From the Editor Two planes

Our feet hovered above water as they dangled from the decrepit pier bruised by a hurricane from nature’s last season of wrath. I wouldn’t feel the sun’s angry impression on my skin for hours, but its intensity would keep me awake for several nights, eventually removing a layer of my epidermis, leaving my skin patterned like a doily.  

Before the burn, there was this moment of beauty on the pier’s edge, my husband’s body at my side, his leg pressing into mine, my hand in his. Morning had been spent skimming along the Belize Barrier Reef on a sailboat. Tour guides had taken us to a few different snorkeling spots, our eyes amazed by eel and reef sharks and a rainbow of tropical fish whenever we had stopped to snorkel. After mooring at an abandoned pier, our tour guides had encouraged us to explore the neighboring resort while they set up a barbecue lunch for our group. Adam and I had walked past the resort to this quiet spot where we reflected on our rare break from parenting.

“You know, we could retire here in six years,” he said, squeezing my hand while staring into the distant blue waters. “You could teach and I could be your tech person...Or a watersports instructor.” After a pause, he added, “Although, I’d need to learn how to kitesurf first.”

“Hard to believe all the kids will be in college in six years,” I said. Waves lapped against the wood pilings below us. “Actually, Hattie will be graduated at that point. And it’s not like…” my voice fell away, not sure how to talk about pregnancies and miscarriages in this moment. My fingers unconsciously reached for the delicate gold necklace with R-I-L-E-Y stamped across a tiny gold rectangle at the center.

After my last miscarriage almost a year earlier, we’d decided to let it go. No more IVF, no more trying. We would make do with our misshapen family – the one that included his two children, my living son and my dead son. There would be no more babies to fill the emptiness left by my 11-year-old’s death, not that a baby could replace him. I had just harbored a primal desire to create life after death. To hold a baby, to pour all of my love onto it, to keep it alive. But letting go had made space for dreaming about our childfree future.

“We’ll be able to go wherever we want. And here isn’t such a bad place. They speak English. There’s warm water – you don’t like to be cold,” his voice rose with excitement, although I could tell he was trying to temper his enthusiasm. “We could have a simple life. And I think we could afford to buy something near the water,” he said, knowing the cost of living in Belize was much lower than in the Bay Area where we lived.

We had come such a long way in the last three years, such a long way to this moment where I could dream of the future instead of being stuck in the past, the what-ifs and whys that never would have answers. To even be thinking about the future was something I rarely did. It wasn’t that long ago that I had wanted to die.

Just three weeks after Riley died, the driver’s side door swung open, and I climbed into my car. I was alone, and the streets seduced me toward the highway, my foot pressing the accelerator. Inertia pulled my slim frame into the seat as I merged into evening traffic. Gripping the wheel, my mind whirred with opportunity as my vision blurred from emotion. The voices were loud then. Just pull hard to the right, one purred. Or go faster and edge between cars. You’ll like it, I promise, cooed another. Just close your eyes. Trust me.

Ignoring their encouragement, I arrived at my dance class physically unharmed. Yet going to class to take my mind off things was an emotional misstep. I could not be with people. I felt too exposed, too vulnerable, too raw.

A few weeks later as winter rains pelted the drought-cracked earth, the street lured me again onto its expanse. This time, though, there was no car encasing me. Darkness hung over our town, over our house, and the road summoned my body. Just lie down, a voice encouraged. Barely remembering exiting the house, I stood on the slick pavement, searching the sky for my son. My eyes, my mind possessed, my body twitching with grief, desperate to go where he was. He was the oxygen tank ripped from my body, leaving me desperate to breathe but surrounded by water. It will hurt, but you won’t mind, wooed another voice. You know it’s what you really want.

Alone, drops soaked my clothing, my skin. Shaking from icy rainfall and nighttime temperatures and trauma splashing around the hippocampus, my arms hung limp as my feet walked me back inside. You’re such a coward, the voices sang mockingly as my husband’s arms held me tightly in our bed that night.

