For the last couple years, in addition to producing this show, I’ve also been doing interviews for an organization called The Wake Up to Dying Project. The basic goal of the project is to encourage people to think and talk more about the fact that we die, and at the heart of the project is a sound exhibit that features audio stories–lots and lots of them. Last month I did an interview for this project with a mother who had lost a baby after three weeks of life. I was incredibly nervous about this interview, and I realized that I was worried that by talking about the loss of this child, I’d feel even more afraid of it than I already do with my own son. I didn’t want to be that close to something that scared me so much.
But when I left the interview I felt strangely comforted. There is something comforting in talking about this thing we try so hard not to think about. And though there’s much sadness, and confusion, and grief in this story, there’s also tremendous resilience and love.
This is Susan Wahlrab. She’s a painter and she lives with her family in the deep woods of Calais Vermont. Eighteen years ago she lost her son, Grayson, to a virus after three weeks of life. Here are excerpts from our conversation.
The painting you see featured on this page is by Susan Wahlrab. It’s called What Are You Opening To
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Selected as one of the week’s best episodes in Podmass, from The A.V. Club
I was borne in 1950 with an obscure blood disease called Neutropenia, a white blood cell deficiency, which was considered rare and fatal. Within twenty minutes of being borne the germs were at me and I was sick. I went to Dartmouth where they diagnosed the problem that was considered 60% fatal at that time. I went from one infection to another and each birthday was a wonder that I had survived another year. I almost died four times but for some reason came back for another birthday. By ten I was more than tired of the whole thing, the cycle of slowly getting better and then a plateau of wellness while all the time afraid and thinking that the germs knew my name, so I changed it, announced I wanted my middle name Paul, that Freddy was dead. Always it felt that the thread between life and death was very thin and tenuous, ready to go at any time. I remember floating in a coma feeling very relaxed and unworried, surrounded by other beings, then waking up in my own body feeling very dispirited, angry even, to have lived because I knew I would just get sick again and wanted it over. But what I can say with certainty, is that where you go after death is a very comfortable, peaceful place, without pain, cold or ego, among many others, who have gone before, which I look forward to at the end.
I have been catching your very thoughtful Rumble Strips occasionally the last year or so. What a great approach to life. I heard the one aired Thursday morning June 7 and wanted to share that with some close friends. I could not figure out how to capture just that segment. Is there a way to do that.
Your name brings many memories – I hope you are still singing somewhere and that your son also is a singer.
I will connect Rumble Strip with Eric and Jeff
Another moving, powerful piece Erica. Bravo. Bess
Wow Erica. This was amazing. Susie is amazing in how she articulated the feelings of having to endure something so unimaginable. I lost a baby when Jack was just 2 and it was Susie who comforted me and even told me the cheese story! That story helped me so much and she probably never realized but she among no one else knew what I was going through. At first I felt like my ordeal was not as bad because our baby would not have made it to the due date but she helped me to know that I had a loss all the same. Thanks for airing this.