I had the dream again the other night. This time we were at a large outdoor event. The sun was setting at an ominous rate that is possible only in nightmares, and I was aware that danger- a riot? fight? kidnapping?- was near. I hightail it to the exits, and find I only have two of my four children with me. My babies have fallen behind. As I peer into the menacing sea of people, I feel a familiar panic building and wake myself up. I say familiar, because I have had this dream before. The circumstances are not always the same, but the overall theme is disturbingly similar. I have lost a child; in water or in a crowd. The dream always ends with my subconcious revolting at the feeling of grief, and I awake abruptly. Each and every time, I get out of bed and check on my children. The rhythmic rise & fall of their chests as they slumber is the only sight that immediately cleanses the disturbing images from my mind. These dreams visit me a few times a year, and always catch me off-guard. But since my first was born, they have been vivid enough that I can never fully relax whenever my children are near a large body of water, or in an unfamiliar crowd.
The fact that I am sharing this particular fear is a big step toward letting it go. For years, I would not speak of these thoughts, as I am superstitiously wary that my voicing these dreams/thoughts will somehow cause them to materialize. Plus, it does not make for the best playdate material…”So, enough about potty-training…have any of you ladies ever been plagued by the thought that your child could be harmed at any given moment, and your life forever changed?” Yeah. Pretty sure that would have got my children blacklisted from any and all future birthday party invites. So I quietly took in accounts of tragic loss as one tends to let their eyes linger for a moment when passing a car accident on a freeway. You take in as much as you can stomach before glancing away…a mix of morbid curiosity & thankfulness-that it is not you who is experiencing misfortune.
A few months back, I came across an article that just may be one of the most powerful pieces of writing I’ve ever read. Entitled Notes from a Dragon Mom, it tells the story of a mother who is coping with her son’s terminal illness. He is 18-months-old, and is not expected to live beyond his 3rd birthday. She tells of how most parenting advice is given with the future in mind; school readiness so that your child may succeed in college, healthy eating habits so that they can ward off disease as adults. Parents of terminally ill children do not have the luxury of looking forward to a sunny “someday”, but in a sense, that affords them the ability to fully concentrate on the here and now. The million and one seemingly insignificant moments that we rush through or sidestep when we are in a hurry, are moments savored by “dragon parents”- brushing a wayward wisp of hair out of your childs eyes, the tenth hug at the end of a long good-bye, letting the lengthy bedtime routine turn into a night of rocking & cuddling because, well, there really is no point to rushing when the place that you are rushing toward is so grim… The line from this piece that will forever stay with me is this: “parents who, particularly in this country, are expected to be superhuman, to raise children who outpace all their peers, don’t want to see what we see. The long truth about their children, about themselves: that none of it is forever.”
I remember an evening back in 1998 when I met Marc Klass, the founder of KlaasKids Foundation, which provides law enforcement communites with a website to quickly create and distribute missing child flyers, among other services. His daughter, Polly, was all of 12-years old when she was kidnapped from her home in Petaluma, CA & murdered in a crime that gained national attention. When I met him, my oldest son was nearly a year old, and I recall staring at Mr. Klass in awe thinking, “How on earth do you go on…breathing, eating, functioning…after losing your child?” It is both terrifying, and comforting, to think that the human spirit can survive through such an ordeal. It is not a thought I care to ponder for a prolonged amount of time. But I admit, each & every time I meet a parent who has lost a child, I am amazed at their ability to survive…that they did not collapse under the weight of that enormous grief and disappear.
A small framed print hung by the doorway of the room my sister & I shared throughout our childhood. It was an image of two small children huddled together, crossing a rickety bridge. Guarding them, was an angel, with her arms protectively outstretched, and a gentle smile on her lips. I keep that picture in mind when sending my children out into the world each day… as they leave for school, for a bike ride, to a friends house, on a cross-town trip with a relative. Life is fragile and beyond precious. As I write, my children are all soundly asleep in their beds. And for that, I am grateful.