The plane landed slowing with uneven jerks, allowing us time to register the ground, to find our center before walking back into the world. I’m here. I made it. I thought. Slowly, with great effort I stood up, my legs wobbly. I scanned the plane, front to back, watching passengers move with purpose. They gathered their stowed carry-on bags and checked for connecting boarding passes. In truth, I wish I was one of them—one of those not-there-yet people. “You ready to go?” The lady next to me said aiming a partially raised eyebrow and an equally lifted tone at me. I was blocking her way.
Every day since Emma died my world has been full of roadblocks. Parenting, in the child’s first decade at least, is like being on the offensive line for a winning football team. You, the parent, take the initiative. You call the plays. Every move is yours to decide. As early as conception, you get to write the story of your child and the parent you intend to be when they arrive. Collectively parents tend to agree that the defensive part of the role doesn’t begin until the teen years. Unless they die before they are born.
When a child dies there is no timeline for grieving. The word “grief” becomes synonymous with “roadblock”. Every emotional trigger prevents you from doing, seeing, and becoming anything. Some days there are less roadblocks than others but you are now on the defensive. Every dawn brings a new chance to fend off attacks, to survive the day instead of live it. It is a full time job you did not apply for. You work three hundred sixty-five days a year. You do not get sick days or holidays, In fact, you are expected to work harder on such days.
IT IS A FULL TIME JOB YOU DID NOT APPLY FOR. YOU WORK THREE HUNDRED SIXTY-FIVE DAYS A YEAR. YOU DO NOT GET SICK DAYS OR HOLIDAYS, IN FACT, YOU ARE EXPECTED TO WORK HARDER ON SUCH DAYS.
Time heals, they say. It has been nearly five years.
Having more children, healthy, thriving children helps, they say. I have two more stunningly gorgeous girls.
This will make or break your marriage bond, they caution. My marriage is stronger than ever.
On that point it seems “they” were right but none of this nullifies the fact that my whole world is still peppered with roadblocks. In the fall, they team up, becoming collaborative units determined to break me. Emma’s birthday is soon. This stretch of road is the worst.
And so, I boarded a plane hoping to escape the horror five years missing her might bring. I’ve read all the blogs and books, and became intensely dedicated to talk therapy. I know five years is what they call “a milestone”. In the world of baby loss, this is not a good thing. It is the biggest, baddest trigger of them all. It induces wild, frenzied, non-realistic cases of the what-Ifs and what-could-have-beens. Milestones are dangerous. They show voids you managed to somehow ignore between the breastfeeding, lack-of-sleep and food preparation for your other. They become nearly tangible, the voids, the work you haven’t yet done. At this, I know Grief Season has begun.
MILESTONES ARE DANGEROUS. THEY SHOW VOIDS YOU MANAGED TO SOMEHOW IGNORE BETWEEN THE BREASTFEEDING, LACK-OF-SLEEP AND FOOD PREPARATION FOR YOUR OTHER. THEY BECOME NEARLY TANGIBLE, THE VOIDS, THE WORK YOU HAVEN’T YET DONE. AT THIS, I KNOW GRIEF SEASON HAS BEGUN.
Grief Season has a foggy quality about it, like the deer hunter, full of uncertainty wondering what is around the next corner. It is accompanied by constant shadows armed with invisible triggers, ready to attack at any part of the day. It is impervious to time, space, or the fact that you just flew one-thousand miles to avoid it. There is no negotiating with this season of memory. And yet, I tried. No! Please no. Not here. Not in this public place. I begged as the first silent tear fell down my cheek.
Annually as the leaves of New England change so does my mood. The trees morph into a cascade of fall colors, bright reds, oranges and purples, while I slip on my once-a-year cloak of introversion. I become quiet and sullen. I answer people with solitary words. Everything feels dull, sensation tapering to the point of numbness. Within Grief Season, it is like being perpetually on auto-pilot and unable to take back the manual controls. I am forced to take longer, deeper breaths to keep my bearings. The progression of my life presents as though seen through a lens. Daily responsibilities become daunting. It is like being a stranger in your own home.
And so as my fifth Grief Season approached, I took the reins. Just as the leaves are destined to fall, mine would not be far behind; unless, of course, I leave this place behind, I thought. I’ll fly away from colored trees that litter the ground with rainbows. I’ll take myself away from cool, crisp mornings that bloom into stunning warm afternoons only to finish their day symmetrically. I’ll give this cruelty a taste of its own medicine, escape to the most unlikely place.
