I sat on the dock today, the waves lapping, and relief washed over me.
I was nearly giddy with it, reminded almost of the time I was eleven and found out that another girl I knew also had her period. I wasn't the only one out there, I was like someone else. At that time I knew, of course, that there were other girls of eleven who had their periods. I knew I wasn't the only one, that I wasn't really the only girl going into seventh grade with her period already. But I felt like I was, and I was so afraid of wearing white pants and what to do with my tampon so that nobody would see it in my pocket on the way to the bathroom and what I would do if I got it in the middle of the day and didn't have anything with me. To share those worries with a friend, to know that she shared those same fears, it washed me clean with relief.
And this was completely different, but the same deep breath fell over me, the same feeling of oneness.
So seven years ago, I came to this magical place where I summer, alone without my baby. I say alone, even though Greg, and my parents, and my sisters were here with me, because I could not have possibly felt more alone. I have written about this homecoming before, and it literally almost killed me. Distant from the numbness I had felt upon arriving home from the hospital without Charlotte, here I was arriving at the family homestead without the baby I had conceived here the summer before. It was probably the one thing I had truly imagined myself doing with my new baby for my entire life, even before I knew who I would marry or when I would have children. It was always one of my truths: when I have children, I will bring them to the cottage. I arrived alone.
The beloved family members who have held me, cradled, in this nest of a community since my first visit at age 3 weeks all told me they were sorry. They did hug me and stroke my upper arm and bring me vases of flowers. Some, the mothers especially, came to the service we held out in front of the cottage on my 27th birthday, beneath the tall pine trees where we had been married two summers earlier. But after all those initial formalities had taken place, I was most certainly expected to lift my chin and get on with it. Life carried on for everyone else, and so it seemed it should for me, as well. I had hoped for more. I had hoped that more people would sit quietly with me, and ask about Charlotte. I had wished for more intimate moments with those who had watched me grow from baby to little girl to woman, who would reach out to me as mothers, cry a little at my tragedy, and let me sit with my sadness. This did not happen. I tried not to show my disappointment, but it was very real at the time.
Three years later, I was at the annual regatta celebration where all the family gathers for children's water races, hilarious canoe antics, and a giant dinner and square dance. Liam was with me, he was two, and Aoife was four months old. Always, at this event, there are people from long ago who I haven't seen in some time, and this year was no exception. Among the guests was a woman who I had grown up near, but not exactly with. Her uncle married into the point, and she had spent the summers here as a child but was seven years older than me. At that time, such a gap was obviously too great for us to have any type of friendship, and so she was consequently more somebody I knew of, than somebody I knew. Nevertheless she held some sort of memorable fame in my household because my mother had given my sister the same name as her, having thought it lovely watching this lovely then-nine-year-old frolic upon the commons with her friends.
So there she was, this woman, somebody I knew, but not really. She had three children with her, and a husband. And then somebody says to me, Hey, did you know that the same thing that happened to you happened to Stephanie a few years before you?
It was as if everything went silent, and then blurry, and all I could hear were those words. I was stunned, floored, amazed. These people knew this about her, and about me, and nobody thought to tell me? For the four weeks that I had wandered in a trance, barely able to form a coherent sentence in my grief, nobody had thought to say, You know, you should call Stephanie. Her daughter Alexandra died a few years ago. But here it was, here they were. The words were here now, and we gravitated towards each other, and made that connection we wished we didn't have. Over the course of the next few days we shared our stories in detail, the stories of our daughters, and our subsequent children, and our struggles with friends and family. Our paths didn't cross for long that summer, but it settled me immensely to know that there was somebody in my cottage world who really knew what I had been through.
Which brings me to yesterday, lying on the dock, in the warm August sunshine. Fiona Clementine was at home in bed, and Greg was on the porch listening for her. The kids were wallowing in the shallow water by the dock, and I was pleased to see Stephanie come down to the dock with her two sons and daughter. Aoife immediately engaged her little girl in some drama, while the boys ran off with surfboards to roll in the waves as they came into the shallows. The sun beat down, and we began to catch up from the previous year. At some point, the conversation turned to our children, and one of us mentioned that we have some "issues" with worrying about our children.
I joke about it, I said to her, I call them my mental health problems. But I can't be separated from my children.
It's not a joke, she said. I feel the same way. My boys are 8 and 9 and I've never slept apart from them. I just can't do it, I don't want to.
Suddenly the stories began to flow like melted butter, all the times we'd worried and panicked. I'd never done this before with a friend, not ever. I've made many friends who have lost babies through the group that I run, but they are all bringing up babies right now. Being clingy to a baby and being clingy to a walking, talking, school aged child with friends, and interests, and goals are two completely different things. And it is true also that most of my friends live with some degree of fear that "something might happen" to their child, but I live in fear that once again I will find myself sucked into that vacuum that I know all too well, that feeling of having been knocked flat without a chance of drawing a full breath. I know and remember that void, that pit in my stomach, that feeling of wanting to die from the pain. While they fear the unknown, I am frantically trying to run from what I know too well. So is Stephanie.
We also shared what our children are to us. That they, themselves, are a relief. I told her, when I think about my children, I feel like I am being dipped in warm wax, the relief just floods over me over and over, they are here, they are here, I am somebody's mother for real. She and I have both experienced the loss of our only child; we both know the absolute agony of being desperately, completely alone to lie on the cold bathroom floor in the fetal position, knowing that we can never be healed, not ever. We've both felt the futility of eating, breathing, doing anything to stay alive when our only purpose in life is gone. And so then, now, our living children have reversed this. They are fonts into which we can pour our love, our energy, our time, and our hope. They represent not just what they are, which is here, alive, creative, fun, amazing little people, but they also represent what they are not: they are not pain, emptiness, futility. Our children are huge, they loom over us and wrap us in cloaks of purpose and soak us with torrents of love that we soak up with open hearts. They remind us every day how fortunate we are, and never allow us to forget that little girl that we lost.
I take a big, deep breath even now, knowing that I have had this conversation with another soul on earth. That somebody heard my stories about waking in the night after Fiona Clementine was born, feeling certain she was gone, and she had done that, too. Done it in the same way I had, with adrenaline pumping and the memory of that awful void rearing its ugly head. That somebody could relate to the fact that i don't even really want to go away on a nice vacation with my husband, even if somebody else paid for the tickets and the hotel and everything, and even if my kids were going to be taken care of by all four of their doting grandparents in their own house, because even then the anxiety I would feel being away from them would be too much. It was amazing to know that somebody else weighs every decision with the thought that she might, and could be, the instrument of her child's death, and errs on the side of caution. Somebody else who will halve grapes the long way until her children are teenagers, and who will never let them go on the class trip to the amusement park unless she is there.
It's especially nice because in this place, this ground which is so hallowed to me, this has been the missing piece: somebody, anybody, who really understands. But she is here.