coping stuff

skipping stones by o&poecormier
skipping stones, a photo by o&poecormier on Flickr.

Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
– Shakespeare, ‘The Tempest’

just before sunset on the last day of April, the day the lobster traps go out.

this is Dave’s beach, his father’s beach before him. the water is cold. there are mountains on the other side of the shore.

this is where we brought him, the last place. his birthright.

we laid our palms in the water and the last of his ashes drifted into the tide that has taken generations before him to sea. six years to the day.

it is done. and it is good. at the end of the sea change…peace. for each of us in our way. in the end, we are all of us only dust to dust, stones skipping on the water. what remains, six years later, is only love.

(waking today to this day of portents, i hope for sea changes all around, for less fear, for peace. i sit quiet and solemn, and hope for something rich and strange to come.)

the end of April brings taxes and mortgage renewals and home insurance and end-of-term papers and the opening of lobster season and two birthdays within a week. Oscar, then Finn, always out of order, the second child born 51 weeks to the day after his brother. both Friday’s boys, loving and giving. both early. one safely so.

he would be six today.

last week, Oscar turned five and the first of his baby teeth came loose and suddenly all that we lost hovers phantom-like on the edges of my consciousness. because just-five and the cusp of six are not so far apart, no longer unimaginably separate. Oscar has friends the same age as Finn would be, almost exactly. and i found myself imagining, just briefly, what it would be like to have the impossible two of them, brothers, both five for that single week.

a glass darkly, rare and precious. i want to sit with it, chew it over, understanding all the while that it is not real, that i have to give it back.

but there is a royal wedding and a stopover of less than 24 hours at home between Dave’s keynote in Halifax and the trip up to northern New Brunswick to help his parents put out the lobster traps at dawn tomorrow, kids in tow all the way. goodness. busy-ness. in November, my silly heart broke when they announced the date of the wedding, the dates of Dave’s conference.

lobster season, i already knew. it was after they came in from the boat six years ago that we told Dave’s parents their grandson had died.

what time is there for a birthday for a child who is not even here?

my mouth twists up in a wry little smile that it’s his loss in the shuffle that i mourn, when he is, after all, already lost. the forest and the trees. how much time do you need to honour something so brief? i know the world does not stop. i no longer ask it to.

(but when he was born, it did.)

all was in motion, fifteen yellow-clad masked professionals racing like dancers to the warmer and the shrill sound of the emergency alarm still in the air and so much blood as they whisked him silent from me, all of it in the longest breath i ever took. i really saw only his ear. one perfect, tiny, reddish ear.

and my world froze on its axis and altered forever. i had never seen anything so ludicrously beautiful. wish made flesh, mundane and miracle, mine mine mine. for all that would unfold across that room and through that night, in that moment, i was any new mother. and he was my boy.

maybe it happened for you, too. if it did, you were lucky. so was i, in that moment on Friday afternoon six years ago. 3:24 pm.

yesterday, in Halifax where Finn was born and lived his whole short life, we packed up the kids after Dave’s conference ended and we drove a tiny ways out of town, to the park known as the Dingle, where an old colonial tower flanked by lions has stood for a hundred years on the granite bedrock of the Northwest Arm. my mother and my Nannie took me there as a child.

i had not been back for six years, since the Sunday afternoon i left the hospital without my baby.

on that day, Dave drove…and i sat in the car like a skinless thing, staring bewildered and raw at the world around me. i climbed the hill to the tower on shaking legs, because i had been on bedrest nearly three weeks and had not walked further than from a wheelchair to a toilet. it had been less than forty-eight hours since i had given birth.

i stood in the rain, quiet. only when Dave stepped away did i dare speak him aloud for the first time.

i had a son, i whispered into the wind and the water. his name was Finn.

we went back yesterday, with some of his ashes. for six years, i haven’t known what to do with the ashes. some are under the trees in our backyard, but most have sat in the small urn by our bedside…i don’t know what we’ve been waiting for. not for the courage to let him go – that was done long ago. perhaps for the courage to invest him with the ritual of letting go. i have been afraid, for six years, to make too much of a deal out of him, except here. i have been afraid to make a formal space to honour him, for fear the world would tell me it was busy with business and royal weddings, or would look at me with pity.

i have been afraid of being silly.

i am not afraid anymore.

the tower and the lions of the Dingle are under reconstruction, robed in white. we showed the kids the outcroppings of rock, so different from here in PEI where all is sand and sandstone. we showed them the plaques that commemorate the bygone Empire. and we picked our way in the mist down a path to the wharf, each of us holding a small hand, and me holding a small bag.

