I HAVE A MENTAL PICTURE OF MYSELF in my twenties, standing on a hillside talking to a neighbor, with my four-year-old son wandering somewhere behind me. My son was skinny and had yellow hair I didn't cut often enough and glasses that slid down his nose. He had a bad attitude: he seemed to think his character was his own business and none of mine. I thought he was some sort of appendage, but more loosely attached, like a balloon tethered to my ankle. Anywhere I tried to walk, he was so underfoot I fell over him.
Anyway, that day the neighbor was telling me about mutual friends whose child just died. I tried to understand this. What happens when someone's child dies? I had thought about this, of course; all parents do. But I always hit some sort of wall. I was so attached to my son. What could people do when someone so attached to them dies? The neighbor was vague: "They'll never get over it." What does that mean, never get over it? This mental exercise was painful and I gave it up. I remember saying, "I'll bet for those people, everything will be entirely different."
Fourteen years later, my son died. His name was T.C. (for Thomas Carl) Colley and he was eighteen years old, a freshman at the Rhode Island School of Design, a superb art school that unaccountably admitted him with mediocre high school grades, a small portfolio, and the attitude he'd always had. At RISD, T.C. hit full flower in four months. "I bet you don't know what iconography is," he told me over the phone. He was not going to be a photojournalist, he said; he was going to be an artistic photographer. A few weeks later in another phone call, he said he'd met a girl named Janie from Charleston, South Carolina, and they stayed up all night talking and since then, he said, "we haven't been apart for more than three hours." After the Christmas holidays, he wanted to get right back to school and Janie. So on January 4, 1987, I took him to the Baltimore train station, kissed him good-bye, and told him I was proud of him. "I know," he said. "I am too." Twenty minutes later a freight train hit the train on which he was a passenger. He was one of sixteen who died, many of the others also students going to school.
So writes Ann Finkbeiner in the introduction to her book
After the Death of a Child. In the months immediately
following T.C.'s death, she recalls feeling shock and a
physical, crushing pain she describes as "stunning"--like being
"pinned like a butterfly, or somehow eviscerated."
Time passed, and after about four years, she found that she was
feeling better, starting to regain interest in her science
writing projects, her teaching in Hopkins's Writing Seminars.
"It wasn't just that I felt better after four years," says
Finkbeiner. "I also felt like I was fundamentally different, and
not in a way that anybody would particularly notice. I wondered
if this fundamental change was universal."
So Finkbeiner decided to ask the experts: parents who had lost
children at least five years previously, to accidents and illness
and suicide and murder. At the heart of her interviews with
these mothers and fathers lay a line of inquiry she had found
ill-addressed in the scientific and medical literature on grief:
"When a child dies, what happens afterward to the parent? What
are the long-term, large-scale effects?"
The result of her oft-painful search is a book rich with the
voices and stories of parents who have faced in many cases the
ultimate loss--parents of all ages, religions, and educational
backgrounds. Finkbeiner lets them talk about the things most on
their minds, subjects like guilt, and God, and their forever
changed relationships with spouses, and friends, and other
children. Alternating with these profiles are essays in which she
calls on the work of grief researchers, "a mostly nameless group
of experts," that she uses to comment on the stories of her main
Finkbeiner the science writer is quick to caution that After the
Death of a Child is not meant to be scientific. The two dozen or
so parents she talked to selected themselves, responding to an ad
she placed in the newsletter of Compassionate Friends, a support
group for grieving relatives. And as an interviewer, she says, "I
was not neutral. People were extremely open with me, and because
I was in the same situation, they wanted me to answer the
questions, too. In many cases the interviews were more like
conversations." Working on the project was far from cathartic,
she says grimly. "It was like rubbing my nose in the pain." At
the same time, "the book functioned as a connection with T.C."
In the introduction, Finkbeiner notes that though the book is
full of pain, it is not depressing. Asked to explain the
distinction, she pauses, grappling to find the right words. "It's
not that there's any great hope found in the book; it's that in
spite of the fact that you are more intolerant, that you are not
as interested in life, one really good thing about people is how
much they love their kids. In spite of all that's bad, you're
loving your child. And that's a good thing."
