10 February 2011

Learning to be

A few weeks ago, I started writing our story. I actually started a book project. I was getting some of the easier things written out first -- about how James and I met in college and eventually reconnected several years later. When in Nashville, I had a discussion with one of the friends we were staying with (who has had a couple of books published himself) who suggested a different beginning than the one I had originally plotted: our last night in the hospital with Ewan. Show them you're really going to go there.

Naples, FL

He was right. That was the right place to start.

When we got home, I unpacked, went through the mail, cleaned up the bathroom, did laundry. James has been sick with a sinus infection, so we spent some time snuggling on the couch and indulging our current addiction to "Grey's Anatomy". This past Sunday evening, I finally sat down to start pounding out that part of our story. That last night with Ewan is a time I've explored a few times before in my writing and though perhaps I should not have been, I was surprised -- not that I was exhausted and weepy after writing about 800 words -- but at just how deeply exhausted and profoundly weepy I was. That sense of loss is always with me, but being in that night again -- describing the blue vinyl couch we sat on, our conversations with doctors and nurses about Ewan's failing organs that day, and how awkward it was to hold a baby still tethered by his open chest to an ECMO machine -- everything was bubbling right at the surface. It was like I was there holding my dying child again, but without the shock that protected me in those initial hours of loss.

Since that day, I have had moments that have been dark and airless, where it seems as though I cannot catch a breath or see my own hand in front of my face, where it feels as though my heart has shrunk to the size of a dense, cold raisin inside my chest. I have also had moments that were shining with hope, and those where I felt completely numb. I couldn't know that day when I was sitting on the blue vinyl couch with my dying son in my arms what it would feel like in the days, weeks, and months that would follow. But I do now, and so when I look back on that day, it is with a deep knowing and sober understanding that I didn't have (and could not have had) in those first moments. To have felt everything I have in those days that followed illuminates that first day in a fuller way for me -- I see more now about how that day would turn my heart inside out and my life upside-down. Somehow, it makes my recollection of that day feel heavier and weightier, a mighty and sacred thing that will always be with me.

And so I had to step away from the writing for awhile, not because recalling that day brought up anything new, but because it did show me something important, something that I've known on a cerebral level but have only recently started to internalize, and it's this: the loss will always be a part of me. It's not something that I can just get over or get past, and it's not something to be confused about or apologize for. And so while I understood these things, what I'm only beginning to learn goes hand in hand with that knowledge -- that maybe healing doesn't consist so much in seeing a diminishment of the inward experience and outward expression of emotion, but accepting that those things are there and to a certain extent, always will be. Accepting the tears, accepting the pain, accepting the memories that will occasionally make you feel as though all the air has been sucked out of the room.

Without really realizing it, there was a part of my internal dialogue that was telling me to get back to normal, to get on with life, to put on a happy face, to make sure that the number of tears I cried diminished with the passage of time. I would get frustrated and confused when I found myself getting sad or weepy over things that I had wept over a hundred times already. And my internal dialogue would say something rude like: Haven't we been through this already?

I found myself frustrated that I was not nearly as task-oriented as before: that laundry went unfolded and not put away for days, that I would set small daily goals for myself and fail to meet them. This is not who I was before, and I found it nearly impossible to accept.

But what I realized in a new way after writing those 800 words was that because this experience was utterly life-altering, I must arrange my life in such a way that there is space for this huge thing that happened to us, permission for memory and emotion, and for challenging myself in those things for which I don't feel quite ready. I think I was trying to fit this enormous life experience we had into the framework of a life that existed before Ewan came to be. And it won't work that way. I've got to figure out how to let our life fall in line around it, to rearrange things in such a way that I'm not trying to live as though nothing ever happened. I'm sure that with practice, I will get better at answering e-mails again in less than a couple of months, that I will find that in fact, I can fold the towels within 24 hours of the dryer clicking off.

So for now, I'm learning to be in this place that makes room for my family, my work, my friends, and doing those things that are important to me. And I'm learning to accept what it is, arrange it around a loss that wasn't there before. Maybe I won't able to cross as many things off my list as before, but I will figure it out. And if you're still hanging in there with me, I just want to say: Thanks.