We Go West


Jeff & I have spent the last three weeks in Santa Cruz, California. We wanted an escape, after the holidays, from not just the cold & the snow but from the routine of our daily lives. It’s been warm here, & sunny, & in those ways it has succeeded as an escape: we have hiked through the redwoods & walked along the beach in the sunshine & soaked in the sun like the gift that it is. But what I had to travel here to learn for certain is that there’s no vacation, ever, from our grief.

I didn’t think that I would feel less sad here. I didn’t believe that I would miss Isaac even one iota less. I don’t want to escape from his memory. But I did have hope that perhaps, removed from the setting of our trauma, some of the PTSD symptoms we experience might dissipate. The insomnia, the nightmares, the panic attacks. But they cling to us here just as they did at home. It’s not going to the grocery store by myself or watching a toddler being pushed in a stroller swaying her legs back & forth or an ambulance driving by with its siren wailing that’s my trigger. Or it’s all of those things, but mostly it’s just being alive in this world when my son isn’t. Anywhere in this world.

Don’t get me wrong: we have enjoyed ourselves here. I love my husband & we’ve been blessed to be able to take this trip together, to spend time together, to hold one another in the (literal & figurative) darkness. There’s joy in our lives still. It’s just less than. It’s just painted with a streak of sadness. It’s just not what we expected, & it’s difficult to come to terms with that.

I struggled, when I was younger, to accept conflicting truths. I viewed the world pretty plainly in black & white. But as I’ve grown older, as I’ve gained more & lost more, conflicting truths are woven into my existence, & never more so than after the death of my son. Truth: I miss Isaac every second of every day. Truth: I am still capable of every other human feeling I’ve ever had. Truth: I sometimes wish I would die, & yet I want to go on.

It’s like this: in one of my very favorite books, Franny & Zooey, twenty-year-old Franny becomes fascinated with the Jesus Prayer, which calls a person to internalize the prayer to the point that s/he can pray without ceasing. (The prayer as presented in the book reads: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.”) & I too found the prayer fascinating, & I wondered at the dedication & focus required to pray without ceasing, at the capacity of a person to really achieve this. But since Isaac’s death my own prayer has settled in my heart, effortlessly, & it’s just his name, over & over & over again, with every breath, with every heartbeat, & I know without question that I’ll only be able to cease its recitation when I cease breathing.

I Miss You


I miss you when the sun shines because I wanted to spend every beautiful, sunny day with you, & because without you, I am always in shadow.

I miss you when the rain falls because your outline is curled up beside me as I lay on the couch, reading a book alone instead of discovering the world with you.

I miss you when the waves crash because I’m reminded that however far or high or deep or wide I search for you, I will never see your face again anywhere on this earth.

I miss you when the moon rises because I wish I could be standing over your crib, reaching a hand down to touch your cheek, listening to the gentle rise & fall of your breathing while you sleep.

I miss you when the leaves change because the seasons insist on passing without you, because the world continues to exist without you, because I have been left here to go on without you.

I miss you when the wind blows because I remember how you smiled & laughed whenever you felt a breeze on your face, & because your laughter brought me the greatest joy I’ve ever known.

I miss you when my heart beats because I can still feel the echo of your heart beating in tune with mine, in my empty belly & in my empty arms, the memory of your body cradled against my chest.

Isaac Lived


Elizabeth Edwards, on responding to the loss of a child:

If you know someone who has lost a child or lost anybody who’s important to them, & you’re afraid to mention them because you think you might make them sad by reminding them that they died, they didn’t forget they died. You’re not reminding them. What you’re reminding them of is that you remember that they lived, & that’s a great, great gift.

There’s a commonality to the way that most people speak about Isaac to me these days, which is that they don’t. They don’t speak about his life & they don’t speak about his death. If I mention Isaac, I’m typically met with uncomfortable glances & awkward silences until the topic of conversation changes. Maybe they don’t want me to feel sad, or maybe they don’t want to feel sad themselves.

Remembering that Isaac lived doesn’t add to my grief. Pretending that he never did does. This moment in time, right now, without Isaac, is my present moment. But just as real as this moment are all of the moments that came before. I once stood in front of my husband, trembling & terrified & joyful, positive pregnancy test in my hands. I once read my favorite children’s story to my very pregnant belly before bedtime, & then woke up in labor just a few hours later. I once held my newborn son in my arms & listened in as Jeff called our parents & siblings & told them that they had a grandson, a nephew. Why should the present moment matter more than the past? Being pregnant, giving birth, mothering Isaac for 15 months—I was irrevocably changed by all of these experiences. Isaac dying didn’t erase their value.

