Loss in The Winter Vault

**Trigger Warning for anyone struggling with loss or traumatic birth experiences**
Luck would have it that the very first book I read after Claire’s birth was The Winter Vault — a book about motherhood, or, more accurately, lost motherhood. Motherhood was not something I was certain I would ever experience. We lost two pregnancies before Claire and hers was a high risk pregnancy full of uncertainties and fear. Part of the purpose of this blog is to clarify her in my mind, to begin to grasp the essence of this little being we were never entirely sure we would know. The Winter Vault deals in essences — the essence of motherhood, the essence of a child, the essence of the past. I couldn’t have read a more perfect book at that time, but Claire is now 8 months old and it’s taken me this long to manage to write something about this book, and even longer to write about the experience of miscarriage.
Like another brilliant Michaels’ novel, Fugitive Pieces, The Winter Vault is filled with Michaels’ fascination with things submerged, layered, buried, excavated. The story follows Avery, an engineer, and his wife, Jean, as they witness the submersion of towns and villages in both the  the building of the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Aswan Dam project in Egypt in the 1960s. These lost worlds are fitting settings for the tragedy of the late term miscarriage they suffer while in Egypt. “A child is like a fate; one’s future and one’s past,” Michaels writes. Like the drowned towns, a miscarriage is the loss of fate and an imagined future. Unlike the towns, there is no possibility of ever excavating the lost life of the child, the lost dreams of what the child might have been, or what you might have been as that child’s parent.
Margaret Atwood once told in an interview of a woman who wrote to her convinced that Atwood was obese because she captured so well the experience of being obese in Lady Oracle (this was clearly pre-Google images). And despite my academic training to the contrary, like Atwood’s fan I couldn’t help feeling that Michaels must have lost a pregnancy, so visceral is this story. When Jean suffers a late term miscarriage, she carries the still child until her body naturally starts labour. The labour is so difficult she believes the child is in fact alive and fighting to be born. When the baby is delivered lifeless, by caesarean, Jean refuses to let her out of her arms. She holds her baby until she falls into an exhausted asleep and Avery passes the baby to a nurse. I cried through these parts of the novel as I never have at any other book; I cried for the pregnancies we had lost, and with the memory of Claire’s body moving in me so recently, I cried at the terrible thought of what it would have been come to know a being so intimately, yet incompletely.
As Jean recovers, an old man advises her, “All your self-knowledge won’t bring you any peace. Seek something else.” Is it really self-knowledge that Jean or any woman who loses child seeks? No. It is body knowledge – the knowledge of the body of that child. Jean holds her baby all night to keep forever in her muscle memory the feel of that tiny body, to try to understand this thing that was once a dream, then a ponderous wonder in her body, now a dream again.
This is what I seek when I hold Claire, to understand the solidity of this creature once only a whisper, a grainy image on an ultrasound, now a permanence. It is why I love the wrap I carry her in – it’s the closest I can get again to the weight of her as part of me. My first two pregnancies ended too early for me to feel this weight. As Claire grew, I knew what it meant to feel her move, to feel that weight, to not know where her body ended and mine began. Her personality revealed itself in the pattern of the kicks, the stubborness with which she pushed back against the press of her dad’s fingers and hands. If I had lost her then, I can’t imagine.
“For months after birth, a child remains in the mother’s body; moon and tide. Before the child cries, the mother flashes wet with milk. Before the child wakes and cries out in the night, the mother wakes. Deep in the child’s cranial vault, the mother’s gaze knits up the dangling synapses.
And when the child is spirit, it is exactly the same.”
Moon and tide. Knitted synapses. So close, Michaels understands, is the instinctual, physiological, emotional connection between mother and child. Sorting through the realization of a lost pregnancy is much like an excavation, a peeling back of layers of loss, emotion and dreams. For Jean, the process is first about adding layers, as she leaves Avery for a time and allows her pain to be buried under the stories of loss she learns from her new lover, Lucjian, a Polish Holocaust refugee in Toronto. He too knows what buried pain is, literally, as he lived through the destruction of Warsaw and helped rebuild its replica over top of the dead. Jean allows her loss to become just another fine sedimentary layer settling upon depthless layers of loss revealed in her lover’s stories. But she also unearths her own deeper buried pain, the loss of her mother. Michaels manages to show how the recovery from loss can be twofold: an inward excavation of layered losses, and a communion with the external and powerful forces of communal grief.
The only problematic aspect of this communal grief that Jean enters into is that the death of her baby is somewhat subsumed and overshadowed by the many deaths witnessed by her lover; it is almost as if she doesn’t believe she has as much right to her grief as those around her. Can loss be ranked? Could Michaels have written the same book if Jean had lost her baby in the first or second trimester? If her child had simply bled from her body would she have deserved to mourn any less? Any woman — any parent — who has suffered the loss of pregnancy at any point would of course not begrudge another parent his or her grief. It is our own tendency to suppress, absorb, hide our sense of loss that we must resist. I wonder how different Jean’s story would have been had she found a community of other women with stories like her own.
Jean’s greatest moment of healing seems to be when she finally allows herself to fully grieve her daughter’s loss by visiting her grave and planting flowers on it, and allowing her husband to join her again in their shared grief. The cultivating of memorials, the sharing of memory — these are things we avoid sometimes when a baby is lost too soon. When I was early in my pregnancy with Claire, I was visiting Saskatchewan and went with my brother and his wife to her family farm. It was a hot day out and everyone was swimming and rummaging in the garden and I was inside lying on the couch chatting with her mother. To my surprise, I told her about our previous losses. To my equal surprise, we embraced as she welled up with tears for our loss, and hope for this new pregnancy. When Claire was born, she sent a beautiful gift, even though we had only met that one time. It was a reminder to me that the excavation of healing is not something to be done alone, and that there is great beauty to be found in allowing others to share in the journey of our loss.

