A few weeks ago the girls and I went for a walk. Gabrielle insisted on walking, so off we went down the street, Julia in the little red wagon, Gabrielle running along beside her. Somewhere along the way we stopped, and started running around in circles, me turning the wagon around and around so Julia could spin next to Gabrielle.
And that’s when I saw it. Gabrielle spinning. Julia sitting in the wagon, spinning. And across from Julia, an empty seat.
My heart stopped. My breath whooshed out, the way it did when I was in second grade and I slipped off the monkey bars and slammed my stomach into the metal pole on the way down. I remember lying on the ground, not being able to breathe, wondering how I was going to get another breath and was I going to die, in the sand, while my classmates ran back to class.
But Gabrielle kept spinning. I kept spinning. And my girls laughed as we spun, my eyes never leaving the empty seat, until finally, just like it did when I was seven, I was suddenly able to inhale. And as I breathed in, I told Gabrielle she had to get in the wagon, and I put her in that empty seat, Caitlin’s seat, so I wouldn’t have to see it anymore.
This is where I find myself in my grief. The early days and months, when every day there was never a question of *if* I was going to cry, but rather *when*, are gone. The crying doesn’t come like it used to. And while it seems that would be a blessing, in some ways it’s worse. What they don’t mention in grief books, is that once you’ve moved on to acceptance, you’ll be hit with reminders of what your life is missing when you least expect it. They are like punches to your gut. Not metaphoric punches. Actual punches. You can feel your stomach recoil as it’s hit. They have the power to sober a normal, happy day in a heartbeat.
Like walking through Target, with the huge shopping cart that has two seats attached at the head of the cart, so you can still shop with an entire cart and the kids can’t grab its contents and start lobbing missiles. The girls are holding hands and laughing, and you look up to see the empty seat in the cart across from them. Caitlin’s seat.
Or when you post your children’s photo in their Tigger & Piglet costumes on a twins/triplet clothing exchange, and a woman whose profile showed her holding three infants responds, “Oh, I wish you had a third in the Winnie the Pooh theme, my girls would look so adorable!” I couldn’t help myself – even though she meant no harm and had no way of knowing – I wrote, “I wish I had a third too.”
Or when you hear your father-in-law say, “I have six grandkids, and five are girls.” And you quickly count heads and realize it should be seven grandkids, and six girls, and that Caitlin isn’t included.
Or the little girl in your children’s art class. Just a month or so older than them, sitting and painting with them, sharing and stealing crayons. And you hear her father call, “Caitlin!” And you want to puke on the table, but tossed cookies aren’t on the schedule as that day’s art medium.
Or when one day a few weeks ago Gabrielle was looking at a button on my shirt sleeve. “What’s this?” she asked, pointing. And before I could say, “It’s a button,” she said, seemingly from nowhere, “It’s Caitlin’s eye.”
Or when we were putting puzzle pieces away, and I saw the C, and said, “C is for Caitlin. Do you know who Caitlin is?” (We’ve done this before, and I have told them – and they’ve repeated to me when I ask – that Caitlin was in mommy’s tummy with them). And Julia says, “I love Caitlin!”
But after every moment, I find myself still breathing. And think maybe, just maybe, I can make it.
Even if I don’t always have a full breath.