The gift

photo by  I.P.

photo by I.P.

We are honored today to have Justin as our guest writer today, in the third part of our June series by fathers. Justin writes, “On November 6, 2014, I said hello to my second child and first daughter, Lydia Joanne. The day prior, I learned that this would also be my goodbye. As my wife and I left the hospital, I kissed my daughter one last time and told her that we love her so very much. The kind nurse rocking and singing to my child looked up at me and said, ‘She knows.’ I spend every day making sure that she never forgets.” Justin is on Instagram under the handle justinkwelliver, where he has recently participated in a grief photo-journal project #MayWeAllHeal. His wife Heather writes about their daughter Lydia at Loving and Losing Lydie

I can feel it.  My stomach begins to tighten and my throat is suddenly parched.  My sight narrows and the rush of blood washes over my body like a rising tide.  Not with the physical force of an ocean wave, more subtle but just as quick.  Without warning, I am swept from dry land and plunged into a body of water.  But somehow in this small window of time, my mind has figured it out.  It knows the exact reason for this sudden shift in the landscape that threatens to choke out my breath.  My mind has already formed the thought and sent it spiraling down my nerves to deliver the frantic message to my hand.  Do you have it?  Did you forget?  Is it there?  In your pocket?  My elbow carelessly swings back to allow my hand to thrust towards my leg, following the outline of my pants pocket, desperately searching for the familiar shape that now seems to be a permanent part of me. My fingers instantly verify the smooth curves and trace them down to a point. A heart, small and heavy.  Once found, my hand returns the message back to my mind with the same frantic urgency as it was received. It is here. I have it. I did not forget. Like a plug pulled from an overflowing bathtub, the water begins to slowly circle down the drain allowing my lungs fill with a gulp of air. My landscape comes back into focus and my feet find steadier ground, but my energy is gone and I am left with a dull ache in my head. I am exhausted from treading these waters of grief. This internal conversation, this furious call-and-answer, is played out over and over again. And while my hand has acknowledged the pleas of my grief-stricken mind every single time, the fear and anxiety of an empty pocket still threatens to drown me with the same intensity each and every time.

All this from one word, innocently spoken aloud—“stone.”

The heart-shaped stone in my pocket has been there for 97 days. The last Christmas gift left to be opened by the same person who wrapped it. A gift from a parent to a child, from a father to his daughter.  Just a few days prior, I walked around the store picking out small gifts for my wife’s family—sour candy for Oma, peanuts for Pop Pop, chocolates and beer for the sister—and brother-in-laws, checking them off the list as I go.  Her name, Lydia, is included on my list, but is only followed by a dash and then blank space.  To think of gift ideas for her is painful, but necessary.  Even nearly 2 months after holding, kissing, and saying goodbye to my little girl, my mind still bursts with ideas for a should-be-2-week-old.  I push them away and continue on.  I want her name written among her brother’s and cousins’, mixed upon the boxes and bows under the family tree. I find the bright red stone and feel its weight in my hand.  It is heavier than I thought it would be. My fingers trace the letters etched on its face that spell out the very reason for this search: L-O-V-E. I place it back in its box, practicality ruining the moment. What would I do with this? Fighting back the doubt, I let my initial urge to hold the stone win. It makes its way through the checkout line and eventually to its place under the tree. Except Lydia wasn’t there to open her gift, a task assigned to her father. Still unsure on the purpose of this little stone, I place it my pocket for safekeeping, where it has remained ever since. An awkward feeling at first, its shape and weight a distraction as it rests against my leg, but over time has been absorbed into my very existence.

In reality, carrying this little heart-shaped stone changes nothing, means nothing. However, I now exist in a world with familiar landscapes, but where I no longer understand the rules. This world is evolving, the terrain constantly being created and destroyed, with grief at the molten center. The fear of a sudden shift, as delicate as a single word vibrating in my ear, is ever-present. In this reality, this little heart-shaped stone means everything. A buoy allowing me to rise to the surface.  The decision has already been made should my pocket turn up empty. An instant pivot, full out sprint, obstacles and traffic be damned to reach this stone and fill the void. However, feeling its sharp point dig into my palm before slipping it back into my pocket, I know the damage would have already been done. The guilt of forgetting would engulf me, a weight around my ankle pulling me down into this ocean of grief.

Despite its current residence, the stone remains a gift for my daughter. I am merely her father, holding it while she is momentarily away, awaiting her return and request to carry it herself, perhaps with a welcomed, but not expected, smile and kiss on the cheek. A responsibility that no one else knows or asks about. A job that doesn’t really exist, but silently does.

Do you carry a physical object in remembrance of your baby(ies)? How did you find this object?  How has your relationship with this object changed over time?