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 play dates. 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, where I now recognize I was probably trapped in the initial shock of PTSD, I now 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 that 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 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 out of time, to remember what once was, and to fix my eyes on what will forever be.