I brushed my daughter’s hair the night before her school picture day. I tried to be gentle. If I’m not, if I get caught up in hurrying the bedtime routine along, she’ll remind me that her Titi, Auntie Meggie, Mimi, and Grandma Sue all do it more gentler than me. Sometimes she’ll say, “Even Uncle Robbie does it better! And he doesn’t have long hair to practice.” She usually saves that one for when she’s really mad.
When I was in the hospital last winter my sisters, brother, mom, and mother in law took turns watching my girls. And while I usually wasn’t offended by my daughter’s comments, they probably are better hair brushers than me, I didn’t really want to be reminded about my time in the hospital at that particular moment. So I was gentle.
I let her know that tomorrow was picture day and I needed to blow her hair dry tonight after I brushed it. Normally blow drying hair was a luxury our bedtime routine couldn’t afford. My husband and I were already trying to get two girls to take a bath, put on their pajamas, brush their hair, go to the bathroom, wash their hands, brush their teeth, read stories, lay out their clothes for school, and say prayers. All after our long work days. Adding in blow drying the hair of tender headed humans? Not going to happen.
Except on the night before school picture day.
“OK.” She said and paused for a minute. “Why do we do picture day?”
I explained that every year of school we take pictures so we can remember the year. Her picture will go in a little book called a yearbook so she can always remember 1st grade. I reminded her of the one she got on the last day of Kindergarten last year.
“Oh yeah. That makes sense.” She said.
I continued to explain that we’ll get some pictures printed for our family too. And when she’s older we’ll be able to look at every picture side by side and see how she’s grown. As I said this last thing my voice got caught a bit in my throat and my eyes got hot with the need to cry. I told myself to keep it together and continued to brush her hair. Gently. She quietly fidgeted with her scrunchy.
Then said, “So when I’m really old, like a teenager, we can make a flip book and it will be like I’m growing up in front of your very eyes.”
She said that last part in her newly discovered magician voice. The one she picked up after the school assembly where Magician Tim came to show them magic and teach them that character counts.
“Yes honey, exactly.” I said with a small laugh.
“OK, you can blow dry my hair now. Just be gentle please.”
As I started to blow the warm air on her head and pull her hair through the bristles of the brush I looked around her room. The dresser top in front of us was full, each cherished trinket lined up side by side right up to the invisible line that separated her side from her sisters. The one I had to often remind her existed. Mixed in with her most prized scrunchies, a lip gloss she brought home after a lucrative lunchroom trade, her dog figurines, a $15 plastic magic wand — the other thing she picked up from Magic Tim (thanks Magic Tim), and a birthday card from her Great Aunt Kathy — the one that had been filled with seven crisp dollar bills- was a family picture she drew. She had finally learned how to make non-stick figure humans and was so proud. It had her daddy first and then me next to him, then her (the same size as me and her daddy), her little sister (way smaller than the rest of us), and her baby brother. When she draws family pictures she sometimes draws him as a small baby and other times as an angel above us. In this picture she had drawn him as both. A baby next to us and an angel in the sky over us. I lingered on it for a minute and then looked back down at the brush pulling her hair through its bristles. I took a deep breath.
Keep it together.
I finished blow drying her hair, she picked out her outfit for picture day, and we said our nighttime prayers.
“Good night baby, I love you.” I tucked her in.
“Good night mommy, I love you too.” She squeezed my hand and turned to fall asleep.
This morning I opened my email on my phone. My coffee was brewing in the background and my three year old was watching Wild Kratts in the living room. I looked at her for a moment as it was loading.
I thought about how I used to say my youngest when I spoke about her. How a little while ago when I was making after school pick up small talk — the very hardest kind of small talk — and meeting a friend of a friend for the first time, I was asked how many kids I had. I responded, “Two. She’s my oldest (placing my hand on top of my six year old, soon to be seven year old’s head next to me) and she’s my youngest (pointing to my three year old who was twirling on the blacktop in her Elsa dress).”
