NEA Literature Fellowships

Daniel Raeburn

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(2010 - Prose)

From the non-fiction book Vessels

In the spring of 2004, five months after the miscarriage, Rebekah was pregnant again. One hot summer morning, there was pain, blood, and a grim drive beside a blue Lake Michigan to the emergency room, but this time our baby persevered. At twenty weeks, an ultrasound revealed that our survivor was a girl and in good health. As proof, the technicians gave us a black-and-white image of her suspended in limbo. She looked like an alien glimpsed through a telescope, a white dwarf forming in a distant galaxy.

Her name came to me in the night as I was falling asleep, her hands and feet drumming against Rebekah's belly and my palms. Good night, Irene, I thought, I'll see you in my dreams. I didn't know anything about this song other than the chorus, which haunted me just as a song is intended to. Irene: Rebekah also liked the sound of it, and so the name stuck. I did see Irene in my dreams. She appeared as she had in the ultrasound, a cloud growing in the warm, humid air beneath our blankets.

After a Christmas party, when she was more than eight months along, Rebekah had to sit down. She felt dizzy and queasy, but she took a startled pleasure in caressing her visibly thrumming belly.

"Irene's kicking like crazy," she said. "She's never kicked this hard. Never."

"Any day now," I said, "any day." I wound my scarf around my neck and shrugged into my coat, offered Rebekah my hand.

Three days later, Rebekah called me at home from our midwife's office. I raised the receiver to my ear, heard a silence that I sensed was Rebekah's, and felt anguish tremble like electricity. I knew immediately that Irene was dead. When Rebekah at last uttered my name, the crack in her voice confirmed it.

A quiet African man piloted me in his yellow taxi toward our midwife's office. His radio emitted news of a tsunami that had just struck Asia, India, then Africa, killing so many thousands that the authorities would never be able to count all the dead. Lake Shore Drive slipped past. Chicago's concrete sky weighed on the frozen lake and the stone and steel downtown, where families from around the planet had gathered to photograph themselves shopping and ice-skating beneath trees whose bare stalks branched like capillaries for giant brains that had gone missing.

At the office, the receptionist regarded me gravely, then showed me to where Rebekah was waiting. Rebekah's pants were unzipped. She'd been running from room to room, from test to test, carrying her parka and holding up her pants. She took me into her arms and held me as though I were her child.

Our midwife told us that we could cut Rebekah open, extract the body, and be done. A Cesarean, cheap and fast. But she asked Rebekah to consider going through childbirth. Doing so would give her slightly better odds of success in any future pregnancy. Of course, she warned, an hormonally induced delivery would require a day or two or three of labor. Eventually, Rebekah said, "Okay." Her assent sounded miniscule, as though spoken by a girl.

We drove to the hospital and checked in to the maternity ward. Rebekah and I worried that we did not belong with the normal parents, but the head resident assured us that stillbirth was birth and that we were parents. "But what you're going through sucks," she said. "It just sucks."

Our room came with a candy-colored baby blanket and a matching beanie. I told the nurse who injected Rebekah with hormones that we wouldn't be needing the clothes. "They're for the photos," she said. I stared at her. "We won't be needing photos," I said. She removed the clothes. but after dark she returned them. She set them on a table in the far corner of the room and petted them, as though putting them down for the night. She whispered, "In case you change your mind."

In the middle of the night, voices murmured through one wall, growing louder and more rushed until a baby cried out, clear and angry, accompanied by cheers. Rebekah rustled, then shifted. She was just a shadow. So was I.

Daniel Raeburn is the author of the book Chris Ware. His essays have appeared in The Baffler, Tin House, and in The Imp, his irregular series of booklets about underground cartoonists. He is now writing a memoir, two chapters of which have appeared in The New Yorker. You can download much of his work for free at

Photo by Kate Soto

Author's Statement

This fellowship means among many other things actual fellowship. In such a lonely profession it's worth so much to be included in such a long line of fellow strugglers. Some of the judges' comments were worth more to me than money. Of course the money is worth a lot, which I have translated into time. Six months' worth, to be precise.

Right now six months seems like an eternity. In the past half-decade I've had so little time. I've had a daughter and I've had that daughter die. I've had two more daughters, both of whom have lived. Between tending to them all and to the more quotidian drama of the day job I've also acquired, teaching creative writing--which basically involves spending way more time on my student's work than I do on my own--I have had too many excuses for not finishing my book. Now I'll have none. No excuses: that's one of the many gifts this fellowship has given me.

My book is about the daughter who died. Because she was born dead, she never really lived. And yet she had a life. She still does, if only in my mind. This book will be my attempt to tell the story of that life. Evanescent, I know. I'm scared and have in fact almost no idea of what I'm doing. This is probably how it should be. Being terrified is a sign that I may be onto something. So is this fellowship. Thank you.