Wednesday, December 4, 2013
trying to get back
Note: This month, I am participating in a blog project called Reverb 13. Each day during December, writers respond to a prompt from another blogger.
Today's prompt comes from Jill Salahub, who writes:
This past year, we have all experienced so much loss and experienced so much grief -- in relationships, through sickness and death, from mental illness or abuse, because of finances, even due to the need for healthy change.
It is good to honor those shifts, to fully feel them, so that we can let go of what needs surrendering, and remember what is worthy of our love and gratitude.
What have you lost, what are you grieving?
Last night, my daughter Alexa, who just turned 8, was giving me her usual bedtime hug. Ever since she was a toddler, she has squeezed me tightly before going to sleep, squealing, “Cuddly-cuddly-ee-ee!” To this, I always respond with, “Snuggly-snuggly-ooh-ooh.” After last night’s hug, as she pulled away, I said, with a rueful chuckle, “Someday you’re going to say, ‘Mom, enough of that. You’re so lame.’”
To my surprise, her eyes filled up with tears, and she buried her face in my shoulder. “Lexi, honey,” I said, “it’s okay. This silly little routine will be replaced by something else, something good.”
“But I don’t want it to be replaced,” she sobbed. “I don’t want to grow up.”
I assured her that we would always have special moments, some even as goofy as the bedtime snuggle session. I told her that my dad kept a treasure chest of silly sayings from our childhood, pulling them out at family gatherings well into our adulthood. He referred to my sister Kaytie as “the child” right up until the time of his death, despite the fact that she was thirty years old. And he often used these childhood moments as a way of keeping alive the memory of my brother, Mike, who died a few years before Dad. “Why did Ernie and Bert go in the water?” he’d ask every now and then, repeating a “joke” made up by Mike when he was three or four. We’d smile, waiting for the “punch line.”
“Because they went in the water! Ha ha ha ha ha!”
One Christmas, Michael, who was probably six or seven, gave my other brother, Joey, a gift he was never able to live down. Like the rest of us, Mike bought his Christmas presents at the elementary school bazaar. This year, he had apparently found the perfect gift for Joe: a tiny, plastic Barney Rubble. This present, wrapped in yellow composition paper, became known, infamously, as “the glass Barney.” “Who’s getting the glass Barney this year?” we'd ask every December.
The year after Mike died, I found Glass Barney on ebay, paid about twenty times what Mike must have paid, and gave it to Joe for Christmas. Mike may be gone, but his spirit lives on in the form of a one-inch Flintstones character that was made in China. A peculiar but nonetheless soothing form of grief.
Lexi wasn’t comforted by any of these stories, and to be honest, neither was I. Our shared grief over the parting of her early-childhood self hung in the air between us, even as I told her it’s important to celebrate each stage.
This phrase is one I have to repeat to myself more and more frequently: celebrate each stage. It’s often difficult, and sad, to reconcile the photos of chubby-faced, wide-eyed toddlers with the wiry, sturdy children who pull a little further away with each passing year. I hardly think Alexa will be calling me from her dorm room, ready for her “cuddly cuddly” goodnight. But I hope I will be celebrating her independence, and Dylan’s, rather than lamenting the empty nest.
When Lexi was a baby, Dylan, like most older siblings, went through an adjustment period. As the first grandchild on the Dowcett side, he was especially pampered, so he was understandably miffed when this screaming little red-faced monster disrupted his princely existence. Somewhere between the ages of two and a half and three, he began to take out this frustration on his sister, often by slapping her. We yelled a lot. One evening, while we were giving Lexi her bath, Dylan offered to help, as he often did. Lexi was in a foul mood (she turned into a demon after dark). Dylan tried to console her by “reading” to her: “Caterpillar still hungry. . . still hungry. . . .” This only intensified her howling. Out of ideas, he slapped her. We put him in time out.
He sat by the ottoman in front of the fire, crying real heartfelt tears. After a couple of minutes, I asked, “Do you know why you are in time out?”
He said, struggling to find the words, “There’s things I’m trying to get back to that I can’t get back to.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, though I knew. I was stunned by the clarity of this statement. That I can’t get back to.
“Loving you,” he responded. “You guys loving me.”
He was clearly grieving for an earlier time, before he had heard the word “no,” and before he had to share our love. He wasn’t yet ready to celebrate the presence of his sister. He had captured the essence of grief with his clunky phrasing: things I'm trying to get back to that I can't get back to.
“Mourning,” was the term the doctor used when I told him about this conversation. “He's mourning what he's lost. He’s a complicated little guy, and you need to give him a narrative for understanding this grief.” But I was still trying to understand it myself.
I came back to Dylan’s words two nights ago, as we were driving home from Lexi’s birthday dinner. In the darkness of the car, she posed a dreaded question: “Mom and Dad, I have to ask you something, and PLEASE be honest.”
I knew what she was going to ask before the words left her mouth. “Do you and Dad buy the Christmas presents?”
I was dumbstruck by her plea to “be honest.” How should I respond? I wasn’t sure what to say, but my initial, nonverbal reaction was one of grief. Is the Santa phase of our lives really over? With so little warning?
“For each other?” I asked, stalling. “Of course. Santa’s gifts are for kids.”
“Nooo! For us. Because Ella said there’s no Santa Claus, and she said her parents told her.”
“Um. . . well. . . Hey, what's that out the window?"
Dylan rushed to the rescue. We’re pretty sure he’s hip to the Santa Scam, but he’s not ready to face this kind of loss. “Of course Santa buys the presents, Lexi!” he insisted. “Mom and Dad don’t have that kind of money.”
“Then why did Ella say that?”
Bryan put a stop to the conversation, allowing us to hold on to the moment a bit longer: “It’s Christmas Magic, Lexi. You have to believe for it to be real. Don’t question Christmas magic." Period. My Dad, who was more excited about Santa than any grown-up I have ever known, would have been proud of Bryan’s quick thinking. I could almost feel him smiling down.
I’m guessing this is the last year that Santa will squeeze his way down our chimney. And I know Christmas really isn’t about Santa, anyway, and shouldn’t be, but it is hard to let go of the magic, even if it will eventually “need surrendering,” as Jill says. Even as my fingers set out to echo Jill’s words—“honor those shifts”—my mind drifts back to Christmas two years ago, when we bought a Kit Kitteridge doll on eBay for Lexi and dressed her in Christmas clothes. Since we didn’t have the box to wrap, we stuck a bow on her head and sat her under the tree. Lexi laughed at “Santa’s little joke.”
But if I’m truly honoring the shift, feeling it fully, rather than grieving for what's lost, then what I should embrace is the gratitude I feel in giving back a little of the joy the kids have brought to our lives. They bring other things, too, but mostly joy. The magic is not so much in the guy in the red suit, or in the fairy who takes a tooth and leaves a dollar; it’s in the connection we feel with our kids in these moments. We make the magic, the magic brings joy, and we feel fulfilled. This connection will shift and twist in the next several years: it will be tested, knotted, possibly torn. But if we can let go of what was and welcome what is and what’s coming, then it should at least stay intact.
I can already sense that in losing the little kids, I am gaining two smart, adventurous, loving companions. But it’s okay to cry in a corner for a few minutes, right?