Today in one of my elective courses we spoke of pain. Specifically, the nervous system and its interpretation of and its reactions to it. One of my students offered that he wished these parts of the brain didn't always work. Most agreed, eager to share their stories of emergency appendectomies and tonsillectomies and prom night breakups. Quickly I reminded the class that pain is a perception; that not everyone interprets and feels and responds to pain in the same way. Also I told them, pain is helpful.
When you died there was no pain, initially. The only consideration I allowed with regards to pain was whether or not you'd felt any. I researched things like fetal cardiac arrest and gradual oxygen deprivation and "does it hurt when your heart stops". I was maternally, unhealthily preoccupied with what the last few moments of your life must have felt like, while I'd been oblivious to your impending death just inches above, relaxing in my Sunday slippers.
I cannot pin the moment I allowed myself to feel it, finally, but it was far too long after you'd gone. For months I fell into medical books, losing myself in decades of research and words I didn't understand. I told myself that I wanted to know but the truth was that I didn't. Looking back, I can say that I was so focused on the logistics of what took your life that I didn't allow myself the realization that something actually had. And as a result, much of my grief, and my interpretation of what happened to you and to me, was delayed.
There are times I still cannot believe this is my life; that my daughter, my baby, actually died. I was always the person to whom silly things happened, the ones that make for good stories later. In high school I wrecked the brand new family car one month after being allowed to drive it. When I was five my grandmother wrapped all of my Christmas presents, accidentally writing your aunt's name on every one of them. There is a home video we all love to watch, and I'm sitting there quietly as she opens the fifteenth shiny package. And she holds up the purple "My Little Pony" socks, obscuring my face from the camera view, shouting "Mommy! I got another one! Again!"
When you died it wasn't funny anymore. I didn't want to be the random, statistical anomaly. I didn't want to be special or different. This beautiful gift I'd been given, this gift so many get to open and hold and take home no questions asked and here I was, being forced to walk away empty handed. Everyone was treating me carefully, thoughtfully, their faces soft and their words softer but all I wanted was to be the normal one, blending into the scenery with a daughter whose heart was still beating.
I did all kinds of things to trick myself into believing nothing had changed. There was the time I went to the movies alone, one of my all time favorite things to do, and cried through the entirety of "The Art of the Steal". There was the day four months after you died, where I thought it a good idea to meet a friend and her daughters to shop for matching sister outfits. I remember watching her hold up one perfectly adorable pink baby dress from across the store and suddenly feeling faint. Of course there was the time I finally called the insurance company to inquire about returning the unused breast pump they'd mailed me. I'd been staring at it in the box for weeks, unsure of what to do and when they asked why I wanted to send it back I didn't tell them the truth. Instead I vaguely, calmly explained that it hadn't met my expectations. And they passed me around from department to department in an attempt to figure out what the hell I was talking about, and what the hell to do with my breast pump.
"Does it work?"
Yes, of course it works.
"But you're not satisfied?"
No, I'm not satisfied.
"How long have you had it?"
"Can you explain?"
I just don't like it.
Of course it's obvious to me now what wasn't then: The grief and the love, they cannot separate. You don't put one down and leave the other; cannot set one aside for a later, more appropriate date. How I longed to hold you and feel one of them for a time; just the love or just the pain, back and forth until I was ready, until I was prepared to feel them both at once. Only the moment you died they became one forever. What I was trying to do then was like pulling skin from bone.
I tell others now, "indulge in your grief." Invite it into your living rooms and your dinner tables. Sit across it and study every mole and tale and idiosyncracy, and when it hurts do not run; let it guide you. Listen as it calls for you to feel with every ounce of who you are now, for the love we have made of our children knows no match. This love who scans the abyss, unfazed. This love who grows taller in their absence, still. Own this love who holds you now, who holds your children. This honest love, this painful, painful love, this bravest love; and know that when the pain is big, it's because the love is bigger.