Until sitting down to write this piece, I had forgotten that on the day of Alice’s visitation, there was a fly in the room. It was buzzing around incessantly, and nothing and no one could get it out of the room. It landed on Alice a couple of times, which just absolutely creeped me out to the core. It landed on other people too, mind you, and this didn’t seem to piss me off so badly, but it really brought up the vigilante-mama-bear in me when it landed on Alice. The instinct to “kill” was about as strong as I have ever felt. All I could think was “GET. OFF. MY. BABY…NOW! KILL! KILL!” I did my best not to let it ruin my moments with her, but I’d be lying if I said that it didn’t make my stomach churn. I lay down next to her to protect her from the fly, because your instinct to protect your child does not leave with their soul.
Except I could not catch the damn thing. No one could catch the damn thing. I thought my Dad was going to get a flamethrower to kill that thing; he seemed as pissed off as I was. That damn fly was in there for days. Well, that fly, and/or one of its family members. Suffice it to say, there was one lone fly in my bedroom for days after Alice’s visitation, and I could only get to sleep by placing my head under the covers.
Wouldn’t you know, the very day after I wrote the above paragraph, there was a fly on the bottle of mouthwash that I was about to use. It didn’t move when I picked up the bottle. It didn’t move when I shooed it away. I left the bottle and went to bed. The fly followed me into the room, and buzzed my head as I tried to sleep, just as it had in those first days after she died. It makes you wonder.
This whole thing made me recall a strange dream I’d had a few months before Alice died. I don’t recall my dreams very often, but every once in awhile, I will wake up from one, bolt upright, and think “WHOA!” In these instances, I generally recall the dream in vivid detail, even years later. The dream I am about to tell you about was one of those dreams.
I guess I had this dream six or seven months before Alice died. I woke up feeling a little haunted by the dream. In the dream, I was a little old woman on my deathbed. It appeared to be a hospital or some such. It was dark. It was one of those dreams where you are looking at yourself, as if you are in the audience watching, rather than seeing it through your own eyes, as if you are there in the action. Do you know what I mean? Anyway, I was looking at myself on what I knew was my deathbed, it was dark, with a little light peeking in from the hallway through the doorway and window. Grace was sitting by my side, to my right, between my bed and the door to the hallway. Grace looked to be in her 60s or so. I felt very, very peaceful. My dream-self suddenly panicked and asked Grace, “Where is Alice?” Grace replied, “Alice is here, Mama.” I told her that I couldn’t see her, still feeling panicked. Grace turned and pointed over her shoulder, behind her, and said, “Mama, she is right there. See?” Suddenly, I saw Alice. But Alice was a toddler. And Alice was not lit the same as Grace and I. And Alice’s dimensions were not the same as ours; she seemed bigger or closer to my eyes, despite being located directly next to Grace. And she was in a strange position, like she was almost floating over the bed next to Grace’s head. And she was still and silent. It was like someone Photoshopped a photo of Alice from another event into the scene and failed to try to make it look cohesive. In the dream, however, I took no offense to any of that and my dream-self lit up when I saw her. Grace lit up when she saw that I lit up. And the three of us smiled peacefully together.
Then I woke up. And I thought, “WHOA, what was that all about?’ In real life, I definitely thought it was strange that toddler Alice seemed Photoshopped into my deathbed scene where Grace and I were definitely elderly. But I didn’t really know what to make of it. Eventually, I forgot about it, until about a month after Alice died. My stomach churned, for suddenly, out of the blue, I recalled that dream and knew what it meant. I knew that the dream meant that Alice would not be at my deathbed, and, in fact, would always be a toddler. It made my heart ache and my head spin. I felt sick. It still does sicken me. But at that point, only a month after she died, I turned it into another thing to feel guilty about: “I should have known what it meant, and then I could have done something to prevent it.”
Bollocks, I know. But The Guilt still had some claws in me. I was doing much, much better. But things like this could get me going.
