One year and six months today.
At 18 months after birth, Lena was toddling around and starting to talk. The first spring of her second year she spent a week with my parents while I met her father in New York for a holiday. Before I left I told my mother that if my plane crashed they could know with absolute certainty I died happy, knowing my daughter was safe.
At 18 months after death, Lena is a presence I long for, one that has been gone too long. I miss her. I want to see her. I want to experience her experiencing life. Somewhere I got the idea I’d be past the wincing despair by now. That I would be able to listen to her messages I’d saved on my answering machine. That I wouldn’t crave cuddling her, something we loved to do, even after she’d gotten taller than me, my arms stretching around her strong, broad swimmer’s shoulders, her wild curly hair in my face, my nose, my mouth. Rocking my baby, my grown up baby who still needed her mommy.
Halfway through year two, what was I expecting?
Deadlines, expiration dates, warranties, lifespans. Give us limits so we know what to expect – and so we don’t expect too much.
Several years ago I heard Suze Orman advise a woman not to make any important decisions in the year after her husband’s death. I don’t know how Suze came up with that timeline, but the the idea is pervasive enough in Western culture for Elisabeth Kübler-Ross to write that grief: “doesn’t end after a year, that’s a false fantasy.” Despite a growing popular understanding that grief’s amorphous and acutely personal nature defies parameters, practicality (and perhaps, human nature) demands an expiration date on mourning.
A year. One year of heartbreak, of life altering grief, regret and pain. Then what?
When her husband died, Joan Didion wrote “The Year of Magical Thinking” a book chronicling the first year after his death. The magical thinking in the title refers to Ms. Didion allowing herself to believe her husband was not actually dead. She’d imagine coming home to find him sitting in his chair by the fire, drinking scotch. Or perhaps he’d show up for breakfast with her in the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Whenever, wherever, she expected him to just be there. Living, breathing – there.
And by the end of the book – poof! No more magical thoughts. Only acceptance. Terribly, just before the book was to be released, Ms. Didion’s daughter died. Her publisher offered the writer an opportunity to stop publication and rewrite the book to include her daughter’s death. Ms. Didion chose not to. Maybe she feared a rewrite would not only revive the enchantment but double its power, condemning her to sit by the front door forever awaiting the return of her husband and child.
“The Year of Magical Thinking” is the first book I read after Lena died, seeking common experience, looking for clues about…what to expect. But as the title implies, the book only covers one year, ending before life without magic begins.
Shock is what I call for myself the feelings Ms. Didion describes. But now that mine has worn off, now the first year is over, I can no longer pretend Lena is still at school or backpacking across Europe or just over at her dad’s house. The irony is that enough time has passed I sometimes forget she’s dead. While out shopping if I see something I think Lena would like, the impulse to grab it hits me before the memory of her death. The interior misunderstanding only takes a moment to reconcile, but the process leaves me exhausted. The industrial floor, shiny and cool, suddenly looks like a comfortable place to take a nap. I could cram myself up under the shelves and forget I’m there.
It’s late afternoon now, the day more than half finished. Tomorrow will be one day into the second half of the second year, somehow less significant than today. We like our calendars, full of boxes to check, tasks to be completed, life to be lived. Makes it look so easy.