walking to remember
I stood there on the Albertan prairie holding the ribbon and I felt it slipping through my palm, the wind tugging at my baby, the others calling him up with hoots and hollers, and the lady with the microphone said
and the ribbon tugged and I felt this strange, tantrummy knot in my belly that said I don’t want to let him go again but then I imagined the nice lady with the microphone saying
as all the other balloons waited, the sky pausing, like
and so I let it go and it went up so fast, so high, and I was standing there alone, crying. In a sea of people I had my own little clearing and I felt naked in the middle of it, even though at the Walk to Remember, being naked is a given and not remotely blinked twice at. Metaphorically speaking. Especially in Edmonton’s October.
I felt a hand on my shoulder and turned to see Shawna standing there, her face wet too, and she took care of me.
Last year, a matter of weeks out from the loss of her daughter when she was only sixteen years old herself, I’d found her alone in the crowd. I stood with her, and we talked. This year, she glowed. She'd brought a posse with her this time, with matching t-shirts yanked on overtop puffy jackets, CEILI scrawled on the fronts with fat sharpie markers, an island of white in the crowd. They called her girl’s name and a mass of pink balloons went up and I looked then for Shawna, but she’d been buried in a tangle of bracing bodies and arms and love.
I am overwhelmed with pride for a stranger. With sisterhood. She is exactly half my age. Half my age and she’s lived through this, and she’s beaming, standing up straight in her dark—and helping me to do the same.
What follows is the text of my speech, given just after a stream of 800 people and strollers and kids and balloons walked the perimeter of the beautiful Legislature Grounds, and just before the baby names were read and the balloons released. Bits and pieces of it might be familiar, if you’ve been here through the last year.
We are alone, the night shift, and I trespass through the porthole of his incubator.
Did you know, Liam, there is an ocean, and it swells and thunders, and it’s filled with treasure and ghosts all churned up and dashed, and particles of dreams and wood and bits of twine and things lost and abandoned, and when the sun decides to make it so, the sea turns into a sheet of diamonds, and then the wind makes it sing. We live on an ocean, brave boy, and someday, maybe, you might see it.
What do you have? You might have an absence, an unscratchable phantom limb. Or an angel, or a spirit. A voice that comes from nowhere, joyful, saying Here I am! Here I am! Look! just as a young moose appears to gallop beside the car, an anomaly of nature that bursts with enough intention to make you wonder. What a glorious thing, wonder.
We are, all of us, storytellers. We choose what we hear, and see, and believe. In a void of answers we settle into a tale that best suits what we need. What do you need? Do you need to feel like there’s life beyond life? That there is parenthood beyond life? That the happenstance of loss is free of meaning?
The blessing is that you get to choose whatever story you want. Your story calms, releases, bewitches. Your story is your absolute truth. Seek it out. Twist it, craft it, until it suits you.
In the beginning, I needed him to stay. And so he did. He was a small boy who sat cross-legged in the bay window of my eye sockets. Light washed over his face but failed to penetrate the void beyond him and so for him I was a darkened theatre, a flickering immersion.
I sang for him as you might call into a backyard in the dusk of summer. Liam! Come and see this. How I want you to see this.
He is with me as clusters of cells, dispersed beyond what he ever would have been as son, a chaperone detected by none of five senses. As leftover particles of blood and bone and muscle he simply Is. The remnants of him in me and his echo in his father is love without need of a shepard. And love without need is not parenthood. It is something else. In his witness we are not wife, mother, daughter. Husband, father, son. His energy speaks to our energy and it says, silently, smiling, just this:
As we age we gather these witnesses, these chaperones of yes, and they form the heat generated by lost opportunity and unrequited love and sickness and hope and fear.
At first this heat is a thing that hurts, and then we learn to tolerate it, and then in time our ego becomes malleable and we finally learn: there is just love, so much love, and the way to tap it is to give it without requiring it in return.
I looked when I thought I couldn’t, peering over the edge of the canoe, fixing on stars in a upside down sky. They were all that was left of Liam, flecks of his bone and ash swirling on the brandy-brown of the everglade, and I thought how did I get here, watching as the remains of my son drift in an eddy?
I listened, and I heard Because you were my mother …and trees and blades of grass and random clouds throbbed with knowing and purpose and accompaniment, the very same knowing and purpose and accompaniment that had brushed up thick and vivid against my cheek the day he died.
And so I am mother, sorcerer. I beckon magic at will. I sit in front of fire staring at embers that spit and pop, licked by blue, and I see both a complete lack of divinity and an ocean of it.
I still can't believe that she's not alive anymore, wrote a friend of her baby girl. That she was born so sick. That she lived for two months and then died. When does that stop happening, that feeling of disbelief?
I replied I think probably never. But it changes.
First you can’t believe the child—or the potential of a child—is gone. Then you can’t believe that you are gone, too. You’re simultaneously more lost and more found than you’ve ever been in your life. You feel so much more and think so much less.
You spit venom at anyone who would dare presume to either cross this gulf or heckle you from the other side of it. Death has draped one and then two silky-thin sheaths over you, one being a pallor, the other being concentrated gratitude, and with one on top of the other the resulting effect is a disordered fog that’s unconvincing either way.
