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Tuesday, October 18, 2022

Grief and meaning

Riley's death took eleven years, but we saw it and feared it and anticipated it from the moment he was diagnosed as a newborn. His eighth anniversary is October 20, and in trying to understand the passage of eight years without him, I had a thought the other night when I was driving. I wondered if all the joy Riley felt in life – despite multiple heart surgeries and long hospitalizations – was his attempt to teach me. Perhaps he was showing me that if he could feel joy despite what he'd been through, then perhaps I could eventually feel joy despite what happened to him.

The idea that I could live a joyful life feels improbable, even though if you spend time with me, I will let my guard down from time to time and smile with my children or my husband or a friend. People have often told me that Riley would want me to be happy. There have been times when I”ve wanted to punch those people in the face. How could they possibly know what Riley wants? I now realize that those kinds of comments are that person wanting me to be happier because it will make my grief easier for them. You can’t move someone along in grief. Everything in grief has to be innate. You cannot make someone feel something other than what they are feeling. So maybe Riley would want me to be happy, and maybe he would like that I’m still so broken all these years later. Maybe he would find my brokenness refreshing in a world desperate for Hollywood endings.

So my thought is a work in progress. It just seems messed up that the 11-year-old boy would need to be the teacher. And because humans are meaning-makers, I’ve been trying to make my thought mean something. But it's equally possible that it means nothing. Our therapist said time and again that our minds are full of thoughts, many of which are not true. This might be one of those examples. Riley’s life and death wasn’t a lesson, even though I went to a "healer" at one point who told me that Riley and I made an agreement to have this life experience together. She also told me that his final surgery failed because there was nothing else for him to learn from this life. 

So for now, I'll think of his laugh and his loud voice, his love of garlic and Tabasco, his floppy hair, his love of baseball and reading and maps. I will think about how he hummed while doing his math homework and how he really wanted to learn to play the viola when he came home from the hospital. I will also think of how it will start raining soon and everything will turn green. And I will think about how he would love that. The rest of it, I'll just keep thinking about. 

Tuesday, October 04, 2022

Grief and making space

Sand wedged itself into the spaces between my socks and my shoes as we walked along the path near Secret Beach. Sage held the leash and led the dog to the place where we play fetch as sand seeped into her shoes as well. “Can we go in the lake today?” she asked.

The air had turned cool and my daughter didn’t quite understand why I wouldn’t let her take her shoes off and run into the blue water like we had done countless times over the summer. As we walked along the beach, we noticed sticks and pinecones and shells grouped together in collages at the lake’s edges. My daughter reached for pieces of the abandoned artwork. I redirected her, asking her to find her own sticks for her own art. 

She galloped off, looking for treasures to pile and sort and push into the sand. Twigs and bark and tiny shells that we’d pretended were soup bowls and plates and forks became the foundation for our project. A row of sticks here, a group of pinecones there. She continued to gather and add to our project as I added my own touches. It morphed into a heart – most things do. One of the larger pieces of bark became a tool to flatten the sand. From there, I wrote “FOREVER RILEY” around the outside. 

“What does it say, mom?” she asked. I felt a small amount of shame as I told her what I’d written. It was just the two of us. We were collecting bits of nature and making art together, and yet, Riley was there. He’s always there. 

After I told what it said, she responded, “I’m going to write FRANKLIN over here.” She proceeded to drag her own branch through the sand to include the scratchings of one of her imaginary friend’s names.

Trying to parent my dead child and my living child is like trying to unravel strings of tangled Christmas lights. These two humans are connected and yet they are separate. In that moment, I was reminded of a piece that Jayson Greene did for the New York Times in 2020. It was about introducing his son Harrison to his beloved daughter Greta who had died 15 months before he was born. It was about imagining the language he would need to explain to his son why he has a sister who isn’t here to play with. It was about wondering when the question would come up. “We’re on his timeline,” he said. I'm on Sage's as well. 

I'm also in her reality. This childhood is hers, too, even if an 11-year-old boy is also permanently lodged into my reality. I realized that next time we play at the beach and make art, I need to write SAGE in the sand. I need to let some moments be just about her, about us. She will grow up in Riley’s shadow no matter what. But I need to make an effort to let the sun shine just for her some of the time.