human ashes are gritty, flecked with tiny pieces of what must have once been bone. i ran my fingers gently through them, and poured them into the palm of my hand.

irreconcilable, this dust and that child who held my finger tightly in his own.

irreconcilable, that it has been six years.

life, a hundred irreconcilable, sometimes silly things all thrown together.

the four of us traced our fingers in the dust that was his body and let him go floating down to the water. Oscar threw in shells to make it pretty for his brother. we each chose a rock and we put it in our pockets to take home.

today, we will bring another handful of ashes with us to New Brunswick, and tomorrow, once the lobster traps go out from the beach behind Dave’s house, we will scatter them there, too. set them free.

i will whisper, i had a son. his name was Finn. i will smile, because he was my boy.


six years ago today was a Monday, just like today.

i lived halfway around the world then, in a little dot on the South Korean map that housed a million people. the end of November is crisp, there, too, though it was not snowy. the andoul – the in-floor heat that races under the linoleum to warm toes and keep life closer to the ground – was pumping. i think i wore Dave’s coat when i slipped out that morning, around the corner, but i cannot for the life of me remember which coat it might have been.

i woke up early, which was memorable in and of itself back then. my years in Korea were far more bohemian than the almost-year Dave and i eked out in Eastern Europe. we lived a life of poetry readings and ashtrays and 3ams in the Hermit Kingdom, punctuated by twenty-hour work weeks and vacations in Thailand. it was mundane and decadent, both. yet i had been keening for two years for roots, for belonging. we were six weeks away from a plane ticket home for good.

i slid out from under the quilt, off the two-inch thick mat that was our bed. i padded across the warm floor into the kitchen, then into the tiled box – replete with toilet and a shower head – of our bathroom. i slipped on yesterday’s jeans and Dave’s coat and closed the door gently behind me.

we lived on the third floor. when i emerged onto the street, a fruit truck, laden with persimmons and blaring a prerecorded barrage of fruit salesmanship and tinny organ music, inched its way loudly past. i smiled at it. i smiled at everything. i was brimming.

the yak was only next door, on the corner. it was a spartan place, nothing like the drugstores here, with their soaps and hair products and trashy magazines. the yak was more like an apothecary shop of old, particularly for an illiterate like me. a thousand products lined against the walls, in minimalist packaging. no aisles, only open space. i played mime with the girl behind the counter, then waited, patiently, while she fetched the mysterious box. i took it home, hoping it came with picture instructions.

i remember noting that it was the 29th of November, my father’s birthday.

i chewed my lip, feeling silly for even making a production out of what my rational mind told me was ridiculous. it was our first month trying. i was only a few days late…a week at most. i was usually a few days late. and yet…i woke Dave up, shyly wielding a freshly dipped pregnancy test.

you haven’t lived until you’ve waved a plastic stick soaked with your urine in front of your partner’s face. i figured he was the one who took up with a thirty-something worried about her aging eggs.

pregnancy tests in Korea turn blue, not pink. we waited the full requisite two minutes before turning it over.

two bright stripes, unmistakable. i blinked and beamed.

the ancient Greeks and Romans valued memory. for most of human history, ideas and knowledge and experience could only be catalogued through painstaking hand-work, and only by the rare and privileged literate. the information overload in which we swim, we citizens of Google and Wikipedia, is so new in human history that the fact we navigate it at all is a marvel.

the ancients constructed memory palaces to hold what they needed to know. a system called method of loci saw the best of them able to file hundreds of items in detailed order in their minds, using familar locations and detailed visualization. they could then traipse through the halls of memory and the wisdom of the ages would pop right out at them like the scary bits on a haunted spook ride.

i grew up before Facebook kindly took over the task of remembering people’s birthdays for me. and as an only child with a family divided, it fell on me, largely, to remember and honour the special days of the people i loved. i accidentally developed a memory palace built on the calendar.

on any given morning, if i happen across the date, a mechanism in the back of my brain will churn and suddenly blam! out pops a visual reminder of the numerical date, and with it, the useful realization that the girl who sat behind me in eighth grade math is, say, 40 today. handy, no? well, increasingly, erm, no. but there they are, the numbers, the dates. a giant 13; an italic 22; today, 29. and then, trailing along like mittens on string, the birthday list and its addenda, all those events of my own life that have fallen, mostly unrelatedly, on the birthdays of people i know.

my cerebrum is a wonderland.

