Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Death and Children

There's a quote I don't particularly like, but it does concisely relate how I feel about the vulnerability of children: "To become a mother is to forever have your heart walking around outside your body."

I know several people online who have lost their children to death. Somehow, they got up the next morning, continued to feed themselves, continued to breathe. Some had other children before the death; some went on to conceive the siblings after the fact. In any case I am always humbled by the strength of their humanity, supremely grateful for them that they still have children to love in the here and now.

Every new parent who actually bonds with their child knows a fear of loss. Entrusted with this new life, this entirely helpless, squirming bundle for whom you've been overwhelmed with love, most of us have elaborate fantasies about how we will protect them from all comers. Modern consumer society is happy to oblige this instinct, selling parents everything from car seats to outlet covers to crawling-baby kneepads. Some are useful and reasonable, most are just an elixir one can purchase to buy off that feeling of NEED. If we buy enough protective gear, then maybe that pit of fear will go away. We can protect them! We can keep them safe and with us!

Most parents get over this in time. Every woman has a benchmark: "she's past the age of SIDS now," or "he's three, he can eat popcorn safely now." They grow beyond the need to take the baby to the bathroom with them, and the parent-child bond reaches a more manageable level. I make great fun of "first time Moms" because I was a classic example of the hyper protective, freaked out Mommy. I would use a stroller in the mall for my first daughter, when I wore a sling everywhere else, because I could put her carseat in it and make this hermetically sealed baby bubble by drawing closed both sun shades, shielding her from strangers' eyes and germs. By the time we had our third child, he never even got to use the travel system; who had time to navigate all that equipment?

The truth is, however, there is a big part of my heart still trapped in first-Mommy mode. We all know how horrible it must be to lose a child. We all know that our days are not promised to us. We all say we can not even imagine the heartache.... but frankly, I think I can. My daughter was 13 months old when she had her first anaphylactic reaction to peanuts. She was 18 months old when her allergist told me her IgE count was unusually elevated, even for his office. "This is one very allergic little girl," he said to us. But I was already well on my way to trusting the child, trusting life to take care of itself. He knew I wasn't understanding him. When someone looks you in the eye and tells you deliberately, "Listen to me. She will die if you don't keep these substances away from her," life pauses. Time stops. He got our attention. He changed my life.

Since then, her general health has improved to the point where she's probably healthier than most of her peers. While she still reacts to things, she hasn't had an anaphylactic reaction since she was three. It's easy to become complacent when her allergies only manifest anymore as the stuffy nose that so many of us walk around sporting. To look at her, to see her life and how easily she navigates our world, most people have no clue. She looks like a flourishing little girl with a nose-picking habit. I am both grateful and proud (for the flourishing part, anyway.) But sometime, at some point during nearly every day of my life, I feel that chill. This is something I do pray for: please let my children outlive me. please.

In my home community, the general attitude regarding food allergies isn't very accomodating. "Just don't eat it!" or "YOU need to keep her HOME if she's that sensitive," were the prevailing sentiments. They either didn't get it, or more likely, they truly didn't care. For us, with our awareness of a new layer of cruelty in the world, it wasn't until she was six that we started to relax out of that first-parent fear a bit: "She's old enough to say she's allergic. She's old enough to ask about it, to say no." Even now, I know she's not old enough to discern whether people are wrong, though, and it dismays me every time I have to correct an adult who has told my child to eat something that would harm her. Every time, I think about what would have happened had I not been there. Every time, I get nauseous and realize that my experience as a mother, our experience as parents, is different from most others'. They can't understand and they never will.

Nathan was seven this year when he died. Quinn would have turned seven this October. Their mothers know what it is to lose that greatest privilege and joy. Yet they're still breathing. They're still mothering. I wonder whether they resent their courage and the admiration they receive; because to them, those qualities are not a result of anything they have chosen for their families. They are coping with something they hate. I care for these women, I grieve with them. But just the fact they exist proves these things happen. The idea that our children were born the same time just pierces me. Death does come for children, and the obnoxious reality is that for some of us the odds are higher than others. All I can do is outwardly ignore the possibility and take comfort that we're doing the best we can. So is G.

My focus has shifted from protecto-mode to life mode. The allergy doesn't manage us anymore, we manage it. It's taken me years to get here, and I remind myself to take each moment into my heart. It's her life, and I gave it to her to live it.


  1. I don't know what to say. Thank you, and you put it so well.

    Also, this post just today came up in my rss feed reader, but is dated Oct 30th. Not sure if it's relevant but I thought I'd tell you.

  2. Hi...
    we don't know each other, but i'm affected daily by the death of a child; but the odd thing is that i never had the opportunity to meet her. so when i shouldered my way into the family, i found myself grieving for this beautiful little girl that i never had the chance to know. talk about disconnected...
    p.s. you're an incredible writer.

  3. Thank you Scotty, for your kind words. I didn't let this post surface for a while after I wrote it for fear of hurting those Mommy friends.

    I think I know about the little girl you talk about. She is one of the little ones I referenced. Her mom was inspiring to me when I first started homeschooling. What was to follow just shook me to the core. Her mom still inspires me, just in even more ways.