I think I expected this kind of pain, but not really. I wasn’t naive enough to think that parenthood was a continually happy love-fest where everyone hugged and held hands and danced among the daisies. But I didn’t really know how much it would hurt to have my dearest wee Dot look at me ferociously and yell, “No! Go away! I just want Daddy!”
Daddy gets it too, of course. “No! Just Mommy right now!”
And we’re going through a phase where we kiss our daughter and she furiously scrubs at her head or her cheek, glares at us, and says, “I’m wiping your kiss OFF!”
She’s two. These are all parts of being two, I think. Of testing the boundaries of her power, of seeing how far she can bend the world to her will, or testing (constantly) to see how we’ll react. She’s two, and it’s hard to be two, and we forgive her before the words have even left her mouth, but they still hurt. I’ve seen pain and resignation pass over N’s face so many times in this past week, and I know he’s seeing similar feelings on my face. She’s only two but she hits us, with devastatingly good aim, right where it hurts.
Maybe this is good. Maybe I’ll be tough and weathered and battle-hardened by the time she turns 13.
Sometimes I worry about my heart – is it too tender? Is it tenderized? She is not her brother, but she is here, and by virtue of being here, she gets slathered with all the love I feel for her and a lot of the love I feel for him as well. I didn’t get to make him happy, to coax smiles onto his face, to cuddle him close when he had bad dreams, to tell him about plans to leave the Easter Bunny a carrot. I can do these things for Dot, and it’s not just a joy, but a relief, somehow. I love Teddy, but there’s not much I can do with that love but remember and write and talk to him under my breath. So the active loving I get to do with Teddy’s little sister is shaded by the fact that there’s pent-up love behind it.
There’s pent-up love behind the small rejections and the dismissals and the toddler tantrums, too, though. I think sometimes that losing Teddy may have made me too sensitive, may have made it difficult to “suck it up” and be the grown up. Or maybe it’s this hard for everyone. I don’t know.
On twitter the other day, I caught the following tweet by Roger Ebert, of all people: “The death of a little girl. Sad beyond words. http://nyr.kr/HRZgSs”
Of course I clicked on the link. I had to. It itched at me like a scab wanting to be picked. I opened up the New Yorker article, scanned the title and then stopped in shock when I saw the byline. Aleksandar Hemon, who writes devastatingly bleak, uncompromising, beautiful stuff that I can only read if I psych myself up for months, was in graduate school with me in my other life as an English Lit scholar. We weren’t especially close, but we had classes together, commiserated over paper deadlines together, had some of the same friends. Everyone loved his wife.
During 2010, one of the best, if hardest, years of my life, he and his wife lost their baby girl. I feel strangely ashamed that I didn’t know even though I can’t think of any reason why I would have known. And as I read his words, still uncompromising and beautiful, what struck me most is how similar they are to the blogs I read. So many of the same questions – “And how do you step out of a moment like that? How do you leave your dead child behind and return to the vacant routines of whatever you might call your life?”
So many of the same hurts: “Without Isabel, Teri and I were left with oceans of love we could no longer dispense; we found ourselves with an excess of time that we used to devote to her; we had to live in a void that could be filled only by Isabel. Her indelible absence is now an organ in our bodies, whose sole function is a continuous secretion of sorrow.”
I hate it that someone else has to feel this way. Again. I especially hate it that someone from my past life, someone I liked, if distantly, had to go through a fight for his child’s life that ended in her death. I hate it that he and his wife had (and have) to live through the isolation and continual pain of that. I am grateful to him for writing about his daughter in a place many people can find, and I keep returning to the idea that, while so much of this essay is centered around isolation, so much of it felt like the words I see shared by so many grieving parents. This club no one wants to join – I both bless and curse the fact that I am not the only member, that I’m not the only person who knows all the different stabbing, throbbing hurts that come with the death of a child.
Maybe the knowledge of these particular kinds of hurts will be a strength as well as a weakness in my own parenting. Maybe my tenderized, desperate heart will be balanced by this fact: that no matter how much it hurts to endure my toddler’s scorn and fury over being made to wear pants, or how hard it is to take her rejections, none of this hurts even the smallest fraction as much as the ache of her brother’s absence. In the face of that I can almost welcome the barbs and punches that come with loving my living child.
Having said that, tomorrow she can stay in her pajamas as long as she wants.
If you want to read the New Yorker article and the link above isn’t working for you, you can find it here: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/06/13/110613fa_fact_hemon#ixzz1rHTic3sm. It’s worth reading, though part of the reason it’s worth reading is that it’s intensely painful.