Where The Birds Always Sing

Remembering Belle Scarlett Baldridge, Sep. 29, 2011.

On September 29, 2011, one year ago today, my family experienced the late-term stillbirth of our daughter Belle (see my post last year). It hurt like hell and it’s a loss we’ll always feel acutely. Despite this tragedy, we have emerged through the year stronger than before, in no small part thanks to the strength of our relationships and the amazing support of family, friends and community. And, just this past Sunday, on September 23, we celebrated the birth of a beautiful and healthy baby boy. This new addition was obviously very well monitored during the pregnancy, given the loss of Belle. We were quite confident that he would come out fine; nonetheless, his healthy arrival has been an immense relief for our family. He’s a very calm baby (so far), but I still do find myself rejoicing a little when he cries, even as I try to take care of whatever it is that he needs at the moment.

Our kids (my older daughter from my previous marriage and our three-year-old son) clearly had Belle’s loss very present in their minds with this pregnancy, even if they rarely voiced their concerns. My daughter was very worried before the birth, and her relief was palpable after she knew that he was alive and well. Our three-year-old was less direct about it, but it was very much in his mind. The day after the birth, I announced at  “Hey, he has been alive for a whole day!” not even thinking about Belle at that moment. Our three-year-old said “Belle wasn’t alive for a long time!” After I affirmed that statement, he followed it with “But he (the baby) will be alive for a long time!”, with a big smile on his face. It’s always amazing to see how kids are sorting through very complex emotions, and I think it is often at levels that are far deeper than we tend to give them credit for.

In addition to receiving support from others, I also processed Belle’s death through music. Like nearly everyone who grew up in the 1980s, I have a special fondness for the mixtape, and I’ve created plenty of playlists over the years. Last year, my younger brother Justin and I decided to each create (independently) a playlist of 100 songs that we connected with in 2011. In part, the idea was for the playlist to reflect the course of the year. When Belle died, my playlist obviously took a tone for the music that got me through it, and I ended up with a 20 song segment that I have come to think of as “the Belle cycle” (see below). Perhaps, the key song was one that I had long loved, but that Justin reminded me of – The Cure’s “Where The Birds Always Sing”. It’s lyrics beautifully capture the powerlessness we experience when dealing with death and attempting to make some sense of it. And, every time I’ve been to Belle’s grave, the birds have been singing.

The aftermath of Belle’s death taught us a lot, and there is much I discovered about myself. And, as we found out, it affected others greatly. We experienced an amazing outpouring of support from across the world — every little email and tweet of well-wishing helped. We heard from friends who, upon hearing about Belle, reflected on their own lives and made changes to enable them to lead happier, more fulfilled lives. Some even made pretty major changes in location and/or career. I heard from many others who had experienced stillbirths, and from yet others who were children who had come after stillbirths — and the tremendous, positive influence those siblings had had on their lives. It is still incredible to me that Belle has already had such an impact, even though she never drew her own breath.

So, one year on, all is well. We still feel the loss of Belle and remember her daily. We are now filled by the joy of having our new baby, and, of course, our other kids. It’s quite a mix of intense emotions, but the human heart has room for them all. Life goes on. It can be hard. It is rarely easy. But, it is good — very, very good.

Musical addendum: The 20 songs that formed what I’ve come to think of as “the Belle cycle” in my 2011 playlist run through the gamut of emotions I experienced just before and well after her death, and were drawn from songs that I was listening to a lot during that period. For some songs, it was the lyrics that spoke to me, but mostly it was the emotion conveyed by the music itself. They didn’t pop out that way, but as I organized the songs, they fell into a fairly clear narrative, for me. I’m sharing it here because maybe it, or some portion of it, or just the idea, can help someone else. It goes something like the following.

To begin, I’m on top of the world — I had just been promoted to associate professor and I’m in love with the little girl who I’d have soon. Heck, there was even a song with her name!

1. Kanye West – Touch The Sky
2. TV On The Radio – Will Do
3. Jack Johnson – Belle
4. Yo La Tengo – Our Way To Fall

The last song somehow transitioned for me: it has to do with falling in love, but that being transient, or hard to capture, as Belle was to evade us. The music actually conveys this much better than the lyrics alone.