The excerpt that follows is from Finkbeiner's favorite chapter,
"The Nature of the Bond."
Time passed, and after about four years, she found that she was feeling better, starting to regain interest in her science writing projects, her teaching in Hopkins's Writing Seminars.
"It wasn't just that I felt better after four years," says Finkbeiner. "I also felt like I was fundamentally different, and not in a way that anybody would particularly notice. I wondered if this fundamental change was universal."
So Finkbeiner decided to ask the experts: parents who had lost children at least five years previously, to accidents and illness and suicide and murder. At the heart of her interviews with these mothers and fathers lay a line of inquiry she had found ill-addressed in the scientific and medical literature on grief: "When a child dies, what happens afterward to the parent? What are the long-term, large-scale effects?"
The result of her oft-painful search is a book rich with the voices and stories of parents who have faced in many cases the ultimate loss--parents of all ages, religions, and educational backgrounds. Finkbeiner lets them talk about the things most on their minds, subjects like guilt, and God, and their forever changed relationships with spouses, and friends, and other children. Alternating with these profiles are essays in which she calls on the work of grief researchers, "a mostly nameless group of experts," that she uses to comment on the stories of her main characters.
Finkbeiner the science writer is quick to caution that After the Death of a Child is not meant to be scientific. The two dozen or so parents she talked to selected themselves, responding to an ad she placed in the newsletter of Compassionate Friends, a support group for grieving relatives. And as an interviewer, she says, "I was not neutral. People were extremely open with me, and because I was in the same situation, they wanted me to answer the questions, too. In many cases the interviews were more like conversations." Working on the project was far from cathartic, she says grimly. "It was like rubbing my nose in the pain." At the same time, "the book functioned as a connection with T.C."
In the introduction, Finkbeiner notes that though the book is full of pain, it is not depressing. Asked to explain the distinction, she pauses, grappling to find the right words. "It's not that there's any great hope found in the book; it's that in spite of the fact that you are more intolerant, that you are not as interested in life, one really good thing about people is how much they love their kids. In spite of all that's bad, you're loving your child. And that's a good thing."
The excerpt that follows is from Finkbeiner's favorite chapter, "The Nature of the Bond."
From After the Death of a Child, by Ann K. Finkbeiner. Copyright 1996 by Ann K. Finkbeiner. Reprinted with the permission of the author and The Free Press, a Division of Simon and Schuster. ISBN: 0-681-82965-7. To order cal 1-800-223- 2348. To order by fax call 1-800-415-6991.
RESEARCH ON THE BOND between parents and children comes from studying both animals and humans and suggests several principles. One: the bond gets set up early. Animals seldom nurse infants that are not their own. Hamsters whose pups are taken away one hour after birth, then returned, nurse those pups briefly then stop; hamsters whose pups are taken away 48 hours after birth nurse the pups much longer. Goats which spent anywhere from two to twelve hours with their kids could recognize their own kids and reject a kid not their own.
Two: the bond in humans, whether or not it is set up at birth, seems to persist. Earlier research suggested that like animals, humans needed immediate contact to cement the bond. Recent research on the subject refutes that. For example, mothers who for reasons of health had little contact with their premature newborns were no more likely to abuse or mistreat their children later on. This would not surprise anyone who knows a father or an adoptive parent.
And three: the bond, in mothers anyway, seems hard-wired. Before the birth of a lamb, the ewe rejects the smell of, or even an approach by, another lamb. In fact, if a ewe smells a lamb before the ewe gives birth, the nerve cells in the olfactory part of her brain simply don't respond. After birth, however, the same odor increases the activity of those cells dramatically. In other words, the birth process changes the ewe's brain so that afterward, the ewe not only accepts the lamb, but accepts hers and no other.
The notion that the bond is immediate, persistent, and hard-wired isn't news. This notion is ingrained in our culture's definitions of parents; we think parents who do not meet this definition are unnatural. Our culture's definition of the bond, however, isn't the last word. During much of human history and in large parts of the present world, nature has run a larger-scale experiment whose results suggest a different definition.
