Learning from Grief: Claudia Putnam’s Double Negative

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Among the meanings of Claudia Putnam’s cryptic title is a mathematical one, based on the lower left quadrant of graphs; it is a meaning that she chooses, explicates, and explores from many angles. But negative infinity is much harder to get your mind around than the grammatical concept of the double negative, so a reader may well fear that this idea is too cerebral for a memoir about the loss of an infant son, on the fourth day after his birth, to a dire heart defect known as HLHS (hypoplastic left heart syndrome). The worry would be misplaced. 

Putnam has been thinking about (as well, of course, as enduring) this experience for more than thirty years, and her conclusions about it are bravely earned and are by no means mainly cerebral. But the brain and mind are parts of the self, even the feeling self, and her thinking does matter. So her memoir necessarily includes both many emotions and many kinds of information and analysis. Its genre is memoir, all right, but it incorporates ethics, epistemology, clinical history, philosophy, language, historiography. She speaks as a bereaved parent but also as a friend, a thinker, a mother, a skier, a writer (she has published extensively in poetry and short fiction).  

There are two braided narrative threads in this essay of less than fifty pages. One is a recollection of a mostly joyous pregnancy, followed by the traumatic day of Jacob’s birth and the grief-laden, complicated decision that his parents suddenly faced upon learning from their physician that their newborn son “will not be able to live.” (In 1989, “high-resolution ultrasounds at eighteen or twenty weeks were not routinely performed.”)  

Even today, when the evolving clinical probabilities have opened more space for hope, the decision to seek a transplant or to commit to a different surgery—one that would reconfigure the infant’s heart so that it can sustain life with only two chambers—even today such a decision is problematical and fraught. Putnam’s discussion of how the context has and has not changed is thoughtful, specific, and compassionate as she considers the choices available to parents now. In 1989, when a recent transplant case had involved the use of a heart removed from a baboon, the dizzying odds informed the language (quoted above) of the Putnams’ physician. In recounting her and her husband’s agonized decision—”an awful choice between a worst thing and another worst thing”—Putnam includes a lucid description of her son’s fatal heart defect itself. Occasionally she attaches a footnote that qualifies a claim about probabilities; this practice is one of many signs of her good faith. 

The second thread is the narrative of Putnam’s mourning and thinking, some of it colored by her raising of her (healthy) second son, Julian, born two years after Jacob’s life and death. Putnam recalls her experience of Jacob in her womb and in his few days of post-natal life, which gave her a sense of him as a distinct self, one with a robustness of spirit, a readiness to take things on; she sensed that he was “a difficult person, perhaps, someone with a hard energy, driven.” An early intimation was also true of her second son, Julian, who then seemed “sensitive, artistic, musical, resistant to enclosure.”  

One set of Putnam’s observations has to do with how our first selves fare over time—how they may change even as in other respects they remain the same. “I only had enough to go on to be able to say for sure that a distinct person appeared inside me one day and was born to the world. Beyond that, I have no idea who he [Jacob] would have become.” She also thinks about how adults may change. One of her themes is how unprepared she and her husband were for Jacob’s terrible diagnosis, how young they were, how confident they were until Jacob’s birth that all would be well. 

Putnam’s thinking about parenting does not lead her to criticism of her husband, even though the marriage eventually ends. Throughout her account of the couple’s decision not to pursue surgery, she uses the first person plural; in this period the marriage is a living partnership, and the decisions about care and surgery are made jointly. 

Putnam understands and sometimes shares the reader’s likely skepticism about one’s ability to think clearly in bereavement. And she is wary of religious consolation because she fears it would be a form of self-deception, something that might well serve her but would in some way be disloyal to Jacob by embracing a made-up version of his experience. But she also doesn’t see death as absolute, especially because her maternal experience of intuitive connection makes her wary of empiricism as well. This is where an Emerson poem becomes helpful.   

“Threnody” was begun shortly after the death of Emerson’s young son but completed several years later. The poem sees death as not just a deep price we pay for life but as itself a form of participation in the larger design. Putnam welcomes this idea. Parents sign an implicit contract when they conceive a child. Eventual death is of course among the contract’s major terms, but the fine print includes a very small chance of death almost at the moment of birth—a very small chance that this will happen to your child, and in that sense to you. What Emerson arrives at is a reaffirmation of the contract even when he discovers that the small print applies to him. In Putnam’s eyes Emerson has standing in this context not only because he too is a bereaved parent but because he has language for spirit, for soul: 

Death, with solving rite, 

 Pours finite into infinite. 

Wilt thou freeze love’s tidal flow 

Whose streams through nature circling go? 

Putnam’s own evolving understanding is both intellectual and spiritual. She has read and drawn on (or respectfully declined to follow) other parental histories. Ultimately she chooses “a version of Pascal’s wager”—the conviction that Jacob’s spirit, his soul, “never was not.” She does so in the manner of many more orthodox religious believers, i.e., with tolerance for her own imperfect certainty:

Which kind of jerk would you rather be? The kind who doesn’t want to be made to feel foolish, suckered out of extreme need into having a little faith, or the kind that might dismiss as superstition an attempted communication from your own dead child? Which mistake is more awful?

Her questions are not defensive aggressions aimed at the reader but rather a recollection of Putnam’s own decision-making. The book’s style and tone vary with the nature of the topic at hand—its presentation of clinical information is precise, even professional, while its reflections are unpretentious but searching. What unifies these elements, besides the subject, is a strong personal voice, somber and determined. 

Perhaps what Putnam fears most are the seductions of rationalization, which would feel to her like an abandonment or at least a subtle betrayal of the actual Jacob. The book is in a way an elegy, a gesture of loyalty and respect. “Perhaps”—and its less formal equivalent “maybe”—is a keynote of this bold book. It confronts very difficult questions, questions not just about what we fear but about what is real, some of which is radically contrary to what we wish. Putnam shares not just her pain and her qualified consolations but her methodologies, whose harvests are not guaranteed to align. She is trying to be true both to her son—her sons—and to herself. 

Double Negative transcends its own title, at least for the reader. In a world so full of self-justification and blaming, Putnam’s eloquent and unflinching definition of her own tested truths—clinical, psychological, philosophical, relational—is itself a challenging inspiration.

David Weber is a retired independent school English teacher. He has edited two non-fiction anthologies; his poems, reviews, and essays have appeared in Independent School, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The New York Times, and elsewhere. More from this author →