Early in the summer I dreamt my son was dying.
My perfect, beautiful boy. I was helpless, aware even in my subconscious that this was too much. My own desperation jolted me awake. I opened my eyes and heard myself saying, “I cannot do this.”
I blinked and looked around the dark room. My heart was pounding, my breath shallow and fast. “It’s ok,” I told myself. “It was a dream. He’s ok. He’s not sick. It was a dream.”
I looked at Chris, breathing steadily next to me, and I remembered. I woke up from a dream about my son dying to the reality that my husband is sick, that he has a terminal illness he might have passed on to our children. That is the nightmare I cannot escape.
I stared at the ceiling and told myself not to drift off for awhile or the dream would start again. I picked up my phone and tried to mindlessly scroll through social media, but my eyes were too heavy. I fell asleep and slipped back into the darkness.
I returned home from somewhere. I knew I was trying to find a way to save him. It was late. We were in a hotel. I walked in and found him curled up in the bathtub, sick and sad and slipping away from me. I picked him up and wrapped his small body in a blanket. Chris walked in.
“We will make him comfortable,” I said. “We will take him home and love him and let him go.”
And then, again, my eyes opened. Outside the birds were chirping but the sky was dark. I got up, walked down the hall and opened the door to his room. I stood and watched his chest rise and fall. I touched his warm body. I exhaled.
I climbed back in bed but sleep was out of the question. My heart could not handle part three of this nightmare.
Eventually I got up to brush my teeth. When I walked out of the bathroom there was my boy, sitting on our bed, wrapped in our duvet, smiling and talking to his daddy. I crawled under the covers and pulled him into my chest.
“Hey buddy,” I said. “I’ve been waiting for this hug.”
The morning went on, and it felt simple and easy. His sister, exhausted from the summer sports schedule, slept in. He sat at the table and read hockey headlines to us from his computer. Every time I was close enough to him, I kissed his soft cheeks and smelled his brown hair.
I moved through the day in a sort of trance, with one part of me driving Cohen to baseball practice and braiding doll hair for Willa and feeding Chris and this other part of me stuck in that dream world, involuntarily replaying the nightmare on a loop and feeling the most desperate sadness wash over me each time.
I often feel like I live on a cliff’s edge. I stand there, teetering, an abyss at my heels, and watch the people in front of me, skipping and spinning carefree under the sun while I hold my breath. I watch the world keep going, and I hold still. If I don’t move, if I don’t speak, maybe I can stay here, maybe the ledge will not give way. Even as my days fall into a rhythm, even as I adjust to life in this place, I move cautiously.
Maybe you can step away from the cliff, I think to myself when things begin to feel a bit more stable, just one step closer to the green grass, toward a firmer footing, a stronger hold on this life. Maybe this will be your new normal. Maybe the sadness will stop here. But there is always a bad dream or hard day or loss of function or impossible decision to remind me — you are not normal. The future will never again belong to you in the way it once did. Your life will always be hanging in the balance.
I am here in this space, with other people who know loss, and I think about where I fit, about how I lean on this community, how I siphon from their stories and their strength to convince myself that if someday I lose Chris, if my anticipatory grief actualizes, I can survive. And then I remember the dream, and my breath catches and my throat tightens, and I think about how much there is to lose in this world, about the fragility of life and how the older I get and the more sadness and loss and tragedy I see around me, the less I understand how the average person gets about 80 years on this earth.
I think about how it seems, to me, so easy to die.
Today is World Suicide Prevention Day, and so I’m also thinking about my mother-in-law and the conversations we’ve had with our children about her death almost 10 years ago, when our oldest was just 6 months old. “How did Nana Linda die?” they want to know. “She was sick,” we tell them. And it’s true, but it’s also much more complex than they can understand, than I can understand. I think about her so often, about how I wish she could play with her grandkids and see how brave her son is and how I hope she knows how much I love him, that I’m doing everything I can to take care of him. I think about how desperately I will fight to keep him here in this world where she felt she could not stay.
I think about the Valimont family in Florida, about how Gay wrote on Twitter in March, “Everyone in my family is dying. My 44-year-old husband was diagnosed with ALS seven months ago. He can no longer speak or walk. Last week, my 8-year-old was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. His light has gone out. Me, of heartbreak.” This week Gay and Brian had to make the impossible decision to stop Eli’s chemotherapy, to let him go, to end their own desperate fight to keep him here. Gay does not get to wake up from her nightmare.
I think about my kids and how I can’t breathe when I consider losing them, and I just cannot fathom the depth of pain in this world. I do not understand how we keep moving through it and in it knowing how much we have lost and how much we still stand to lose. I think about how death feels so close to me all of the time, about how blinding the sadness can feel, how consuming and overwhelming and utterly terrifying, and I want to run to my kids’ school and scoop them up and carry them home to safety and never let them leave my side.
Life on the cliff’s edge is hard. The instinctual thing to do is freeze, to curl up in a fetal position and hold on for dear life.
The hard thing is to stand up, put your shoulders back and keep going. But if you can do that, eventually, your balance improves. At first you’ll walk, and one day you’ll find you can run. Sometimes you might even dance. It doesn’t mean you won’t fall someday. It just means you refuse to be paralyzed by that someday. There will be moments when your step will falter, when you will feel like you are slipping down, down, down, and in those moments you will stop and you will breathe. You will acknowledge that the pain and the fear are real, that loss is everywhere, that there is no quota for sadness, and you will remember you have two choices — stop or keep going.
You will steady yourself and walk on.
If you would like to help the Valimont family as they try to keep going during a time of unimaginable loss, you can visit their GoFundMe page or Venmo Gay directly @Gay-Valimont.
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By Kelsie Snow
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