By Lyn Girdler
There are screams you will hear in your life. Like the scream of someone stubbing their toe, or hitting their head on a kitchen cabinet; maybe even catching their finger in the car door. They are screams of visceral, cellular pain. There are screams of fear and shock; someone encountering a spider, or being jolted by a loud, unexpected noise or even the collective screams of a packed cinema house at a horror film. Those are screams that you hear and then let go of.
Then there are other screams, ones that will wake you up on a cold winter morning, seize your childhood innocence, and not let go of you. Like the sound of your mothers scream when she wakes to find your father giving CPR to her child as he lay there, breathless.
It is a sound that shouldn’t belong in the life of a ten year old.
I thought it was in my dream, but the sound wouldn’t stop. It was a sound that bellowed from deep within; primal in its pitch. I heard it in my gut and as soon as I could comprehend that I was awake, I knew it was my mother. She sounded like a wailing, pained animal. When she could catch a breath she was disoriented, gasping and yelling “It’s Adam, it’s Adam. Not Adam” and then I heard my father yell; “It’s Mathew”. He could barely get the words out.
Adam is my brother and he was 2 years old at the time. He was sound asleep in his bedroom a few feet down the hallway. Mathew was also my brother and he was 3 months old. He lay on my parent’s bed, not breathing.
But I didn’t know that right away because I lay in my own bed and, with the sounds of my mother’s primal wails, fear had shot straight into my chest, opened my eyes wide and stiffened my body. I was in the room next door, wondering if I was really awake when panic set in.
When my mother understood that it was Mathew (her youngest, her fourth, the son who completed her perfect two girls, two boys, family) she no longer sounded like a human, or an animal. She sounded like a mother who was watching her husband hovering over the body of her lifeless baby boy, trying to keep him alive. She was laboring the biggest heartbreak of her life.
We have no reference for that sound.
It was still dark outside because it was early morning and we were in the bitingly cold thick of winter. We lived in the outer western suburbs of Melbourne, Australia. This was the 80’s and our house, like many in the area at the time, only had heat in the living room so the bedrooms were cold. It was common in those days to feel cold on your nose first thing in the morning. But I don’t remember my nose feeling cold that morning. I don’t remember feeling anything physical except the deep drum and bass of my racing heart.
Why hasn’t the sound stopped?
My bedroom door was open and I could see my parent’s door ajar, from the end of my bed. Our bedrooms were only separated by a wall. I don’t know how long I lay there staring out of my bedroom door hoping that the noise would stop or I would wake up from a bad dream, but neither happened. Everything just became bigger; the noise, the light from their bedroom, the lump of fear in my throat.
I have to do something.
I approached my parents room and when I rounded the corner I saw my mother, her back pressed against the wall, grasping for something. She kept reaching her hand out along the wall, reaching for something but grabbing nothing but pleas of ‘oh god help’ and ‘this is not real’ and reaching for life, for her son’s life, but getting nothing but air. Creepy, crawly, tear the skin off your body, wanting to hold on to something, kind of nothing.
I looked to see my father, hovering over the tiny body dressed in a white jumpsuit, breathing every ounce of his own life into it. Mathew looked peaceful and was angelic.
My father yelled for the ambulance.
I ran to the hallway phone to call but couldn’t get through and then my dad, in between breaths, picked up the phone that was affixed to the wall next to his side of the bed, and made the call.
It felt like time didn’t exist in the space between that phone call and the ambulance arriving. Time was ticking and it was standing still. It was moving forward and it was holding us hostage. Every moment that went by was another breath Mathew didn’t take.
When the EMT arrived, they rushed into my parent’s bedroom and I, with my brother and sister who were now awake, waited in the living room. There was a long period of silence which I had assumed, in hope because the screaming had stopped, that they had saved Mathew. I was wrong.
I know this because when I ran from our living room into my parents’ bedroom no one was there and when I turned around to look for them I saw the figures in the dark. Standing at the end of our hallway, with the lights turned off was my mother, holding her dead baby in her arms hurling sobs and profanities and apologies at the EMT because they didn’t save her baby. My father was standing next to her holding her arms and barely holding himself up.
When they pronounced Mathew dead, they told us he was gone which, for a ten year old, wasn’t true. He was still there, laying peacefully in his white jumpsuit with his little hands and little feet and angelic face. But, when the EMT were set to leave, they packed up their bags, gathered their belongings and then the shocking reality set in; they were taking Mathew with them and then he would be gone from our home, forever.
They let us sit with Mathew to say goodbye; a privilege I couldn’t comprehend so I sat there and stared at him. I stared and tried to hold every part of his being in my memory. I held his little hand and told him things. I don’t remember what I said. But I knew that I couldn’t love him anymore than I did that morning and I know that love and loss filled my 10 year old body to the brim and it felt so big, it ached.
