Danielle Harms

Stained Glass

The day my child was released from the NICU in Denver, a pastor in Iowa sang my grandma’s favorite hymns and a hospice nurse speculated about what she could hear. My father left the room so his brothers would not see him cry and called me to claim she was comfortable. Soon after, the pastor returned to read the last rites my grandma had requested in all those years planning her death.

On the day of her funeral, I sat with my child on the couch while Greg, my spouse, got groceries to fill our empty fridge—my first memory of being alone in our house with the baby. I opened a Dr. Seuss book that had arrived giftwrapped in the mail. Someone had written “Welcome to the World” inside white clouds on the front page. As my child gurgled on my chest, I read him a story about the Great Birthday Bird of Katroo, knowing that across the plains people were remembering my grandma in a room lit by stained glass she once led a fundraiser to repair.

“If we didn’t have birthdays, you wouldn’t be you. If you’d never been born, well then what would you do? If you’d never been born, well then what would you be?…You might be a WASN’T! A Wasn’t has no fun at all. No, he doesn’t. A Wasn’t just isn’t. He just isn’t present.”

I put the book down. My grandma had multiple miscarriages. One of the last stories I remember her telling me was about deciding what to call her first child, who she knew would die soon after he was born. Days later, he did. My grandpa chose a name they didn’t really like. They wanted to save their favorite name for a child who would live, for my father.

The last time I saw her I shared that we were hoping to have a child soon.

“Well sis, you’re no spring chicken,” she said, her eyes, clouded by cataracts and strokes, finding my face. My grandma had a harshly critical streak. Listen sister, she often said before giving advice.

I had pushed her wheelchair through the nursing home to the soft-serve that was free for her, and 75 cents for me. She told me I was a bad driver as the wheels collided with a door frame. She remembered the first delivery. The hospital policy was not to give mothers time to see children that might not survive, but my grandpa insisted she could handle it and my grandma held her ill child in her arms before he was wheeled away to a different room where he spent the days before he passed.

My grandma had been writing her history for years, and after she died I received a binder of stories she had curated, cutting out pictures that my aunt scanned into the design. She included memories of her father, who had moved to Nebraska from Sweden as a teenager, offering water to German prisoners who were held nearby after World War II and labored on the farm. She included the price of sweets at the corner store, the army’s attempt to recruit my grandpa for espionage because of all the languages he had learned to study the bible, and the childhood hobbies of her sons. Reading through that binder was a bit like looking for a pen in the kitchen junk drawer, finding recipe cards for funeral salads, a book of psalms, and lace she bought in Italy, relics of her life. The miscarriages and lost children were not mentioned in her memoir, nor any of the grief or resentment she might have experienced in their wake.

A year ago, before my child was born and when my grandma was receding into dementia, I had started to bleed as a different pregnancy ended. I saw in that toilet paper, blooming with red, a kind of inheritance. I knew to expect miscarriage, had told myself to brace for it. I decided it did not need my focus, my anger, my fixation on the blood that sent plumes like Aspen roots across plies of toilet paper. I stood before the bathroom window, facing the arid Colorado garden that I was trying to grow without rain, the measly two-feet tall Aspen trees shuddering in the breeze. Aspen shoots had begun to emerge through the cracked dirt. Their roots kept finding new ways to spread.