'Once More We Saw Stars': Reflections on family and loss

by Jacob Maguire | 7/26/19 2:00am

On July 16, author Jayson Greene visited Sanborn Library to read excerpts from his new book, “Once More We Saw Stars: A Memoir,” as part of the English department’s Cleopatra Mathis Poetry & Prose series.

English professor William Craig introduced Greene at the start of the event. Greene spent the first half of the event reading excerpts from his memoir then answered a series of questions from students, faculty and community members.

Greene began the reading by recounting the day when he and his wife Stacy lost Greta, their two-year-old daughter, in a horrific accident. One Sunday morning in May 2015, Greta sat with her grandmother, Susan Frierson, on a bench in Manhattan when suddenly, a piece of a terracotta windowsill fell from a nearby building and hit Greta on the head. Greta’s grandmother, who was struck in the knees, eventually recovered. She outlived her granddaughter, who died the following day.

Greene emphasized that the memoir focuses on the period of 15 months between the death of his daughter and the birth of his son, Harrison.

The passages that Greene read during his visit to campus felt extremely poignant. He recounted searching for secluded places to scream in New York City including an empty shopping mall and isolated streets. He also spoke about his haphazard introduction to spirituality, and his visits to the doctor for various illnesses that his son experienced. Greene said Harrison’s bouts with hand-foot-and-mouth disease and other minor illnesses reminded Greene and his wife that sometimes when children get sick they do survive.

Greene said that writing the book served as a way to help him make sense of his relationship with his late daughter, acknowledging that the book, for him, was a “testimonial” to being Greta’s father.

“In some ways, writing this book was a way to discover how I could still be connected to her,” he said.

Greene noted that the memoir might someday serve as a way for his son to learn about his family’s past.

He said that Harrison is still young, but old enough to know that the name Greta has significance to his parents. Someday, Greene said, Harrison will learn about Greta, but that at present, small doses of information are best.

Greene said that his son has already begun to ask questions about his older sister. 

“Children ask the questions that they are ready to hear the answer for, and they are ready to hear that answer and nothing more,” Greene said. 

Greene said that he wrote the memoir because it was the most logical way for him to process the traumatic event. But, he realized that some readers could relate to his own experiences.

What intrigued me most was a comment Greene made about his transition from writing literary criticism, which he had done for a decade, to writing directly about himself. Greene said that he found this easier than some might expect because he believes that when individuals read and write, they inevitably connect the texts they both create and consume to themselves.

“Basically, when you are writing anything, you are writing about yourself,” he said.

This observation helped me comprehend the uncertainty that I had experienced throughout the event. Greene’s words felt like deja vu, even though I had never directly experienced the loss of a child. During Greene’s talk, I realized that I knew two individuals who had.

Mary Ann G. Maguire and Francis J. “Frank” Maguire, the two hardworking Rhode Islanders who would become my grandparents, lost their first child, Sharon Kathleen, in the early 1960s. Sharon, who was born with a severe case of spina bifida, died when she was just a year old. My grandmother eventually gave birth to my aunt, my uncle and my father, but my grandparents’ lives never became easy. 

“Nansie” and “Grampie” outlived their oldest child, which should never happen. In 2011 and 2013, respectively, my grandmother and grandfather were buried beside Sharon, next to a grave that was five decades old and marked with a headstone inscribed, “Our Little Angel.” I did not know that Sharon Maguire existed until I went to that cemetery for my grandmother’s funeral. My grandparents never talked about her. Greene’s talk led me to start wondering about my grandparents’ experience.

Greene said he hopes that, just as the book may enable his son to understand the sister whom he never knew and begin to fathom his parents’ loss, it will also help grieving parents to make sense of the tremendous pain and trauma that the loss of a child causes.

“Most people carry around the grief that they have from their children in silence and in private,” Greene said. “Every single person who has read the book and found meaning in it has given a redemptive answer to everything.”

My late grandparents are no longer around to read “Once More We Saw Stars,” but I am. I hope that, by reading Greene’s words, I can better understand who my grandparents were and begin to fathom the trauma and pain that they experienced. It took many years, perhaps even several decades, but I hope that “Grampie” and “Nansie” eventually saw stars once again.