Like a hideous, horned reptile that shoots poison from its pores, it seems my grief has evolved. Recently I was talking with a friend about her future plans. In my mind these words seem to repel each other now, future and plans, but not everyone feels the same. This friend has two adorable children, one boy and one girl. "It doesn't matter to me what the third one is," she assured me, smiling. "Although if I'm being honest, I'd want another girl. Little girls are the best."
I silently choked on my wine, looked around to make sure no one had heard my heart breaking in two and then I waited. Five minutes, then ten. She raised her glass and waved to a friend across the room and hugged me goodbye and I just stood there, as if my insides weren't combusting.
The first year after you died these words would have killed me. Okay not literally, but almost literally. Girl. Pink. Ruffles. Bow. Little girl communion dresses and flower girls and teenage girls who take too many selfies. Any combination would level me instantly. I was nowhere near accepting that you'd died and every moment, every day, every person was its own, excruciating alarm. Some were loud and domineering, blurring the successions of the day until everything spun and I could only see the pain. Some were faint and haunting, like the background symphony in a horror film, only there was no hooded madman to fear. My every breath was the nightmare. For this reason, most commercials and billboards and checkout lines and pharmacies and restaurants and t ball games and movie theatres and playgrounds and classrooms and family dinners and malls were excruciating; however I was still somewhat fortunate. Most everyone I knew was extremely careful with their words, for which I am eternally grateful. I'm not sure exactly when that changed, but that has changed.
There are no "reminders" now. I've accepted that you died. I'm aware that if I live to be one hundred I will never, ever see you again. I envision everything we'll never do together, exposing myself to some such things purposely, my pathetic attempts to lessen the suspense. But these days, the words hurt less. To quote my extremely eloquent and bad ass friend Brooke, in recent months I've been fighting the urge to "claw off my face" for different reasons. Suffice it to say that the phrase "little girls are the best" doesn't bother me as much as the fact that it was said to me by someone who knows about you; someone I consider a friend. The same someone who called me after you died, and who sent me a card on your first birthday. It was said as though we were discussing the weather. Quickly and easily, with seemingly zero f*&cks given as to how it might make me feel.
In Biology we cover the Null Hypothesis. We discuss its significance and we practice writing it thoroughly: "The treatment will not work." "There is no correlation." "Everything remains the same." My students always groan, eager to begin testing their alternatives but I must ask them to be patient. Not only is it necessary to identify the null, we must assume it to be true.
A dear friend of mine and co-worker lost her father nearly ten years ago. Suddenly, unexpectedly, he was gone. She was very close to him, and although it's been nearly a decade I'm still careful. I watch my words around Father's Day and I don't elaborate on how much I love my dad over lunch. I don't talk to her about father/daughter dances or how comforting my father's voice has always been, and I would never, ever say "Dads are the best" in her presence. I don't do this because I think she is weak, or because I'm a good friend. I am careful because I love her; because I assume it still hurts.
You died. You died on my watch, while still inside of my body. I labored for thirteen hours. I received an epidural and your father held my hand when it made me twitch and cringe and dry heave. Everyone left the room but I couldn't sleep. I could only think of what was coming. The most intense fear I've ever known, in the moments just before I met you.
Your skin was bruised and pale and warm, growing colder every second we held you. Your fingers and your toes were exactly your father's, only still. The nurse cut the cord and they weighed you and they cleaned you and they wrapped you, as if you were alive but you were dead. They placed you in the mobile crib and I stared at the light for the longest time. Everyone around me was crying but I was still. I felt absolutely nothing. Never in my life have I experienced that before. Absolutely nothing.
The next morning a nice lady took your pictures. There was blood around your nose and she wiped it away gently. She held your mouth closed and when I asked her if we should smile she began to cry. I wore a white, long sleeved shirt with "Budweiser" on the sleeve because it was what I'd slept in. It was four days before I changed clothes. After twenty minutes your father began to cry so hard that it scared me. I called for the nurse and I kissed your hands. She placed you in the cart and she wheeled you away. It was the last time I saw you.
One month later I poured your ashes into the ground through my fingers. The Earth felt cold. I dug as deeply as my hands would allow. I went home and played sidewalk chalk with your brother. There was dirt beneath my thumbnail and I wondered how much of it was you.
This is the burden I carry. I don't want my friend to take it on. I pray she never understands what it's like to live in a world that will never satisfy. I don't want her to feel that words like "living" or "healthy" are necessary when speaking in reference to her children. I hope she never feels sad after a belly laugh or a messy toddler kiss. I hope that when she watches her babies learn to walk and tie a shoe and cross multiply, that she only feels joy and not a guilt the size of an ocean, for the one who isn't there.
But there is something I would ask of her, of the world. With regards to the bereaved, can we just assume that although things have changed, things are also very much the same? Because two years is a blip in a lifetime. Every bit of it still hurts. And besides, it's just good science.