The other day as I was filling my bird feeders, I thought, with a jolt of panic, that my best self is behind me — that is, the sixteen years that spanned the birth of my first child all the way up until the day she died.
It was such a rich, full time in my life, when me, my husband, and our girls grew into a family, orbiting each other, our own tiny solar system.
Alone on the front lawn, now empty of swingsets, hula hoops and rusty bicycles, I closed my eyes and imagined two bright-eyed girls circling me as I poured black oil sunflower seeds into the hoppers.
I imagined the girls fighting for a chance to slide a new brick of suet into the woodpecker feeder and I tried not to cry.
Sometimes it feels like I’m all that remains of my fragile family. The feeling is particularly strong on quiet mornings when it’s just me and the dog, the only ones awake, blinking into the relentless June sunlight as we traverse the yard together.
I try to tell myself that this is okay, that a little time to myself in the mornings is healthy, that it’s something I used to crave. But this is a lie. It’s too much of a shift, too soon. I want my tiny solar system back.
My older daughter died 26 months ago after a protracted battle with cancer. By now, I recognize that there’s no coming out from the other side of grief. At least, not parental grief.
It’s not a thing or an emotion or even a concept — it’s a seismic shift in perspective. It’s an understatement to say that I’m having a hard time adjusting to the new tilt of my world. I often lose my balance.
I once had a premonition of my life to come. It was right before I met my husband. I was about 24 years old and living in a basement apartment on Long Island. I was lonely. My parents had moved to New Jersey four years prior, I’d broken up with my high school sweetheart, had dated off and on and I’d found myself truly single for the first time in my life since the age of 15. My best friend had recently moved to Denmark.
I was home on a weekend with no plans, feeling sorry for myself. But, in a moment of clarity, I’d thought, “Enjoy this time. Soon it will be filled with other people and their needs. Some day a family will dominate your days, including your weekends. Time will be precious.” I don’t remember thinking about it with a sense of longing. It was just something I felt coming. I met my husband a few months later.
And now? I can’t imagine my life in the near or distant future. When I try looking forward, I don’t like what I see. I have no sense of what’s coming. I’m afraid because it feels like everything’s leaving, everyone’s leaving. It is just me in the mornings , with my rituals and the dog my daughter loved and that’s not enough. I’m not enough.
I know that grief colors my perspective, painting a wash of despair over everything, making me look back with longing. I know this, but I’m still stuck in the midst of it…sinking.
A woman in one of the online grief groups I occasionally visit said that she couldn’t find happiness after her child died until she accepted her new life without him. But it wasn’t just about acceptance, it was about letting go.
She had to rebuild everything — her entire life and the expectations that came with it. Only then was she able to embrace living and rediscover joy. I suspect I’m at a point right now where I have to separate letting go of my expectations and my past with letting go of my daughter.
I’ll never let her go — not her memory or my current connections (real or imagined) with her spirit.
But, I must let go of the idea I had of myself (real or imagined) that drove my identity for the first sixteen years of motherhood, because everything’s changed. I need to get to know myself as I am now. I suspect this is how I’ll find my joy again.
I wonder, can I do that? Can I build a new life at 48? Can I find joy in the future and in myself? I hope so. I think that’s why I love the birds — they hold the key, somehow — and my younger daughter, my husband and my dog, Roo.
I'm not able to look very far into the future anymore, but maybe that’s okay. If I take things one day at a time without looking forward (or back), I don't mind this new identity. The simple joy of being outside surrounded by birds with the sun on my face is enough, for now at least.