The voice rattled out of the receiver, in that cheery, bored tone that only comes from telemarketers. She offered a "Weekly Reader" subscription for my child. I waited for her to pause for breath so I could say, "Thanks, but no thanks," and hang up.
I also wondered if she had dialed the wrong number. She'd used the right family name, but Luke's only 4, too young for "Weekly Reader." Then she said something about, "our records show you have a child in the home between ages 7 and 12," and then I remembered.
The miscarriage. Shortly after we married, we learned my wife was pregnant. We told our families, we looked up the meanings of boys' and girls' names, we talked of childhood experiences we wanted to share with our own kid. We even bought a few simple, genderless toys. And we enrolled, through the HMO at the paper where I worked, in a pre-baby program for first-time parents.
But like one in five first pregnancies, ours ended in miscarriage. It was the longest night of my life. What it was for my wife I can only imagine.
We called everyone we'd told the good news to, and untold it. It took weeks, and even then people we'd forgotten would smile and ask us, "how
far along are you now?"
I can't say we healed. But it just wasn't a pain you could stand every day. As boys we'd sometimes find gruesome things in the woods, a dead squirrel or something. We'd bury it, not out of reverence but to escape the mute horror of the thing.
Months after the miscarriage a phone call came, a sales pitch for a diaper service. I figured out it was just about the time the baby would have been born. Apparently, the HMO sold the mailing list from that first-baby program to all sorts of marketers. We were on it and it was too late to get off.
Phone calls and mailings arrived at intervals like chapters in a child development book: Coupons for baby food, "Now that your child is ready to
walk," potty training guides, "Ranger Rick" magazine.
But like the unsettling meetings with people who didn't know of the miscarriage, the calls, too, eventually stopped. I thought they were gone,
until I heard from the "Weekly Reader."
Newspapers get piles of mail every day, most of it addressed to people who no longer work these jobs, some who no longer work here at all. In West Chester I'd occasionally get letters addressed to a publisher who died in 1917. It's comforting, a little, to know I'll share in this dubious immortality. Generations after I'm fired or retired, a thin shade of me will linger in computer microchips.
But these phone calls are not comforting. There was a child who never was, and when I'm hammering down a loose floorboard in the back bedroom one morning someone calls me and reminds me that the child would be reading now, if it had lived. What stories would we have read together? What worlds would we have explored in the colorful pages of "Weekly Readers?"
Wordsworth wrote a sonnet in which he speaks to his little girl years after she died.
"Surprised by joy -- impatient as the wind,
He's seen or felt something beautiful and he immediately wants to show his child. He forgets, for the moment, that she is dead. When it hits him, he suffers her loss afresh, along with the shame that he ever could have forgotten it.
I turned to share the transport oh with whom
but thee, deep-buried in the silent tomb ..."
That was a real child, who had lived and laughed for a time. My case is more abstract. Seven years ago an HMO got a penny for selling a nameless not-yet-child, a statistic, an address in a computer. And for who knows how many years to come, a patient computer that knows nor joy nor loss will count the haunting calendar of a cancelled life in the silent tomb of its machinery.