Word Count: 3850
“Life begins on the other side of despair.” —Jean-Paul Sartre
Grief unravels life in such a way that it can never be woven whole again. Sometimes though, unexpected joy plaits a pattern out of darkness.
Our holidays of 1990 were a time of anticipation and wonder. Snow had fallen hard in late November, a rare occurrence in Seattle. We were greedy for more snowflakes as I bored our children with stories of white Christmas’s when I was growing up in Michigan.
Though the cold weather meant hand-carrying water from the house to the horses, cows and chickens, it also meant snow forts, and tracking coyote trails, and nighttime walks through the suddenly still woods. My husband, Mark, took our two children to sled on the hills of the west pasture. Even I, eight months pregnant, risked a few journeys down into the valley below. At the end of my long ride down, I would roll off the sled, beached in the high snow and laughing as our children, Brendan and Sara, tumbled down beside me.
Our baby was due after the holidays and Christmas seemed even more touched with magic than ever. This was to be our last infant born to us; we had wanted to adopt afterwards to expand our family even more. Eventually, if we could manage it, perhaps six or seven children. We had begun the adventure to adoption while I was still pregnant. Mark and I had filled out forms and questionnaires from our agency while resting beneath the Christmas tree. There was no hurry to adopt; we were told paperwork would take at least a year. Better though, we decided, to get the papers in, before the tumult and excitement of a new baby. We sent all our information off, knowing it would be a long time before we heard more.
We were busy making space in Sara’s room for the new baby. Brendan had pleaded for us to put the crib in his room but he, at age seven, needed his sleep before facing a school day. If Brendan and Sara were any indication, this baby too would find nights the best time to be awake. Nonetheless, Brendan insisted on making part of his room baby proof. He arranged his stuffed animals in a small circle, stapled a bright picture of ducks and chicks to his wall, and hung his old baby mobile above. This, he told me solemnly, was where he would watch the baby so I could take naps with Sara.
“No. I’ll be watching the baby,” Sara reminded Brendan. “After all, the baby is sleeping in my room.” She was thrilled with the superiority of her position.
Our third child was born on a dark gray day in late winter. Daniel Robinson Levy. Seven-year-old Brendan, and three-year-old sister Sara, competed to hold him and murmur soft lullabies. Brendan, in particular, would hold a sleeping Danny on his lap for hours at a time, grinning down at his new brother. They never tired of him. Sara would comb Danny’s crazy shock of red hair while Brendan held Danny’s small hands and clapped them gently together in rhythm to some made up song. Danny smiled so early, mere weeks old and he was grinning at the world. Surrounded by so much attention and love, who would not?
A boisterous spring came with more hard rain and rough wind. On weekends, we would watch from inside as Mark struggled with the rototiller in the sodden dirt and hummocks of dried grass. When the sun would at last break through, the children and I would escape the house to work the gardens. Brendan and I would plant Tall Telephone peas, and Black Seeded Simpson lettuce and Easter Egg radishes into the cool soil of early spring. Sara would bounce Danny in his carriage, pushing him carefully along the ruts left behind from the tiller’s work. Danny bundled against the cold, would kick and chortle whenever we loomed over him, and planted kisses on his rosy cheeks.
Like his siblings before him, Danny too was a night owl. Mark would get up with a groan and change Danny, then hand him off to me. Danny would nurse, coo happily to himself, and nurse some more. After too many call nights at work, Mark was exhausted when his off night’s sleep became as broken as his work shifts. Many a night Mark ended up tucked up against Brendan while Danny took over his spot on the bed.
In the morning, Brendan would sneak into bed as well, gazing with pride at his little brother who had at last, drifted off to sleep with the dawn. “He needs his space.” Brendan told me one morning. “That’s how you know Danny is going to be very, very tall.” Sara would wander in and crawl under the covers beside me. Mark would appear last, looking as weary as I felt. No matter the lack of sleep, the five of us would rest together, a small boat of happiness, sailing on life’s seas.
When both Mark and I worked, all three children were often at my parents’ house just down the lane. Even there, Sara and Brendan did not compete against their baby brother as for attention; they held him and regaled grandma with tales of his baby feats. “He knows my name,” Sara reported. “He just can’t say it yet.”
When Danny would sit and stare out the window in those quiet moments before sleep claimed him, Brendan would interpret this to grandfather. “He likes to look out windows.” Brendan solemnly intoned, as though this made Danny a small genius. Perhaps he was.
