Published on June 26th, 2023 | by Elizabeth Bird2
Love and the Terror of Loss
You are lying face down at the water’s edge as the gentle lake waves lap over your tiny body. You are wandering in the endless woods, tired and crying. You are in the vehicle of a stranger, speeding to who knows where. Image after image flooding my mind, each a nightmare of unfathomable loss. You are gone.
It begins with a tremor of worry. We unload our cars into the cabin, stacking food in the kitchen and clothes in the bedrooms. Canoes come off the roof racks and are squared away. Our first-born, almost five, noisily plays war with his best friend. The lake is 100 yards down the slope, to where the Minnesota aspen woods stretch as far as we can see. It will be perfect – sand, fishing, swimming if the water allows.
And then we turn. Where are you? My second-born, not quite two.
“Isn’t he with you?”
“I thought you had him.”
Nothing to worry about; you’re hiding under a bunk or digging in the sand behind the cabin. But you’re not.
There’s a small playground way down the slope – just a swing set really. You must be down there – how far can a toddler go? We run, but you’re not there.
We scatter, calling your name as the panic grows. Other cabin-dwellers join – running down to the lake and into the woods. I am frozen with fear.
“Blue shorts and white t-shirt with Mickey Mouse,” I call as we fan out further. No trace.
Suddenly a young couple emerges on an ATV from the path into the woods, wondering what all the fuss is about.
“Yeah, we saw a little boy back there a ways. We tried to talk to him but he wandered off.” Deeper into the woods.
“He’s not even two,” I yell. “What were you thinking?” If you leave the path for a moment, the woods go on forever…
Your father commandeers them and their ATV and they speed back into the woods.
Time is suspended.
After a lifetime they are back; you stayed on the path, even deep into the woods. You are found, and back in my arms.
And we have the lake, and the sand, and the fishing, and the canoes, and the world is alive again. The monstrous images recede deep into my dreams.
Just months before you were born, a 22-month-old child went missing in Minnesota. He was playing outside his home, which backed onto the Snake River, a hundred yards away. His mother watched through the window while preparing dinner in the kitchen: “I checked on him several times, saying stay right there …” After days of searching, police determined he had wandered to the fast-flowing river and was swept away. No trace of him was ever found.
Thirty years on, his mother still searches, gazing at the age-progressed images of the young man she has willed him to become. She argues that the river was too far – he couldn’t have gone there without being noticed. But he could; I know. She insists her son was abducted; she scours DNA bases, praying for a match. It’s all she has left. She remembers his sweatshirt with the puffy dinosaur and his white knit hat with green snowflakes. Her other children are grown, and she will never be the same.
Eight years later: this time it is you, my first-born, lying in a hospital bed, hooked to an IV and barely able to open your eyes. This has been a slower-growing panic. You were sick – diagnosed with E. coli from a fast-food burger joint. You stayed home from school and seemed to get better – until suddenly you were worse. Your eyes were yellow; you were lethargic and sick. You threw up as we headed for a hastily scheduled doctor’s appointment. The gastroenterologist will know, and he’ll fix it.
But he doesn’t. He seems baffled, and even a little scared.
“I think we should admit him and start fluids.” You don’t protest.
They settle you in a temporary bed and I run home to pick up your brother from school. I call your father – he is out of town, but he hears my fear, and he is coming home. By the time I return, they’ll have figured it out, and you’ll be on the mend. But they haven’t – I return to more doctors, more bafflement.
“They’ll move you into the children’s ward tomorrow, and then I can stay with you. But for now, they say I have to go. I’ll be back first thing.”
You nod, attempting an unconvincing smile as I kiss you goodnight.
At home, I call my physician father in England, looking for answers and comfort.
“You say he had an E. coli infection?”
“Yes, but it seemed to go away…”
“Yes it would. Honey, it sounds like H.U.S. to me. He needs to be off the fluids; they’ll make it worse.” I hear worry in his voice – I learn only later that he once autopsied children who died in a local outbreak. I call the hospital, but it is late.
“The doctor will come by in the morning,” the nurse soothes.