i don’t know that it serves any purpose to remember, today, that this is the anniversary of the day i first found out i was pregnant. it feels strange to memorialize something so embodied as peeing on a stick. i do not remember the date i got my first period…or my last, for that matter, and may god bless vasectomies for that delightful peace of mind.

but pregnancy is far more than a physical thing. it is also a watershed, an identity experience. whether wanted or not, a positive pregnancy test forces you to look in the mirror, to confront who you are and want to be.

i wanted to be. oh, how i wanted. i couldn’t believe my luck, that morning halfway around the world, on a Monday with the same date six years ago today. it was the easiness of it all that blew me away.

you know how the story ends, and that it was not easy. five months later to the day, at 26 weeks and a little wee bit, i delivered Finn. and eleven hours later, i held him as he died. and it has taken a long time in the interim for anything to seem easy again.

but here’s the thing. the memory palace is a gift in its compartmentalization. because in the moment this morning, when i thought, the 29th of November and i remembered my father’s birthday and then that other morning in what seems like another life and yesterday all at once, there i was in that yellow room with the warm floor under me and that magic plastic stick in my hand. and it was the sheer surprise that flooded back, the metallic tang of hope, the quiet joy. i know the rest. but the memory palace does not, and i am glad for the way it plucks each day out, vivid and unto itself.

i looked in the mirror that day, and saw in myself, for the first time, someone’s mother.

for all that happened, i started this journey far more easily than many. for all that happened, i did not begin broken. i began early on a Monday morning, shy and eager and brimming, full of grace.

i can’t not remember. method of loci remembers for me, and i just hold on to the ride and nod at the ghosts.

i dream i am on a boat, an exile. you are the shore. you are getting smaller. i pinch my fingers around the image of your head, smiling at the optics, playful in my powerlessness. i do not believe my voice will carry across the water.

i nod to the ache of it. sand swallowed, carried within me.

this is not the way i meant to go. i would have stayed…but launched, i sail. there is no swimming backward.

i trail my hand in the water when i should be sleeping, sending messages in bottles.  they all say, tell me you do not need me there. i think you try. i don’t believe you. it is too hard to hear over the waves.

i thought there was water between us.

last night, i listened to Jess read aloud the names of hundreds of loved and lost babies. in love. in remembrance. October 15th is Pregnancy & Infant Loss Remembrance Day…an awkward holiday, if ever there was one. even for us.

the first year it came across my radar, Oscar was eighteen months old. i was pregnant again, for the briefest of spells.

we lit a candle in bathroom while Oscar played in his bath. he splashed and laughed, and the yellow light played across the walls. in my mind i called Finn’s name.

he did not answer. but names did. a hundred names, all the babies and children and promises of babies i had come to know in the year and two years before. and i stopped, and cleared my mind, and tried again. Finn. Finn Liam Ferdinand Bug Maddy A the twins Thomas…the names began to trip again.  i could not still them, could not hold in my mind my small son with his perfect fingers and the just-so curve of his ear. into the river of names he slipped, away from me, water between us. i blew out the candle, gutted and guilty. i’d failed him. failed at remembrance.

sorrow becomes less specific with time. not less, exactly: only less sharp, less exact. and less exacting.

last night i sat and i listened to Jess, and all the names, and tears ran down my face. but i was not sad.

in the river of names, somehow, i found him. i found them all. a tide of tears that has become something bigger, something unto itself, something beautiful. for me these lost children are like Finn’s friends, his peers. this comforts me. no mother wants her child to be alone.

three years ago, in the candlelight, i was trying to remember what Finn had been, to bring him present. i cannot. he has not been that baby with the broken body for years now. if i try to hold him in that moment, he will wash from me, slip away again, over and over.

instead, last night i sat and listened, and i let them run over me until i too was in the water, no longer an exile.

and i smiled. in love and remembrance. in celebration. of all of them.

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.

i dreamed last night that she was all grown up.

i wasn’t any older. or i don’t think i was: i never caught sight of myself. the only reflective surfaces were her eyes. her exact blue almond eyes, only bigger, like anime. i could not see myself.

my imagination balks at the conjecture of my own becoming, of looming middle age. but this was Josephine, no other. just the two of us, in women’s bodies, in some timeless place.

they were beautiful eyes. i told her so. she glared back at me, baleful and adolescent, wary of being made out to be something other than she was. i met her gaze and for a moment i was confused, bewildered, bereft. how had we gotten here, to this squared-off stance, to these opposite sides in a conversation i couldn’t even remember? hadn’t she only that morning propelled herself small and round and  into my arms, tiny hands flapping, all glee and shouts and prime directives?

