When my daughter died, my love for her had no place to land. Her absence from my life precipitated a profound confusion which was, at first, so overwhelming that it was difficult for me to feel anything else.
I’ve written about this confusion many times, though I didn’t call it that. Recently a reader, Roger Persell, left me a comment. In it, he named my confusion. Roger lost his wife of 42 years last July.
Per Roger, “When I read your words, I find that in between your clear lines lies a confusion that I recognize in myself. It’s not an intellectual confusion, of course. We know that people, even children, get ill and die. It’s the ineffable confusion of waking up and finding your own sense of self has been wrenched, distorted, upended, eviscerated.”
Wrenched, distorted, upended, eviscerated…this is my life now.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Roger’s words. Confusion is the product of deep grief, the kind of grief that comes from losing a child. It’s a confusion that stretches from the terrible moment of her death through the long years that I must go on without this child who existed at the center of my life, my identity, and my reason for looking forward.
Parental grief is an endless struggle of conflicting emotions. Joy exists side-by-side with sorrow. Time helps dull the edges of the pain, but it also puts distance between me and my child, causing fresh pain.
I cannot experience anything with my younger daughter that doesn’t also recall the immense ache that is always present for my older daughter, the child who should be here. The child who is not here.
Emily, my younger daughter, will soon surpass her older sister in age and life experience. My mind is much clearer than it was when Ana died, but when I think about this, the confusion rolls in once again, the grasping at memories, the mix of emotions that break down rational thought.
How can Emily, born three years after her sister, be older than Ana? The logical answer is that Ana died. She stopped aging. The confusion comes because a part of my brain isn’t being logical. I am still not quite sure that the awfulness of cancer and death happened to this child that I loved so much. It’s been two and a half years since I watched Ana take her last breath, but a part of me still expects the ending to change.
I’m still waiting to see Ana again, still outraged at being denied her life. Suppressed, barely conscious denials rise up and undermine my rational thought. They rant and rave, wailing protests into a sanity that feels incredibly fragile: This wasn’t supposed to happen to Ana! It wasn’t supposed to happen to our family! Emily was never supposed to be an only child!
With monumental effort, I push these dark thoughts back so as not to risk losing the carefully constructed life I’ve cobbled together in Ana’s absence.
Before Ana got sick, I was used to resolutions, to endings that were expected and outcomes I thought I could control. Fevers could be fixed with a bit of Tylenol. Night terrors could be soothed with dreamcatchers and extra hugs. Cookies were baked for the school’s fall festival and lunches were packed and ready to go each night (for the most part).
Cancer took away the certainty that I could fix things. It stripped away the veneer of control I’d thought I had. Confusion followed in the wake of Ana’s illness, but the fog wasn’t so dense back then. I was guided by belief that things would be okay — that doctors knew how to save her, that kids (especially my kids) wouldn’t (couldn’t) die.
It would take one year, a half dozen hospital stays, six weeks of failed chemotherapy, three surgeries (including a liver transplant) and a very bad scan for me to recognize that Ana’s cancer, and the confusion that came with it, wasn’t going away. This was its own form of grief, but Ana was alive, so I could live with the uncertainty of her illness.
Today, Ana is gone, but I still compare her to her sister as if she’s leading the way. Emily is 15 years and 6 months old. Ana died when she was 15 years and 9 months old. In four months, Emily will be older than Ana was when she died and I will have to stop comparing the two of them forever.
My youngest child will become my oldest child.
It’s out of order — that’s what people always say about losing a child. It’s not natural. No parent should have to bury their child.
We did not bury Ana. We had her cremated. Her ashes are in a ceramic urn on a set of white shelves in her old bedroom — the same shelves where she once kept her stereo and collection of vintage records.
How can Ana’s physical self be gone, except for the ashes in the urn in the room that is no longer hers?
My youngest child is my oldest child.
My identity was singular for Ana. In her mind, I was fully realized — first mommy then mom, always mother. Her certainty in who I was made me certain.
Motherhood connected my dots. Ana was born and I held her against me, exhausted, and I became a better version of myself than I’d ever imagined.
There has never been a moment, in the nearly 19 years that have passed since Ana was born, that I yearned for the time that came before her. When Emily came along, we were complete, all of us, a perfect family. And now?
Children grow up (or, they don’t). Motherhood…parenthood…shifts back to personhood. This would have happened if Ana had survived. It is what I wanted for her — independence, happiness, a life and family of her own. It’s what I want for Emily. But Ana never got to grow up and so, I think, part of me will never move past a phase of active motherhood (active in my mind, at least).
My confusion comes from my inability to fully accept the reality that Ana died, that this happened to her, that my identity is not simply “parent” but “bereaved parent.” My confusion comes from not being afraid of death anymore because dying, at this point in my life, makes so much more sense to me than living. Dying offers up the slim possibility that I might see Ana again.
My confusion comes from loving someone who I can’t reach and loving them desperately. As Roger eloquently put it, “Now, without the person we love a different mess creeps into the brain. What, by god, is love now?”
What, by god, is love now?
Love is the face of a child I’ll never see again. Love is her future that never existed, but that I mourn nonetheless. Love is an ache that starts in my heart and ends in my throat. Love is Ana, my first baby, who died in her very own bed as I sat beside her and wept.
Love is confusion.