For a number of reasons, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the two and a half months between Rebecca’s second tumor being discovered and her death.
I remember the looming senses of dread and paralyzing horror, which we shoved down as much as possible in order to get through each day. Partly it was for the kids, all of them, to give them as much stability as we could in a profoundly destabilizing time. Partly it was for everyone around us, who looked to us as much as they looked out for us. And partly it was for ourselves. Faced with the unceasing sense that nothing made sense, that the world was nothing like what we’d hoped or believed, we had to find ways to get out of bed each day and move forward.
Time was precious, and time was the enemy. As the quite literal deadline approached, we would find ourselves looking for ways to just stop time, to freeze the moments a bit longer, somehow. To hold short of the final day, to stretch out the time we’d have with her. But we kept being carried toward the future at one second per second, as if slowly, slowly dragged by a monstrous grip and only being able to look around to focus on what glints of beauty we could before finally being consumed.
And then the day came, and we lived through it while our daughter did not.
If you’re a parent, then you know the feeling of being bound to your child’s being. When they’re sick, you feel their fever in your own body, even if no thermometer could register it. When they cough, your throat seizes with theirs. When they pause between breaths, you pause too, holding yourself in perfect stillness, not drawing in your next breath until they do.
But when their breathing stops forever, you keep breathing, and can never quite figure out how. Or why.
The same inexorable passage of time that dragged you to the moment your child died keeps dragging you on past it, away from the last time you held them, the last time they smiled at you, the last time they said your name or that they loved you or that they wanted another popsicle or another kiss or another bedtime story. The last time their eyes were open for you to peer into, and see their spark.
The numb shock of all those absences perverts the world in profound ways. You can barely comprehend that your life continues, let along what’s happening around you. It’s almost impossible to understand why the world continues at all. There seems no point to it. You can find your way past that in moments, focused on loved ones like surviving children, but then those moment pass and you stand up and look at the world as if it’s a soap-bubble illusion that will pop and vanish at any moment.
And sometimes, you numbly reach out, one finger extended, waiting for the moment you finally touch the bubble.
Other times, your shock gives way to flashes of rage, angry with the world for continuing as if nothing had happened, as if the clocks should not have been stopped and the mocking facade not torn apart and burned to ash. Angry with yourself for not finding a better timeline. Angry with existence itself.
I remember the moment I realized that pediatric hospitals and the people within them remain unburnt and unshot by grieving parents, and regained an iota of faith in humanity. It didn’t matter that Rebecca had died of biology run amok, and the people in her oncology wards had done everything they thought was right in an attempt to keep her alive. The rage of grief obliterates all hope of rationality, and seeks only to inflict the same pain it feels on whatever targets it seizes on. When Michael Brown’s father shouted to burn everything down, a month or so later, I nodded in bleak recognition.
I can say that the rage can fade over time. I’m sure some people take it in, nurture it, stoke it, burning it for warmth in the cold hollow where their child’s love used to be. Using it for fuel, just to keep going. But it’s also possible to let it go, one way or another, through whatever slow mechanisms of healing can be found.
Although I do wonder how I will react if I ever run into the doctors at the grocery store, or at the airport. Perhaps there will be a sad reconnection. Or perhaps I will simply turn and walk away, stiff and silent. I honestly don’t know. I hope, most of the time, that it’s the first one.
But the numbness, the pervasive sense of disconnect and artifice—those may have receded somewhat, but they have never left. I read recently that research shows that the worst period of hopelessness and despair in grieving parents often comes two to three years after their child’s death, which for us is right now, right as our remaining children pass significant life milestones: Carolyn passing out of childhood, and Joshua becoming older than Rebecca.
A world where a youngest child can become older than their sibling can never, ever make sense. Time seems illusory, and there is a corner of my mind that is always looking for a way to go back, to unwind the clock and undo the changes, to go back to when things were right and find a way to stop them ever becoming wrong.
But I can’t. There is no way back, just as there is no way to skip forward. I can only be dragged forward at one second per second, and look around whenever I can rouse myself to find what glints of beauty there may be. There can be many, if I look in the right places, and I try to do so. It does nothing to slow the dragging, but it can sometimes ease the grip.