He tried to make a joke then; an attempt to shield our six year old from something we never could have. "Must have been some jam!"
His voice became a whisper. "Daddy, it's not the cars."
What is there to say about March 31st anymore? If her birthday is the day we said goodbye, her due date is the stark reminder of the contrast; the life we never got to see. The one that was close enough to touch, inside a day that passes without pause. Every year I write the date on the board and pray some unassuming adolescent doesn't enter before I can catch my breath. I'm aware that this is someone's birthday; someone's anniversary. I'm aware the absurdity that is to hold your two healthy, beautiful children in your arms and still declare that the world owes you something. It's just that on this day, it's so very clear to me that it does.
I've seen exactly one therapist face-to-face since my daughter died. Four months after her death on a borderline suicidal day in May, I Googled some names and made a list on a paper towel. The following week I showered and put on lipstick and straightened my hair and wore pointed flats. Back then I was desperate to look like the person who inhabited this body before her daughter died inside it.
She asked why I was there and let me ramble for twenty minutes. I told her how my daughter's heart stopped beating one Saturday between breakfast and nap time. I told her that I was finding it increasingly difficult to relate to those around me; that it felt like people thought I was okay because I was smiling or replying to emails or keeping my lunch down. I explained how the thoughts in my head didn't match my disposition; how I smiled through the department meeting and then wondered about the most painless ways to die at bedtime. I told her about the friend who sent the shower invitation, and the one who stopped calling, and the one who invited me to the concert. I told her it felt like the world had already forgotten her; how that hurt more than delivering her lifeless body into a silent hospital room.
My therapist offered some solid advice. She told me that I was at the epicenter of what happened to me, and that no one stands with me there---not my friends, not my sisters, not my husband. She said it wasn't realistic of me to expect anyone to understand, because they couldn't possibly. Because no one experienced my daughter's death like I had.
In the weeks that followed I would see her twice more. During our last visit she asked me to tell her about that morning.
"It was bad," I offered, suddenly wanting to be anywhere else.
Her eyes pushed me from across the room and my words became a question.
She told me that my struggles were certainly normal, but especially persistent since I spent the majority of my time trying to make those around me feel more comfortable with the trauma I'd experienced, rather than attempting to process any of it for myself. She suggested that even if it cost me some friends, I should focus on honesty: a daily effort to confront the pain and emotional scar that becomes one's life, after holding her dead baby in her arms.
"I don't think that's accurate," I said, annoyed.
We stared at each other a minute, and then she got up and walked towards me. She knelt at my feet and looked directly into my eyes, covered my fingers with hers. It was then that I noticed my knuckles had turned white. I could feel my stomach in my fists, like knots in my lap.
For nearly five minutes I wept into her shoulder. I felt found, as if this were some sick game of Hide and Seek and she'd just discovered me, crouched inside the armoire.
Metaphorically, (and cheaply) grief is a weight. In the wake of immense loss, grief is what follows you home, sits on your chest. Grief is the unwelcome guest who makes death seem a friend, and then allows the breath anyway.
But the grief is never all you carry.
People used to tell me it wouldn't be so bad forever. I would nod but in my mind I grew angry. My arms would forever be emptier; my smile always kinked. She would never be here, with me and so nothing could ever be "better", by definition. Of course it would always be so bad. I owed her that much.
The pain never lessens, as some say. But you do learn to carry it in such a way that in time, you can carry other things too.
Sometimes it seems so perfect here, that I have to remind myself that it isn't. Perfect. Here.
Sometimes, I find myself feeling so nearly complete that I almost forget that I will never be that.
Sometimes, after his bath he pulls his face close to mine and says "Mommy, Nose!" And our foreheads touch and he laughs in that infectious way babies do, and I find myself wondering how there could have ever been a version of my life, that exists without him in it.
And sometimes, when it's seventy two and sunny, or when a smile lasts a second too long, or when there's a standstill and I catch both of them in the mirror behind me I say it out loud, and I pretend it's her voice in my ear.
It was never up to you.
It's not wrong to be grateful for this.
It's okay to be happy here.