“Enjoy your stay in Minneapolis, Minnesota. United Airlines thanks you!” a cheery voice jolted me from my thoughts. It was followed by a less than cheerful one. “Well, are you going to move or what?” The now thoroughly irritated lady from the window seat barked. I attempted a weak smile and side-stepped backwards down the aisle then watched as one by one all the other passengers departed. Following their lead, I retrieved my bags and walked the narrow strip to exit the plane berating myself: why doesn’t this get any easier? It has been five years. Shouldn’t I be able to function by now?
After Emma died, silence permeated every second of my eternity-long days. It felt like someone hit the mute button, effectively soundproofing my life while continuing to watch it evolve on the screen. I longed for noise to deafen the unanswerable questions in my head. For inside my mind the decibel level far exceeded my maximum tolerance. There was screaming and wailing. There were wracking sobs and quiet tears. There were what-ifs attacking me and should-haves and would-have-beens attacking them. A war of time travel possibilities raged in my mind, all resulting in the same ending.
She was still not here.
THERE WERE WHAT-IFS ATTACKING ME AND SHOULD-HAVES AND WOULD-HAVE-BEENS ATTACKING THEM. A WAR OF TIME TRAVEL POSSIBILITIES RAGED IN MY MIND, ALL RESULTING IN THE SAME ENDING.
Standing in the middle of the Twin Cities Airport felt like being swallowed into the belly of the whale. I stood paralyzed for a long time, parallel foot traffic passing me like windshield wipers. Oscillating like a fan, I tried to focus. What should I do? Where should I go? Where can I go where this foreboding can’t find me?
“Excuse me. Do you need help?” a deep voice asked. Startled I said, “What?” and turned to see a uniformed airport attendant taking me in, obviously concerned. As someone redefined by grief, I had become an expert in gauging people's levels of sincerity as they expressed concern. This large, broad man with a full beard and small dimples in his cheeks meant what he said.
“Do you have any baggage to collect ma'am? The carousel is about to stop and any remaining luggage will go to the Unclaimed Baggage Center.” Pointing at the snake shaped rubber river, he continued, “It’s a lot harder to get from there than from here.”
“Thanks,” I managed as I retrieved my bag and made for the exit before the weight of my luggage pulled the tears down my cheeks. I have baggage that doesn’t need collecting, I thought. It lives within me.
The hotel welcomed me with chocolates on the bed and a hand-printed note: Enjoy your stay! Creative Memories hope you enjoy the conference.
Scrapbooking is my ultimate escape. Sorting and cropping photos set into color-coordinated pages with their stories preserves history. We have no concept while life is shape-shifting from moment to moment which ones will become the tall tale, the embarrassing incident or the poignant memory that makes all eyes tear when they recall it. Telling our stories, even as we are living them, is vital. Next generations have questions and often only hand-documented photos have the answers.
WE HAVE NO CONCEPT WHILE LIFE IS SHAPE-SHIFTING FROM MOMENT TO MOMENT WHICH ONES WILL BECOME THE TALL TALE, THE EMBARRASSING INCIDENT OR THE POIGNANT MEMORY THAT MAKES ALL EYES TEAR WHEN THEY RECALL IT.
And that is how I found myself tear stained and tired, standing in a hotel room in Minnesota. The next day, I walked into the scrapbook convention and lost myself in paper cutters, corner crimpers, and images of my two living kids that at least put a wistful smile on my face. But my wistful feelings were brief, and morphed quickly into indigent injustice. These girls get first-cereal-face pictures and learning-to-walk photo sequences. Emma does not. Emma’s story is one dimensional, barely managing a beginning, middle, and end. Tears glistening, again, I needed some air. Standing up and feigning a headache, I headed for the door.
Walking the streets of Minneapolis felt freeing. Few people passed me as I ambled slowly from block to block, trying to reconcile the myriad of bittersweet emotions barraging me. Ahead was a large stone bench surrounded by quiet post lunch hour stores on both sides. Sitting, I pulled my notebook from my bag and tucked into it, allowing my heart to flow over into my hands. I put to paper all the love, guilt, sadness, and unanswerable questions swirling in my mind. Dearest Emma, My sweet girl walking with me through this life. I can’t believe you are five years old...
“Emma,” a woman’s voice said.
My head jerked up. Before me stood a little girl of about five years old arching her head to respond to what must have been her name. She was looking at her mother.
“Emma,” the mother said again, “you listen in the store, right? Stay with me all the time. O.K.?”
Absorbed in each other they didn’t see me, jaw slack, pencil dropped to the ground; shocked into stillness.
