I feel shattered today, come undone by a death I learned about on Facebook, about someone I do not know. This person’s tragedy has no direct impact on my life, I am not stricken with her loss, and yet, I find myself feeling her impact today, find myself with a tiny hole in my being, a hole that is filled with sadness and despair and questions. I can only imagine how big that hole must be for her family and friends.
This lovely woman and I went to law school together. I don’t remember her, but she was in my husband’s classes. She graduated and did what I wished I had the guts to do- she fought the good fight and was a criminal defense attorney, specializing in capital punishment. She fought hard for those that had no hope left, who were living on borrowed time. She was beautiful. She had a husband and a 5 month old baby. And she took her own life, allegedly because of post-partum depression.
Part of me feels wrong even writing about this. It’s not my story, it’s not my grief, it’s not my loss. Who am I to talk about her? I feel a bit as if I’m stealing her family’s grief to talk about how if affects me, as if how it affects me means anything. And yet. I am haunted by this story, haunted by the turn of events, haunted by the little girl she left behind, and haunted by the fear that this could be me.
Last night after I read about her death I felt raw and opened up. I kept looking at my little boy in the monitor, still and sweet in sleep. I had to grip the sides of the couch and focus on the TV show we were watching to stop myself from running in there and gathering him up in my arms and holding on. He so innocently slept, counting on me to love him, to support him, to feed him and let him grow, but most of all, just to be there. My most important job is to never leave him, never let him feel abandoned.
And I can’t bear the pain that fills me up when I think of how lost she must have been, to be able to leave her little girl like that. HOW can that be possible? I think I can imagine being so far removed from reality that life seems too painful. I have been depressed before, I know about the inability to connect to even the smallest things in your life that once came so effortlessly, the feeling of walking outside of your life and your skin, to always be watching yourself from afar and to just not care about anything. What once gave you joy, gives you nothing. It’s like being a walking zombie. You try to eat and sleep and laugh, but it’s all from rote memory, the only reason you are able to make the motions is because your body has done them before. There is nothing of you behind it. You aren’t there.
But what I can’t get to is how even if your life is full of pain and nothingness, there is still a little one there, a little one that counts on your existence. I get how ending it might end your suffering, but as a mother, I cannot get to how you don’t know that taking your own life is abandoning your child. I cannot get to how she could do that, how she could feel the love that a mother feels and then leave them.
And yet. There is a persistent little tapping in my brain as I write those words. An impish little thing that doesn’t let me keep my own thoughts, that constantly insists on pointing out that which I would rather not remember. She reminds me of cruel things I’ve done, or embarrassing things, or immature things. She remembers everything and she lets nothing go. So my little imp is tapping tapping tapping and what she wants me to remember is this.
That the way I feel now about my son is not how I’ve always felt. That I had many days and nights of darkness in the first few months of his life, regardless of the fact that it was August and bright and shiny outside. Inside, it was dark, always dark and heavy. I grasped at the small moments of sunshine I could feel. I knew they were there, yet I couldn’t always feel them. I don’t think I suffered from post partum depression, but I’m not a doctor. I didn’t want to harm myself or my son, I knew that things would get easier and better, I knew that he wouldn’t always be so needy and that I wouldn’t always cry everyday. But the thing that the little imp keeps trying to remind me of , the thing that makes me understand what I don’t want to understand just a little is that I didn’t feel overwhelming love for my son in those first few weeks. He felt like a stranger.
It’s strange because I did feel love for him, I did feel an instant and overwhelming urge to protect him and feed him and keep him safe. But it felt like I had rescued a hurt little animal and my job was to keep it alive. But he didn’t feel like mine, I didn’t feel like I knew him or that he needed ME, in my uniqueness, he just needed the person that played his mom. It’s hard to explain that to people, especially moms that I know that felt instantly and sappily head over heels the minute they met their babies.
I waited for that. I wanted that. I didn’t get it. He was a strange little alien that just required my milk. It took me awhile to love him for himself and not just because he was my baby. And I don’t think I’m that abnormal. I don’t think I’m the only one that took awhile to get to know their baby, to get to the place I’m in now.
Because now, I can’t imagine what filled me up before I had him. Now I look at him and I know him, I recognize him, he is exactly who I thought my son would be. I can’t imagine having any other baby or little man in my life. He fills me up when I am empty, he is the thing that creates my energy and my courage and my purpose. Before I was doing it for me. Now I am doing it for him and it’s so much sweeter. I looked at him, sleeping in the monitor last night, and it felt like the love that I held for him inside swelled so much that I wasn’t sure that my body would contain it. It almost hurt, but it is an exquisite pain, a pain that I will gladly feel every day if in return I get the joy of watching him laugh and grow and become a little person.
Which brings me back to this woman. While part of me cannot fathom how she could leave a 5 month old baby, part of me wonders if she just didn’t feel that connection either, yet. If she felt that her baby didn’t need her but just needed love. And if she was so exhausted fighting this nameless darkness that she felt she didn’t have any love to give. And so she gave up.
The website dedicated to her contains the sermon given at her memorial service. It is one of the most honest, painful, and beautifully written sermons I have ever read. The pastor said something that resonates so clearly that even the imp has to stop tapping and sit in wonder.
“Life is delicate. The human heart and mind and body are fragile. Like Jesus, (she) has proven to be an utterly precious being, but one terribly vulnerable to the power of darkness. So too are we all. We—you and I—escape one day into the next bourn along by the illusion of our intelligence and our forcefulness and our presence of mind, but we are vulnerable to our darkness…”
And that’s what it is, that’s what stuns us. Because when we hear of these things, when we hear of Andrea Yates drowning her children, or of other horrors, we think how terrible and how sad. But we also think that we, we would never do that, because we are too intelligent and strong and aware of such things. We use our intelligence and our reason like a shield, so sure that our brains could never turn against us.
And that is the fallacy. New motherhood is wondrous and amazing and life-changing and bigger than anything I’ve ever experienced. But it also can take over, take over your mind and your body and put you in a place you’ve never been. Since being a new mom, I’ve noticed most moms feel forced to put on this perfect face, to only allow to the world the amazing and beautiful part. They never admit to how hard it is, how numbing and overwhelming and identity-stealing it can be. So I make an effort, to always talk about the hard times as well as the good. Because we as women have to be able to get help if we need it. We have to be able to name the darkness if we are going to conquer it. This is real and we can’t afford to lose any more mothers. So please. Be honest with your experiences.
I was talking to one of my closest friends recently, who is pregnant with her second child. She was talking to me about some anxiety she was having, about losing her first child or something happening to her second. I am so grateful she feels okay to talk to me about this stuff, because it’s so normal. Being pregnant heightens everything. And what I think is this:
Once you are a mother, your capacity for love grows infinitely. Which means our capacity for loss is so much greater. We have gained the world in our children, but we stand to lose the world if we lose them. The thought of that is more than we can bear. It’s normal to fear losing that which is your world.
I have no answers. I have typed these words, but I feel I have no words, no real words for this. I can only pray that while our intelligence and our forcefulness are never shields against the darkness, that our love can be.