Charlie Jo came around the corner, with her little sister not far behind. They were both extravagantly clothed in dress-up and princess garb, carrying suitcases and backpacks stuffed full of random toys and pretend equipment. “We’re off to camping Mom!” Charlie hollered. “Wait!” Eleanor screeched, “We forgot baby Sam!” “You’re right, come on Sam, time to go camping.” sang Charlie. And the ‘three’ of them began to scurry off.
“Wait,” I stammered. I steadied my voice and tried to mask my pain. “Is your cousin Sam going to camp with you?” Of course, what I really wanted to say was, “Why aren’t you taking your brother? Why can’t Graham come?” Charlotte looked at me and paused for a moment. She intuitively knew what I was fishing for and she answered me bluntly, “Sam’s alive, Mom.” I nodded my understanding and blinked back hot tears.
You see, I’ve been using fantasy to escape truth. I create stories in my mind where Graham is still here. I bring him along in my thoughts, I talk with him and daydream about his future. I pretend February 11th never happened. I remember what it felt like to be happy and full. I can convince myself that Graham is the missing piece to my happiness, and in my fantasies I don’t have to be separated from him.
My daughters also spend a large part of their day in one imaginary story or another. The difference is they pretend as a way of practicing what’s real – not escaping it. Samuel was no more here on that day than Graham was, but Sam could have been here, and Graham never can be again. It’s a subtle but powerful difference.
I considered joining my daughters in their play that day, but I couldn’t find a way of doing it without bringing Graham-Bo along. And I couldn’t bring him when it was obvious that they needed to leave him behind. I watched them play effortlessly, joy and laughter flowing freely and I doubted the healthiness of my version of pretend. So I kept my mouth shut and I watched them play.
I willed myself to a play date today. As I watched Eleanor climb and jump I discreetly followed around a young mother who balanced a little blonde boy on her hip while chasing around her active toddler. The baby didn’t look like Graham, but if I squinted my eyes a little I could imagine he did. I could see myself instead of her. I could create a world where Graham was here, tasting the rubber bark and pulling himself up on the play equipment. I would have set him down and chatted with the other moms while he entertained himself and Nora ran circles around us both. He would have arched his head around now and again to check back in, and grin as I pulled rubber bark out of his mouth.
Instead, I watched as this other child threw his head back to pout when he was set down for a moment and fussed when his mother picked him back up. I find myself trying to age every baby I see, find the 11 month old in the sea of kids… and then let my mind go a little… None of these babies are my baby. But they are alive when Graham isn’t. Pink skin and diapered tushies bring him closer. Simple movements of pudgy hands make it easier to remember. I don’t have to fight as hard to conjure up the details that create the essence of who and how he was, and who I was when I was with him.
I fought so hard with all of my children to live in the moment. To notice the details. I touch my kids often, absently fingering through their hair, or tracing the outline of their lips. But no matter how diligent I am in these patterns, the details are small and simple ones, the moments are fleeting and ever-changing, and so evanescent. The tangible parts of Graham were entirely wrapped up in the feelings of love and joy and exhaustion. So when I can remember details like the shape of his head or the rhythm of his movements I can get closer to him, lean away from the loss for just a moment. I watched as the baby grabbed his own paci and stuffed it in his mouth, sleepily creating comfort with repetitive sucking (with Graham, it would have been his thumb). Living babies don’t bring me sadness. My sadness comes from emptiness.
I didn’t need to ask how old the child was because I recognized his age easily, but it was a simple way to venture forward with small talk. The unknowing mother willing shared his age and his name, small details she undoubtedly took for granted… I wanted so badly to tell her about my son, to swap stories and share secrets.
I considered lying – I could pretend Graham was at home, and indulge myself in a fantasy world. I could try to state things cleverly so he could be alive and gone at the same time and no one would be the wiser. I could vomit out the whole horrible truth and watch as the mother floundered under the weight of a pain that wasn’t expected and not hers to bear.
I chose not to say anything about my son on that day. It felt like the best choice for the moment.