Yesterday marked six months since Holden’s gorgeous soul left his young body. It was a hard day. We were tidying up (in the Japanese and allegedly magically joyful way), putting away the decorations, tossing the wilted poinsettias and gathering the crackling dry boughs and pine cones from the mantle. For some reason this was even more painful than setting them out had been. The open, clear space created in their absence would normally have meant a fresh feeling of opportunity and potential for the new year but instead it created a powerful vacuum that squeezed my chest with a longing that has become so familiar. I had thought perhaps the vortex was losing some of it’s pull. I was wrong. The inside of my ribcage felt like a chandelier in an earthquake. Clattering and swaying. I wasn’t sure how things would shake out.
Wrapping these sentimental items in tissue and bubble wrap then packing them away in their dark blue utilitarian plastic tubs jolted me with it’s significance. It’s heaviness. How could we tuck him away so easily? Put him on a shelf until next year. The cute little teddy bear stocking with his name on it in purple glitter glue that we’ve had since he was born (which, by the way he insisted on keeping even though we offered to get him a more grown up one) and of course the unopened gifts. Stab. The tree ornaments that he made all through school, so achingly sweet. I can picture his little hands working earnestly to create them. The proud Christmas tree made of jigsaw puzzle pieces, it’s layers of glue painted dark green and zig zagged with gold twine, dotted with coloured beads. ‘Holden – grade 1, 1999’ printed in pencil on the back in his careful hand. The triangle shaped reindeer head built with tongue depressors, pipe cleaner antlers and the red pom-pom nose and my favourite, the silver clothes-peg angel. Stab, stab, stab. All I can say is yesterday felt like trying to walk with your shoes on the wrong feet. It’s still possible, but doesn’t feel right at all. Something was missing or dragging behind or just simply wrong. I hate the 3rd. Of every month. I seriously loath it. But the 6 month benchmark combined with the newness of the year weighted the day more heavily than I was prepared for. It landed on me with an unexpected thud. I had actually begun to feel like in some ways I was emerging from the inky blackness of the tunnel. Nope. Get back in here lady. We’re not done with you yet.
I don’t mean to be overly dramatic, they haven’t all been bad days. Lately there have been more and more lighter ones. Or sections of days at least where I can breathe. Though I faked my way through a lot of the holiday cheer I felt my husband and daughter deserved the effort. Both of our Mom’s were with us for Christmas and that warmed things up considerably. We are blessed with the gentle, patient, open hearts of Grandmas aren’t we? One hundred and sixty three years of pumpkin pie making, turkey roasting experience to tap. We all put on Christmas Eve pyjamas and played charades by the fire drinking hot rum. We baked cookies. We shopped and exchanged gifts. We strung lights and listened to Harry Connick Jr. See, I really tried. Even though I could easily have skipped the whole thing. On Christmas evening I lit a candle for Holden in his little garden outside under the big tree. That candle stayed lit all night long and well into the next day, even with the wind. Perhaps he wants us to look to the light? My remarkable husband proposed a beautiful toast to Holden before we all shared a simple Christmas dinner. He spoke of and to Holden in the present tense. I love him so deeply for that. I couldn’t face the paper hats thought. That was just too close to the bone.
Our pillar of a daughter has been surrounded by her delightful friends and the sound of their commotion and laughter in the house has elevated my spirit. I have caught myself smiling and laughing in their presence. Such a novel experience that I almost wrote down the time and date. Smile – 8:30pm 04/12/15. Laugh – 10:15am 12/12/15. Though we skipped the parties we did appreciate the invitations. Even though we’re lame at least we’re still on the radar. Remember, I used to be able to party like it was my birthday, any day of the week. Same goes for my husband. Neither of us could find the strength or motivation to rally. A few friends came by for quiet visits and that has been a comforting familiar feeling. Tiring, but a little bit more normal than the self imposed isolation we’ve been existing in for half a year. A few brave souls vaulted over the invisible moat to penetrate the fortifications. I have realized that I can handle about five people max in one place at one time. Any more than that and I freeze with my eyes bugging out of my head (‘owling’ my sister calls it) and I want to run for the door with sensory overload. Big, bright rooms are bad, small and dark is better
The Christmas season holds such unattainable expectations to be joyful and put together doesn’t it? Even under the best of circumstances, December is a minefield. I blame stupid Hollywood and all of those shiny magazines at the checkout counter. I couldn’t even say Merry Christmas…or Happy New Year out loud. However, one day, after some serious nagging on the part of a dear friend, I went skiing. I was afraid because the mountains are so immense and uncontainable and cold. The motion of skiing so aggressive, fast and jarring. We had been keeping life really, really (really) small. Because of our year of travel I hadn’t skied for almost two years and am basically in the same physical condition as an astronaut who has just returned from space. Zero muscle tone. Think veal. But, it was so fresh and pure to be out in the wintriness of it all. To breath that electric crystal chill deep down into the basement of my lungs. I felt alive and dare I say, invigorated. As he disappeared over a steep drop I recall saying to myself “fuck it, I have faced one of the worst things a person can experience and I’m still here so I can probably handle the Bagel Bowl.” And I did. And the fear dripped away. Completely. It was marvellous.