This was a big work day for me, one of the longest I had since Alice died. I was able to get through work OK, but once I was finished, I was exhausted. I mean EXHAUSTED. Grace was still with Sophie, Eddie and Kristen; she stayed with them all day. That family has been so supportive, and I will be forever grateful. The kids made art, and went to the incredible Noah’s Ark exhibit at the Skirball Museum. At one point, Sophie told Grace she had a surprise for her, and Grace replied, “OK, as long as it isn’t my mom!” She was terrified I was going to pick her up earlier than planned. I took that as a good sign. I was so happy that she was having some fun with a friend in the midst of all the emotional chaos. I was just like her as a kid. I loved being at other people’s houses.
I worked on “Thank you, Alice” between patients and was actually finding that process cathartic and, strangely, uplifting. Any port in a storm, people. It was hotter than hell that day, and so, naturally, our AC went out. I am not good in the heat. Actually, that is a massive understatement. I remember laying on the tile floor in the bathroom, in my underwear, sweating my brains out while I typed furiously trying to finish writing my daughter’s memorial piece. I thought, “When they say, ‘hot as hell,’ this just might be what they meant.” I think it was 102 inside the house. In my 19 years in LA, it has never been 102 inside the domicile. I only had an hour or so to finish the piece before I had to leave for my next patient, and I was on a roll, so I motored through, in my undies, on the bathroom floor.
I didn’t finish the piece, but I was awarded an extension by the MOMS Club Newsletter Editor. I guess they thought I had a good excuse.
I knew I couldn’t sleep in the house, and I knew that I could not afford to get no sleep. It was very clear to me, even in those early days, that sleep was critical to my mental health. Nights I did not sleep well, were followed by days that were noticeably more difficult to navigate through; days that were just profoundly SAD. So sad. I had no control over much of what caused my sadness, so I had to do what I could not to make it worse. I couldn’t, and can’t, go around doing things I know will make it worse. So, I called a nearby hotel and booked a room.
It was over 100 degrees in the house at 8:00 p.m., and no one was going to be able to sleep like that. As it turns out, the hotel’s AC was out too, but they didn’t bother to tell me that when I booked the room over the phone, despite the fact that I told them I lived in the neighborhood and needed the room because my AC was out. I was not amused. I may or may not have raised my voice. I definitely cried. They moved us into one of the few rooms with air, but Grace was already asleep, so I had to carry her, and everything else, to the new room, which was mildly air conditioned, but not what I had in mind when I forked over the cash. All of the hallways were like sweat houses.
Several members of my Irish Mafia were not amused, and someone, I forget who, raised such a stink, that they gave us some money off of the room. Thanks, Irish Mafia.
I collapsed. And I cried.
Saturday, August 31
The AC guy couldn’t get to the house to fix the AC until late morning, so I stayed at the partially air-conditioned room and put the finishing touches on Alice’s memorial piece for the newsletter.
To say it is surreal to write your child’s memorial piece is probably an understatement. I don’t know any other word to describe it, however. I just sat there, thinking, “I can’t believe I am doing this. I cannot believe that my life has led me to a place where this is necessary.” But I knew I had to. I felt compelled to do it. I had to honor my baby.
In the aftermath of losing your child to sudden, unexpected death, reality becomes very tenuous. Nothing seems real. Well, very little seems real. The only thing that seems real is love. I am well aware that that sounds like sentimental drivel. I am well aware that that sounds like a cliché. But I am also well aware, now, that it is true.
I still get caught up in meaningless stress from time to time like everyone else. Crying over the AC situation, for starters. But I’ll tell you, it doesn’t happen as often. And, let’s face it, my tears over the AC situation were mostly tears of exhaustion and tears over Alice. It seemed clear to me that these tears had suddenly found a new outlet from which to pour forth.
In any event, at this time in the aftermath, the world still very much seemed “fake.” The world still seemed like a movie set. I would just stare and stare at my surroundings, but all the staring in the world could not make them seem real.
Finally, the AC was fixed, and I returned home. I remember little of the day besides deciding I was going to start a blog about my experience. Writing that first piece had been really healing, and I wanted to heal. Well, part of me wanted to heal. Another part feels that if you heal, you are abandoning your child. Luckily, the wiser part of me knew this was nonsense, but it is still a war you can still feel fight within you. I knew the part that knew it needed to heal had to win, so I did all I could to facilitate that.
There were other reasons for wanting to write this blog, however. I wanted to write it for Grace. She was four years old when this happened. Do you remember being four? Not much, right? I want her to remember her sibling, I want her to know what happened to her family, and in a few years, or months, I won’t remember all these vivid details. I want her to have her history available to her, when she is old enough to want to know what her history entails.
