Jackson is turning two tomorrow. Two. So ordinary for most kids and their parents. A watershed for us. A birthday that in some dark hours over the last three years I wondered if I’d ever be lucky enough to see. Not because I had any real reason to think Jackson wouldn’t make it to his second birthday, but because I wasn’t sure I had any real reason to expect that he would. Sometimes, I can still barely believe we made it.
I am reading a new novel right now called “Life After Life” by Kate Atkinson. As its title might suggest (and I’m not spoiling anything here—you can read this in any synopsis or review of the book), the book is about a young woman who keeps dying and getting reborn into the same life over and over again—the novel pursues the idea of whether, through this constant rebirth as the same person, living the same life over again (although she is not entirely aware of it), she might be able to change her destiny or that of the world she inhabits.
A truly ingenious plot mechanism, and so well-done, and yet here I find myself reading a book where someone’s child dies, over and over and over again, as a baby, as a young girl, as a young woman, over and over again. I am reading a book where the key tension in the book involves waiting for this child to die. As my dread builds each time, I keep trying to predict, based on foreboding clues, how she will die this time around. Sometimes I am right, sometimes I am wrong. Each time, I keep hoping that maybe this time, she will live. So far, she hasn’t.
Bizarrely, my experience with the way this plot unfolds, over and over again, is not entirely unlike my life after losing a child. When reading the book, I know the girl is going to die too soon. Every time. It’s not a question of if, but of when and how. Dread and uncertainty. How much of her life will she get to live this time before she dies?
And yet I am still enjoying this well-told story immensely.
In my life, I can only hope that no more of my children will die too soon. But I still find myself wondering how much of their lives they will get to live before they die. Each morning when Jackson sleeps later than usual, I get a tiny, but very much noticeable, knot in my stomach that doesn’t resolve until I hear that first waking moan or happy chatter over the baby monitor. Every time he spikes a fever, and this kid can spike some serious fevers on a pretty regular basis, I get an even bigger knot in my stomach, wondering if this is the time it’s going to turn into something serious. Every time I stop and think I haven’t felt the baby move in a while, I start imagining the worst and wonder what it would be like to lose a baby I never even got to meet. I want a third living child for a variety of reasons, but among them is that if the worst happens to us again, I want two siblings still living to be there for each other.
And yet I am still enjoying this well-lived, though something-short-of-complete, life immensely.
Of course I am. Because, thankfully, in my life, unlike when I am reading this book, I am not sitting around waiting for my children to die. I can’t help but think about the worst sometimes—I imagine even parents who have not lost a child can’t help but do so sometimes, even though they can’t know what it would be like—but among the many things I have learned since Hudson died is that I can’t live my life expecting us all to die too soon. I can’t live it expecting that we’ll have infinite chances in life after life to do it over and get it right, but I also can’t live it expecting that we won’t have any chance to do it right the first time, the only time.
So I just have to live it. This one life. I have to live this one life and hope we get it right this one time. Jackson turns two tomorrow. If we’re lucky, he’ll turn three in another year, and four another year after that. If we’re lucky, this baby will be born in August and will live, with her brother, for many years beyond us. I can’t guarantee it, and there’s only so little I can do to control it. So I just have to live it, this one life, and hope we get it right while we have the chance.