For the reading on the occasion of Harvey’s 6th birthday: Who Are You Becoming: Stories about grief over time.
This week, at six years, all the days of the week line up. Like he was born on Saturday and he died on Sunday. Like today is his birthday and tomorrow is his death day. Saturday. Sunday. 27. 28. This year. That year. Six years.
My cells remember. They remind me. Each year, early March, I wake up in a panic. Each year it takes me 3-4 days to realize what’s happening. That impending doom I suddenly feel about the upcoming weekend getaway I’ve been looking forward to for months? The way my heart accelerates and my palms sweat even before I open my eyes each morning? Oh, right. Grief Season. Early march-mid May. The Neanderthalean preservation mechanism in my helixes alights, warns me off. Impending doom, it says. It’s coming, it says. It sure was, I say back.
My cells remember. They prepared for a new baby: extra stores, milk production, bonding hormones. They didn’t stop preparing even though he never nursed or cried or opened his eyes or came home. Postpartum is one of the most intense physiological experiences in a mother’s life. So is bereavement. Put them together? My cells remember.
This year, this week, each cell filled to capacity. Each one. Stem, marrow, bone, neuron, fat, skin. They puffed me out from the inside. Saturated. Swollen. Ready to burst. But they didn’t. I couldn’t. They wouldn’t leak like my eyes did for a year after. Seeping for a year or more. Now I was full to the gills saturated. Nowhere to go. Nowhere to go but through, I used to tell myself.
In the first year, each cell burned. Each one. Once, I was in Mexico, just about 20 years ago now and I ran barefoot into the ocean, mango juice sticky down my fingers and forearms. Mala agua. Bad water. My cousin and I dove and swam and frolicked until we stung all over. The entire surface area of our bodies. Tiny, little jelly fish? That was the best we could decipher from the locals. In the first year of grief, mala agua in each one of my cells. Stinging, invisible tentacles inside. Waves of it hitting me from behind. And also fire ants of anxiety: tiny, hot legs puckering the entire surface of my skin as they skitter. And also toxic blood. Poison coursing through the canals of my body. To the rhythm of my heart. Broken but very much alive.
I was starving then, no matter how much I ate. Hollow. Deep down in my belly. Aching. Longing. The definition of need. His body. Tiny and warm and newborn and alive. Need. After awhile, it faded to “any baby”. After awhile, I stepped onto the spectrum of women who steal babies, women who lose all sense and sustenance and carry a baby doll through the park on their hip, cradle it in a baby blanket in their arms on the bench. Crazy. Like me. Like: there but for the grace, go I.
This year? Longing. Aching. Again. Renewed. For a six year old body. For sturdy. For solid. For kindergarten. For crashing into my legs before thrusting his arms around them. For Harvey. For here instead of there. For here instead of wherever.
Ash? Stardust? Carbon? Magnesium in someone else’s cells? Where did he go? I don’t know. But he’s gone. And six years later, impossibly, unbelievably: that’s okay. I accept that. But not my cells. Not in grief season. Not early March-Mid May. Not year six when the days line up. Not this week. Not okay.
But most days: okay. Most days: my cells obey. They forget. The alarm inside goes dormant. I go to work. I cook food for my family. I write stories. I track expenses. I make love to my love. I worry about things that don’t matter. You guys, I smile and I laugh and I find leagues of meaning and I sit with the suffering and and and. Most days: That’s okay. Almost all the days now: I’m okay.
They have found the DNA of each of the babies a woman carries still inside her body. Long after they have been birthed. Long after he died. It is a haunting. It is a thread. It is, as my friend told me 20 years ago, what it is. He is in me. Still. Always. Now. Then. First and six and forever.
I thought to myself that first year: this is what’s going to kill me. I didn’t think it through all the way but I meant cellularly. Grief. Genetic mutation. Stress hormones and too much booze in the years that follow. Cigarettes even. But even just grief itself. It changes us. It kills us. Even as we thrive. Even as we live. A wound that won’t heal.
They say that all of the cells in the human body are renewed every 7 years. Next year, no cell of mine will have been here with you. Put they will pass you down. They will replicate and remember. And maybe that’s part of the myth or ethos of “Time heals all wounds”. Maybe the message decreases overtime. Maybe the vibration of trauma slows in the reproduction. Maybe some of the new cells forget.
As evidenced this week: My cells forget. Except when they don’t. Then watch out. Then cancel plans. Like for writing a piece for your son’s reading. Like for doing the dishes or staying awake or not crying. Then keep your plans. But hide tears from massage clients on the table. But hide tears from happy third graders in the back seat in the last days of playing with dolls.
And then clear as a clear day. Clear as yesterday, to be exact: Return. Renewed. Through another level. Through another layer. Leaning against the flag of the newest mile marker, out of breath and relieved. This year, this week, my grief was pure. It was quiet and it was tired. I was just sad. Just sad that my baby died. That makes sense in this loss that makes none. Nothing else. Not anger or rage. Not resentment or shame. Not jealousy or fear. Just me and Harvey. Like when I look at my daughter when she’s not looking and I might die from pride and love. Like I love her like no other love in the known universe. Like there is no other love like Vesta’s and mine. Just like that. There is no squishy newborn body or sturdy now body or a body in between but there is grief for its endless absence. And there is love for its coming into being. For it being here. For this day and the next day. For Saturday and Sunday. For first and six and forever.