i reached out for her. there was glass between us, suddenly, primary colours washing her skin. and i was afraid.

some part of me knew i was dreaming. some other part of me knew better.

i didn’t think i was afraid of the teenage years.

i work with late adolescents, just starting out at university. i used to teach high school. i remember, still, vividly, the angry, caged, abandoned howl that choked the words off in my throat at fourteen, when the teacher slammed me up against the cinderblocks of the school gym and i knew there was no recourse.

i entered parenthood afraid. the first time i laid eyes on Finn, he was being whisked away from me in a shower of blood and alarms. fifteen yellow-suited specialists ran into the room in a neonatal code ballet. they took him away, to the NICU. one came back to say he would not make it through the night.

we had our hour, where i held him. i sang. mama’s gonna buy you a billy goat…and if that billy goat don’t…

i didn’t know what came next.

i didn’t know what a child would want with a billy goat, or a diamond ring, for that matter. my child needed lungs better than those he had. i had only stupid billy goats to offer, and my arms.

i held him until the machines said he was gone, until the nurses said go to bed. it’s nearly morning.

the one bargain i have with the gods and the fates is this: please let that morning be the hardest i ever know as a parent.

when Oscar came, and Posey after, there was colic. long nights i revisited my own blind helplessness. i was desperate to salve and soothe and ease. i could not. the billy goats and looking glasses could not. even my arms made no appreciable difference.

i was afraid.

but these two i kept, they grew. they began to laugh and speak and interact, and i did not feel so helpless, so afraid. i know them, now. their curiosity, their sweetness. they are ying and yang all mixed up, risk-aversion and fearlessness, stubbornness and patience, each a wonder and a challenge. Josephine tests the scope of her small voice, gleeful and shouty. she slaps her thighs, kicks at the world. she knows exactly where she wants to go, repeats every word i say. i call her my mockingbird, and the sting of the song eases just a little.

i have been thinking it will get easier, this gig. i have been thinking that i will rock at parenting teenagers, because i know how to sit alongside them when their shoulders hunch and they lash out or turn away. i am better with a crying teenager, i tell myself, than a crying baby.

i begin to believe that the dumb luck that got them here will hold, that my days of fear are done. that my hardest morning as a parent is behind me.

then i read about Henry Granju, nineteen and beautiful and brilliant and drug-addicted in spite of all his mother’s love and help and hope, and i see. you do not get to pay your dues and just walk off into the sunset.

i dream of Josephine, grown and unreachable. and i wake and think of Katie Granju on this hardest morning of her parenthood, waking to the realization that it is true and Henry is gone.  and i whisper to the ether, mercy.

go hold her up, give her your billy goats and your arms. make no mistake, there but for the grace of god or fates or sheer dumb luck go we all.

five years ago tonight i’d been in the same hospital room without leaving for more than two weeks. friends brought Lebanese food for supper, we laughed and ate. one commented lovingly on my little belly, which was finally blossoming past the pudge stage to a belatedly discernable bump. i talked to Dave on the phone: he was staying at my father’s, ready to rise and shine early and go get the keys to our new house, our first home.

i watched a Law & Order-style show of some indistinguishable flavour on the tiny hospital tv. i was restless. i spread earphones over my middle, played a little EmmyLou Harris for Runt. Red Dirt Girl.  the baby i thought was my daughter kicked, and i patted back in time with the music. i still believed the first ultrasound was right, that he was a she. i still believed it mattered, just a bit.

i still believed a lot of things. i believed, with all my cynical heart, that everything would be okay. we were 26 weeks. 75% of babies born at 26 weeks survive without significant complications, i’d read just that morning. there were no signs of labour, no signs of infection. i was adjusting to the institutionalization of bedrest, had recently had the quarantine imposed by my just-out-of-Korea status lifted, and was as prepared as i could be to sit on my enlarging ass right through April and May and well into Gemini and straight on til morning.

i went to sleep earlyish that night. i wish i hadn’t.

five years seems incomprehensible, as if now-me must be some time traveller from the future. it can’t be five years. it’s like yesterday. i’m no different.

that’s a lie. i’ve been different ever since. the girl-woman who fell asleep that night has been gone ever since, as gone as Runt, who became Finn, who made me a mother and changed me once and then twice with his own metamorphosis.

i am wary of wishes. from the day Oscar was born healthy and breathing, and his sister after him, i made myself stop wishing. playing Sophie’s Choice with the living and the dead scares me. from the day Oscar was born, i did not dare wish for Finn.