In other words, before about 1850 and in much of the modern Third World, children died and still die in terrible numbers. In ancient Greece and Rome, 30 to 40 percent of the children died before they were a year old. In England, in the mid-1800's, between 15 and 25 percent of children died before age 15. In America during the 1800's, nearly half of all deaths were children under five. In a present-day shantytown in northeast Brazil, the average mother has 4.5 living children and 3.5 children who have died; their mothers call those who die "angel babies."
With this kind of wholesale mortality, parents' grief should surely be celebrated in song and story; and it's not. Records of everyday life--letters, journals, stories, autobiographies, songs, folktales, paintings--rarely mention either children's deaths or parents' grief. The reason is that anything as frequent as children's deaths is normal, not noteworthy.
In these other places and times, newly-born babies are seen as transients. In the Brazilian shantytown, mothers say their babies are like little birds likely to fly away or like flames likely to go out. In ancient Greece, babies weren't named until a week or more after birth. In Europe and America, for several centuries, babies under a year old were neither named nor baptized.
The result, according to most historians, was that parents kept and keep a certain distance from these children. The high death rates, wrote historian Lawrence Stone, "made it folly to invest too much emotional capital in such ephemeral beings." If so many parents apparently invested so little in their children, what does that mean about the bond between parents and children? Are we wrong to think that the bond is wide and deep? Is the bond instead fundamentally casual, depending only on the probability of the child's living?
Probably this near-universal lack of grief over fragile infants says less about the bond and more about our culture. For us, expressing grief is not discouraged and is sometimes actively encouraged. More importantly, however, we live in a special place at a special time.
In the first place, we are unusually distant from our religions. One reason that parents didn't grieve their infants is because they believed in a literal heaven. Anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes says that the Brazilian mothers tell each other not to mourn because tears will wet the angel-baby's wings and the baby can't fly to heaven. One early New England mother who lost eight of her eleven children wrote, "So it pleased God to take away one after another of my dear children, I hope, to himself." The ancient Roman, Plutarch, wrote in his Moralia, "For the laws forbid us to mourn for infants, holding it impiety to mourn for those who have departed to a dispensation and a region too, that is better and more divine. And since this is harder to disbelieve than believe, let us keep our outward conduct as the laws command." "Grief at the death of an angel is not only inappropriate," writes Scheper-Hughes, it also shows "a profound lack of faith."
In the second place, we have an unusual distance from life's harshness and from death itself. In the Brazilian shanty-town, Scheper-Hughes wrote, life "resembles nothing so much as a battlefield or an emergency room in an overcrowded inner-city public hospital." The most striking feature about early European families, Stone writes, "was the constant presence of death. Death was at the center of life as the cemetary was at the center of the village."
In other words, in places and at times when children die readily, parents see death as benevolent partly because it opens the way to God and partly because life is malign. We don't talk about life like this any more. Life is good, we say, and our newborns are robust. We grieve as much for infants as the ancient and unfortunate parents did and do for older children. I doubt that the bond has ever been casual. The parents of fragile, transient infants sound harshly pragmatic, but they don't sound unloving.
THE PARENTS I INTERVIEWED ARE, of course, another experiment in the nature of the bond. The questions I asked the parents about the bond were: what do you think you miss most? and do you have any way to describe what your child must have been to you? The questions are, of course, unanswerable. I asked just to hear what the parents might come up with. Their answers were short: I don't know, children are part of you, they're everything.
Chris Reed: "After Mary died, I felt that a part of me had died with her. I don't know how else to describe that. I'm not sure what I mean by 'a part of me died.' I guess I mean that I'll never be quite the same again. Because an important part of my life is gone. I can't put that into words, I don't know what else to say about that."
"What do you miss about her," I asked.
"Everything," Chris said. "Everything. I don't know, I don't know. I really can't focus on any one thing. So much. I guess I miss everything."
FROM THE FIRST INTERVIEW ON, I was interested in the nature of the bond and so I listened especially carefully when the parents talked about what they missed. I think the bond has two aspects, and one aspect is obvious.
