The smell of vanilla cake hangs in the warm air. Colored sprinkles are on the floor throughout the kitchen. Balloons shine in the afternoon sun at the corner of every doorway. A cardboard birthday banner with the Avengers is strung across the dining room. Recently, my middle-born son turned three. He is a spunky, stubborn, friendly child who loves all animals and all people. It seems like just days ago he was drooling on the stairway baby gate, intently cooing at the birds in our bird bath, his dimpled hands pointing through the bars. Now, overnight it seems, he is a walking, talking, opinionated little boy. Celebrating a birthday of a child naturally comes with a bit of sadness for mothers. It marks the progress of our children growing and continuing to peel away from us.
For bereaved mothers, the passing of time is even more painful because time has not included one or more of her children. One of her children is not growing and marking the milestones alongside his brothers. For our family, we were only just adjusting to the mindset of embracing Grant’s maturity because we were starting over at square one with a newborn. Then with Reece’s death, we were suddenly yanked back to our middle son being our youngest living child. Double grief and twice as deep.
Turning three brings many big transitions. G has outgrown the need for diapers even at night. He has moved from a crib into a twin size bed. He has begun to dress himself and have opinions about his clothes. He’d rather walk than ride in a stroller. He is three, the age his older brother was when we were planning to welcome a newborn. We celebrated our firtborn’s maturity because we knew we were starting all over again with another baby. At the time, Dane seemed so old and capable. Grant was not even finished nursing when we discovered I was pregnant with Reece. Having babies that were only 20 months apart cast a gloom of overwhelm on our family. From Grant’s first birthday for the next six months, we were busy rearranging our lives to make space for another person in our family.
Grant learned to walk just as we moved into our new house. Reece died and was born when Grant was 18 1/2 months old. From Reece’s death until Grant was about 2.5, I suffered from post partum depression and post traumatic stress disorder concurrently. In short, the deepest depression of my lifetime to date.
Once I received treatment for PTSD, much of the detachment I felt from life was alleviated. I was finally aware of the present again for the first time in more than a year. There are moments when I feel like I have only just awakened from April 2015. Two years of passive survival. In the time of a toddler, that is huge growth and change. There we were, sitting on a blanket in our backyard, our four year old and one year old scrunched together with us on a beautiful Spring day, Grant’s first birthday party. We had only just discovered we were going to have another baby. Even then, sitting on that blanket, clutching baby Grant, a tiny Reece seed just beginning to nestle in and grow, I was spiraling away. Now, with the passing of his third birthday, I am aware of what I lost. We are coming to the end of these baby-to-boy transitions for a final time.
It is much harder to celebrate his growth and milestones when the thick slime of “should be” is in my throat. Reece should be using this crib still. There should be dents and rub marks against his room’s walls where he has stood jumping while holding onto the railing. There should be another set of scratches and bite marks from his teething days. But he isn’t here to grow with us. When your youngest child dies, those milestones feel like a door being slammed just an inch shy of crushing your nose against the wood. As your living children grow and leave behind their babyhood, the reality of never doing this again sears your heart.
So Grant and I did what we could, coming to this place that hurt more that it was celebrated. He is always up for an adventure, something a bit risky and definitely something physical. I let him ride the crib mattress down both levels of stairs with giggles of glee. I even took a turn. Where I used to be concerned about keeping things preserved, I now feel the freedom from attachment to material things. If the mattress ripped open as we rode it down the stairs for the fifteenth time, then we did so while injecting joy into a sad moment.
As my heart ached for my missing son, I turned my face to the one that was here, his giggles spilling out like hiccups as he bumped lightly down each step. I watched him, focusing on his mop of blonde hair, his twinkling eyes, his toothy, dimpled grin. He was here. I was here. I was really really HERE, in the room, not lost inside my heart or deep inside my noisy head.
Upon his arrival at the bottom of the stairs, he jumped up, his face full of light, and begged for more. Who am I to deny one more ride to the little boy who has been waiting for me to come back to him?