“Do you think she’ll really hurt herself?” our therapist asked my husband at our appointment that week. Her backyard office felt like it hung from redwood branches, suspended above the neighborhood below. I stared out into the foggy morning sky avoiding eye contact, looking for my son’s contours in tufts of clouds.

“No, I don’t think so. Even if she wants to, she has Carter. He’ll keep her here,” he said as his hands kneaded my thigh, referring to my second son, my eight-year-old baby. “Even if she can’t see it, she lights up when he’s around.”

“Don’t say that,” I snarled, glaring at this tender giant who loved me through the long hospitalization, the medical failures, grief, anger, relentless pain, my temper tantrums.

“If you feel like you’re going to hurt yourself, do you think you could tell Adam?” our therapist asked gently, her green tunic cascading over her lap where she held a purple legal pad. My eyes leapt from my son’s picture taped on the wall behind her, to canisters of seltzer on her desk, to flames in the electric fireplace. I didn’t want orderly grief that could be overruled and managed. I wanted untethered grief that would let me run away from my house, this town, these feelings. I wanted to pull the steering wheel or lie down on wet streets in the middle of the night or cut neat lines into my thighs that matched the way afternoon light came through the window blinds.

“Yes, I would tell him first,” I acquiesced, looking at no one, knowing I would need orderly grief, controllable grief. I could fantasize about violent acts that would rub me from this world, but I must stay and continue living and breathing as punishment for not saving my son, for not being smarter than the pediatric cardiologists who couldn’t unravel the mystery as to why his physiology wouldn’t accept the new circulation pulsing through his 60-pound body. My anatomically correct ventricles would continue to squeeze, and my anatomically correct alveoli would continue to let oxygen pass into my bloodstream. My hair would continue to grow, the earth would continue to rotate around the sun, and I would continue to endure his death because I was needed here. I wouldn’t leave my bereft son without a mother.

That doesn’t mean I was whole or fixed or otherwise healed. There is no such thing, and grief doesn’t work that way. Mind over matter is a fallacy. It just meant I would exist on two planes at once – here and there simultaneously. Half of me died with Riley; half of me stayed with Carter.

Emotional pain is invisible and confusing. There is no wound to point to – no jagged gash, no gravel-filled abrasion, no bones ripping through skin to explain emotional agony. Which is what makes hurting oneself so appealing to someone who is suffering greatly. At every chance, I pull the flaps of cuticle around my fingernail beds. Skin tears, pink flesh is exposed before pooling with blood. Then throbbing. Pain that I can make sense of, the sting of hormone-filled needles welcomed into my fleshy stomach. When we stopped hoping for a baby, I masked the pain with alcohol. One afternoon I bought six bottles of sloe gin for fear of being without. I joined the wine club because I had a coupon. Fourteen bottles of wine appeared in a large box. Champagne was always chilled in the fridge. Port was a lovely substitute for sloe gin, so was Harveys Bristol Cream, when the sloe gin ran dry. It didn’t matter if it was Tuesday or Friday. It softened sharp edges, quieted voices, blurred reality about who is alive and who is dead. I can make you a gin and tonic or a Moscow Mule or right now –  the lime tree is bursting with fruit this time of year.

“Coming from a long line of alcoholics, I’m worried I’m going to become one,” I confessed during another therapy appointment, staring toward distant golden hills.

“Do you think she’s drinking too much? Are you worried?” she asked Adam, her dogs passed out at our feet.

“No. It’s not that bad. We have a drink or two and she stops. She always knows her limit,” he said as his hands kneaded my thigh, referring to my awareness of never-ending duties that need coherent parents. “Even if she can’t see it, she’s responsible.”

In Belize, we took to rum with pineapple juice, orange juice, and coconut cream. In the kitchen of our rental by the ocean, my husband cracks the seal on a one-liter bottle of rum. I fill pint glasses with ice and juice. He generously pours rum; I stir. We head outside to toast our escape. An onshore breeze rustles palm fronds overhead and we decide our patch of white sand in front of our cottage would make the perfect dance floor. The cool liquid refreshes my parched throat. It’s gone in a matter of minutes. We make refills then crank up the playlist on our portable speaker. Soon the rum is gone.