6 thoughts on “Loss in The Winter Vault

  1. Corina December 14, 2014 / 8:34 am

    Sounds like a fantastic book and I can see how it would help with recovery from miscarriage, although after a number of miscarriages of my own, I can’t see how one ever recovers.

    Liked by 1 person

    • bethanyguenther December 15, 2014 / 10:51 pm

      There are certainly some traumas that stay with us forever. And without seeming to rank levels of loss, I have say that the later a miscarriage, the harder the “recovery”, both physically and emotionally. I do hope that there can be healing, though, even for those devastating later ones. I’m so sorry for your losses.


  2. denna's ideas February 5, 2015 / 6:37 pm

    I agree so much about sharing….that is where I have found the most healing, sharing the loss with other women who have been through it. And when it happened to me with my first pregnancy, the fact that I knew my mother and mother-in-law and sister-in-law had been through it helped sustain me. It’s hard to know what exactly to say to someone going through it. My loss happened almost right after we found out we were expecting. I remember an older lady saying afterwards “I had a miscarriage, then I went on to have four kids, you’ll be ok” she meant it as comforting, but nothing about it comforted me and I felt resentful. The weird thing is, fast forward to today, and I also now have four kids. But that experience has made me try and think of how to be sensitive to others in their loss, and not diminish what someone else is suffering by trying to be too cheerful about the future. I know my suffering was so much less in intensity when I compare it to what others have been through, but it was huge to me at that moment in time. Now I have a memory that usually only comes to mind when I encounter someone else’s story. Honestly, I try and avoid movies and books about that subject because it painfully takes me back, and I think I only want to go back to that memory if it can in any way help someone else by sharing it. I do think sharing is so important, even if it’s awkward and brief. Once in a while, as we are all bustling about the kitchen at suppertime, I look around for a second, because I had that twinge that someone is missing…..

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Andrea B February 5, 2015 / 11:20 pm

    I lost one, very early, but it was still a great loss. I also know two other women who lost their first and their first two babies (pregnancies). So very sad. Sorry to hear you lost babies too. We will always remember them and God willing we will meet them one day 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. BG February 7, 2015 / 3:36 pm

    This entry was heartbreaking and beautiful to read: “No. It is body knowledge – the knowledge of the body of that child. Jean holds her baby all night to keep forever in her muscle memory the feel of that tiny body, to try to understand this thing that was once a dream, then a ponderous wonder in her body, now a dream again.” Thanks for sharing this glimpse into your loss and healing. You’re my constant inspiration.

    Liked by 1 person

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