Monica Wesolowska considered herself solely a fiction writer before she gave birth to her first child, a son named Silvan. When Silvan was given the grimmest of prognoses shortly after his birth, she began chronicling their brief time together as mother and child. The result is Holding Silvan: A Brief Life, Monica’s first memoir, published in April by Hawthorne Books. In Holding Silvan, Monica explores what she calls “the love and ethics behind her choice to let her newborn son die.” Much like Silvan, the book is unforgettable and infused with love.
Miranda RabuckHi Monica. Thank you for speaking with me and letting me showcase your stunning memoir, Holding Silvan: A Brief Life. This is your first book and it’s deeply personal and heartbreaking. Did it take a long time for you to tell this story?
Monica WesolowskaIt depends what you mean by “tell.” I began “telling” this story to myself from the day Silvan was born. I literally would repeat inside my head, “I have a son. I have a son who is dying, ” as if I just needed the right words to make what was happening understandable. After he died, I found myself obsessively telling the story to others. Over the years, the need to mention him lessened. And then, just about the time I was comfortable not mentioning him to everyone anymore, the need to write the story seized me. Once that happened, the process was incredibly swift. I wrote the rough draft in three months. That was eight years from his birth. And now, on the 10th anniversary of his life, the book is coming out.
Miranda RabuckYou started a diary shortly after Silvan was born. Did you begin recording your time with Silvan because you knew a book would come from this experience, or was there another reason? What was it like to go through your diaries as you wrote the book? Did the act of recording the details of Silvan’s life—and death—help you?
Monica WesolowskaI began keeping a diary while Silvan was alive because a writer friend reminded me that, as a writer, this was what I needed to do. At first, I was horrified at her suggestion. Nothing seemed as important as holding him. But soon I realized that I was already narrating in my head and so I began to write it all down. I tried to reread those diaries several times over the years but they always seemed too awful. They seemed raw, angry, maudlin. But something happened on year eight. My editor’s mind recognized the love in them. It was such a gift. There were so many little things I didn’t remember about Silvan, about holding him and holding him. Of course, it was hard going back to that painful time but very affirming. If I hadn’t been a writer, I don’t know how I would’ve survived that time.
Miranda RabuckHolding Silvan, for the most part, shatters the mythology of miracles that our culture seems to thrive on. So many news stories, books, and movies revolve around miracles, whereas in your book, there simply is no hope for one. Did you have any doubts about the marketability of a book in which miracles don’t exist? Did you have a specific audience in mind when you began writing this memoir? Was there a specific type of person that you wanted to reach?
Monica WesolowskaI wrote this book first for myself. I wanted to spend time with Silvan again and understand what we did for him and how we were able to go on without him. I would wake up each morning with the distinct sense that I would learn something from whatever I wrote that day. As the writing continued going well, I also got excited that the people in my life would have a chance to see what it was like to lose Silvan from my perspective. But I also knew that there was a larger story here. As a culture, we love stories about people surviving. But I also sensed a hunger for stories about how to die well. If I could help others stay present in the face of death, I thought I would be doing a good deed. So I wasn’t thinking about marketability per se. But I was curious to know if I could write a compelling story that did not end in a miracle. I felt the need for that story, for that kind of truth.
Miranda RabuckWhy do you think our culture holds such stigma around death and discussing it?
Monica WesolowskaIt seems to me that in a culture that puts such emphasis on “success,” we ignore that we can’t get everything we want. Though the Beatles may have insisted, “Money can’t buy you love,” we are bombarded with the message everywhere that money provides the foundation for everything else. When someone gets a fatal diagnosis, the impulse is to go and get a “better doctor.” Certainly I think that everyone should get a second opinion. And not everyone gets equal healthcare in this country. And doctors are human and can make terrible mistakes. But at the same time, we spend so much time thinking about buying our way up, we have little time left to talk about things over which we have almost no control.
Miranda RabuckEarly in the book, you mention that your husband, David, didn’t think you had what it takes to be a mother, yet throughout Silvan’s life, you are the image of maternity and motherly love. Did you, too, have doubts about becoming a mother? How did being Silvan’s mother change your perception of motherhood?
Monica WesolowskThanks for the compliment. I’m lucky enough to have a wonderfully generous and supportive mother myself. A selfless mother. So my standards of motherhood are high. My mother raised four kids and worked full-time and I remember even as a kid being amazed that she could get up in the morning, make us breakfast, pack a picnic lunch, take us to the beach all day, and then come home and start making dinner while the rest of us showered or lay around on the couch. Then she would fold laundry after dinner, read us a book, grade papers once we were in bed. As the oldest of four, I also had plenty of experience caring for children and went straight into earning my high school and college money from babysitting. I understood that caring for children took more than we know we can give. So I didn’t really doubt my ability so much as my desire. I hesitated because I like time for myself. I thought that if I “made it” as a writer before becoming a mother, then I could justify that time. But once I took the plunge and got pregnant (yes, before I’d “made” it as a writer), I was really taken aback that David thought I might not be prepared. I wouldn’t have gotten pregnant if I weren’t. So I wouldn’t say that being Silvan’s mother changed my perception of the difficulties of motherhood. In fact, I’d even seen my mother grieve the death of a son so I understood the depths of pain into which parenthood can sink us. What I didn’t expect was the intensity of the joy. Thank goodness for the joy. Even as Silvan was dying, I was grateful for the joy I felt in loving him.
