Last week I handed back a test. A class full of teenage eyes stared up at me as I scoffed, pacing back and forth in my confusion as to how they could possibly have done so poorly on a topic we'd covered for over a month.
They began laughing, calling across the room. Loud proclamations as to who studied and who didn't and who did worse. Back and forth until I had heard enough, and I told them as much. I stopped pacing and I asked them what I've wondered more than once in my nine years teaching, "When will it be cool to be smart?"
Their faces changed. They assured me that their jeering, their laughter and their calls to one another from across the room had all been a farce. "Ms. LaFata," one student said. "We're laughing but we care. We're still shook."
In the three years since my daughter died I've come to realize that I no longer exude vulnerability. To many, I'm sure that I embody resilience, strength even. I am no longer the crying, shaking, puddled version of myself in the corner of a darkened room, clinging to threads of herself and threads of the monogrammed rompers made for the baby who will never wear them. I can drive myself to holiday parties and smile and nod and converse without feeling like my insides have been shredded. Billboards and commercials and all things baby don't always send me into retreat, veering towards the shoulder, desperate for the comfort of my couch. Words don't always blur together to fit my agenda, and I no longer read the channel guides with baby (loss) brain. (Disclaimer: There is no show entitled "Miscarriage With Children")
Most of the time this is a good thing. Okay so I still "hide" pregnant friends on Facebook and okay so I still haven't gone back to my favorite hairdresser, but I can answer lecture questions about fetal development sans heart palpitations, and my morning commute no longer requires the five exit pep talk: "If you stop crying now, your eyes won't be puffy for first hour." I can say her name on the heels of a smile and I have held three newborns since mine died, without losing my shit.
So what's the issue? Most days anymore, there isn't one. I contribute. I function. I'm good.
But there are days where I'm not okay; more than many would assume, I assume. And on these days she permeates every ounce of me, and in these days it's hard to believe there exists a moment where I don't wish I'd died with her. Because although I am no longer shaking, I am far from composed--steady hand and all.
The holidays are tricky. It seems that during these times of lights and trees and music, I feel both her presence and her absence more intensely. Day after day after agonizing, joyful day she warms my heart and she breaks it. This month we will celebrate our third Christmas without her, and although there are new faces and many, many smiles, there are still so many times where I cannot get close enough; where my world can't shake enough in thoughts of her and who she would be. Three is favorite shows and clicker shoes and full sentences. Three is tattling and a specific laugh and asking to stay up later. Three is no longer fits in your hand but will still hold it on purpose. Three is a closet full of dresses I hadn't bought yet.
Last week I came upon the sweatshirt. The same one I'd thrown my coat over it in haste that night before leaving for the hospital. He'd yelled from the hallway to tell me it was cold, and I'd returned with something smart about it being February. He followed me to the porch and he asked if I'd be okay and I didn't look back with my response, already halfway to the car. "If she is."
It's innocuous enough, gray and plain block letters in maroon. No fancy font. No mascot. It was supposed to be a night like that. It was supposed to be a life like that.
The first day of winter break I wore it to the post office. It sat heavy on my shoulders in line, absorbing all the red and green from the walls. The music must have been loud but I couldn't hear it, I could only see the clothes in a pile on the floor as they searched for any trace of her. I focused on it there, like they say to when you're doing something scary. Find a focal point, and my eyes fixed on the gray.
When we returned home that day I packed away all the hard. Every cotton onesie and personalized gingham print and every version of pink were carefully folded by loving hands, sealed beneath thick plastic in the garage. I've met so many mothers who left their rooms untouched, pristine and pastel for months and years but I packed away everything that housed her, and then I painted the walls gray.
Lately I've been wanting to open them. Every box. Sometimes I wait until everyone is asleep, and I creep around quietly and I run my fingers across hospital plastic and baby hair beneath one single piece of scotch tape. I pick up the clothes and I turn the pages and I read the cards, and I whisper to her with all the time and none of the sounds in the world. Sometimes I am near, rushed and preoccupied but the boxes open just the same, as if to simply say hello in reminder, as if to wake me just so.
Sometimes this is all very messy. Sometimes there are loved ones who don't understand, and sometimes there are strangers who pat your shoulder as you quietly sob in the post office line. But although it may look wrong, it feels like the farthest thing from the wrong thing, because it feels like I am letting her in.
This life, this version of good that exists for me is so good that I think it's easy for many to forget the other one. The life that exists just beside this one, the life that lay parallel to my every step; the life that was so close I could touch it, almost take it home. Almost.
I can't forget that life because it's mine now--this one beside the other. Happiness and gratitude, alongside the pain forever. The luckiest parents in the whole world and the absolute unluckiest. The most unlivably livable existence. The cutest family portrait that will never be complete.
Please don't be fooled by my steady hand, because although I'm a survivor I am also forever shaken. Beneath this smile I'm still so very broken. I'm a girl who hides from sweatshirts. I'm a girl, forever one girl down.