By Mandy Hitchcock.
The four of us sit at the breakfast table in the sunroom. We’re still in our pajamas. The morning sun pours in, and I blink rapidly at the sunbursts in my eyes. It’s a hot and humid late August day, but inside we are cool.
Our three-year-old sits between Ed and me, too big for a booster seat anymore but too small still to reach the table from a regular chair, so he is on his knees, carefully unrolling one of the freshly baked but entirely canned orange cinnamon rolls his dad has prepared us for breakfast. He finishes unrolling it, and now that it’s a long boring strip, he decides that it’s no good and hands it back to his dad. I take it, roll it tightly again, and offer it back to him. “Is that better?” I say. “Yeah!” he says gleefully, grabbing it and finally taking a bite.
On my other side, our newly minted one-year-old daughter perches in her high chair, working her newly minted pincer grasp to pick up the tiny pieces of cinnamon roll I have torn up for her to eat. We were so much stricter with sugar two kids ago, but I’m as unreasonable as ever about choking hazards. She’s clearly frustrated with the small pieces, shoveling them by the handful and squawking at me for something more substantial. Or maybe she wants milk. It’s still tough to tell at this stage.
It’s these moments—these moments when life feels so very close to being absolutely perfect, almost maddeningly close—that I am stunned, again, by how absolutely imperfect, how irrevocably and horribly wrong it all is.
It’s in these most ordinary-extraordinary moments, these moments that seem to happen every day and yet almost never, when she is most absent. As we four sat, savoring our rare vacation treat of canned orange cinnamon rolls, she was so missing. So missing that I couldn’t help but imagine her there, even almost see her, on the other side of the table next to her dad, squinting at the sun in her eyes. Gangly and knobby-kneed now, with not the slightest hint of the chubby cheeks that graced her sweet face when last I saw her. Those exquisite knees pulled up tight and tucked under her nightgown. Hair maybe long enough at last for a braid but still so wispy that the braid can barely contain it. A five-year-old kid. “Five-and-a-half, Mom!” I can almost hear a small but indignant voice say. “Mommy” would surely have given way to “Mom” by now.
She’s right there, and like the sunbursts in my eyes, I can see her only until I try actually to look at her, and then she glides away.
It’s been four years, four months, and seventeen days since my daughter Hudson died from a sudden and incredibly aggressive bacterial meningitis infection. She was seventeen months old. One day, she was an otherwise healthy toddler with what appeared to be an ordinary toddler virus. The next day, she was fatally ill. Three days after that, she was gone.
And now, four years, four months, and seventeen days later, I get these flashes of her, these visions of her in the places where she should be.
Is it obsessive to count the days like this? Someone told me it was. I ignored him. I started counting the day she died. The first twenty-four hours. The first week. The first month. The time I was momentarily horrified when I counted only six weeks since she died but then re-counted, and to my great relief, found that we had actually survived seven weeks instead. Each month gone marking a greater fraction of her short life until she’d been gone 529 days, as long as she’d been here. The day her younger brother, who didn’t exist when she died, actually made it to his 530th day. Yes. Sometimes I still stop and count. I need to know.
At the beginning, the pain roared, a ferocious flood ruthlessly tearing its way through our lives, strewing debris every which way and leaving nothing unbroken in its wake. All I could do was allow myself to be carried along with it, head and limbs curled in a tight ball, in hopes of protecting the most vital parts of me. That I even managed to survive it remains a mystery to me. And it left a gaping void, a giant sinkhole, the edges of which continued to expand, collapsing piece by piece, threatening, ultimately, to swallow us whole. At the time, she was our only child, and our lives and identities as we knew them disintegrated when she died. But even then, somehow, I understood that while the hole would never go away, while it would never grow smaller in absolute terms, our lives would grow around it. I knew, somewhere deep, that as we labored forward against our will, as we had more children, as we tried, somehow, desperately, to find joy in the midst of pain, the hole would become a smaller and smaller point on the map until finally it would simply be part of the landscape of our existence.
And this prediction has proven true. Mostly. Our lives have grown around the hole. We have had more children. Somehow, after a long, dark time, we found joy again. For every moment when she is so glaringly absent, there are dozens and dozens of others where she is so comfortingly present, at least in the only way she can be. A photographer came to our home not long ago and spent a few hours with us, documenting a regular afternoon spent with our two living children. It wasn’t until the photo session ended that I realized that at no point during those hours did I stop, look around, and think, “What the hell happened here? Where is my child? Why are there only four of us in this picture?” And for a brief moment, I felt like I had failed her. Utterly. How could I have forgotten her, even for two hours? But a second later, I realized that I hadn’t forgotten her at all. I’d spoken about her so frequently and so naturally to the photographer during those two hours that it was almost as if she weren’t even gone. It was almost as if she were simply over at a friend’s house for an afternoon playdate.
The hole has become part of our landscape, like a painted canyon—ever-present, haunting, but also, impossibly, beautiful.
