This is an excerpt from Crossing the River: Seven Stories That Saved My Life, a Memoir (Abrams Press, 2021), by Carol Smith
I did not go to my son Christopher’s school the day the nurse came to speak. Instead, I lay fetal-like on his bed, my face pressed to his sheets. The trace scents of crayons and Band-Aids, mud and baseball leather, kept me breathing. I squeezed my eyes shut. Images clicked by like a reel in his View-Master:
Christopher, riding a therapy horse, showing off his “tricks,” his arms sticking straight out, his head thrown back, laughing.
Christopher, hiding rocks and shells under his bed, the found treasures of a seven-year-old.
Or Christopher, nestled next to me on the bed as we read books together in sign language.
Sweet, Painful Memories
“Again, story,” he would sign, tapping the fingertips of one hand into the palm of the other, then drawing his hands apart like he was pulling taffy. I’d laugh, knowing this was a tactic to avoid the dreaded bedtime, and turn back to the beginning.
We’d spied this bed together early one Sunday morning as we wandered the Rose Bowl flea market in Pasadena, near where we lived. Both of us had fallen for its vintage pine headboard, festooned with fading decals of saddles and spurs. Sometimes he drifted to sleep in blue pajamas with comets on them, still wearing his red cowboy hat. The bed was his steed and his rocket ship. Now I clung to it for fear of drowning.
It was the first day after winter break, and overcast, the sun locked behind a scrim of gray. Fifteen miles away at George Washington Elementary School in Burbank, my friend Kathy, the mother of one of Christopher’s best friends, stood in front of their first-grade class. A pediatric nurse, she’d dealt with young children on cancer wards. Her wide smile and warm voice would have been steady and reassuring.
Sharing the News
I could picture her signing as she spoke, by habit as the mother of a deaf child herself, and because many of the children were deaf like Christopher. I’d left my newspaper job in Seattle to move to Pasadena when Christopher was four years old, partly so he could go to this school with its side-by-side teaching in oral and sign traditions. Hearing children in the classroom learned to sign. Deaf children learned to read lips and use their voices. Together, they made a seamless language of childhood.
The children would have fidgeted in their blue-and-red school uniforms as a clutch of adults hovered around the edges of the classroom. They must have thought it strange to see so many grown-up faces in this space for play and learning. Along with Kathy, their principal was there, as well as the director of the preschool many of the students had attended the previous year, and both their teachers. The teachers’ eyes were red from crying. In the middle, Christopher’s small wooden desk sat empty.
I asked Kathy later to tell me what happened next. A man the children didn’t know held up a Raggedy Andy doll. Kathy asked the class what they observed about it.
The children pointed out his red yarn hair and triangle nose, his sailor hat and embroidered heart. The man put the doll out of sight.
“Even though Raggedy Andy isn’t here anymore, can you still remember things about him?” Kathy asked.
How Child-Loss Feels
The game excited the kids. They shouted out the various adventures of Raggedy Andy and Raggedy Ann from memory. Then one of the adults—Kathy no longer remembers which—stepped forward to break the news. Something very sad had happened. The children quieted. Christopher had gotten sick and wouldn’t be coming back to school. Doctors couldn’t help him anymore.
Christopher died. The bed beneath me seemed to pitch and rock. I clutched my knees to my chest to keep from throwing up. I could not grasp the words. Each time I tried, they shattered into piles of letters like a child’s alphabet puzzle spilled to the floor.
I’d feared these words for seven years. Christopher was born with a tiny developmental defect in utero that had blocked his bladder, critically damaging his kidneys. That seemingly insignificant error set in motion a kind of butterfly effect, a cascade of medical sequelae we later could not escape.
Yet he had survived. Against odds, medical crisis after medical crisis. Until now. Until this. An abdominal obstruction that unexpectedly claimed his life during the Christmas holidays while he was visiting his grandparents with his father. I could not forgive myself for failing at the only thing that mattered. I had survived. Christopher had not.
And I wasn’t there to say goodbye.
‘Fugue of Grief’
In my fugue of grief, I could barely leave the house. Kathy had volunteered to help tell his class, sparing me the impossible task. I’d drawn comfort and reassurance from her friendship in the years after I’d moved to LA. Her son, Daniel, was slightly older than Christopher and had become my guide to what lay ahead for deaf children in a hearing world.
She told the kids they could still talk about Christopher, about how he wore a Lion King costume for Halloween that year, how his eyes were the golden brown of maple syrup, how he loved trains. She asked the class to write down their Christopher stories.
Weeks later, I received their brief memories, printed with crooked block letters on lined paper, illustrated with hearts and stars and stick-figure children with oversized hands.
“He was my best friend,” read one. “He played tetherball with me.”
“When I hurt my knee, he got me a Band-Aid,” read another.
Some were written with the curious syntax of a deaf child: “Chris heaven go.” In some of them, Christopher hovered in the right-hand corner of a bright blue sky.
Grief is a Harsh Landscape
I envied them the comfort of these small tales. I had no language for stories, no words at all. Even the simplest statements didn’t make sense anymore. Christopher is my son. Christopher was my son. I couldn’t make either be true. I couldn’t read the map to find my way out of the vast, harsh landscape of my grief. The void of his loss was as indescribable as the darkness between stars.
The dictionary offers little help when it comes to grieving. There is no word for bottomless well or unanswered prayer, no word in English, like “orphan” or “widow,” for a parent who has lost a child. In Sanskrit, vilomah means “against the natural order.” Portuguese has saudade, an untranslatable word that describes a deep longing for a person who will never return. In Spanish, madrugada is the word for the ineffable dark between midnight and dawn. But what noun did any of those make me?
In the weeks and months after Christopher died, people stepped in to help. One of my old colleagues from the paper wrote Christopher’s obituary when I couldn’t. Other friends advised me to move home to Seattle to be near family. But that would mean packing up his room, and I could not bring myself to give his things away.
Soothing the Separation
When Christopher was little, I would sometimes discover my watch missing, usually when I’d been getting ready to leave for an errand or for work. I’d find the watch later, tucked into one of his many secret compartments for hiding schoolyard finds. Psychologists would have called this a “linking object,” something to soothe the separation.
Now it was my turn to need a linking object. But what single, magic talisman could conjure Christopher back for me? I clung to them all—his windup dinosaurs and Slinky, his Batman Band-Aids and his red fanny pack with the blue asthma inhaler, his beloved View-Master.
Instead of packing, I cleaned his room the way I would when he left for school breaks with his father, my ex-husband. I threw out the dried-up Magic Markers, boxed the outgrown clothes and toys for recycling, tidied up the art supplies, and gathered the ephemera of a seven-year-old’s life for his scrapbook. After folding his clothes, I put them in his closet, turned the calendar, and stacked his homework. I sorted puzzle pieces into their proper boxes and spent time playing with the things he’d been outgrowing—my ritual for remembering the stages he was passing through.
The Paradox of Grief
Afterward, the room felt ready, ordered, welcoming. That made it worse. I craved the happy swirl of his energy when he’d come rushing home and the ensuing disarray. I missed the lumpy piles of clothes and endless rearranging of toy train tracks that threaded through the room. His unchanging room taunted me with the truth of his absence.
This is the paradox of grief. At first, I could not bear the thought of moving. Later, I could not bear to stay.
Purchase a copy of Crossing the River: Seven Stories That Saved My Life, a Memoir (Abrams Press, 2021)
Read more by Carol Smith: Hope Can Be Learned – Open to Hope