Brave new worlds – the first day of school

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Today was a milestone day – my eldest son starting school.  No hiding from the fact that he is growing up and entering into worlds I cannot follow.  Already a bundle of emotions I find hard to fathom.  Energy, frustration, eagerness, imagination, wildness, joy and longing bundled tightly into a body too small to handle the range.   Coiled.

This beautiful baby of mine, growing up and away.   Yesterday, I held him helpless in my arms.  Tonight, I watch him sleep.    His still full cheek, the deep breath of sleep, there are echoes of the baby.  He will wake tomorrow morning, full of boundless energy and enthusiasm.  Impatient to live every moment.  And in that bounce, is the boy.   He will tell me things that he has learned.  He will unknowingly utter wise things and I will see the promise of the man.

He is on the cusp of a new chapter.  Entering into realms that I can still remember of my own childhood.  Not just vague and dream like snippets – but years and events I can recall with clarity.  I am no longer a “new” mum.  My little one is getting older and I with him.   There is such promise ahead but I look back with a tinge of sadness.  I will no longer be his world.   There will come a time when I occupy just a small part of it.  But he will always have my whole heart.

I get to watch him grow.  Watch him discover passions.  Watch him succeed.  Watch him struggle.  Be there when he soars as he falls in love and there to catch him if he falls.  And this day feels like the beginning of all of that.

So many mums this week will be feeling similarly as they bravely hug their boys’ and girls’ goodbye and leave the school gates feeling a little empty.   And then there are those whose arms have been empty for a long time.  And for whom the fresh new school year heralds a new ache.  Those that should have been sending their little ones into the school yard for the first time but instead feel a new pang.   For their little ones, frozen in time.  Forever tiny.  Wishing their tears were falling because their child was growing up.

Today, I was brave and did not cry.  Tears threatened but I beat them back for my son.  But on the day Xavier would have started school, I will not have to fein bravery for the sake of him.  And the tears will fall for a milestone that never was.

I am reminded, both for Xavier, and today for Isaac, of Khalil Gibran’s poem

Your children are not your children. 
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. 
They come through you but not from you, 
And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you. 
You may give them your love but not your thoughts. 
For they have their own thoughts. 
You may house their bodies but not their souls, 
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams. 
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you. 
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday. 
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth. 
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far. 
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness; 
For even as he loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable. 

So as my eldest lets go of my hand and flies, I will forever strive to be the stable bow.
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Mothering a Rainbow

For the most part, I believe I am mothering Elijah in much the same way as I did Isaac and Xavier as babies. But there are moments. Snatches of time where everything is different. When it becomes truly apparent I am mothering a rainbow child.

Whilst pregnant, every twinge, real or imagined, sent me to the darkest of conclusions. Every time I caught his heartbeat on the monitor, or felt him kick, my breath would catch with gratitude. I get to carry this baby. I will get to hold this baby. I will get to keep this baby. How could I fathom such a blessing?

A few days after giving birth, a cocktail of postpartum hormones running through my veins, holding him tight as a newborn baby and begging him not to die. My heart aching at what was lost and the unbearable thought of further pain. Then his little fingers curled around mine, reassuring and real. He was staying. Staying.

Looking into his new but wise eyes and asking in a whisper if he met Xavier, if he knows how he is. Searching the deep blue seriousness for a flicker of recognition. Some sign of communion. He is not his brother. Yet a reflection of his brother. His brothers’ blood running through his veins.

He is softly sleeping, shallow breaths making his chest rise and fall almost indiscernible. I watch fervently, hand on his little body, willing each little breath to come. I am the guardian of his sleep. If I leave him for a little while in the hands of rest, I feel guilty and panicked. I come back to find him safe and feel like I have cheated fate. Every morning when he wakes, I am elated and overcome with gratitude. Sleep, that silent thief, has stayed faithful and not turned on us again. I am so blessed.

Sometimes I will pause before I check on him. For if he has entered a realm I cannot, I want to hover in the innocent happiness of the moment before knowledge. Then I start and I wonder if that moment would represent the chance to save him. All this inner turmoil and when I finally check on him, he is peacefully sleeping. No care in the world. He is peace, he is calm. He is balm to my wound-up heart.

Parenting after loss is a double edged sword. On one side is the almost unbearable knowledge that your child can die. On the other a level of gratitude that reaches deep into your heart. I have known the depths, so I will appreciate the heights. We have been through the thunderstorm, we have seen the rainbow and we are flying with the sun.

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Strong

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Strong.

How often did I hear that word in the days, weeks and months following Xavier’s death?  How often was it applied to my family and I, as admonition or admiration or assurance?

“You will get through this – you are strong”
“Strength will come as you need it”
“You are so much stronger than I could be”
“You need to be strong – for your family”
“You are the strong one”

At the time, I didn’t want to hear it, I craved hearing it, I believed it and I didn’t believe it, all at once.  Even now, I have a difficult relationship with that word.

