I sometimes think that I failed at one of my main tasks as Michelle’s mom: protecting her from harms way, seeing her safely into adulthood. I realize that attributing her death as my own failure is irrational. But the thought creeps in every now and then. She is my child, and I couldn’t save or protect her.
Now I know lots of other mothers who’ve lost children, and they’ve tried to prepare me for how unbearable the ‘first year of firsts’ is going to be…. how your very identity as a mother is shaken and upended when your child dies. We’re a dismal, heartbroken club of kindred spirits. We share the pain of empty, quiet rooms that hold the remnants of our children’s lives — keepsakes that remain long after our babies have gone.
How can this be? Every day I pass by the open door to Michelle’s room…. see it just how she left it on August 1, 2017, and wonder how any of this is real. How is it possible that all I have left is her collection of journals, her rocks she collected when she was 3 years old that I could never make her part with, clothes she and I had just ordered from Old Navy dot com on July 31 to start freshman year…just laying on the floor of her room now, her new dance duffle bag we found at IKEA that Sunday before she died and she immediately loaded it up because dance camp started the next night, and her closet full of clothes, her empty hamster cage from Spade who died several months after Michelle did, a bag from Michaels that has tshirts and paints because she and a couple of friends were going to tye dye shirts before going back to school, her Kings Island pass laying on her bed, her most beloved stuffed animal. Now in a ziplock so I can still smell Michelle’s scent as she snuggled to sleep each night with it, and a room full of memories. Her memories. I could go on and on. Everything that made her room her.
As the days go by, we’ve now seen every season through. Summer, Fall, Winter, and Spring. I say to Keith it feels like she’s been gone forever and her proximity to me is fading…. the reality of her absence becomes more concrete. This would be okay if it were because she had graduated high school, gone off to college and started her life, but that’s not what happened. She stopped existing at 15. My sweet girl is fifteen forever.
I don’t know how to ‘do each day’ with all of these other Moms and Dads who Keith and I have met on our grief journey. A journey we wish we never had to embark on. The natural order of families is this: Our babies are gone, but then we had laughing toddlers in exchange, and then our toddlers are gone, and we had curious, bright-eyed preschoolers in their place. And then they become elementary school students, when interests and personalities emerge and blossom. And oh how she blossomed. And then we have middle schoolers, giving us teenagers who are whole, unique people. The fact that our kids will grow up into actual people, moving and shaking the world with their personalities, distracts us from the pain of their fading childhood. Except, of course, if they don’t grow up. And Michelle won’t.
I am two mothers now — the mother you see walking beside my remaining 2 kids in the all-too-real world of chores and trivial things, because most everything does seem trivial now. And the mother you don’t see — the mother bereft, imagining that my daughter is two steps behind me, just out of sight.
There are too many mothers like me, rushing here and there, pretending we’re fully in one world when, really, we’re in two. And I constantly feel like I’m stuck between heaven and earth. Because even when your child dies, you don’t stop worrying about them. So heaven, to make sure she’s happy and earth to be here for Thomas and Robert.
I look whole and normal, but deep inside there’s an emptiness where my heart used to be. My heart, Michelle. I can’t walk with Keith and the boys without imagining the shadow of Michelle right beside us. I can’t bear to take a ‘family photo’ anymore.
I wish I could go back to last Mother’s Day, for instance. When my kids were in 6th, 8th, and 12th grades. I wish Michelle was here to make me one of her cards. Let’s be honest. She was the one who did the acknowledging. I can almost see her sitting at the kitchen table working on her card for me, or a piece of art. And as I approach, she turns her body and the card so I can’t see it.
Dwelling on the past is the only thing that allows me to feel something other than numbness and despair. The others who walk this path of intense grief tell me it gets better. Eventually, I’ll start feeling what I’m supposed to feel. I’ll move more fully into the world of my living children. Until then, I just have to wait. And Keith and I do the best that we can on each day.
But what if I don’t want that to happen? What if time erases the only thing I have left of my Michelle, dulling the edges of her face in my mind’s eye like a faded photograph? Living this quiet pain is how I feel closest to her right now.
I guess ‘each first’ is just a day, not unlike the day that came before it or the day that follows. Realizing this somehow makes it okay that it’s hard to celebrate things this year. Our daughter isn’t here anymore, but that doesn’t make me any less her mother, or Keith her Dad. Since she’s died, I’ve been afraid of losing that, losing the last little bit of her that I’ve been clinging to. That’s why I say, ‘my girl, Michelle’ all the time. Because she’s still my girl. And always will be.
There will be more painful days to come — her birthday, Father’s Day (she was born on a Father’s Day), the first vacation without her, her ‘1 year anniversary’ and on and on. I know I need to reconcile her absence on these days so I can be a mom to Thomas and Robert. But it’s so hard. Somehow, I must figure out how to forge a new connection with them now that she’s no longer here. The dynamics of our house and home and lives have changed.
I would be remiss if I did not thank our village. Our families, our friends, our city, our schools, our teachers, our acquaintances, old friends and new friends, friends near and far….some we know dearly, and some we have never met. God is in each of you. And whether you know it or not, you are doing God’s work. People ask, “Where is God in this tragedy?” God is coming to us in all of you. There is no doubt about that.
So…. the mothers that walk with me in grief tell me it’s hard to face all of these milestones in the first year, but it’s even harder in the second. That’s when the reality of Michelle’s absence will finally feel real. I believe them because I can sense it’s coming. I dread the full weight of time and distance that will inevitably make her absence a solid thing, final and irreversible. Even so, they tell me that Keith and I will find joy again. Until then, we wait. Thank you for waiting with us. Thank you for helping us keep the monumental promise I made to her in the emergency room, “That no one will ever forget who Michelle Chalk is, and what she stands for.” Every day, I hear of another person who is helping us shine her light. Thank you.
Fly High Sweet Girl of Mine, Fly High. With all the Angels and Saints. Dance for Jesus, Ask Mary to take care of you until I can be with you again, Sing in the Alleluia Choir, Play with little children, and Pray for me and Dad and all who miss you.