Eleven days after Julian’s birth, when I was still in those waning throes of the so-called Baby Blues, I sat down in a rocking chair to eat some yogurt and check Facebook while my newborn son pawed absently at the air on the bed next to me. This was a customary scene. I remember that the sun was actually out for once, if half-heartedly, and I’d flung open our thick red curtains so December-born Julian could understand that Oregon was not a land of perpetual night.
But if I was feeling good that morning, the sensation was soon replaced by growing dread when I saw my sister-in-law’s status: “Hugging my little ones a little tighter today. Can’t imagine what the parents are going through right now. Praying for all of the families that have been affected by this tragedy.”
Even though I immediately felt a sense of I don’t want to know, I somehow found myself on Google, reading a headline about dozens of elementary school CHILDREN being gunned down.
“Oh my God.” I cried out and flung the iPad away from me, as if burned. And that’s not just an offhand simile; I felt physical pain reading those words. They leapt from the screen and pierced me.
I didn’t even try to read beyond the headline – it would be days, in fact, before I allowed myself to glean the whole story. I just crawled onto the bed next to Julian and held him close to me, my lips against his warm fuzzy head, and tried not to think of those parents, who had cuddled with their babies like I was doing in that moment. If they were once me, I could be them. And that was not something I felt capable of facing, then or now.
That was Sandy Hook.
This week I encountered the nightmarish horrors of Dr. Kermit Gosnell, not through the news – I’d been unabashedly avoiding the news since the whole birth control mandate debacle early in my pregnancy – but through social media. Wanting to be an informed citizen, especially about issues concerning women and children, I tried, I really tried to read the article from The Atlantic, but again, I couldn’t make it past the first few words without feeling assaulted, without wanting to be sick. This time I wasn’t at home, where I could sedate myself on baby-love and shut out the world. I was in my office, alone, and so I just sat at my desk and cried.
And now Boston.
I have a recurring fantasy that involves me running a marathon – or a half-marathon, if I’m being more honest with myself – and having Michael and Julian at the finish line waiting for me. This is not a recent fantasy; I’ve had it for years, before Julian even existed, and there was just a cute, nameless baby in Michael’s arms. This image spurred me on when I ran my first (and only) half-marathon in New Orleans in 2011. There’s something about running for someone and towards someone.
I’ve been dodging news stories again, but I know that an 8 year-old boy was killed today in Boston. He was at the finish line. He was waiting for someone. And someone was running for him, toward him. And now that someone will keep running that race, she’ll forever be reaching for the line where he’s waiting to collapse against her in a sweaty hug. But she’ll never get there. She’ll be running for the rest of her life.
This is what it is to be a parent, to live always on the brink of grief.
And that’s just if you’re one of the lucky ones who get to linger on that edge, if you’re not plunged into the abyss entirely when the worst happens.
Never before have tragedies struck so near and cut so deeply.
On the one hand this might be a good thing. Violence is more abhorrent, more intolerable, to me than ever. It’s too easy for me to see Julian’s face when I hear of someone, especially a child, being victimized.
HOWEVER. The thought of my baby being harmed by another person takes me to a violent place immediately. A place where I would murder to protect him, no question. I know I should be a pacifist, and I want to be a pacifist, but I also know that I would kill to keep my child safe.
You may have heard about the “trolley problem” – a nifty thought experiment that forces you to consider whether you would sacrifice a life that is dear to you in order to save the lives of many others. This used to be an interesting philosophical problem to mull over; now there is no mystery. My heartfelt apologies to anyone on that imaginary trolley, but I would save my son. Always, always, I would choose to save my son.
A couple of weeks ago I attended part of a writers conference, and one of the keynote speakers discussed Kierkegaard’s reading of the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac. I missed about 80% of his talk, because I was off pumping breast milk, but I caught the tail end, and I was surprised at my distasteful reaction to the biblical story itself. The story was hardly new to me, having grown up in a Christian home, but sitting there in the audience, missing my infant son, my breasts newly emptied of milk for him, I felt utterly disgusted by both Abraham and God. What a sick, twisted test of faith.
I know one thing: that would not have been me up on the mountain, knife raised high. I would have called God’s bluff from the start. And, if need be, I would have turned my back on him. That might make me a terrible Christian, but I don’t even feel like I’d have a choice in the matter. Motherlove is in my veins, and the force of it is as overpowering as God must have seemed to Abraham. This Motherlove is ruthless and all-consuming, in an Old Testament kind of way.
All that to say, I have been changed. Not that I used to be uncaring or calloused before, or that I did not love incredibly deeply – I wasn’t, and I did. But I am wounded now in a way that I have never been.
Being a mother is like living with your heart outside of your chest. You have tethered it to another impossibly fragile life, and there is a wound leftover, a hole that will never heal.
* * *
I am only four months in. My son, who hasn’t quite mastered rolling over yet (so close!), is probably safer now than he will ever be. But already I’m wondering: how can I live like this, under the threat of such incomprehensible pain, without it swallowing me whole?
Sometimes in the depth of night, Julian stirs, begins to cry himself awake, and I put my hand on his chest to calm him back into sleep. My hand easily covers his torso, and I can feel his tiny heart against my palm, fluttering like a hummingbird. Not so long ago, this heart was beating inside me; our twin organs shared both body and blood. Now I swear I can feel both hearts there, beneath his matchstick ribs. Mine echoes in the beats between his, a desperate murmur, a plea: don’t stop, don’t stop, don’t stop, don’t stop…