A wise friend writes to me. She says: People think that by expressing sadness or rage or self-pity, you are lacking in compassion by not remembering the suffering of others, or by making others uncomfortable. But by refusing grieving parents the opportunity to pass through those necessary spaces, those dark emotions, we deny compassion to you.
Necessary spaces. For a while, there is what feels like the failure of one's own body. The inability to be intimate without sobbing. The despair that throws you out of yourself. The jealousy of others you perceive to have been spared. The suffocation of feeling muzzled, or rushed. The fleeing from pregnant women in supermarkets. The intolerance for social cowards. The morbid jokes that leap unbidden out of our mouths, shocking us and cracking up our spouses for a change as if to say Good lord, this year has sucked. But if I don't laugh, I will explode.
None of it sticks around forever, all of it reverberations, necessary spaces. Never mind the pursuit of grace, or the worry over a lack of it. Grace will find us again when we’re ready.
For as long as you need to be, be unnavigable. Or distant, or perplexing to the outside world. Because nodding to the gracelessness, the void—that's the only way to allow it to get on with its business. It is a necessary space, a state of mind that is honourable and normal and not to be denied.
One day, you breathe. And you know that, despite not being fashionable or palatable, you are more compassionate now than you ever were before. You know how surreal it is to cradle an urn in rush hour traffic. You are all at once a giant and a meek, trembling thing. You know now to embrace both. You know that it's not your fault that some people can't bear the taste of black licorice.
One day you breathe and it almost feels like oxygen.
To you I hold up my dark and you simply nod at it, perhaps raise a glass. You don’t deny it. You don’t try and reason with it. You know that this is the ache and the flailing of a heart. And I raise my glass to you and yours.
For a while you need to inhabit that dark as much as you need food and air. Then one day you open your eyes and whisper I think I can walk now, on my own and you step from one side to the other, across a foggy sort of before-and-after boundary you hadn’t been sure you’d ever find. From I am completely lost to a deep breath and a rubbing of eyes and a blinking in some strange new sun and I am … not completely lost.
Peter Ustinov said love is an act of endless forgiveness, a tender look which becomes a habit and Voltaire said no snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible. We’ve all been buried by a force of nature, by undeniable randomness. What lends strength to the rescuing shovel is the dogged practice of not only admitting to the randomness but believing it as our heart’s truth.
I'm getting the sense that it's not just a matter of time. It's an act of defiance, a matter of nodding at the blackness as we dig through it, taking back what belongs to us. Our families. Our parenthood. Our marriages. Self-love. Dreams and wonderment and hope and ambition. The free license to indulge in too much food and wine with friends at a table full of bawdy jokes and laughter, and have it just be good. All of it.
That hole in your chest is worth looking through. It’s not just gore and misfortune and loss. Someday—if doesn’t already—it will magnify everything that has you get up in the morning, and scramble eggs, and get clean, and dressed, and seek out light and learning and company. Everything ordinary as well as every deepest, most profound want.
That hole in your chest is everything that nudges you back up, to live.
Souls set course to grow under our shelter. While the non-negotiable terms of that growth can break us, the choice of those souls to begin with seeks to inform us. Small things sometimes land in finite places, within lives or bodies that can only take them so far. But look how they try. Look how they want to be seen.
My story has changed. Has yours? Are you walking yet? Are you a storyteller? Are you lost? Or found? Or both? How long has been for you? Speak it aloud, right now, or whisper it, or just remember. How long has it been for you?
(Here, the crowd paused and I paused with them, wanting to open up a space, a common pointedness of thought. I wasn't sure if anyone would speak aloud, but then I heard a voice, clear as a bell, say one year and it was Shawna from the front row of people, smiling, giving me a nudge.)
We’re here today to remember our babies, our lost potential. But right now, I’m standing with you. Honouring you. Mother. Father. Grandparent. Friend. Every tear, every sleepless night, every moment of self-medication, or guilt, or regret at slowly becoming human again.
Every sliver of your dark—I honour it. If you look around at one another, you’ll see your own dark on the faces of others here. Can you feel that warmth, that kinship? Right now I stand with you in remembrance of who we used to be, before loss. Hopeful. Without any cause for worry. Uncynical. Unafraid. All brand-new. And I say that I don’t need to be that woman anymore. I mourn the ease of her, but I’m proud of who I am. I am Liam’s mother. I found the emotional muscle to carry this motherhood—and it made me bigger, as are you.
For me it’s been two and a half years. This is my story, my absolute truth. I have three boys. One is all energy and marvel and curiosity, one is pure joy and wanderlust, and one lives high up in a blue sky, in a roofless, sheepskin-draped room with kind minstrels and acrobats that let him stay up late and eat chocolate by starlight.
And there it is. Imagine that! I think of my son, and I smile.
Baby, brave baby. How you are missed. You know that already but I am your mother, and so it’s my right to make sure you hear it, as it is my right to nag your brothers about eating crusts and wearing mittens. Please, sweet boy, indulge your mama. Hear me. It all carries on without you and in some moments I want to make it all stop for you. The essence of you swaddles me, rocks me, binds these flailing limbs and makes me still.
Everything is alive, mama, so alive, imprinted with life, even me.
Toddlers wail over the injustice of squashed raspberries and cracker crumbs. They blow noses and giggle at burps and form roaming packs and see imaginary tigers in the basement and I think they either have every idea of how alive they are, or none.
I can see, mama.
I love you, baby.
I am here, mama.