We would live happily ever after, the remnants of our eternity filled to the brim with milestones, coos, first babbling words, innocent giggles, and wide, chubby smiles. Then the fairytale was flipped, shattered and warped into a gothic nightmare. The princess holding her dead little prince in her arms, dressed not in white but in black, her bright world gone dark.
In my conscious attempt to steer clear of catastrophe, I had been focusing too much on the “how,” when it all comes down to “what” and the absence of “why.” That it is always a life too short, a death too soon, and the meaninglessness in between. So I visited Ground Zero last fall and this summer. For the first time in the four years of living barely an hour from it. I stood there in silence, daring to open up to the lives I knew were ripped apart that day. I allowed myself to believe that I knew every single parent, sibling, spouse and child who forever lost a part of their heart that day. I need not imagine. I knew.
Having grown up with two older brothers, I had always romanticized a house of women and girls. We would be that house, and I was thrilled. Dominating bathroom counters and get-ready times. Un-shy about tampons and maxi-pads and midol. Borrowing clothes and scents and make-up secrets while the bewildered males looked on. Instead, you died.
I used to think our lives were a series of stories; everyone talks about them as such. It's evident as people frantically search their minds for a spiritual explanation when something horrible happens; it's difficult to let something just exist as it is without reigning it in. We're a people obsessed with redemption in the face of adversity and great loss, but our life stories do not have a beginning, middle, and end.
There were times over the last few years when I have carried my loss around like an old favorite coat. No matter how heavy it got, I didn't want to shed it. It fit, hugging me gently in all the right places. Someone sitting too close to me would be able to smell its foul odor—it was that pungent. Still, I refused to wash the coat. Why would I? The dust mites that burrowed into the fabric were perfect. They were at home in my old coat and so was I.
Ten years later, I still feel an excess of unspent love—there is no place to put it, aside from into the air around me, along with the wishing, the longing, the dream of him. I still play with the active designing of my own afterlife: I die an old woman and revert to my 34 year-old self. I enter into a room and see Liam waking up clammy, whole, and gurgling in a crib. This is my daydream, my most divine and deepest regret spun into active language, a positive state. It’s different now. I can love him, forgive myself, and breathe.
We see it in the flowers, the leaves and the trees, in the plight of the caterpillar and beauty of the butterfly. The days of the week, the months, the years, the seasons; all one pattern that keeps swirling. As much as I don’t want the time to pass, it inevitably does. The more time passes, the further I am from that moment when I kissed her little head and tasted birth and death at the same time. I lived and died in that moment, along with her.
I realize in just a short span of 9 days, our family will approach a milestone of sorts. This number can easily be considered arbitrary, one that would otherwise come and go without any recognition, perhaps it's only quality being that it is so tidy and divisible. I hesitate on letting my mind wander to this calculation in the first place. What good can come from this? It is a simple formula with only two variables, measuring one unit of distance since I last held my middle child. 1,000 days.
The shock and despair of being under the ocean is overwhelming, and the tides often break through my stupor. I wake up, and scream, “She still died? After all that, she still died?” It rings hollow, the scream. My eyes are dead, my throat is hoarse, my head splits into a million shards every minute. The calm and hollow let me be, and yet, every day, the answer never changes. She still died. We made it to shore and she fell asleep in the sand. Like that white dove in that song. The land is lost forever.
Sometimes we simply grab the person next to us and thrust a memory-strand into their hands, begging 'Hold this for a minute, please'. Letting go is, after all, exactly what it would mean to stop mentioning or remembering them altogether. The world expects us to let go of the little memory net that holds our child from falling deeper into the abyss. It shouldn't, but it does.
An obscurus wreaks havoc. It is the manifestation of the repressed pain and abuse of a magical child. This energy manifested as a separate entity that erupted in violent, destructive fury. As a bereaved parent, perhaps I've got my own obscurus. A force that can either destroy, lashing out—or, given acceptance and the support of caring people, result in achievement.
The way life works is that we all change, all the time. But some of the time we change more rapidly. You’d be ten now, and I don’t have a clue who you’d be, or how you’d be in the world. What I know is that every second would’ve been new—a chance for you to discover something, to learn, to think, to feel. To find mischief. Or joy. Or joyous mischief.
There is no pill. No physical therapy can strengthen my reserve. No infusion of chemicals can lessen how deeply I feel this. There is no relief to be found in any of my textbooks, medical literature, or online searches. Nothing can take the edge off. I wake up with it and begin the day feeling acute pain, but camouflage it. It is my job to alleviate my patients’ pain. I support them through their heartache while my own throbs.
