Today during the coffee hour after our church service, an older man I'm very fond of approached me and said, "I was watching you during the service. I'm going to give you the same advice I give to my daughters when they need it: it's time to take a deep breath."
He didn't elaborate, and I didn't ask him to. I thanked him for the advice, and acknowledged its wisdom and timeliness. He told me it was the sort of wisdom that comes with age, and he smiled and walked away as my throat tightened and my eyes pooled with tears.
So there it was. I'd wondered where it was. I'd been fooling myself for the past few days into thinking that it must be packed away in a box marked "The Past," but apparently I'd been carrying it right out in the open the whole time.
I call it "stealth grief." It's the phase of grieving that gets the least amount of attention and airtime. It's what happens when the grief is no longer a gaping open wound that you couldn't hide if you wanted to, when you have gotten through the aching, screaming pain, and when the good days finally - and by far - outnumber the bad. It's stealthy because you don't always see it coming, and because it emerges in new and different ways that you don't always recognize.
At least that's how it happens for me. Sometimes I don't see it coming because it pops up out of the blue - like when I hear that Julia Roberts has given birth to healthy twins, or when a woman in her blissful first pregnancy asks me if an amniocentesis hurts, or when people talk about their children's bond as siblings. Other times, I know it might be coming because of a date on the calendar - Mother's Day, for example. Or January 27.
Eight years ago on January 27 I had a baby girl. She was born with severe spina bifida and hydrocephalus when I was about 18 weeks pregnant and she was too small to survive outside my body.
Seven years ago on January 27 I found out that I was pregnant again. I later found out that I was carrying twins, later that one of the twins had mild spina bifida and hydrocephalus, later that the affected twin had died at full-term in utero, and later that the surviving twin had autism.
As you might imagine, for the past eight years January has been a difficult month. At first, the grief was right there on the surface, easy to identify and impossible to conceal. I talked, I cried, I wrote, I read, and grieved and grieved and grieved until some time had passed and the open wound began to heal. But the subsequent Januaries have been trickier: I spend the better part of the month each year wondering how the anniversary will affect me this time. Will this be a wracking-sob year? Or a reflective-but-peaceful year? Or will this be a stealth year, when grief slips on a disguise and makes me think it's passed me by, only to jump out and grab me when I least expect it?
I never grieved Bud's autism in the way that I read about people grieving after getting a diagnosis. I understand what people experience - the "death" of the dream of the neurotypical child you thought you had, and the adjustment to the reality of the wonderfully complex child you actually have. Maybe it's because there was not a startling "moment of diagnosis" for Bud, but rather a slow-paced, evolutionary unfolding of it. I'm not sure. Whatever the reason, the autism itself has never been a source of grief for me.
Bud's diagnosis did affect me in a different way, though; it affected me in a three-strikes-and-you're-out-of-the-baby-making-business sort of way. When Bud's brother died, the fear of spina bifida was daunting. We suddenly went from having a 1 in 1000 risk of having a subsequent pregnancy affected by it to a 1 in 20 risk. The idea that the risk was too great to ever try again was overwhelming. For a while. But somewhere, on some level, there was a competing thought: 1 in 20 means that there is a 19 in 20 chance that a subsequent baby would not have spina bifida. That thought floated around through Bud's toddler years, and I imagined that a day would come when I would pull it down and have a good look at it.
Before that day arrived, we discovered that Bud had autism. Since then, the reality has set in: a subsequent baby has an increased risk of spina bifida and of autism. Bud needs all of the time and attention and care that we can muster already. We would struggle to have time and attention for another child, even if that child were healthy and neurotypical. And the chances are great that the child would not be.
Bud will be our only living child. I have known that for quite some time. Known it. But, it seems, that stealthy creature grief has been lurking in the shadows for a while, getting caught in my peripheral vision but ducking around corners right before I've turned around to get a better look, making me wonder if my imagination was getting the best of me and there was nothing out there after all, slowly getting closer until - WHAM.
Wham. Out of nowhere, someone in church calls to my attention the things I have chosen not to see, and I suddenly understand why the blogs that have resonated most with me recently have been the sad ones; I recognize that the tightness and ache in my neck and shoulders is probably not bursitis after all; I become aware of the sensation in my body I had not even acknowledged - the one that starts somewhere behind my eyes and travels down to about my navel and feels like a blend of being bone-weary tired and of getting stuck in mid-sigh, unable to take it back and unable to complete it.
It seems that in this stealth year - the one in which my 40th birthday looms large on the horizon - grief has slipped on a new identity. I am not specifically grieving the loss of my daughter or the loss of my son. Instead, I am grieving my long-imagined idea of family, the one in which I have a gaggle of children whom I adore, and who adore each other. I am grieving the relationship that Bud will never have with a sibling. I am grieving the presence of the one person who will always be there for him, even when his father and I can no longer be.
And yet, even as I grieve, I can find the pockets of comfort. I can see the ways that the babies I knew so briefly have shaped my life so completely. I recognize the role they play in making me a better mother to Bud, in helping me to appreciate things about him that I might otherwise forget to notice.
And I experience more frequently and more acutely, in those fuzzy moments between awake and asleep as I huddle together with my wolf pack, the comfort that comes from the absolute certainty that one-plus-one-plus-one equals five, that there is a warmth we have generated that extends far beyond us, that there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
And so, I take the advice of my wise friend at church, and I breathe,
my inhales and exhales in harmony and counter-point with the rest of my wolf pack. My family. We breathe, together and apart, and we huddle closer as time passes and the calendar, once again, allows us to move forward into February.