The parents missed the whole catalog of what could be called the bond's selfish aspects, that is, those aspects that gratify their own egos: feeling needed, knowing they have brought up their children successfully, knowing their children as adults, having grandchildren, being looked after themselves. That some part of a bond is selfish and ego-gratifying is only reasonable; any human relationship has such rewards. In the historians' metaphor, part of the bond is economic: the parents made an investment in time, energy, and love, and their return on the investment is in pride, reliability, friendship, and grandchildren. Moreover, the parent has a self-image as someone's parent--as a competent, important, good person--and doesn't want to give it up. Researchers say too that one part of the bond is the parents' desire for competence, a desire to protect the child effectively and to live up to what society expects of parents. When a child dies, parents must face feelings of incompetence, which some of them handle by substituting other competencies--for instance, by working with Compassionate Friends or Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
When I asked Mitch Dudnikov what he missed most about Marc, Mitch was ready with the entire catalog.
"I miss having his children to spoil," he said. "I could have made them handmade toys that would be different from the general run of things. Besides, everybody would like to have grandchildren to show them off."
Then Mitch digressed into a story about how his father and mother and their children all had dark eyes and dark hair but all the grandchildren had blue eyes and blond hair, and how his father loved to show off these unlikely-looking grandchildren. "I wanted that too," Mitch said. "Marc was going out with a Japanese girl, and if my grandchildren were Jap-Jews or Jew-Japs, I would have taken the kids around and said, 'I don't know why they look oriental, but they do.' That's what I miss, that's what I miss. You would like to see your line continue. That's a selfish thing. It's a continuation. Marc would have been the one that kept the family name alive.
"What I miss, probably more than anything else," he went on, "is that he died just at this transition from father-to-son to friend-to-friend. It was just beginning a friendship on an equal basis, neither one is over the other. I think I could have really had a good friend, somebody that I could unload my problems with, knowing that if anything happened to me, he would have been there to help his mother.
"I also missed, what would he have been? At the time I was in my 50's, I had a little niche in industry but nothing to speak of. He would have done so much more. I was a grind, I had to sit and grind everything out. And for him, everything came easily. He would have had one hell of a good time. I could have gone walking around the neighborhood saying, 'That's my son, that's my son.' That's what I missed out on."
Mitch went on to talk about how, in his little niche in industry, he had developed a manufacturing process that would make cars lighter and therefore use less gas. "If Marc were alive, I would have been very proud of that," he said, sounding now like Walter. "I would have said, 'Look what I've done, I've helped this country save thousands, maybe millions.' But after Marc's death, I'd say, 'So we use more gasoline, so what?' See, I was interested in doing the chemistry and becoming a winner because-- which I've never said before--I wanted to go up the line. I wanted to be technical director of a company, or vice president, I don't think I'd ever made vice president. But after Marc's death, I'd say, 'What difference does it make whether I'm technical director or chief chemist?' The satisfaction, the taste of the fruit was not as good."
Marc's death, he said, using a metaphor researchers note and parents use, was an amputation. "What makes me so hurtful," he said, meaning full of hurt, "is I've been amputated. It's like some surgeon went crazy and decided to amputate."
Notice that as Mitch talks, every item in his catalog of personal, selfish losses changes to a larger, different kind of loss. Mitch misses Marc's children, misses his grandchildren. He also misses being able to continue what his own father started, goofing around with exotic-looking grandchildren. In fact, he misses being the link between his father and his son, between the past and future of his own family.
Likewise, he misses Marc as an adult, misses being able to rely on him in need, misses having a friendship between equals, misses being able to brag about how splendidly Marc turned out, better than Mitch. He also misses having a reason to do well himself, to go up the line professionally. He misses the sweet taste of the fruit. He was amputated, he lost part of his own self.
This is true for every parent. Losses that are personal and selfish always seem to merge into losses that are more generally human and almost altruistic. So the bond seems to have two aspects, one personal and obvious, the other more general and subtle. I think this more general aspect of the bond is the aspect the parents could describe only by saying children are part of you, they are everything.
