All the light we cannot see

My girl is back, and the house feels right in a way that it hasn’t in months and months and months. I haven’t been locking my bedroom door before going to bed at night, the way I do when I’m the only one sleeping here. Every night when I turn the little knob in the handle, I know I’m being silly. I know that no one is going to break in while I am sleeping. I know that even if someone were to try, that flimsy lock would be scant protection from harm. I feel the absurdity all the more when I consciously choose to leave the door unlocked the first night Grace is home.

Maybe she will need to come in during the night, I think, as if she were still a little girl who might need her mother in the darkest hours of the day.

In these first days back, it is just the two of us here. She is home for break, but both of us are still working. She has papers to write, and I have an all-day training to put on two days after her arrival. Her first night, a Wednesday, is my first day of migraine. I push through pain and fatigue and that constant low-level hum in my skull that keeps me from the sleep I need to conquer the headache. Every Thursday meal is take-out.

Friday afternoon, after the training is done and I am officially released for winter break, she tells me to go to bed. “Only for an hour,” I say. “I need to get my sleep back on track.” Nearly two hours later she wakes me, and we order a pizza. “Tomorrow we are eating real food,” I promise.

The next day I am supposed to attend a work-related meeting, but that night I hardly sleep. I’ve been trying not to take any more meds–I’m already over the recommended dose for the week, and in the past year there have been some stern conversations with me about that in which words such as “heart attack” and “stroke” have been used–but I can’t stand the pain any more. I swallow a pill at 4:00 AM, counting on the odds to be in my favor, so she won’t have to deal with any heart attack or stroke while she’s here alone with me.

Later that morning, after waking again, I’m still in migraine fog, but the pain has lifted. I miss my meeting, knowing that if I go I am guaranteeing myself another night like the one I’ve just had, and I don’t want to play medication roulette again.

We have a slow day. I putter, picking up the worst of the week’s clutter. We talk. She procrastinates on the paper due by 9:00 pm. I take a shower mid-day and go to the grocery store, so I can make good on my promise to cook real food. I give her feedback on her paper, the way I used to do when she was in high school. She clicks “send” on it, and I make popcorn and we watch a movie, snuggled together with the dogs.

Sunday morning I sleep in–finally–and wake with my head almost clear. Daisy dog and I settle in with a cup of tea and Nina Riggs’s The Bright Hour, a memoir about living while dying of cancer. Riggs and her two sons are so young–she died before turning 40–that I can hardly stand reading it, but I do because the writing is so beautifully sharp, like sunshine on snow.

It is when she writes about wondering how to tell her sons that she is going to die, and I remember mine at the ages hers are in the memoir, that I have to take a break from it. During the year his dad and I were coming apart, Will had trouble sleeping. (Oh, nuts and trees, nuts and trees…) I would let him get out of bed and lie on the couch while I sat at the nearby computer, prepping for my next day’s lessons. When I was finally done working for the day, he’d be asleep. I would pick him up to carry him to bed, his arms gripping my neck as he breathed into it, his long legs dangling from my hips. I knew that in maybe less than a year, I’d no longer be able to carry him that way; he’d be too big and I’d be too small. The idea that there would be nights I couldn’t because we’d be sleeping under different roofs, that I would not be able to carry him because I wouldn’t be there, wrecked me. Reading now, this morning so many years from then, I can hardly stand to imagine all the feelings Riggs didn’t put into her book–or, at least, the feelings I imagine I would have had if, instead of a divorce, I’d been facing a terminal diagnosis.

I go to Facebook and distract myself with photos of friends, many from my own childhood. One has a son who just graduated from college. Others are cooking or attending parties or–more so than usual in this most wonderful time of the year–missing parents and grandparents who are forever gone. I see a message from my first best friend; we have both just celebrated birthdays. I reply, reminiscing about the time it snowed during our joint slumber party, and I feel myself choking up.

