Baby Alex turns 4 years old tomorrow. There is a part of me that wants to take the whole day, check into a hotel room and just lay in bed and cry. There is a part of me that wants to take the whole day, bundle up all three of my kids on earth, and make them cuddle me all day. And there is the rational, everyday part of me that has no idea what to do.
As much as I never thought that time would heal the wound of losing Alex, that wound isn’t a gaping hole anymore. It is God’s grace that has healed me. It is God’s will that has given me two beautiful girls after taking away my beautiful boy. I’m not sure how the algebra of my life is supposed to work. One mommy + two sons – one son + two daughters= ?
Overall, four years later, life is good. I don’t dread getting out of bed in the morning. I don’t cringe when I hear Alex’s name. I remember Alex with a fondness that brings a smile to my face, despite a little heaviness in my chest. I feel his absence more than I remember his presence, but that feels normal. I don’t forget that he is gone. His absence feels normal. I don’t remember the time that he was here. Most of my memories of Alex all circle on his departure.
I remember his funeral. I remember his little body in my arms at the hospital. I remember using his nursery as a dumping ground for all the baby stuff until I could finally compose myself enough to see everything again. I remember giving away every “little brother” shirt, bib and trinket I owned. I remember the silence of the house and the useless wishing that there was a baby crying for me in the middle of the night.
Four years later, instead of vivid pictures of a broken mommy wandering around an empty house, I have subtle reminders of the boy who used to be here. I have dusty pictures frames scattered throughout the house. I have Christmas ornaments that stay up year round. I have the memory of “baby Alex” who is mentioned at every prayer time. Four years later, I have this gray cloud hovering above me that doesn’t break through with thunderstorms, but it doesn’t let in all the sunshine either. I’m left with this muted feeling that seems to numb me from the extremes of life.
Muted grief is better. It is less crying, less pain and less sadness. It enables you to explain what happened to “baby Alex” when the 6 year old big brother mentions him to a stranger. It helps you face holidays and birthdays and other events without him, knowing that even the sad times will pass. More than anything, muted grief helps keep your life and your emotions under control. You don’t worry about the messiness of grief that shows up unexpectedly and makes things awkward and uncomfortable.
That muted feeling applies to all the happy things in life too. It prevents you from feeling that simple heart bursting feeling every time you see one of your children nestled in bed, cozy and asleep. It subdues the happiness you feel when you see your kids holding hands, or hugging each other without prompting. It doesn’t eliminate the joy, but it takes the edge off. It turns down the volume and blurs the colors of life. Instead of a world made of 64 colors with the sharpener in the back, the world around you seems drawn in sepia hues. Pretty, but dull.
The muted reality of my life is bearable. I accept the continuous days with little variance. There are ups and downs, but not as up, and not as down as it should be. It feels like this coping mechanism shouldn’t be necessary anymore though. I feel like I have worn this security blanket for too long, and it is time to take off some of the armor. To open up my eyes to the colors of life, and push away the cloud that holds back the sun.
Even after all this time, I will admit I am scared about what is left. I had this box of grief that I unwrapped, examined and then put away. I assumed that there wasn’t anything left to do once the box was empty, so I haven’t really thought much about it. The problem is that sometimes it isn’t just about emptying the box of all the sad parts. I think you’re supposed to replace that grief with something else. I think you’re supposed to fill up that box with acceptance. Hope. Love. You’re supposed to replace that box with warmer emotions, otherwise that empty box takes on more meaning in your life than it should. You can tackle grief and accept loss. But if you never start to experience happiness and joy in the same way, you’re missing out on the more profound emotions of life.
I thought that not crying every day meant that I was “okay.” I thought that being “okay” meant that I could handle my life and move on. I now realize that being “okay” isn’t enough for me. This mommy wants more than muted grief. She wants loud joy, even if it comes with noisy sadness. Messy love and disorderly emotion.
Alex’s birthday reminds me of what we have lost, and it serves as a warning to embrace what is left.
Birthday cakes, balloons, skinned knees, first loves, lost teeth, broken hearts, winning games, report cards, vacations, illnesses, celebrations. There is a lot of life left in the household and I am ready to open myself to all of it.
There are parts of me that are forever changed. I can no longer just look at our children sleeping peacefully with a heart full of innocent joy. I face a moment of panic where I need to jostle them just a bit. Enough to see some movement or hear some sounds to assure me that they will wake up in the morning. The panic I feel in that moment gives me some hope though. Instead of a detached resignation that something terrible might have happened again, I can still muster up the love and the fear that drives every moment of our lives as parents. That moment isn’t foggy and the moments of relief afterwards are sharp and vivid and real.
I take comfort in knowing that even if my reactions to life seem muted, the love I have for these bears is not.