Ten chairs form a circle at the Barnes & Noble bookstore downtown. Here on a breezy November evening, two Baltimore mothers, Anne McCracken and Mary Semel, will give their first reading of the anthology they've just published: "A Broken Heart Still Beats: After Your Child Dies."
Neither woman knows how tonight will go. McCracken is eerily unnervous. A glass of wine has soothed Semel's jitters.
They know what it's like to lose a child. Their book is a compilation of fiction, nonfiction and poetry by authors who know what it's like, too.
The circle fills with friends, family members and strangers. Some are here to lend support, others to find support. They, too, have lost children. No matter how many self-help groups, consoling conversations and momentary epiphanies they've experienced, they still crave a word or thought, something, to end the pain. But nothing short of bringing a child back can do that.
This is what McCracken and Semel have come to understand. McCracken's son, Jake, died nine years ago at age 5, when a driver crossed the center line and plowed into the car his mother was driving. In 1991, Semel's 16-year-old son, Allie, died in a car accident, too.
McCracken, 50, and Semel, 54, have learned that their grief will always be a part of their lives. In this ghastly revelation, they have found a kind of peace.
Peace didn't come of its own accord. Both women lived for a long time in a black hole. Counselors couldn't help. Semel, a psychotherapist, was repulsed by therapies that urged parents to overcome grief. "I knew I would never get over it, nor would I want to," she says.
Self-help books didn't help. Appalled by their callous optimism, McCracken tossed several volumes against the wall. They were "an affront to the love I held for Jake," says the journalist.
Friends, simply by listening, were of great comfort. But it was literature that extended a lifeline. Others' words pulled the two women out of their all-consuming grief and into the world once again. Editing the book gave them something more: a goal.
After being introduced by a mutual friend in 1992, McCracken and Semel, both avid readers, shared helpful passages from books. They wrote particularly useful ones on note cards.
Before long, they had more than enough for an anthology, and they realized their collection could help other bereaved parents as well.
"The book is so cathartic for us," says McCracken, who nearly died in the accident that took her son's life. "I will never heal. My heart will always be broken. But there has been healing in the last nine years and the book was a big part of it."
By articulating the women's devastation, literature was a homeopathic balm that treated their grief with the authors' own. Poring through the work of Samuel Clemens, Robert Frost, Anne Morrow Lindbergh and others, the women, who both have a surviving daughter, found peace in the knowledge that these writers used their craft to struggle with -- and become reconciled with -- their permanent wound.
Others, such as novelists Anne Tyler and Brett Lott, have not experienced the death of a child, but powerfully intuited the impact of such a loss.
In his novel, "Reed's Beach," Lott recounts the final intimate moment a couple shares with their dead son. After closing the little boy's coffin, his father reflects: "True grief, he saw with the last glimpse of his son in the oak-paneled room, was a secret that defied divulging. There was no way to know it unless it had been bestowed upon you, no way to pass it on once it had arrived."
For the uninitiated, this passage may seem cold comfort. But for grieving parents, it can validate their isolation, even while demonstrating that many before them have known the same horrible feeling.
"What I knew in the very beginning intellectually, this made me feel it: I am not alone," McCracken says. "There were many, many before me ... these people went on ... it was a 'eureka' moment for me."
To know that the same authors also remained productive, even while grieving the loss of a child for the rest of their lives, was a revelation as well. Robert Frost lost four of six children, "and he got up every morning and wrote wonderful poetry," McCracken says. "In the midst of these authors, I can't say I can't survive."
The book, divided into different aspects of the grieving and healing process, includes several essays by McCracken and Semel.
In the chapter "Legacy of Loss," McCracken reviews Jake's last full day of life and the little boy's zest as he amused a group of campers with a recitation from "Peter Pan."
"I love that memory," McCracken writes. "I love it because it's so funny, I can bear it. I love it because it epitomizes the all-boy, mischievous performer that Jake was at almost six years old. But mostly I love it because he's happy.
"He's not a little boy wondering what's happened to him and where are we and when is he going to see us again? He's happy."
Semel, in the same chapter, describes her search for solace. In so doing, she offers a primer for navigating grief: "I thought of myself as finding stepping-stones across a river of pain. Some of the things I tried were aerobics, swimming, yoga, tennis, writing, and above all, good books. This led to my search for literature about the death of children. Then I met Anne, who was searching too, and we began to share the stones we found, and to cross the river together."
