Three months have gone by since it happened. It, being the death of our son Holden. My amazing first born child. It wasn’t the moment his beautiful soul left his body that changed my life forever though. Because at that moment, I was unaware. It was the moment the tormented looking police officer walked up our driveway and knocked on our door. Boots heavy, eyes downcast, chin pinched to his broad chest as if bracing for a coming storm. He didn’t want to tell me. It was a sunny, mild afternoon. I was happily unloading groceries and library books and bags that had been packed for nearly a year. When those words hit my heart … the world, the universe as I knew it, shattered. And me with it. Or at least, my idea of me. The me who once was.
Today however, with the sky so brilliantly blue and the leaves beginning to toast I actually feel a tiny sliver of solidity under my feet. A fraction of a toe hold. The fact that I actually noticed the sky and the trees today feels like a huge victory. So, I will begin to try to tell you how it has been. These long dark days of summer. Though this is an intensely close family experience I will only write about my own struggle. Grief is so completely different for every person. All I can feel is my own.
The last ninety days have passed in a swirling, dense gloom. A turbulent ride I never asked to get on and have often pleaded to get off. It has been difficult to see where I am going or find any recognizable reference points to orient myself. Like skiing, fast, in thick fog, the drops and shocking bumps have been devastating. The sensation of groundlessness and disconnectedness is paralyzing in a weird, numb sort of way. The first days I tumbled and lurched and clung to the rocks gasping for air. I curled into a ball. Time lost it’s natural sequence. That moment seems to have just happened and also spans an eternity. My job, because of the deep love and patience of my husband, daughter, close family and dear friends has become simply surviving each day. A strange sort of autopilot has taken over and operates my body while my mind wanders aimlessly down the scary uncharted paths of why? My occupation is now simply walking, crying, whispering, sleeping, weeping, shaking, breathing. Trying to do normal things that normal people do when this experience is anything but normal.
The first trimester is utter brutality. I pray you never have to feel it. Just as, confirming you will become a mother for the first time is a total shift in your definition or idea of yourself, so is the beginning of your life without that child. There are similarities. You feel physically sick. And oh so tired. Unfathomably exhausted as if weighed down by invisible stones in all of your pockets. But that’s where the similarities end. There is never happiness. If you happen to feel mistakenly happy, just for a second, you instantly feel guilty about it. The vast crater where my heart used to be is now filled with cement. If I fell in the ocean I would surely be dragged to the bottom by it’s weight. The choking squeeze in my chest never, ever, goes away. Even when I try to fake it for a while, this anguish is fucking relentless. Unlike when I was joyfully pregnant and couldn’t wait to begin this new evolution of self as a mother, I would now do anything to make the sensation of leaden skin go away. Make it all be untrue, a mistake. One tap from a tiny hammer and I will disintegrate into dust and be blown away into the sea.
In the early days it’s tough to speak, god forbid smile or look anyone in the eye. Prolonged eye contact is way too personal and intimate. Food tastes like dirt. Thirst is unquenchable. Taking photos, once a joy, feels offensive. Who would want to preserve this moment? Singing is impossible. Singing indicates a carefree soul. Even music is just too much. Any social media is frivolous. The act of lifting my face or unhunching my shoulders for a moment seems burdensome and way too vulnerable. My memory and reflexes are shot. When my loving and steadfast husband brought a truly stunning bouquet of flowers to me in bed one day I asked who they were from? “Me” he smiled with a touch of sadness, “Happy Anniversary.” I had forgotten.
Everything orients down, toward the earth, the centre, the bottom. It’s difficult just to stand. Much easier to crawl under the blankets and hide. This sadness has a pull stronger than gravity and the only place I could comfortably spend any length of time was in our bed. It supports me like a cradle as my muscles atrophe. Even through this long hot summer I have been chilled to the bone. From bed I can see our big spanish chestnut tree and watch the shifting shades of green. He loved colour. The light subtly shifting as the day changes from bright and sharp to fuzzy pink and blurred. I lie there for hours…and days…and weeks. Cups of tea arrive with love. Thank god for the love.
