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Friday, March 08, 2024

Grief and the slow erasing

Just like I’d done dozens of times, I’d clicked “Add to cart.” No big deal. Only this time it felt profound. And after fretting about it for ages and wondering what slippery slope I was stepping onto, I clicked the button. What purchase could cause such internal turmoil? A twin-sized duvet cover patterned with whimsical pink and blue and gray unicorns with rainbow-colored manes. It’s for the little one’s fifth birthday.

Delighted in the downpour
She will love it. She loves unicorns and rainbows and flowers and fairies and mermaids and princesses and dresses and tiaras and beaded necklaces and pretty much anything that is pink or red or purple or sparkly or glittery, even though I’ve provided her with trains and Matchbox cars and trucks and shovels and so many things that are green.

Green was Riley’s favorite color. And I have lots of green things. I was even given green blankets when she was born because she was born in grief’s wake for my boy who loved the rain and green and Matchbox cars and trains and Tabasco and garlic and olives. And, although she loves olives and garlic, and garlic-stuffed olives, and she liked Matchbox cars and trains for a while, she’s her own person with her own interests. That, and through preschool and transitional kindergarten, she’s been exposed to kids with Frozen backpacks and twirly dresses and sparkly blankets that look like mermaid tails. And so when she’s in the bath, she asks me to comb her mermaid hair and she pretends that the washcloth is her tail.

The hard part isn’t that she likes different things from Riley, although I really, really did enjoy putting elaborate train tracks together for the months that she was into that. We’d roll our wooden trains over the bridges and through the tunnels just like I did when Riley was small. The hard part is that I wanted to breathe life into Riley’s things for longer. I wanted her to pick up where he’d left off and in using his idle things, give me another chance to be with Riley in my thoughts as I remember the hours we did those things together when he was alive. In fairness, at 11, there weren’t many train tracks or cities drawn on cardboard for Matchbox cars to roll along.

For the 18 months he lived in this house, he had a green duvet with different colored green dots all over it. He picked it out at IKEA when he got his very own bed. For a long time, my boys shared a queen bed and a single queen blanket. But when we moved into this house, I took them to the store and that’s what he chose. His brother chose something gray with bright orange and red swirls. And Riley’s green duvet has been on his bed in his room since he died. It’s been mostly idle.

Before the youngest came along, I would lie on his bed and smooth my face into his green pillowcase and hug his Freddies. And after she was born when she was nursing several times a night, I would sometimes sleep near her in his bed with the green sheets. It’s been her bedroom her entire life, more than three times longer than it was Riley’s room, even though I still call it Riley’s room. And once she switched to a big bed, it was Riley’s bed she began sleeping in and Riley’s duvet she’s been sleeping under.

It's her room; it’s Riley’s room. Riley’s treasures and belongings are still there, but there are so many other things there too. Sometimes it’s hard to remember which is which and what belongs to whom. And, of course, she says things like, “Mom, Riley says I can play with his marbles” which makes his things her things too.

She didn’t ask for a different duvet. She never said she didn’t like the green one. I just want her to be seen as a separate person and to acknowledge her preferences. So, because her fifth birthday is today and she loves all those pink things, I decided to get her that new duvet cover – the one that matches her interests. I suppose I’ll fold up the green duvet and the green pillow case and the green sheet and put them in the closet near Riley’s medicine that is in a ziplock bag, with Riley’s clothes that are still hung, and next to his socks and pajamas – things I’d hoped she’d wear when she was big enough. Though she probably won’t. She’ll have shirts and pajamas covered in rainbows and fairies and mermaids. 

This shrinking or contraction after someone dies happens all the time. Out with the old, in with the new. Making space for whatever is next. She didn’t ask to fill Riley’s shoes, not that she could. You cannot replace a person with a different person. It’s just another shift, another goodbye. Another folding of time.

Riley's green things will be mine to visit when I need to time travel and be with my boy and his beloved things. I cannot help but wonder what will be put away next and what shift will happen that will make his life less visible. It all feels like a slow erasing. 

Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Grief and alternate reality

It was a white legal-sized envelope like any other. It had fallen through the mail slot just like any other. It had my name on it. It was from a charity that we had donated money to. The day I opened that letter, the sun had shone down on the driveway as I left the house to walk the youngest to school. We held hands. We talked about flowers, then sang about them in a song we took turns making up verses for. We waved to the bus driver who trundles down our street each weekday morning.

The day that the letter landed on the entryway floor was a day sandwiched between the holidays of thanks and gratitude and celebration surrounded by family and friends. All days are hard, but those weeks of cheer and joy are especially hard because I don’t feel cheerful on the inside. I don’t feel grateful on the inside, even though I have things to be grateful for.

The letter didn’t arrive until after lunch, though. I only grabbed it after the little one’s nap on my way to give her a bath. She bubbled in the water while I sat with my laptop perched on my thighs. There were email messages to reply to. There were Breaking News messages from news organizations I subscribe to. When I was done replying to or scanning through the messages, I put the warm device on the floor next to me. I picked up the stack of mail. There were catalogs and fliers and bills. And this letter.

As I read the words – this near-form letter from this charity – my boy's name stood out. “Thank you so much for your generous year-end donation in memory of Riley Norton,” it said. It occurred to me that whoever typed this letter typed a multitude of others, replacing the name of the donor and the name of the person honored or remembered through the gift for each one.

He was just a name to them. A name to type, then forget. The admin typing up the thank-you letters has no idea he’s an 11-year-old boy. My 11-year-old boy. Nor do they care. I’m sure little, if any, thought is given to these names. These dead people. If they were curious, I wondered how likely it was that they would have found him online.

I retrieved the laptop from the floor and opened Google. I did a search for Riley Norton died. The first result was for a man of 85 who lived in Utah and died in 2019. There were some results relevant to my boy's life and others connected to old men. I went back to the first result, the one for the 85-year-old man. I read that Riley Norton's obituary and stared at that Riley Norton's photo. The old man had an oblong face and white hair. Could this have been my boy? Could this have been my boy’s alternate reality if he had been born with a working heart and the privilege of long life? 

As I stared at the photo, I squinted a bit and tried to see my boy in this old man’s face. Loving husband, father and grandpa. Then my vision blurred as I thought about my boy as an old man with grandchildren. Or perhaps the blurred vision was me thinking about how my boy was never the granted opportunity to be an old man with grandchildren. Or even a teenager with a job or a girlfriend. So much lost opportunity. So much lost. For him. For me. For his siblings. For his grandparents. For his friends and classmates and teammates. Thinking of all of the things that would never happen felt like every single life experience had been sucked from a jar with a giant syringe. I'm not sure if thinking about this alternate reality felt good or bad. 

As I wiped my face and stared into the middle-distance, the little one in the bath said she was getting cold. I closed my laptop and tried to shift my thoughts to the present, even though the present is informed by the past -- by Riley's life, his death, and grief. Every single day. I pulled her from the water and toweled her off. Then I got her dressed in pajamas and went to the bedroom she shares with Riley's things. Afterward, I picked up the letter and put it into the folder with our tax documents.