The drive to the ’burbs is long but peaceful with the Bump crashed out, head back, occasionally sucking at her dummy in a way that reminds me how very much a baby she still is. The Chop gazes out the window, breaking the silence occasionally to reminisce about his dad.
It’s not uncommon at all for my little man to talk about his dad, but after the third mention in half an hour I ask him- is he missing Daddy a lot today?
“Yes mummy”, he says, “lots and lots. Because we are going to the party. So I…” I watch him become slightly frustrated as he searches for a word that he knows exists but is slightly out of the realms of his vocabulary.
“So you’re thinking about Daddy a lot?”
He nods, my sincere, earnest son, and continues his observation of the world flying by past his window.
We’re late, as usual, we’re always late, and we miss the release of twenty lime green balloons, but my kids don’t notice and Kristie doesn’t mind so it’s OK. It seems the Chop has been dwelling for forty eight hours now on the concept of another child who gets it, who shares the difficulty of squishing such grown up concepts as death and memorials into such a tiny head space; and I’m amused to discover this has led to a crush on Miss Dragonfly so deep that, while he’s looking for her everywhere, he blushes when he spots her and makes me hold his hand to walk past her.
|One of Avery’s green balloons.|
“I want to talk to her”, he tells me, eyes darting to follow the Dragonfly’s long red hair as she plays big sister to her birthday boy, opening occasional presents and doing all the important things that five year old girls do at parties, surrounded by friends and relatives they’ve known since birth.
I can see hope and speculation on his face, and, as always, I temper the reality with the utmost caution, the utmost cushioning for his feelings lest this lead to a fall.
”Hmm… Dragonfly looks very busy today, mate. She’s got lots of people here to talk to… how about we go and visit her one day, when it’s quieter, and you can talk to her then?”
He nods, satisfied, eyes still wistfully following the Dragonfly’s red hair and black dress against the vivid lime of the grass, the dusky beige of the sandstone rocks that line the lake behind us.
My son snuggles into my side and we listen to the last half of the ceremony. We sing happy birthday and it’s beautiful because it’s so intensely, amazingly real. So many mothers of stillborn children suffer an additional pain, their grief impacted by the fact that while their baby’s death is acknowledged, their life is not.
This was a baby boy, perfect in every respect. A son and a grandson and a brother. He had auburn hair when he was born. Today is his birthday, and so we sing. We smile. And it’s only toward the end, that second last line we sing as we dedicate the song to a name (“dear Avery…”) that the assembled crowd, mothers in particular, are seen to break just slightly, mouths trembling, and occasional tear reflected like diamond spangles over wet stones in the sunlight.
Kristie– brave and beautiful, and where she took the strength for today from I will never know, but it must have taken its toll and left her physically shattered for weeks– stands and reads, orating in a voice that’s clear and passionate a story she has written, and that will, I have no doubt, be published one day. I’ve thought about writing one myself and wondered how on earth I would condense all the heavy discussions my kids and I have into something so perfectly simple like a picture book.
Kristie blew that idea out of the water. Her story, for Avery and Dragonfly and all the other tiny children out there confused and lost, missing someone they love; it is short and simple and structured like poetry. There is not a word wasted, nothing said that needn’t be. It’s the sad facts of it, placed in a context a can child understand, written with a mother’s love and compassion for the way they hurt. I feel Chop snuggle closer to me as he listens, occasionally murmuring the answers to questions in the story before the book does. (“Will you come back, Little Fox? Never, Dragonfly.”) I feel him coil closer to me, and his vulnerability breaks me… if I could, right this moment, I’d take him back under my skin, into my womb, where the world can’t put anymore pain in those big blue eyes.
We cut cake, we eat. Children play, adults chat, babies are fed. To the people casually strolling past with their dogs, or their own children in strollers, this is a birthday party and nothing more. Just as it should be.
My children are asleep within minutes of strapping them into their carseats, all flushed cheeks and messy hair, sticky hands and sweet breath.