but tonight, here on my couch, i sit baffled at the affront of time. five years is too long. too strange, that it can be true.

and i wish, just for a moment, that i could time travel; that i could lift the veil between me and that creaky hospital bed i’m so sure i see clearly. the stark spring light, sun late in setting. the navy velour hoodie that stretched over my belly. how connected i felt to those little kicks.

i would not erase this life i live now, this half-decade that has passed since that last night before i became a mother. my wish is not to change the outcome. that seems too big, beyond the scope of my altered capacity for belief. just a night, just a few minutes of an ordinary Thursday night in April.

i’d change only one thing: i’d stay awake.

i’d sit vigil with my son on the eve of his birth, because i’d know that instead of a beginning, we were at an end of sorts. i’d know that we were parting, and i’d sing, rub the belly gently, drink some juice just to wake him up. he liked cupcakes: i’d scrounge some, somehow. cupcakes are small change compared to rips in the space-time continuum. i’d finish the little story i started for him in my hospital notebook, the one that still sits upstairs in the drawer, by the memory box. i’d tell it aloud, so he could hear my voice.

he would know i loved him. and just his presence would comfort me.

it was the last time that he was with me, not hurt and broken. neither of us hurt and broken.

i sit vigil anyway, here on this other side of five years, remembering. the veil flutters. i squint, close my eyes, try to feel the memory of that first-time belly under my hands. i fail, mostly. but not entirely.

happy birthday, littlest.

i am heavily asleep, each time, somehow. this is not possible, and yet i would swear it true.

after three wakeups in the same night, deep sleep only occurs right in those precious three seconds before the next bloodcurdling scream of ma-mAAAA!!!!  i lift my head as if from a pool of sticky cobwebs. i blink, shake. wet dog. my feet are on the floor before i know where or who i am.

Shakespeare was a pansy, or MacBeth was allegory. motherhood murders sleep. end story. curtain.

my brain finally catches up with my ears about the time i hit the door to the kids’ room, and i pause. odd.  it is the elder child calling, the one who for two blessed years has slept like a rock, at least until quarter to crocus each bleary morning.

i creep in, floorboards creaking. i take the little body in my arms, note both how big he suddenly is and still how small. he sobs, falls into me. i wedge myself into the toddler bed beside him, because this is the third time he has been awake. i hold him, rubbing my hand across the spacemen that dot his pajamas.

i mutter, for the third time in as many hours, bad dream honey?  what happened? you tell mama.

but the horror of the unspeakable holds him in thrall. he shudders. we drift.

one of my earliest memories is a recurring dream i had around Oscar’s age. a giant carnivorous dinosaur, cartoon green, would emerge from behind the giant KFC bucket that hung suspended on a pole along my tiny city’s main thoroughfare. i would be driving my little red car. its enormous teeth would loom in front of my windshield, and then it would eat me.

sleep is a Pandora’s Box that unlocks our fears, all the busy-ness of our minds.

it occurs to me that he may not have the words for what has unfolded in the theatre of his own head.  so i ask again, differently. what scared you, buddy? it’s okay, whatever it is. you give it to me. i can help. i can listen.

the little shoulders shake again. and then the deep inhale.  it all tumbles out in a cry.

mommy and daddy got eaten by a shark. with big teeth. eaten up dead. and Finn died. and will Great-grandpa die soon? or Nannie? how do we know when we die anyway? and – this last with the sob of deepest fears given voice – when daddy dies, will he still be his…b-b-b-buddy?

my heart.

he is not yet four. and he is staring down the abyss.

and my answers are shreds, Kleenex to mop up a river.

love stays with us, i whisper, even after people are gone.

no, we never know how long we have, honey. i don’t know when i’ll die. i hope not for a long time. but i don’t know. i can promise you my love will still be with you even if, someday, i’m not.

yes, Nannie will die. yes, mama too, sweetie. someday. probably not soon. people only die when their bodies are done, sweetie. sometimes that’s a surprise. usually not. my body is strong, baby. i’m very lucky and healthy. just like you.

yes, usually people die when they’re old.

no, Finn wasn’t old. Finn died when he was just a new baby. he came early, before he was ready, sweetie.  his lungs weren’t strong. your lungs are GREAT. blow. see? those are some serious lungs.

yep, he’s still my baby, sweetie, still a part of our family. we still love him. yes, we would love you even if you died. you’ll always be my son, forever. whether we’re alive or not.

yes, i miss him, sweetheart. you miss him too? i bet you do. oh, you’d share your dinosaurs with him? WOW. i think he’d have liked that, Oscar.

