My son has a red lump on his left arm. It rose a bit at the site of a flu vaccine he received yesterday, when we visited the pediatrician for a benign ailment which has now disappeared. We waited for the doctor and I read the poster with charts: “Quantifying Morbidity and Mortality for Influenza”. (I know too much about morbidity and mortality, so I said yes when the vaccine was offered). A short time after, as we left, he sneezed. I asked if he was reacting to the vaccine (he was not), and, forgive me, my mind raced to the possibility of him having a rare deadly reaction and dying right there on the tiled floor. I imagine frequently that those I love will suddenly die. I see this partly as a feature of PTSD, and partly as direct knowledge which some people can avoid. This was a milder episode of panic than I sometimes experience, especially since I was already in the presence and consult of a doctor. This is a doctor who has been to the edge of hell together with me, so she understood.
When I was growing up, I always had knowledge of my first cousin, Wendy, who died long before I was born. This happened before the discovery of a vaccine for measles. She had the measles, with complications, and she died. She was five, just like Susanna.
Shortly after Susanna died, I sent a Facebook friend request to Wendy’s sister, who I had met once and knew little about, other than the appearance of her smiling young face in a couple of family photos. She accepted, herself ill and near the end of her life, and expressed her sorrow to learn that “once again tragedy had been experienced by the Freer family” in this way. Death itself is not a tragedy. We all die. The death of a child is a tragedy because of the unending pain it causes. I do not know that Susanna, in her location on the other side, laments not having lived longer. I tend to doubt that. I never will live a day without considering her absence a tragedy. My life is not a tragedy overall, but there will never be a resolution which does not include a missing piece, one which has left a hole with a painful jagged edge.
Many people think of Susanna, and feel heart- broken knowing what happened to us. Her death rippled and reached many, even those who did not know her. My family and friends grieve for her still, in their own ways. There will be times that they think about her, and times that they wish things had happened differently. For me, time moves on, but Susanna’s death is always there. It will greet me every morning, and color every event. In some ways, it will make me love a bit deeper and even seize moments I may have missed. It will make me less likely to attach importance to things which are not important. It will not remove me from life or the truth, it will make me reflect them more honestly.
This is something I wrote a few years ago.
When I go to heaven, I hope I can do the following things:
- Make a box of macaroni and cheese for Susanna and watch her eat the whole thing. We will have come home before her father and brother from the playground (Susanna will not be crying like she used to if she had fallen or become tired, and I will not feel confused and bored, nor will I be missing her in despair like now. This is heaven, after all). We will watch an episode of “Peppa Pig” with that song in those beautiful English accents. “Peace and harmony, around the world…….”
- Open a cassette from one of those long plastic boxes from Caldor, put it into a boom box and play it over and over again because the whole thing, every note, is perfect and all I can think of is “Again!” It may be Bruce Springsteen, or New Order. It doesn’t really matter.
- Have many massages with hot towels and aromatherapy. Or the equivalent of that for someone without a body.
- Talk to all of my students who cannot speak now. I want them to have the opportunity to comment on whatever we did in class, at least once.
- Talk to my uncle and aunt who I never met, and tell them I am so sorry they lost their five- year-old daughter to the measles because I know how they felt (though they are dead, and I am hoping the dead have healed from losses. I want to do it anyway). Then jump over to thank whoever invented the measles vaccine.
- Perhaps float in clouds made of vanilla ice cream, like I used to imagine when I was Susanna’s age. I digress.
You, with Susanna as muse, write beautifully together.