That night the Chop is up late, too much energy from a daysleep he rarely has anymore. I’m exhausted too, but I know my boy– pushing the issue is pointless, he will sleep when he’s ready, and has been that way from the day he was born. I’m flicking gently through the program from Avery’s birthday and I’m thrilled to discover a copy of the story Kristie read aloud.
I’m also still marveling at the tableaux that stays with me from today– Kristie and Dragonfly, standing together in their grief, the bond between them so real and intense it was almost (green) visible. There is a page in the program marked ‘Dragonfly’s Poem’, and the quaint and lilting, slightly lost–in–translation rhythm of it will bounce of the walls of my mind like an echo for days.
In one of the stars, I shall be living.
In one of them, I shall be laughing.
And so it will be as if all the stars
were laughing when you look into the sky at night.
The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupery
“Should we read a story?” I ask, a moot question– we always read a story, even on the days when I would happily trade my kids entire blocks of chocolate in exchange for having to orate The Cat In The Hat yet again; “A new story, maybe…? Like the one Kristie read today, about the Dragonfly and the Fox?”
My son’s smile tells me that it a genuinely pleasing prospect, and read we do. The Chop’s body language and breathing is my barometer for his emotions as they gently arc from serious and relaxed to slightly fascinated, leaning forward to watch my finger follow the words on the page, as if to absorb them more deeply through sight. (“Will you die, Little Fox? Yes, Dragonfly.”) And I get a sense of almost trailing horror as I watch his focus narrow and spike the next sentence… “Is it my fault, Little Fox?” The relief of watching his face break in
to a smile is so overwhelming it makes me dizzy, and I kick myself for not addressing this simple point so much sooner. “Not at all, Dragonfly….”
We chat for a moment, as we do at the conclusion of our bedtime stories, about our day and what’s happening tomorrow, in boringly unexciting tones to illicit sleepiness rather than rabid excitement. Did you have a good day? I ask, as I always do. Yes, says my little man, the party was nice. But a little bit sad.
I know, I say. Things are like that, sometimes.
He looks down at the program in my hands. There’s a photo of Avery on the front and it looks just like any other baby–in–hospital photo… I have two of them, one professionally taken while my son was in a hospital crib, the other taken on my husbands mobile phone in the morning sunlight of our backyard. They hang in my hallway, a tribute to new lives.
Avery looks like any other baby. He is so, so beautiful.
“Who is that?” asks my son, and I’m somewhat confused. “That’s Avery, honey. We went to his party today, remember..?”
“No”, says my son, guffawing and giving me that expectant glance, waiting for me to go “Haaaa! Got you! Don’t be silly!!”, “babies don’t die.”
I almost kick myself. I’ve led us up this path, of course. I thought… hadn’t I said, somewhere along the way, in all those discussions that we’d had, that Avery was a baby? Maybe I had, but it had been lost in larger details of birthday parties and Heaven and death. Or maybe I’d simply said it was a first birthday, and assumed my son would make the same leap of logic an adult would, given those facts…
I take so much effort to break concepts down to their simplest properties and elements in order to make them more accessible for my children…. it feels like dank, mildewed failure when I miss one so pivotal.
It rips pointy, dirty cat’s claws into my heart. And this is not a slice of what I felt when I told my son his father had died. It’s not a particle of the same emotion Kristie felt when Dragonfly learnt the horrible truth I’m about to tell my son.
I nod, slowly and sadly, the Chop’s eyes taking in every errant emotion that flies through my own, using them as touchstones and anchors with which to read the meaning behind the words I’m saying.
“Sometimes they do, baby… Sometimes babies do die. It’s very, very sad and it doesn’t happen very often. Most babies are just fine… but it happens.”