well, i don’t really know if he liked dinosaurs. but i bet he would.  he was just a baby, sweetie. he was little, very little. he had brown hair, like Josephine’s, and a cute little nose like yours. just like daddy’s. what did he do? well, he held mummy’s finger. like this. very tight. isn’t that neat? he could do that. but no, we didn’t get to find out if he liked dinosaurs. i would have liked the chance to read dinosaur books with him, yes. i love to read dinosaur books to YOU.

where is he? well…um…some of his ashes are out under the maple tree in the backyard, honey, helping it grow strong. everything that dies helps other things live.

is he here? he might be, Oscar. he might be. sometimes i think that. i would like that, to believe he was here with us, in the air we breathe.

he’s here though, in my heart, Oscar. feel my heart?  there’s love in there for all three of you, you and Josephine and Finn. my babies. no matter how big you get or how long you live. nothing takes love away. i’m sure of that.

yes, Great-grandpa loves you. no, he probably won’t be eaten by sharks. mummy or daddy either. there aren’t really any sharks around here, buddy. the water’s too cold. i promise i won’t go swimming with any sharks, okay?

yes, daddy will be your buddy as long as you live, your whole life. whether he’s here or not. you’re his special buddy, and he’s yours. that’s forever.

it’s okay, sweetheart. you sleep now. it’s gonna be okay.

it is true, and it is not.

i lie there in the darkness, thinking of all i do not know. whether his brother watches over us.  what days are granted to us.  whether it is better to lie to a not-quite-four-year-old asking about death, or tell the lonely truth: we do not know.  you are loved, and yet alone. this is the human condition, the nightmare we never fully wake from.

i think of my friend Whymommy, fighting cancer for the second time in just under three years. i wonder about 3 am at her house and my heart catches. i say aloud, It is Not Fair.  i feel small and stupid and unforgivably lucky, just for clinging to the belief that it somehow should be fair.

i think of my friend Sue and her sister. my coworker’s dad, whose leg will be amputated tomorrow. the friend who just lost her third baby in a row.

i breathe deep into my son’s tangle of sweaty curls, and unfold myself from his tiny bed.

the spacemen rise and fall peacefully, and i watch in the blue glow of the nightlight. i am remembering Finn’s chest, punctured by tubes, his tiny fingers blackened from lack of oxygen, all just as beautiful to me as this boy.

your father would’ve called you little buddy too, i whisper to the air, just in case.

only stories comfort this oldest of aches. what do you tell yourself at 3 am? and what do you tell your kids of fear and love and loneliness, and cabbages and kings?

when my grandmother was in her last years, and failing, she lost everything she cared about.

except my mother and i, who sat vigil at her bedside as her entire world narrowed to those two iron rails. but there was only so much we could do to stem the tide of what slipped from her, day in, day out.

first, the house, the house she’d been born in nearly a century before. the driver’s license she’d gotten only at 68.  her card nights. bowling.  a few years later, the apartment, independence itself. her marriage bed, her pots and pans, a lifetime of odds and ends collected over 90 years. no more fridge of her own, only a tray brought to a room in a “home”; a tray like all the other trays, a room like all the other rooms. then the health to go for drives and complete her crossword puzzles and enjoy All My Children in the afternoons. the pain began; it wasted her.

through all of it, seven interminable years of relentless, incremental loss, she struggled with despair and shame at her increasing inability to do. when you are ninety and have outlived your spouse by decades and watched your friends weaken and drop around you, your independence and strength become fierce components of who you believe yourself to be.

i suspect the rest, the whoever you might have been in the long life before, has to be left behind in order to survive the foisted cruelties and indignities of old age. nobody alive remembers that person anyway. and eventually, neither do you.

and if you are a relative of mine, it appears that at the centre of your fierce independence is the belief that you are tough enough to simply die in your sleep when you’re good and ready.

my grandmother didn’t get to do that. in the last year of her life, she lay confined to a series of nursing home and hospital beds, little bird bones poking through her skin. i watched her pull herself present through hazes of morphine to meet my gaze. she had blue eyes. in their reflection, i was always beautiful.

let me die, she would whisper. i’m done.

i love you, i would say in response, irrelevant and yet all i had to give. i refused to look away. i’m so sorry.

she was ashamed of being what she thought was a burden. i was ashamed at my powerlessness, my lack of courage to do for her what she could not do for herself.

seven years, it took.

