Flash. My six-year-old is riding his bicycle. He teeters dangerously as he approaches the curb, then loses his balance. A split second after he falls onto the street, the tire of a passing truck crushes his skull. I watch helplessly as his head explodes like a melon, bits of brain everywhere.
Flash. He dashes off to the kitchen, where he grabs the biggest knife. Before I can stop him, he starts dashing back, he trips, and the blade sinks into his chest. He dies while we wait for the ambulance.
Flash. He falls on his belly, rupturing his spleen. He dies again.
Flash. He drowns in the river. Flash. He chokes on a grape. Flash. He falls out the window.
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. I knew he would be (did I?), but I need to soak in his presence. He is alive. I kiss him. His breath touches my skin. Warmth emanates from him and when I bury my face into his soft hair to inhale, with his scent I also draw in calm. It spreads through my body, slowly, elaborately, relaxing a deep-set tension muscle by muscle. He realigns me with the world. A few more last kisses before I go.
Nadia never took a breath. For many months, whenever I saw a small baby I would marvel at the breathing. A magical thing. The air. The soft motion. The promise of growth, of change. So different from my daughter’s absolute stillness.
We learned of her heart problem after an ultrasound at full term. Genetic. Fatal. What followed was nine months of not knowing whether our son’s heart might also be a ticking time bomb, on the verge of suddenly deteriorating with no chance of repair. After that wait, even though the outcome was good, I find myself no longer fully grounded in this world. Now I shift between universes. One moment I’m here, where he's all right, the next I get transposed to a parallel future, just in time to witness his demise. I experience all of his deaths. All the moments when his existence gets erased, leaving a great emptiness in that particular world and a seed of anguish for me to take back in my heart to mine.
My memories of Nadia are peaceful. Those images never assault me, but then again, I have nothing left to fear when it comes to her existence. All that is left is an ultimate knowing.
Flash. His seat on the roller-coaster detaches. Flash. He slips from the top of a tree. Flash. He falls down the stairs. Flash. He steps in front of a car. Flash. His heart just stops.
These flickers of unwanted thought used to be easy to dispel back when parting with my child forever was in the domain of I can’t imagine. Now I know what it’s like, and he keeps on dying. Creatively. Gruesomely. Vividly. Violently. And I am there every time he dies, utterly helpless, but at the same time knowing that he will not die alone. Because this is what being a mother now means for me. Being fully present—until the end.
I check on him again. Still breathing.
Do you trust the world to continue being a safe place for your loved ones? What do you do to fight the anxiety?