Zoe Keating’s cello on “Sun Will Set” captured the echoing, sawing emptiness and desperation of discovering that Belle was dead.

5. Zoe Keating – Sun Will Set

The next is a song about watching a loved one die that has always moved me, but which took on particular poignancy. The lyric “love is watching someone die” beautifully captures the ache of losing someone.

6. Death Cab for Cutie – What Sarah Said

We struggle to make sense of death, regardless of our personal belief system, and The Cure captures it perfectly (see lyrics below).

7. The Cure – Where The Birds Always Sing

The next songs go to a dark place and then a raging hole inside. “Bury The Evidence” and “Ruiner” have long been songs for me to vent rage, and they served me well last year.

8. Danger Mouse – Dark Night Of The Soul (Feat. David Lynch)
9. Tricky – Bury The Evidence
10. Nine Inch Nails – Ruiner

Trent Reznor can express rage, but he can express calm equally well, though still typically with an edge to it. As such, NIN and then Radiohead and Danger Mouse express the calm after the storm, but an uneasy one, one that is nursing its wounds and wants revenge.

11. Nine Inch Nails – A Warm Place
12. Radiohead – Codex
13. Danger Mouse – Revenge (Feat. The Flaming Lips)

But perhaps things can still look up, and DJ Shadow gets a hook in that starts to bring it across.

14. DJ Shadow – Redeemed

As a kid, I was fascinated by Stevie Wonder’s “Journey Through The Secret Life Of Plants”, and I found the song Power Flower haunting and mesmerizing. I had forgotten the name of the song and which Stevie Wonder album it was on, but I finally tracked it down last October — and it still haunts and mesmerizes me. And last year, it uplifted me.

15. Stevie Wonder – Power Flower

Still not out of the thick of yet — feeling much better, but still hurting and recovering.

16. Danger Mouse – The Rose With The Broken Neck – feat. Jack White

But, hey, you gotta pick yourself up and move on.

17. Deerhunter – Don’t Cry

Finally unfolding out of the gloom, slowly but surely.

18. Rachel’s – Water from the Same Source

And back up, able to smile again and see joy in the world.

19. Jónsi – Around Us
20. The Cure – This. Here And Now. With You

I formed this “cycle” in October and November last year, and listened to it again and again, revisiting and processing my feelings on each listen, drawing more strength each time. The very act of organizing the portion of the playlist in this way helped me immensely — essentially it was a constructive way to channel my emotions, and it produced something that allowed me to continue to process and understand them.

Finally, because they are so spot on, here are the lyrics for The Cure’s “Where the Birds Always Sing”:

The world is neither fair nor unfair
The idea is just a way for us to understand
But the world is neither fair nor unfair
So one survives
The others die
And you always want a reason why

But the world is neither just nor unjust
It’s just us trying to feel that there’s some sense in it
No, the world is neither just nor unjust
And though going young
So much undone
Is a tragedy for everyone

It doesn’t speak a plan or any secret thing
No unseen sign or untold truth in anything…
But living on in others, in memories and dreams
Is not enough
You want everything
Another world where the sun always shines
And the birds always sing
Always sing…

The world is neither fair nor unfair
The idea is just a way for us to understand
No the world is neither fair nor unfair
So some survive
And others die
And you always want a reason why

But the world is neither just nor unjust
It’s just us trying to feel that there’s some sense in it
No, the world is neither just nor unjust
And though going young
So much undone
Is a tragedy for everyone

It doesn’t mean there has to be a way of things
No special sense that hidden hands are pulling strings
But living on in others, in memories and dreams
Is not enough
And it never is
You always want so much more than this…

An endless sense of soul and an eternity of love
A sweet mother down below and a just father above
For living on in others, in memories and dreams
Is not enough
You want everything
Another world
Where the birds always sing
Another world
Where the sun always shines
Another world
Where nothing ever dies…

Author: jasonbaldridge

Co-founder of People Pattern and Associate Professor in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Texas at Austin. My primary specialization is computational linguistics and my core research interests are formal and computational models of syntax, probabilistic models of both syntax and discourse structure, and machine learning for natural language tasks in general.

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