I don’t come to my sister’s cabin nearly as often as I could. Â Not nearly as often as I should. Â 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. Â She has always extended me and mine an open invitation. Â Conifers hundreds of feet tall surround it. Â 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. Â 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. Â 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. Â When I entered the place, my heart was so heavy I could hardly breathe. Â 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. Â I saw him intent on a video game, or constructing an elaborate Lego space station. Â 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 Â 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. Â My sister and her family had been in Scandinavia, and the cabin had remained empty. Â 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. Â 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. Â But even so, I couldn’t not see how fleeting everything is.
What do you do with the death of a child. Â Really, what. Â I have no idea, still, over three years later. Â It is beyond reckoning. Â It casts a blue-black shadow over everything, and at the same time a brilliant bright light.Â
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. Â I knew our daughter’s world was about to change, we hoped for the better. Â But change it would. Â We knew; she didn’t, which added a poignancy. Â But really, we didn’t even know. Â After her brother’s birth, we were pulled into a vortex of Â 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. Â And that’s just relatively speaking.Â
Yesterday, as a foursome, we went to the same lake we’d visited two years ago as a threesome. Â Same lake, different shoreline. Â 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. Â Bouldering over a creek to get to a promising beach: inadvisable. Â Passing the afternoon on a beach whose drop-off is steep and rocky, with two tiny people who can’t swim: inadvisable. Â And so forth. Â 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. Â It’s not like I have to make much of a jump to imagine the worst. Â So I do, routinely.
And yet. Â 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. Â 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. Â 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. Â As we approached the bouldery creek crossing, the beloved and I had a terse exchange about least worst route across. Â 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. Â 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.). Â For reasons known only to the two of them, she and her brother giggled uproariously at the end of each recitation. Â I stole glances at them in the rear view mirror. Â She, laughing with abandon. Â He, basking in her attention, bathing in it. They are for each other like no one else on earth.Â
When her brother entered our family our daughter lost her easy, unarranged intimacy with us, but in that very loss was born this love. Â This love whose tiny fingers she had to fiddle immediately upon reuniting with him, after several days’ absence once. Â That’s what she said she missed about home the most: his little fingers.Â
Back at the cabin, tired after their long day, my children sit around Erik’s old table, and eat with his old utensils. Â They bathe in the bathtub he so often bathed in, snuggle in the same bed Erik snuggled in, for nighttime books. Â They’re asleep now, under his old roof, as I write this. Â And I am awake.