It is close to bedtime. CB has her feetie pajamas on and is dancing around, singing, getting the last of her energy out. In the next room, I can hear Lauri reading Lily her bedtime story in a quiet voice, the two of them having a call-and-response to Gossie the Gosling.
CB: (in a sing-song voice) “Justin Beaver… Justin Beaver… Justin Beaver…”
Dad: “I think you mean Bieber.”
CB: “No, Beaver.”
Dad: “I’m pretty sure it’s Bieber, hon.”
CB: (pause) “No. It’s Beaver.”
Dad: (raises eyebrow) “Are you sure? I’m pretty sure on this. Justin Bieber is a famous singer. I see his name all the time.”
CB: (long stare, silence): No. Justin Beaver is a kid in my class.”
Dad: (surprised) “Really? I didn’t know that!”
CB: (smug) “Yep! And his dad is a NINJA.”
It’s 4 am and I’m on the couch. My partner is sleeping in the bedroom, with our gorgeous, brilliant 3 year old adopted daughter who snores like a lumberjack. My 6 year old birth-daughter is in her room, the sliver of nightlight slipping out of her door to take up watch in the little hallway, alert. I’ve come out here to sleep. Strangely, the couch is the most comfortable place in the house for me to rest, and like many fathers and husbands before me, I like both having my space, and being close to the front door. It makes me feel protective, useful, even as I dream.
I hear our bedroom door open, and my partner slides in next to me. When she can’t sleep, she comes to find me. She curls up in my arms, and in a whisper, goes down the list. The girls. Moving. Building her therapy practice. My upcoming trips. Our aging cat. My eyes are closed, but I listen. I can feel her shoulders unwind as she lets each of these go. She lets out the closing sigh, her hand releasing my bare ribs under my shirt as she starts to sink into the empty space she has created. We are melded.
We hear a thumpity thumpity THUMP bunta bunta bunta. CB is up and has climbed down her bunk bed. When she can’t sleep, she comes to find me. She sneaks out and squeezes her way in between us. I am now on the edge of the couch. CB feels no need to explain. She’s here, that’s all that matters. We take the back cushion off, and we are all packed in tight. The three of us settle in under the comforter, stones in the bottom of a warm river.
We hear a BUMP bunta bunta bunta. When Lily can’t sleep, she comes to find her mother. The three of us start to laugh. “Come here, baby, come here. You’re the cherry on top. Come ooonnn…” And we all lift her up and drape her across us. Her head is in her mothers arms. I get her toes. After a few minutes, she manages to scoot on top of her mother and cram in between her and the back of the couch.
As I teeter on the edge, I can’t help but think that there are three beds in this house, and they are all empty, our mammalian nature drawing us all to this small, safe place. I open my eyes, to find the cat starring at me.
Writer’s note: This was first aired on National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition as part of their This I Believe series on October 12, 2008, and has since been published in This I Believe II: More Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women (2008).
I believe that grieving is good for you. As a culture, I feel we’ve forgotten how to grieve, and last year, I had the opportunity to remember.
My wife was seven months pregnant when her blood pressure spiked. Her liver started to shut down, so the doctors performed a Cesarean and our son was delivered to save both of their lives.
The first time I saw my son, he was in an incubator with nurses clearing his airways. He looked at me, like a dolphin surfacing to look at a fisherman, and then resubmerged when the team took him away to stabilize him. He was the smallest, most fragile baby I’d ever seen.
Over the next two weeks, my wife’s health stabilized; my son’s condition, however, deteriorated. The lungs of premature babies are as delicate and tenuous as a spider web, and they shred at the slightest pressure. I wanted to put him inside my chest and give him my lungs to breathe with. We went from holding him, to putting a hand on his head, to, at the end, with all the tubes and wires, only being able to lay one finger on the back of his hand. His lungs failed, and we had to let him go.
We never heard him cry. My wife and I, first-time parents, held him as he died, and we bathed him, washed his hair, and dressed him before he was cremated. In my mind, I could see an angel close her hand around my son like he was a gold coin and slip him into her pocket.
As each day passes, you close your eyes and let your grief slide through your fingers, one rough, cold link after another, until your loss settles deep inside you. It is a give-and-take between you and your grief, a tension that rolls your emotions back and forth. And at first you are certain that your life is going to capsize and you will drown. Eventually, the grief will ground you and give you stability in troubled times.
I am a better husband, a better father, and a better man for my loss—I’m kinder, more empathetic, and have different priorities. Our marriage was re-forged, the impurities burned out of the relationship by the furnace of our son’s death. To be with your child nearly every minute of his life is a gift few parents get, and my son died in the arms of people who loved him.
Ten months ago, my wife gave birth to our healthy daughter, and I am filled with a joy made greater by the loss of my son, because I know now what we have. The angel has extended her open hand to me. When my daughter turned to look at me for the first time, I picked her up and held her with everything I had.
A few years back, I visited the Cabrillo College archaeological field school high in the coastal ranges. The students had been camping for weeks and were field-hardened, everyone knowing their tasks, moving as an organic whole to sift through the site that was thousands of years old. Representatives from the Ohlone stayed with them the whole time, camped and ate and educated the students as they worked together to explore the ancient human history in this now remote area.
What archaeologists look for are the pieces of our lives that stay, works of stone and shell, concrete and glass. What we want, however, is the ephemeral. We’re not just interested in what someone hunted, we want to know how they hunted, in groups or individuals, during the summer or spring, near villages or on long treks.
We want to know about ceremony and family structure, about the forms of entertainment that brought ancient people joy and the artwork that carried their reverence and hope. The artifacts are stopping points on the way to something deeper, and all of our efforts are bent towards that deeper meaning.
The irony is, of course, that most of our lives are ephemeral. Our greatest moments often leave nothing behind — our memories carry the only proof that an event occurred. We have precious few physical things that mark truly important events: the brass baby slippers, the wedding ring, the casket. Unless we write it down, our lives evaporate around us, with only a handful of other people as witnesses.
The other week, I was crossing a parking lot with my two-year old daughter. She stopped and noticed my shadow for the first time. She gasped with surprise and said “That’s daddy!” I pointed to her shadow and asked her “Who’s that?” She gasped with even more surprise and said, “That’s me!”
And as she reached out, she watched her shadow hand take my shadow hand.
Note: A slightly different version of this appeared as part of KQED’s Perspectives series on August 10th, 2010. I have a number of essays posted there, most in relation to archaeology and every day life. I encourage readers to check out the Perspective broadcasts by myself and other authors. ~M