I miss her so. There are so many people I miss now. In response to my last post here, a cousin wrote, “I sure feel that I have missed much of your life.” Yes. Yes, we have missed much of each others’ lives. I remember the time she lived at our grandparents’ house, an interim stop on her flight from her parents’ nest. When I’d visit, she’d drive me to Baskin Robbins for ice cream and polish my nails, and we’d sleep together in her bed. I remember lying there in the dark, under the eaves of a house none of us can now go home to, listening to her tell me stories about her mother and her sisters and her fiance, who was living in another state for reasons I don’t remember, and I miss her and our grandmother and that house.

I think about the horribly corny movie Grace and I watched on Friday (The Christmas Prince), which we howled through because it was so full of terrible cliches. When the main character tells a child that her dead parent is always with her and never really gone, I think:  That’s such bullshit. Why do we tell each other these things that aren’t true?

I cuddle the dog, sip the tea, wondering when Grace will get up. I think about how I so often feel when I am alone in the house, contemplating what I assume will be my future, and how it feels so different now, just knowing that she is sleeping in the room beneath me and will soon come up the stairs, groggy from sleep.

I think about how I missed half the nights of the second half of my son’s childhood. About how I have missed  years of the lives of people I love. About how I am entering the third year of missing half of Cane’s days, and he mine. It is not enough to send cards or exchange Facebook messages or see each other once every few years. We need to share meals and errands and hugs. We need to carry each other to bed, whisper truths in our shared dark.

Unlike Nina Riggs, I am still alive, and I find myself wondering what I would want, how I would live if, like her, I learned on the night of winter solstice that my condition was eminently terminal–that I could not count on years in which to figure out what is essential and what can be–should be–let go.

I wonder why it is only in the not-something that I see so clearly what a something is. That it is only in my girl’s absence that I have seen all the things most precious in the life we once shared, and that it is only in her presence again that I am seeing the true outlines of all that my solitude does and does not hold.

9 thoughts on “All the light we cannot see

  1. Teresa Lightfoot says:

    This one has me crying happy and sad tears at the same time. I have too many sad memories that I need to replace with happier ones that are lost in my brain. I am so thankful to have access to yours. I have spent a lot of time with Vickie this year and she has the gift of a good memory that I appreciate. I still miss Gramma every day! I’m certain that we have this in common. I had made peace with my mom, and we became good friends. Since she has passed, I have been feeling that emptiness in my heart growing too big for me. I hope you and Grace enjoy every minute of her winter break. She is so beautiful and smart like her mother, grandmother and ggma. Have yourself a merry little Christmas! LYB, Teresa

    • Rita says:

      I do miss Grandma all the time, and I miss everyone being close. I know it wasn’t all that many years that most of us lived near each other, but it feels big in my memory. I’m glad you have Vickie; more and more she reminds me of Grandma. Grace reminds me of her, too–smart and feels deeply, but not sentimental and doesn’t show her feelings much. I wish she’d had more time with the Kink women growing up. She is more of one than she knows! You have a merry Christmas, too! I hope I get to see you this year. xoxo

  2. Marian says:

    So many thoughts about this post…
    1) There’s something so utterly endearing about carrying a sleeping almost-too-big child to bed, long limbs dangling or subconsciously wrapping; there’s a poignancy to this that feels entirely different than when you carry a sleeping baby or toddler.
    2) There’s a certain kind of bravery needed to read a book such as The Bright Hour. I don’t have that kind of bravery; I still have to fight from tearing up at the hockey rink whenever I see the boy — my youngest son’s age — who lost his mum to cancer two years ago.
    3) “That’s such bullshit. Why do we tell each other these things that aren’t true?” This is a post in and of itself. Also, along that same line: “Why do we pretend everything is fine when it’s not?”
    4) FWIW, I would be locking my door too. It seems to me that when everything is beyond our control it’s the little things we do that keep us sane. Even when we know they don’t *actually* matter or help.

    I’m so very glad for you that Grace is home.
    Wishing you and yours all the best, Rita.

