By K. A. LEDDY
Published: October 22, 2013
In the months following my daughter’s death, there were times when I left my house that I could barely breathe.
My pain and grief were reflected in the faces of friends. In the presence of others I teetered on the brink of being overwhelmed. Where once I had enjoyed shopping and running errands, these activities now jeopardized my fragile attempt to hold myself together. Home was the only safe place. But, of course, in time one must go out.
Tentatively, I learned to duck and to weave my way through life. If I was in the grocery store and saw a neighbor or someone from my children’s school in the cereal aisle, I would rush down another aisle. Then, if I saw the person again two aisles over, I would head for the deli section. If I was clearly cornered, with no possible retreat, I would bend and pick up whatever item was close at hand, perhaps a can of green beans, and appear to be engrossed in its label. I did my best to make myself unapproachable. If that didn’t work I sometimes abandoned my cart mid-aisle and darted for my car. My husband would have to do the food shopping that week.
Avoidance wasn’t always possible. I was standing in my driveway collecting the newspaper when a neighbor approached. She took a deep breath and said: “Kerry, how are you? I don’t know how you survive. I really don’t. I know I couldn’t.” Somehow her words left me feeling strangely accused, as if she were saying, “How can you be standing here, surviving at all?” If my grief was truly devastating, she seemed to suggest, I would not be standing. I would be forever prostrate in bed, inconsolable.
Sometimes no response is as painful as the wrong one. At a school play, a mother greeted me with a broad smile, as if the world was no different than before my daughter’s death, and began to chat brightly. She probably imagined she was protecting me by steering our talk to safer ground, like our new principal or the new restaurant in town featuring mussels. I know intuitively, however, that it is not me she is seeking to protect: what she is trying to protect is her belief that she dwells in a world where children are safe, where untoward tragedies do not occur.
Then there are the times when I am not sure if the person I have run into knows. What am I to do then? Two months after Sarah’s death I saw a couple at a neighbor’s get-together. They greeted me warmly. The wife asked, “How are you?” The husband chimed in, “Yeah, what have you been up to lately?” I am at a complete loss for words. Do they not know about Sarah? They must have heard, I think. I have no “news” to share. The only thing I have been “up to” is grieving. If they did not know, my words would shock them. If they did know, what could they possibly think I “have been up to?” With nothing to say, I make my way through the party and head home. I phone a friend to tell her of my encounter. She responds: “Kerry, of course they know. Don’t you remember? They were at the memorial service.”
The encounters I dread most occur when escape is impossible. Like the time I took a picture to be framed and suddenly the man helping me said: “Oh, wait, now I know why I recognize you. Your daughter was with my Jane in elementary school, wasn’t she? Um, it’s Sarah, right?” He seems so pleased to remember. “Yes,” I answer as that familiar crushing feeling returns to my chest. I slide over to another wall, averting my eyes. Following closely behind he asks, “So what has she been doing?” My face crumbles as I begin to weep. Almost as quickly, I see the anguish spread across his face. “Oh, my God,” he said. “I am so sorry. I had heard about Sarah. How could I forget? I am so, so sorry. How could I be so stupid?” He berates himself for being thoughtless, then repeatedly apologizes, trying to comfort me. Devastated, I just flee.
Not all interactions make me want to run away. One Saturday night a few months after Sarah died, my husband and I ventured downtown for tapas. Unexpectedly, I ran into Lin, my former dance teacher, whom I hadn’t seen in several years. Lin and her husband are leaving the restaurant just as we arrive. I am trapped. I steel myself for her approach. But she neither avoids me, nor makes light conversation. Instead, she walks right up, looks me straight in the eyes, and gives me a very long, tight hug. Then she walks on. Not a word uttered. Nothing is required of me. I slowly exhale. I couldn’t have told Lin what I needed, but somehow, she has gotten it exactly right.
Seven years ago in August, my beautiful Sarah, hospitalized after a four-year battle with bipolar illness, took her life. It began at 13; the disease gave her no rest. Watching my firstborn suffer with such despair and pain became my waking nightmare. Confused and weary, she once wrote these words:
“It’s hard to be happy when you’re 17 and bipolar. Every state is fragile and every emotion is fleeting. I’m happiest when I realize I am not depressed. After school, I’ll walk down the street and notice I’m skipping, stopping to pick a dandelion. I’ll wriggle my toes in the mud and grin. When I realize I’m happy, I’m thrilled. I know that the feeling does not last. I know that as soon as there’s a sad song on the radio, I’ll feel hopeless again. When I get sad it’s not a normal sad, it’s like drowning. Little moments are important to me because that is all my life is, a series of little moments.”
Now, whenever I glimpse a child with Sarah’s startling blue eyes, I feel a sickening thump in my chest. Still, I rise every morning and live my life. I act nearly normal. I embrace my work, my husband and my three surviving children. Loss brought me to writing and painting. Mine is a life, filled with such little moments — at times joyful, at other times sorrowful. Not as odd a combination as some might think. They coexist within me, pleasure and sorrow, shaping who I am and how I see the world.
K.A. Leddy is at work on a memoir, “Ghostmother.”
Previous My Story essays can be found here.
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