Hawthorne Books, 2013
reviewed by Allie Angelo
Monica Wesolowska’s debut memoir, Holding Silvan: A Brief Life, takes readers on a brutally honest and bittersweet journey as she recounts the birth, short life, and finally the death of her first son, Silvan. While this poignent story opens with the joy of being a new mother—the amazement of having created a life and seeing that life for the first time after birth—it leads quickly to a place all new parents fear: something has gone wrong with their baby.
Monica’s openness around the topic of her son’s death is powerful. She invites the reader with her every step of the way, from the moments just after Silvan’s birth, to learning that he may soon die, and even many years into her grief. She reveals every intimate emotion with absolutely candor, even when her thoughts and emotions were raw, dark, or sometimes un-relatable. In the end, she paints a strikingly accurate picture of the multitude of ways we as individuals deal cope death and dying. Some of her friends can’t even utter the word, or bear to see Silvan as he is dying. Others, like Monica and her family, face the ordeal head on; acknowledging death’s existence and accepting it as a fact of life with which we all must cope.
“When we’re alone again, I unwrap Silvan one last time and kiss his skinny chest between protruding nipples and then the sole of each foot. David does the same. Then, carefully, carefully, I wrap him again in his receiving blanket, now a departure blanket, the rest of him as perfectly naked as the day he was born.”
Monica compsoed this story by looking back at old diaries she kept during her time with Silvan, revisiting feelings and experiences that couldn’t have been easy to meet with again. In the beautiful introduction, Erica Jong comments, “Writing is not always cathartic, you open a door.” After reading Holding Silvan, I see the truth in this statement that much more. Writing is not like telling a story to a room full of a people, it is a solitary act. When you write about something that happened to you, something as influential and difficult as the death of a child, you are reliving that experience alone. Immense bravery went into putting this story together and returning to the events: her emotions, the decisions she had to make, the people and obstacles she faced. Putting it together with equally beautiful and heart wrenching descriptions, allowing you to feel as if you’re walking next to her, watching her rejoice, grieve, and love. She takes you into her heart and mind, her pain conveyed elegantly and sometimes brutally through her words. When Silvan finally passes, both the sorrow and love is evident in each and every phrase.
“One morning almost seven years from his birth, I return to the diaries I kept while he was alive. From my diaries, I retrieve the feel of his skin, the sound of his little cries. I retrieve both the joy and the agony. I find the story of his life.”
This story unearths a set of questions modern medicine has forced us to face. Is it right to keep someone alive artificially? Is it okay to essentially force feed someone when they aren’t able to eat? This memoir addresses questions both ethical and spiritual, and as readers we are reminded that there’s not always a right answer when it comes to these decisions. In the end, when the decision to take Silvan off of all life support and allow him to die was made, it was done out of love, not practicality.
“What one can do for a baby whose life has been saved for a life that is not really a life at all.”
This book is unique not only in the beautiful prose in which it is written, but also in the story itself. The way she openly speaks about death is refreshing and even comforting. Holding Silvan shows that, though death is both sad and painful, it doesn’t have to be taboo, or an experience relegated to our past. And though Silvan died, I would not call this a book about death, but rather about a small and love-filled life. Monica reveals the unique love of a mother in a dazzling light; a mother that is forced to make the hardest of decisions. Holding Silvan is both a beautiful and tragic story written with talent, sincerity, and necessity. It allows us to step into someone else’s life in the midst of a tragedy, feel what she feels, and to walk away changed.
Allie Angelo has been writing for over ten years. Her work has been published in the Scholastic Young Writer’s and Artist’s Anthology and she is the main writer and editor for Bare Essentials Magazine. She has one book of poetry published under her maiden name Allie Ullom, titled A Tribute to Constant Thinking. She also runs two popular blogs, one of which will be turned into a book within the next year. She lives in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, with her boyfriend, working as a writer and freelance voice actor.