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Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Grief and blank spaces

grief and birthdays
The "H" Word
Saggy balloons hang from the wall outside my bedroom door. They are attached to a handmade sign declaring that thing you’re supposed to say to people on the anniversary of their birth that includes the “H” word. It was my husband’s birthday last Thursday and with great enthusiasm the children scurried around the house before they went to school that morning. They put gifts in bags and stuffed colorful tissue paper on top. They blew up balloons, made that sign, and taped those things carefully to the wall as they wondered what kind of cake we might eat later that day. I didn’t tell them that there wouldn’t be any cake.

But I was wrong. Last Thursday was also the final night of our family grief group, and at the end of the evening, there was a box of cookies, a plate of deviled eggs, and a cake. They were thrilled. Different activities beforehand made us end up with two cars there. The kids all piled into my husband’s Jeep and I drove home solo with Talyor Swift’s addictive love songs keeping me company. I was spared the children’s singing, the laughing, the merriment.

It was after their regular bedtime when we got home. Yet, the presents hadn’t been opened. As we sat on the ground near the sign, the kids presented each gift and Husband received it with fanfare. “We sang Happy Birthday all the way home!” they said. From there, they burst into several variations of the song, substituting silly words for the regular ones, making them fall all over each other with delight. Colorful bags and a rainbow of tissue paper covered the beige carpet. “How is this a happy day?” I wanted to shout at them, to temper their enthusiasm and jubilance. “Riley isn’t here. No days are happy days.”

But they are children and they don’t know about grown-up feelings. They lost their brother, they don’t want to lose Christmas and birthdays, too. I kept inching myself away from their sounds. I wanted it to stop. This line of being with the living and staying with Grief is a balance I haven’t figured out. I could feel Grief’s open arms waiting for me a few feet behind in the comforts of bed. It loves me, comforts me, feels safe. The feelings are mutual.

Husband shuffled the kids off to bed and I plowed my face into pillows and refused to speak. I transformed from Present Buying Wife into Bitch Wife, angry that Husband had a birthday in the first place. Angry that his family sent birthday cards. Angry that he called them and laughed and joked about who-knows-what. I could still picture him jumping around the kitchen like one of the kids repeating, “It’s my birthday. It’s my birthday.” In between each line, I hear: Riley died. Riley died. Riley died. Riley died. Riley died. Riley died. That’s what I always hear in the blank spaces.

I tried to explain the other day what the world is like to me. It goes something like this:

Husband: “Do we need milk?”

Wife: Riley died. Riley died. Riley died. “I’ll look.” Riley died. Riley died. Riley died. “Yes, soy milk and regular milk.” Riley died. Riley died. Riley died.

Husband: “Ok, I can stop at Trader Joe's after I get the kids from the Youth Center.”

Wife: Riley died. Riley died. Riley died. “Ok, will you also pick up some fruit for lunches? And cream cheese, too?” Riley died. Riley died. Riley died. Riley died. Riley died. Riley died.

Husband: “Absolutely.”

Wife: Riley died. Riley died. Riley died. Riley died. Riley died. Riley died. Riley died. Riley died. Riley died. Riley died. Riley died. Riley died. Riley died. Riley died. Riley died…

With my head pressed into the pillow and the blanket over my head, I refused to acknowledge the birthday boy for the rest of the night. I couldn’t look at the 44-year-old version of my husband. I don’t know him. My 43-year-year old husband cleans Riley’s glasses and gets Riley to roll his eyes. He carries Riley to the treehouse when it’s too hard for Riley to schlep up the hill for the kids' overnight in the yard. He reads the latest Rick Riordan to him as he lies in the hospital bed. He tussles his blond hair before burying his face into the unkempt locks to deliver a kiss. This 44-year-old husband won’t do those things.

The lights go off and Husband climbs into bed beside me, scoops me into his arms anyway. I don’t resist, but I don’t sink into him either. Once I feel him drift into sleep, I get out of bed and wrap my housecoat around my sad body. With flashlights, I fumble behind the house looking for the dull ax. From there, I begin whacking what used to be the “Gratitude Tree” in my front yard. “I hate you Gratitude Tree.” Whack. “Why did you have to die?” Whack. “I’m so sorry.” Whack. “Don’t be mad because I’m chopping down this tree.” Whack. “Please forgive me.” Whack. “Fall you fucking tree.” Whack. For nearly an hour I hack at it.

When it’s finally severed, I sat in my sweat-soaked robe on the brick wall and watched the full moon rise over the neighbors’ houses. From there, I crawled back into bed; I was finally able to sink into my husband, let him hold me, comfort me. I looked forward to admiring my handiwork in the days to come. But the next day, the gardeners removed the tree’s trunk and downed branches as well as the stump. Where it used to stand is just a clean, blank spot in the lawn covered with stones. Three days later, my right forearm and elbow swollen to almost double the size of my left arm, I wonder if it was worth it.


  1. Anonymous4:15 AM


  2. Eliza Welch Sears10:24 AM

    so beautifully written and so raw and true. . also such a familiar inner dialogue to me. Although mine tends to go more like, "did this really happen? is this reality? can you hear me Caleb? Are you here with me now? Wait, now? How 'bout now, are you here now? Do you know how much I love you?" Amazing how this can go on endlessly in the mind while talking to others and going about all the chores of the day.