One of my favorite features of Denver International Airport is the long, long moving walkway. I like how it helps travelers traverse the great distance across terminals at exponential speed. It’s gratifying to step on an already-moving conveyor belt, and become strangely quick with minimal effort. Passing by all the regular pedestrians on the stationary floor gives a sense of gliding along like a gazelle, while a slow-motion turtle next to me is doing his best to keep up.
Keep trying, little turtle.
I don’t know if WAYYYY back in the late nineties (just stop reading if you weren’t even born), you happened to see a little Gwenyth Paltrow film called Sliding Doors. At the beginning of the movie, the Paltrow character misses her subway train (or does she?), and for the rest of the film, the viewer is given insight into two versions of Paltrow, two alternate realities of her life: one if she had made the train, and one if she had missed it.
Sometimes it feels like there are two versions of me, two realities which have to exist because there’s no other option. I can’t erase either version, because both are now essential to who I am.
One version of me is on the moving walkway, because that moving walkway is time. It’s impossible to stop. I couldn’t get off it if I tried. My husband is there, my kids are there, my sweet foster son is there. The daily requirements of cooking, cleaning, wiping snotty noses, and eating chocolate are there.
The other version of me stands on the stationary ground next to the walkway. I am watching my other version be carried away by the necessities of time and living. The stationary version of me holds Elliot tightly to my chest, cradling his memory as any mommy cradles her baby. I also watch friends and family moving along the walkway, as new babies are born, houses are sold and bought, children grow up, holidays and birthdays come and go with every season.
One version of me had to get back on that moving walkway. Occasionally, I’ve heard people observe that a bereaved person seemed to be “moving on,” as if it’s a positive show of healing willpower. Well, I can’t speak for other bereaved parents, but I know for me that is not the case. As much as I wanted to stop time when my son died, I had no power to do so. I am alive in this world, and time is relentless. “Moving on” is just the reality that I can’t stop the walkway. How can it be fall once again? Soon it will be Christmas and another new year. And the me holding my little baby boy seems to fade further into the background.
And yet I am still her, still also the version who will never, who CAN never “move on.” I am gazing at the face of the baby this body bore, whose birth scar I forever wear. I am holding the hand of a little boy who wrapped his fingers tightly around mine, whose perfect clear eyes I gazed into. I am in awe of my son, who fought for his brief life for ten weeks after my water broke, nine of those weeks while I lay on bedrest, seven of those weeks in the hospital. I smile at the thought of a little boy who almost died during delivery but who would NEVER GIVE UP. I remember how he cupped his hands to his face, and the delicacy of his legs as I changed his diaper. I am her. I am that mommy. Elliot’s mommy. This is the version of me who can’t fathom changing my Facebook profile picture or removing his framed photos in my home.
So what do these two versions have to do with each other? A lot.
The version of me who moves along the walkway of life, who homeschools Sylvie and Val, who is now a foster mom, who makes up silly songs and dances to Latino music, owes so much to that lady on the sidelines. I look back at her, still holding Elliot, and am reminded again and again and again…I am on this conveyor for now. There is an ending, which will really be a new beginning. Someday I’ll get to the end of the line, and take a step off into forever.
One book which has kept me sane since losing Elliot is Imagine Heaven by John Burke. At first I was skeptical because the whole premise of the book revolves around near-death experiences. But once I read it, I felt pretty convinced people really have experienced foretastes of what awaits us in heaven, the way Paul and John in the New Testament write about their glimpses of heaven. One of the pictures the book paints that encouraged me most was the way people there experienced (or didn’t experience) time. It was a timeless place, where they neither felt rushed or slowed. They could experience each precious moment for as long as they liked.
What will it be like for time to stop its relentless progression at the very moment I get to be reunited with my son? Will I hold him for eons before I let him go? Maybe. That mental image reminds me of the version of me standing on stationary ground, holding onto my Elliot. It’s the me who truly is a “stranger and pilgrim in this land.”
But the version of me on the walkway has to keep moving. Time gives me no choice. So I watch the girls grow and lose teeth and become adept at monkey bars. I learn to navigate the new world of foster care with its meetings and paperwork and uncertainties. I have lunch with friends and meet at parks for playdates. And the me on the sidelines gains strength from the version of me who keeps moving, knowing she is honoring Elliot’s memory as she gives to and loves her other children.
Usually the two versions of me take turns. Unlike the first six months or so after losing Elliot, in which I now recognize I was probably trapped in the initial shock of PTSD, I have some control over how I deal with triggers when they appear. I have to live most my life on the walkway. And if there is a trigger like seeing a baby around Elliot’s age or hearing a sound that reminds me of being in the hospital, I can take a deep breath and tell my grief and trauma I will deal with them later. Then, when I am alone or maybe in conversation with a trusted friend, I will allow myself the freedom of being the mommy on the sidelines, holding my Elliot and mourning him all over again. And when all the inner depths of my broken heart have once again had a chance to weep until no tears remain, I step back on the moving treadmill of time.
The hardest moments come when I’m in a situation where both versions of me need to have expression, but they cannot. When I really need to focus and parent my children, or in a situation it would be socially awkward to let my tears freely fall, the two versions spin round and round in my head. This is sometimes when PTSD seems to be stronger than all my willpower or rationality. It’s when panic sets in, when nothing makes sense. Be patient with people in your life who’ve experienced trauma. They truly cannot help how they might react when the two versions of themselves collide.
The difference, I think, about a traumatic event that is purely negative and one that surrounds the life and death of a loved one, is that “letting go” of a purely negative trauma can give the trauma victim a lot of freedom. For those of us who’ve lost loved ones, and especially who’ve lost children, we can’t let go. I can’t let go of everything that hurts about Elliot’s death, because all of it is inexorably linked to Elliot’s life. It would not give me freedom to erase the version of me on the sidelines. It would be a painful prison, locked into a silence where I didn’t feel free to share about my son.
So I share about him. I weep that I am missing out on a whole lifetime with him. I rejoice that I will be spoiled with an eternity with him. I choose to step out of time and be with him once again. And there, in the slowed-down timeless place, I find courage and strength I couldn’t find anywhere else.
This is just another gift my son gives to me: the gift of being able to step off the treadmill of time, to remember what once was, and to fix my eyes on what will forever be.