Summer in Seattle is an uncertain proposition at best. Brendan’s birthday, June thirteenth, dawned chill and damp. Danny had spent half the night bellowing his indignation at being without entertainment. As he was almost six months old, we had decided to let him cry it out a bit at night, rather than race to him over and again. Danny had quieted about four in the morning and I crept softly about in order not to wake him.
Before going to bed the night before, Mark and I had decorated the kitchen for Brendan’s birthday and the gay crepe banners clashed with the gray sky outside. Sara hopped about the room, singing ‘Happy Birthday’ while Brendan was served his breakfast in a manner befitting a king. Pancakes on fancy china, crystal wine glass of orange juice, and bright cloth napkins, Oh, how Brendan was puffed up with happiness. School was over in a week, and Brendan’s birthday party was going to be this weekend—only four days away! Some dear friends from college times were staying with us and they handed Brendan his first gift of the day, a leather pouch of small gems and rocks. Now Brendan was beaming. As Sara, her dark curls bouncing, began her fifth rendition march of ‘Happy Birthday’, I reminded her that Danny was still sleeping.
“Give Danny a kiss for me,” Brendan whispered as he raced off to the bus with Mark. “Tell him we’re having birthday cake tonight.”
That tableau is frozen forever in my mind. It was the last moment I ever felt pure happiness.
When Danny did not wake up that morning, I crept in to his and Sara’s room and lay my hand on his little back. He was stiff and cold. He was dead. I knew immediately he had died of SIDS sometime during the night.
I cannot explain how, in a moment, life can go from blessed and joyous, to complete wrenching horror. I stood rooted to the ground, faint and chilled. I had a crazy thought that I could magically turn time back, for just a night and a day. Could go back and rush in at his first cry of the evening before; could lift Danny and carry him through time to safety. I had a brief impression that in movies, when such a terrible scene occurs, the woman always shrieks. I opened my mouth and screamed.
Schooled to artificial calm through so many years of doctoring, I could not force tears even at this nightmare beyond words. My houseguests raced upstairs at the sound.
“He’s dead.” I told them. “Danny’s dead.”
None believed me till they too touched his form but I had already hurried downstairs, to find Sara and to hold her. Sara too, found this impossible. Our sweet baby could not be dead.
She demanded to see him and so we took Sara up to see, with her own wet eyes, the beloved brother lying still and rigid in his little crib. I called the police and the ambulance, my actions as stiff and frozen as my little boy, Danny, who lay upstairs.
A parade of people came next. An ambulance with sirens, too late, hours too late for Danny. Then my husband appeared– who had told him? One of our houseguests had called Mark, telling him only that he must come home right now. He tried to drive himself home from work but missed the last curve in his terror, plowing the van into the big leaf maple tree at the top of the lane.
Mark staggered in and I let myself cry at last. Guilty tears, “if only” tears, tears of despair. The sheriff came next; a death outside the hospital must be investigated to be sure no foul play was involved. I never even saw the sheriff’s face. My sobs racked me and I could not lift my face off Mark’s lap as the sheriff spoke soothing words of useless, kind, phrases. Only the sheriff’s boots, gray alligator boots with a silver tip, all I saw of that discussion, all I remember.
Then worst of all, the school day was over and who would meet Brendan at the bus stop? Brendan on his birthday; Brendan waiting to come home and kiss his baby brother, Danny.
Mark did the hard task; they walked down the long lane together. Brendan thought it a bad joke at first. Mark was a practical joker, surely, Brendan told me later, and surely, this was some terrible joke.
Sara met them at the door, three years old and struggling with such strange goings on, so much crying from her parents. “Emergency!” she announced to Brendan as she opened the front door. “Emergency! The baby’s dead.”
What can I tell you about grief? Such words are beyond me. A day passes and then another. And that is the only truth I know. Worse still, if such a thing is possible, was the suffering of our surviving children.
Anger is part of grief. I was bitter at anyone who had not lost a child, anyone who had not suffered. How could people work, or eat, or laugh? I have learned grief is ugly. I was irritable, unreasonable, and, at times, impossible. Going through grief takes such enormous sums of energy, there is nothing left over.
Mark handled his grief by throwing himself into work. Brendan woke up each night and checked on all of us to be sure we were there, safe and breathing. I was like a wild animal in a small cage, pacing and fretting. In my agony, I was given to fits of restlessness and long walks.
Sara, direct as usual, approached her grief by asking strangers for their baby. In grocery stores, I still hear her calling. “Hey, lady, our baby is dead. Can we have yours?”
