My mother just turned 70 (apologies to my mother for putting that online). She had indicated she wanted to have a birthday party. She hasn’t had a real party in….I don’t even know how long. If you’ve made it to 70, you certainly deserve a party, particularly if you are simultaneously battling cancer, as she is. And particularly if your grandson died at your house.
I grew up in the house where my mom still lives. All of my teenage angst was melodramatically acted out by me in that home. Countless late night conversations were had, a few arguments and triple the amount of laughter all occurred there. As a mom, I’ve been carting my kids there for years and taking them to the beach where I learned to boogie board and pick up touristy rednecks from the valley (easy targets, you can’t blame me). No matter how many years I have been gone, when I drive past the last rolling hill on the side of the freeway, where the view gives way to a sparkly blue ocean, I have always felt home. “Hello, my ocean,” I have always thought to myself.
After my son died at that house, I have been terrified to return. My mom asked if it would be too hard to come back. I lied, initially. I pretended it didn’t matter because we were going to have a party. I sent out the invitation in haste. Better to get the ball rolling irretrievably. My uncle offered to host the party at his restaurant. I bought a few decorations. I ordered 20 cupcakes. And I dreaded the moment I would walk into my mother’s house and lay eyes on the spot where my son’s life ended.
Over the weeks approaching the visit, I kept checking for clues that my daughter didn’t want to go. There weren’t any. I told my mother that if things were too difficult, we’d get a hotel. I thought about it most of the way down. What would it be like? How am I going to serve breakfast to my daughter at the same table he fell back from? How screwed up is that?? I thought about how I used to love that table. I did my homework at that table. I invited almost every boyfriend I ever dated to come sit at the table and watch my mom pretend to like them. Sometimes she even did.
We arrived. I walked into the house first while my husband got my daughter out of the car. My mom wasn’t home from the store yet. The house was dark and quiet. I flipped on the light, my eyes falling right on that table. It did feel sad. I couldn’t focus on it long, though. My daughter came in and it quickly turned into bath/books/bedtime. When I walked upstairs to put my daughter to bed, I remembered getting up with my son the morning he died. It was just he and I; everyone else was asleep upstairs. He wanted to crawl up the stairs, as he always did. I followed him slowly. He was happy and excited, making way too much noise for 7am. “Shh,” I told him, saying it more for me than really believing my 13 month old would actually listen. He turned around, put a very uncoordinated finger in front of his lips and said, “Shhh!” back. He looked like a tiny drunk teenager coming back from a party. He was so funny. As I walked up that stair this time, I felt him and that moment we had. My heart broke a little. I’m not trying to describe something definitive or other-worldly. It was that his memory/energy/whatever wasn’t at that table. If it was anywhere, it was on the stairs. It was where he lived that mattered, not where he died. Every time I passed by that stair that weekend, I felt it. I felt him. It was bittersweet. Shhh.
The following day we took our daughter to the beach. She ran back and forth from the water hooting and hollering like a madman. So excited. My husband and I stood by the water, watching our girl drag seaweed around and pick up dozens of treasured bird feathers. We talked about the concept of coming back. He talked about the beautiful beach, and the fact that this was my old home. He touted the benefits of being able to come down there and that what happened with our son didn’t have to define how we look at this place. I wouldn’t have blamed him if he told me he never wanted to return, but he didn’t. Instead he was a cheerleader with a better perspective. It was him who was convincing me that what happened there didn’t mean having to hate the place. I looked out at my familiar blue ocean. I had been so scared to come back. But looking out at my old sea again, I felt relief. Everything didn’t have to be ruined. The things I used to love, I could still love. Seems simple, I guess, but I had to live it first.
The weekend wasn’t the horrifying experience I feared. I spent all of my teen years at this house, not to mention countless visits throughout my adult life. Even my son had good times there. All weekend I watched my daughter play with cars on the living room floor, the same cars he used to put in his mouth. And yes, I served her meals at the same table that he died at. It wasn’t traumatic. The day he died was the worst thing that’s ever happened to me. But it wasn’t the house. It was the event. It was a relief to know I could keep the two separate and, apparently, so could my daughter.
The birthday party was a huge success. A grand total of 19 people attended. I was glad I came, even though it scared me. I drove down there thinking that if things were too hard, I’d fake being sick at Thanksgiving so I wouldn’t have to return. I left the party looking forward to coming back.
I did go into the room he used to sleep in and I talked to him. I looked at the office chair where I used to nurse him. I kissed the edge of the dining chair where his head hit, just trying to connect with the last thing that came in contact with my still living son. I touched the part of the table where he ate his last meal, moments before he fell. You do those things, too. You hold it all in one big ball. I’m sure every time I pass by that stair I’ll hear that funny sound again. A sound of him alive. Shhh. It hurts, but it’s OK, too.