We spent the weekend at the Bele Chere festival in Asheville with good friends from law school. The weather was incredibly hot, so enjoying ourselves outside was not all that easy, but we saw a few good bands, ate a lot of good food, and saw some other parts of Asheville that were air-conditioned. And it was great to be with our friends, Angie and Chad, who we don’t see nearly often enough, and who, among our many friends, are uniquely equipped to make us laugh. A lot. And we did laugh. A lot. Which was good.
For some reason, though (and I don’t know how I continue to fail to anticipate these things—probably because I have still just not accepted that this is our new reality), I just didn’t realize how many children would be at Bele Chere. The last time I went to Bele Chere was in 1992, and the time I spent there was mostly at night, after dark, and I don’t really remember much at all except there being a lot of drunk people and loud music. Why would anyone bring their kids to such a thing? But in fact, the festival is huge, including lots of music all day, arts and crafts of all kinds, an entire children’s program at one building, face painting, mimes, dancers, carnival food, a splash park at a fountain downtown. . . In other words, who wouldn’t bring their kids there?
And bring them they did. In droves. There were kids everywhere. In their parents’ arms. In strollers. In carriers. In backpacks. In wagons. Walking. They. Were. Everywhere.
When we got there Friday afternoon, we headed down to a particular stage to see Angie’s friend’s band play. As we walked, I actually said out loud, “I can’t believe I didn’t think about how many kids would be here.” We got to the stage and of course, right in front of us, was a chubby little boy, just about Hudson’s age, red-faced and sweaty (it was in the high nineties and there was no shade anywhere), bopping around with his mom to the music. She had him up on her shoulders and was swaying and bouncing; he was clapping his hands and grinning. I purposely tried to position myself (and the enormous brimmed hat I bought) so that I couldn’t see him. It didn’t really work, and I kept sneaking glances. It was hard not to look, even though it hurt every time.
The next day, we tooled around Asheville and did not head downtown until after 5, because it was so hot. When we finally did go downtown, we went to a bar almost immediately to cool off. For the first time, I thought maybe it would be nice to have a drink, catch a little buzz, and maybe try to lose myself in it for just a little while. Until very recently, I have had absolutely no desire to be in any kind of altered state whatsoever, partly because of my fear that while the buzz itself might be fun, coming out of it might be not very much fun at all. I was right. I had a very strong vodka tonic at the bar, and then we went to another bar where I had a few more lighter drinks. We went outside and listened to a bluegrass band for a while and then headed down to the fountain/splashpark in front of Asheville’s town hall and court house. I was pretty buzzed by this time so I didn’t think in advance about whether this was a good idea. We sat down on the steps across from the fountain and watched all the kids running around as the spouts of water started and stopped, catching them by surprise every time. We sat there for a long while, and in the heat, the effects of the alcohol began to wear off, but I still felt like I was in a fog. You know how when you are watching a movie and some kid is about to get snatched from an amusement park or something, and everything goes into slow-motion, and the picture looks a little blurry, and you can hear kids shrieking in the background, and you’re just waiting for something to happen? That is exactly how this felt. I was watching these two kids, a shirtless little blond girl between three and four, and her little brother, who was probably two and still in diapers, climb up a set of three stairs, come and stand on top of a stubby column, and then reach their arms out to their dad, who grabbed them and swung them up high and then back down to the ground. Over and over again. Climb, reach out, fly with Daddy. Hudson loves to climb stairs. Hudson and her little brother. Aren’t they beautiful? They have so much fun together and they love their daddy so much. No, wait… Hudson isn’t here. And I don’t know who those kids are. By the time we left, I felt like I’d been hit in the face with a brick—stunned and aching, but forced to keep moving.
The worst, though, didn’t even happen at Bele Chere. Yesterday, as we were driving back home from Asheville, we stopped at a gas station/convenience store to go to the bathroom. I headed through the store behind a mom and her daughter. The mom was probably a little younger than me, wearing a navy blue shirt dress and a baseball cap. The little girl was about three and was wearing a pink cotton t-shirt dress with puffed sleeves and a smocked front. The little girl kept trying to walk where the mom couldn’t hold her hand and the mom kept trying to corral her a little bit closer. We all crowded into the bathroom where there was a short line for the stalls. As we waited, the mom picked the little girl up, swung her on to her hip, and gave her a kiss. I immediately felt hot tears spring to my eyes and I had to look down so no one would see and then had to close my eyes and take a deep breath to keep from bursting into a sob.
I want my little girl back. I want to swing her around on my shoulders and clap to music and worry about her getting too hot or getting sunburned. I want to watch her playing with her daddy in a fountain on a hot summer afternoon. I want to swoop her into my arms for a playful kiss while we wait in line for the bathroom. This longing is so deep and so powerful that it still physically hurts. These days, I check my email compulsively, waiting for messages and comments on my blog posts—I realized for the first time yesterday that some part of me does this in the frantic and insane hope that she will just materialize there before my eyes. Last night, when we came home to no power, we were sitting on the couch, and I imagined that Hudson was upstairs in her bed—I thought that maybe Ed and I could be the first humans on earth who were so distraught over the loss of our loved one that we actually got to get her back?!
This weekend did offer some comfort other than the company of our good friends, though. For the first time this weekend, I felt a longing for something else: a second baby. At the restaurant where we ate Friday night, there were two little boys sitting near us, one right next to us and one over our right shoulder. Both were probably around 6 months old. We left after we ate, but I ran back inside briefly to go to the bathroom. As I passed the table next to us, I looked down and saw the baby boy laid back in the crook of an elbow, eyes closed, sucking on a bottle in that unconscious way babies do when they are sucking in their near-sleep. I immediately thought, “I want that. Now.”
And then tears. I don’t know if they were tears of longing for a second baby or tears of guilt at the thought of longing for a baby other than my girl or tears of sorrow that I will never get to have both Hudson and a second baby. Maybe this is the same kind of longing all parents get when their toddler gets too old and too busy to really care about snuggling in to the crook of an arm for a nap or a bottle. Maybe I really was just longing for Hudson and it manifested itself into longing for an infant. Maybe I will never be able to tell the difference. I have to say that it felt good, even if for a fleeting second, to feel like it might even be possible to long for a second child. Because I have had my doubts. I miss my girl so much that sometimes it seems like I might never be able to love another child again, not the way I love her. But for that one second, when I saw that delicious little boy floating away into a milk-induced coma, for just that second at least, I knew that I could.