Trap door days

Claire McCarthy MD

Christmas Eve is hard for me.

It was in the early hours of Christmas Eve sixteen years ago that my newborn son was diagnosed with a horrible brain malformation. My husband and I were wrapping presents late on the 23rd (so now I associate wrapping presents with this diagnosis and throw everything I can into gift bags) when he began to have seizures so bad that we called an ambulance. Over the night the news went from bad to worse, and by dawn we knew that he would be severely disabled and die young. He died less than a year later.

It was a very long time ago, but grief has a way of working its way into your bones and nerves. I mourn the loss of my son every Christmas Eve—the loss of the healthy baby I thought I had until then, and the loss of the blessing Aidan turned out to be.

For those of us who have endured losses like these, there are always trap-door days (or trap-door smells or sounds or songs or pictures) when the ground gives out and we fall down deep. For the first few Christmas Eves after Aidan’s death I cried a lot in private, and in public held my breath and put my head into the wind of the day, making it through by sheer will.

But bit by bit, year by year, I’ve learned that there are ways to keep from falling down deep, ways to be made strong against the wind of the day. Nice presents and pretty lights don’t do it—they are too ephemeral—nor does music, no matter how lovely (a friend of mine who suffered from chronic depression once said wisely, “Some things take more than Mozart”).  It takes things more fundamental and enduring.

This Christmas Eve at dawn I went for a run. I pushed up the hills and sprinted down them, the cold air rushing into my lungs. I felt physically strong and capable, and as the sun lit the trees and filled the sky everything felt clean and possible. It helped.

My eldest daughter brought her kitten home for the holidays, and all day we laughed at Beau as he played with ornaments on the tree or hid inside boxes ready to pounce or chased the laser pointer absolutely anywhere we pointed it (what it is with cats and laser pointers?). My 6-year-old, Liam, has a belly laugh that makes us laugh even more. It helped.

At church, two teenagers gave up their seats and stood so that an elderly couple could sit and it made me feel hopeful. A girl from the children’s choir who couldn’t have been more than thirteen stood up in front of the crowd and led everyone in singing the responsorial psalm; I watched her steady herself, take a deep breath, and sing out brave and strong. It helped.

A friend of my daughter’s, who spent so much of her childhood with us that we all came to think of her as family, came to visit us for the first time in many months. I had missed her so, and seeing her again, and seeing the wonderful woman she is becoming, and seeing how happy she was to see us—it helped.

And there was Liam’s sheer excitement as we laid out cookies and he wrote a note for Santa.  He got out of bed three different times to remind us to go to bed so Santa would come—and one other time to tell us he was sure he’d heard bells outside. It helped too.

I lost Aidan, and others dear to me. And as not just the mother of a child who died but a doctor, I know more keenly than most that we are all vulnerable and loss is inevitable. We all have our trap doors of grief, we all have days or months or years when life’s winds seem too much to fight. This is simply true; nothing can be done to change it.

But, I have come to see clearly, that doesn’t mean that life can’t still be good. Joy, beauty, excitement, laughter, bravery, kindness—they all endure and shelter us against the wind. Most of all, the ties that bind us together make the difference: when we reach out our hand to take another, we do not fall so far.