There are so many moments when I have wished for more words to be able to describe this grief. Many times I have wished for greater command of metaphor and simile and other figurative tools to try and describe the indescribable. Perhaps my hope is that by being able to better label it, I might somehow better master it. Silly me. But I never stop wishing for better words.
So when I come upon other writings that seem to describe so well a particular aspect of this grief, this process, this life, I am grateful. I am grateful for the words I can never seem to find.
Last night, I picked up my copy of this week’s New Yorker, which has been lying around the house for several days, completely ignored. I opened to the table of contents and saw at the top a personal essay by Aleksandar Hemon entitled “The Aquarium” with a subtitle of “A Tale of Two Daughters.” Intrigued by both “aquarium” and “daughters,” I turned to the essay, and there saw yet a different subtitle, “A Child’s Isolating Illness.” What exactly was this essay about? I wondered. It took only a few sentences before I recognized the foreboding beginnings of a tale of a child’s life gone horribly wrong, beginning with what should have been a routine well visit to the pediatrician at the age of nine months. What follows is Hemon’s harrowing and haunting recounting of his younger daughter’s diagnosis and treatment for an incredibly aggressive brain tumor that would take her life in less than four months, when she had just passed her first birthday. I read several paragraphs and then skipped to the end, wanting to know how this would turn out before I kept reading. Once I saw the ending, I put the magazine back down, not sure that I could stand it. But this morning, I picked it back up, unable to resist the draw of reading another parent’s account of what it was like to watch their child die. I was looking for more of the terrible companionship that I have found in so many sad and often unexpected places since Hudson died.
I’m glad I read the essay and grateful for the words it gave me. Our experiences were very different in many ways (a prolonged illness, aggressive treatments, a much younger baby, an older sibling) but very similar in many ways (the moments suspended in time when terrifying news is delivered, a horrific ICU vigil, an unimaginable goodbye). And no matter what, there are some things about living through the death of a child that are universal.
I hope that Mr. Hemon won’t mind if I share the two passages that spoke to me most.
On relating to the rest of the world:
One early morning, driving to the hospital, I saw a number of able-bodied, energetic runners progressing along Fullerton Avenue toward the sunny lakefront, and I had a strong physical sensation of being in an aquarium: I could see out, the people outside could see me (if they chose to pay attention), but we were living and breathing in entirely different environments.
What a perfectly apt description. One needs a snorkel, or gills, to live in this world with me. No matter how much time goes by, a pane of glass will always separate me from the rest of the world. No matter how much time goes by, I will always feel like a creature alien to others, something others will often recoil from when they hear my story, unwilling or unable to imagine the horror of it. And no matter how much time goes by, communicating with those outside the aquarium will remain somewhat garbled.
On grieving the death of one’s child:
One of the most despicable religious fallacies is that suffering is ennobling—that it is a step on the path to some kind of enlightenment or salvation. Isabel’s suffering and death did nothing for her, or us, or the world. We learned no lessons worth learning; we acquired no experience that could benefit anyone. And Isabel most certainly did not earn ascension to a better place, as there was no place better for her than at home with her family. Without Isabel, Teri and I were left with oceans of love we could no longer dispense; we found ourselves with an excess of time that we used to devote to her; we had to live in a void that could be filled only by Isabel. Her indelible absence is now an organ in our bodies, whose sole function is a continuous secretion of sorrow.
I know. Before you say it, I know. I know that many of you will read this and say, “But Hudson’s death DID do something for the world,” or “Your experience DID benefit others,” or “There ARE lessons worth learning.”
I know. I know all of these things. You don’t have to tell me. Maybe Mr. Hemon knows them, too, or maybe he will come to feel differently in time (his daughter only died in November 2010). But it doesn’t change the fact that those words, stark as they are, describe precisely how I feel. Because none of it, not one single bit, could ever be worth the price we had to pay.