The Life I Could Not See

There is no solution to pain,
but there is so much beauty even now in the darkness …
There is still room for your laughter and beauty and joy.
Even now.

Frederick Buechner

I became like a feral cat during the final weeks of Jimmy’s life. Skittish and anxious. Coursing with adrenaline. Edgy and uncomfortable in my own skin. Unable to leave the house and unsettled within it.

Ray Donovan and Avi, Walter White and Jesse, Jax and Gemma Teller got me through the long, darkening nights after Jimmy fell asleep. The fictional fixers and dealers. TV heroes and villains, spinning tales from far away worlds with lives that didn’t remotely resemble mine. Each offering the briefest of breaks from the stark reality of my twenty-one-year-old first-born son taking his final breaths in a guest room down the hall.

Unable to sleep when my husband and I finally collapsed into bed after our late hour Netflix binging, I found myself wanting to crack out of my lobster shell and crawl away from the life I now had, the one that was not turning out as I had planned. The one days away from going up in flames. The one with the agonizing paradox. I was desperate for more days with Jimmy, who remained alert and coherent, despite his rapidly advancing cancer. But part of me wanted to race ahead, past the agony of watching him die, past the raging grief and unknowable suffering awaiting me to the end of the first year. The place where the platitude pronouncers said it would all get better. But the world offered no such escape route.

After Jimmy died, I unraveled.

How can he be gone? I have not learned to live without him.

This was never supposed to happen to him. This was never supposed to happen to us.

I desperately wanted a different life. One like everyone else’s with healthy, living children; fights about curfew and grades; full of teenage angst about classes, crushes and the first job after college. We’d conceived three children and had two taken from us. I could not do the math that made that equation balance.

There were days when I could barely breathe. Days when I thought about joining Jimmy. Others when I couldn’t imagine how I would fill whatever time I had left.

I wanted someone who had traveled this road before me to tell me that it would get better, that I would heal, that the pain would go away. But the harsh reality is that none of that is possible. The death of a child is wrong and unimaginably unfair. It will never be okay that our son didn’t grow up. That he will no longer show up with his dirty laundry looking for a hot meal, make us laugh, turn our hair gray. But people only live as long as they do. Jimmy at 30, Jimmy at 50, Jimmy as an old man was only ever real in my imagination. My idea of him as a husband and father was just that, a future vision born of hopes, expectations and dreams. My full-grown son didn’t exist. He never did.

The entire idea of children is that they will outlast us. We live through them, for them and run alongside them. We cannot imagine a world where they die before we do. To consider that possibility might be enough to have us rethink having them.

It took the passage of time and the wisdom of other grieving parents to teach me that the goal isn’t to move on. It’s to carry with, hold close and find a way to bear the weight. To crawl up inside the life you have in the aftermath, instead of clinging to the one you thought you were promised.

This is how you find the life you couldn’t see when your loved one was dying. The one that felt unattainable and inconceivable, especially on your worst days. It’s a life built on and from the wreckage of the life you had. Constructed of loss and grief, held together by love and memory. A place where you can find the strength and fierce determination to live on.

A life like that is built around your beloved who died. One with space to grieve for what is lost and remember all you had. Good Night Moon and afternoon naps. Pre-school campouts and water gun wars. Big boy school and playdates with friends. Soccer practice and pepperoni pizza for dinner. Homework stuffed in backpacks, done but not turned in. Hurt feelings and friends that turned out not to be. First loves and second chances. Falling short, falling down and getting back up again. Moments of joy and peals of laughter. A place where the cracks in your heart can fill with gold, even though they will never, ever heal. A place of outrageous beauty and daunting despair. To get there you have to reach, to accept what is and what will never be and forge on anyway. You have to choose the life you have, over and over and over again.

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  • Timmoye says:

    Only those of us who have been there can help those who find themselves there. Time heals some wounds. Not this one! It is a badge we carry forever.

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