Strong.

At Xavier’s funeral, I was told I was strong. Strong because I read a love letter to him (I cannot call it an obituary) and did not cry.  Strong because I only crumpled as I held his candle, following the small white coffin out of the chapel.  Strong because I greeted each and every one of those who come to pay their respects.   My dear friends and family saw strength. They did not see me practise that love letter over and over and over until I felt confident I could speak it without tears.  Speak so that everyone could hear me and know a little of my tiny Xavier – a small life that still contained likes and dislikes, funny moments and stories.   They did not know, as I embraced them and accepted condolences, that I was still reeling in shock.  That early grief had offered me a protective bubble and it was not until many weeks later that the full force of loss shattered against me.  They did not know that I felt closer to numb than to strength.

When people called me strong and said that they could not be, I wondered what that meant. Did they really think that if they lost their beloved child that the world would stop for them?  Because it does not.  The world cares little if you are strong or not, it will still carry you on its tide.   When people called me strong, I wondered, did they not see the pain?  Did they not realise that every molecule of my life had been rearranged and I was scrambling to pick up the pieces?  When people called me strong, when my brave face was on, mostly for their benefit, did they not realise it was a shimmering facade?

When my daily battle went unnoticed, when no-one commented on strength or bravery, I wanted to shout – “Do you know how hard this is? My baby died!”  When no-one mentioned strength, I craved assurance that my herculean effort of getting up and breathing each day was witnessed and appreciated.

There were times I wondered if I was really strong.  By trying to act as normally as possible, by trying to assure the comfort of those around me, was I being the opposite of strong?  Would I have been braver to show the full extent of my vulnerability?  Why was my strength measured by the way I made the people around me feel?

Now, with the perspective of time and a gorgeous new little baby in our family, I can see I AM Strong. My family IS strong.  We are strong beyond measure and we are blessed.   I can carry that label with more pride and certainity  now.  Perhaps I was always a strong person.  Perhaps strength lay dormant until I need it most.  Perhaps Xavier sent me strength.  Whatever the reason, I am stronger now that I was before.

We have walked through the coals, our souls a little charred, but we made it to the other side – hand in hand and heart in heart.

A little more world weary, more aware of tragedy, but we live with more love and more hope in the face of it.

 And that is strength.

What a grieving mother looks like

I remember the first time I attended a SIDS and Kids support group meeting.  There were other newcomers like me, slightly apprehensive and unsure.  There were those who had been coming for a long time, happy to be in the company of friends.  Before any of us spoke, I looked around the table.  And I was surprised.  I knew we were bound by the common thread of loss, but I hadn’t expected to be bound by other common threads.  The women who surrounded me where in their late twenties and early to mid thirties.  They were well dressed.  If they had children with them, they cared for them with tenderness and good humour.  As people spoke, I came to realise that they were articulate and well educated.  Without fail, I would look at each of them and think “but you don’t look like someone whose child could die.”   For some reason, I thought my family was the anomaly –  I thought that child loss simply didn’t happen in the circles my life revolved in.   That education, stable relationships and financial security offered some kind of mystical force-field against tragedy.  And yet here I was, mirrored by this group of women.  The very thing I thought protected me hadn’t protected them either.

Unless you are someone or close to someone who has experienced the death of a child, our image of mothers whose babies die are either rooted in history or formed by the media.   Until you have come close to it, stillbirth is something that belongs to the Victorians.  Until it infiltrates your life, babies do not die for no reason.  They die because they are too sick or because their carers are neglectful or careless.  Until it becomes your life, it is something that belongs to anybody but you.  Something that could never happen to you.  

The media is very good at demonising child loss.  Sensational headlines regarding babies starved to death allow our hands to fly to our mouths at the horror of it all.  Our hearts go out to the little ones but we do not see ourselves in that story.  Even when reporting children lost to tragic accidents, social media is quick to make comments about a lack of supervision, a lack of care.  So very quick to judge.   Not to make the parents involved feel guilty – oh no, we are not so mean are we?  But rather to place distance between ourselves and that particular tragedy.  I feel so sorry for her, but I would never ……      

I remember when the news of the murder of Alison Baden-Clay broke.  At first, there were stories about how it could have been any one of us.  But slowly, slowly enough sordid details were teased out by the media that we felt distanced again.  Affairs and incredible debt were not part of our lives.  The wolves at the door were silenced.

But what can we do when the wolves cannot be silenced?  When the wolves howl and make you anxious.  Because the wolf has tread your floors before.  What do you do when you realise that a grieving mother is not the monster in the media nor is she enshrined in history?  

When you realise, a grieving mother looks a lot more like you than you first thought.