November 30, 2019

I'll Let My Children Break My Heart

I'll Let My Children Break My Heart

Learning how to be vulnerable once again, to my own children

The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.
- Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms

“Daddy, I want to see mommy’s pictures,” my elder daughter tells me. I take out my phone and let her choose from the same photos I show her every night before tucking her in: the ones of Linda and me on our honeymoon, on the trip to Machu Picchu before we had kids, at the hospital right after she was born, from the two years when we were a family of three. But they stop at January of last year.

We are still a family of three, but Linda is not here.

As I leave my daughter’s room, I keep the door ajar so the faint light from the kitchen can chase the shadows on her bed, and I hear the familiar airy intake of breath as she yawns deeply. I exhale in sync, knowing that my children are safe; we have made it through yet another day. Inside, my heart cracks silently at the thought that my daughters will not remember knowing their mother, despite my efforts to infuse Linda’s spirit deep into their subconsciousness.

We talk about mommy often: how her favorite color was purple; how her favorite flowers were hydrangeas; how she was a beautiful, kind person. I know that one day the harder questions will come, likely without warning, about why our family is different and why mommy stopped being in pictures at the same time my younger daughter started showing up in them. There won’t ever be any pictures of mommy and her together.

And I wonder how I will manage to help my daughters understand Linda’s life while shielding them from the worst truth: sometimes violent breaks across space and time change life in an instant. Part of me believes they already know what they are yet unable to articulate, that this has somehow become an “unthought known” seeded in my children’s developing minds.

This lingers in my mind every week when my younger daughter and I are back at the same hospital that has come to be associated with so many of my life’s most important memories. As we walk along the corridors, I sense my brain accessing the fear latent within, reminding me that in a split second a single cog in the body’s complex machinery can slip and a person can cease to exist. The compartmentalization dissolves, and the flashbacks do not play in order: all at once, Linda and I are taking a selfie at her hospital bed; my newborn daughter is on life support, her chest rising and falling rhythmically; my wife is cold and motionless, her expression one of exhaustion, having tried so hard to live for us until there was no more she could give.

My mind dissects these images for clues, signs, anything that could offer some hint of an explanation. Given enough time, you start to see warnings that did not exist, attribute blame where none is warranted, second-guess decisions that had never been in question. Research says our minds slightly alter our understanding of events each time we recall them. How different is my understanding now from a month ago? From a year ago? Such is the futile quest; there are still no answers except the ones we make up to be able to continue living. We will never know why. Will my children, in time, come to accept that void?

“There was nothing you could have done,” the doctors told me. Doubt can be a prison, and absolution yields the difficult truth that we control far less in our lives than we care to accept. I could do nothing during the 19 minutes my younger daughter went without a heartbeat. I could not prevent the injury to her brain.

“God saved her,” my daughter’s physician said the day she was discharged after almost a month in the neonatal intensive care unit. She had survived, but it was everything else - the meetings with the social worker in the windowless room, the CPR training I had to pass, the warnings to watch out for seizures - that sent a different message: prepare yourself that she might not live that long.

Parents live with this understanding from the moment children are born; the awareness fades into forgetfulness as we adapt to their ongoing presence, taking it for granted.

That first night home, I leaned my head on the railing of my daughter’s crib and gazed at her through the darkness, keeping vigil, questioning whether I would fully love her as much as she deserved. After all, you can’t truly give your entire self to someone, whether a spouse or a child, if you fear the pain of losing them. To love our children is to allow them to break our hearts.

Was I capable of the same reckless love I had before everything changed? Would my trauma cause me to unknowingly distance myself from my children?

Single parenting two young children leaves little time to contemplate these questions. The night wakings, doctor’s appointments, temper tantrums, preschool - the chaos of everyday life is constantly in focus as you struggle to make it through each day; you press on trying to be both dad and mom at the same time. The misgivings gradually recede until what is left are residual outlines that shape your life in smaller, unexpected ways. You find yourself breathing faster at the sound of alarms, thinking the aseptic smell of the hospital is strangely familiar, freezing longer than usual at the sight of your toddler tumbling to the ground. But by and large, the comfort of new routines slowly takes hold bit by bit, one day at a time, and the world goes back to feeling mostly normal once again.

Despite this adaptation, one thought persists: the wrong person was left behind. Linda and I had made arrangements if something were to happen to both of us, but for whatever reason, we had never discussed the case where only one of us was here. Maybe it was actually scarier for each of us to imagine a life without the other. I still struggle with many aspects of parenting that Linda seemed to handle so effortlessly. My children need their mother. Why is she not here? I have so much more to tell them about her. I want to tell them I am sorry I will never be able to fill their mother’s place. At best, I will only ever be able to approximate it, and deep down, I fear it will never be enough.

My children need not concern themselves with these troubles for now. Each of their lives is a “tabula rasa,” a blank slate, one that does not have to be colored in with the burdens I carry. This is not to say that I will hide anything from them. Rather, my damaged self should not limit them from discovering all this world has to offer. I suppose most parents experience this feeling to some extent. You wish to protect your children from the worst of yourself, afraid they will become people who are a little too much in your own image. For their sake, I suppress myself; they should not have to grow up so quickly. My daughters will grieve in their own time. For today, I hope they can just be kids.

Years from now when my children are grown, there will come a day when they will be ready to encounter the world on their own terms. They will leave home, find life partners, and decide what to believe. And at that time, I will be ready for my life to be over. Until then, I long for the carefree joy my daughters display and wonder if I will ever experience it again. Although they are too young to know it, it is because of them that I can still express an enduring devotion to Linda in one of life’s most profound ways. I can fulfill what she wanted for them. I can finish what we started together.

Both girls are now asleep, and the rain is starting to fall softly outside, the hollow sound of the water’s pit-pat echoing throughout the house. Suddenly, my daughter’s cry pierces the silence. “Mommy, mommy, come back!” she wails. I kneel at her bedside; her brow is furrowed, but she does not wake. Perhaps in her dreams she has been sneaking glimpses of her mother in the distance. “Shh...Daddy’s here with you,” my voice softly wavers. I place my hand on her chest, feeling her heartbeat steady itself and the tension release throughout her small frame. In that moment, I know the innate connection between my children and their mother will live on in some inexplicable way. I cling on to my daughter as I drift off to sleep thinking, “This is for you, sweetheart. This is still for the both of us.