The Unthinkable

by guest author Kristen Rademacher

As a single woman in my late twenties, I rented the top floor of a two-family house within spitting distance of Cambridge, Massachusetts. My landlords, an elderly couple, both with polio, lived on the first floor. I adored them. We lived peaceably together for nearly a decade, sharing the Boston Globe newspaper, a washer and dryer in the basement, and occasional meals. Conrad and Liz epitomized grace and grit while living out their senior years with polio-pain and reduced activity. I can still picture them plugging along with their crutches and leg-braces, rarely complaining and always charming.

I’d sometimes visit with Conrad in his man-cave, a tiny room in the basement filled with relics of his younger life: darkroom equipment, assorted tools hanging from a pegboard, and posters of national parks. I’d sit on a dilapidated chair while he’d tell stories of his youth and of his travels with Liz. Conrad was effusive and enthusiastically rooted for me, hoping I’d settle down with a good man and have children if that’s indeed what I’d wanted. I had. So had he.

I’d assumed Conrad and Liz were childless because they’d married on the late side, or because polio would have made pregnancy and parenting too complicated. But in one of our man-cave chats, Conrad told me that years earlier, Liz had given birth to a full-term, stillborn baby. His usually twinkling eyes filled up as he recalled Liz’s strength and his own grief over losing their infant boy. I remember not knowing what to say, and—literally—not being able to imagine their trauma. My younger self simply had no categories for this sort of blasphemous loss. Plus, I’d still had an immature belief that life was somehow just and fair. Surely, contracting polio before Salk finalized the vaccine would have inoculated this couple to more tragedy, right? So, I stuffed their story into an abstract file titled “The Unthinkable.” The topic never came up in future conversations with Conrad or Liz, but I often wondered: Does Liz think about her son anymore?

Several years later, I relocated to North Carolina for an ultimately doomed relationship, and at age 39, I delivered a full-term, stillborn baby. I’d returned from the hospital empty and disoriented, migrating between my bed and the sofa in a numb stupor. Of the many calls I received in those early days, one that stood out was from Liz. We cried together. Though Liz was nearly eighty, her voice shook with emotion as she said she’d not seen nor held her infant son after his birth. Her nurses had advised that his image might haunt her for the rest of her life, so Liz delivered her baby sight unseen, and then went home. As Liz talked, I was balled under a blanket, barely able to process my shattered world. My post-childbirth body ached, my breasts were leaking milk, and the cradle loomed in the corner of the bedroom. And yet, I was lucid enough during our conversation to think: Thank God I held my daughter. Thank God I have photos.

My phone call with Liz was brief, but I’ll always remember her earnest and vulnerable tone. I can still hear Conrad’s voice in the background: “Tell her we love her. Tell her I love her.” As we hung up, Liz promised me that I’d find a way to heal and be okay.

She was right. Inch by inch, month by month, I found my way. Like Liz, I never had another child. And like Liz, I let go of the dream of motherhood and moved my life in new directions.

Sixteen years have passed since I lost a baby. I’m now solidly in middle age, and I no longer keep an “Unthinkable” file. Humans suffer all kinds of pains and traumas, and somehow we endure. I’ve come to accept that life is many things—mysterious, unpredictable, painful, and beautiful—but fair, it is not. And that’s okay. Conrad and Liz have been gone for many years, but I’m sure they would have agreed with my assessment. Especially Liz. Not only had she suffered the cruel effects of the poliovirus, she’d also given birth to a baby who’d already died in her womb. She outlived Conrad and spent her final years relying on the kindness of neighbors to check in on her. I’m certain she never complained. Compared to Conrad’s extroversion, Liz was quiet, with a palpable, resilient spirit. I see her in my mind’s eye: large wire-rimmed glasses, thinning white hair, and a sort of self-possessed Mona Lisa smile.

Before my own daughter’s death, I’d naïvely wondered whether Liz had thought anymore about her deceased son. My question had been plainly answered during the tear-filled call from Liz and gave me a preview of what lay ahead. While I’d said farewell to my daughter a week earlier, Liz had done the same with her son forty years before, and yet her pain quickly bubbled to the surface. Liz was eighty years old, and yes, she’d still thought about her son. Of course she had. I’m well beyond the raw, initial grief over losing my daughter, but I think about her, too. For mothers like Liz and me, despite bearing what may seem to be “Unthinkable,” we move forward, find new purpose, and feel happiness again. But, our hearts remain tender, and we always remember our missing babies.  

Kristen Rademacher has lived in Chapel Hill, NC since 2002, which is where she began writing. With a master’s degree in education and a certification as a life coach, her career in education spans 30 years.  She taught at the elementary school level for thirteen years in New England, and then transitioned to working with college students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as an Academic Coach and ADHD/LD Specialist. Kristen also has a private coaching practice for teens and adults with ADHD. She is well suited for her vocation as she truly loves helping people and is inspired by the trials and triumphs of their stories. Her memoir From the Lake House: A Mother’s Odyssey of Loss and Love is available now.

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