grief

Post-Election: All I’ve Got Right Now

On Sunday evening, Smoke and I found out that his friend Sam’s dog had died. He looked sorrowful for a moment, and then he set to work. He made a small gift out of things he already: three bouncy balls in a box. He stretched three rubber bands over the box so that it doubled as an instrument. And then he grabbed a piece of white paper, made a card, and inside that card he taped three pieces of gum. On the outside of the card he drew this picture: a dog with angel wings and a halo. The dog was chasing a truck that said, in large letters, “Ham.” It was, of course, a dog in heaven chasing a ham truck.

The next morning, I dropped Smoke off at Sam’s house before school. He ran up the stairs carrying the box. When Sam opened the door I could see that he was somber. His head hung low. I couldn’t see his face.

Later that day, I would get a text from Sam’s mother. It said:

Thanks to Smoke! Sam was a mess. Wasn’t going to school because he was too sad. Smoke made it all okay.

For the whole rest of the day every time I remembered the text message I cried just a little. I cried because I was proud of my son for being so big-hearted and earnest. I cried because I had already lost a night of sleep anticipating our elections and so I was feeling raw. I cried because some part of me was preparing for my own grief at the state of our world.

Also: I cried because I knew that it was the dog chasing the Ham truck that fixed everything—not forever of course, but for a brief moment, that a crude gift assembled with love had the power to pull his friend from grief, to help him get up for the day and move forward.

I keep trying to convince my students that the art we bring into the world—the pictures we make, the songs we write, the stories we tell—that it has actual consequences. It changes the chemicals in our bodies and guides our actions. I’m telling myself that now.

And so, in my post-election grief, I am holing up with stories. I am treating them as light, as sustenance. I am snuggling on the couch with Stump and Smoke and watching The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. I am replaying this life-giving Radiolab episode about Mel Blanc—the voice of Bugs Bunny and a thousand other characters. I am reading the poems that friends have been placing in front of my eyes. It is escape, but also it is medicine, a salve that allows me to re-gather my strength, regroup, and prepare for the fight ahead.

This is all I’ve got right now: It’s a box with three bouncy balls, three rubber bands, and three sticks of gum. It’s a picture I drew with a black pen on white paper. But I hand it to you with the intention that we can laugh together, or throw things, or make some boingy sounds, and meanwhile, deeper down, we are preparing to smash the patriarchy.

image: Infinity Symbol made from a Rubber Band by zeevveez, CC BY 2.0

Don’t Turn Around

For ages I’ve dreamed about these two things:

The day I could kiss my son goodnight, leave the room, and count on him to fall asleep without me.

The day my son could read fluently enough to entertain himself with a book.

Those days have arrived–they are the same day in fact–and I am surprised to discover that my feelings of pride and relief are coated in a sticky layer of grief.

It all began when Kellie and I decided it was time to move Stump, our two-year-old, out of our bedroom and into the lower bunk in Smoke’s room. This meant that Smoke would have to move to the top bunk. Such transitions in our house require incentives, and so I offered to buy Smoke a headlamp and any comic book he wanted. I pitched that he could read with the headlamp while Stump slept down below.

I thought it would be a hard sell. When Smoke was three he went through a phase of waking at 2 am and demanding a snack. It didn’t matter that I never once gave in. “We don’t eat in the middle of the night,” I told him every time. Still he’d wake up every night and ask over and over.

Bedtimes have gone about the same way. Before this week, on a good night, I might be wrapping up our bedtime reading at 8:40. “Just one more chapter?” he requests. By that time of night he is insistent, and I am so very tired. I always cave. And then he needs a cold drink of water, and then he needs to poop, and then he needs another drink of water, and then it’s 10:05 and I snap at him “Oh-my-god-go-to-sleep!” and then I say “Sorry, it’s just late and I’m really tired.”

But not anymore. On the first night he climbed into his top bunk with his headlamp and his How to Train Your Dragon comic book. He was silent. Ten minutes later, I poked my head in. “Are you able to read that?” I asked him. So far he had been reading books with a sentence on each page, and always out loud with Kellie or me on hand to coach. “Not really,” he answered. “I’m just reading the words I can read.”

“That’s called reading,” I told him.

Ten minutes later, I poked my head in again. “Is your light off?” I asked him.

“Yeah,” he answered. He sounded apologetic, as if I might have wanted him to stay up all night. “I just got a little tired.”