At the Barnes & Noble reading, McCracken and Semel read in modulated tones from bookmarked copies of "A Broken Heart" (Hazelden, $24.95). Occasionally they stop and confer, learning as they go how much to include, when to pause.
The air is tender and tentative. Eyes water as the women continue. A couple exchanges knowing glances. Others ask for insight and guidance.
The women field the questions with composure, or let others respond. By virtue of having lost their children, McCracken and Semel have become "reluctant experts" in the field. People want answers that can liberate them from pain. Some answers nobody can provide.
For this reason, "A Broken Heart" has struck a nerve. After McCracken and Semel were interviewed on National Public Radio, the book entered a third printing. The women received calls from around the country; one from the parents of a murdered child who stayed up until 1: 30 a.m. reading to one another from the book.
The book's growing success is not something that McCracken and Semel celebrate. It's not a novel or a cookbook, they say.
It is, McCracken says, "a gift I feel we can give, particularly to newly bereaved parents who are as hungry for something else as we were in the beginning."
The book is not always received gratefully. When McCracken's mother showed the anthology to her book club, members "passed it like it was a hot potato," as if its sadness would rub off on their own lives.
But "children do die. It happens to nice people," McCracken says.
The women make it through their first reading with grace and willed restraint. "I felt big hearts here tonight," McCracken says. "Thank you."
Pub Date: 12/02/98
Anne McCracken and Mary Semel will read from their book, "A Broken Heart Still Beats: After Your Child Dies" in: Timonium: 7: 30 tomorrow at Bibelot, 2080 York Road. Call (410) 308-1888. Baltimore: 2 p.m. Jan. 23 in Poe Room of central Pratt Library. Call (410) 396-5494.
Excerpts from 'A Broken Heart'
ANNE MORROW LINDBERGH On a March evening in 1932, kidnappers took the 18-month-old son of American aviator hero Charles Lindbergh and his wife, leaving behind a ransom demand on the nursery window sill. Negotiations went on for an interminable 10 weeks, but soon after the Lindberghs paid the ransom, their child's dead body was found in nearby woods. The boy's distraught mother, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, used a journal as a place to spill her grief.
Sunday, July 17
I am in a kind of stupor now about the baby. ... I feel in a kind of hopeless numbness. He is gone. He is just gone. There is nothing to do ...
Sept. 18, 1932
Can hardly bear to think of the little, real body that was Charlie going to nothing. Why is it harder to think of his going to nothing than to think of his coming from nothing? One direction is just as dark as the other. --
"Hour of Gold, Hour of Lead, Diaries and Letters of Anne Morrow Lindbergh 1929-1932"
W.E.B. DU BOIS
Social critic, black advocate and founder of the NAACP, Du Bois lost his 2-year-old son, Burghardt, to nasopharyngeal diphtheria. The night before Burghardt died, his father frantically tried to find one of the two or three black physicians living on the other side of town, with no success. White doctors in Atlanta at this time would not treat even desperately sick black children. Du Bois took early solace in the certainty that his child would now at least be spared the cruelties of life: ...
I saw his breath beat quicker and quicker, pause, and then his little soul leapt like a star that travels in the night and left a world of darkness in its train. The day changed not; the same tall trees peeped in at the windows, the same green grass glinted in the setting sun. Only in the chamber of death writhed the world's most piteous thing -- a childless mother. ...
We could not lay him in the ground there in Georgia, for the earth there is strangely red; so we bore him away to the northward. ... In vain, in vain! -- for where, O God! beneath thy broad blue sky shall my dark baby rest in peace -- where Reverence dwells, and Goodness, and a Freedom that is free? ...
nTC All that day and all that night there sat an awful gladness in my heart -- nay, blame me not if I see the world thus darkly through the Veil -- and my soul whispers ever to me, saying, "Not dead, not dead, but escaped; not bond, but free." ... Well sped, my boy, before the world had dubbed your ambition insolence, had held your ideals unattainable, and taught you to cringe and bow. Better far this nameless void that stops my life than a sea of sorrow for you. ... --
"The Passing of the First-Born" in David Levering Lewis' "W.E.B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race, 1868-1919"
( Fort Worth Star-Telegram