Was I dreaming this? Had I really lost my sense of reality versus fantasy? Did I want to know what Emma would look like at five years old so badly that I created a vision? But what about the mom? No. She looked nothing like me. Surely, if my mind was going to go to all the trouble to have a breakdown it would at least cast me, Emma’s actual mother, in the role.
Slowly I stood, letting the remainder of my items fall where they may. Don’t go in there, my mind cautioned, it’s a trap, another in a long line of disappointments when things turn out just to be a figment of your imagination. But I was already in motion. I looked down in wonder to see my legs moving without intention. The world appeared fuzzy in my post-letter writing vision state, yet I made it to the double doors with one word and three letters emblazoned above it: BABY GAP.
Inside the store, sobriety struck me all at once. Simultaneously the chipper size-2 salesclerk practically sung, “What can I do for you?” Good question, I thought. Falling back on every other high-end retail adventure I’d indulged in I blurted, “Clearance section please!” She pointed and flashed me a smile nearly as loud as her voice.
I moved hangers taking in outfit after outfit with no regard for color or size, my brain thinking thoughts only a childless mother can: what would her favorite color have been? Would she have looked adorable in these tailored shorts or maybe the pleated shirt dresses would have been her style? Fantasies played in my mind. Like shopping with my daughter after laughing through a fancy lunch. We would peruse stores attending intensely to size, color and style. She would try them on and present herself for viewing after each one, twirling if she liked it, bowing if she didn’t.
“Emma! Emma! Where are you?” The voice sliced through my haze yet again. I stopped short, spun around. Nobody. I took a deep breath to ready my legs for an escape from this haunting store when the voice became urgent and worried.
“Emma, come out right now. This is not funny. We talked about this.” I shook my head with my eyes closed attempting to dissolve the last wisps of fantasy. When I opened them I saw people, a real mother and a real daughter, identical to the images from outside the store. The woman took her young daughter by the shoulders and said, “Emma. Always stay close to me in stores. Remember? You could get lost.” With these words I came undone. As I sunk to the floor between two carousels of upscale clothing thinking as my conscience faded. My Emma, did get lost. I lost her forever.
When my eyes opened the figures were right in front of me. The mother searching with her piercing eyes, her hand on my wrist.
“You ok?” she asked, “Did you hurt anything?”
“I’m...” my breath hitched, “fine.” I managed.
“You look pale. Should we call someone?”
When I said nothing she looked me straight in the eyes. We both froze from the intensity and emotion registering between us. She looked without apology as her face slowly morphed from worry to a loving smile. It was as though she was looking inside me, filing through all my memories and coming up with the one that explained away my worrisome behavior.
Emma made to speak but her mother shushed her with a hand on one arm and a shared look comprehended by both.
She spoke softly but with confidence. “You have a daughter too.”
It was not a question.
All I could manage was an audible gulp. She continued, “She’s gone to the other side, right?”
The shock on my face must have been misconstrued for wariness for she moved back to a sitting position and explained, “I’m a medium. That’s what I do. Well, actually it’s what they do to me. They find me when there is someone who needs to know. Do you understand?”
RELIEF THAT I DID NOT HAVE TO EXPLAIN MYSELF TO THIS NAMELESS WOMAN AND HER YOUNG DAUGHTER. RELIEF THAT MY EMMA HAD BEEN WITH ME AND I’D BEEN OPEN, JUST ENOUGH, TO SENSE HER. RELIEF THAT SOMEONE, ANYONE, UNDERSTOOD.
I nodded and the tears flowed. As an encore to passing out in the clearance section of Baby Gap, I reached for her and bawled into the arms of a stranger with her living Emma watching. I wept as much with relief as I did heartbreak. Relief that I did not have to explain myself to this nameless woman and her young daughter. Relief that my Emma had been with me and I’d been open, just enough, to sense her. Relief that someone, anyone, understood. And as I wept, the stranger, the medium, ran her fingers through a patch of indoor/outdoor carpet to the right of my hip repeating, “She’s here. Your daughter is here. She’s right here with you.”
Two mothers and two Emmas shared the same space that day. One set walked out the door of Baby Gap to the chirping “goodbye” of a none-the-wiser saleslady. The other learned a very valuable grief lesson.
You cannot escape your grief. Space and time are no match for the bond between mother and child. Don’t try to push away the sadness. It only returns at a time when you are less ready. When the triggers hit, stop and allow yourself to feel, anywhere. It is ok to grieve, regardless of your location. It hurts, the kind of hurt no words transcend meaning for, but the result is a stronger heart. It rebuilds into a better version of itself, begetting a stronger you.