And, mostly, in the beginning at least, I just didn’t have enough breath with which to tell the story. I still don’t, to be honest. Talking for any length of time, about any topic, just really wipes me out since Alice died. It is an undeniable fact. I didn’t, and don’t, mind sharing the information, I just felt like I didn’t have enough breath with which to do it. I feel that my loved ones, my neighbors, my family, and anyone that cares, really, deserves to know, for they loved her too.
I remember sitting across from people in those early days—and in recent days too, truth be told—and seeing the utter shock and horror on their face. I could see “I. HAVE . NO. IDEA. WHAT. TO. SAY” written all over their faces. I could tell they wanted to ask what happened, but were not sure if it was OK to ask. I could they wanted to know out of a desire to support, not morbid curiosity. I could tell that they, in fact, NEEDED to know, because they needed to learn to cope with Alice’s death also. They needed to know what happened because they needed to know if their two-year-old was going to die for no good reason. They needed to know how I was, so that they could determine what to do for me, because, I also saw written all over their faces a strong desire to DO SOMETHING—ANYTHING—to help. The old me would have shunned the help. The new me knew this was too big to do alone.
So, I write this to save my breath. I write this for Grace. And, I write this to help myself, and in doing so have come to realize that it has helped some others as well.
I did not set out to help others per se; I just could not sit across from THAT FACE (that I described above) again, because I felt awful for the people wearing that face. I felt awful for me too. And writing this blog seemed a good way to solve both issues with one swipe of the pen, so to speak. If you can help yourself and others in one action, that seems like the right action to take.
So, I drone on.
I wrote Bubba, and Ramsay, and maybe Kristen to brainstorm names for the blog. Ultimately, I decided on Mothering in Memoriam. It just came to me. I didn’t love it at first, but I didn’t have anything better, and I knew I needed to get going, before I chickened out. Now, I like it. It reminds me that I am always her mother. I am always Grace’s mother. And though I can still care for Grace’s body, mind and soul, I now can only care for Alice’s soul, and maybe not even that. I can however, take care of her legacy. I can take care of how Grace will relate to the memory of Alice. So, I write this to care for Alice in the only way I can think to do so; I write to nurture her legacy and her relationship to her only sibling.
When I wrote Kristen to run through blog names with her, she told me that she too wrote a blog, and that her last entry had been about Alice. She had taken a photo of Alice’s name—I have wooden letters that spell the girls’ names over their beds—for her piece. I was deeply touched. She and her husband Eddie have been great friends, and great mentors for Grace.
One of my clients stopped by that afternoon. Let’s call her Michelle. Michelle had started to see me for grief support in the Fall of 2011. Her young adult daughter had died suddenly, and she was working through her grief. In the next year, she also lost two other key family members. I remember thinking, “My God, how do you even make toast again after something like that?” Michelle was one of eight grief patients I had at that time. That is a good percentage of my overall number of patients a week. I had never before had so many grief patients. Not even close. In fact, I doubt whether I had ever had even two at the same time, prior to this period. I have often thought if I was sent all of those grief patients as a preparation, of sorts, for what I was going to go through in August 2013. It makes you wonder.
In the Spring of 2013, I started to treat yet another bereaved young mother. Her baby was 18 months old when she died, and the baby was two days older than Alice. The baby died of SUDC. I cried and cried and cried at home for this family. It was just to close to home, and I couldn’t help but put myself in her shoes and wonder how she would get through something like that. In the end, “too close to home” doesn’t even begin to do it justice. I had wondered how those two mothers could ever do something as basic as make toast again, but now I was the one who was going to have to learn to make toast again.
I can make toast now. But, it doesn’t feel as satisfying as it once did. I didn’t know it then, but all of these things I started doing last late summer and fall were helping me learn to make toast: the yoga, meditation, counseling, writing, saying ‘yes,’ saying ‘no’ when necessary (and not feeling guilty for doing so), and surrounding myself with supportive people, kindly allowing those that weren’t supportive to fade into the background for the time being. I didn’t know it then, but this was the week that I got my kitchen ready so to speak. I had all of the ingredients, all of the tools, and I was beginning to experiment with how best to use them to make the best toast possible. I didn’t know it then, because I was in a daze, and just trying to survive, but I know now that this was the week that I began to try to make toast, in earnest.
