My family is obsessed with the musical Hamilton. It started with Anna baffling me by rapping in a really bad French accent. Before long Hamilton was the soundtrack to car rides, cooking dinner, showers, bedtime. My favorite roles to sing are Washington and Hamilton. Anna prefers Lafayette and Jefferson. Vinnie does a spot on King George.
The first time I listened to the full show was sitting in the car with the kids waiting to pick up Anna’s friend. My jaw dropped at Say No to This. I laughed aloud at Cabinet Battle #2. When we got to It’s Quiet Uptown, the song showing Alexander and Eliza Hamilton mourning the loss of their son. Anna peered at me and asked, “Are you crying?” I was.
It’s true, there are moments that the words don’t reach. There are moments in my history, parts of the story of Ray and Alex, which I cannot, have not, am not brave enough to speak or write. Moments that are unimaginable.
There is suffering too terrible to name, but it isn’t the loss of a child. The loss of a child is intense, horrifying, and most parents speak of it as an abstract concept and say things, like, “I can’t imagine” and “I don’t understand how you go on.” The truth of the matter is that, like so many things, you go on because you don’t have a choice. The very unimaginableness of the event actually helps in a way, because your brain numbs itself, and you find yourself going through the motions of daily life. You don’t smile. You don’t feel. But you move. You wake up in the morning, you go to bed at night, and slowly, you learn to live with the unimaginable.
That’s not to say you don’t have moments. I’ve had plenty of moments. The time ten years ago when I saw two chubby babies sitting on my kitchen floor so clearly that I had to sit down because I felt like my legs had been knocked out from under me. The recent dinner when Jim gently pointed out that the 14th fell on Mother’s day this year.
The 10th, the 14th, the 19th. Those damn numbers. They knock me out. I fall apart. Can you imagine?
Horace Mann recently hosted Bill Richard, father of Martin Richard, the little boy who died in the Boston Marathon bombing. He talked to our kids about the importance of choice. He said, “You can’t control what happens.” He meant that his family couldn’t control the situation that lead to the death of his son, the maiming of his daughter, the injuries of hundreds. “But,” he told our students, “you can control how you react.” He talked about how he had the option of partnering with counterterrorism organizations, focusing on what went wrong, trying to keep it from happening again. But that wasn’t the approach he wanted to take. He decided to take his unimaginable pain and loss and turn it into something positive in the creation of the Martin Richard Foundation. He talked to us about the work they do with children who wouldn’t normally have the opportunity to play on a sports team, how they’re building an inclusive park next to the Children’s Museum, how that land stood undeveloped for 30 years because of bureaucratic pettiness, but it only took Martin 6 months from proposal to groundbreaking.
As he spoke, I marveled at the grace of this man. He was real. He was not a comfortable or polished speaker, but he was an effective one. When he would pause to collect his thoughts or compose himself, I found myself holding my breath. Our students were absolutely silent, a feat that any middle school teacher knows is damn near impossible to achieve. They were listening to every word. He had an aura about him, a quiet calmness. Simply put, I liked him and wanted to spend time near him, listening to him. But something he said rankled.
You can’t control what happens.
No, I suppose you can’t control an act terrorism. Or an act of war. Or having a fertilized embryo split on day 5, 6 or 7 of gestation. You can’t control the uterine contraction that kinks an amniocentesis needle. I couldn’t control when the needle slipped, perforating the lining separating my boys. I couldn’t control my water breaking at 26 weeks.
Those things are hard, but they are not unimaginable. They are not the moments that the words don’t reach. The unreachable moments are the ones I could and did control. I made decisions, and they’ve danced in the periphery of my thoughts for eleven years, never spoken aloud or put to paper. I pushed them away because they’re part of a story I don’t understand and they bring me to a place that is unimaginable.
My boys were born on May 10th. They were described to me as “sick,” but I didn’t understand what that meant. I thought they were just premature, but they were so much more than that. They had holes in their hearts and their brains were bleeding. Their lungs were so weak they couldn’t exhale. On May 12th the bleeding in Ray’s brain had seeped into his cerebellum. Experts delivered bad news and a decision was made. My sister asked, “Should I call Mom?” And I nodded. She meant, “Is there going to be a funeral?” And I nodded.
Ray didn’t die hooked up to machines, alarms sounding and nurses running. Ray died in my arms. He got there because I told the doctor’s to take him off the machines. Because I said so, they disconnected him from the millions of wires and tubes that delivered oxygen and God knows what else. Because I said so, they stopped trying to keep him alive and placed him in my arms.
And six days later they did it again with Alex.
These are the moments that the words don’t reach. These are the moments that I just swim down. I haven’t written, haven’t said, haven’t whispered the thoughts that have haunted me for eleven years. But if I don’t, I don’t know how I’ll ever get to the place I long for.
Did I give up on them too early?
Did I give up on them too early?
Did I put too much faith in the doctors?
Did I ask enough questions? Did I ask the right questions? If I’d just held out another day or two, would it become clearer what the right choice was? Why did I feel the need to make decisions so quickly? Why didn’t I tell them to wait? If I’d told them to wait, would they be alive right now? Are they dead because I didn’t wait?
Are they dead because I didn’t believe enough?
Are they dead because I didn’t believe?
Forgiveness. Can you imagine?