As my fourth child, you were never going to get the fresh-faced version of your mother. You were never going to have all of my attention because you have three other siblings who really like to break things and make loud noises. You were never going to get rested Mom, well-hydrated Mom, sure-let’s-get-in-the-car-and-go Mom. Truly, every kid gets a different iteration of their mother. Your oldest sibling, for example, got the scared-out-of-my-wits version along with the young and energetic.
But you, sweet boy, got me in an especially different way. A year and a half before you were born my mom – your GoGo – died and the 22 months before that I walked with her as best I could as she battled and succumbed to terminal cancer. I am just not the same person I was before I stepped onto that path. Like the western calendar, my life is divided by a death. Millenia surround it, worlds and paradigms divisible by a couple trips around the sun.
Losing her was inevitable, but not yet. We were supposed to have time; she was supposed to watch you all grow and let you walk with her to this departure in your later years, prepared by smaller losses to lose her in grace, after you’d gathered up a million stories and memorized her well enough to pass her onto your babies.
Instead it happened smack dab in the middle of my own baby-bearing years and you, my love, are the first one conceived, grown, and born into a world without her in it the way she should be. I will always grieve that she didn’t get to hold you, that you’ll never have her warm scent imprinted on deep parts of your heart to be stirred when you walk into some shop or hug a person with the same perfume. I will always grieve the video calls you won’t share with her, the airport greetings, the smile you’d set on her face, the conversations you were meant to have, the crafts you’d make together.
You were wanted, but I was scared to have you After Death. I had no imagination for doing this without her. She played a huge role in our lives and that was true of the postpartum phase: she held my hand through the physical pain and stroked my hair through the hormonal shifts. She happily took the night-time diaper changes and the early morning snuggles so I could rest. She made banners and put up streamers and took no less than a thousand pictures. She kept the air celebratory longer than the balloons would float, held the air like a treasure.
You get your mom in settled grief. Your siblings didn’t have to share my attention or heart with an ache like this and I hate that you do. But. I want you to know something else: it isn’t all bad.
You get the version of me who has walked through hell more than once – it isn’t a fluke that I’m still here. You get the version of me who knows I can do hard things. Which is lucky. Because four kids is hard.
You get the me with a complicated faith. I had answers Before Death and now I have like one. Maybe two. Your siblings got (some) uncomplicated Bible stories and you will only ever get nuance. You get the version of me who leans more than ever into the mystical because that is where I find her. You get the me with fire-tested conviction in Love and a sometimes-timid hope in old stories. So what I tell you won’t be habit, won’t be rote; I will tell you everything I am discovering or rediscovering with earnest joy and patent awe at the Truest things.
You get the me who is freshly smarting by how fast the moments go and how un-get-back-able they all are. This doesn’t always translate to much, but I am fighting, son, to behold you and to be thoroughly with you in the precious few moments we get together. I am newly and strikingly aware, too, of how important it is that you have me, not only that I soak up these days, but that I insist on being in photos and recording my voice and writing notes to help you soak them up, too, even if by a trail of crumbs when you are 35.
You get the me whose ideas about schooling and religion and politics and diet choices and are indelibly couched in a Big Picture which has room for error and is full of fresh paint. I feel both an urgent appreciation for this “one wild and precious life” and a calm curiosity. The worst of the possible outcomes happened and here I am, still breathing somehow, still enjoying pie, still getting overwhelmed by laundry. And I wonder, hesitantly, what else I can endure (with no desire to test fate. You win, fate. I’m good).
And I wonder what you will have to endure, too. But you also get a mother who knows you can endure it. I have watched your siblings walk through impossibly hard terrain and I have seen them gather gems from it, too. I have watched them grapple with death long before they should have had to and stand up sore, but wisened. You are born into a family grieving. You will never know life without the shadow of death and even though I would change it if I could, I’m grateful. She is GoGo-ing you in a unique way with her absence, showing you love is more than tangible.
I am so glad you are here, my love. I am so grateful and so proud. I am so hopeful, too. Your life is a testament to dawns after midnights. Your presence is a radiant display of love’s stubborn insistence, beauty’s refusal to shrink when the ugliest arises. You are proof that there is a heartbeat to the universe.
I was scared, but you came anyway – in one push, to laughter. And she was there.
I have this photo of you and I just after your birth. We are snuggled up in bed and some flare from a candle caught the lens so there is a little spot of light floating right there between us. Your siblings all have their newborn photos with GoGo and this is yours. It hangs where I see it every single morning when I wake up to remind me that what I was so afraid of – doing this without her – is simply impossible. You may have come After Death, but there is no After Her.