“Come join us!” I yell to other vacationers passing by, trying to coax them into our drunken fun. No one accepts my invitation, and we dance ourselves silly with extended arms, lively kicks, and rolling in the sand. I don’t dance back home. I don’t laugh back home – at least not in public. I don’t drink in public back home, at least not in my town where someone might see me. I sometimes feel terrified that someone might see me and I shouldn't be allowed to do anything normal because nothing will ever be normal again. But in Belize, I’m anonymous. I dance and drink and am silly, not worrying that someone is watching or judging other than the voices – they are always judging and scolding: How can you dance when your child has died? or You’re laughing, therefore you must not be sad anymore. Or perhaps, What the fuck is wrong with you? There is always guilt after the fact. It’s easier to ignore the voices when I’m intoxicated. The first time Adam and I went out after Riley died, it felt like I had betrayed Riley and my grief. Fortunately, I have grown to trust my husband. He knows that nothing – not dancing or laughing or drinking or orgasms – will change grief. A temporary reprieve is just temporary. Grief is always coursing through my veins. Always will be.

A few days later when we’re sitting on the edge of the pier, our legs not quite long enough to dip them into Caribbean-warmed water, I feel content. This is my man. He loves me when I’m angry. He loves me when I refuse to get out of bed. He loves me when I dance in the sand. He loves all of the versions of me that grief can produce. He loves our fantastical plans. He loved them when they included a baby. He loves them now. Me as the teacher, him as the web developer. Me as the teacher, him as the vintner – as soon as he learns how to make wine. Me as the teacher, him as the watersports instructor – as soon as he learns how to kitesurf.

“Six years will be here before we know it,” he says, leaning into me. “I could get used to this weather and this water. We need to start planning now, which means I need to sign up for some kitesurfing lessons.”

“And the writing retreat won’t be just about writing,” I say jumping into the fantasy. “There’ll be so much more. We’ll get Gwynne to teach pilates in the morning. We’ll get Jessica to lead dance classes in the evening. We’ll need Jennifer to take pictures and make a gorgeous website. In the afternoons, you can teach water stuff. Or people can visit Mayan ruins. We’ll need a chef, too. And where will all of these people sleep?”

“We’ll need a row of little cottages along the water. Just think of how inspiring this place will be.” He gestures toward the water as a sailboat plods by. There is chatter at the oceanfront bar at the nearby resort. A water taxi rushes past.

“You know,” I say, hesitating, choking on my words before they even form in my mouth. “I don’t want to die anymore.” I look down and let the brim of my hat cover the salty tracks mixing with sunscreen. “I mean, I do, but I don’t. It’s hard to even say that out loud because I really miss Riley.”

“I know that’s hard for you to say.”

Just then, the bellowing of one of the tour guides blowing into a conch shell vibrated through us. Lunch was ready. My husband stood and held out his hand. I grabbed it and pulled myself up. His arms wrapped around me and his stubbled face pressed against my skin. “Selfishly, I want you to be here, too,” he said quietly. “All of the fantastical dreams include you.” We slipped our feet into our flip-flops and, hand in hand, we sauntered across the beach back to the group.

Welcome to the fifteenth issue of Six Hens.

Suzanne Galante, Editor in Chief

Issue Contents

Issue 15

From the Editor

Two planes

Our feet hovered above water as they dangled from the decrepit pier bruised by a hurricane from nature’s last season of wrath. I wouldn’t feel the sun’s angry impression on my skin for hours, but its intensity would keep me awake for several nights, eventually removing a layer of my epidermis, leaving my skin patterned like a doily.

Before the burn, there was this moment of beauty on the pier’s edge, my husband’s body at my side, his leg pressing into mine, my hand in his. Morning had been spent skimming...

[Continue reading...]


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