When I tell people that I'm writing a book for bereaved parents, I often use the words after-life. The after-life of child loss. The life that drudges on despite us and to spite us, at first, our bodies incomprehensibly chugging along like the damp meat sacks they are, pumping and ingesting, our cerebral cortex obliging us with unthinking nighttime inhales and food-swallowing and blinking in the sun. Damn meat sack. Blessings! Damn. Gratitude is Indiana Jones. Gratitude encamps miserably, for a time, at the bottom of a snake pit. (We are the snake pit.) (We are the villain.) (Whatever is inescapably bleak. We are that.)
It is the *after-life* of loss because everything before it is *before*. A red symbol for EXPLOSION on the axis of our years, after which point there is the incomprehensible bodily chugging followed by subsequent fixtures and frailties; monstrous decisions, traumas, and chapters; and interludes punctuated by unexpected lightness, renewal, sledgehammers. And so on and so on into the distant horizon of after-life—where I am now, with Liam's shadow casting long but soft-edged, languorously, like the last glow of a summer sunset.
We had a dinner party the other night, the new 'we' that is me. Friends said, Where will you be in ten years? We passed the question around the table like a plate of grilled halloumi. It came to me.
"In ten years, my baby will be 20. Oh my god. In ten years my baby will be 20! His older brother 22. They might be gone by then. They... they might have already been gone for years already, in ten years...!"
At first it was lightly social but in my mind it rapidly grew into a choking, shocking panic. None of this is news to any parent, of course. Or maybe it's not even a function of parenthood. Maybe it's just the aging that speeds up all the clocks until they're a sack of upturned bowling balls on a steeper and steeper incline.
"To think of it, how fast it will go. Ten years ago, I was..." Friends looked at me across the table, smiling, sitting in candlelight with the record player spinning, playing Patsy Cline on tinny speakers, refilling slow glasses of bourbon and red wine as we basked and rubbed our fat and post-feast bellies. Ten years ago none of it had happened yet. Ten years ago, I was a different me. Ten years ago was my before.
"Ten years ago was a blink."
The first self-portrait I ever took was the day after Liam died, in the mirror of the bathroom in the NICU with his scent still on me, a cloud of morphine clinging to my hair. Am I still her, or is she lost to the years? Not *behind* in any lesser way, but iteratively versioned. Not the me of now. She was 34. I will be 44 this summer, after the frozen ground outside this snowy window softens and turns green again.
So much happened. Their father and I live apart now, married to other people. So much, years later, that is subsequent to loss—fresh grief piled upon old grief, to the point where I didn't think I'd ever get out from under it. But I did. We all did.
The shed by the creek smells divine, like fresh air and woodsmoke. I write out there. I grow eccentric out there. I dig in the tickle trunk and bits and pieces migrate into the everyday dresser. Everything was hard won—by declaration and ambition and sweat and so, so many tears. And big things that showed up unexpected, like a whispered suggestion. A tall Dutch man with his own ghost to carry. We tell stories to each other, tending to the little flames of people we loved and lost. We laugh so much.
My baby died. My marriage died. But there's so much that lived, too. New things took root and sprouted. The fire stayed hot. I found that I could be alone, thrive alone. I wrote books. We walked in woods and talked to Mother Nature, me and the boys. We watched all three Back To The Future movies in a row on a rainy day. We talk about social justice and standup comedy. We snuggle in a gigantic bed, all in a row like an old storybook, making rude noises and telling jokes.
Here's the thing. I was always so certain: I will feel this way forever. I might be alone forever. I might be a bad person forever. But I was sad, that's all. Healthfully sad. Sensibly sad. None of it stayed. All of it was an in-between space. I couldn't see around corners, and neither can you. Things, like your mother tells you, really do have a way of working out. Consider all the women ahead of you to be your elders. They're not trying to brush you off when they say it, softly: You can't say that for sure. They prompt you to breathe because they've been there, too.
You will be okay. You will be more than okay, carrying your little flame with you.
I did my best to transfer all the writing about Liam, loss, the NICU, and all the mess after to here. This is where it ends, in 2017, ten years after. I still write at Glow in the Woods, along with a rotating cohort of many other bereaved parents. And there's the book, which is in production now. There's much more news to come. The publisher, the launch date. It feels good—wonderful—like a loop, tied-off. As is this little story.
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