Sixteen years ago today I had a baby and now she’s gone. I don’t know what’s real anymore.
It’s not unlike the feeling I had during Ana’s first six weeks of life when she made the rules. Nothing was linear. It felt surreal then too — how I had to fit my life around this new person’s schedule, how she didn’t know anything – not one single thing – except that she wanted me to hold her.
Before Ana, I never dreamed I’d embrace my identity as a mother so fully. I thought I’d always be distinctly me. I didn’t understand how completely I would love her, more than I’ve ever loved myself. I fell into all of it — the baby things, the birthday parties, the unrelenting pride in her accomplishments from her first step to her first guitar solo. She became my purpose.
I became more than one person, celebrating her successes as though they were my own. I despaired when she despaired. The only time I’ve ever longed to be a millionaire was when Ana wanted to travel and we couldn’t afford it. I understand how people can get lost in their children’s lives because that’s exactly what happened to me. The girls – they’re everything. They changed my world, becoming the central theme of my identity as a person.
I’m not saying it’s entirely healthy…disappearing beneath a cloak of all-consuming motherhood has been a distraction, allowing me to put off doing things that I’ve always wanted to do. It’s a happy kind of self-neglect when you can focus on your kids. I don’t regret it. Emily will grow up soon enough and then where will I be?
Ana was diagnosed four months after she turned eleven and my purpose recalibrated itself to keeping her comfortable, keeping her alive. She needed me with her all the time. I spent days sleeping at her bedside in the hospital. I reshaped my life around her treatment and care, just the way I had when she was a baby. I used to make the mistake of talking about her illness as though it were mine too. “We were admitted to the hospital in September. We started this medication a few weeks ago. We were up all night with stomach pain…”
Now that she’s gone, my focus is shattered. I’m feeling a kind of spiritual vertigo. How can we have hundreds of photos and videos of Ana when she’s not here? It’s especially jarring when I come across a photo I haven’t seen before. I saw this one on Instagram yesterday (thanks for this, Laila).
For an instant, she seems real again and I’m suddenly whole. But then I remember Ana’s truth is also my truth. She’s gone. I’m broken.
I think that’s why they say losing a child is the worst kind of grief that anyone can suffer. Because when your child dies, a part of you dies with her. It’s not something I will ever get over. My main hope, at this point, is that I’ll get used to it, the way someone adapts to losing a limb. The echoes of Ana that I see in photos and videos are presented out of order and this somehow adds to my loss. Even though that wide-eyed baby has been gone for a long time, I suddenly miss her as though she were just here.
Today is the first May 16th without Ana since she was born 16 years ago. I have to decide whether she’ll stay frozen in my memory at the age of 15, or whether I can imagine her getting older — Ana at 16, 18, 37 — and I think I want to do the latter.
So today, wherever she is, Ana turns 16. She’s gotten a little taller. Her hair has grown to her shoulder blades, longer than it’s been in years. She has a new tattoo on her right hip — a tiny hummingbird and she’s looking forward to summer vacation. In my mind, she’s just blown out 17 candles because…one for good luck. Happy birthday, sweetie. I love you so much.