It was sunny outside, that crisp blue sky that only comes in autumn, and the leaves had turned but the wind carried a hint of winter bite to it, just enough to remind me why I should have worn something warmer than a little off-white dress with strappy sandals. This was what I was thinking as I rode the bus and headed up to the third floor of the hospital where an impatient little girl was determined to make her entrance into this world ahead of schedule. This would mark the start of J's life, a headstrong, spirited girl, gunning to get out of the gate early and take every minute thereafter by storm.
Our babies were due within a few days of each other, but by the time my son showed up almost 2 weeks late there were 2 full months separating my girlfriend's daughter and my son. My girlfriend thought she wanted a boy, I thought I wanted a girl (we were both wrong - we both just wanted healthy babies to love) but we made a pact to share nevertheless. Before they had cut their first teeth, my friend and I had betrothed our children - we figured it was the best way to insure we would like our in-laws.
In the early years, our children literally grew up together. We knew everyone had had a good time and the visit was a success when someone sustained a grievous injury - monkey bites, broken limbs, stitches, wasp stings, back sprains, rugburn... As the kids got older and school and extracurricular activities and our careers took over, making leisure time and travel between our two cities more and more challenging, Facebook became our families' primary means of communication. Keeping tabs on who was doing what, when, where was a simple matter of checking the news feed for status updates and recently uploaded pics, which in J's case was a lot (and I do mean a LOT) of self-portraits of herself and her bestie Q. with their cell phones.
It was one year ago today that I added text to my means of communication with this aforementioned impatient little girl, then a young woman of 16. It would be the first and only text conversation I would ever have with her. One year ago, tomorrow, will mark the anniversary of her heading out of this world faster than she headed into it when one of Alberta's stupid spring snowstorms got the better of her while she drove herself and her boyfriend along the highway between school and what she had hoped was just the beginning of her happy ever after.
Someone reminded me early this morning that what I'm experiencing has a name - it's called "survivor's guilt" and in my case, it's actually attached to my son, who, as of September 28th, 2011 finally "caught up" to her and started doing all the things J. would never do "first" anymore by turning 17. In a couple of months, my son will get to go to his grad; this September, he will get to start post-secondary education. I assume (like every parent does when they fantasize about the future) that after getting his career on track he will move out and (in no particular order) travel some, find a life partner, maybe have a couple of children...
In a completely irrational way, after the initial joy of thinking these things, I have a train of thought that always leads me back to "this is something Wil gets to do that J doesn't." Initially I thought, well, that's incredibly selfish of me, until I realized that as much as my heart aches and I am filled with sadness, what this inability and unwillingness to disconnect and begin to forget J. has done is translate into clarity and focus: I don't need to forget, I need to remember. By being unwilling to forget, I am reminded to be grateful for the time I've had with my children. By refusing to shut it off, I have a deepened commitment to milk every moment right now for all it's worth. By not letting go, I have held onto a genuine hope for the wonderful things ahead that, serendipity willing, are still to come not just for my own children, but for J's younger sibling, too.
Today, my heart goes out to all the parents out there who have outlived their babies. I hope that through sadness you are able to find gratitude, through remembering you are able to find hope, and through pain you are able to find strength. From the ashes rises the Phoenix - make sure you remember to let it fly.