“How long has it been?”
Depends on the day, the hour, the exact split second the question is asked. Ten years. But also forever. The me who’s here today is not who I was then. But I am who I am, today. I am who I am today. I find it hard to access the before, and in that sense it feels like it was always so.
No, no, no—I remember. I remember the worry, but also the love, the anxious joy. He wasn’t dead then. So it stands to reason that it has not been forever.
Or maybe it’s that I long for him, miss him in a way that feels eternal. (I had a conversation with a babylost friend once about the way we express the idea of missing someone. I said that this is the first concept that I found to be better expressed in English than in my native Old Country language. Old Country language puts the emphasis on the speaker—I am the one who is doing the missing of him. In English, the emphasis is on him—it is him who I miss. My friend said that French is even more expressive in this sense—he’s missing to me, they say. Yes, he is missing to me. Always.)
Michael Lewis, the author of Moneyball and Big Short, among others, has a new book out. It’s about two psychologists who uncovered many of the rules by which our brains sometimes make statistically incorrect or biased choices or judgements. They also worked on something they called the Undoing Project—an attempt to figure out the rules by which our brains try to “undo” bad things after they’ve actually happened. In other words, the rules by which we come up with our individual “if only…” scenarios, essentially the rules for what is and isn’t allowed by our imaginations.
Reading about the rules of undoing, I realized that I never tried to undo A’s death in my mind. I howled in pain, I longed to crawl through molten lava if he’d be on the other side of it. Hell, I longed to crawl through molten lava just because that would hurt less than I was already hurting. But with its lack of a villain, A’s death left me with no plausible routes of contemplating undoing. Is that what gives me the forever feeling, I wonder? The lack of a plausible way to end up anywhere but here?
Ten years seems like a long time. But how do I know what that’s supposed to feel like? It no longer feels like I am breathing broken glass, but when the bone-deep sadness lets itself be known—again—it doesn’t feel like it’s been the whole ten years either. Is it, I wonder, because time also uncovers new dimensions to what was lost when he died, to what could’ve been? Like walking in the dark through a giant castle with only a dim lamp in hand—you mostly see only enough not to bump into walls. But sometimes 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.
I miss my son, always. But some days bring sharp realizations behind those swings of a lamp. He could’ve been almost my height by now. He could’ve been… Each one of these is new. It’s a new loss, not monumental, like his death was, but piercing in the moment. I’ve learned not to brush these away, not to discount them. They are real, and they deserve to be acknowledged.
And then there are other timelines. His siblings each have their own. My oldest, the one who as a five year old once tried to claw through the kitchen floor and all the earth separating her from her dead brother is as well-adjusted as a teenager can be. She is compassionate and empathetic, but her brother's death is no longer the defining event of her life. Which is as it should be.
For the younger kids the timelines are shorter, and their reactions more intense. He hasn’t been gone ten years to them, though to them he also has really been gone forever. A’s younger brother, my one living son, is eight and a half, and intensely aggrieved by his brother’s absence. It’s unfair, he says, that his sisters each have a living sister, but his only brother is dead. Yes, it’s unfair, I say, it sucks. A’s their brother too, I try, but I know what he means, and yes, in that sense he got the shortest of sticks. I acknowledge it, and the utter unfairness of only having a toy puppy to hug or little stones to place on his brother’s headstone for physicality of the relationship.
I hold each of these timelines, consider their interplay—like waves generated by stones dropped into water, radiating out, intersecting, being changed by the intersection. He’s gone. That is all. And also, it is not—it is the stone, it is many stones, but it is not the waves.
How long has it been for you? What are your waves?