I woke up that cold Thursday morning, and my brother was dead and my parents were ghosts. Barely 30 years old; they were children themselves. They were hollow and raw and young.
At 10 years old I hadn’t mourned anything but dropped candy and a night banned from the T.V. But suddenly, and violently, I was to know about loss. I found out that morning that loss can be forever, it can freeze you in time, and it can involve the people you most want to stick around. People will leave us. Some will walk out the door and choose to never come back. Some will be a voice on the other end of the phone telling you it’s over and some will just die. They will just plain die, and they will take with them any ten year old notion that life is on your side. It was a shocking foreshadowing of subsequent years of loss with hushed conversation and breathtaking fear that overshadowed our family for years.
Grief bore down on us incessantly until it became something we hid from each other silently, independently, against tear stained pillows late at night. Night time was the worst. Nothing draws out fear, or the lonely sadness you carry, more than darkness. In the daylight you can strategize, and look for places to hide. In the dark you’re already hidden, and so is everything else. Even death.
For months later I was afraid to go to sleep. I was afraid that I would wake and Adam, or my sister, would be next. I would lay awake, eyes stretched wide, straining to hear their breathing from down the hall. I swear I strained so hard I heard it and, if I couldn’t, I would creep out of my bedroom and tiptoe down the hall and find out.
As a family, we didn’t heal together because we didn’t have, or maybe seek, the resources to know how to. In fact, we unraveled completely and my parents divorced a few years later.
Mathew died of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome), ‘God’s sucker punch’, I called it. He would have turned 28 this year. I have just turned 38 and, up until recently, that brutally cold morning felt suspended in my conscious and kept me only knowing loss from that 10 year old perspective. Whether it is a result of that fateful morning or it was always my destiny, I’ve traveled a lot looking for a place to call home because after Mathews’ death the traditional home didn’t have the same safe feeling it once had. I’ve chosen relationships with men who don’t want to commit and I’ve kept a busy public appearance so I can always be nimble and ready to leave. If I’m always going, no one can really leave me.
However, what I have come to learn is that, until you let it saturate you; let it bore itself through your insides and gnaw at your gut, grief will follow you wherever you go. It will linger behind while you jet off to lose yourself in foreign lands. It will sit in the corners of dark nightclubs, watching you pop pills & grind your sweaty body against men whose name you don’t know on a beer spilled dance floor, while you swear this is how you want to live for the rest of your life. It will roll its eyes at your self-help books and therapy courses and, just for laughs; it will show itself a little bit. Appearing in quieter moments, or in other times of grown up heartbreak and loss. But, mostly it will wait.
It will wait for that moment you’re tired and exhausted from trying to figure it all out. It will wait for a moment when you’re alone in India, another foreign land you’ve run to, laying on a mattress on a slate floor in a blank room staring at the ceiling fan. It will make sure there is nothing to grab onto, because you will want to hold something. Anything but that choking, suffocating feeling that will come. You will want to reach out to hold on to something because the weight of sadness, the sandbag of grief, will hold you under water and bear down on you. You will want to reach in and grab your aching, throbbing, beating heart and beg for it to slow down………
And then you’ll feel that primal wail rise up in you and you’ll know you’ve been avoiding and anticipating this moment to come as you turn to lie on your side, curl your knees up and let grief thrash itself through your heaving chest and pulsing body.
It is a sound that will belong to you and it is a sound that you can finally let go of.
Lyn Girdler doesn’t like to tell you where home is because often she doesn’t know it herself. Born and raised in Australia, she now spends most of her time teaching yoga on the east coast USA but frequently finds herself on plane to somewhere else. She leads life affirming yoga/writing retreats in India and is the founder of the fair trade fashion and lifestyle brand; Love Nomadic. She believes life should be a committed run from the mundane.
Jennifer Pastiloff is the founder of The Manifest-Station. She has been featured on Good Morning America, NY Magazine, Oprah.com. Her writing has been featured on The Rumpus, The Nervous Breakdown, Jezebel, Salon, and more. Jen leads her signature Manifestation Retreats & Workshops all over the world. The next retreat is to Ojai, Calif over Labor Day/New Years. She is also leading a Writing + The Body Retreat with Lidia Yuknavitch Jan 31-Feb 1 in Ojai. Email retreats at jenniferpastiloff dot come for info. Check out jenniferpastiloff.com for all retreat listings and workshops to attend one in a city near you. Next up: Seattle, Atlanta, South Dakota, NYC, Dallas, Miami, Tucson & The Berkshires (guest speaker Canyon Ranch.) She tweets/instagrams at @jenpastiloff.