my grandfather, from the other side of my family, turned ninety last month. his wife died nearly 22 years ago; he has lived since in the house they built together in the 1960s. every corner of it remains a testament to the glorious sleekness of the Bungalow Era. moss-green shag blends living room and family room. the space-age proto-microwave in the kitchen wall sits lonely, waiting for an opportunity to unleash the wrath of its radiation. he has not cooked since she died. not using that microwave may be the secret of his longevity.

he was a spy in WWII, a British Secret Intelligence Service agent who worked out of New York and Camp X, the commando training centre in Ontario from which Ian Fleming would later cobble together the mythology of Agent 007.  in the middle of the war, he married an 18 year old girl from the farm down the road. she had barely been to the metropolis that is Charlottetown;  three weeks after their wedding she found herself in an apartment in New York City. he was called away on a mission – Top Secret – the morning after she arrived. he could not tell her a thing about where he was going – she stayed on alone, in the city that never sleeps. it was six full weeks before he returned.

there has never been anyone else for him.

the war ended. my father was born at Camp X in 1947, while the Cold War took shape. in 1949, the British closed Camp X and burned all the records, and my grandfather turned down the offer to join the fledgling CIA . his wife was done roaming and wanted to go home. he and my grandmother moved back to PEI, bought a little brick house for $6000, raised four kids. he worked as a mechanic from that day until last week. yep, last week. at ninety, he was still going into the mechanic shop a few mornings a week. he likes his routine, my grandfather. he likes to be useful. he has no coping mechanisms for any other state of being.

my grandfather had a heart attack on Friday.

it was a reasonable-sized Cardiac Event, as evidenced by the levels of troponin in his blood yesterday indicating muscle death. he wasn’t in much pain, but his breath short and fast, and his colour gray.  he spent the night in hospital. i was there when the doctor came the next day at noon, saying “Lovenox and a few days and we’ll see and you can probably go home then.”

my grandfather heard only the “probably”. and by the time i returned after supper he was high-tailing it down the hall, hell-bent for leather on going home. NOW. against medical advice. with no chance of continuing the Lovenox once he rendered himself an outpatient.

my father arrived. a close family friend, who’s also a nurse. the three of us tried for an hour, together and separately. i made him look me in the eye, said, i love you. i’m worried about you. i know you’re afraid that this is your only way to control the situation. but i’m afraid this may mean you don’t heal enough to STAY independent.

he looked at me like a hunted animal.

we brought him home. and kept him home last night. he couldn’t breathe, he was panicky, having to struggle his way out to the cold air to catch his breath five times in the first hour. in his socks, in the snow. he wouldn’t let me put his boots on. he wouldn’t let me bring him a blanket. he was agitated, shocky, a clear candidate for oxygen and hospitalization and possibly some form of sedation.

i did not let him see the tears in my eyes.

i don’t know if the choice he made, in his own mind, was the choice to go home to die, or the flight reaction of a terrified human being who wants things desperately to revert to normal.  his face told me that either way, for him, it was a zero-sum game. there would be no argument. none of us have power of attorney, and i doubt one of us who loves him would begrudge him the end of his own choosing, would that we could only grant it.

he picked his hill to die on, and we brought him home.

but i learned, with my grandmother. life is not always so benevolent, nor ends so final. they can trail out, cutting you down body and soul with a thousand bloody, cruel little scratches. that is what i fear for this man who cannot stand to sit idle, whose heart – damage or not – is big and free, loyal as a labrador retriever.

he is home tonight, breathing a little better. the cigars sit, rejected. he had a little food. he is trying. and i sat beside him today and believed, for a few minutes, that this is not the end, maybe only the beginning of the end.  i hope it’s true.  i am not ready, never ready.

but whenever that good night does come, i hope it falls swiftly for him.  the losses all at once, clean and silent.

ours, not his.

around here, most of the Christmas lights stay up into January.

tonight, Old Christmas, the twelfth day in the ancient festival, is the end of it all.  the orange glow of electric pillar candles will disappear from the windows of the city tomorrow; the neighbour’s spruce will no longer cast a pall of sparkling blue on the snow by our driveway. the strings of outdoor lights, unplugged, will mostly hang around ’til spring, increasingly unseasonal decorative accents waiting patiently for their owners to drag them from the meltwater and retire them in favour of lawnmowers. but after tonight, few will shine.

it is Epiphany, the revelation of god become man. or the commemoration of the wise men’s visit, or the baptism of Christ, according to what sources and what heresy you go for. or the day my true love’s supposed to pony up for a whole truckload of lords a leaping, for the girl who has everything, you know.

