Breathe: A Memoir of Motherhood, Grief and Family Conflict
by Kelly Kittel (Jamaica 1985–87)
She Writes Press
$18.95 (paperback), $7.69 (Kindle)
Reviewed by Jan Worth-Nelson (Tonga 1976–78)
Shortly before I received Kelly Kittel’s wrenching memoir in the mail, I read a piece in The New Yorker about the poet Edward Hirsch, whose book length elegy to his son, dead at 24 of an overdose, has just been published. Hirsch says he didn’t want to write that book. He was mired in mourning and obsessed with the circumstances of his son’s life and death. But ultimately, the writing won out. ” . . . You become resigned,” he says. “Your job is to write about the life you actually have.”
In a prologue to her book, Kittel offers a similar insight. She describes her childhood love affair with books and her lifelong hope of becoming a writer. What she endured to get to this book, many years in the making, however, was not a joyful sequence of events, but a nightmare. She writes, “This is not the story I dreamed I’d tell. But this is the story that life placed in my hands.”
Before even opening Breathe, if you read the back cover you already know what happens: she loses two sons in a period of nine months. From the first page, the specter of those tragedies haunts every sentence of the narrative. Yet even as we dread the approaching events, Kittel’s story is both a page-turner and a heartbreaker, and her evocation of the devolving family conflicts and the desolations of losing two children is rich and compelling.
The first death comes 80 pages into the book: Noah, her fourth child, is run over by an SUV driven by a family member — a teenager, Kittel’s niece. In the aftermath of this horror, the niece and her parents project their culpability and guilt onto the Kittels, turning on them with cringe-inducing passive aggression. They stubbornly keep the Tahoe that had killed Noah parked where Kittel and her family can see it, for months, suggesting the accident was somehow Kittel’s fault, and unfeelingly urging Kittel to “move on.”
The second death, cruelly, comes hard on the heels of the first. When Kittel learns that she’s pregnant barely a month after Noah’s death, she welcomes the news and imagines that the new baby might be a gift, a chance to heal. But during labor everything goes wrong, and the child, a full-term boy the family names Jonah, is born dead.
The unimaginable shock of this second loss fills the pages with sorrow and takes Kittel — and her marriage — near breakdown. “What I really wanted to do,” she writes, “was rend my clothes and wander in the wilderness, a woman deranged.”
Instead, the family somehow keeps going, their three remaining children ultimately joined over the next few years by two more, both of whom survive difficult gestations and nerve-wracking births, but who are now, according to an epilogue, thriving with their siblings.
In addition to her early aspirations as a writer, Kittel’s other dream, — by far the larger and most all-encompassing one — is her dream of motherhood. She writes, “This is the story of a girl who always dreamed of having a large, loving family, and it’s the story of the struggles she survived as a woman to realize that dream.” Rarely has there been a woman so determined, her body so intertwined and consensually exploited by that primal drive. By the end of this story, she has survived 13 pregnancies, several miscarriages and of course, the two lost boys. It’s a remarkable and uncomfortable journey. As a woman who’s never given birth, I kept experiencing this story not as just a complicated narrative about a family in crisis, but about the intimate implications of a woman’s body — the potential and power of it, the fragility and insistence of the womb, even its capriciousness, in the imperative of making new life. When in the final pages of the book, just after delivering what would be her final child, Kittel writes, “for the first time in my life . . . I was done having babies,” I breathed a sigh of relief.
This is not a Peace Corps book, but Kittel’s experience in Peace Corps in Jamaica resonates notably throughout her searing account. She met her husband Andy there; she says she was a “problem” Volunteer who changed jobs three times. But she found comfort there, too. After the first tragedy, the death of Noah, she and her family went back to Jamaica to connect with old friends. She writes,”the trip was yet another challenge — taking ourselves back to a happy place from our past . . ..” She packs a small canister of Noah’s ashes and sprinkles them in the “warm, extra-salty Caribbean sea.” Already pregnant with the next baby, she craves the sweet citrus of Jamaica’s ortaniques. As the trip ends, she gives thanks for her years in the Peace Corps.
“I knew I could sit in any third world country and share the experience of losing a child with nearly everyone there,” she writes. “We might not even speak the same language but we could tighten our lips, suck on ortaniques, and nod with understanding. Life can be bitter — as known by so much of the world. Here in our so-called first world, we tend to pretend otherwise.”
In the end, the family sues the hospital and doctor for devastating errors that led to Jonah’s stillbirth, and the last quarter of the book offers in almost too much specificity the details of the trial. It ends with a definitive, unambiguous win for the Kittels and a substantial financial award. They pack up and move to Portugal, escaping finally from the dramatically dysfunctional extended family that has compounded their woes. While the account of the successful lawsuit tells more than we need to know, by that time in the story I was so hungry for this grief-stricken family to have some joy, some redemption, that the ultimate vindication of money is the best news of a book that never quite transcends its primal losses and griefs.
Jan Worth-Nelson, a longtime writing teacher at the University of Michigan – Flint, recently retired. She is the author of the Peace Corps novel Night Blind. Her poems, essays and short stories have been published in Fourth Genre, Michigan Quarterly Review, The MacGuffin, Passages North, Cleveland Review, The Christian Science Monitor, the Los Angeles Times, and others. She commutes between Flint and San Pedro, CA with her husband, Ted Nelson, also an RPCV.
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