06 January 2012

It Is Never One or the Other

"Caring for this child will be a good distraction from your grief."

It was the second time she had knocked on my door to come tell me about her religion. We had told her about Ewan the first time after the four of us had been standing in our open doorway for nearly half an hour. The taller, younger woman who was with her cried as we briefly shared about the 16 days our firstborn was alive while her more talkative counterpart pointed to leaflets, went on about how hopeful I could be, how good I could feel about seeing my son again -- just like she would see her husband again.

I've written about a variety of tensions here often enough, and I told her how this is one that I hold constantly: that the hope I have in a future resurrection doesn't do away with or mitigate grief to any great degree in my present. "I hold both," I told her. "I can affirm with deep conviction my belief that God will raise my son to life again. And I can also say that living with the daily reality of his loss is hell, pure and simple. I know our pain is not without purpose, and I know we will see him again. But that doesn't change the fact that the present reality is hell."

"But ..."

"There is no 'but' to it," I said. "Though I grieve as one who does have hope -- and I thank God every day that I do -- it still hurts like hell. One absolutely does not do away with the other." Even though I knew this point likely wouldn't be embraced, I had to be adamant.

Though different in some important details, I affirmed that a belief in the resurrection of the body was one that we shared as Catholics -- one I affirmed every time I recited the creed, and one that often enough, reduced me to tears when I thought about Ewan in particular, rising with a body restored and perfect. No broken heart.

This time she told me about how after her husband died, one her children bought her a puppy she didn't want. She told her son, "How is caring for a little dog supposed to help? I don't want this!" Her children told her it was never meant to be a replacement, but something that would daily compel her out of focusing on her grief and her loss. But then she found, she said, that it worked. It didn't replace her husband of course, but it gave her something else toward which she could direct her focus.

"This baby will do the same thing for you," she told me.

Their time at my front door was much shorter this time. She was, I observed during that first visit, one of those people with whom it is difficult to get a word in edgewise, so I didn't get to share what I already knew for sure, which is this:

Caring for Austen will not be a distraction from my grief for Ewan. I've already felt how very not distracting it can be: experiencing with my daughter all the things I never got to experience with my son. Things as simple as a bath or a diaper change, or putting on one of several adorable miniature outfits. Taking a ride in the car. Going for a walk with my baby firmly strapped to my chest. Breastfeeding. Smiles and giggles and coos. Celebrating 17 days of life outside the womb, and every day beyond.

Ewan BW018

These experiences will create a new tension: a joy in having them and experiencing them with my daughter, and impressing upon me deeply in those early days and in all the days that come after exactly what I missed out on with my son. It won't be a distraction -- it will be a new way of holding my loss close to my face, a way in which I can examine every nook and cranny and detail with a magnifying glass. In enjoying these beautiful moments with Austen, how can I help but think of what we lost with Ewan in light of these particulars?

It isn't one or the other. It hardly ever is. It is both. You can't have it strictly one way or the other, no matter how much you want to. It is hope and it is pain. It is embracing the present and acknowledging that the past will always be a part of you and how you experience life. It is moving on and it is looking back because there is no way you can forget, even if you wanted to. It is messy and confusing and uncomfortable and not the least bit predictable.

I know she meant well in what she said. I get that. But embracing this new life and all the hope and joy that comes with it is, in addition to being a new and joyful experience in its own right, one more way I will learn to grieve my son -- all over again.