I realize we need to be careful to make assumptions and generalizations, but I am guessing most kids felt like I did when the holiday season rolled around. Whatever your traditions, whatever your practices, (for me) Christmas is one of the biggest—no, the biggest day of the year. We didn’t have a lot, our family—five people living on a teacher’s salary—but my parents did the best they could to stretch it all year, and though we did get a few “necessities” (socks, underwear, jeans) under the tree to make it look like Santa was a little more generous than he was able, each of us three kids usually got a nice little pile of “personal” presents to tear through like the naïve youngsters we were, as yet unaware of a whole world of people out there (other than the starving children who would eat any of the food we tried to pass back at dinner time).
By now you’re thinking “you’re over a month late, dude; the holiday season has come and gone.” And you’d be correct. About the holiday season having come and gone. The thing is, had you told me when I was that bratty, selfish, naïve little boy that one day I would despise the arrival of Christmas Day, well, I’m sure you can think of a few dozen nasty things I’d have said back then.
At this point you may be thinking a little about the commercialization of the season and yes, I went through plenty of post-twenties years let’s call them, where I disparaged the lights going up earlier and earlier and staying up longer and longer. Christmas decorations in Target’s aisles just as soon as the Halloween candy had finally gotten cleared.
Yeah. Been there, felt that.
Still, there was always a warm feeling inside—that naïve kid—whenever the sun fell and the holiday lights spread from one horizon to the other (we live in Colorado so you get some pretty spectacular landscape views).
But in 2007-2008, the Holiday Season changed for us. It unfairly became our Lifeless Season. The Hard Months. Downtime. Oh, there are plenty of things we call it. And, as things do, it changes over the years.
What could possibly so incontrovertibly reverse one of the most joyous times of the year?
I’ll back up a few years. In 2002, the year my wife and were to be married, I was diagnosed with cancer. I won’t go through that entire ordeal (you’re welcome), but there was one important decision we needed to make. I was 37 and my wife was 33. Did we want to consider freeing a few billion of the microscopic Robs (I always think of the Simpsons episode with the Bart sperms swimming around when it gets to this part of the story, but I digress)? The oncologist and radiologist didn’t feel it was necessary. My wife and have always been the types that “play ‘em as they’re dealt,” so we decided if we were meant to have children, it would happen.
It didn’t. We tried for five years (2002-2007 for those keeping track).
In fact, we had just sat down and decided we were fine with that reality when a week later BAM. Guess who was preggers? You know what they say about not watching the boiling pot, well…
Nah, turns out my wife needed a C-section so they scheduled it for December 26th. No worries. At least we could be totally packed, prepared, etc.
Why is it we humans ignore Nature again and again no matter what she does to us? Centuries. Millennia. But we know, right?
At three in the morning with the snow beginning to softly fall on a Denver Christmas morning, our water broke (men, you all know everything by this point involves us both, right?). Seems our little Brody wanted to be a Christmas baby. Worked for me (one present, two days covered!—I’m joking, of course).
Brody John Guthrie was the only Christmas baby in Lone Tree hospital (not as small a hospital as it sounds; there were at least eight other women on the floor that day). It all just made it that much more special. Brody was perfect, the day was beautiful—one of those snows that comes down quietly all day but there’s not a bit of wind so it’s just soundless and glorious.
The next two months, aside from wondering, “what were we thinking in our mid-thirties?” were wonderful. Brody had a magnificent Scottish-red mane, slicing blue eyes, and every doctor appointment was better than the last. Eating, sleeping, pooping (hey, these things are important).
Then on Thursday February 21st—a Thursday just like this year—I got the call no parent should ever have to receive. We lost our son to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). He was spending half-days with his new nanny and she put him down for a final nap from which he’d never awake.
* * *
We’ve grown since then, my wife and I. We were never again blessed with a child. You play ‘em as they’re dealt, right? I blog about this day every year. Sometimes I’ll use a song, others a quote, but this year I had the most wonderful of requests: would I write a blog for my dear friend Rachel Thompson? I never even hesitated. A mother herself, snarky and sarcastic like me, a head of red hair that would have complimented my son’s.
Each year the blog is cathartic, which is not the surprising thing. It is surprising to me how many different ways there are that we heal. It’s a never-ending process, of course, but it happens. And that’s why I wanted to blog in Rachel’s space today, to her readers. There are so many of us out there. Not just SIDS, or cancer, or a car accident. And not a particular age. The man who delivered the sermon told me he and his wife lost their “little” girl when she was eighteen. We talked about an urn, either filled with precious memories or, as in our case, devoid of them.
I was unable to deliver a proper eulogy the day of the service. Instead, being a writer, I wrote Brody a letter. I am including it here, on this blog, in a moment. I want any of you who have lost a child to think about something: this was written the day after the funeral. Not years later.
