Thursday, February 16, 2017

Twenty Years of Keeping On

When Daniel died in 1997, my pain was bigger than God.  People would tell me that with time it would ease, or that they knew how I felt because they had a cat die and how awful that was.

One woman called me every other day to tell me that God needed Daniel.

"Just think," she said as I clutched the receiver, "God needed another flower in his garden and he picked Daniel."

After a few days, when the phone rang and her voice came on the answering machine, I didn’t pick up.

I washed dishes, fed Benjamin apples and bananas, read him stories, and when he was watching Sesame Street, I'd sneak upstairs into Daniel’s room.  I’d breathe in the familiar smells it had accumulated: hospital soap, bandages, iodine.  But the strongest scent of all was my hollow loneliness. It grabbed me in the gut and pulled me to the floor.  Often I would let myself cry.

And that woman would keep calling to offer her words.

But I didn’t return her calls.  I felt that since my pain was so large and consuming and I was six months pregnant that she would understand that I didn’t have the energy to call her back.

Eventually she stopped calling me.

And I became grateful for answering machines because they were like secretaries, weeding out the calls I was unable to take.  Sometimes friends would call and I would stand by the phone and not answer.  I let their voices be recorded and that made me feel that I had some control of my vacant life.  I had a choice—to answer or not to answer. I grew more fond of the not to answer.

There were times I thought I was ready for Butner, the psychiatric facility off of I-85.  I could walk outside and almost smell the sheets.

I went to support group meetings with other people who would just break into tears, unable to finish sentences, people with ragged photos of their children that they shared so that the rest of us could say, "She is beautiful," even though the child had ears that protruded and was cross-eyed and her dress was too short or too long or too pink. It didn’t matter because eventually I knew I belonged with these people.

I belonged to these parents, who introduced me to words I had never been allowed to say.  Angry adults who taught me you can say damn, shit and hell in the same sentence and not be struck down or turned into a pillar of salt.  We sat around tables that were much too small to hold our grief and took turns saying our dead child’s name.

I seemed to go on and on with all the medical procedures about how Daniel had been diagnosed with a malignant tumor in his neck and how he’d been through chemo and surgeries and radiation and how a staph infection entered his body.  I had had little medical jargon in my vocabulary prior to his diagnosis and death and at these meetings I was using all I had learned.  I had no idea how long or short my turn was supposed to be I just knew that I had to tell my story.  I had to get it out.

Part of me hoped that as I talked, one of the bereaved parents would stop me and see that I had talked my way out of this horrible story and say, "Oh, no, he couldn’t have died from that, that isn’t medically possible.  Go home, your son is surely still alive.  Go home now."

And I’d leave the claustrophobic church basement and drive the 40 minutes down Glenwood Avenue to my home and sure enough, there Daniel would be sitting in front of TV watching The Three Stooges with David. And I’d be so excited and happy that I wouldn’t complain that it was 10 o’clock and that David should have already put Daniel to bed.

But even though I attended those meetings twice a month for two years, Daniel never came back.  No loop hole in his death was discovered. And pretty soon my heart knew what my head did, my son was gone from this earth and I was going to have to live the rest of my life without ever holding his hand again.  

And I would never know why.

I would write poems at the graveside and lift balloons into the air. I'd cry with other parents, speak at conferences, and raise my three other children and never know why Daniel didn’t get to be a hero and pull through the whole ordeal.

And I was going to have to adapt and adjust just like countless parents before me and just like thousands of parents would have to learn to do after me.

I was in this club that no one wanted to be part of, a club with rituals that no one understood except for the people in it, and a club that had no membership expiration date.  Until you die.   I would be thirty-seven, thirty-eight, forty, fifty, fifty-nine, gray, old, still showing dampened photos of a little boy who never grew up.

Sometimes when I’d be driving to the meetings, I’d think, what if I just rammed into the Mayflower truck in the lane ahead of me or just gunned the engine and took a leap off a cliff and died.  What if . . . ?  But then I knew I couldn’t do that to my kids, especially not to the baby because she was brand new and Daniel had told me when she was still in the womb the size of a raisin, and then even larger than that, giving me heartburn and kicking, that I was to take care of her.

So I’d follow the speed limit and take my eyes away from the Mayflower truck and keep going on.

For twenty years I've been keeping on.  Truth be told, it is either to keep going on or to roll up and die.

I choose life.  And I'm glad I did, and glad I do.

"Will I ever want to laugh again?" a young newly-bereaved mom asked me at a conference where I gave a writing workshop.

"Yes," I replied.  "You will be able to laugh again.  Trust me. And keep on.  You can do it. Where there is breath, this is hope."

"My friends don't understand," she said as she blew her nose into a tissue. "One calls me every week to tell me to get on with life."

"Do you have an answering machine?" I asked and then realized that we are in the twenty-first century. Quickly, I said," You don't have to answer your cell phone every time it rings, you know."

She nodded.  "I think I can do that."

But she's doubtful, I can tell by the hollowness in her eyes. I tell her I was there once, just as she is. Wondering, aching, unsure if I wanted to live or ram into the Mayflower truck.

She hugs me and we wipe our eyes.

I think she'll make it.

Many of us have.