People have told me lately that I seem a little bit lighter. I don’t really see or feel it but I hope that’s true. A gradual melting. It would be so very easy to dwell forever in this place of sadness. I heard of one woman who took to her bed for three years after her son died. Not that far fetched a solution. Honestly, it is a tempting option that I have seriously considered. But I have to believe there is a reason to walk out of this and to move along in this life. Whatever that means. And not just for my husband and daughter who I feel deserve it, for me too. Some days I feel like I have passed through the worst intensity of the storm and will be able to enjoy life again, that the raging has finally begun to subside, and then, like yesterday….back it all comes. Stab. Squeeze. Slash. His absence will not be concealed. It is an unfillable hole. I won’t even try.
I understand how difficult it is to know what to do about this situation from the outside. How to help a person who seems helpless. Or rather un-helpable. There is a dark and sacred intimacy around the death of someone close, especially a child, that is very difficult to navigate. The social cues are unfamiliar and unpracticed. This terrain is so slippery and private and delicate that we don’t want to risk stepping in to the inner chamber where we possibly don’t belong. To breach security and be left standing exposed in the spotlight. I am suggesting you try. If you care at all, even a little, try. Not right away, that’s too harsh. Use your instincts to measure the depth of your relationship. Maybe you have no business in there at all. Maybe you are urgently needed.
We really should have a class at school called ‘how to be there for a grieving friend.’ Sometimes when a person says ‘go away’ they mean ‘go away’ but sometimes they might mean ‘I am so lonely and scared and I need your help. I am incapable of reaching out so I need you to reach in. Screw decorum. I want you to talk to me about my son. Please don’t ignore that he existed or that he died. Please don’t talk to me about the fucking weather. There are bigger things going on here. And even though sometimes I don’t have the strength to reply to your message I am so glad you thought to send it.’ Yet, how are you, sitting there looking at this worn face, these desolate weepy eyes supposed to know which it is? How best to be of service and still be polite? Believe me, I can tell that you realllllly want to help. Through these dark and light days I have felt a deep thoughtfulness from the outside world. In fumbling heartfelt messages received, small sneaky gifts left on our porch and even those ‘likes’ on Instagram. I have reflected often and with deepest gratitude on your sincere kindnesses. On your uncertain efforts. They have helped me to feel less alone. I think the most meaningful and beautiful offering is when you have told me that you don’t really know what to do or say but are willing to risk it. We are all on quicksand here. You have tried to tell me how you care, how you love and remember Holden, how you will continue to be there for us and hold us close to your heart. You have shared your losses and your fears openly and honestly. You have asked thoughtful questions. You have revealed your humanness. These are the messages that make me cry. It’s a good cry though. You have been vulnerable and that has had a levelling effect. Now we are on a two way street. I am no longer to be pitied. Now we are connected through our common experience. You are not doing me a favour or belittling my pain or comparing it to yours. You are sharing this sordid life with me. It’s a big difference.
Now that six long/short months have passed, that surge and rush of emotion I feel when I receive a note or email feels like it accesses a direct pipeline to my heart. A transfusion. Not the heart that is valentine shaped and corny but the heart that is at the core of my being, the part that has been suctioned and scraped. That is the part that is slowly functioning again because of your willingness to be awkward and uncomfortable.
I don’t know what this year will bring or what it means for our family. The thing is, there never was any certainty, I’m just more aware of that fact now. I’m also acutely aware that anything that means anything actually means so much more. There is a hole in me, a big one that won’t be filled. I don’t want to fill it. We are a hole family now. As some wise people who have walked this road before me have advised, I’m leaning into the pain. Fully experiencing and processing it whenever it happens to arrive. Trying to identify and understand it all. When I smell something earthy and grassy like him or see a young man walking down the road with his pants hung way to low and his big shoes flapping like flippers at ten and two o’clock it rises. I feel it all again, that crush. Six months have passed now and I have learned. I’m letting the pain wash and surge over me when and how it decides. I thank you for holding the lifeline as it does.