Vodka Yonic features a rotating cast of women and nonbinary writers from around the world sharing stories that are alternately humorous, sobering, intellectual, erotic, religious or painfully personal. You never know what you’ll find in this column, but we hope this potent mix of stories encourages conversation.
With the first breath of cool air into my lungs, my heart grows heavy. Fall — inarguably the best season in Tennessee — has turned on me. The time of year that once brought the excitement of cardigans and football and fire pits is now dulled by a pang of longing.
I know a healthy baby isn’t a given for any expectant mother. I approach each of my friends’ new pregnancies with the skepticism I’ve given my own. Nothing should be taken for granted, and there are always more milestones to cross. Even if, miraculously, a healthy baby is born, crazy-bad shit can still happen. It happens all the time. I think about my healthy daughter leaving me every day. It’s a dread I cannot escape. It’s a pain I could not bear again. But people do it. People survive losing two children. I think about those parents often. And then I think about my son.
My son liked his hospital room cold, so I wore sweatshirts from September to December. I distinctly remember the day his unit closed due to the bedside surgery of another patient — forcing me to leave the hospital and head outside, to my neglected dog, eager for a walk. The leaves were already on the ground. I hadn’t noticed them turning. The heat of the summer was long gone.
Two women on my street were due within months of my son’s birth. We had dreamily discussed how our children would grow up with neighborhood kids their same age. I drove by them Halloween night as they were experiencing the first of a lifetime of holidays with their healthy children. I cursed out loud, seething with envy.
“I can’t imagine” is the phrase I hear most often when someone learns that our son died. I know it’s meant to soothe — to recognize the unbearable tragedy of the loss. But often, it makes me angry that people can’t — or won’t — imagine a fate like my own. It’s as if they let their minds linger at the edge of the deep well of grief, and then turn away and pack those feelings up. But then, who would willingly go down that well?
There used to be a time when I could count the minutes before the subject of my son would come up. It was always on the tip of my tongue, ready to tumble out: “Hello, yes, I would like fries with my burger. Also, my kid died.” But now, five years later, there are people I’ve known for a long time who aren’t aware of it. That feels even more awkward than being labeled The Woman Whose Son Died. How can I be a good mother if I’m not shouting the story of my son from the rooftops?
My husband and I recount all the times we could have brought him up but didn’t, justifying to each other that we remember him — of course we remember him — but we know about societal rules. There are times I boldly relay his story to random people who dare to ask questions like, “Do you have any other kids?” But most of the time, people are just filling the silence with small talk. They’re not looking for a life lesson about how everything doesn’t necessarily work out all the time. It’s not my job to warn them.
But in the fall, it’s harder to keep quiet. My son’s life lasted just three months, all within hospital walls — a perfect quarter slice of the yearly pie. In fall, we had a son. In winter, we did not. Yes, I missed the bonfires and weekend hikes, but I got to witness new eyes open in wonder. I felt a tachycardiac heart slow with human touch. I learned just how large our extended family had grown, how many hospital omelets were too many, the exact timing of morning rounds, and what every dang machine beep on the fourth floor of the pediatric hospital meant. I learned to fully love. And I felt deep despair, the limits of the medical field, the hardest goodbye of my life. There are the five stages to grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. But they don’t always come in order, and once you’re in a tornado of those feelings, you can’t really ever get out.
But I offer a sixth stage: the grieving of your grief. That moment when you can’t call the tears up as quickly, or summon the image of your son taking his last breath quite as readily, and how that distance makes you feel even more distant from him. It’s the loss of immediate attachment to your past devastation. It’s when that first breath of fall doesn’t jolt your heart. I long for that day, and I dread that day. And I know I will always be counting down until the next fall.