Haemolytic Uremic Syndrome. A few years ago it had killed four kids who’d eaten at a burger chain in the Pacific Northwest. No-one quite knows why, but H.U.S takes hold in a small percentage of those infected with the bacterium. Red blood cells break down, blood clots form, and a cascade of damage follows, causing the kidneys to shut down. Patients are pale, weak, confused…
By the next morning, you are in your own room in the children’s wing, hooked up to a bag collecting bloody urine. The bed is too small for you, my six-foot middle-schooler. But you hardly notice.
Finally a new doctor appears, with a new diagnosis.
“H.U.S.?” I venture.
He confirms, with slight surprise.
“So now we start treatment?”
“Well, there’s no specific treatment. We’ll monitor, control fluids, and address symptoms as they worsen. But he’ll need to fight it on his own.”
Your father returns, and we begin what will be a 10-day routine. One of us at home, taking care of your brother and teaching our classes. One of us with you, day and night. Meeting up at the hospital for conferences with doctors.
“We’re concerned about his kidneys. If we must, we’ll go to dialysis. And we should type you both for the possibility of a transplant, just in case.”
Of course a sibling would be the best match. That reality hangs in the air, as yet unspoken.
They infuse bags of red blood cells into your deteriorating vessels. I sit beside you, cooling you with a damp washcloth. I stroke your scalp; you loved that when you were little, and I hope it helps now. I read to you, but your eyes are distant. We wait for the next bad news and push away the images of what might come to pass.
Then one morning, when your eyes open, it’s different. You ask for your favorite hand-held game, and you play.
“When do I get to go home?”
The gentle doctor explains that your age and size were your weapon against the insidious progress of the disease.
“The kids who die are usually younger and smaller; he was lucky. We’ll need to monitor his kidneys until he’s fully grown.”
A torrent of relief and the monstrous images again recede.
One night, as I lay awake beside you, I heard alarms from a nearby room, and the scurrying of nurses. And the sobbing of a mother. We had exchanged nods as we pass in the halls, each caught in our own private moment of sorrow and hope. But her child had lost his last fight with cancer, and her hope was gone. Her life will never be the same.
I had never particularly wanted kids, even as I watched the families of friends and siblings expand. I was skeptical of that well-worn truism – it’s different when they’re your own. When I finally I took the plunge, I learned the cliché is miraculously true. The moment we meet our newborn is like nothing before – until it happens again. Each time we fall in love, and forever after, nothing brings as many moments of happiness, pride, and contentment. And with those moments comes fear – for the flip side of love is the terror of loss. The terror burns brightest in moments when the threat is sudden and clear, but it lives with us always, simmering gently, ready to flare. A drunk driver, a silly prank gone wrong, a deathly disease, or – only in America – a gun. Any number of lives, randomly extinguished. Every day a mother loses her child – newborn, toddler, teenager, adult. None will ever be the same.
You both tolerate my fears, years after you reach manhood. Yes, you’ll text when you get home after the long drive from a holiday visit. Yes, you’ll go to the doctor if the symptoms don’t go away. Yes, you will beware of thieves as you travel alone across Europe. Living your own lives in your own space, you are still ever-present in mine. I am not so arrogant as to trust in a deity who will somehow watch over you. One who chooses my child and takes another – who allows my boy to walk out of the woods, while leading another into the river. Who heals my son while allowing the one in the next room to die. I cannot offer thanks to a vast, arbitrary, and indifferent universe.
And yet it is gratitude I feel, for whatever providence brought us through the decades in love and safety. Gratitude when I see your smiles or hold you in my arms. Gratitude on this bright, cold Spring day, as we gather on a rocky outcrop in Utah, marveling at the landscape spread before us, sunlit in blue, gold, and green. As their father and I watch our firstborn share vows with his beautiful beloved and slip my grandmother’s ring on her finger. As our second-born presides, guiding them lovingly through the sweet, simple ceremony. As I gaze through tears over the canyon, sculpted over infinite millennia by water, wind, and ice, knowing a crystalline moment of pure joy.