A few years ago, my second son passed away. He was born on Leap Day, and passed just before his third birthday. Needless to say, for a while, my life was a downward spiral. Some might say I’ve never really gotten away from it. Unlike my oldest son, who would later be diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, his little brother would test me in nearly every way a two or three year old would. I imagine he would have prepared me, and driven me to drink well before my third son had come along. Of course, he would have just turned eleven this year. I wonder what he would be now, because he was the first sour patch kid in the family, you know, first they’re sour, then they’re sweet. I imagine sometimes that he would be the link between his older brother and the younger ones.
Don’t get me wrong, the lot of them have a pretty strong bond, but my oldest spent a fair amount of time, essentially, being an only child, but for a brief time, around age 2-3, he had a decent handle on being a big brother. Now, the younger ones treat him more like a servant “…gimme gimme, come here, give me this, make me that…” To which, he always acquiesces. He’ll scream about it for quite some time after, but to his credit, he doesn’t tend to strong arm his way around his siblings.
The same can’t be said for his brothers, my son, the Hulk is usually the instigator. For instance, the other night, the two of them were attempting to share a game of Minecraft, and then I hear “…you’re terrible at this game!” followed by that characteristic roar a la Dragonball Z that usually prefaces a punch or something. I turned around just in time to see the younger one spinning, yes, spinning around the older one’s neck and shoulders and caught a leg coming around to my face. The older one is kind of screaming, kind of laughing, and still trying to play Minecraft.
My response, of course, is to take away the games before someone kicks the laptop, reprimand the younger for having shoes on the couch, and then, separate them for fighting. My wife was an only child, and still she persists that the two of them fighting is not normal. When I think of the trouble my brother and I got into growing up, well, the toys have changed significantly, but solving our problems with violence, well, that’s essentially the same. My daughter doesn’t fight so much, her “karate” mostly involves spinning in circles until she falls down all the while shouting “hai-yah.” And then there’s the baby.
When I said, what happens after, contextually, it was a response to a question a co-worker of mine asked me, about having kids after losing one. He was curious if losing a child changes how you do things. Of course it does, but you can’t live life attempting to shield them from everything. Especially when they have older brothers or sisters to imitate. Am I more of a helicopter parent than I used to be? Probably, but when my coworker asked me this, I honestly tried to think of the biggest change, and I think perhaps that the biggest change for me is in those first few days home from the hospital. A few things were very different this time around. I usually leave that time to mom. But this time, mom has lots of helpers. Most of my kids were north of that 5 lbs mark, like in the 6-8 lbs range, but this last one came in at barely 5 lbs and literally fit in the palms of my hands when born, and every time someone sat down with the baby, or put the baby down for a diaper change, he had at least one brother and his sister crowding around him. I was constantly hissing “get away get away,” or “don’t poke at him” or “watch your hands, don’t crowd the baby.” In my mind this was the definition of fragile. I think at one point I even said something like “back off, you’re breathing too hard.” As small as he was, and as rambunctious as his one and two year old siblings were, I was terrified he wouldn’t live long enough to thrive. Never mind that my heart leapt into my throat every time he coughed, sneezed, or caught a cold.
I told my wife, either they were going to hurt him, or he was going to toughen up real quick. Thankfully, through some miracle of fate, the latter proved true, and now he toddles along right behind the herd, beats his siblings with wooden spoons, hits, kicks, screams, and pulls hair. Also, very much like his brother and sister, he’s equally quick to dish out the hugs and kisses, especially if it gets him closer to the snacks.
So what happens after you lose a child? Well, honestly, you shut down, you grieve, and it hits you out of the blue for what seems like no reason. You spend days in bed staring at the ceiling, you see their face in the window when you come home from work, and all the while people say “I can’t imagine…” and eventually they tell you to “just get over it.” If you’re really lucky, you get pigeon holed at your job, if you manage to hold onto it. And then they do their best to convince you that you want to quit. They say that nothing puts your mortality into question like having children, but really nothing tells you your life is over quite like losing a child. Everyone expects you to shut down and then you start hearing that 90% of parents divorce after losing a child. Its actually closer to 16%, and then, apparently only 4% of those people separate because of the death. In reality every fight you have with your spouse can lay that wound open, and when its that close to the surface, well I can’t imagine a lot of people hang around for that kind of fun.
I like to think that my wife and I beat the odds, I suppose, yeah, we outlived the interest of those people who believed we would fail. We held our little family together on our own. We survived the loss of a sweet kid, sat through a funeral full of strangers and fair weather friends. We carried on to grow our family again. What happens after? well, your life can be over, or you can call it a wash, go your own way and start again, though I can’t imagine having kids with someone else while my wife and son were still out there, but maybe that’s just me. People say that they can’t imagine (and sometimes that sounds automatic, like ‘Papercut? those are the worst.’) and I believe that until someone actually experiences that grief, they really can’t imagine, because they can’t imagine that sorrow, that desolation, smacking you in the face when you stop for gas and a soda at the gas station, or screaming in anger only to be shushed in public because the neighbors can hear you, or they can’t imagine taking longer than three days to get over a loss.
What happens after is different for everyone. What happens after forces you to evaluate your priorities, and look after what matters. Profound? maybe, cathartic? more than likely. The truth is, I miss my son every day, and for a long time, it froze me in my tracks, but life around me refuses to stop.
Wow, this one kinda got away from me.