When I joined in with this project last year, I was tottering on the brink of utter despair. I wrote my entry on the cusp month between the end of Freddie’s time and the beginning of Ben’s time. That single month that was left before I found out I was pregnant again. It was feeling my way to writing my entry that showed me it was finally time for chemical help, that I had sunk too low and that it was no longer just grief, it was also now depression. I had ceased to see a way out and I had begun to feel abandoned and left behind by people who were not doing either of those things. I’ve read that post a few times and shuddered at the image I made.
I can see that landscape in my minds eye. It is red, hot, dusty, cloying red. A baked hard red, unforgiving, unrelenting, with dried plants and a scorching sun and the stench of decay nonetheless. Hills in the distance made of that same orange, crumbling stone. I know I felt desolate. I know I had begun to think that the truth about grief is that for a while you think you manage – and then you find you can’t. And then you sink.
There must be a landscape that is attributable to Ben’s pregnancy but I don’t have a picture of it yet. Though I walked through the valley of the shadow of death and stumbled, muddied in the slough of despond, neither of those were Ben’s pregnancy. Pregnancy through grief was somewhere between the moment before the fog lifts but the sun is beginning to yellow the gloom and gripping on to an icy ledge above a towering precipice. We kept our footing, I know not how. We stayed well despite the mist that clung to our skin and permeated our bones.
All of that has changed how grief for Freddie feels, how the loss of Freddie is. I wish I could remember him but I can’t, not really. He’s muddled and confused with the boy kicking on the bed beside me. He’s a shadowy boy, tangled in my head with panic and worry and love and the joy that he brought even though it was just so unspeakably awful to see him struggling for life and not know why. I find myself remembering Jill, who said once that she finds herself thinking ‘did I have a daughter who died?’ Did I? Really? A child who was born and then died? Me?
It’s more like a nightmare that clings after sleep has gone. I bitterly resent that he feels like that.
I always promised I wouldn’t count the days, so unlike lots of posts in this project, it is not accurate, merely nearly so. Freddie was as good as dead at his birth but died 11 days later after unexpectedly coming alive and so I have no idea when to count from or to. I still notice the 2nd of every month, but almost never the 13th. I consciously don’t and that, for someone who once obsessed about anniversaries, is remarkable. Maybe it says more about where I am now that I shook off nearly all the sad dates of April this year and looked the other way. That is where I am now. I am choosing not to embrace sadness. I have made a conscious decision that from here on, I will only nod to his birthday and death day and none of my other tragedies and mistakes.
Much as I resent it, Freddie has become about what changed in me and all of us. In that respect I feel we have done us proud and done him proud. We are better parents and a better couple and a better family for having had him. We’ve used the force that was Freddie for good and so grief feels – at least partly – meaningful and positive now. It isn’t better than having him, but it is how it is. And that’s okay. I had no idea even until this week how much I had changed but to find myself pretty much only rolling my eyes at something that would once have broken me has been a revelation. Freddie altered me for the better and so he is still here in that sense.
There is no doubt that it would be a different post without Ben. There is no doubt that these subsequent children, when they come, when they live, when they grow and stay, make grief easier. Maybe it is just that they distract. Maybe they heal, maybe they bandage well enough that the wound ceases to seep. Maybe if Ben does stay it will all rip open again and next years post will be different.
If I had written this post yesterday morning, it would have been something else. But last night Ben showed signs of becoming dangerously ill for a little while and alone on a drive to hospital and in a treatment ward I faced the possibility that by today I would be without a son again. There isn’t a place between fine and terror any more. There isn’t even fine. There is ‘living knowing life could fail me at any moment’ and utter gut watering terror. That’s the big change that grief has brought. I don’t trust life any more. Someone said ‘life wouldn’t be that cruel’ and I know that isn’t true. Life can be unrelentingly cruel. It’s not an academic, philosophical conundrum to wrap myself around with false drama any more. It is how it is.
The danger is that Freddie becomes all about me. Is that okay? It’s the point of this project anyway. I miss him with a thread of perfect golden thread wrapped around my heart; slightly too tight, always a little sore, maybe life threatening, hopefully not. He’s like living with a birthmark I could choose to cover (not have removed) but don’t want to. Just now the grief rarely bubbles up too hard. I almost miss it. Most days I look at Ben and am sad that he is the colouring opposite of Freddie, blonde not dark, so he won’t show me what his brother would have looked like. I’m glad and sad about that. I miss the boy he should have been but I’m distracted from what I’ve lost. I wish we could have both of them. I’m sorry Ben won’t get to play with his older brother. The conundrum of who we would have here if Freddie had stayed is too much to deal with. When I look at pictures of him now I’m struck by the differences between him and his brother. I mourn the boy who looked like his daddy, not like my brother. How funny to get polar opposites when our girls are like clones. Kismet. Karma. Universal irony? I don’t know.
Freddie taught me to smile more, to be quieter, to live a small and gentle life. To live in the moment. To take the future only as a maybe, not a given. These are not bad things.
Ben is teaching me to know that that state of affairs must be temporary.
When I try to call a landscape up of now, I think of Dartmoor. I see now we crept out of hospital with Ben that end of January day, in the cold and dark. We didn’t believe our luck. We thought it was too good to be true. We thought we would still be caught out and grief would tangle us back and rip out our hearts with blackened, torturing arms. For the first month we barely functioned, fell asleep in each others arms around him on ordinary evenings on the sofa. And as the days have lengthened and the buds have blossomed, we have unfurled. Grief has lessened its hold, terror (while still close to the surface) is not daily present. I think of where we are and I imagine a warm day and verdant green, a tumbling river, mossy rocks, blue sky. The sun can burn and the river can drown and the grass might have snakes and the rocks can trip us, but mostly I believe they won’t. And tucked inside all those beautiful hazards is my boy, my first boy. And I wouldn’t have it any other way but one.
The one where he was still here. Where all of them were here. Which we cannot have.