Saturday afternoon, I had the heart-wrenching and soul-expanding experience of attending a memorial service for a girl in my son Liam’s class. I’ll call her B, and a year earlier, she had been diagnosed with cancer, a battle she lost at the close of 2015.
B was born just 8 weeks before my Charlotte, and I’d met her as a baby– a baby who was a girl, a peer of my baby girl who had died. When I first saw her, I took one look and I fled, leaping over chairs in desperation to avoid such a trigger, finding myself in another room with heaving sobs, out of breath and panicky. However, B kept re-entering my world, and at the age of 6 she became an everyday fixture in my life when my son joined her K/1 class.
For years I watched B grow, and I felt an intense fondness for her. There were other girls present, yes, of course. They, too, were Charlotte’s age mates, and I could have easily latched my quiet, private sentiments onto them. But I think the fact that I had seen B as an infant caused me to see her more clearly and realistically as Charlotte’s peer. I also knew, from mutual friends, that B had experienced some difficulty early in her infancy, and I imagined that her parents viewed her with a gratitude, relief, and devoted love that I was able to honor. She was Charlotte’s peer, but her parents recognized the miracle that was B, and so she was safe.
It seemed a terrible, awful, and unbearable coincidence when B was diagnosed. I imagined, at first, that she would survive: doesn’t it sometimes seem like other people always dodge the bullet? When it became clear that she would not, I could hardly think of it. I did not want to open the box, deeply tucked inside of my heart, that contained the anguish that I once experienced it every day. It would not be my sadness for her, though of course I would miss her. It was knowing what her family would experience, and on a completely different level. What would it be like to have 12 years, and then face death? I could not even contemplate the idea.
When she died, that box cracked open for a moment, but still I was shocked at my own dissociation from grief. I felt awful, I felt disbelief, I felt horror for her family. But I could hardly get the tears to roll down my own cheeks. What had happened to me? How was it that I had become so practiced in holding back pain that I could barely experience it anymore?
The memorial service gave me the gift of being able to grieve this beautiful soul, this lively, unique girl, and also mull over my own connection to her, and to Charlotte. Her parents created something so deep, so meaningful with personal readings, music from her brothers, and dozens of stories that brought B right back to life in the room. I know each person who attended, whether 6 years old or 60, left with a strong sense of gratitude for B’s life, with admiration for her amazing courage and humor while she was dying, and deep sadness that she was no longer here.
I was experiencing all those feelings as I began to leave the church, walking down the stairs from the choir loft where I had watched the ceremony. I was full of so many big, huge feelings: among them giggling to myself about the funny stories about B, feeling bowled over by the intensity of how brave she was, and reflecting on how small her family looked to me without her there. Suddenly, I remembered that it was B’s birthday. They had waited until this day to hold her celebration of life, and suddenly something clicked in me.
The box opened, all the way.
I realized that B and Charlotte began at about the same time. B had filled up all the space in between, she had been there, vivacious, honest, herself, while I had lit candles on 12 cakes where there was no girl to blow them out. I had sang my sad, quiet birthday song to Charlotte with tears rolling down my cheeks 12 times, while B was out there living. But now she had no 13th birthday to celebrate. With that one thought that those two girls who started out life so differently both had no 13th birthday to celebrate– the box opened.
Huge, wracking, heaving sobs overtook me. What could I do? I hurried back up the stairs to the empty choir loft, I dug a handkerchief out of my purse, and I cried in a way that I have not cried for probably a decade. I could hardly breathe. The photos of B at the front, with her wide, joyful grin, suddenly yanked me down somewhere deep and dark. Some element of guilt crept in, because I knew my tears were also for myself, and not just for B’s family. I was taking a moment to feel that desperate, awful sadness that had once consumed me on an hourly, daily basis. It was what her family was feeling, what they were living. The sadness, though also for me, was some sort of connection.
When it comes down to it, I think that anyone who has experienced deep, all consuming, life changing grief has a point of reference for being present with another who is experiencing that same thing. There is a primal, animal way that the desperation for another person and the hopelessness of facing life without them can swallow us whole, leaving us certain that we will never survive the pain. Yet, somehow we do. Somehow we do.
I am grateful today for the life of B, and for the many, many ways that she brought me closer to my own baby girl. Through her life and through her death. she has continued to bring me back to my original child and my original experience of motherhood. I am also grateful that I have learned over the years to keep my grief in a safer, more manageable place, but it felt strangely fulfilling to have that box flipped open wide that day, to experience and remember what my days used to be filled with and to be aware of how much has changed.
Thank you, B.