Driving home with a friend a few nights ago, I found myself moving from a space of relative calm to one of panic & sorrow, very quickly, which is how it happens: I’m coping, I’m coping, I’m coping, & then very abruptly I’m not, because Isaac is not just gone, he’s gone forever, & also because I shouldn’t be in this car right now, late on a Friday night, but at home, in bed, with Isaac asleep in the next room. I shared some of what I was experiencing aloud, & then my friend started speaking. “When Isaac died…”, he said, words that I don’t think I’ve heard once in the past few months, & a tension in my chest released, just slightly, just for a second, & there was a moment of beautiful relief.

What I Can’t Share


This blog will never present the full truth. The boundless scope of grief—it can’t be shared.

The insomnia, the panic attacks, the sudden weeping that lasts minutes or hours, the constant hum of anxiety that flows through my body, the desperate urge to escape my own skin, the abrupt & overwhelming exhaustion, the literal heartache. Three months of physical & emotional assault. It can’t be described & it can’t be understood by anyone who hasn’t experienced a similar trauma.

I can’t share what it’s like to be told that your son will die, to spend the next days praying over his body for a miracle but feeling certain that he has already gone from the room, to wish desperately that you could trade places with him, or, failing that, that you could go with him. I can’t share what it’s like to cradle your child in your arms as he dies. To leave him lying on a hospital bed as you’re forced to walk away, through the door, out of the building, against every instinct you have as a parent. To arrive home, eventually, to a house where his ghost lives. Where the only certainty remaining in your life is that you will never, no matter what you do or how hard you hope, see your child again.

I want to try to talk about all of this, though, because I think the conversation around the death of a child—around the loss of a child—needs to be elevated beyond the adage that “heaven needed another angel.” We fear death, all of us—we fear leaving, we fear being left—& so we keep it at a distance whenever possible, we fill empty spaces with empty words, we rely on platitudes. As illness repulses, so do tragedy & grief, & I stand as an uncomfortable reminder that so many hopes the world holds as truths—that everything happens for a reason, that if it’s not okay it’s not the end, that time heals all wounds—are certain only in their fallibility.

I will never be anything but deeply sad about the death of my son. There’s no answer or reason or revelation that will bring me peace. If I’m capable of forming a coherent thought as I pass out of this world, it will be one last wild hope: “Please, let me go be with Isaac.”

This loss is a part of who I am now, & all I can do is try to learn to walk alongside my sadness, & not let it overtake me.

18 Months


Isaac should be 18 months old today.

He is ageless. He is every age he ever was. But he will never be 18 months.

He will never be 2. We will never plan his second birthday party. What would the theme have been? Cars, maybe—he would point & “oooh” at every car that passed by. Or Daniel Tiger—we never taught him the word “television” (we didn’t watch much), but when he heard us say “Daniel” he would hurry over to the TV, especially happy to dance along to the songs.

He will never be 3. He’ll never rest his cheek against my belly, excited to hear & feel the kicking of a new little brother or sister. He’ll never dip his hands in finger paint & smear them across our living room walls, our couch, our coffee table. He’ll never cruise down the sidewalk on a balance bike, exhilarated by the breeze on his face, by the new speed at which he can suddenly move through the world.

He will never be 4. He won’t come home from preschool, proud to show off a painting he made of our family. We won’t take day trips to the Aquarium or the Museum of Science or a vacation to the Grand Canyon, which we could have seen, together, for the first time. He won’t ask me smart, surprising, hard questions that help me to grow & change & become a better person as I struggle to answer them simply & honestly.

All of the “nevers” & the “won’ts” get blurrier, hazier, the further I look into the un-future. It’s impossible to imagine who Isaac would have been. He was just starting to show us. He was so sweet & so smart & so curious & so energetic. He loved books like his mom & music like his dad. He loved grilled cheese & bananas (separately) & terrorizing our cats. He loved bouncing in his exersaucer & riding in shopping carts & splashing in his “tubby.”

& though I can’t imagine 5 or 6 or 10 or 18 or 24, I can imagine 18 months. It’s a milestone that I looked forward to as a first-time mother, so unsure about so many things except how absolutely I loved my son. Surely, at 18 months, Isaac would have been walking independently (at 15 months, he would grip onto the index finger of the person walking alongside him, just not quite ready to let go). He would have added more words to his vocabulary, which was limited to “mama,” “ah-ee” (for “daddy”), “kittycat,” “Alvin” (one of our cats), & most recently, “Isaac.” He would have spent this particularly pleasant New England summer outside, at the playground, at the splash park, at the beach, with family & friends.

I can imagine Isaac today. How today should have gone. Wake-up, breakfast, & hang-time with his dad. The morning spent exploring the playground with friends or strolling along the ‘Port Rail Trail. A picnic lunch in Market Square, together as a family. The afternoon at home, less clear in my mind, but still vaguely predictable: nap-time, play-time, dinner-time. Jeff returning home from work, Isaac’s entire being lighting up as his dad comes through the door. Tubby-time, pajama-time, reading-time, sleepy-time. A perfect day. An average day.

But that was not today.

Today Isaac is not 18 months old.