Sunday, September 1
Many people continued to write that they had services read, or prayers read, and candles lit for Alice at churches, temples, synagogues, all over the United Sates, and even across the pond. I appreciated each and every one of those gestures more than I can say. I do feel it helps. I have no proof other than I am still here to tell the tale. I am still here and functional, and productive, and I just don’t know that that would be true without the massive amounts of love that were sent my way, and continue to be sent my way to this day. I am so incredibly grateful for that love.
I could still feel an actual hole in my heart at this time. So weird. It really, truly feels like a hole. And I felt like colored light was soaring through that hole in tiny, thin threads. Pink, blue, yellow and green threads speeding through the pitch black hole in my heart. I could see it, in my mind’s eye. In retrospect, I like to think, that all those strands of light emanated from all the folks that said they were sending love and light. At the time, however, I was in no shape to make that connection; I was just in awe of the trippy experience I was having.
I was still saying “yes” to all offers of help, support, and the like, and to that end, I decided to go to a friend’s church service that Sunday. It is a non-denominational church. They had youth group for Grace, and she could go with my friend’s child. It sounded like a nice thing to try, and thus far, everything I had tried had been helpful on some level, so I went in that spirit.
In the end, it wasn’t for me, and there were a couple of things that made me panicky. The main thing that caused me panic was the lesson of the day, which involved a call-and-response between pastor and congregation: “I do CPR on myself, and I’M ALIVE!!!”
I didn’t cry, but it did make me very, very sad. It also kicked up The Guilt, for I had done CPR on Alice, and she was decidedly not alive. Recalling that made my stomach churn, and my heart break…again. I had a mild panic attack in the seat, but I was able to keep it under control.
I could see that my friend was freaking out, that she knew that the call-and-response was probably not what my soul needed that day, and that she was worried that I was angry. I was not angry. I was not angry at her, at the church, at anyone. I did, however want to get out of there, and quick. But I didn’t want to be rude, so I stuck it out.
The service got worse from there, but I can’t recall what happened, really, because I was in a daze over the call-and-response. At the end, they paraded all the children out to sing on the stage with the pastor. I couldn’t see Grace as all the kids came filing on to the stage. Finally, I saw her, clutching to a teacher’s leg, begging to not have to enter the room to go on stage. I flew out of my seat to go to her. I didn’t care if I made a scene.
My friend followed me out and apologized profusely. I told her that it was not her fault, because it wasn’t. I was not angry at her. I was not angry at all. I was shell-shocked.
No one can know what will help at a time like that—not even I knew what would help and what would not. All you can do is be open to things that might be helpful, maintain the things that do help, and refrain from that which does not. Spending time getting angry over things that don’t help, is not helpful, and closes you off from things that might help you in the future. I wanted to stay open. But I also wanted out of there. So, we left.
We had been invited over to David and Barb Serby’s house for a small swim party. Grace and I were both looking forward to it. And, it turned out to be a prefect day for it, for it was really, really hot that day. I drove to their house in a daze.
Apparently, I was in a bigger daze than I realized, for I showed up two hours early to the swim party. EMBARRASSING. Somehow, I got the time wrong. Barb and Dave were awfully sweet about the whole thing, and we stayed and “helped” them get ready for the others. Dawn and my friend Kim were coming closer to the actual scheduled time.
Grace took to Dave like white on rice, and monopolized his pool time, but he was an awfully good sport about it. Then she monopolized Barb. And Kim. And Dawn. Everyone had a turn.
This enabled me to swim unencumbered for a spell, which was a delight. I still found the water very, very soothing. Very healing. I allowed myself to enjoy every second in that pool, and the feeling of the water all around me. It helped ease the panic. The water always helps to ease the panic.
As we all sat beside the pool enjoying snacks and some beautiful butterflies,I told them about the beetle that had buzzed my head right after Alice died, and how I had looked to the sky and asked, “Alice, if that is you, can you come back as something quieter, and a little less stressful? Mama’s nerves can’t take it.” And how, right after that, a beautiful butterfly appeared.
