“Like angels and bodhisattvas, the spirits of dead children bridge the gap between transcendent reality and everyday reality because they participate in both realms.” — Dr. Dennis Klass, “The Spiritual Lives of Bereaved Parents”
This morning I realized that there are two ways I think of Ana and, for now, both are important. One way is obvious. I think about her when I miss her, when something or someone that crosses my path (an object, an event, a place…) triggers a memory and the inevitable longing that comes with that memory.
For example, this morning I was cleaning up in the kitchen. I came across an empty prescription bottle and peeled the label off–something I’d done dozens of times over the last five years. Ana took anywhere from 3 to 7 different prescription meds per day–often multiple times per day. There were always bottles everywhere. When they were empty, I’d peel off the labels to preserve her privacy, then throw the empty bottles into the recycle bin.
Today’s medicine bottle was mine. I peeled off the label and was about to throw the bottle into the recycle bin when I remembered you can’t recycle old medicine bottles. I learned that right before Ana died because I have a list of what I can and cannot recycle stuck to my fridge. But I’d never thought to check on the medicine bottles because they’re so small and, anyway, it seemed like they could obviously be recycled, right? I remember thinking, “all these years…I’ve gotten it wrong…”
So I threw out my bottle in the regular trash and felt that sadness sink into my chest, remembering how I’d gotten it wrong, how I’d gotten so much wrong. I remembered how I gathered all of her meds the day after she died into one final box–a truckload of drugs–that a trusted someone took home to dispose of so I wouldn’t have to. They’d even peeled the labels off of each bottle, maybe 50, maybe 75… There were so many because I kept some meds for years–just in case. It must’ve taken them hours…
And I remembered how Ana took her meds day after day, trusting they would do more good than harm. I looked at the spot on the shelf where her meds used to be and cried. There’s nothing there now. I’ve kept it empty as if keeping space for her meds is a way to hold her close. But there won’t be anymore meds for Ana, of course. And so I cried because that’s when the longing hit me, as it always does. No more meds for Ana. So much pain for Ana. And in that moment of bitter despair when I felt so alone (it’s always in the mornings because Jim and Emily are late risers and I’m an early riser), I wondered if Ana were still alive, would she be awake with me right now? Would I feel less alone?
The answer was…no. She would’ve slept over someone’s house. I’d probably be on my way to pick her up, but I would still be alone in the morning as I have been for many years (once the kids reached the ages of about 8 and 11). And then something unexpected happened. I stopped thinking about missing Ana as she was, as she had been, and found myself wondering how to connect with her as she is now. I put one of her pottery pieces in the cleared off spot where her meds used to be. I’m going to put one of her crystals next to it.
I felt instantly better thinking of Ana now and not then–thinking she must be busy exploring her new reality. I recognized that I have to be patient with myself, I have to let the grief come, but I don’t have to hold onto it in order to be closer to her (easier said than done).
I remembered that yesterday a hawk swooped out of the trees as Jim, Emily and I were driving and it flew with us for a long few seconds, staying with the car. Of course Ana would have wanted to join us in that moment–we were on our way to Emily’s spring concert at High Meadow. The hawk appeared when we weren’t feeling sad, we were just driving, taking a scenic route because we were early, as usual.
The intensity of my grief passed when I was able to release the memories of Ana’s meds and the longing for them. They represented so much–hope that she would be cured, keeping her alive, managing her pain, giving me something to feel in control of in a situation where I was completely powerless. I think I collected every single bottle of medicine the day after Ana died, shoving them in a box and out of site, because they represented Ana’s life force so much. Her anti-rejection medication kept her alive for nearly five years after transplant. Her oral chemotherapy held the cancer back, allowing her to celebrate three additional birthdays. Her pain medication helped us keep her comfortable (enough) to be home at the end of her life, close to Roo, close to friends and family. But those meds weren’t Ana. They were just meds.
Ana isn’t in her room. She’s not at a friend’s house. She didn’t move up with her 10th grade class yesterday. Ana isn’t there. She isn’t here. And yet, Ana is everywhere. When I remember that, I feel less alone.