I live in the same house that I did six years ago, but there’s one main difference: the saggy, creaky stairs are the only thing that groans anymore. Six years ago there were heavy, vibrating machines on casters to supply oxygen, the whirling robotic pulley that cycled to supply food, and the tube and canister that sounded like a miniature jack hammer to suck out phlegm.
There was always a schedule, a plan, a documentation to manage. At best I can remember between six and ten medicines to be administered depending on the day. Words like “nebulizer” and “tracheostomy” and numbers for bolus volumes and oxygen percentages rolled off the tongue fresh like lemonade. There were more syringes in the house than drinking glasses. Boxes of unused tubing unfurled beneath the bed freely slithered on the floor like a stowaway serpent. And all for one beautiful and difficult little girl.
It is a strange thing to be formed so starkly by a time you existed in but don’t remember living. I know that because of her and the volatility of our lives then, my eyes see past the veneer in front of me and my ears hear wailing behind words. Beauty and loneliness and fear and hope are all a new kind of thing. A robust, but hiding kind of thing. When death comes, it’s like cleaning a flower bed in March: those crunchy brown drifts of leaves that have swaddled the nakedness of the plants now need removal for the sprouts to flourish. Every spring it is a risky thing to disrobe the greenery and sacrifice it to the whims of the elements, but pain needs room to breathe if there is ever hope for it to blossom.
Now, sitting with the girls I still have in my house, the heaviness of their bodies leaning on mine feels like a blessing. Quiet and still, I feel the ballooning of their rib cages in tandem with the muscular thudding of their hearts. I look at the ceiling and cry in silence. And when I feel lonely I lie beneath our tree—the beautiful, difficult girl and mine—and let its happy leaves relieve the soreness in my chest as far as it can. Sometimes I can’t remember why I seek solace in all these things, but I know that I continue to find it there, so I keep returning like a sleepwalker waking to find themselves in the right place, but not where they began.
I remember too many useless things I’d prefer to forget and I hate them; they are taking up good room for the things I so desperately want to remember but can’t. I would trade every familiarity with medications and doctors for a second of a clear sensation of her sideways smirk, her coarse curly mess of bed head, or the vitality gleaming in her hazel eyes. Was she always happy to see me slide groggily into her eyesight in the pinkness of sunrise? Exactly how fat did her cherub hands feel in mine? Why can’t I remember each and every time I cradled her large toddler frame on the couch in the afternoons with syndicated TV blipping in the background because she would not rest in bed?
The ghosts of answers to so many questions are too far gone to hold, buried with her body two miles from where I lie down to rest. That must be why, for the first few weeks after we buried her, in the midst of numbness and confusion I had only one clear impulse: to lie face down on the fresh turned dirt of her grave with my arms wide open, trying to get back to her. To lie heavy enough on the ground, softening it with my tears, that it would let me pass through its barrier.
Grief made me feel that if I could get back to her, I could revive her body, and our memories, and my life and my purpose. The outplaying of it all was a lifetime ago. I will never be able to catch all the pieces of our life then, but perhaps I am, today, the embodiment of the truest answers to all those questions. The tiny grafted shoots in me at the time waited and waited and have only in the last few years began to bow their chests, shooting up strong and tenderly like small, green fists. Budding fists now fattening—voluptuous before their triumphant rupture. The scarred, cut base is growing upwards to beauty. I cannot describe the shoots, or name them even, but now when I see a new sprig with a strained familiarity, I say to the new growth, “Yes, I know you were born then, in the pain and in the darkness. In the time where joy floated like illuminated dust particles in the blackness.” I will never have her with me again the same as before, but she is pulsing in me, growing a garden of an old woman where the memories are stale but the blooms are fresh.
Cover image by Annie Spratt.