Last week, we made our annual trek to Michigan for my husband J's family reunion. He is the eldest of four kids and all of the siblings have 3-4 kids. We all stay in one house and it is a big, wild time.
Let's just say that the grandkids are a big deal in this family. For 11 years, at least one wife has been pregnant almost constantly. Matthew was to have been grandkid #14. J's sister is now expecting a baby girl in September. There are a lot of babies in the family.
Last year, I was 12 weeks pregnant during the family reunion. We were constantly talking about what "next year" would be like with four kids...a plane with four kids?!?!? How would we fit into a car to be picked up at the airport?? Would we have to have a baby AND D in our room with us?? Last year, there was so much anticipation about what it would be like this year.
But, little did we know...
The grief started to bubble up when we got on the plane. We weren't trying to juggle four kids on the plane...only three. When we were picked up at the airport, we all fit in the van, given that there were only five of us. Our room didn't have to have an infant and a toddler. Just the toddler (who insisted in sleeping in our bed every night). The lack of sleep didn't make the rising grief any better. At one point, I heard someone refer to J's sister's baby as "#14." I wanted to throw a tantrum and insist that her baby is #15...and that Matthew is #14. I had the most minute bit of self-control and did not throw said tantrum anywhere except my mind. And to my husband. And to my poor dad via text message. Sorry, dad.
Each year, my sister-in-law has t-shirts made for this family reunion. Typically they are some interesting graphic or an artistic rendering of our last name. She does a great job and they are really fun shirts. This year, she handed them out while I was out of the room. I came in and J said, "here's this year's t-shirt," handing me one. This year's design was a family tree with silhouettes of each person in the family. My in-laws are at the bottom, and my husband and each of his siblings and their families get a branch for their silhouettes. Immediately I went to "our" branch. There were five images there. Five. Only five, not six. Two adults, three kids. And, I lost it. I broke into tears and ran away.
My poor sister-in-law thought I was mad that she handed out the shirts while I was gone. Not at all. It was just that visual reminder that we are still, to the world's eyes, a family of five. It was a visual reminder to me of who was missing. All that had been swelling in my heart since I stepped on to the plane and began to remember how we thought it would be, came crashing down. I swirled into the mental torrent...how did this happen? He is supposed to be here! Last year, I was here and I was pregnant, and there was supposed to be a baby and he should be six months old right now and how is it possible that this is my life???
Later, after I calmed down, I realized a couple things. One is that I am deeply afraid that Matthew will be forgotten by everyone but me and J. I want him to be remembered because his memory is all I have left. I know people are afraid to bring him up for fear of hurting me, but it already hurts and it actually makes me feel better when his life is acknowledged.
The other thing I realized is that sometimes what will hurt the most, what will trigger the grief, is totally unanticipated. I could not have prepared for the reunion t-shirt to trigger something so major in my heart. Probably for the rest of my life, there will be things that I CAN anticipate that will trigger the grief, and then there will be things that just hit me out of the blue. This is my reality.
So much of this past year has been about learning to live in the tension of what was supposed to be and what is, or what is and what isn't, or what is and what is. Like I have another son, but he's not here. He was alive, but he's not now. We're a family of six, but we're a family of five.
On the t-shirt, the image that is D is holding a balloon. I've decided that the balloon can represent Matthew, at least to me. Balloons are tangible, balloons are light, balloons bring joy, and balloons rise toward Heaven.
Oh, sweet boy, your Mama misses you so much.