I do not understand the mystery of grace, only that it meets us where we are, but does not leave us where it found us. Anne Lamott
Anyone who has lost a child knows from the outset that they will grieve for a lifetime. That they will forever miss and long for this son, this daughter they brought into the world. That they will spend the rest of their days marking everything their little one is not here to experience … childhood, puberty, prom, a first kiss, graduation, a calling, great love, a partner, children of their own, gray hair.
Outside of the predictable physical milestones, we’ll never know which of these events would have happened or not. Perhaps our son was destined to be single, our daughter unable or uninterested in having children. They may have struggled with addiction or mental health issues or decided to leave high school or college before graduation. But we write the script for their imagined lives the way we want them. Full of love and accomplishment. Free of heartache and stumbling blocks.
What no one warned me about was how often I’d wish Jimmy was here to be part of something – when his sister Molly took the field for the first time as a collegiate softball player, when we went to one of his closest friend’s wedding, when his best friend competed in the Olympic marathon trial. The family trips he’s not here to go on, the teams he can’t cheer for as they win a championship, all the episodes of Ted Lasso he never got to see. The list of what Jimmy has missed just grows and grows. I didn’t know how long it would be or understand that I would spend the rest of my life adding to it.
And yet .. none of this was a given. It never was.
I thought I had a contract with the universe. If I kept Jimmy safe, fought hard for his life, did all the “right” things I could to keep him here, he would survive. I came to terms with the Faustian bargain of long-term damage from radiation or chemotherapy in exchange for the long life I thought I was preserving. But there was no such bargain, and the universe never promised to honor its end of the deal.
I have learned the hard way to stop saying “I can’t believe this could happen ..” I have seen too much death and staggering loss to know just how little protection any of us have against the worst happening. There are more ways for our children to die or be killed than I ever realized. It is a salty miracle that our children survive infancy, junior high, moving out, living on their own somewhere in this far-too-dangerous world.
Yet I also now know how lucky we are. That Jimmy lived long enough to experience as much as he did. That we knew him through so many ages and stages, all the way into young adulthood. That as he navigated cancer from thirteen to twenty-one, was able to go college. That he was old enough to belong to the world. That Dan, Molly and I are not the only ones who loved and made memories with him.
No one even met the baby I miscarried, not even me. She died without a name at eleven and a half weeks, too far from her due date to have an inspired a conversation about what to call her. It’s hard to craft an imaginary life for her without knowing anything about her. Yet her far too short life left an indelible mark, teaching me that heartbreaking outcomes could happen no matter how carefully I tried to prevent them. Because of her, many of the moms with children in Jimmy’s preschool class at the time shared their own experiences with losing a baby, making me feel less alone and waking me up to just how many of us there are have suffered this painful loss.
On my darkest days, it’s hard not to focus on who’s not here and what will never happen. The two-thirds gone instead of the one-third here, especially with Molly living so far away. But even when the seas of grief are at their most choppy, there are islands of grace. Atolls of time when I am able to remember all that is left instead of sinking into all that I have lost. The minute we love, we sign up to grieve. Daring to hope means risking disappointment or desolation.
All three of my children have taught me so much. Through them, I have learned just how unfair the world is, how unequal the devastation can be. But they’ve also illuminated the way in which the beauty is always there. In the faces of the brave souls who show up when we most need them. In the graceful, languid flight of a turkey vulture searching for a food or a great blue heron heading to the lake, their shadows reminding us to look up. In the memories we have of our time with our departed loved ones, each one precious in a way it never would have been had they one lived or had we not understood what a gift is it that they are still here.