The love for what I’ve lost magnifies the love for what is now.
Every day as I love this baby in my lap, I think of my other baby. Poor older brother, poor missing one…The love for the first magnifies the love for the second, and vice versa. – Elizabeth McCracken, An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination
February is a month of panic for me, a month of hurt. Everything feels like a trigger—a suggestion, an imagined slight, anticipated encounters that cannot be controlled. On their surface, many of these triggers have nothing to do with the death of my son, but they point to a vibrating anxiety that his death two years ago on Valentine’s Day created.
During this cold, bright month, snow falling in foot-high drifts in some parts of the country, the sky clear and blue where I live in New Mexico, this shaky, volcanic uncertainty governs my emotions, my life. “Grief is frustrating,” a friend of mine wisely notes. It’s troubling to be aware of being ungrounded and not be able to think one’s way out of it.
All I can think about is things coming apart, or things that might. I’m an expert at rolling out any imagined scenario to the worst possible outcome: loneliness, despair, betrayal, confirmation of the worst fears about myself that years of therapy has failed to completely eradicate. “I’d like to be less broken,” I tell my therapist. “Maybe you should start with changing your self-description,” she suggests, and she’s right, and yet that’s the word that comes to mind.
I was on a metaphorical ground, a rock bottom, during the two long years of Ronan’s illness—locked in terror, bullied by his father—and I’m not sure I’ve ever gotten up. Part of me is still in that room with Ronan after he died, staring at the circus poster on the wall, the smell of rancid diapers lingering in the air, the sense of a spirit having just been crushed. How can you absorb seeing your child for the last time? My baby, my boy.
Elizabeth McCracken, in her memoir about having a stillborn baby, written while her second, living child was a baby himself, loses the ability to speak French after her first son’s death (she and her husband lived in France at the time). Now, she writes, she must look words up, the “blunt-force” trauma of losing a child having knocked that ability away from her, a ball kicked far off the field, never to be retrieved. The game goes on, as of course it must.
Everyone loses someone they love, and then loses something else. What I lost was trust. Trust in the goodness of the world, in luck, in sure things. Truthfully, I knew these concepts were capricious long before Ronan was diagnosed with a terminal disease that took his life before his third birthday, but it has worsened since, even with a happy (finally) marriage, even with a healthy daughter who crawls and babbles and reaches for me and sleeps tucked into my side each night, snoring and sighing.
I feel an increasing need for reassurance, a need for life and emotions to be locked, immovable, steady. I feel protective of the details of my intimate life, circumscribed by my domestic space, wanting to ward off any force that might puncture it. “People can’t be trusted,” I tell my therapist. “Stop acting insane,” she says. “OK,” I agree, but then dream about our house surrounded by an electrified fence that will stun anyone who doesn’t have the appropriate password, anyone who isn’t welcome. I’m feeling wildly uncharitable. I imagine bodies being knocked back into the arroyo, access denied.
Alongside this feeling of being unsettled bustles the business of Valentine’s Day: chocolates, cards, elaborate or not so elaborate gifts for the beloved, champagne brunches, spray-tanned women who look desperate for a sandwich slinking across the television screen in red lingerie, wings affixed to their skinny backs while votive candles twinkle seductively on bedside tables. What I want is to be left alone in a room with only the people I trust. No more friends, no more commitments, no more struggle. A big circus tent full of affection and laughter and beauty and art and talent and brainpower. Nobody would ever want to leave.
It would be easy, I think, but of course this is an illusion, and a close cousin of nostalgia, that dangerous and disastrous longing that is built on lies, on projections, on controllable fantasies that never align with the truth of what has passed between people. The ultimate act of navel-gazing. The memory likes to distort, the imagination likes to wander and spin, master of its own elaborate outcomes.
This, I know, is a way of staying safe. And of course I know that in order to live, one must sacrifice safety. One must trust. “Why do you think you’re bad and wrong?” My therapist asks. “Why don’t you think you deserve to be happy?” I consider this. “I am happy,” I say. “But trust is a trickster.” She sighs. “Why are you so stubborn?”
This Valentine’s Day, I’m going to remember all of the people I love and have loved, all the ways in which we are undone and then re-membered, re-assembled by love, and try to actively trust. I will resist this, I know, but I will work through this resistance, if only as an experiment, perhaps as a tribute to Ronan, to my husband and daughter.
Here’s what I trust, a list of statements that are true about my life right now, in this moment: I live with the love of my life. I have a beautiful girl. I had a beautiful boy. The love for what I’ve lost magnifies the love for what is now. I deserve to be happy.
Role Reboot regular contributor, Emily Rapp, is a professor in the University of Cailfornia-Riverside Palm Desert MFA program and the author, most recently, of The Still Point of the Turning World.