Life Is Beautiful

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 Vicki Forman’s Bakeless Prize-winning memoir recounts the premature births, and deaths, of her children.

When my niece, a toddler then, first lost her eye to cancer, we were preparing ourselves for the possibility she would lose her other eye, too. I wanted to know what life with a blind child was like and in my research came across an essay in The Santa Monica Review by Vicki Forman, a mother who must accept, after a series of surgeries, that her baby will never see. I was impressed by this writer’s ability to tell a complicated, emotionally harrowing story and wanted to read more.

My niece did not lose all of her vision. But I continued to follow Forman’s writing in her blog and her column, Special Needs Mama, where she wrote about being a mother and advocate for her son, Evan, who was not only blind, but lived with multiple disabilities. Evan and his twin sister Ellie had been born severely premature, at twenty-three weeks; Ellie died four days after birth while Evan was left blind, with a seizure disorder and developmental delays.

Periodically, I checked in to read about Evan’s setbacks and triumphs. Evan started school. Evan learned to use a cane. Evan ate lunch with other children in the cafeteria and met new friends. Vicki also wrote about family life—including her husband, Cliff, and older daughter, Josie. Despite the challenges of caring for Evan, Forman wrote about hope, acceptance, and about life improving. Professionally, things were also looking up: Forman’s memoir, This Lovely Life: a Memoir of Premature Motherhood, won the Bakeless Prize and would be published by Mariner Books.

And then an email arrived last July announcing Evan’s sudden death, a few days before his eighth birthday. As the aunt to six small children, I can’t contemplate anything more devastating than the death of a child. As a writer, I’m not sure how one would write about this, much less write about it well.

In his foreword to This Lovely Life, Tom Bissell writes, “[W]hen I finished this book, I felt an electric, wide-awake sadness, as though I had lost a close friend and made a new one on the same day.” Forman recounts the complicated medical history of the twins’ birth, and her own emotional journey, with simplicity and honesty. She takes us to wings of the hospital where parents are confronted with the painful realities of their children’s bodies—from the NICU (neonatal intensive care unit) and Peds (pediatrics), to the cemetery where her daughter’s remains will rest, to her home where her son is hooked up to various medical devices, and to an alternative healing center in the desert. She reveals her anger, grief, and acceptance with insight and clarity. She allows us into intimate moments. Arguing with her husband in front of their daughter’s memorial plaque, she realizes, “This was how marriages fell apart in times like ours, when needs were potent and conflicting, when one partner could not offer comfort or sympathy because his or her own pain was too great.”

Vicki Forman

After the birth of their daughter Josie, for a couple of years, Forman and her husband had tried to conceive again, enduring fertility treatments, which led to disappointments. At last, she became pregnant with twins and looked forward to completing her family. She wanted these babies desperately. Yet, in the moments after the twins are born, Forman writes, “When I learned they were coming so early and so fragile, I had only one wish: to let them go.” If Forman had given birth in a different hospital or in a different state or even during a different shift, the outcome might have been different.

When the doctor places Ellie in Forman’s hands, she thinks, “This was my daughter? Nothing resembled the human. I saw tendons and muscles. Only the palest sheen of skin hid her blatant shape. Her color shocked the most: rusty, raw, more skinned animal than human being.”

Forman navigates time skillfully, breaking the present action at just the right moment. The reader isn’t distracted with questions about how she feels about Evan’s multiple disabilities because she tells us: “Years later, I would reach a point where I could love Evan apart from (or because of) his disabilities, for the person he was. At the time of his birth, I did not want this life, this kind of birth.”

At four days old, Ellie is taken off life support; Forman and her husband hold their daughter while she dies. She reports what these agonizing two hours was like:

I don’t know what I expected: a movie ending perhaps, a final cry and then stillness. What happened instead was this: my daughter’s body grew cold and then colder, her skin turned dark and then even darker, and when I felt nothing from her at all, no warmth or movement or breath or heartbeat, I cried and asked the nurse to check again and pulled back the quilt so she could reach Ellie’s chest and she put the stethoscope on my tiny baby and shook her head and said, ‘No,’ meaning, No, not yet, and this went on, over and over, a dozen times perhaps, over the course of the next two hours.

Even while grieving over her daughter, Forman must also be a mother to Josie and Evan, and must learn to accept how life is, not how she wishes it to be. She excerpts a page in her journal, where she writes over and over again her wish that her son could see. But her desires don’t change reality. She “came to understand that if I didn’t sit there, learn how to change his three-inch-square diaper, wait for the moment he opened his eyes for the first time, and question the doctors about their every move, then who would? I was suffering? I had not gotten what I wanted? What about Evan and this early, fragile life?”

“One of life’s great illusions is the notion that we can want—and get—things on our own terms, no matter what. It’s human nature to seek pleasure and avoid suffering, but what happens when suffering finds you?” Forman asks early in the memoir. This Lovely Life is an honest, hopeful account of what one writer does when faced with unthinkable hardship and heartbreak, how she struggles to cope with the reality of her new life, how she creates meaning, finds beauty and even loveliness, amidst suffering.

Grace Talusan is the Fannie Hurst Writer-in-Residence at Brandeis University. The Body Papers, winner of the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing, is her first book and is now available in paperback with a new afterword, interview, and discussion questions. Find Grace on Twitter @gracet09. More from this author →