And how after that my oldest looked up at me and said in a strong tone, similar to that of a teacher correcting a student, “No. Mommy, you have three kids. I’m the oldest, sister’s in the middle, and William’s the youngest.” How she then looked at our new after school pick up and said, “My baby brother’s in heaven. He was born with different ingredients and went up there instead of on earth with us.” The mom and the little boy nodded their heads. The mom’s eyes started to tear up.
I remembered how my daughter grabbed my hand and I squeezed it, hoping she would know I was saying, you’re right baby. I’m so sorry for my mistake. How I looked at her and said, “That’s right honey, we do.” And then turned to our new after school pick up friends to correct myself and to repeat the familiar one line script my husband and I had made with the hospital counselor. “We have three kids. Our first grader here, our three year old twirling over there, and our son William up in heaven. He passed away earlier this year a few days after he was born from a rare and fatal disorder.”
“I’m so sorry for your loss.” The mom said while tears streamed down her face, tears you could tell she didn’t want to shed but couldn’t control.
“Thank you. It’s OK. It’s really hard, but we’re OK.” I said. Trying to make her feel a little better.
How my daughter then said, “It’s sad. But sometimes sad things happen. My friend‘s dog died this week, he was her best friend since birth. She was really sad the other day and I told her she’s going to be really sad for awhile, and then it’s not going to feel so bad. Like me, I was really really sad and now I’m OK. I drew her a picture of her dog and wrote a note that says I love you. Because it helps me to have pictures of my brother and because I really do love her, she’s one of my best-est friends.”
I remembered how I had squeezed her hand again after that, this time hoping she would know I was saying, you amaze me kid. How I then took a deep breath, told myself to keep it together, and turned back to after school pick up small talk — the very hardest kind of small talk.
The coffee pot beeped. I wiped the tears that were starting to gather in the corners of my eyes. Back to my emails. And my coffee. And my three year old watching Wild Kratts. And our morning routine.
Only three new emails since last night when I had worked hard to get my inbox down to zero. I’m trying to take better care of myself lately, something I’ve been told is important during a season of grief. So I read a bunch of self care manifestos and made goals like; drink lots of water, eat less carbs, exercise 30 minutes a day, finally lose the baby weight (see goals 1–3), try to do something I love every day, don’t stare at my phone too much, don’t check my emails all the time, also don’t let all those emails pile up, wake up earlier, and don’t drink too much coffee. I’m working on those last few. Or maybe all of them.
I opened the one from Lifetouch titled “Claim your school picture print”. In it was a proof for my 1st grader’s school picture. The one she had taken a little over a month ago. The one we had blown her hair out for.
I looked. My eyes grew wide and I took a deep breath.
She had a beautiful soft smile with her dimples showing through on each side, the ones she’s had since she was little, and she was wearing the striped dress she had picked out the night before. The photographer had styled that freshly blown out hair over her right shoulder. And on her left side, in the bottom corner, there was her stuffed dog. His right ear and little eyes peeking up. Her arm, though out of frame, clearly cradling him.
This stuffed dog’s name is “William Puppy” or “Willy” for short. It’s the one she bought her baby brother to give to him when he was born. The one that she asked to sit next to his incubator in the NICU, to guard and protect him she said. The one she asked to keep and name William Puppy after her baby brother passed away. The one she now carries with her regularly and sleeps with at night.
My first thought was oh no. I thought about how other people might be confused about why a first grader has a stuffed animal with her in a yearbook picture. How people might find out, if they don’t already know, that this stuffed dog is named after her dead brother. How people might think she’s not doing well or that we’re not doing our job as parents. That she should be over this by now. That we shouldn’t let her name her stuffed animal the way she did, that it’s morbid and weird. That she definitely shouldn’t have it in a school picture.
I put down my phone. I poured my coffee and put in two scoops of collagen peptides (a flavorless white powder substance made from bovine hide that’s supposed to heal my joints and make my 36 year old skin, hair, and nails look young again), and stirred my almond milk in. More attempts to take better care of myself.
I leaned against the kitchen counter and when I looked up I saw the family picture I had framed on our kitchen wall. Our stick figure family portrait my daughter had drawn before she mastered her non-stick figure approach. This one had her almost the same size as us again, her sister a lot smaller than that (always), and William as a baby bundled in my arms and an angel with yellow wings above her.