From what I remember of morning sickness with pregnancy it swoops in at unpredictable times of the day or night making you nauseous. By contrast “mourning sickness” or the phases of grief come rampaging in full throttle like daisy cutters on a midnight raid. No warning, no reason or order. Those 5 (or 7 depending on who you listen to) chronological ‘stages’ are bullshit by the way. Denial and Isolation (yes always…even now), Anger, Bargaining, Depression and finally Acceptance. They don’t stand in line and wait their turn to slap you around. They gang up on you. They are a conniving team who use chess-like tactics and strategic manoeuvres to crush you into oblivion.
There have been many dark hours beginning uncountable sentences with ‘what if…’ and ‘why didn’t I…’ and ‘if only…’ to never come up with one single answer (bargaining) that makes any sense. That is because this question is unanswerable which keeps me stirring and roaring round and round (anger) this hollow cave. And I don’t want anyone in here with me, by the way, I want to rant alone. Mother and son. Getting familiar with this new arrangement.
We are, by nature, problem solvers. As humans we can’t relax until order is restored, the dishes are done and everything is stashed in its proper place. That’s why we are a culture of insomniacs. We hate unresolved business. It’s done, brush off your hands and crack a beer. I used to be very good at it. “Bring it on, I can handle it.” But the death of my child is a rogue problem that cannot be solved. It refuses to be manipulated revealing a valid reason or manoeuvred into submission. No matter how many strings I used to be able to pull or favours I could call in this tragedy simply will not be neatly tucked out of sight. There is no way to finesse this in my favour (acceptance). He is gone.
The service has been performed, the business tended to, the flowers are all wilted, some carefully transplanted into the garden, the banana bread long eaten and here I am. Without him. I have aged a century this summer. I have become…an old woman. Sluggish, weak and wrinkled. I don’t give a shit about my hair, though I never much did. I have very little stamina and get winded walking up a flight of stairs. I still can’t stay out long, preferring the cocoon of home to the jostling of anywhere else. Getting groceries is a major accomplishment.
In some ways I also died. That person who was the mother of two, is now the mother on one. It took me a long time to even want to leave the house. Honestly, I still don’t. In the early days the outside world became a cruel and harsh place that was too bright and loud and overwhelming. Obviously, it could not be trusted to keep us safe. When I finally gathered the strength to venture out on my own it did not go well. A perky woman sitting beside me while we watched our kid’s summer gymnastics class (in another municipality so I wouldn’t see anyone I knew) leaned over and said casually, almost flippantly, “I have four children, how many do you have?” I was caught unprepared and didn’t know how to respond. Up to that point I was really unable to speak much at all, let alone to a stranger. There was only one topic after all and I didn’t want to talk about that either. As a former broadcaster speaking had always been effortless. Not any more. My voice had vanished with my son. After a long awkward pause… “one” I managed to sputter in confusion and instantly felt devastated. Why did I say that? Of course, I didn’t want to get into it with this woman who was clearly very proud of herself for her multitude of children. Still, I felt disloyal and traitorous to not have said “two” in that instant. But that may have lead to other questions I was not equipped to answer. Where I was once confident and articulate I am now scared and uncertain. This is the new me.
From the vantage point of three months, a perspective I fully expect will change and evolve, I have come to a sort of realization. I think of this grief as a physical place. It is a vast, bleak and horrible wasteland full of traps, snags and dead-ends. There are also mirages and powerful understandings to be discovered. Mercifully, there are many oases of kindness and support or I simply could not survive. This no-man’s land exists as a bleak transition station between the woman I used to be and the one I am to become. I don’t want to, but I have no choice. This ground insists on be traversed. These are the badlands between the territory of who I was before that day and the new country I must plant my flag on. I am a refugee citizen of a country I was forced to leave, dumped in a new country I don’t wish to inhabit. I am not ready. So, rather than stake my claim and start over in a place where I don’t speak the language or understand the customs and everything is unfamiliar, I choose to stay a little longer in this desolate zone. For now, I’d rather be here with the bottomless sadness, than there, in a new land, without him.
The Holden Courage Memorial Fund for Artists