Monday I felt at sixes and sevens all day. I tried everything. I changed the sheets, did the laundry, cancelled a credit card, dusted the bedroom, cleared some clutter. I even glanced in the fridge for food that should go. I found left-over rice, hard like Styrofoam, grains of white stuck to the sides of the glass container, and threw it in the trash. I emptied the dishwasher, watered the garden and called a friend to complain. And still I could not shake the feeling of things being not right, like something inside felt crooked, jagged, not settled.
When my fiancé sat down and held me close at the end of the day, I still felt cranky and prickly. I couldn’t put my finger on it. “I should be happy. My life is awesome. Why do I feel so crummy today? I’m such a baby,” I told him.
“You’re not a baby. You’re just having a hard day.”
And then I remembered: the date. June 22nd. As the reason I couldn’t get comfortable in my skin dawned on me, the tears began to seep through. “Tomorrow is Chan’s birthday,” I said.
And then I recognized that this feeling of being unsettled, not right, irritable, was nothing more than sadness. Heartbreak covered over with a thin veil of unconscious denial.
Of course there was denial. Why would I want to remember what tomorrow would be? Why would I want to remember such pain?
But the truth I have to face up to again, year after year, is that my beloved little boy died. Fourteen years now. He would have been twenty-two this year, but I never bother thinking about that. I never try to picture him just a little younger than his handsome, quiet, complicated big brother, a little older than his skate-boarding, skiing, mountain-climbing little brother. I don’t try to see them laughing together as men as they always did when they were little boys.
That night when I found myself crying about the boy I’d lost, I found myself grieving not so much for when he died, as for the life we’d all had together in that little town on the banks of the Mekong River. As the memories of mothering my young family kept floating up to feed my sadness, I felt a sense of the richness and depth of that life, where we lived among dozens of family members, where we were so tightly held in the fabric of that small community, where we walked down the street each day to visit the boys’ great-grandmother and aunt and uncle and cousins a few blocks away.
As we walked by each house, people sat in front usually on a wide bamboo bench in the shade of their doorways, two or three generations together, a toddler playing with an aunt or grandmother, an adolescent boy massaging an old uncle’s tired shoulders, a feisty grandmother sweeping the dust from her doorway, teasing the neighbors with her snappy remarks. All of them were people my then husband had known his whole life. Some were cousins or aunts or uncles, some only neighbors, but all of them shared our joy in the life of our young family. They laughed and called out to the boys, commented on how tall or handsome they were getting. They invited us to stop for a bite to eat or a chat.
Children are all that matters there. The center of everyone’s universe, the children.
In the morning when my mother-in-law entered the yard each day shortly after dawn, she called out to the three boys that lay cuddled in bed with us, “Codte, Chan, Tahn,” Ma mei! Ma sai baht! “Come, it’s time to offer food to the monks.” And off they’d rush to wash their faces and brush their teeth before Cody led the two littler ones running down the lane to their grandmother’s house.
Each night at dinner, family and friends gathered around the bamboo tray of dishes seated on grass mats on the verandah floor with family and friends. The children climbed from lap to lap being hand-fed balls of sticky rice topped with the best morsels of nourishing food by the grown-ups. Afterward, while two or three adults cleaned up, the rest would play with the children, horsey rides on hands and knees, children laughing and tumbling off strong farmer backs, running squealing to statue quiet during hide and seek when the big men pretended they thought they couldn’t be seen in plain sight or failed repeatedly at finding them, and the children laughed and laughed at the adult’s clownish stupidity.
At bedtime, the children chased one another around the bed, under the mosquito net, laughing and shrieking as their daddy tried to catch them while they pummeled him with pillows. And when they finally settled in around him for story time, the laughter from their lips was like rain on the desert of my lonely childhood soul, listening as he made up silly stories for them to dissolve into fits of delight night after night.
All that mattered there were the children.
So I cried and cried that Monday night, remembering the life we had before Chan died, before we moved to the US, leaving the family we loved behind, before the divorce, before my boys grew up, sometimes sad and quiet, sometimes silly and sweet. Before this life.
I know this life I have now is good. I know boys are supposed to grow up. I know mothers are supposed to move into the next stage. I love my life. I am lucky. It is good. And I only miss Chan sometimes.
When I met with the group I teach each Monday night, Women Writing to Heal, it was good to have a place to talk about this. It was good to know that these women, all of them grieving losses of their own, would understand. So I shared with them my sadness, and they nodded knowingly. It was good for them to see that even so many years later, when the grief bubbles up, there’s nothing we can do but receive it, let it move us, cry.
At the end of Monday’s class, when it was time to offer them a writing prompt, I asked: What would your beloved say to you about your own grief?
Oh Mama, I know our family changed. It changed when I died. But it would have changed. That’s what happens. Children grow up. There’s no way around it. Cody and Tahn love you. They will be OK. They have a good daddy and you and a good family all around. There was nothing you could have done to save me. I was sick. I was only meant to be around for a little while. They learned a lot just like you learned a lot. It’s OK.
And you’ve done an amazing job. You’ve healed so much.
It’s Ok for you to be happy mama. It’s OK for you to move on. Embrace your new life.
I think you’re right not to waste time and tears wondering what I would be like if I’d lived to 22. I didn’t. I lived to six-and-a-half and that was enough. That was a good life. That was a beautiful life. Of course you miss it. Of course you miss me. You are human. It’s Ok to be sad today and tomorrow if you need to. But it’s also OK to be happy.
I love you. You were such a good mom to me. You can always be proud of that. You always have me with you. I’m always in your heart. You can call on me whenever you need me. I’m not really gone. Because you loved me that much. And, of course, I loved you with a fierceness that time could never defeat. That is still inside you. Don’t ever forget how much I loved you. Don’t ever let time erase from your heart the memory of how much I loved you. Why do you think I showed it so well? Why do you think I worked so hard to show you all the time?
You can’t forget that, mom. I love you still.
Catharine H. Murray, Author Now You See the Sky, Akashic Books, 2018
June 23, 2020