(This artwork was done for Royce Quill Goss who, like Stephanie Grace, had anencephaly. Used by permission.)
On October 13, 2016, six months had passed since Stephanie Grace’s birth.
It had been almost four months since April moved to New York.
And I was good. Not at all weepy or gray. I was in a good enough place that, when I looked back at August’s blog entries, I thought, I felt that badly that recently? and felt a bit stunned, although I could think of no time when I felt the switch flip, when I felt a bit more like normalcy was mine.
Then, night came. I had to pick up my sixteen-year-old daughter, who was arriving at the school late after a field trip to the state fair. It was dark, and I waited with our dogs in the van, thinking about the drastic changes in our lives over the past six months and the settling that had finally occurred.
Things were better.
Abby trekked to my van–I’d parked in the wrong lot–and got in the van, eager to show off the goldfish she’d won. I said, “Show me your cell phone first,” and she started rummaging through her backpack, explaining that it had died, so she had zipped it up in her bag. The bag hadn’t left her side since, and so, she explained, it would be right here, buried beneath the Rice Krispy Treat wrappers . . .
But it wasn’t.
It wasn’t in her bag at all.
The fish was pushed aside as she ransacked the bag. The bus pulled away from the school in the distance, its lights dim and distant.
We drove around to the front of the school, where the two new club advisors were waiting on straggling parents. They reported that they had walked through the bus before it left, and there was no phone.
All I could picture was a random student finding her phone, opening those pictures, and seeing sweet Stephanie Grace, and not understanding. Irrationally, I envisioned the baby’s photos shared on Snapchat, Instagram, in group texts.
Of course, I knew that all of the students on the field trip were great kids. That my daughter’s phone case was unique enough that they’d know whose it was. That anyone who picked it up accidentally would return it.
Yet the horror that was May and the loss that was June engulfed me. Drowned me again. I sobbed inconsolably on the school steps.
We raced to the bus barn. I wept the whole drive for those pictures, this life.
The bus driver, whom the advisors had called, stood atop the bus steps holding the phone. The phone had been right in the center of the aisle when he went to look. Pretty as you please.
This was, for me, no relief.
It was, rather, reminder. That our deepest sorrows, though temporarily soothed, are constant.
I felt foolish for crying so, for incoherence, for my inability to rein in my anguish.
It is so American, to apologize for legitimate anguish, for our own destruction and ravaging. Standing in our own obliteration, we offer others coffee and donuts as we, independent and prideful, box up our woes and shore up our facades–all is well here, please don’t worry about me, move along.
We sit upon our Sorrow Boxes, firmly clamping their lids. We speak of hairstyles and football scores, exchange recipes and funny memes, preferring to ignore the things that have left us rattled and shaken. Widows, longing to speak of their husbands, sit silently. Mothers who have buried children politely chat about the living ones, speaking of T-ball games rather than nights spent weeping in their missing children’s beds in untouched rooms.
And for a school teacher to become unhinged, even by desperate grief, is certainly taboo. Teachers are our steadfast moral pillars–equalled perhaps, only by ministers–and they are expected to do all things well. To be model mourners.
My coworkers who have lost children return to stand in rooms full of other people’s kids. They touch the children’s heads, see their smiles, help them make Mother’s Day cards. The grace that God piles upon them, that I can see in their eyes and smiles, stuns me in its palpability. It is there, in their classrooms, upon them, and I am amazed.
My grandparents used to sing “Amazing Grace,” my grandfather’s flat bellows ringing throughout the Presbyterian Church as he enunciated every word. They would listen to it on an old boom box, shush us all if it came on during a Billy Graham telecast–they would close their eyes and go to another place, and I did not understand.
I did not understand Amazing Grace. I was a child.
But now, oh, now.
Tomorrow is Stephanie Grace’s birthday. Two years ago right now, I was standing in a hospital, alone with April, begging God to let us hear that baby’s heartbeat, pleading for my granddaughter’s life.
Two years ago tonight, that prayer was denied.
And although we had already spent months falling–from drops at once both bottomless and repetitive–and we foolishly thought we’d hit rock bottom, that false floor gave way.
We fell so far. We fell so far.
We fell and fell and fell.
The peculiar thing about falling to such depths–falling so far that wherever you once were is immediately unthinkably unattainable–is this simple truth: when you have fallen that far, when you are that broken, you no longer want to climb back up.
I could cry as I write that–those words, bought at such a heavy price are so true. When much–all–is lost, you are so stripped, so broken that in your naked state, you realize all was dross, and what is the point in regaining nothing?
But, oh, in that nothing, that is where you see the grace–because everything else is stripped away.
There is no person that can help you. No thing that will hold you. No thought that can comfort.
There is only God. Only Jesus.
Fifty days ago, my husband had his neck cut open, glands taken out, cancer removed. He had nerves and muscles and blood vessels from his arm grafted in. He had skin from his arm, white and shiny, put in his mouth–a patch where there should be pink. An aberration. His arm now looks like he fought with a shark–and lost.
For weeks after the surgery, as I walked through the house or as I sat on the sofa, I would hear myself say, “Oh, Jesus. Oh, Jesus. Help, Jesus.”
It was so strange, like I was hiccuping prayers.
Even my prayers were broken.
We are 50 days out. We are 730 days out.
We have marked off the days in black Sharpie: we have shuffled to work, gone to church, written our sorrows.
For 50 days, for 730 days, we have staggered in, bathed in, been propped up by grace.
On a quiet morning in April 2016, the four of us each held a one pound, three ounce baby girl.
We said hello. We said good-bye.
(We first knew Grace.)
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