Xavier’s birthday prayer flag
Of all the days, he chose today. Today to wake in his own bed. It’s something to be celebrated. Something we’ve been encouraging. But this morning, of all mornings, I wanted him beside me. To breathe in his still faintly baby smell and to have his pudgy little hands grasp my cheeks.
His older brother didn’t come in either. Deeply asleep in his room. There was no bounce to greet the day. If their middle brother had lived, there would be bounce. There would be presents and laughter and wrapping paper strewn every which way.
Instead, I go into the boys rooms. Hand softly on hearts. Checking that they are still breathing. Because today, of all days, I don’t presume a thing.
I have a shower and my thoughts unravel for the day. The cleaners are coming and my white, middle class guilt about that kicks in. Today I won’t tidy. Today they will have to manage around discarded train tracks. I think about the cost and then the cost of daycare that ostensibly allows me to work. And whether any of it is worth it. I stop short of calculating my hourly wage. Fallen so far from corporate high flying. It’s dangerous territory when I’m feeling useless. When my thoughts are skating around the inevitable. I haven’t bought him a present yet. What sort of mother leaves it until her son’s birthday to buy a present? I try to tell myself to stop but my heart isn’t in it. There is a strong part of me that welcomes self destruction. Today, of all days.
I choose my clothes carefully. Which would seem odd to most people. But clothes have always been armour. I wear jewellery laden with meaning. A necklace with his initial and foot print. A butterfly brooch. I look in the mirror and I am old. Tired and sallow.
My phone sits on the counter and I reach for it out of habit. Today the tide of routine is what will keep me going. There are so many messages. So many people remembering him. Tears fall. Not drought breaking but enough to give some relief. This day that has all the grief rolled onto it. So far from my everyday reality. There are only a handful of days I let myself cry. Birthday, Anniversary, Mother’s Day. I let the grief build and build and build and then the calendar demands its release. Today of all days.
This day. His birthday. Four years old and forever newborn.
Friday I went to a funeral. The last funeral I attended was my son’s. My dear friend’s mother died recently. Stolen away much too quickly by lung cancer. I wanted to be there, to say good-bye to someone I had known since primary school and to comfort my friend. I had avoided funerals up to that point. Afraid that they would be too painful to bear. There were tears. For my friend. For her Mum. And, although I tried to avoid it, for Xavier.
I was upset yesterday. As much as I tired, I could not keep the tears from falling. As much as I tried, I could not bring myself back from the brink. The tears were a disproportionate response to someone else’s actions. I was with friends and embarrassed at the emotion I could not hold onto. The emotion that was unfairly spilling over into their afternoon.
In the objective light of the next morning, I understand the combination of factors that led to those tears. Four hours of sleep the previous night. Four or five glasses of bubbles. A whole day dedicated to mother’s day, and in particular mothering boys. Hearing the heart break of another mother who has two boys with her and one in heaven. I was standing on an emotional ledge and it would have taken very little provocation to push me into tears.
The dark stain of grief no longer touches my every day. In the early days after Xavier died, there would be good minutes amongst the bad. Then good hours amongst the bad. Eventually, good days between the bad. And that continued to stretch, until the good days outnumbered the bad. Nowadays, the bad days are far and few between. But they still hit. And the ferocity with which they hit does has not reduced exponentially in the same way that their frequency has. It’s one of the strange things about grief – you imagine that it continues to reduce, but it doesn’t – it flares.
Those flares can be dis-orienting. I find myself confused, searching for why my emotions are suddenly askew after a period of gentleness. It always takes time for my head to catch my heart. And even as it dawns on me, it concerns me. I don’t want to use my grief as an excuse. I don’t believe that my grief over my son becomes a blanket excuse for bad behaviour. I don’t want to use it as a cop-out. And I don’t want my friends and family to immediately assume that whenever I am emotional that it is tied to Xavier.
Grief is a double edged sword. On the one hand, I feel that I can survive anything after living through the death of my son. That nothing can touch me after that. That every other potentially upsetting thing fades into insignificance. On the other hand, when grief has left me raw, then I am emotionally vulnerable, unable to access the resilience that his death gave me. It’s as though that heart scar has been pulled away, red and raw again, sensitive to the slightest touch. At other times, that scar tissue has hardened to a point that I don’t even feel pressure against it. But I don’t always know which emotional state I am in – sometimes the scar test is what reveals it to me. When mother’s day approaches, and with it birthdays and anniversaries soon after, I can presume a level of emotional tenderness.
And hope those around me understand.