Almost a year after meeting Stephanie Cole, in the virtual way we “meet” nowadays, we saw one another face to face. Two mothers, each with a lost daughter—mine Sophie, and hers Madeline. But what shocked me most was the way Stephanie was like every other mom—the moms in the grocery store, at the park or in school, the places where we live our lives. The bent spirit I expected was palpable, too, and yet there was something so alive in her, spunky and real and heartening really, because she was so obviously unbroken. I had always wondered if this mother-heartbreak she and I both knew was visible on the outside, to anyone, like scars or shaved heads or broken bones. Or, as Cole writes, People should be able to know just by looking at me that something has gone terribly wrong. But, seeing her, I felt we were both two things: normal and not alone.
Reading Still, mothers in the early, seemingly unending days of frantic mourning can find communion and normalcy—and even some peace in their shared journey. Still provides the perfect, collective roadmap to the grief we share. Its collection of journal entries, poetry, and works of art speak loudly and often times brutally to the hearts of so many in the loss community. Cole expands the circle of grief into more universal iterations—those of driving, experiencing weather, shopping—those things we all took for granted, before we recognized how their landscapes were littered with memories of the families we’d so lightheartedly planned for. And she writes that experience of choked living for all bereaved mothers, reminding us our grief makes us mothers all along. In her straightforward, honest, and often wry style, Cole writes of watching television and cringing at a pregnant meerkat.
One of the meerkats was pregnant. I considered turning it off but thought, no Stephanie, you can handle a pregnant meerkat, suck it up. After the commercial break the meerkat went into labor. And then she delivered her baby. Her stillborn baby. Are you kidding me??? But you know what, I’m glad I saw it because it really made me see that I am not crazy, that it is the animal mother in me that feels this loss so deeply.
Upon reading Cole’s heartbreaking epistles, with distance from the grief we share, the literary critic in me felt in awe of the gentle, if unintentional, way she leaves space for the reader. From “the commercial break”—a negative space left for her own grief and her readers’—to the “you”—a universal figure, doubling as the journal and the reader-recipient of Cole’s knowledge and communion—Cole attends cautiously to the heart of the grieving mother. She doesn’t hold back, but she writes what we as mothers know: that we are justified in grieving our babies. In a world that tells us to “be grateful” or “move on,” Still functions as a reminder that we are mothers, and we are right, “Nothing will ever be the same again.”
The collage of art and poetry at the end of Still further encapsulates the loss experience. Surely the works are beautiful; but their strength lies, again, in their ability to put the universal wail of grief to music we can understand. Although Cole is a gifted writer and an artist by training, the words and images are simple, unself-conscious, and mostly uncrafted. We feel we are there with her, screaming when she screams, feeling a lift of momentary solace alongside her too. Cole’s absolutely honest poems and art splash the page, with jagged edges and large wide curves. These physical structures allow the reader to follow as Cole grapples with the consuming pain of her daughter’s death. The paintings “Panic Attack” and “For Madeline” represent so beautifully the polarized feelings of loss. Both the intense emotions and the dwarfing, reality-hollering hugeness of grief—and the round, smoothness of motherhood as we dreamed it would be, despite our sadness. Cole’s mourning woman is “all belly” and downturned face, featureless, pictured next to the words “I held you every second of your life.” If this woman knows the imminent loss ahead, she is unconcerned—and, like Stephanie Cole, unwavering in her commitment to remembering herself a mother.
While Cole never once tells us the journey will be easy, she beckons us to share the ebb and flow of grief, and the tidal waves of happy remembrance. She writes, perfect and pretty/my sweet little flower was/more beautiful than/words can possibly describe/I’m so honored that she’s mine (“Mother’s Day 2009”). Without artifice, and without ten point words or poetic trickery, Stephanie Cole writes simply from the (broken-healing-never mending) heart. In her poem, “Healing is Difficult,” Cole writes, The ache and longing are still present now/but in a less suffocating way/And sometimes her pictures make me smile a little/before I break down and cry. These small moments of hope are few and far between, providing an honest picture of grief’s ruthlessness. And, yet, their very existence reinforces Cole’s philosophy of making space for feeling and remembering the babies we so deeply miss.
Still has become a defining text in the canon of loss-epistolary. Not because Cole started out a writer, but because Cole started out a mother. She creates with the raw heart of a grieving parent, and that makes Still both unique and ubiquitous. Knowing Stephanie, reading her work, hearing her speak, I know she works every day to create that Madeline space in her own life. In its third year of publication, Still continues to echo importantly, reminding parents, grandparents, and loss-allies of the space left by the death of a child. Still is a testimony to that space—a candid, grasping, rough hewn exploration of the cavern left by loss. And the slow drip of memory that fills that permanent space in our hearts. In its pages, bereaved mothers can find true connection, a fellow traveler, and a much-needed reminder that even our vast, wild missing marks us forever as mothers.
Bio: Catherine Bayly is a poet whose work focuses mainly on the resounding effects of losing her first daughter. Catherine teaches writing at several lovely universities, in addition to grief writing workshops within her community. She lives in Maryland with her husband and children. Catherine is also the founder of The Lifespan of Butterflies, http://thelifespanofbutterflies.blogspot.com/.