Because I'm a late adopter, I’ve just now got around to reading Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly. And now I'm trying to wrap my head around the whole concept of vulnerability, which in theory seems like a great idea but in practice can still fill really skeevy. Which is usually a sign that maybe I need to pay more attention to it all. I'll keep reading.
But I wanted to tell you about the section about what Brown calls “foreboding joy,” because I never knew until now that that thing I used to do all the time had a name. “I was convinced,” Brown writes,
that I was the only one who stood over my children while they slept and, in the split second that I became engulfed with love and adoration, pictured something really terrible happening to them. I was sure that no one but me pictured car wrecks and rehearsed the horrific phone conversations with the police that all of us dread.
One of my favourite pieces of my own writing is precisely about foreboding joy. This was written when Rowan was a toddler and Isaac was a baby, and it was published a couple of years ago in Stealing Time magazine, but I think it’s time to share it with you here. It's called “A version of upright.”
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“Granddad Bob die?”
My three-year-old son is currently fascinated by his Granddad Bob. More precisely, Rowan is fascinated by the death of his Granddad Bob, after a short and brutal stint with lung cancer, years before Rowan was even conceived.
“What Granddad Bob say when he die?”
The questions come at random moments: while I help him take off his snowpants, on the toilet, playing trains. Bob was father to my spouse, Rachel — a charming, secretive man, a gambler. He and Rachel moved uneasily into and out of each other’s lives for years, and then, suddenly, dramatically, he was gone. We got the call at 3 AM from Rachel’s sister, who had been jolted from sleep by the silence of the baby monitor, stationed in her ailing father’s room.
“Why he die?”
I hesitate — how do you answer this? Every response seems dangerously loaded as I run it through my parental scanner.
“He was sick with a disease called cancer,” I say. And again, I pause. Because what pops into my head, what I really want to say, is that Rowan’s Baba Ruthi — my mother — also died of cancer, that the disease appeared first in her ovaries when she was 37 years old (I was 9) and came back again a decade later in her right breast, and a decade after that everywhere. That she died on Mother’s Day. That her death was and remains the biggest heartbreak of my life, that I still randomly, suddenly, weep with the realization that she’s really gone, never coming back, no matter how good I am, how patiently I wait.
I want to tell him that, even though I hesitate I get what he’s doing. I get the need to make it make sense, and how it doesn’t. I get how death is always hovering.
Over, say, me at 10, practicing handstands over and over in the front hall, willing myself to stay upright and counting the seconds until I topple over, the one Mississippi, two Mississippi, in syncopation with a larger goal: Fifteen seconds and Mom won’t die. Fifteen seconds and Mom won’t die.
Over me as teenager, waiting at the mall for my mother, perpetually late, to pick me up from my part-time job. Ten minutes past the appointed time and I am well into the car crash, the solemn police officers arriving in her stead, my swoon at the news, her funeral and what I would wear and say at it. Every single time, every single minute of tardiness, a fantasy so familiar it was comforting. So familiar that I had a sense of déjà vu at her actual funeral.
They continue today, my death fantasies, when Rachel drives in a snowstorm, when she’s a few minutes later than she said she would be. I putter around the house, calmly figuring out where I will live after the funeral, where she’d like to be buried, how soon afterwards I would date again, how to explain it to the children.
It continues with Rowan, and now his baby brother, Isaac. There’s the newborn stage, where they — finally — sleep for a few hours in the middle of the night and you’re so exhausted and irrational that you think, Well, I suppose the baby’s dead, but I might as well go back to sleep since there’s nothing I can do about it. Or when Rowan, uncharacteristically, sleeps in till 7:45 and I imagine quietly over my tea what it will be like to find him, cool to the touch.
It’s there for Rachel, too. Like yesterday, when Isaac’s morning nap extended to noontime, the buzzing in my head starting quietly and growing louder as the minutes ticked by. Just as I was getting up from my office chair to suggest to her that Maybe we should go— she opened my door, hand over her heart, eyes panicked. “Go get him,” I said. And we did — fighting the urge to take the stairs two at the time — and he was fine, fine, just rolling over, waking up, whimpering at being rushed in the process. She thinks reflexively, as she does (I imagine) about her baby brother, who at six weeks old did not wake up from his nap, even when her mother went in to check. No baby monitors then.
We’re not the only ones who do this, are we? Not the only ones who storyboard the deaths of our loved ones while we make dinner, take out the garbage, run the evening bathwater? It could happen at any time, we imagine, and so we’d best think it through, so as not to be completely unprepared.
Except, of course, that I feel completely, utterly unprepared every time Rowan asks me about his Grandad Bob, muddling through my answers, trying to find a balance between honesty and the need to protect him from the weight of my own losses.
I feel completely unprepared, likewise, for a life without my mother, despite a lifetime’s worth of practice. And yet, how would I ever know the difference? All those handstands, all those practice swoons at the mall entrance — maybe they have made a difference. Maybe without them I would have never have survived the actual event, the moment the home care worker stepped into the kitchen to say, “Excuse me? Miss? I think that your mother is not breathing.”
Maybe Rowan asks these questions as the beginnings of a strategy to cope with the inevitability of loss. Maybe I’ve somehow managed to telegraph to him the need to be on the lookout for death, to notice and interrogate its hovering, even at the perimeters of joy.
Maybe I need to talk with him about my mom.
And so I do, showing him photos of her as a young mother, holding me at Isaac’s age. That’s your Baba Ruthi. That’s me when I was a baby. She was my mommy. She loved me the way I love you. You know? I don’t know if any of it sinks in, however, until a few weeks later, as I help Rowan struggle into his pyjamas. As I turn out his light, he calls, loudly, into the sudden darkness: “Oh. Oh. Do you see her? Do you see your mom?”
“No,” I say. “I don’t see her. Is she here?”
“No,” says my son. “She’s not here. She died.”
“That’s right,” I say. “She did.” And I pause. And then: “I miss her.”
“Because you can’t have her?”
“Yeah,” I say, “I can’t have her. But you know who I do have?”
“Yeah, you.” By this time he has crawled into bed.
“That’s okay,” he says. Yawns. “I’ll be your mom.”
He falls asleep, his small, warm back again against my chest. Downstairs, Rachel does the dishes in the kitchen. We are all, at this moment, safe. Across the hall, Isaac sleeps — for a few hours at least — in his crib. If we turn up the monitor, we can just make out his breathing. Somewhere, if only in my imagination and that of my older son, my mother hovers, keeping the balance, holding us up in our own version of upright. I listen to the second hand ticking on Rowan’s Thomas the Tank Engine clock, marking out the moments, one Mississippi… two Mississippi… at a time.