And now we are four


I don’t come to my sister’s cabin nearly as often as I could.  Not nearly as often as I should.  It’s beautiful; it’s above 5,000 feet elevation; it abuts a state park and is just a few miles from a beautiful national forest.  She has always extended me and mine an open invitation.  Conifers hundreds of feet tall surround it.  She has spent many of the past eight or so years sprucing it up, so that it reflects her family’s dual Norwegian-American heritage.  The problem is that it reflects her family for me, too, or rather one young member of it who’s no longer here.

After Erik died, it was nine months until I visited their cabin again.  We were up in the area for the winter holidays with the beloved’s family at another cabin; my sister was away, and I had come to borrow some stray kitchen implement.  When I entered the place, my heart was so heavy I could hardly breathe.  I saw him everywhere: at the kitchen counter, helping mix pancakes with my sister and me; on the couch, highlighting the beloved’s mezzo-soprano parts, with her direction, in her copy of Der Rosenkavalier.  I saw him intent on a video game, or constructing an elaborate Lego space station.  With his younger brother, he was playing with my eccentric Christmas (or Jule) gifts to them: funky, home-made “spy kits,” consisting of high-powered magnets and  mini-flashlights attached to retractable key chains. Outside, he was crouched behind a snow bank, fumbling excitedly for snowballs.

I gathered the pots and pans we needed, and stayed away for a long time after that. Even after my sister began to come.

The next time I came back, it was almost a year later, and I had hoped that things had shifted a bit.  My sister and her family had been in Scandinavia, and the cabin had remained empty.  The beloved and I took our two year-old daughter up for a week’s visit in the mountains, some weeks before the first snows would fall, and some months before her brother was born.  It was our last trip together as a threesome.

I wrote at the time that Erik was skittering around the periphery of my consciousness the whole visit, reminding me of the preciousness of all things and of every moment. At the time, I was still only beginning to make out the impact of his death on my life, particularly on my parenthood.  But even so, I couldn’t not see how fleeting everything is.

What do you do with the death of a child.  Really, what.  I have no idea, still, over three years later.  It is beyond reckoning.  It casts a blue-black shadow over everything, and at the same time a brilliant bright light. 

When the beloved and I came to my sister’s cabin nearly two years ago with our as-then only child, I saw our time as bittersweet.  I knew our daughter’s world was about to change, we hoped for the better.  But change it would.  We knew; she didn’t, which added a poignancy.  But really, we didn’t even know.  After her brother’s birth, we were pulled into a vortex of  seemingly never-ending labor, ricocheting from the stressful to the sublime (and back again). We are only beginning to emerge into our first provisional calm.  And that’s just relatively speaking. 

Yesterday, as a foursome, we went to the same lake we’d visited two years ago as a threesome.  Same lake, different shoreline.  Our current dilemma is that we are accursed whenever we take a stab at anything resembling adventuresome outdoors discovery. Whatever it is, it turns out to be too stressful with children the ages of our two. Bushwhacking a trail without a map, or without certainty that it will lead you where you expect it to: inadvisable.  Bouldering over a creek to get to a promising beach: inadvisable.  Passing the afternoon on a beach whose drop-off is steep and rocky, with two tiny people who can’t swim: inadvisable.  And so forth.  And so went our lakeside visit.

There’s no question in my mind that these little challenges unsettle me to the degree that they do because of the inky black shadow at the periphery of my vision.  It’s not like I have to make much of a jump to imagine the worst.  So I do, routinely.

And yet.  And yet as with so many afternoons, I made it through this one; so did we all. We walked back to the car, and I held our daughter’s hand as we traversed the scree.  All the while she narrated an elaborate tale in which she was a mermaid we discovered on the beach: the furniture in her undersea shipwreck home was made of coral; she wore a crown ringed with rubies; she had never seen a butterfly.  She mothered six children, three girls and three boys, which she would periodically “discover” as we stumbled along, and she would scoop each one up from the air and gently deposit it in the cooler I was lugging in my other hand.  As we approached the bouldery creek crossing, the beloved and I had a terse exchange about least worst route across.  The lil’ monkey announced that she was accustomed to walking like this in her undersea home, even though she then had a fin, and now had legs.  She wanted us to know that in fact she was very good at walking like this.

On the drive back to the cabin, she sang variation upon variation of the tune “I’m picking up a baby bumble bee” (won’t my mama be so proud of me, etc.).  For reasons known only to the two of them, she and her brother giggled uproariously at the end of each recitation.  I stole glances at them in the rear view mirror.  She, laughing with abandon.  He, basking in her attention, bathing in it. They are for each other like no one else on earth. 

When her brother entered our family our daughter lost her easy, unarranged intimacy with us, but in that very loss was born this love.  This love whose tiny fingers she had to fiddle immediately upon reuniting with him, after several days’ absence once.  That’s what she said she missed about home the most: his little fingers. 

Back at the cabin, tired after their long day, my children sit around Erik’s old table, and eat with his old utensils.  They bathe in the bathtub he so often bathed in, snuggle in the same bed Erik snuggled in, for nighttime books.  They’re asleep now, under his old roof, as I write this.  And I am awake.