"I lost the chance to enjoy a lot of grandchildren," said Lydia Frasca, who after two miscarriages and the deaths of two infants, has a son named Tommy. "Children are an extension of me. When Tommy was little, I could dress him the way I liked, comb his hair the way I liked. And people would say, 'Look how well he's doing.' It's a pride thing, your child makes you prideful. Then when they get a personality, it's like you release that pride to them, and they're doing all this on their own. You're in the background behind this little guy, helping him become a whole nother person. I think motherhood's probably the best career in the whole world. So what do you do with that now? Your career is now shattered. Your legacy to leave on is gone. It's like this whole nother person all next to you, connected to you somehow-- no, connected to you, period--is dead. That lifeline is gone, it's cut."
Again, like Mitch, each of Lydia's personal losses resonates with a larger loss. Her loss of grandchildren to enjoy also means loss of a legacy to leave on. Her loss of the children to be proud of also means losing children who are proud of themselves and individuals in their own right. The lifeline that's cut is not only between her children and herself, but between herself and the future.
In the personal, selfish part of the bond, the child is someone to give to and get from, and seems separate from the parent, external to the parent. In the larger, more mysterious part of the bond, the parent seems to merge with the child in some fundamental way. The parent and child seem to be indistinguishable, or at least inseparable. "It does get complicated when you get to thinking about what all you have lost," said Julia Marcus. "They're with you and inside of you and just a part of you."
Researchers say also that from the parent's point of view, children are merged with the parent. The child can seem to be the parent's best self or the parent's not-so-good self. Or the child can seem to be the same as the parent. Or children can represent the parents' own childhood, with all the virtues and drawbacks that implies. Or children can be a chance for the parents to replay or to rectify their own childhoods. If the child who died somehow represents the parent's bad self or unhappy childhood, and therefore when the parent's relationship with the child has been ambivalent, some research suggests that the parents are left with more psychiatric symptoms, more health problems, and more generally negative feelings. In all cases, when the child dies, the parents must face the death of some part of their own selves, whether good or bad, which often leaves them with feelings of amputation.
EVEN THOUGH BOTH researchers and parents use that metaphor about amputation, I think the part of the parent that is the child is not detachable or expendable. None of this--that children are a central part of parents, are the link between the parent's past and future, are tied up with the parent's own self-image--is surprising. In fact, this is all said so often, it's a cliche. What is surprising is that it's true. We're not used to this sort of merger with another person. We're used to thinking of ourselves as separate individuals; we fall in love, we make alliances, we have obligations, but we do all this as free agents. We choose our own lives and die our own deaths. But children are much more central; they're something like the parents' humanness or the parents' reasons for being on earth. If children are part of parents, they are not arms or legs but bones and breath.
One reason I believe in this centrality is that the parents said it when they weren't talking about it at all. That is, the most convincing evidence of the centrality was that the parents weren't especially conscious of it. I noticed it when they would appear to change the subject for no reason, talking in apparent non-sequiturs. When I filled in the gaps, connected the first subject with the next, the connection seemed to be this unity between parent and child. Perhaps I filled in wrongly and these non-sequiturs are coincidence. But I heard many of them and I think the connection is real.
Sally Lambert, for instance, was talking about getting through the first year after Lisa's suicide. She read a book, she said, that advised her, "'When you feel this horrible pain, just remember it's not going to last forever, it will go away.'" Then she explained the book's advice: "I think the book was trying to keep a person from doing any harm to themselves by saying to wait, this feeling will pass. Like Lisa that night. 'Wait, this feeling will pass. It won't last forever.'"
But Sally never mentioned wanting to harm herself; only Lisa did that. Sally's interpretation of the book makes sense only if Sally and Lisa are nearly the same person. Telling Sally the pain will go away was the same as keeping Lisa from harming herself. What Sally reads, Lisa hears: the feeling will pass, don't hurt yourself, wait.
I asked Octavia Pompey, "What gives you your greatest satisfaction in life?"
Octavia's greatest satisfactions turned out to be Erin's. "I guess a couple of things," she said. "One was I knew how important it was to him to finish school and he did that. He was looking forward to his prom and he did that. I mean, he could have been killed two weeks before and he would have missed out on graduation and his prom. And he got to do those two things. He got to do what he liked to do best, and that was playing ball. His trophies are there to show he was good at it. I know that he knew that I loved him. And he knew that his father loved him, and his brothers. And I guess that's about it."