But except for a very few others, Ed and I are the only ones who still navigate the edges of the hole anymore. We’ve changed towns. We’ve changed houses—twice, actually. We have two more children. Everyone who knew us before is aware of the hole, but they don’t live on its periphery. And everyone who met us after is aware only if we make them aware, and even then, what they become aware of is more like a photo of the hole hanging on the wall than an actual hole. Will my younger children—who were born after, who never had to cling to the edges of the hole to keep from falling in—will they ever understand that the hole is more than a photo on the wall? How will I make them understand?
I have no idea. Yet.
Our son is now more than twice the age Hudson was when she died. Our younger daughter grows closer and closer to her 530th day. And the grief remains. On some days, in some moments, it is still unbearable. And yet it has changed. I am reminded of this quote from Aeschylus that Ed told me of not long after Hudson died:
And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart
and in our own despite, against our will,
comes wisdom to us . . .
Drop by drop.
The grief, that ferocious flood in the beginning, is now more like water torture, the soft drip-drip-dripping of which I can’t escape, no matter how hard I try to plug my ears or shield myself. Left untended, of course, it creates its own hollows. Only it is more subtle. It never goes away. Underneath every day, every moment, is the drip, drip, drip. Even in my sleep. It quietly taps its steady rhythm until I have no choice but to pay attention to it. And when I finally turn my head its way, I remember. I remember, in Technicolor, the flood that preceded it.
This quiet grief, the steady drip here in the after—in some ways, it is harder than the flood. I don’t quite know how to manage it or whether there’s any point in trying. The drip is so much stealthier—I can’t pay it proper attention all the time. No one could. But still it tap-tap-taps away, and before I realize it, there’s the hole again, just underfoot, freshly dug, sides threatening once more to cave in.
I miss her. I understand why the constant dripping is a form of torture—it has no discernible end. And yet it is almost a companion. It’s white noise. It’s reliable. It’s familiar. I wouldn’t know how to live without it. And because it is my most tangible link to my daughter, I wouldn’t want to.
And while I’d trade back—in an instant and without hesitation—the wisdom that has been thrust down upon me drop by drop, wisdom I never asked for and never wanted, I am beginning to see that it, too, connects me to her in a profound way. Simply learning to live in a world where she does not has forced me to develop skills I’d never have developed otherwise, to build muscles that would have atrophied. Muscles that help me survive on the edge of the hole, that help me endure the constant dripping. Muscles that one day will help my living children understand what it means to live with this hole. Muscles like perspective, compassion, wholeheartedness, authenticity, and boundless love.
As for the hole itself, even as it grows (relatively) smaller, it is there. Always. It’s there in the middle of every conversation. In the middle of every table where we gather to eat. In the middle of every family photo, every holiday card. It’s there on her birthday and on the anniversary of her death and on every day in between.
On the first day of school this year, what should have been her very first day of school, I pulled out of my driveway at the same time a school bus turned down the side street next to our house. All along the sidewalks of our small town, parents walked or biked alongside their children, whose little shoulders hunched forward under the weight of new backpacks filled with new school supplies dutifully purchased off a teacher’s long list.
And there she was. Almost. An outfit she picked out herself. Pigtails. Or maybe she changed her mind at the last minute and decided on braids. Her own heavy backpack, maybe with a favorite character on it, filled with a change of clothes, pencils, glue sticks, tissues—simple supplies for kindergarten. A lunchbox. Those bright and wise eyes shining right out of her face. A photo of her grinning and holding a hand-drawn sign saying, “First Day of Kindergarten!” with her name and the date. Another of her with her arms around her buddies, all of them ready to file into school together. Another of her sitting at her new desk, still grinning like crazy, because she is so ready. She has been waiting for this all summer long.
Once again, I could almost see her. And once again, she floated out of sight.
These milestones, like so many others in life, seem so far away for so long, and then, suddenly, they are upon us. And yet they are so unlike other milestones. So many friends are bidding a bittersweet farewell to a chapter in their children’s lives that we never got to finish. All these markers of a life unfinished—scraped knees not bandaged, knock-knock jokes not told, homework not struggled with, braces not worn, bras not purchased, arguments not had, doors not slammed, broken hearts not soothed, graduation caps not tossed, aisles not walked down—they yawn endlessly in front of me. So many more to anticipate, so many more to endure, so many more to reflect upon and wonder about. So many more to picture her in, just there in my field of vision, and then to chase right out of sight when I look too hard.
No matter how much time goes on, I’ll never stop wishing that one of these days, one of these moments when I try to really see her, she’ll actually be there.
Instead, I’ll have the hole. And if I’m being truthful, I like it just where it is. If I can’t have Hudson, I want the hole.
Mandy Hitchcock recently completed a memoir entitled “One Good Thing,” tracing her journey after her daughter’s death. Her writing has been featured at Mamalode and in The Sun’s “Readers Write.” She tells stories live at The Monti and joined the cast of Listen To Your Mother in 2014. She blogs at mandyhitchcock.com and One Good Thing, and you can also find her on Facebook. She lives with her husband and two living children in Carrboro, North Carolina, where she practices just a little bit of law on the side.