The phantasmal sensation of a tiny hand slipping into mine if I am ever alone and afraid. A warm light shining behind and between my eyes. An ancient, woolly, secret song in my soul.



Lauryn Allison Lewis writes fiction, essays, interviews, and reviews of all sorts. She is a managing editor at Curbside Splendor Press, and an assistant editor at Barrelhouse Magazine. Lauryn’s novella, solo/down, will be released on April 23rd by The Chicago Center for Literature and Photography, and her debut novel, The Beauties, will be published later this year by Silverthought Press.




Art by Ashley Inguanta