I was told grief would come in waves; remain messy and untamed, and I should welcome it. It wouldn’t always feel this dark and heavy, but there wasn’t a timeline, and it wasn't a linear process. Mental health professionals didn’t give validation to the infamous “five steps of grief” anymore, so there was no pressure to evaluate myself. I should just feel it, talk about it, and know that it was normal.
Among those who know the agony of facing a world that pretends your child did not exist, my voice hears echoes of itself. I hear a choir of courage, a melody of survival. Sometimes, refreshingly, my ears pique at words my voice hasn’t yet spoken but knows by heart.
These images assault me as soon as my guard is down, when I drift from waking towards sleep. I jolt awake, but even then I can't fight them off. They are too vivid, too real to disperse by an act of willpower. I don’t bother trying to convince myself that my fear is not a realistic one. I simply get up and check on my boy. I press my hand to his back, feeling the air go in and out. Breathing. He is breathing.
Regardless of the frequent opportunities, I struggle to frame the discussion. Death, of course, does not follow a prescribed timeline, it does not bend to logic or will, it is not fair. Not everyone young will grow old. Far too many times I linger in the anxiety of the subject matter, lost at the beginning of the conversation, pen and mouth idle to find even the first word to console a heartbroken friend, or to answer an inquisitive 4-year-old.
As I stand in front of that card section—trying to be the friend I know my friends wish I could be—I realize amidst shaking hands and unsteady heartbeat that I can’t do this. I can’t bring myself to select, pay for, and send that card. Besides, what on earth would I write inside? I feel anxious just thinking about it. My baby was sugar and spice and everything nice, a sweet baby girl who brought us so much joy and happiness. Her birth indeed fully changed our lives. Her death is what has changed us the most.
At the end of my 33rd birthday, I scrolled through a lifetime of photos of me wearing my tiara at breakfast, sipping tea with a grin on my face, opening gifts, blowing out candles, cutting a cake. In recent years, I've done it all with a smile plastered on my face, unnatural, my eyes as vacant as shop dolls. I have been posing. I don’t feel the way I look or look the way I feel. I am not that smiling woman.
You round a corner and the lamp swings just so, and you catch a quick glimpse of something entirely magnificent, something that steals your breath. A tapestry, perhaps. Or a floor to ceiling stained glass window. You know, completely normal things you find in normal castles. Except that long ago all lights in this one were put out, and there is no fairy tale twist to reverse this curse.
It was only in that moment, ten years later, that I figured out why I did it. Why I circled the NICU like an animal, fending off every other lens. It was for Ben, for his ballast. So that someday, he might attach Liam’s humanity back to him, like Peter Pan’s shadow, despite all the rest.
All the time, babies are born perfect and alive without prenatal care, vitamins, heartbeat monitors, ultrasounds, and tests. By doing these things, we think we have some control, when we don’t. We just don’t. So when something goes wrong (the baby is formed with a heart defect; no kidneys; neural tube problem; the cord knots; the placenta tears away; the cervix gives out) ….what do we have?
My friend shifted his weight and looked around the room. “Oh gosh, okay, wow. I’m so sorry. Oh, man. Yikes.” For days I thought about the exchange, and how badly I yearned to speak from the vantage point of a mother with a live child. No one had ever innocently asked me about my baby. Until I told this friend that Cora died, the dialogue was unfolding the way a typical one with a new mother should. It felt weird, wrong, wonderfully make-believe.
There are two of you in my mind. One is the girl you had some chance to be: bedbound, uncommunicative, unable to thrive as you grew. But there is another other girl as well. The one you would have been without that single letter randomly altered in your DNA: perfect. All of your potential preserved, ready to unfold.
They are songs of grief and death and the intersection of life and loss that is my permanent residence. These are the melodies I frantically return to each time I feel I have lost her again, clinging to each syllable when the strum of grief reverberates throughout my hollow body. They are the exact same words that remind me that I will always be able to find her in the deepest parts of my soul, that she will forever be a part of me.
Guilt, the sharp-toothed animal, snakes in place of a tongue, hissing, biting, cursing, blaming. 'You should have, you must have, you did not…' The other face of imagination, uttering the same what if and if only over and over again. Ravaging my head, not letting me sleep, for fear of waking up to find her dead.
'Not your fault.' A mantra, a song, a pleading hymn for rationality. Pounding in a head dizzy from lack of air, dizzy from this new reality. 'Not your fault. Not your fault. Not your fault.' Months out, I am still free falling. The air is still thin. The pain is still there, a knife between the ribs, the sinking feeling of the stomach as I plummet thousands of feet through the air, without any promise of landing.