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My parents are boarding a plane. In her first months of life, we had a nervous habit of checking to make sure she was still breathing.
Sometimes, Stacy would pull her out of her bassinet at night to lay her on her chest, where their breathing would fall in sync. The first time we took her outside, wrapped snug against Stacy in her baby carrier, we paused at a stoplight so Stacy could lift the flap and count breaths.
A neighbor, a mother of a 3- and a 5-year-old, walked past: Stacy made a nervous joke, and the woman smiled in acknowledgment. Over the next months, we began to adjust to that reality. Their future begins to take shape in your mind, and you fret over particulars. Will she make friends easily at preschool? Does she run around enough? Life remains precarious, full of illnesses that swoop in and level the whole family like a field of salted crops. There are beds to tumble from, chairs to run into, small chokeable toys to mind. But you no longer see death at every corner, merely challenges, an obstacle course you and your child are running, sometimes together and often at odds with each other.
By the age of 2, your child is a person — she has opinions and fixed beliefs, preferences and tendencies, a group of friends and favorite foods. The three of you have inside jokes and shared understandings, and you speak in family shorthand. It is no longer useful to you; it was never useful to the child; and there is so much in front of you to do. What happens to this sense when your child is swiftly killed by a runaway piece of your everyday environment, at the exact moment you had given up thinking that something could take all of this away at any moment?
What lesson do your nerve endings learn? But I will, soon. Some riverlike coursing of hours slips past, in the time that is no time. Eventually, Dr. Lee calls us back into the other room to discuss next steps. Heart, liver, kidneys — all of them untouched, in perfect condition. Lee says.
Lee keeps talking for a moment, as I sit back and allow the idea to wash over me. She stands up. Stacy and I sit alone. I am the writer, the overexplainer who strains to shut up so that others can avail themselves of oxygen. I nod. I do not know from what clear water source she is drawing, but I know that she has found her way directly to our truth for both of us. We send immediately for Dr. Lee and tell her: We want to pursue organ donation. It is the only simple decision we make.
My parents arrive that evening and take their places with us.
Together, we fan out like figures in a religious painting. My mother sits behind me on a windowsill. I am on the floor, my head resting on her knees in an echo of my childhood. It should have been no one. Stacy and I take turns sleeping at the foot of her bed. There are no dreams in trauma sleep: Exhaustion and shock are reliable copilots, seizing the controls when you most need them.
I hear my own howls of grief in the bathroom, the gray tiling covering the floor and the walls like a hyperbaric chamber, and think they must belong to someone else. I avoid my gaze in the mirror; I have no interest in learning what it feels like to meet my eyes. No matter where I walk, I see empty hallways — no one in the waiting rooms, no other planned surgeries, no one in sight. This first night is the beginning of my reeducation: Earth is now an alien planet, and I am a visitor treading its surface.
The Lord Jesus, after all, works miracles. In the morning I shower in the bathroom, changing into a pair of track pants and a T-shirt my mother has bought me from a nearby Gap. My brother arrives, haggard from a red-eye flight from Colorado. Liz looks at her and begins laughing, her voice reassuringly vinegary through tears.
16 Best Books about Grief | The Strategist | New York Magazine
We catch everyone up as best we can. The doctors will arrive in a few hours to declare Greta brain dead. They will disconnect her briefly from the ventilator, monitoring closely for any signs of independent respiratory movement. They will test her brain-stem reflexes, the kind that register life at its most primitive. We emphasize, dully, that they do not expect to find anything. We are both restless souls, my mother and I, and we need some relief. I order a steam-flattened egg-and-cheese croissant and a cup of weak, bitter coffee with a red plastic stirrer. I place the croissant in the middle of the unfolded wrapper and pick the melted corners of the cheese off the edges.
I wonder aloud what I will do after she is truly gone, once her body has been opened up, once we are out of the hospital without her. There were days when I would drop off Greta at day care and feel myself glance longingly down the little hallway into the playroom; some part of me wanted to squat on the floor with her little friends all day, to abscond from the world of adults. Maybe I can volunteer at a co-op preschool for a while. Something to help fill the hole.
The widowhood effect: What it's like to lose a spouse in your 30s
I sip my coffee and feel the hollow of my stomach contract as it hits bottom. My mother goes back upstairs without me, and I venture outside to the courtyard, gazing up at a stale gray sky. I call my dear friend Anna, a dancer who left the city for Ohio. Ever since the accident, I have avoided going to the park. Even within my cocoon of shock, I am sure going there would pierce my defenses, flooding me the way my first trip outside did after she died. And then, one day, just as the summer light is beginning to change, I wake up with a familiar itch. I need to go running in the park.
I step outside and feel only the warmth of the sun. The street is wide, quiet, shaded. There is no one outside, no one to nod at, make eye contact with, step around. I enter the parade grounds and run past fields full of children, my eyes fixed straight ahead.
To my left, a middle-school football team is doing speed and endurance drills, dancing frantically on their toes and dropping down for push-ups. Two boys swing a bat lazily to my right, smacking a baseball into the same bulged-out spot on the chain-link. It hits the fence with a loud bong as I run past, but I do not flinch.
I reach the edge of the park, tennis courts to my right.
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I recognize her. Greta is somewhere nearby. I feel her energy, playfully expectant. Come find me, Daddy, she says. Tears spring and run freely down my face. I hear you, baby girl, I whisper. Elated, I enter the park and immediately spot her; she is waiting for me, hiding behind the big tree in the clearing between the Vanderbilt playground and the duck pond. Standing in the park, staring at her, I make a strange and primal sound, deep and rich like a belly laugh, hard and sharp like a sob.
You are here. You picked the park.
Good choice, baby girl. Oblivious to the people around me, I run to her.
She wiggles in anticipatory joy. Stooping down, I scoop her up under her soft armpits, her shoulder blades meeting at the pads of my fingers, and I lift her up into the sky. She is invisible to passersby — to them, there is nothing in the spot next to the tree where she stands laughing and clapping but a patch of grass, and there is nothing in my arms but air.