My kids always seem to have a knack of knowing when important dates are coming up. They are too young to use calendars, so they don’t usually recognize when something is about to happen. But somehow, in the past six months, they’ve known when a big event is on the horizon. Maybe that’s because I become anxious, and they can feel it in the air.
Father’s Day was like this. The kids didn’t know exactly when it was, but they seemed to be just a little more on edge in the days leading up to it. And so, I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when they were totally wild last night.
Because as many of you know, today would be Shawn’s 41st birthday.
I actually told them last night that we’d be having a few friends over to celebrate Dad’s birthday. They seemed generally excited, and Claire said, “great! Finally, a party. We never have parties anymore.”
She’s not totally wrong. Compared to our “party every weekend” mindset we had for much of our marriage, the past six months has been pretty devoid of gatherings. I’m not quite sure why. I love having people in the house, even when I’m sad, and it’s certainly fun for my kids. But it’s just that the entire process of having a party seems too overwhelming when I think about it, and so I just don’t do it.
In any case, Claire was super happy that she’d at least get to see a couple of her old friends. The boys seemed delighted as well, and I thought that maybe celebrating their Dad would turn out to be a great plan.
But then everything went downhill.
It started with a fight over the covers at bedtime. Austin and Tommy have bunk beds, but they both sleep in the same twin bed on the bottom bunk. They’ve done this for a few years, and Tommy has a really hard time sleeping when Austin isn’t there. Tonight, Austin was trying to steal all of the covers, and Tommy wasn’t having it. I tried reasoning with Austin, which didn’t work, and I tried demanding that he share the covers, which also didn’t work. I started to really lay into Austin about being nice to his brother and so he threw the covers off of himself and climbed on to the top bunk. Tommy started to cry and then Claire started to whine that everyone was making it impossible for me to read to her.
I eventually got the boys settled and I went to Claire’s room to read to her, which went fine for about five minutes until Tommy came in crying. “Austin says that Bloody Mary is in my bed!” he shrieked. (Bloody Mary is a game from my childhood. Many years ago I stupidly taught the kids about it and now they are terrified by this potential ghost.) I tried to console Tommy, but just then Claire started whining about not wanting to go to camp the next day.
I moved everyone into the boys’ room where I tried to read to Claire while also sitting with both boys, who had decided to sleep in the same bed once again. The entire time, Austin kept pushing me, ever so slightly, with his foot. “Stop,” I said to him, repeatedly.
Claire was frustrated. “Why can’t the boys let you read to me?” she whined. “And why do we have to go to camp tomorrow?”
“Ya,” Austin chimed in, “I don’t want to go to camp.”
Austin kept pushing me with his toes. “What is the deal?” I finally asked him, with more than a little anger in my voice.
He shrunk back down into the covers. He knew he’d pushed me a little too far. “I just want to go to the cemetery with you tomorrow,” he said in a small voice.
Shit. I hadn’t even thought about whether I was going to do that. “Okay baby,” I said. “Let’s just see what I feel like tomorrow. Maybe we can do that, or maybe we’ll do it another day.”
No one wanted me to leave them. So I snuggled in with the boys’ legs on top of me and Claire in the crook of my arm and read a book about a family of witches who owns a bakery.
As I was reading to them, I had a moment where I recognized my own anxiety that had been particularly bad all day. That morning, I had woken up with a start, not sure why I was feeling so out-of-sorts. It took almost an hour before I realized that it was the day before Shawn’s birthday. I didn’t really know what to do with how I was feeling, so I just kept moving. I was still reeling from being really sick, but I didn’t let myself sit down all day – or at least not until the moment when I was reading to the kids.
It’s really strange to feel anxiety when I’m cuddled up in bed with all three kids. I never felt anxious at bedtime before Shawn died. Annoyed or tired, certainly, but not anxious. If I was a therapist, I’d probably recommend cuddling up with kids to make anxiety diminish. But for some reason, it didn’t help last night. I think it was because I could feel their anxiety too, or at least I could feel the unsettled feeling that they were clearly experiencing.
We fell asleep curled up together on that one single bed. I eventually moved everyone to a good sleeping spot, and I fell asleep in my own bed.
I dreamed of Shawn. That doesn’t actually happen much. I dreamed that he was alive, and that actually in the past six months, he had been hidden by some strange villain, his death faked and our family tricked at the hospital and funeral home.
But then I woke up alone, and the reality hit me.
In fact, the reality actually physically hit me in the form of Tommy shaking me awake in my bed. “I want oatmeal!” he cried.
My kids have a way of both horrifying me and making me carry on with my life. It’s like in one instant they can be the worst reminder of what I’ve lost and the best reminder of why I carry on.
They were oddly quiet in the morning. I told them that I was planning on going out to the cemetery while they were in camp, and Austin immediately decided he wanted to go too. He loves the cemetery. “I want to go too,” I heard Claire say softly across the room.
Claire hasn’t been to the cemetery since the day Shawn was buried there.
“Really?” I asked her.
“Yes,” she said, “but….I’m scared too.”
“I get that,” I said, “and you know you don’t have to go.”
“I know,” she said, “but….I think I want to go.”
We talked for a bit longer about what it would be like to go to the cemetery. I told her that Dad’s grave isn’t open anymore, that there is dirt over the grave and grass growing there. I told her what the gravestone looks like and how the whole place looks more like a park. She listened very closely.
“The last time we went,” Claire said, “it was so terrible. You were breathing so fast and looking at the grave.” She imitated what it was like to watch me almost hyperventilate when the casket was lowered into the ground. “It was scary, mom.”
God. I hadn’t really remembered that. I remember feeling like I was going to pass out, and barely being able to hold on to my children. I remember watching the casket lower into the ground. But I don’t remember breathing like that, and I don’t remember it scaring my children, though it obviously did.
“That was a really sad moment for me, Claire,” I told her. “But I’m not like that anymore when I go to the cemetery. I feel peaceful instead.”
“Okay,” she said, looking me right in the eyes, “then I want to go.”
And so, at lunch today, I’m picking Claire and Austin up from camp and we are going to drive out to the cemetery. I have no idea how it’s going to go. I told Claire that if she gets there and doesn’t want to get out of the car, she doesn’t have to.
Maybe we should have waited for a different day to go to the cemetery. But maybe not. As with everything I’m doing these days, I don’t know what the right answer is.
I do know that we’re getting in the car in just a few minutes, and going to a place where the air is still and the geese run wild and my husband’s name is etched on a stone in the ground. I hope we are also going to a place that will finally bring my daughter some peace.