When I was seven months pregnant with my son Ronan, I visited Ellis Island. It’s one of my favorite places in the United States—a place where you can see the human face of this country and where you truly understand that our nation was built by poor people who found their circuitous and tumultuous way to a distant shore, armed with very little but hope and perhaps the name of a distant relative or contact scribbled on a piece of paper and shoved into a pair of falling-apart pants.
Along their journeys, these people from all corners of the world contracted diseases, friends, stories, and more than likely, a deep sense of purpose. They no doubt felt fearful and alone, but also buoyed by and hopeful about what might come next.
People who traveled with a single suitcase, knowing that they would never again see the families they were leaving behind. People who were turned away just steps from the Statue of Liberty for not wearing shoes, for having too much money, for not having enough money, for looking insane, for being pregnant, for not having the appropriate amazed response when they walked into the grand, light-filled hallway. (You can learn all this from the excellent docents who will take you through the details of a typical immigrant arrival.)
The experience of Ellis Island makes clear that the end of the line is always a new beginning.
Some people were turned away for the reasons mentioned above; others spent time in the hospital, recovering from diseases. Some were given new names because the people they spoke to could not pronounce their native names. A true Babylon—a cacophony of stories, voices, sorrows, and hopes.
Walking through that lit hallway, you can practically feel the history, and you can look into the faces of these people in photographs lining the walls—people who came to a new world with the old world histories on their backs, locked in their memories, and written into their skin.
I thought of my experience at Ellis Island on a bright and chilly December morning while my son was dying, just two-and-half years after he was born. He died of Tay-Sachs, a genetic and always fatal illness that developed in Eastern European Jewish shtetls, a byproduct of persecution, ghettoization, and forced intermarriage. In its earliest documentation, the disease was simply if brutally referred to as “failure to thrive” or “family idiocy.” Children with Tay-Sachs go blind, lose all volitional movement, and finally, their brains shut their bodies down. It was strange to have within me such an ancient and disastrous disease—one that called into question everything I knew about my ancestry, who I was, where I came from, and made me consider the ways in which so many instances of chance and chaos and movement might have led to me, a first-time mother, wrapping her nearly three-year-old child in an old, ancient-looking shroud after he died.
The end of Ronan’s suffering marked a new and terrible stage for me: I no longer had to watch him suffer. His body was light with the power of this release, but heavy too, with the reality of the newly dead. He was no longer going elsewhere, as he had been from the moment of his birth. He was gone.
We rage against the death of a baby because it seems against the natural order of things.
I also resist it, although I know that chaos finds everyone, found those people filing up the stairs, with only the clothes on their backs and everything and nothing to lose.
My grief is real and terrible, but it is no worse and no different from anyone else’s. The photo gallery at Ellis Island—images of its rich history—makes this overwhelmingly clear.
I think of the countless mothers of immigrants who said goodbye to their sons and daughters for so many reasons: unemployment, religious pogroms, the insufferable situations in their home countries. I watch them watch their children board a cart or a train from their town or shtetl. Watching them disappear from their sight was like watching them travel over the edge of the world. They were gone.
Moments after Ronan’s terminal diagnosis, and even still, I feel connected to all the people who have experienced grief and loss and so-called unfairness. I can see and feel the chaos that is always just outside our door, in our hearts, and that has lived and will continue to live in our families, our histories, our future, even our DNA. The grief-stricken immigrate quickly to our little island, and in this place, everyone is welcome, because we will all arrive there eventually.
Ronan has been gone for nearly three months; sometimes, when I dream about him, I am sailing on that Ellis Island ferry on a clear, cold day. Only instead of being pregnant with him, I am without him, as I am without him now, in my waking life. I walk up the stairs into the elaborately windowed room, and I am amazed. Amazed because before me are all the mothers who have also lost their sons, and somehow they have traveled across time and space to greet me. We don’t need to understand one another or correctly pronounce one another’s names. Everything is already understood. I move toward them, my hands empty, my heart so heavy, and walk into their outstretched arms.
Emily Rapp is the author of Poster Child: A Memoir and The Still Point of the Turning World, which was a New York Times bestseller and Editor’s Choice. Her work has appeared in VOGUE, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Redbook, The Boston Globe, Salon, Slate, The Huffington Post, and many other publications. She teaches writing at Santa Fe University and with the University of California-Palm Desert MFA Program. Visit her at www.emilyrapp.com.
Fellow Positively Positive contributor Jen Pastiloff and Emily Rapp will be co-leading a writing/yoga retreat to Vermont in October http://thetravelyogi.com/book-