Keep it together I thought to myself as I sipped my coffee, steam rising in front of my eyes, and leaned against the kitchen counter. I waited for my daughter to wake up.
My seven year old made her way down the stairs in the morning the way she always does, pajamas still on, arms full of stuffed animals (William Puppy included) and asking for breakfast. I put bread in the toaster, poured her a glass of water, and in my most casual tone I could muster said, “Honey, we got your school picture image in our email today! You look so beautiful.”
“Oh cool.” She responded. Sounding way older than she is.
“I also noticed William Puppy is in the picture too.” The tone of my voice slightly shifted with that statement. I couldn’t control it.
I picked my phone up and showed it to her. Her lips grew wide into a big grin, with those same dimples showing on each side, and said in an excited tone, “I know! You told me that school pictures are for our memories. And William Puppy is a really important part of this year. Because baby brother’s a really important part of this year. All our years really. So I wanted William Puppy in it too.”
She looked at the picture again. “He looks good.” She said in her newly discovered cool kid voice that is usually accompanied by a two handed finger snap and index finger point.
The toaster popped and I turned my back to pick up my coffee. And butter her toast. And cry.
A month or so after William passed away someone told me it was important to make friends with my grief. Screw you I thought. “Thank you.” I said. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
I did not keep that in mind. I really didn’t understand that idea and I didn’t have the capacity at that time, or since, to wrestle with what it meant. Until now, this morning, here in my kitchen, with the clock counting down on our morning routine.
I realized that I had spent months watching and learning from my daughter. Watching her keep William’s memory alive, not out of obligation or guilt or because she thought she was supposed to, but because she couldn’t do anything but remember him. She didn’t ignore her memories. She didn’t erase him from our family story in casual conversation, even though it’s easier to do that than have to explain to people what happened. She talked about him, drew pictures of him, proudly displayed keepsakes that reminded her of him, and comforted her friends because of what she learned from him.
And she was OK. Just like she had said that day on the blacktop after school.
I thought about how hard those things had been for me. How much fear I’ve had about thinking about him too much, about crying too much, or talking too much about him. About the panic that struck when I saw her school picture. The fear of being just too weird or too different. Yet, here she was, this kid of mine, cool as a cucumber, reminding me again that I can’t erase him or the grief that comes with his memories. Her actions declaring, You can’t do that! And why would you want to? That would end up erasing the joy he’s brought too.
I sat down and made a new self care list. A list with one goal.
Make friends with my grief.
I wrote that when a wave of grief hits – when a memory from that time shows up, or a thought of what the future was supposed to be comes to mind, or when I can feel my C-section scar hit the kitchen sink when I do dishes, or I catch a glimpse of my still round stomach, or I see a mother with her son, or my three year old asks me to pretend I’m having a baby that this time can live with us – I’m going to pause. And then I’m going to welcome that wave of grief like an old friend coming for a visit. I’ll hold it for a minute or two or longer. Whatever that friend needs. Sometimes I might cry, and not just the soft quiet tears I’ve worked so hard to master, the hard loud ones.
The ones that in the beginning of my grief , when it was fresh and raw every morning, when my old friend was a new enemy and a resident instead of a visitor, I would cry often. The tears that make you feel like you just may drown there in them, right there in your bed or the shower or the rocker in your room that was supposed to hold you and your baby boy. The tears I had tried so hard not to cry, they were too deep and seemingly too difficult and hurt too much, but this fresh grief, this new enemy, made me do it.
The more distance time put between me and my son’s death, the better I got at fighting those tears. I couldn’t keep them totally at bay, but I could quiet their wales and curb their inconvenience.
I could keep it together.
I realize now that those kind of tears needed to fall then and probably still need to fall now. And I need to let them. I don’t think it’s those tears that cause you to drown.
I think maybe it’s the fighting against them that does.
I don’t take school pictures anymore. I barely take any pictures of myself at all if I’m being honest. I might start though, and if I do, you’ll probably see my friend grief in that picture too. In that bottom right corner, cradled in my arms and peeking just into the frame. And looking good I might add.