The other day I went to the store to buy a birthday card. My daughter had been invited to a birthday party for a boy in her class. A boy who was turning eight. The cards in the store were on a little rack that spins, and I stood there spinning it round and round, unable to make a decision. What kind of card would a boy turning eight like? I suddenly realized that I didn't know.
I didn't know.
My son, whom I love more than life, should be celebrating his eighth birthday, too. Had he not died, I would have eight years of experience knowing his likes, his dislikes, his personality, his interests. But as I stood there spinning that rack of cards, the realization grew as a knot in my stomach that spread slowly upward to my brain - I just didn't know my son that way. Not the eight year old him. Not the boy he could have been.
My breath caught in my throat. And instantly they were there. The tears that spring just to the corners of your eyes, not falling but just balanced there, waiting for the tipping point. The tears that sting as they wait, that tingle and burn with increasing urgency the harder you fight to keep them from falling.
My vision blurred a little as I hastily grabbed a card. I paid for it while avoiding eye contact with the cashier, then hurried out of the store. By the time I stepped outside the door the tears were falling fast. I reached the safety of my vehicle and my shoulders shook with breath catching sobs. Eight felt so far from the tiny baby I cradled in my arms. So far from the son I dressed in soft blue striped sleepers, the one I swaddled in blankets and laid on my chest. How could eight years stand between the baby I delivered that early spring morning, and the moment at the card rack, when it seemed I no longer knew him? For one terrible moment, he felt so very far away.
In the early days after our sweet Owen died, distance was my most overwhelming fear. I clung to every reminder of him, terrified that if my baby could be taken from me, perhaps the memories of him would one day be taken, too. I made endless copies of his pictures, worrying obsessively that somehow they'd be lost or erased. I cried when the flowers from his funeral began to die, and couldn't bear to watch as they were thrown away. But one of the hardest milestones for me was when his blanket and baby clothes began to lose his scent. I kept them on my dresser, and each night before bed I'd hold them and breathe in his sweet baby smell. He felt almost within reach in those moments, so close I could almost touch him again. But as his tiny clothes eventually lost that beautiful, comforting scent, it felt like he was slipping slowly farther from my arms.
Owen was everything I'd ever wanted. I loved him more than breathing. How desperately I wanted him near. I can attest that there is no worse feeling on earth than that of a mother separated from her child - there can be no farther or more painful distance than that. And yet so often that is how we attempt to comfort people who are grieving - by emphasizing the growing distance. "Time heals all wounds" or "with every day the pain will get less" - the theme of most sympathy cards, and the well-intentioned words of long lineups of friends and loved ones at funerals, who just don't know what else to say. Those words were like knives to my soul those early days. Like salt on a wound. Like fans to the flame of my very worst fears. As I clung with every last ounce of my strength to the child who'd been taken from my arms, fighting to keep him near, the world around me just kept telling me to wait it out - that after a while it wouldn't matter so much that my child had died. That in time, I'd stop loving and missing him as desperately. In time, he would fade. He'd be distant. My baby wouldn't be so near. Perhaps that was never the intended message. But it's what my grieving heart heard.
And I think often, that is the comfortable understanding that people hold about grief. That in time, there is a slow fade. And gradually and proportionately, the tears get less. You don't cry as quickly in stores while shopping for birthday cards. The days get easier. And all of it becomes more distant - the pain, the memories, the impact on your life in general. Distance grows between you and the experience of that death. And eventually, you move on.
It's all about distance.
And eight years later, I now know that to be true. But not in the way you might think...
Eight years later, I know that the dance between near and far is one that continues for a very long time. I still have moments these days when my precious baby feels far. Heart wrenching moments like the one in that store, spinning the racks of birthday cards, fighting back the tears. But I have far more moments these days when my Owen feels near. Like today on his birthday when I laid my hand on the tiny footprints on his gravestone, closed my eyes and felt him almost right there with me. When I breathed in the scent of the cherry blossom trees and sensed such peace about his nearness, and about the joy he must be experiencing in heaven. I may not know who he might have been if he had lived to be eight. But I know without a doubt who he is now and forever will be to me. He is the moment each morning that I first think of him, as comfortably as breathing. He is my constant inspiration to live the life I was called to, my moment by moment reminder to be thoughtful, to be intentional, to live with purpose. He is the reason I choose to grab hold of joy and not let go. He is my baby, my miracle, my first great blessing. He is the gift God gave me to turn my life upside down, and to change me into the person I was meant to be. Every day, I do the very real work of being his mommy. He is NEAR me. Always.
And it is true that eight years later, I have far fewer moments of crying suddenly in stores. But that is not because my child, or my love for him, or the pain of his loss, or the depth and meaning of our relationship has become more distant. My love for him has never faded. And neither has the pain of his death. What has grown more distant is the fear, the fear that used to grip me in the night as I clung to his soft, tiny baby clothes – the fear of him slipping away from me completely. Eight years later, and I KNOW now that I cannot ever truly lose him. I KNOW that time cannot take him from me...
Eight years ago, our mantle held over 100 sympathy cards. They were beautiful and the sight of all those messages of love and support was a comfort to me. If I ventured a guess, I'd say about half had messages printed by card companies reinforcing the distance. In time, they'd say. In time. But in amongst those 100 cards, there was just one that looked nothing like the rest. Pale blue, with a blue checkered frame, and a little brown teddy bear wearing a blue bow. Congratulations, it said. Congratulations on the arrival of your new baby boy.
Eight years later and I can tell you with certainty - that is the one that got it right. That early spring morning, our sweet Owen arrived. To stay. I miss him desperately. I long to hold him again, to cuddle him just one more time. What I wouldn't do for just five minutes with him in my arms. But in a very real way, he is still right here with me. Always and forever. It brings my mama heart joy to know that time can never steal him away.
Happy eighth birthday in heaven, my sweet Owen. I'm so glad that you are near.