by Bronwyn Green
I had no gossamer illusions about childrearing. I never once thought it would look anything like the glossy pictorials of celebrity moms romping through appropriately upscale parks with their offspring, the nanny discretely out of camera range. After all, any children in question would have sprung from the combined gene pools of my husband and me, and well, we’re not discrete nanny sort of people.
I expected motherhood to be messy and wonderful and breathtakingly beautiful. I planned on the grubby faces, poopy diapers and sticky hands. I expected temper tantrums, runny noses and fevers. But I knew there would be sweetly scented hair, warm, cuddly bodies, soul lifting giggles and happiness and wonder that would be beyond anything I’d experienced. While I expected motherhood to be the most rewarding vocation I’d ever have, I also knew it would be at times, hard, scary and overwhelming. Maybe it was arrogance on my part, but I never doubted my ability to mother my kids. I trusted that I would always be able to be fully present in my children’s lives, responding in whatever way most appropriate in a given situation. That confidence vanished rapidly fourteen days before my youngest son’s first birthday.
My faith in my ability to mother died along with my nearly nine month old nephew. Zane went to sleep one afternoon at the sitter’s and never woke up again. Of course, the sitter and the paramedics tried everything possible to revive him, but there was nothing that could be done. While kids who suffer sleep apnea can sometimes be revived, kids who suffer Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (crib/cot death) can’t.
In the space of time that it took my brother to utter the two words, “Zane’s dead” my world, along with the rest of my family’s, fell apart. Even though rationally, I knew that it was highly unlikely the same thing would happen here, it didn’t stop me from being terrified.
As parents, we want our kids to be happy and healthy. We want to protect them and keep them safe from all harm. The realization that no matter how hard we try, there are things we’re powerless against, is devastating. The grief that this beautiful child you adore is suddenly, randomly no more and the people you love with all your heart have a hole in their lives that nothing will ever fill, is too painful to find the words to express. The guilt that your children are alive while a loved one’s isn’t, is crippling. Parenting while constantly wondering, “Why not my son? Thank God, it wasn’t my son! What’s wrong with me that I’m even having this thought? What if? When? How can I prevent it?”, is very nearly paralyzing.
Trying to mother competently through a haze of depression, fear and sleep deprivation is easily one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I can sleep through most night noises, but silence still rouses me with a trickle of fear skating through my blood. Some nights, before I’m even fully awake, I find myself standing in my sons’ room, waiting—just waiting and listening.
After Zane’s death, I’d strain with every sense, trying to discern the sound of their breath, the rise and fall of their fragile chests. Some nights their breathing was so quiet and even, cold dread knotted my stomach. Terrified, I’d inch toward them, hand extended. I didn’t want to wake them. I didn’t want to know if they’d never wake again. I didn’t want to stand there another moment wondering. I didn’t want any of this. Forcing myself forward, I’d hold my hand over their faces. Warm and moist, their breath sighed against my skin and I’d sink to the floor, grateful to have been spared once more.
For nearly four years, I walked the hall in midnight vigil, marking the rise and fall of the moon. She was my silent companion in my weary, sleepless watch.
Avoiding scattered toys and strewn clothes, I wandered in and out of their room, thinking of the child who does not sleep, does not dream. At night, he lay in ashes in the bottom of a homemade urn, cold and alone. At night, I felt again the rasp of his papered skin under my lips, his hand cold and hard curled into my palm. At night, if I wasn’t careful, I see tiny white coffins. Morbid. Bright. They burned my eyes.
Blinking, I saw the blinding caskets were nothing more than my sons’ beds. If they didn’t stir, I’d again hold my hand over their faces. Repeating the desperate dance, I’d wait for the restless portion of their sleep cycle. Finally, the rhythm and motion of sleep would set in. They’d shift, murmuring, and I felt myself breathe. They never slept with blankets covering their bodies. Instead, they’d thrash and flop, gasping fish on the shores of sleep. And all I could think to do was draw the covers over their dreaming forms. Boneless, I’d sink into my own bed, lulled to sleep by the sound of my boys talking with and through their dreams. Even now, twelve years later, I still wake if the house is too quiet. I still occasionally peer into my sons’ room to make sure all is well.
I’d be lying if I said that I don’t still have moments of guilt that my kids are doing things my nephew never will. I’d also be lying if I said that time heals all wounds—because it doesn’t. It does dull it, but as far as unobtrusive scars go? Not so much.
However, I have come to realize that no matter what, we have a finite number of days with the people we love. There are a lot of people that I truly love, but I don’t love anyone more than I love my boys. I have no idea how long I’ll have with them or they’ll have with me. While I don’t obsess about their imminent demise anymore, I am always conscious of the big picture. For me, that means not sweating the small stuff as much as I might have otherwise. It means spending time with them every day and connecting with them at an emotional level. It means that I’m way more relaxed (most of the time) when they’re being dorks and it means not doing or saying things that
I’ll regret later. And if I do, I apologize and mean it.
I know that I can’t protect them from everything. They have to experience life on their own terms. But I can do my best to prepare them—to encourage them to develop their strengths and enjoy life while they’re doing it.
The pain of loss has dulled somewhat and my confidence in my ability to parent has improved. I’m not a perfect mom—not by a long shot—but I think that teaching my kids by example to be responsible to themselves and others is probably just as good. I’m a mom. I’ll always worry, but I’ll never regret.