Right when I said that last part, and I mean right in the middle of that sentence, a beetle flew directly at my head, missing it by an inch. The ladies gasped. Come On. That is weird, right?
Monday, September 2
I still woke up sad, but I wasn’t waking up feeling like I was going to puke and cry simultaneously anymore. I believe this was my first day that I had Janet at the Pilates studio we generally used for her workouts. For the last month, she insisted that we workout at her home, I suppose because she wanted to take it easy on me, but knew that I indeed had to work. Janet has been a truly remarkable friend for years, but especially over the last year.
As I sat waiting for Janet to arrive, one of the teachers walked up to me, patted my thigh, and said, “Oh, good, you’re all better now.”
I just stared, dumbfounded.
She patted me again, putting her face close to mine. “You’re all better, now, right?”
I stammered that I was hanging in there, but not sure if I could be considered “all better.” This was less than a month since Alice had died, mind you.
She patted my shoulder then, “But, you’re all better, right?”
Apparently, she was simply going to insist that I was all better until I folded. I was dumbstruck. I just stared.
“You have to be strong, now. You have to move on. You’re all better now,” she said as she walked away. As if her words alone could cure me.
I stared at another teacher, Olivia, to see what her face registered. Perhaps I was being too sensitive? The other teacher had tears in her eyes. She came over and hugged me silently. She couldn’t talk either. She just cried and shook her head.
The “all better” teacher is a parent. I just found the entire thing shocking. Did she honestly think that she would be “all better” less than a month after her child died? Really?? REALLY?
Unsolicited advice item #4 (is it 4?): Do not tell me how to heal. Do not tell me to be strong. Do not tell me I’m “all better.” Do not tell me how to grieve, period. Do not tell me I “have to be strong for Grace.” I am strong, dammit. Do not tell me how to do anything, frankly. No one can possibly know what it’s like unless it has happened to them, and even still, every story, every person, is different, and even then, people have to heal IN THEIR OWN WAY.
It’s beautiful to be concerned. It is wonderful to ask how I am, if I need anything, etc. But if you want me to shut down to you, tell me how you think I should be doing my healing.
Sometime this week had to post a sign at Grace’s school requesting that parents not ask me about how Alice died in front of Grace. We had not told her how Alice died exactly and were advised not to do so at that stage because it could cause sleep problems at her age. In fairness, we did not know how Alice died exactly, except that she appeared to have done so in her sleep. When I would drop Grace off at school, I was surrounded by parents asking for all the details, in front of Grace. I handled it calmly at the time, asking politely that they not talk to me about it in front of Grace, but it was ceaseless. So, finally, I made a sign, politely requesting that they ask me in private if they had questions, and explained my reasons for it. It worked. And I am deeply grateful for that. Taking Grace to school became a lot less stressful after that, but it was still heartbreaking. It was so painfully obvious that I was walking one child to her teacher, but not the other. It was painfully obvious that I waited with one child to get cereal and juice, and not two children. It was painfully obvious that the teachers were devastated. It was painfully obvious that the little children had no idea what happened, really. Some knew she died, but they weren’t really sure what that meant, and their big eyes looked to me to clarify it for them.
In short, it was painful going to that school. And any little thing I could do to make it less painful, I had to do.
I went on to work from there and had fairly full schedule that day. I was very tired when I got home. Once Grace was asleep, I paced, outside, as had become my custom.
I had recently realized that I paced. I probably paced for a couple of weeks before I realized it. But that is exactly what I did after Grace went to bed. I went outside, and paced. Sometimes, I thought and paced, sometimes I was blank and paced, but every night, I paced. I paced from my front steps, down the walk, to the left down the sidewalk to the driveway and back. And again. And again. And again. I am surprised I didn’t wear a hole in the ground. I am surprised my neighbors didn’t ask what the hell I was doing. I was surprised, when I realized that I was doing it, that I had done it so long without noticing. Who expends all that energy without noticing?
I pondered the answer while I paced some more, and imagined my daughter pacing with me. She would have thought it was a hoot.
To this day, every once in a while I have the all-consuming urge to look down to my right and smile. I like to think I am smiling at Alice. I hope she knows I still smile for her like I do for her sister.
And I am forever grateful for all of my family and friends who keep a smile on my face. You know who you are.