I had another guilt dream last night. In this one, I was taking care of someone else’s baby (I have no idea whose). I laid the baby back in a sink to give it a bath. I turned the hot water spigot on first and before I could even turn on the cold water spigot, the baby started to scream. I realized immediately that the water had come out of the spigot scalding hot—it had not taken the customary minute to warm up like it usually does at my house. I looked down and saw the baby had a fiery red blister coming up on its right arm, just where the water had hit it. I was beside myself—I started to try to explain to someone what had happened, that usually the water has to warm up and I had no idea it would come out so hot. Whoever I was talking to looked down at the baby. I looked down with them. We both saw that in fact, there was no welt there at all.
Maybe this is my subconscious struggling to help me forgive myself. I really have been trying. I just re-read the section of Harriet Schiff’s book, Bereaved Parents, about “Bereavement and Guilt.” There, she says, “People logically should not blame themselves for things they did not know they were mishandling.” I have turned this over and over and over in my mind, trying to make it stick (and of course, trying to remind myself that really, the judgment we made about waiting a few hours to go to the pediatrician probably was not even “mishandling” the situation). Certainly it is only in the unforgiving light of hindsight that I can see that maybe there were signs of meningitis that an aggressive ER doc would have seen, if we’d only taken her to the ER first. I read recently that leg pains are now seen as one of the early warning signs of meningitis, and immediately remembered that when Hudson woke up at 4AM, her fever having risen since her Tylenol dose an hour earlier, I touched her leg and she shrieked. That was the first time I remembered saying that something seemed wrong. But I just figured she felt so crappy that she didn’t want to be touched anywhere, didn’t want us to mess with her at all. Even now, I have no idea whether she really had leg pain, because she couldn’t tell us what hurt. Hindsight is so incredibly (even if falsely) clear. And it is so incredibly agonizing.
And sometimes it’s more of a generalized feeling of guilt, not even related to the decision to wait a few hours for the pediatrician to open rather than going straight to the ER. I just think about her not being here, enjoying all the magic in this world that she adored. I think about all the things she’ll never get to learn or do, all the places she’ll never get to see, all the adventures we’ll never have together, and I just have the overwhelming sensation that it is my fault, that I should have prevented it. And that everyone looks at me and thinks the same thing—after all, I am Hudson’s mother (and yes, I know this is not the case, so please don’t feel the need to reassure here—I am rationally aware that this is totally irrational).
I have been trying so hard to get to the bottom of why this keeps plaguing me, despite all evidence that it should not, in hopes that logic will ultimately prevail. Last night, I asked Ed if he was dealing with any feelings of guilt. Once, a while back, when I was going through one of these bouts with wishing we had taken her to the ER instead of the doctor, Ed said that sometimes he felt as though maybe if he’d also gotten up when I was up with her overnight, he would have seen that she looked pretty bad and would have helped me decide just to take her to the hospital. At the time, I told him I didn’t want to hear that, because it sounded as though he thought he might have seen something that I missed. But he explained that he just meant that I definitely shouldn’t feel bad because he didn’t even get out of bed when all this was going on. So I asked him about it again last night, wanting to drink in whatever wisdom he had that kept him from getting dragged down into this like I do. He said that while he does get that feeling every once in a while, he just believes that what happened to Hudson was simply not in our control, no matter how much we wish it could have been, and that even if we’d taken her to the ER instead of the doctor, it would not have made any difference.
In my heart, I think I know that this is true. I started wondering last night if this sense of overwhelming guilt is generally stronger in bereaved moms than it is in bereaved dads. After all, I was primarily responsible for Hudson’s life and nutrition for the first twenty-one months that she existed. For the nine months that she was in my belly, I was responsible for trying to make sure that she got all the nutrients she needed to grow, for shielding her from all manner of teratogens, for giving her a safe place to develop into the amazing 7lb 6 oz creature that emerged from my body on December 1, 2008. And then for the next twelve months, I was still her primary source of nutrition—both her day and mine revolved around a seemingly endless cycle of nursing, pumping, and feeding, for a whole year, well past the six-month mark when she started eating solids. (None of this is to discount the extraordinarily important role that Ed played in our family during all of these times—one of my favorite pages in the book The Very Best Daddy of All, which I gave Ed for Father’s Day when we were pregnant with Hudson, says “Some daddies take care of your mama, so she can take care of you.” And of course, that is only the tip of the iceberg of what Ed does for us.) Maybe the real source of this guilt is not guilt at all, but anger and frustration at this total and utter helplessness (and many of you have touched on this before, including my friend Kate, in her comment on my first post about this). When you so wholeheartedly believe that you are in control for so much of the time, it is difficult, if not impossible, to concede that maybe you are not in as much control as you thought. Maybe you are not in control at all.
I think about parents who lose their children to birth defects, lifelong illnesses, cancer, or accidents away from home, parents who had absolutely no control over what happened to their kids and I think, “Well, at least they will never feel like they had any responsibility for their children’s deaths.” And then I think, “What the fuck kind of thinking is that, Mandy?” Because I am absolutely certain that every parent feels responsible, somehow. I recently heard an interview on Fresh Air with comedian Louis C.K.— he said during a standup routine once that a parent’s primary job is to make your kid “not die.” And I thought, “Shit, I couldn’t even do that.” As parents, any outcome that results in us outliving our children feels like utter failure, no matter how illogical or irrational that may be. And yet, every one of us has to come to terms with the fact that no matter how much we love our children, we cannot control everything that happens to them any more than we can control our kids themselves. It is a hard truth, but I know it is the truth.
I hope (God, I hope) this is at least the beginning of my making peace with this monster.