Verbs of My Grief

How do you describe the life of a child you never knew?

Will Watson
Human Parts
Published in
5 min readJan 20, 2018


UUnfold. Shake. An ant falls to the hot concrete. Fold. Place on the dog-chewed arm of the Adirondack chair. Unfold another. Shake. Two ants. Fold again. Add it to the stack.

I have to repeat it exactly 42 times, and I have to be religious about it. There’s no good way to get ants out of a pile of hand-me-down infant clothes except to unfold; shake loose the ants; fold; stack; repeat.

They are my daughter’s clothes. They were never worn, and they are being returned to her aunt and cousins from whom they were borrowed.

I am angry at the ants. They disturbed my daughter’s room, finding a home in the corner of her closet amongst the tiny pink clothes in the laundry basket that I had forgotten about. They burrowed in the head and foot of the crib that an old man from our former church had crafted for her older brother, notching small holes and tunnels into the soft wood. Now it is ruined.

I am angry at the clothes. I shake them, and I uncover a leotard (I think that’s what it’s called?) with a gold design that says “Daddy Loves Me,” or something to that effect. I shake it violently, fold it, stack it. I pause and watch the ants spraying across the ground, and I crush a big one beneath my toe. I hate that these would have been her clothes.

Would have been. A phrase that implies a contrast, that begs for it, calling forth an open causeway of negations. But. However. She would have been, yet: she was not.

We are clearing out what would have been her nursery to make room for her little brother, who will be here in September. He will be here. But her life only would have been: an umbilical cord accident one week shy of her due date brought me to this task of chasing off fire ants.

I’m never sure which verbs to use to describe my daughter’s state of being. Perhaps she was not would have been. Instead, maybe she was. And my eldest son is, and my son in the womb is. Or maybe they all are since they are our children regardless of life or death and the paths both of those states of being have forced me down. This is the tragedy of language: it restricts and is bound by the ugly push of time. Verbs can only be past, present, or future. They…