I search for something more to say. I’m teetering on the edge of explaining how very sad it really is, that this baby never really got to live at all, except in the hearts of his mother and father and sister and the crowd of people that attended his birthday celebrations. And then I stop, almost gasp, looking over a gorge that’s far too steep for a four year old to climb, my toes speed-shuffling against rocks that bang and clack over the edge, arms reeling like pinwheels to steady myself.
He is only four… he knows enough, too much, really, about the darker side of life already. This is Dragonfly’s truth, not his… in all my honesty, I must steel myself to remember that my child is a baby still himself…. omitting those details that are just too big to fit is more than OK.
|Kristie and The Chop|
I watch, again, and I can’t begin to explain how much it hurts as I watch my oldest child reassess the world and it’s boundaries all over again. If you are very, very fortunate, your child’s first experience with deep loss will be as logical and explainable as death ever is- it will be someone old, who’s lived well and long and is just beginning to show the first signs of real, chronic deterioration; and they will pass away peacefully in their sleep following a day filled with sunshine and relatives and friends.
If you are lucky enough to have fate hand you that card, you can ease your child gently into the idea of mortality. You can begin with death as explainable and forgivable, and make it seem extremely far away– easy enough to do, as children see themselves as eternally young and immortal; aging an eventuality far removed from an organism still growing, cells still dividing and splitting every day.
And from there, you can gently wade with your child into deeper, murkier waters… where everyone dies, eventually, yes, even you and them; and sometimes, just sometimes, it happens when people are young and healthy and should be around for much, much longer.
But if you’re like Kristie and I, and fate has taken away any kindness you could have possibly given to the explanation… then you watch in horror as the truth of life smacks and buffers your child again and again, send them flying into reality like a rag doll while you gasp on in panicked horror, knowing there is nothing you can do but try to catch them as they plummet to the ground and kiss the wounds when they get there.
And I watch my child, my brave, strong baby boy, sizes this up, takes it in. I sit with him for a few minutes more as he asks the reassuring questions he needs to, to be able to accommodate this information– babies, tiny babies can die, you don’t even have to be a grown up.
“No, darling, I won’t die, not for a long, long time.”
“But you’re old.”
“I am not old, cheeky monkey!! Who told you that?!”
A temporary grin, and the shadow is back, “What about Nanna? She’s old. Will she die soon?”
What can I say? It’s this point, always, where I feel I’m drowning in the soft soul of my first born, where I could drop to the ground and wail for him.
“Really?” I laugh, light and airy, “Will you tell Nanna that, hey? That’s she’s old? I bet you won’t– I dare you!!” And with that I tickle his tummy and he giggles, a sound like a song, the normal laugh of a four year old playing with his mum.
I wait, watch, distract my boy in order to gently tease threads from the tangled knot of worries in his head, but he is content for now, the questions stalled… he is, for now, safe again. I kiss him goodnight and close the bedroom door softly… bedtime leaves me exhausted. The silence that follows it is peaceful but brings little solace… I miss having a side kick, a co–pilot to debrief with.
There’s that shrieking unfairness, the way there always in… I wanted to protect my children from the realities of life, they way I was protected as a child. Not forever, of course- just until they were that bit older, that slightly less fragile. Which is why, back in the Before, I doubt the thought
of taking them to Avery’s birthday party would have even crossed my mind.
But things are different now. All bets are off. For children who are grieving a fundamental part of their lives, the shiny rainbow reality bubble has been well and truly popped. Now, in the After, it’s all about parameters. I can show them that they’re not alone in their grief; that it’s OK to cry, to mourn, to celebrate and remember. That other people are hurting too… while we hurt for their Daddy, Kristie and Dragonfly ache for their Little Fox. And that it can be done in a way that’s graceful and empowering and real.
I take the lessons I learned from today, too, the things I’ve learned from from Kristie. I fall a bit more into step with my oldest child. We read Dragonfly and Little Fox at bedtime, over and over, and it seems to wash away the reluctance to talk. It purifies some of that codependent pain.
And I watch in grateful fascination as my son and I begin to grief together, rather than pushing ourselves apart.