Wednesday, December 15, 2010

On Losing a Child

I'm sitting here tonight with a fever, & I've spent the afternoon throwing up, but I'm not sick: I'm heart broken.

A fellow writer at HOTM lost a child this week. She's a lady I've never met, never spoken with online, whose last name I don't even know, & she lost a child. There are virtual hugs and a group effort to process the tragedy. Women have come together to tell their own stories of near losses, so that others can hold their babies close and be ever vigilant, & I can't breathe.

We should bolt our bookshelves down & cover our outlets & put child-proof locks on windows and doors and medicine. There are hundreds of ways to protect our children, & yet these stories still come, and the tragedy still strikes, & I can't breathe.

We put the L-brackets for the bookshelves on the to-do list, & most of them get clamped down. But we forget the one in the bedroom, or we have to move one to fix an outlet. The smoke detector won't stop buzzing, & there's not a fire, & we forget after pulling it out of the wall in the middle of the night. A stray grocery bag gets left in a far corner of the kitchen or gets swept into the hallway.

Most of the time, nothing happens. Occasionally, we have a near-miss. And then there are the other times, the times that seem only theoretical & unreal until someone is holding a phone with a 911 operator on the other end.

I can't forget that it is Christmas. I can't stop thinking about the pain of a family burying a child, of the dreams and images that will be with them the rest of their lives. I imagine losing one of mine, & then I imagine watching the siblings grieve, & the weeping starts again, & I can't breathe. I imagine these children grown up, when the pain has dulled, & I know that a stocking will still hang on the mantle for their little brother. I know that they'll think of his absence on their wedding days.

It's Christmas. I know that his presents have already been bought. They will stay in the back of the closet for years to come, & every time his mother goes to get dressed, she'll feel her knees buckle under her with the weight of the pain. My hands shake to think of it, & the weeping begins again, & I can't breathe.

I hear the encouraging words we're supposed to say to each other, the words that we all know do not really comfort the bereaved: our children are gifts, on loan from God. They're not ours. Our time with them may be brief. We must love them while we can--

And all I feel is angry. All I feel is this bone-wracking ache for this child & his mother. I don't want to live in a world where children can be lost. And there are so many opportunities to lose them.

I have a two-year-old & a three-year-old, & they were napping when I read Dana's story. I was glad that I'd have time to start breathing again before they came crying for snacks & a hundred other things that plague their days. I also wanted to tear their bedroom doors open & pull them to me, to make sure they were alright. But when they got up, they would not be held. One sucked his thumb while the other demanded food "for her heart." They cried to go potty & cried for the light on & cried that they could do it themselves but needed help, & there was no time for me to cry any more.

I took them to church & sat in the parking lot & cried, though.

Then we came home, & I watched numbly as my husband put them to bed. Every syllable they mispronounce breaks my heart for the mother who has lost her baby's song, & I weep, & I know I have to start breathing again. My head aches, & I can't eat or think, & my babies are all safely tucked into bed, & I feel like I'm violating the very core of motherhood by stealing someone else's grief, but I can't help it. My throat is closing, & any effort to forget feels like betrayal, like admitting defeat. If only I can keep my mind on this little boy, then maybe it's not true, maybe he will live. If only I can hold up the universe with my thoughts, maybe the other children whose mamas have loved them will live, too. And my only stray thoughts are of the other children I've known who've been lost too soon, & I can't breathe, & it's too hot in here.

My nine-year-old likes to take his pillow & blanket down from his bed & sleep on the floor beside his two-year-old brother. The older boy hates to sleep on the floor, so this is especially sweet. I hear him at night sometimes singing to the little one, long after bedtime, & I smile & try to hold these memories in my heart.

Tonight as I walked past, I thought I heard the older one singing, but then I heard the younger one, too, & I realized they were talking & playing, so I went in to sternly put them back to bed.

When I walked in, the little one said, "The crickets are singin to me, Mama!"

"Did John tell you that?"

"Yes," he said, sticking his thumb back in his mouth after a big grin.

I lay down between them, & the three of us listened to "the cricket & frog songs" for a while. There in that silence, in the softness of their ears and their breathing and soggy thumbs and awkward limbs, I felt it—the pieces of my heart, willing to heal. As I ran my hands over the soft baby hair and the coarser big kid hair, knowing that I could lose them at any time, knowing that life is so fragile & uncertain & that all my love & all my mental gymnastics cannot keep my children safe, I was comforted by their wide eyes & warm breathing.

This is now. It's all I can hold, & if tragedy strikes, it's all I will have. I must embrace the now.

It's hard on those nights to stand up, turn around, & walk away. You sense the loss. Even if we sidestep fate & see our children grow up, this night cannot be captured, & once we turn out the lights & close the doors, it is a memory. How do we ever walk away? But we do. We must.

And the only weapon we have against regret is to embrace the now, to be fully there, in the moment with the delicious sounds of temper tantrums & the awful smell of life & the rosy cheeks & scrapes & joys & sorrows they bring us.

The little one brought home a present from his teacher at church. He held it all the way home, calling it a "party" with a "Christmas" on top—the bow. We told him to put it under the tree, & he ran enthusiastically to do so, but when his feet hit the carpet, something in him stopped, & he looked at his "party." He tore just a little piece of the paper away & looked at the tree. I saw his feet wiggle, as if they really wanted to go & obey, but he looked at the "party" again, & peeled away another tiny piece of paper, watching it float to the ground.

He unwrapped the whole party, which turned out to be a puzzle, which to a two-year-old is just another party waiting to be unwrapped.

I watched those little pieces of paper float to the ground with him tonight. I didn't stop his fiendish entrancement with the mystery. I let him be my mystery, & I watched as a tiny piece of something separating us floated to the ground so that for a moment, I could see the party through his eyes, the wonder of it, the mystery that overpowers like the last twenty pages of a great book you can't put down. I reveled in his discovery like I was watching an old home movie of something I can no longer touch, & I rejoiced in being able to reach through the film of grief that enveloped me to touch him.

Oh my heavy heart. If only all this weeping meant that another's pain were softened, but there is no sense to any of it. Only hurting, & now the only balm.

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