Category: grieving

A little boy, three times around the sun, sitting on the sidewalk. His legs a w, mouth caked with icing from a heart-shaped sugar cookie. Brilliant white clouds, mobiles hanging here and there in a cobalt blue sky. Lights above us in the distance, far enough away, too many to count, a sea of asynchronous flashes, the backdrop for a little boy opening berries and asking questions, orange-red skins clinging to steel blue-grey shirt, white flesh stuck to moving fingers, small black seeds delivered to earth before he plucks another.

“Why am I squishing berries?” he asks.

“To find the seeds,” I say.

“Why do the berries have seeds?” he asks.

“The berries have seeds to grow new plants to make new berries to grow new plants. Reproduction,” I say. “It is their way of staying alive.”

A little boy goes back to squishing berries, curious and silent and focused, perhaps considering my words or perhaps lost in a tangle of thoughts I cannot see. I watch him, bathed in the golden glow of a low-hanging early autumn sun, his eyes cast downward, eyelashes catching light at the point just before they make a striking reversal in trajectory toward the heavens, while just out of sight police officers stand outside cars angled haphazardly across the road, doors open, red and blue lights turning in conversation with their compatriots at the opposite end of a long bridge. A crime scene. Camera crews admonished to the sidewalk, piling up one behind the other as a procession of people, solemn, approach a charter bus waiting just inside bright yellow tape. A little boy in front of me, so much bigger than he used to be, so small still, so much yet to experience and feel and learn. Tears start in my gut, find their way to my eyes. I grew him. I made a person so that he might make a person to make yet another person. Reproduction. My way of staying alive. Reductionist, but a kernel of biological truth. It is a long chain, behind me echoes of all who lived and died so that I could live, too, ahead of him whispers of all who will, each of us essential, none of us without the existence of the other. In front of me a new life unfolds, tragedy just a smattering of steps away. Tears still coming, tears of gratitude, wonder, tears full of the incomprehensibility of it all, tears full of love, tears of uncertainty and fear, tears of grief. Berry squishing abandoned, we throw dried seed pods from a sweet gum tree, peel apart the petals of pine cones. The beginning of life is everywhere, twined inextricably to its end.

He was six months younger than me. He died, and I cannot understand it.

H’s head is on my breast, right hand curled in a tiny fist resting near his face, foot hooked over my thigh. I work hard at memorizing the weight of 27.6 pounds resting on my body, the warmth of it, the exact points at which our bodies meet. A desperate desire to hold on to this moment – no, to this life – seizes me. My stomach knots. I feel there is not enough air in the room to breathe. I am drowning, or I am suffocating, and it is taking me further and further from this moment and from peace.

He once boasted that you could build a kit aircraft using just the tools I saw hanging in front of us on a 3’ x 4’ peg board. They were arranged with fastidious neatness, with the kind of care you give to something you love, and it was impressive. I took a picture.

H’s heart beats against my stomach, our bodies press into one another as our lungs fill, the gap between us when we exhale barely perceptible. I want this moment to go on forever, so much that my insides are still tightly wound. I feel I will burst from the tension, the cells of my body exploding into the air like a mini Big Bang. I breathe. I surrender. I won’t remember everything, maybe not even this moment with H. I know in the deepest part of my soul that to hold on to life with feverish desperation would be to strangle it, that I can’t bottle it all up for always, that there is no forever. This impermanence is simultaneously crushing and liberating, and I lean into it now, trying to find the places in it that feel comforting.

He was singing karaoke when I walked into the bowling alley in Seattle. Jeremy by Pearl Jam. He was a good singer, but it’s not a song with an easy melody. Yet there he was, up on a small stage, pins crashing in the background, belting out the words as if he were a rock star on a stadium tour.

H’s tongue clicks as he loses and finds his latch, his body twitches as it falls into sleep. We both breathe. In. Out. In again. I think about human consciousness, about our ability to observe nature, about how beautiful and amazing it is that evolution has created a being that can gaze back upon itself and all that exists. I wonder what lies beyond this pinnacle achievement and come up at a loss, not for lack of believing there is something greater, but for lack of imagination. What will happen to us next? Who will we become? I do not know. It seems cruel, in a way, to have knowledge of our mortality, to know that awareness as we know it will end, to not know with certainty what lies beyond death. Cruel. And yet a gift. Would we experience the awe and majesty of life the same way if there were no mystery? Would we know to hold it so close, in gentle, loving embrace, if it were not so fragile? What would we search for if there were no need to search for meaning?

He took me up in a plane built from those tools on the peg board. It was a two-seater, just me and him and the exhilaration of having so little separating us from the sky. I think I could be making the memory of this up, so I ask a friend. I distinctly remember standing on the runway and watching them speed away from me, growing smaller as the plane ascended higher and higher into the bright blue sky. This friend told me I flew, too.