i am a modern breed, me. no Old Christmas at our house; i stripped the tree and the decorations last weekend, before i went back to work. the outside lights are still up, admittedly, half-frozen to the rain gutters, but i have forgotten them already.

which is why, had you seen me earlier this evening in the cold, crusty wet slush of my backyard, scrabbling around under bare birch trees for a small wooden ornament shaped like a moose – and, separately and with some cursing, for the missing wooden leg of said moose – you would’ve been excused for not recognizing the passion play at hand as a Christmas celebration.

we had a storm last week. snow and rain, a mixed bag. but mostly wind. the highest winds in years, so wild the house shook and air seeped in, squealing. i loved it. until tonight, in a sudden panic, i remembered what might have been lost in that storm last Saturday and went leaping, not at all lordlike, into the snow in hopes of rescue before Christmas was officially over and i could be said to have just forgot.

every year for the past five Christmases, we’ve hung the moose on the trees in the backyard. for Finn.

i have no idea why it’s a moose.  the ornament came from Dave’s side of the combined family collection, that much i remember. he comes from moose country. and perhaps there’s something dark and ridiculous enough about the big, loping creatures, deadly yet not predatory, that seemed like a fit back that first Christmas Eve when i worked up the voice to ask him, sidelong and on impulse, if he wanted to come outside with me to Finn’s trees. his parents, visiting, had gone to sleep. i was pregnant again, tired. and so desperately sad i could barely breathe.

our first Christmas in our first house. our first Christmas after the birth of our son. and he was ashes in our bedroom, and under those trees.

the moose made Dave smile. we hung it on the maple between the birches. we each spoke our Merry Christmases, aloud.

we came inside, went up to bed. i drifted to sleep, Finn’s name quiet in my mouth, the little moose swinging from the tree. the act of including him was the most important thing i did for myself in that bleak midwinter of magical thinking.

the following Christmas was Oscar’s first. and we made the same pilgrimage with the moose, out to the trees late at night after the house had fallen to sleep.  that year i’d planned it, looked forward to it in the way of those who believe they’ve come to terms with what they can and cannot have.

the house was decked and warm, the tree laden with more “Baby’s First Christmas” ornaments – all gifts – than any plastic conifer with any dignity would bear. toys in shiny paper awaited the morning, the fat baby hands, the joy.

and then we trekked out in the snow to hang an ornament for our dead child. a single wooden moose, left out in the sleet.

i wondered and worried, before Oscar was born, if i would love him enough…if i would love him as i did his brother. after Oscar was born, i wondered and worried if i would keep loving Finn.

that Christmas Eve, i came inside and sat upstairs by the little urn i hadn’t touched in months,  rocking like a child. howls came out of me, raw and ragged. i can not believe Dave’s parents slept through. but they know what it is to be bereft.

i had a baby sleeping warm and safe in the little room down the hall. and a baby whose spirit i was still close enough to my own grief then to feel, viscerally, who had no place in that house we’d once bought for his coming. i was his mother. and for Christmas, i brought him a moose, and left him in the cold and the snow.

the cruelty of grief is in the helplessness.

i have never been comfortable with the external role of the bereaved.  letting Finn slip entirely into silence and memory would have been, socially, the far simpler choice for me. even with Dave, who loved him too, i always choked a little, wary – with no reason, no justification – of being judged for my weakness, my altered status.  i feared being dramatic. i feared being maudlin.

but he was my child.  even now, when it no longer hurts to think of him, and his absence is only a normalcy to me, the spirit i once felt mostly a closed door, he was my child. my love for him still is. it never got to grow, to deepen and delight in his idiosyncracies, his selfhood, in the way it does each day with his brother and sister. but nor does it end.

that awful wonderful Christmas of one sweet boy and one frozen moose, i decided – however empty, however pointless it felt, even to me – that i wanted to hang the moose outside each Christmas, with Oscar and whatever other siblings Finn might someday have. so that his name would be said. so that his absence had a space, all its own, no matter how stupid and shy i felt carving it out.

so like a child laying out shoes for Saint Nicholas or a stocking for Santa, i trot out the moose every Christmas Eve. we round up the small ones, and we trudge to the yard and we say, quietly, Merry Christmas Finn.  and there we all are for a second in time, our little family, the ones who breathe and the one with a moose and some trees for a stand-in.

(i found the moose. and his leg. they were under the snow, damp but none the worse for wear. some glue and a dry cloth, and i will wrap them in tissue and lay them away now, for another year.)

i am his mother. it is what i can do.

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