15 thoughts on “And now we are four”

  1. what an amazing post. I think the problem getting beyond the loss of a child is that there is nothing you can tell yourself to ease or accept it. It’s nothing but tragic, and remains that way forever.

    I do hope that eventually what will happen for you, is you can go up to the cabin and be at peace and enjoy.

    It’s nowhere near the same, but my parents live near the ocean in the carribean, and i love to go there now and spend time in my dad (who passed away 8 yrs ago) office, as i feel especially close to him there, and it’s gone from being really difficult, to something very positive. I feel his spirit and energy the most there, and it’s something that i need to feel from time to time. Like a reminder.

  2. Beautiful post.

    This line: “They are for each other like no one else on earth” made me think of my younger brothers and sister in an unusually tender (almost melancholy) way.

    You captured so many exquisite moments in this post: Erik’s presence, mermaid fins and furniture, tiny little fingers. Just lovely.

    (And what a great photo – slow shutter while zooming?)

  3. Thank you, kimi. The brilliance of his light is really quite something. And it’s beginning to radiate more and more for me, more of the time. Even up here in his Sierra home.

    Annz, thank you. (And about the photo: d’oh! It was Photoshop! Radial blur, zoom — as vs. swirl — option. Full disclosure. Post-production: the amateur photographer’s best friend.)

  4. Thank you, mkatyc and face121.

    Virtual hug gladly received, bosssanders. And you know, some kind of peace is already accessible, even now, even to my sister. Other kinds, especially for her and her husband and her son, probably not ever. But our mindful, grateful, loving living seems like the best way we can honor all the dead, whether they’e young or old, taken by cancer or chance or violence. Least that’s the only thing I’ve been able to mine out of all this.

    Which of course is easier said than done.

    And Mr Lady, your speechlessness is an honor. Your speech, too, for that matter. Thank you.

  5. I started reading this site after hearing your reading at BlogHer, Polly, and it’s posts like this that make me so glad I’m here. This is so beautiful–such a lovely rendering of what it means to be a parent, to be a human in a world that is filled with so much light and dark all at the same time.

  6. I always feel a connection with you most when you write about your nephew – I have two that I absolutely adore (along with those four neices!) and although I know it is painful, these kind of posts never cease to remind me to cherish them. And, to remember that sometimes not all turns out the way we might expect.

    You’ve got a couple of gorgeous little miracles there – and another miracle, of course, is realizing it -which you absolutely do. Peace to you.


  7. I just began reading; so I feel like I want to know more about your nephew. As you know my son died 4 years ago. He was 13mos.

    You write about him – his lingering presence – so beautifully. And there is no way to make sense of the death of a child. This much I have learned.

  8. I have read about your son, and am so grateful you are writing about your journey after the loss of him (likewise, grateful for your links to those writing about parenting and loss).

    Heavy heavy sigh.

    And I’m just his Auntie. (“Just.” He’s just the first baby in my family I held and diapered; flew across the Atlantic to do so; the kid born to two people who’d just lost their mothers in the past year; just the first of the next generation, to try to fill the hole of loss.)

    I have only been able to write about him in bits and pieces, and always gingerly trying not to bolt too far into literal narrative, out of respect for my sister’s privacy.

    In brief: he was diagnosed with Glioblastoma multiforme (a virulent, essential “death sentence” brain/spinal cord cancer) a few months after his ninth birthday. We fought like hell for nine months, which felt essentially like a steep, fast, bus ride into the center of hell; no brakes, no seatbelts, no map, no padding. Just each other.

    His life and death have changed the lives of all of us who were witness to both, and on a regular basis I thank him (like here, or here or here) for giving me the clarity of vision I feel I have now as a parent. Dadgum it, it will not be wasted on me. Or so I feel as frequently as I possibly can.

  9. Since my last comment, I’ve been staying up for hours nightly reading this blog like a good book that becomes an old friend. This is where I’ve gotten. Somehow the sibling love entries are always the ones I want to comment on.

    Maybe it’s because I have two brothers and two sisters myself. I’m the fourth of five. I know how it feels to be younger and so need and love the attention of the older. I also know how it feels (though it’s a vague memory) to have the family dynamics change as another member enters. I was only three when my sister was born, so I hadn’t had that much time, all considered, to get used to my place as “the baby.” Still, it was a shift. But what came most out of it was pure, absolute, incredible love for my younger sister. Our bond is something unlike any other in my life, and that can be said for the unique relationships I have with each of my siblings.

    We got a little less of some things. Certainly monetarily, my parents had to struggle to pay for everything times five. Still, I wouldn’t trade any bit of the love we shared for anything. And I can say, at 23, my siblings (from 30 with her own kids, to 20 and still in college) are still my very best friends.

    Thanks for posting about so many aspects of your life and your family, but especially for showing the tender, beautiful, sometimes complicated relationship between your children. In every obstacle they face throughout life, that relationship will give them strength. Of course, having such a loving, amazing Baba will not hurt.

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