That bitter summer passed. The children were still anxious and afraid to be away from me for even an hour or two. They knew death could strike anyone; death was not just for the old but for the young as well. I talked to them as we pulled the onions and carrots from the ground, as we harvested apples from the laden trees. Gradually, very gradually, they began to relax. Brendan and Sara had the gift of children. They could talk of grief and then they could put it away for a time. The laughed and chased each other in the orchard. What a balm it was to hear them but what a sorrow too. Danny should be here as well; crawling through the tall grass, pulling himself up by the rough bark of a tree.
It was time for Brendan to start back to school. We had pulled him out those last few school days of summer after his birthday, after Danny’ death. It was hard for him at first. Teachers and friends who had not heard the sad news asked after Danny and I helped Brendan learn how to answer and how to get through those first tough days.
We managed. We even, in spite of ourselves, got better. Not a day went by when I didn’t think of Danny, but I began to smile again. Though always, when I smiled I thought: Look, I’m not thinking about Danny. There was nowhere to run from sadness, no desire either– particularly if escape meant forgetting anything about Danny.
And autumn came with tall trees lamenting their dead leaves.
We began to think of our old plans for a large family. Our courage had been drained by grief. Were we tempting fate to hope for more happiness?
An unexpected phone call forced us to make a choice in earnest. Our adoption agency, World Association for Parents and Children, called us with a surprise. An agency they were linked with wanted to work with us. There was a baby girl, were we interested?
Our adoption social worker came out to the house several times to meet with us. Surprisingly, she did not think we were crazy to adopt six months after losing Danny. Somehow, she stayed and worked with us. Our hearts opened up; we found the nerve to look forward. Humor has always been a salvation and, more and more, laughter kept creeping into our lives. Brendan and Sara had long ago returned to hilarity. Karen, our social worker, saw this as a mark of healing. She spoke with the kids at length and us again. Finally, we took a deep breath and nodded yes. Karen agreed.
Our second daughter was born in Georgia. Her birth mother had made an adoption plan and our family was a good fit. Our agency continued to support us with classes and counseling.
November came with powerful storms; we were often without electricity. Brendan and Sara loved when the lights went out, it meant hours in front of the fire talking to mom or dad, songs, and long nights huddled together in sleeping bags and under piles of blankets. We lost power three times that month, once for three days straight. These nights always caused Brendan to ponder, to worry about Danny in the cold, dark ground, away from his family.
“We could,” Sara would raise a chubby first finger. “We could take him some blankets.” She looked at me. “I mean the ones we don’t care about getting dirty.”
I am sorry but this is how children handle grief, how we should handle grief. We talked.
Talk would turn to the new baby. “Will she love us?” Brendan asked. “Will she let me hold her like I did Danny?”
Sara, my child of brutal honesty, wondered. “Will she die like Danny?”
We all wondered. Nevertheless, we all felt that seed of love growing toward a little girl we hadn’t even met. We felt excitement and a strange budding joy. We felt hope.
At Thanksgiving, we argued about names for our little girl. We looked around the table and saw those who still lived, still laughed, and still loved. Our grief was not less but despair had been beaten back a while. There were tears around the table but also a new name: Emma Rose.
As Christmas approached, we set up two Christmas trees. One, a tall Noble Fir from the western meadow sat in splendor in the living room. The other, a delicate hemlock, graced the playroom. We decked the Fir with our usual hodgepodge of decorations, old family ornaments, popcorn strings, and bright construction paper chains.
On Danny’s tree, the gentle Hemlock, we placed angels, and tissue paper snowflakes, and paper messages of love. Sara could not write yet; she made drawing after drawing of baby Danny, crooked hearts, and smiling big sisters. Brendan wrote secret messages to Danny, tied them tightly with ribbon and bound them to the tree. Like a Tibetan prayer wheel, a Mani wheel, Brendan spun the messages every time he walked by the tree. Each of us had a good cry under that tree, sometimes alone, sometimes on each other’s shoulders.
We had much happiness as well. Emma Rose was coming soon and we had to prepare for her. New soft sheets, and a bright yellow quilt Sara had picked out graced the old crib. I would often find Sara in her room, gazing into the empty crib, a quiet smile on her face. “I miss Danny,” she told me one morning. “But I want to give the new baby loving.”