    • Rita says:

      Hi Marian,
      I understand what you’re saying about The Bright Hour. I have been reading it in spurts; I find I have to take breaks from it. But it is a book so much like life–heartbreaking, but also beautiful and funny. Yeah, funny. There’s a lot of humor in it. I find myself staring at the photo of the author, in which she looks so vibrant. So alive. And I have to tell myself that she’s no longer alive, because that truth feels impossible when I am reading her words. That some of our bodies just die and there’s nothing we can really do about it feels unreal to me. That it happens so young to some of us, when we still have babies to raise. How can that be? And yet, it is. And it is making me think about how we live with the illusion that we have all the time in the world. As I’m getting older, I know in a different way that that isn’t true, but I know I don’t still know know it, the way I think I would if I knew that I only had a year or two. The book is a hard read in many ways, but I appreciate the way it is making me look squarely at questions about how I want to live whatever years I have coming to me. I don’t want to keep locking my door. I don’t want to keep telling myself lies (big or little) to help get me through the night.

      Wishing you all the best, too. I hope you have everyone with you, too. And I’m glad I’ll have you by my (virtual) side as we handle whatever the coming year brings to us. 🙂

  3. Kate says:

    I see so many different types of grief in your post. So many ways for the world to hurt us. And in the same post, I see the very best way (in my opinion) to deal with them. “We need to share meals and errands and hugs. We need to carry each other to bed, whisper truths in our shared dark hours” and the simple act of BEING together. It’s all so short and fragile.

    I’m having coffee with a friend soon. Her son and Abram are in the same class and she’s fighting breast cancer. She’s a ways short of 40. So young. With two young children. I know I couldn’t read the book you’ve read. At least not right now.

    Your posts are always so beautifully written, Rita. Thank you for sharing them with us. I hope you have a wonderful holiday.
    Kate recently posted…MadnessMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      Oh, Kate. I am so sorry to hear about your friend. This book, it is wrenching. When I remember my children at the ages hers were/are and imagine how it would have been to have faced what she did…I don’t know how I would have coped. I know I would have, somehow, because there’d be no other option. My own mortality isn’t something that troubles me much. It is the idea of leaving my children in this world without a mother that knocks me to my knees. I will never forget driving home from the hospital after they were born. I had to leave them there, and getting home required driving on a stretch of highway known (back then) as Blood Alley because of the large number of fatal accidents. I drove that road daily and never thought much about it–but that day, all I could think was that we had to traverse it safely because those babies needed me. I knew others could love them, but not like I would. Gah, this world! Life. It’s so beautiful and hard and heartbreaking, and the heartbreak all comes from the beauty. I’ll be holding you and your friend and her children in my heart. (Oh, and to balance out these words that I can see are the opposite of comforting: My grandmother had breast cancer in 1973. She is still alive. I have another friend who was diagnosed when her children were 5. They are graduating from high school this year, and she is here to see it, cancer-free. I so hope your friend will have a story like theirs.)

      • Kate says:

        Thank you, Rita. I hate saying she’s so beautiful and brave and strong, because she is, but I hate that she HAS to be. And I feel so trite saying it. You say it perfectly “I know I would have, somehow, because there’d be no other option.”
        Kate recently posted…MadnessMy Profile

  4. Lisa says:

    I find your writing so beautiful. I enjoy the sentences and the content and the perspective.

    I am glad you got some time with your kids at the holidays.

    When my husband isn’t home, I conduct a sweep under all the beds before going to bed. I can’t lock my bedroom door, since the kids frequently come in at night, but I once saw an episode of Luther (an Idris Elba murder mystery show on the BBC) that freaked me out forevermore about things under the bed (don’t google it).

    Hope your holidays filled you up till the next time the kids come home.
    Lisa recently posted…T’s bedroomMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      Thank you for the nice words and for letting me know I’m not the only one who does irrational things when alone at night. 🙂 I’m really wanting to google that, but I’m refraining. 🙂

      Luckily, I still have one kid home for another week, so I haven’t had to experience the complete deflation yet. Was mighty hard to put my son on a plane the other night. I’ll have to avoid his room for a while. It passes, though.

      Hope you had a wonderful time with yours, back in the heart of your family.

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