Miranda RabuckMost of Silvan’s life, as well as your book, takes place in a hospital, and doctors and medical professionals play a large role. Did you learn anything about modern medicine from this experience?
Monica WesolowskaWhat most struck me in my medical research for this book was the fact that medicine is so advanced now in the 21st century that most people will no longer die of their diseases but of decisions to stop treatment for a disease. Though our choice for Silvan was extreme, most people will have to make a choice at some point that will lead to their own or someone else’s death. That being the case, we all really do need to think more about the line between a good life and a good death and what feels ethically correct for us.
Miranda RabuckOne aspect of Holding Silvan that really stuck with me was the importance of community. In the book, your decision to stop feeding Silvan was based on the realization that Silvan, as well as you and your husband, were part of a larger community. The title of your book reflects this idea; instead of insulating Silvan, you wanted him to be held by as many people as possible. How did holding Silvan and having him held by friends and family shape the grieving process for you?
Monica WesolowskaThe strange thing about grieving for a newborn is that newborns are so unformed that you really don’t know who they are beyond their soft skin and sweet smells. Though he shared our genes, Silvan looked like a lot of other people’s newborns. So, yes, we let anyone who wanted come to the hospital and hold him – even people we barely knew – and people told us that, though they thought it would be terribly hard, in fact the experience was calming. We forget in modern America that losing children used to be a part of reproduction. And that people had ways of dealing with it. Having him held was important to me because I thought he would be comforted by it. But I also felt comforted by it. It made Silvan seem larger than himself, and it connected me to bereaved parents throughout time. In the grand scheme of the world, a single life is brief, and Silvan’s life was one of the briefest, but by holding him I felt that we honored him as part of the larger fabric of all our lives.
Miranda RabuckAlthough you no longer consider yourself Catholic, religion is ever-present in Holding Silvan. Does religion have a place in your life, or is it something you’ve always tried to escape?
Monica WesolowskaAside from those first few months in college when I stopped going to church on Sundays and felt tremendously free, I’ve never thought of myself as trying to escape religion. On the contrary, by no longer going to church I’ve actually had to spend more time finding a way to make sense of this life. For me, that’s what religion is, a narrative that makes sense of life. Now that I have children, I worry that this personal definition of religion is not enough to give my children the morality that a religious community can, in the best of scenarios, provide. So religion is something I still think about. And I know that many of my friends also think about it because most of us are without organized religion but still we want to make a place in our children’s lives for thinking about and doing good for others.
Miranda RabuckYou’ve taught fiction writing at UC Berkeley for over ten years now, yet your first book is a memoir. How did your background in fiction shape Holding Silvan?
Monica WesolowskaEarlier I said that I wrote the rough draft of this book in three months. What I didn’t say is that I also probably prepared to write it with 20 years of fiction writing. I was literally struggling mid-sentence with a novel when I felt myself ready to write this memoir. I’d been working with a character in my novel who lost a baby, but I couldn’t touch the depths of her grief. Trusting the creative process, I stopped mid-sentence and began to tell the “real” story. Once I allowed the main character to be me, the story flowed. Sure, the years I’d spent learning how to craft scenes helped. I had an instinctive sense of where I needed a little dialogue and where I needed a little description. I could recognize patterns of tension and relief that could move the story along. I understood the shape of a book. Equally important, though, was my ability to recognize that the time was right. My own grief was no longer overwhelming to me. Because of that, I could write in a way that did not overwhelm the reader. There was room in my prose for love. And believe me, I was very relieved to see that love shining through my own words.
Miranda RabuckWhat can we look forward to seeing next from you?
Monica WesolowskaAh, the dreaded question. Thank you for phrasing it in such a positive way. Part of me is working hard to suppress that little voice that says, “What could be more important than writing about Silvan?” It’s a double whammy: as a mother, I feel bad turning away from Silvan; and as a writer, I fear not having another book in me. Fortunately, after struggling for a few months to return to fiction, I’ve accepted that the floodgates of memoir are open for me right now and I’m working on a series of short pieces that seem to be connecting into something larger. But I’m a big believer in letting things gestate before they are exposed, so I’m not going to say more except to add that I’m delighted to have a reader like you who is “looking forward” to seeing more from me.