When I asked Tom Ford what had been the biggest changes in his life, he first said that his life hadn't changed. Then with no break, he wondered how David's life would have continued. "Well, other than periods of sadness," he said, "I don't think there are any changes in my life. I sometimes wonder--he'd be 24 years old now, 25--what would he have been? A lawyer, a soldier, or a bum, who knows? You'd like to think he'd have done a lot better than you did. What the hell would he have been? 25, 26 years old, maybe have three kids by now, maybe he wouldn't have any. I think what I miss most about him is knowing what he would have been."
Tom is answering a question about his own life by imagining David's future. Brandt Jones did the same when he explained re-planning his future as changing "all these brilliant plans where Bruce was going to get through four years of college, he was going to marry this girl down the street, they were going to have these kids." This same unity between the parent's future and the child's future is probably what Walter was talking about when he said Merrill was "the person I hoped would perpetuate my life by living his life," and "living his life would be the greatest thing that could happen to me." The unity might be part of the reason that the fire was dimmed in Walter's own life, that Ruth didn't go back to school to become a teacher, and that Mitch didn't bother to go up the line professionally.
The parents all talk as though the parent's life and the child's future, and the parent's future and the child's life are all the same thing. But saying that this bond is a unity between the parents' and the children's futures is still too narrow. The parents talk as though their lives and their children's lives are segments in one long line that goes back through the parents' parents and beyond, and goes forward through the parents, the children, and on into the future.
The nicest example of this is Leight Johnson: "I have to tell you this, it tickles me. My father was Leight Johnson and Johnny was Leight junior. And they both died, and I was the only Leight Johnson left. Last summer, one of my twin sons who got married and had twins, a boy and a girl, and he named the boy Leight. It just tickled me. It's not for my sake but for my son's, more than anything. I'm just pleased to see there'll be another Leight Johnson."
Later, I asked Leight whether he had any memorials set up for Johnny, and he said no, but went on to talk about "the closest thing I have to a memorial."
"I had him cremated," he said. "I told you we had a house in Vermont with 30 acres of land. When my father died in the early 70's, we had him cremated and I scattered his ashes back in the woods under three maple trees, three big old maple trees. And then when Johnny died, we decided to do the same thing. And now whenever I go up to Vermont, the first thing I do the first day is walk back-- it's back in the woods, a good hundred yards back- -and I talk to them. Leight the first, that was my father, and then me and then Johnny, the three Leights back there, I go and I talk to them--"how you guys doing? you keeping an eye on the woods for me?" I remember one day--it must have been ten years ago now--we were up there late March, and had a very warm day. I went back there alone and sat down on the ground right there under these trees with the warm sun coming in, the first warm day of spring, and I fell asleep, just lying on the ground there. And when I woke up a few minutes later, I remember having the most terrifically peaceful feeling. Just--I don't know how to describe it, just to say, so completely peaceful."
"Why do you think that was?" I asked.
"Because of the warm sunshine, you know how that affects everybody. And just that association with my father and my son, just everything came together at that moment. I'm kind of an agnostic, but that's as close as I come to believing in an afterlife."
I think this merged, mysterious aspect of the bond is that both parent and child are links in a chain that connects the past with the future. And the chain isn't just any chain. It's family, it's one's own kind, it's a definition of you that goes beyond your own self.
My grandmother and her sister, my great-aunt Thyra, grew up and settled down in the prairies of Illinois. They'd drive my grandmother's Jeep down those straight, bare dirt roads, passing farms now and then, me in the back seat listening, and they'd talk about the people who lived in the farms. "Junie Kuhn lives there now, he's John and Clara Kuhn's son. Wasn't Clara a Miller, cousin to Paulie Miller, old Charlie's youngest?" I learned fast: you knew who someone was by knowing who they were kin to.
