Singing a Lullaby to a Dead Child

Maxfield Parrish, "Wynken, Blynken, and Nod"

Maxfield Parrish, “Wynken, Blynken, and Nod”

As wonderful as the holidays are, they are also sad times as I find myself thinking about family and friends that I have lost. Actually, I should say that holidays are wonderful in part because I reconnect with those I have loved.

I wrote the following post four years ago when my colleague in the philosophy department, Alan Paskow, was dying. It’s about the lullaby that I sang to my son Justin on April 30, 2000 after they pulled his body from the water. Among the thanks I will be offering up tomorrow is having had Justin for 21 years.

Recovered post, September 13, 2010

From time to time I have reported on my friend Alan, who is dying of cancer but who continues to hold his head up and, to the amazement of us all, refuses to get depressed. We held another one of our salons in his honor this past Thursday.After hearing Alan report on the latest developments (the tumors continue to multiply), we addressed the salon’s topic: “saying goodbye.” Each of us was to recount a story, good or bad, that involved leave-taking.

The stories were all powerful and moving. Some were dark, goodbyes that were not said for one reason or another. Others contained moments of grace. The word “goodbye” derives from “God be with ye,” and as we talked I sensed that our stories were an indirect way of saying goodbye to Alan.  Though one never knows, I think he has some time left, and we have another salon scheduled in three weeks.

My own story involved my son Justin. Because he drowned, Julia and I were not able to say goodbye so that he could hear us. We said goodbye nevertheless, however. After his body had been recovered and we were sitting in the ambulance with him, Julia gave him a Reiki massage while I put my hands upon his heart and sang him a lullaby that I had sung to him as a baby. It was a lullaby that my parents had sung to me and that their parents, I believe, had sung to them. Here it is as I remember it:

Baby’s boat’s a silver moon
Sailing through the sky–
Sailing through a sea of sleep
As the stars float by.
Sail, baby, sail,
Out upon that sea,
Only don’t forget to sail
Back again to me.

Baby’s fishing for a dream,
Fishing near and far,
His line a silver moonbeam is,
His bait’s a shining star.
Sail, baby, sail,
Out upon that sea,
Only don’t forget to sail
Back again to me.

Singing it took me back to a time when he was vulnerable and I was assuring him that he was safe with me. I was telling him that again. Only it wasn’t true this time.

Of course, I was singing the lullaby for myself as well. I found some comfort in the idea of death as sleep (“to die, to sleep, no more,” says Hamlet). Perhaps, wherever he was, he was being wrapped in loving arms.

Reinforcing these images of a mysterious sea that we journey to every night was a Eugene Field poem my father used to read to me. (He read each of us children a poem every night, along with a story.) The Maxfield Parrish painting above is an illustration of the poem.  A replica of the painting was in my grandmother’s house and now is in my parents’ house:

Wynken, Blynken, and Nod one night
Sailed off in a wooden shoe—
Sailed on a river of crystal light,
Into a sea of dew.
“Where are you going, and what do you wish?”
The old moon asked the three.
“We have come to fish for the herring fish
That live in this beautiful sea;
Nets of silver and gold have we!”
Said Wynken,
And Nod.

The old moon laughed and sang a song,
As they rocked in the wooden shoe,
And the wind that sped them all night long
Ruffled the waves of dew.
The little stars were the herring fish
That lived in that beautiful sea—
“Now cast your nets wherever you wish—
Never afeard are we”;
So cried the stars to the fishermen three:
And Nod.

All night long their nets they threw
To the stars in the twinkling foam—
Then down from the skies came the wooden shoe,
Bringing the fishermen home;
‘T was all so pretty a sail it seemed
As if it could not be,
And some folks thought ‘t was a dream they ‘d dreamed
Of sailing that beautiful sea—
But I shall name you the fishermen three:
And Nod.

Wynken and Blynken are two little eyes,
And Nod is a little head,
And the wooden shoe that sailed the skies
Is a wee one’s trundle-bed.
So shut your eyes while mother sings
Of wonderful sights that be,
And you shall see the beautiful things
As you rock in the misty sea,
Where the old shoe rocked the fishermen three:
And Nod.

In Margaret Edson’s play W;t, a sophisticated literary scholar finds comfort in the children’s story Runaway Bunny as she is dying. (I write about it here.) In my own time of agony, a lullaby invoking a sea voyage into a world of dreams spoke deeply. Sometimes I still think of Justin as sailing through a sea of sleep as the stars float by.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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