Dear friends, you can—and you will—survive. You don’t have to believe it now. Just accept the help, hold those dear, and you will. It’s a journey, not a destination.
C.S. Lewis wrote,
In A Grief Observed:
Part of every misery is, so to speak, the misery’s shadow or reflection: the fact that you don’t merely suffer but have to keep on thinking about the fact that you suffer. We not only live each endless day in grief, but live each day thinking about living each day in grief.
* * *
No one ever told us that grief felt so like fear.
A Letter to Brody
We are so afraid. For two months your mother and I were your providers, your protectors, your comfort, your sustainers, and your loving parents. We soothed you when you first came into this cold world, perhaps terrified at the light and air and vastness of space. We wrapped you and held you and fed you and made sure you felt safe from that which surrounded you.
But now it is we who are afraid.
We are afraid of waking up every hour, waiting to hear you cry, but facing this palpable, enduring silence instead.
We are afraid of the predawn hours, before the world comes fully to life, when we used to hold you so close to our hearts that your soft breathing comforted us, reminding us that the coming day did not hold as much strife as we feared.
We are afraid of never being able to love another baby as much as we love you; that no other child could ever be as perfect as your were in our lives.
We are afraid of the emptiness your brother will feel to never have been able to be your protector, your idol, your friend, and your elder.
We are afraid that the peace we feel with God—the understanding that your mother and I have tried so hard to accept—will dissolve as the sand dissolves in the ocean.
We are afraid that there is an unquenchable anger beneath the surface, an anger toward this random disease with no cause, and that this pain and loss and lack of answers will breach our hearts from within.
We are afraid of that chasm in our souls; that cold void that could only be filled with the wonder of your future: your turning over, your crawling, your walking, your talking, and most of all, your leaping into our open arms one day and calling us by name.
We are afraid to be crushed by the sheer weight of our sorrow.
We are afraid of hearing your voice in our dreams, believing you to have grown old enough to sing to us and to ward off our sorrow, only to wake and to find no such music for our hearts.
We are afraid of that which reminds us of the loss of our son:
A baby’s cry.
The little boy who runs across the park, his arms outstretched for his parent.
The flyer in the mail for baby pictures.
The clothing section passed on the way to some other destination, forgotten in the moment.
The songs we used to sing.
A case of diapers.
A closet of clothes.
Winnie the Pooh.
We are afraid of the closed door down the hall, where all the things your mother and I acquired in order to clothe you, bathe you, soothe you, love you, pamper you, and protect you have been placed, out of the way, so as not to sting us with their beautiful memories.
We are afraid we will never be able to open that door.
We are afraid of what we’ve yet to be afraid of, that memory lurking without sound or warning around the next corner, or in the next room—a memory that does not intend to wound us, perhaps, but will nonetheless.
These fears live inside us, Brody, and at times we don’t know how to calm them, or ease them, or will them to subside.
However, dear son, here is what we believe:
We will overcome our fears.
Because you reminded your wonderful mother and me of what it means to know perfect love.
Because you were a product of the deep love your mother and I have always had for each other.
Because you taught us that indeed we love each other ten thousand times more today than the day you were born into our lives.
Because we will hold each other until the list of this wayward ship is right again.
Because we do believe you were the only perfect thing in our lives, and you would not be taken to hurt us but rather to teach us and to heal us.
Because we know our mothers pass you back and forth in Heaven, each eager to hold you in their loving embrace.
Because we realize that you now look down upon us and watch over our family—an angel returned for a purpose.
Because it comforts us to know you will never feel pain, suffering, or the callousness of this world.
Because you will never face the loss of your parents, nor the death of your child, as we have.
Because you will never make a single mistake and you will never cause anyone a moment of hurt or anguish.
Because each time we looked down upon your bright, curious, unfettered gaze, we caught a glimpse of Heaven, reflected back to us in those bottomless blue eyes.
Most of all, we will overcome our fears because we know you would want us to. And because your mother and I both believe that you served a very grand purpose these past two months:
You taught us to laugh again: not from the throat or the lungs or even the stomach, but rather from way down inside our bursting hearts.
You offered us new meaning to the word “smile”.
You reminded us that we were all once perfectly joyous, breathlessly innocent, and completely without fault, and that it was the world that changed us.
You nurtured in us a perfect, unyielding love, and you helped us to see that love comes not only from the heart, but also from the very depths of our souls.
You reinvented the wonder that lived inside us as children; wonder at the miracle of life and wonder that something so precious, so perfectly formed, and so incredibly relevant, was bestowed upon the two of us, bringing us such joy and such pride.
You brought into our lives a quiet whirlwind of sweetness and of hope.
We love you so much, Brody.
And we miss you for all of time,
Until we see you again.