I didn’t return until I had finished my own business and was ready to go to bed myself. I turned on the nightlight and stood on my tiptoes, but I could see nothing but the edges of his blanket. I knew for sure that he was sleeping only by the sounds of his breathing. I wondered if it was too late to reconsider. The sight of Smoke sleeping has been one of the deepest joys of my life.

Sleep3But of course, there’s no turning back. Isn’t that what Orpheus taught us when he looked behind him at his wife Eurydice and, in doing so, cast her out of the mortal realm forever? You must not look behind you, you must not turn around, or you will learn that the thing that you once loved has already transformed.

Meanwhile, Stump has not taken to the lower bunk. He’s taken instead to waking in the middle of the night and screaming for twenty minutes at a time. He won’t let me console him. Smoke seems to sleep through it just fine, but I’ve moved Stump back into my own room.

Stump’s final two-year molars are coming in, and so I use the pain of teething to explain his midnight screaming, but of course I can’t be sure what’s causing his distress. I can only be sure that it’s a phase, and it will pass in one month or two, and when he’s finally truly sleeping through the night away from me I will feel strange, like the way I would feel if I lost an appendage not to frostbite or amputation, but if I simply misplaced it, if I left it in a drawer in some rarely-used room. I would wander around wondering Where did I put that? and Didn’t I need that for something? and I will wonder why it’s so hard to be needed, and why it’s so hard to not be needed.

Grief: Where Does it Come From and Where Does it Go?

When I was around twelve years old, I remember having an evening when I couldn’t stop crying. It was June, and my family had finished dinner. The sky was still just light enough to glow. My mother and I loaded dishes in the washer. I’d been fighting angst all evening—some strange source of pain that I couldn’t name—and suddenly it all burst forth from me in tears.

A gift that my mother gave me—in that moment and many others—was a curiosity about emotions and how they revealed themselves. My outburst didn’t seem to make her nervous. She didn’t leave the room or stand there staring. Instead, she put a hand on my shoulder and offered theories. Maybe I was sad because it was the end of the school year and I would miss my friends in the summer. Maybe I was simply on the cusp of change, and frightened.

Two weeks ago, my son’s preschool closed forever. He started there when he was two and has seen many of the same faces every week for the last three years. It’s the place where, at two-years-old, he would cling to me most mornings, hiding between my legs until he summoned the courage to join his friends; the place where he fed worms to chickens and dug in the dirt; the place where, after he fell from a branch and injured himself, a fire truck arrived, and several kind EMTs gave him a stuffed donkey to hold as they bandaged him; the place where he’s created countless projects out of cardboard and googly eyes. Over the last few months he’s come to love his school especially. On weekends he asks me to count the days until he sees his teacher and his friends.

This is a picture my son drew of his preschool. Note the sunshine and the giant door.

This is a picture my son drew of his preschool. Note the sunshine and the giant door.

The friends, they still exist, and the teacher is having her own baby, but the place we’ve known is empty now, and I’ve wondered how my son’s grief would come out. At the goodbye party for his teacher, we all ate cake and played hard. On the last day of preschool we said our goodbyes a bit louder than normal, but neither of us shared tears. And even at the yard sale, where all the toys they had played with over the last three years were sorted and labeled with price tags, my son was simply intent on purchasing the blue light saber before someone else got it. We got it, and therefore no tears.

I’ve never liked goodbyes. I prefer to mark endings privately, quietly, and perhaps I’ve passed this to my son.

Yesterday morning, my son woke up with his left eye swollen half closed. We couldn’t tell at first if it was an allergy or pink eye, so I gave him Benadryl, and tended to it with a warm washcloth. I gave him extra attention at breakfast, bringing him juice, kissing his forehead, wiping his nose.

After breakfast, when I insisted on a walk in the sun, he curled in a ball on the couch and screamed. He didn’t want to go anywhere! He had a stomach flu! He was serious! He wanted to stay home all day! I was serious too. The day was getting warm and the birds were singing. I had enrollment forms to drop off at the local kindergarten three blocks away, which was across the street from the bakery. I promised him a cookie, but he wouldn’t budge. I insisted. I chose his clothes and dressed him, uncurling him from his ball limb by limb. Outside, my partner carried him, and he screamed some more because the sun hurt his eyes.

But the sight of the bakery case with its many trays of cookies calmed him and he wiped his tears. “Can I have a breadstick too?” he asked. He sat on the bench outside his future kindergarten and ate his cookie first. My partner asked for a bite of his breadstick and he told her “I’m sorry but no.” He walked home on his own feet, half himself again.

I wonder about my own grief and where it will land—in my left eye or my right ear, or will it just stretch out through my body through the week?