‘Out of Grief, Singing: A Memoir of Motherhood and Loss’ by Charlene Diehl

Book Reviews

Reviewed by Jess Woolford

Unexpected outcomes.  In the maternity handbooks this phrase signals birth gone wrong, a nightmare expecting couples generally avoid contemplating, fearful of jinxing their family-in-the-making.  When I was pregnant my husband and I carefully crafted a birth plan and then, either despite or because of our fears, we forced ourselves to write a companion document addressing disaster.  Three paragraphs long, the headings looked like this:

1. Caesarean
2. Sick Baby
3. Stillbirth or Death of Baby

Now that I’ve read Out of Grief, Singing, a memoir by Charlene Diehl, poet and director of the Winnipeg International Writers Festival, the list strikes me as naively compartmentalized.  It never occurred to me that these catastrophes might spill one into another and still another, as they did in Diehl’s case.

In November 1995, Diehl was twenty-eight weeks pregnant when she was diagnosed with early-onset pre-eclampsia (also known as toxemia).  As she explains,

The clamp in the word has just the right ring to it: for reasons that are still not clear, the chemistry of the pregnant body causes the mother’s arteries to kink up like poorly stored garden hoses.  It can lead to seizures, and long-term damage to the mother’s organs.  The restricted blood flow has implications for the fetus as well: an inadequate supply of oxygen and nourishment means these babies tend to be small for their gestational age, and as the mother becomes more ill, they become listless.

Left untreated, death for mother and baby ensues.   As “[t]he only cure is to stop being pregnant,” Diehl soon finds herself being prepped for a Caesarean.  Of readying to receive the anesthetist’s needle, she writes, “I push out my spine, connect myself to my mother, my mother’s mother, to all the mothers.  Our maternal bodies at the mercy of forces we’ll never quite comprehend.”  The notion of connection between bodies and experience, even across great stretches of time, and the elevation of the seemingly mundane through thoughtful word craft, are themes that characterize this remarkable memoir.

Once her baby daughter is prised from the womb, Diehl has only a moment’s glimpse of Chloe’s sweet face before she is whisked away to the NICU.   “Breathing, feeding, staying warm: the daily work of being alive is an endless mountain-climbing expedition” for the premature child.

Desperate to be with her daughter, Diehl ignores her own poor health and accompanies her husband Bill to Chloe’s side, though she realizes “This is a baby I will be able to look at but not hold, a baby who is cared for by people who know better than I how to meet her needs.  My relief and gratitude have a bitter aftertaste.”

Gazing at her “beautiful, challenged baby,” Diehl “tunnel[s] deep into this exact moment, my witness to this determined, passionate spirit.”  Back in bed, Diehl draws strength from the fact that “[s]omeone in that relentlessly busy unit pasted hearts onto the monitors taped to her tiny chest,” and it is these sorts of human gestures that will continue to comfort and inspire Diehl, even as a spinal headache keeps her from Chloe: “I lean toward my struggling daughter, mere minutes from my room.  A universe of illness divides me from my life.  I am pinned to my bed…”

When the spinal headache is finally cured, Diehl returns to Chloe.

I align myself with this fighting spirit.  At the same time, it shames me to know I am afraid of the place she lives, afraid of the demands it places upon our human need to reach one another.  I fear I will fail at this version of mothering… My hand slips toward hers, nestles against her tiny fingers.   I long to know this child, to take her into myself.  I long to be her mother.

And so Diehl, like every mother, sings to her baby:

I fold my voice into the smallest envelope, send it through the relentless beeping and buzzing of the machines… the rustle of hands and shoes and clean smocks.  I sing though my fingertip, send waves up her bruised arm.  I am determined to find her.  I am seeking her heart, sending an ancient love letter from mother to daughter.  I sing her my astonishment, my anguish, my apologies.  I sing her my hope, I sing her my dread, I sing her my blessing.  I sing her a mother.

When Chloe responds by arching her back, Diehl relates that a nurse “looks at me pointedly and declares that Chloe can’t handle extra stimulation.”  Devastated, Diehl withdraws, wondering, “Where is my place?”

Later that day when Diehl finally gets to hold her baby, it is only because she is dying: “It’s a physical relief to have her tiny body in contact with my body…We define a shape for our family in these moments of holding, we claim her body for our own.”  Then, “[s]omething leaves, and our wishful selves fly after it.  But something stays too, something clear and ringing, something indelible.  I will spend my life discovering what it is, this deep, true thing.”

Bereft, Diehl tries to make sense of her status: “Wasn’t I that baby’s mother before she faced the assault of air?  When does a woman become a mother?”  Longing for a different, impossible outcome, Diehl is uncomfortably “mother and not-mother.”  Her anguish and confusion are so palpable that one longs to go to her, to tell her that she became a mother the moment she joyfully received news of the creature budding inside her.

Consistently comforting to Diehl is evidence that Chloe has a “public self,” something she realizes when the NICU caregivers come to her bedside to share stories of Chloe: “I know, suddenly and certainly, that these people have loved, have cherished, our baby…Together we begin to comprehend the absolute beauty of a life of days, release ourselves into mourning.”

Later, during a sympathy gathering, Diehl feels her guests’ “open hunger for this baby” and when she reads the notes they have left for her and Bill, she marvels “that this baby actually exists for [them]…”

And when a neighbor places a light on the Christmas memorial tree in Chloe’s memory, it is “a kind of presence.  A child lived, it says in its wordless way, a child was loved.

Or, more truly: Someone loves this child.”

Diehl also derives comfort from the way her parents “reach out, leave me room to move toward and away,” opening space in their hearts and home for her to mend, even as Chloe’s death reminds them of the child they lost to spina bifida many years before.

Doing her grief work prompts Diehl to pay close attention to the natural world where she finds significance in the glow of blossoms and the movements of birds.  On a hoarfrost morning, Diehl observes a flock of sparrows as they

traipse haphazardly after an accidental leader…Who begins? I wonder.  Who knows who to follow? I watch them lift and settle, lift and settle…I watch the shape they create together, an undulation, a thing—both whole and inadvertent—that could, at any second, disintegrate into its separate, insignificant particles.

This cluster of birds, these blinding branches: I am being offered something.  A lesson, of sorts, about accidental beauty, about the human wish to see meaning in every performance.  About the mystery of ephemera, these small birds acting in concert…I see the possibility of my daughter, released from me.

As Diehl heals and moves forward in her life, including giving birth to son Liam and daughter Anna, she confides another unexpected outcome: “I am strong enough now to claim that it is actually my great fortune to be Chloe’s mother.  I have been entrusted with a task that is demanding but also deepening.  Mothering her is not something active, something literal.  It’s a long way from naps and cuddles and cubes of banana…Being Chloe’s mother is something else entirely—not so much something I do as something I am.  She leaves her elusive, delicate traces on the map of my self, and I am the one who is a child, learning to read this script.”

A heartbreaking lament, a beautiful hymn, and a memorable ode to a gone daughter, Out of Grief, Singing claims Chloe’s place in the human family.  With its passion for language, meaning, love, and life in all its unpredictable variety, Diehl’s stunning memoir is destined to reverberate for readers long after they’ve read the last page.

Signature Editions | 176 pages |  $18.95 | paper | ISBN #978-1897109441

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Jess Woolford

Jess Woolford reads and writes memoir in Winnipeg.