H’s leg is bent, femur falling from his hip, ankle held up by my thigh, a perfect V. His breathing slows, the pause between sucks grows longer. I take stock of what I know. H is here. I know him, and I am getting to know him. It is a privilege, and it makes me a better human being. So it is with myself and all of you and him. I am here. You are here. He was here. He will always be here. I know myself, and I am getting to know myself. I know you, I am getting to know you. I will always know him, it was a privilege, and it has made me a better human being. I think about what I believe. Life is taken from us with painful regularity, but it is not the end. Love and the heart defy death to render any of us forgotten. We are all part of something that reaches back far before our existence in this form and will likely stretch on for a long, long time after we have gone. We all matter. I breathe. I surrender. I didn’t want the reminders of what I am feeling so acutely now. I would rather have him here than have the veil parted for me for this brief moment. The pain is exquisite. The fragility of life is as heartbreaking as it is beautiful.

He hugged me like he meant it. No back patting, no space left between our bodies, no hesitation or tentativeness. The intimacy of it could feel startling, at times, but it was also grounding. How else to learn to be all in than to experience it with someone who knew to move through the world like that? I know he meant it, all of it, everything he did. There has been a flurry of sharing memories of him, and I witnessed for the first time a moment that occurred more than twenty years ago. We were 18, just babies in so many ways, standing on the precipice of all that was yet to come. ‘What are you planning on majoring in?’ he was asked by a voice off camera. ‘There are so many things. Just so many things that I’d like to do. You know? I’d like to tell you about them,’  he said. I could hear the self-assuredness in his voice when he said it. He wasn’t afraid, but he wasn’t cocky either. He was excited, optimistic, confident. And he did it, so much. He did so, so much with his life. He meant it. He was all in. Whatever comes next, I’m sure he’s all in for that, too.

***

In loving memory of Jeremy Monnett, June 12, 1974 – June 2, 2015.

Fragments of small, shallow hand prints in kinetic sand, like trilobites. A palm. A mitten-shaped hand, tops of fingers missing. A thumb splayed out to form a perfect L. The sand fossils dissolve into one another upon being tenderly transferred to the sandbox. Once impressions. Now a pile of sand.

It is all so fleeting.

H and I are driving toward the exit in the hospital parking garage, and that’s where I see them. A gaggle of upholstered armchairs huddle together, stacked two by two, bound together with industrial shrink wrap. They are on Level C, on the curve of the long, looping spiral that hugs the elevator shaft. I see the armchairs, and just like that I am sitting in the NICU waiting room, eating left overs from a meal provided by one of our family or friends, still in a hospital gown and socks, hair tied back a mess, hardly tasting the food, only there because I have to eat and food is not allowed in the NICU. I blink, and I am back in the car, staring at the structural pillar full of black bumper marks ahead of us. My stomach flutters, and I feel the reservoirs that lie behind my lower eyelids fill to the point of almost overflowing. In that one instant, triggered in a way and place I least expect it, I touch down into the pain and the grieving that still exists in me from the time H was born.

This is how it goes. The grieving never really ends. It softens, it recedes, it rises to the surface less and less, its intensity and quality change, but it is still there. I used to feel there was something wrong with me when grief arose from years-old wounds, ones I thought had healed reasonably well, but now I feel something different. Now I understand that grieving is a process with no timeline, and there is a part of me that is glad for it. The grieving is not something I like per se, but the alternative, disconnection and hardening toward myself, has become even more painful than the grief. The deaths, separations, losses, and heartbreak that have accumulated over the years are not what I would have chosen, but they have been great teachers. As I have opened, slowly and often with resistance, to their lessons, I have started to soften, to surrender, to loosen my hold, to let go, to yield, to hold myself as dear and gently as I do H. I have started to be able to hold in mind and accept the wholeness of my experience and being, to embrace everything, including both the things I want and the things I do not want.

So I am glad for the armchairs, glad for the reminder of an experience that is part of who I am and part of H, too, glad for the connection to the self that was having a profoundly hard time, glad for the opportunity to be in process and to practice being open and receptive to myself. I am glad to have the space and energy to turn this grief over to see what more it has to say, glad that being a safe distance from H’s birth allows this. We were at the hospital as visitors this time, not residents, and we are leaving together. H is in the backseat, healthy and strong. We are both growing.

Thank you, armchairs.

How do you explain something sad to an 18 month old that you yourself at 40 do not even understand? You don’t know, and so you tell him the only thing that makes sense, the thing that you have told him since the very beginning.

I’m right here. I’m with you. We’re in this together. I won’t ever leave you.