What I Want You to Know About the Noise

A few nights before the last day of school, you stub your toe coming up our stairs, and the toenail chips and pulls partly away from the skin. I am outside pulling weeds when it happens, listening to an audiobook. I hear a noise faintly through the earbuds. At first, I think it is a neighbor’s toddler resisting bedtime but, as I pause to listen, I recognize the sound of your cries. Their cadence and tone. Immediately I spring up, taking the stairs from the yard to the patio three-at-a-time in a panic. I run inside and I am relieved to find you holding your toe. Although I am initially afraid that you may have broken it based on your level of distress, I come to realize that it is the sight of blood that is disturbing you. I try to comfort you as best as I can, telling you it’s not broken, hugging you, trying to make you laugh. None of it works, so I opt for another tactic: distraction. I take you out for food at a favorite restaurant. When we get home, I see that in my haste I have left the back door wide open. My gardening gloves sit, mud-side down, on our sofa.

Later, while you start a bath, I head outside and break down a tent to spare it from tomorrow morning’s sprinklers. As I start to pack up the poles, I hear you crying again from a distance. I bound up the stairs again, and find you dangling your foot outside of the bathtub complaining that the water makes it hurt. I tell you that you can leave your foot out of the tub as long as you wash the rest of your body. You stop crying and I go back out to finish taking down the tent in the fading light. Ozzy follows me and begins jumping on the tarp as I try to roll it, certain that I am playing some kind of game with him. I hear you crying again and now I am racing to finish rolling the tent, but Ozzy only thinks I am playing the game more intensely. He begins to nip at me and pounce on the tent. I pick him up out of frustration and for a moment there is a temptation to throw him far away, to shed myself of anyone or anything that stands in the way of me rolling up this goddamned tent before the goddamned sprinklers ruin it in the goddamned morning. I take a breath and set him down and, by some miracle, I get the tent inside its case.

I come back inside to find you toweling off and sobbing in the bathroom. Before I can ask, you say, “I’m not crying about my toe. I’m crying because I miss Mommy.”

“Me too,” I say, and no two words have ever felt as true.

Someone you love has died and you are reeling, just absolutely reeling. You’re not even really grieving yet. You are just in a state of pure shock. You don’t really want to hear people’s condolences or their suggestions, but people offer them anyway.

Someone calls you up or stops you on the street and says, “It won’t always hurt this much; somehow things will get better.”

Another person writes a sympathy card, which says, “I’m sorry to tell you this, but the hole in your heart will never go away.”

At this point, you aren’t wondering if things will get better or if holes will heal. Even if you were wondering if life will find a way to mend itself, you don’t really want it to. Your mind tells you that the idea that everything will be fine again is a threat. That a life that is fine again is a sign your loss was insignificant. That losing that person was no different than finding out some celebrity or politician has died.

At the same time, you know that it is not sustainable to live with this much sadness and pain. My God, what kind of person would want to live the rest of his or her life feeling like that?

You shake me from my sleep and say, “Daddy, it’s the last day of school!” You are up twenty minutes earlier than most mornings, which means I am, too. Most mornings you need me to cajole or bribe you to movement, to tell you how many minutes we have until school starts. But today you get dressed and ready without any prompting. You even let me comb your hair after I promise not to sneak any gel into it. I snap a picture of you smiling at our front door. We hop in the car and arrive to class, the first time we are early all year. The teacher’s aide checks your temperature, then you are on your way. You turn back to me and wave, and I can tell you are smiling under your mask.

A few hours later, I drive back to the school and come out to greet you. Your teacher sees me and calls out your name, letting you know I’ve arrived. You grab your backpack from off a bench and run toward me. I pick you up and throw you into the air, as high as I can manage. We drive to In-N-Out for a celebratory lunch. We find a table outside, a two-seater, and we begin to eat. Between bites, you tell me about your favorite things from the past year, your hopes for the summer, and what makes you nervous about second grade. I recount all your accomplishments from the past year and tell you how proud I am of you, and how proud I think your mom would be. You tell me that you miss her. I say that I do too, and we both chew our fries in silence. After a few moments, you ask if we can watch YouTube on my phone. We choose a “try not to laugh challenge” compilation and turn the volume up loud. Neither of us makes it past the third video before we lose the challenge, looking up at one another to know we are not alone.

When you are grieving, there’s always an emotion lurking behind the main one you are feeling at any given moment.

When you’re happy, there’s a sadness there, sometimes subtle and other times so overpowering it’s almost hard to remember you were happy to begin with. You laugh at something amusing and immediately think how you want to share it with the loved one, only to be reminded again of his or her absence.

When you’re sad and lonely, you become aware that you have broken through the numbness that is the body and mind’s defense mechanism to certain traumas. Somehow feeling sad makes the person you lost feel closer. You end up feeling glad for that sadness, or at least relieved not to feel so numb.

These emotions that hide behind other ones are part of why grief is so exhausting. It’s like having someone talking during a movie, always breaking you out of the reverie of the moment. Or like the GPS navigation interrupting the song just as it hits the chorus to remind you to turn left at the next light.

But the chatter abates over time. The talking turns to a whisper. The navigation stops interrupting at every turn. Which is what I think people mean when they tell you that somehow life gets easier. The hole in your heart remains, and the pain never goes away, as others have reminded you, but the volume turns down. You start to be able to feel one thing at a time.

That’s what healing is. Not a forgetting or a moving on, but a slow recalibrating of the dials a little bit closer to their factory settings.

For us, the chatter is still very loud. Many adjustments will need to be made to the dials. In due time, they will be, and we will be glad for that. But for now, we live with the noise, and we know that as discordant as it all may sound, it says the same thing: “I miss Mommy,” “Me too.”

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