it was this morning, after i dropped the kids off.

i pulled up at the stoplight just a second too late to coast through the grace period left behind in the wake of a turn signal.  i was too busy cursing out the dawdler ahead who had damned me to a whole forty-five seconds of waiting to even notice her at first. i am not good at waiting. i harrumphed.

and then some motion, her posture, drew my attention.

she was to my right, in a boxy American sedan of a certain age, waiting for the green. there was a booster seat in the back of the car. she was alone.

she was weeping.

or rather, she was bawling, howling, self-immolating in the driver’s seat of her car. weeping sounds demure. her shoulders heaved and shuddered against the back of her seat and her hands fluttered against her face and there was clearly snot in with the tears and my heart leapt out of me in sympathy at the sight of her.

my hands, though, flapped against the steering wheel uncertainly. i felt frozen, as if i’d stumbled upon someone masturbating, or taking a dump: some animal activity we are civilized into pretending none of us engage in. verboten!! my eyes screamed at me, and averted themselves. then i looked back. i could not stop looking. her open mouth – soundless but for the background noise of my local morning radio show – reminded me of my children’s faces, slack and gaping in their sleep.

i did nothing. you do not get out of your car at a light and walk over to a perfect stranger and intrude upon her sorrow, whatever it may be. you do not.

but sometimes, when the strange hermetic veil that bestows order on us all lifts for a moment, you will want to. your breath will catch and your knees will shake in correspondence with the Other and you will know that there is no Other, only elaborate acts of Othering we all engage in in order to survive.

i mouthed words to her, though she did not see me. I am here, i said, kind of stupidly. then, whispering, You will get here. it was a prayer. then i added, i moved the bedroom furniture around last week.

the light changed and the car behind her honked and she lurched away. i watched her taillights and exhaled.

i moved the bedroom furniture. finally.

five years ago, i drove to the paint store a few days before Mother’s Day. the paint had been ordered weeks before. Dave had rushed in in the interim to try to ensure that the kitchen colour wasn’t too school-bus-yellow, and to choose a primer, but he was back at work that day. i had thought i should leave the house.

i’d never painted a room in my life. i’d never owned a house before. the girl behind the counter lined up four bright cans of paint and a can of primer and issued a barrage of how-tos into my gaping, blinking face and i nodded obligingly and took the brushes she proffered and the rolly thing. she asked if i had any plans for Mother’s Day and my mouth hung open further and i shook my head and felt my entire nervous system jangle, barbed wire tugging my spine. i fumbled for my bank card and punched in numbers i could not quite see.

then, behind me, somewhere in the store a baby cried and, like a valve, the pressure behind my swollen left breast let go and i stood there, a flower of milk expanding darkly on my tshirt.

i stood there holding a can of grass-green paint for the nursery. for one beautiful stark moment i saw the store as a Jackson Pollack canvas, spattered violently with green paint and droplets of milk. i wondered how hard i could throw the can, whether i could break glass. in my throat a dragon rose, ready to take wing.

i knew if i tried to speak him free, no words would come; only men in white coats.

and so i hefted the awkward paint cans and my bag of brushes and i hightailed it to my car. there, in the pretend sanctuary of that parking lot, in the cloister of an ugly blue Hyundai, i cried raw and hopeless and despairing, until the dragon was spent and my shoulders heaved back against the seat and i was alone.

i had given birth to a son six days before, the same day we took possession of the house. my firstborn. our first home. my first Mother’s Day.

but my child was gone, and i had only the uselessness of milk, and a house full of boxes, and nursery paint, and i did not give two shits whether i ever got out of that car again.

that first Mother’s Day came and went. i painted a lot of the house, those first weeks after Finn’s death. none of it was, contrary to what polite society might prefer to believe, particularly cathartic. grief itself is a learning curve, as is surviving it: having to attend to the house at that time and continually confront my own ineptitude was like insult to injury. but perhaps anything i did in those days would have felt like that.

then i finished, and things gradually found a place and we were moved in. we got on with living. and for five years, i have lived in this house like a truce.

grief eats energy. even long after you think you’re done with it, you go to lift a finger and find that one small act is just too much, a thread that unravels every effort you’ve made, and you collapse back again into whatever puddle you have managed to form yourself into and you begin again from the beginning.

for five years, Dave & i have slept in a bedroom that is neither especially inviting or comfortable, let alone restful. five years of collecting books and clothing and kid stuff gradually resulted in the room looking and feeling vaguely like a junk room, with the furniture haphazardly arranged and stuff piled precariously on top of other stuff. but every time he mentioned changing it, i bristled.

not because i liked it. not because i’m change-averse, though i am, in many ways. but i was once an inveterate re-arranger of rooms, a person who found joy in creating space, however humble.

instead, for five years, grief and its long fucking aftermath have made me slow and weary and unable to even contemplate how i want the damn bedroom, let alone able to actually drag the bed from the corner and confront the dust bunnies lurking there. i don’t want a different bedroom, my brain would lash out at me in the early days, i want my CHILD. even long after i accepted that he was gone and never coming back, i’d have cheerfully burned the house to the ground just for daring to remind me of its artifactual self. stupid world’s greatest consolation prize, i called it, in my heart. and so i taught myself, without even thinking, not to confront it. i cleaned it, tidied it, refused to engage with it. if Dave brought up making it more pleasurable to be in, i’d close the conversation and turn in on myself, exhausted by the mere idea.

until last week, alone with the four walls for the first time in what felt like far too long, i stood in my bedroom and dared to actually consider what the bed would look like on the other wall. then i stopped and waited for the exhaustion and the snark and the hurt to swim back in over me.


i took a deep breath and i nodded to the strange land of my own psyche and the house itself and to whatever of Finn remains within these walls that should have been his first home. and i smiled and started pushing furniture and possibilities and myself, past the sorrow that claimed me in the car that day five years ago and into a world where bedside lamps on either side of the bed are no longer too big a deal to think about.

grief recognizes its own. sometimes, though, there is still nothing to say, or no space to speak within; sometimes you have nothing to offer to the suffering of somebody else except words that trail out into silence long before they hear them.

someday, lady at the red light, i hope you can rearrange your furniture too.