Of course that's old-fashioned now and with a few exceptions like Brandt and his family "feeding down to the fifth and sixth generations," families are scattered all over. But even in small families, we define ourselves by who our parents and our brothers and sisters are and are not. My mother was a librarian, I began my career as a librarian. She kept a messy house, I keep a neat one. My father loved Bach's music, and so do I. My sister could bake pies, so I specialized in cakes. But the definition that families provide goes beyond careers, tastes, and specialties.
"My family was a small family," said Julia, meaning the family in which she had grown up, "they were not close, they all kind of lost each other. So I was very slow in really grasping what my friends seemed to realize just naturally--that what children mean to you, when you talk about meaning overall, in the big sense of meaning, is all these different generations on down. It's really a part of you. I never really thought much about grandchildren, I could take it or leave it. But as I think of Simone and I think of children she might have had--your children, whether they're biological or not, just are such an extension of yourself. Talk about mortality. In some kind of common everyday kind of language, that has to be a part of all these strong, strong, strong ties."
THE TIE, THE BOND, is indeed strong. But its exact nature is still unclear, and saying that the parent and child are somehow merged doesn't clarify it much; the parents unconsciously described it by identifying their children, their own futures, and their own kind.
Anne Perkins had another way of describing it. She began in her usual roundabout way. "I can see how you might say a part of you has died." Then as though she were continuing the same subject, she said, "Even with my kids older, I'm always thinking creatively about them. I remember thinking before Robert died, I'll buy those sheets for Robert, or at Christmas he looked like he needed a new pair of socks, or I wonder if he forgot to get his hair cut again. Children are always present. Then suddenly, they're not there and you can't have the same kind of presence. You can't think, what are they going to be like on the job? or should they be calling so-and-so? You're creatively engaged in their lives. But they die and that changes, and the change is, they're on your mind but in another way."
I thought I knew what she meant by "thinking creatively" and "creatively engaged": that parents create their children's lives the same way they create their own-- new socks? haircut? job? I said, "I used to daydream about T.C.'s job options the same way I did about my own."
"Exactly," she said, "It's part of being a parent, that you're always a parent. They're so much part of your total being."
ANOTHER REASON I BELIEVE the centrality of the bond is much simpler; I just listened to the parents talk about their children.
Estelle: "I have to tell you about an experience. For many many years, I used to say, after he died, 'If I could just hug him one more time.' That was constantly in my mind. About three or four years ago, my sister-in-law was visiting from Chicago and she's a very religious person. And way into the night we were talking about religion-- saints and angels and the devil and God. And we finally turned in about 2:00 a.m. And I went upstairs, and I was sitting on the side of the bed, I was not asleep, and all of a sudden, I saw my son in front of me. And I stood up and he came into my arms and I hugged him."
Estelle's voice got high and shaky: "And then it's as if I hugged so tight that I lost him. And since then I can't say, 'Dear God, let me hug him one more time,' because I feel He let me do it. And I think if I told this to the wrong people they would think I was crazy. But I felt him that night."
I am unable to believe such things. I do believe Estelle believed it. Whichever belief is right is irrelevant. Anyway, which is harder to believe, that Estelle's son would come back from being dead and hug her, or that Estelle would want him back so much that her brain would reconstruct his body for her?
Loretta Marsh: "I think people are telling me that I should let go of Mike. I wouldn't have let go if he was still here, so why let go if he's not here? He was my son, I raised him. I'd had different people say to me, 'Would you rather that he'd lived but been crippled?' Oh, I've told them--'No hands, no arms, no legs. I would have took care of him the rest of my life.' I went one night to the cemetery at 12 midnight, got out of bed and went up there and screamed and screamed and screamed. And I thought, "If you could just come back, five minutes.' And then I thought, 'Loretta, it's been six years.' But I guess at 50 years I'll still feel the same."
Joann: "Most people have no reason to think about all the layers that children mean to you. I mean, you just love them so much, that I don't think you ever really think about how much they mean to you until--I mean, you just love them so much."
Whatever this bond is, it doesn't break. "Something happens during the establishment of the parent-child bond," Robert Weiss said, "so that the child's well-being is the same as your own, and it doesn't even feel like altruism. We don't fully understand it, maybe we don't understand it very much at all, but we do know that it is as powerful a bond as it is in people's capacity to establish. The bonding is what you're about."
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