There was no snow that December and I was glad of it when we headed to the airport one midnight just before Christmas to meet our new daughter. Mark and I were quiet on the ride there and as we waited for the plane to touch down. I was terrified and elated at the same time. I felt the same sensation I have subsequently had each time we have adopted or given birth. What in the world are we doing? What kind of parents will we be? Is it too late to run away?
I now know such thoughts are laughable but at that late moment in that quiet airport, I was frightened. Looking over at my husband’s face, I could see similar feelings chase across his features.
In a moment’s time, it seemed, the plane was there and a beautiful baby lay in my arms. Emma Rose’s escort pleaded exhaustion at such a late hour and headed off to a hotel in preparation for leaving early the next morning. Other weary travelers scurried by till the airport felt abandoned by all but us three. It was a moment of enchantment; I was almost afraid to breath for fear of breaking the spell.
Three-month-old Emma Rose had a big toothless grin and fat dimpled cheeks. Her little fingers grabbed my thumb and held on tight. With my other hand, I touched her soft curly dark hair. Here was our daughter. Both Mark and I stood there with our jaws hanging open and goofy grins on our face. An older woman walked by, I heard her heels clicking noisily on the linoleum floor. She paused and peeked down at our baby. “Isn’t she the cutest thing?” She looked at both Mark and me. “She looks like a little Christmas angel, doesn’t she?” I could only nod mutely.
As we drove through the dark night to home, I sat in the back with Emma Rose where she was safely snuggled into a bulky car seat. She was still holding my finger and her big brown eyes were looking everywhere. Mark had put the on radio to lull her to sleep and Christmas carols were playing. I sang along softly to ‘Silent Night’ and felt close to tears with the power of this evening’s events. As I sang, Emma Rose cocked her head at me and squinted, her lips pushed together and I halted, certain she was about to cry. Why wouldn’t she? Here she was, coming across the whole country into the arms of strangers, driven through the dark night—where was the foster mother she knew? Where were the familiar sights and sounds of her foster home? She opened her mouth wide and began—to laugh. After a moment’s startle, Mark and I join in, three crazy people driving through the night, chortling. It was at that moment, on that dark, December road that we claimed our daughter and she claimed us.
Brendan and Sara met their sister the next morning. Emma Rose squealed, kicked, and yanked on their hair. They were both promptly in love with her.
On Christmas morning, Brendan supervised Sara as they opened their presents. “Open them slowly,” he cautioned her. “Mom and Dad like to watch us.”
Emma was hurling fistfuls of bright wrapping paper into the air and laughing. She was not yet able to roll over and kept craning her head around to watch the two other children. Brendan kept repositioning her so she could keep an eye on the action. He tickled her tummy each time sending her into new paroxysms of chuckles.
Emma Rose was wiggling so vigorously that she popped herself in the eye. Her whole face crumbled in shock and she burst into loud wails. I grabbed her up to comfort her and she gradually subsided into soft whimpers.
Sara ran over to give the baby kisses, which somehow only infuriated Emma Rose more. Fresh howls filled the room.
Suddenly Brendan was there holding an ill wrapped present. He held it out asking, “Should I open it for her?”
Emma quieted at the distraction and watched him intently. He carefully opened the package and handed her a soft white blanket—Danny’s old blanket. “So she knows him,” He explained at my questioning gaze. “Because she might not remember him like we do.”
“Hey,” Sara had wandered over. “Hey, that was Danny’s.” She touched Brendan’s back. “You are a smart big boy,” She complimented him.
The blanket was already in Emma Rose’s mouth and her usual grin had returned. Emma had a pile of new presents as well but none have remained with her like that old worn blanket. It rests on her bed today.
Emma Rose is now twelve and a big sister herself, four times over. Her laugh has never changed nor has our love for her. She often pauses on the stairs to look over the many pictures of her brothers and sisters hanging there. Sometimes I catch her touching Danny’s picture, the one where he is gazing out from his little chair, his red hair standing straight up like Skeezix, and a sweet grin on his face.
“Hey, big brother,” I’ve heard Emma Rose whisper. “I miss you.” She, like five of her siblings, has never met him, but Danny will always be a part of their lives.
Brendan is a man now, as gentle and thoughtful as he was those difficult days. He is also, the kindest big brother I have ever known. Sara, almost a young woman, remains as truthful and forthright as she was as a little girl.
Danny’s life will always be a treasure in my heart; his death will always be a most hard and bitter grief. Yet Emma Rose’s arrival that Christmas many years ago was an offering beyond measure. That holiday season saw tears and sadness but also healing and hope. There can be no greater gift.