Among the bereaved parents I know, we often say that the anticipation can be worse than the actual event. Thinking about an upcoming baby shower or family gathering can bring on feelings of anxiety, sadness, frustration, or dread. We mull over the scenes in our head, playing out confrontations, tears, or awkward silences. Often, we can get so worked up and then the moment passes without the level of emotions that were expected. And it gets easier over time to expect certain responses and manage them.
And then there can be times when the day pans out not only not as expected, but much, much worse.
We headed to my hometown on this Labor Day weekend, coinciding with Nelle’s third birthday. Because she was also born on Labor Day weekend, I feel like it is a multi-day stream surrounding the day that we found out that she had died, the day that I delivered, and the day that I was discharged from the hospital. We stayed with my aunt and uncle, knowing that we would visit the tree where we had scattered her ashes. It would be Autumn’s first visit to the tree – the last time having bad weather and the path too treacherous to carry her.
I spent the days leading up to our departure feeling intensely sad and missing Nelle so much. I couldn’t even picture what our time back at the tree would be like. Would we say anything? Would the kids say anything? I knew I wanted pictures, as I take a photo every time I visit so that I can see the tree in the changing seasons. And having Theo, Quentin, and Autumn beneath the tree that grows over their sisters’ ashes felt like having all of my children in one photo together. Beyond that, I did not know what that moment would hold.
We neared the tree with its expansive branches. As I set Autumn on the bench in front of the tree, I felt a sharp sting on my leg. At first I thought it was a sharp plant of some kind, but as I looked down, I saw a bee. I quickly swatted it away, trying to ignore the pain and focus on taking pictures of the kids. Then a bee landed on Theo. And Quentin. We saw a swarm come up from the ground, surrounding us. I grabbed Autumn and rushed away from the spot, with bees stinging me easily through my thin pants. Theo shrieked as one got him on the ear and Ger ripped off Quentin’s shirt to swat several away. In total, Theo and Quentin each had a single sting. Ger had several, all clustered on the side of his face. I had eight stings on my legs. And somehow Autumn escaped unscathed.
As we quickly moved away from the tree, Theo was sobbing and shrieking that he would never come back. That immediately hurt my heart. I knew that my aunt and uncle would take care of the bee’s nest, but now Theo had a negative association with what should have been a quiet resting place. As we applied ice and baking soda pace, I marveled that Autumn had not been stung at all. Fears of allergic reactions aside, I felt that her sisters protected her from harm.
I headed into town to pick up Benadryl for everyone. As I drove, it really hit me that I had missed my chance to sit and honor Nelle and think about her at the tree. Nothing about that experience had been the moments of peace that I had been looking for. The song “Landslide” came up on my playlist:
Well, I’ve been afraid of changing
‘Cause I’ve built my life around you
But time makes you bolder
Even children get older
And I’m gettin’ older, too
I felt my age, and the time that has been marching forward in the three years since Nelle died. She has aged, in that she is now “three” – the time still passes.
In being robbed of that moment with her, I pulled over into the parking lot of the school where I attended kindergarten and cried. I felt like I couldn’t even cry the way that I wanted, because everyone was waiting for Benadryl and I needed to go into the grocery store not crying. Being in my hometown, I always risk running into someone I know – and someone who may not know my story – and today, I didn’t feel like explaining.
As I drove home, I tried to think if there was somewhere else I could go in my hometown, a place where I could spend some time alone and just be. But I couldn’t think of anything. Nothing else holds the same significance as the tree. I did marvel at the beauty of the area, and stopped as I drove to take some pictures of the fog lifting over the coulee. I grew up in a really special part of the country, untouched by the glaciers of the ice age that flattened the surrounding areas, leaving gently rolling valleys.
My aunt convinced Theo and Quentin to take a walk shortly after I arrived back to her house, assuring them that we would go nowhere near the bees. I could feel Theo’s tension and he held my hand as we walked. I told him that the previous day, I had watched Meghan McCain give a eulogy for her father, Senator John McCain. She told a story that when she was young, she was thrown from a horse and hurt her collarbone. Her father took her to a doctor who fixed her up. As soon as they arrived home, her father made her get back on the horse. Because the only way to conquer her fear was to face it. I told Theo that’s what we were doing – helping him not to be afraid of the outdoors, the gorgeous land, and, next time, the tree.
Our drive home was long, made longer by Labor Day weekend traffic, road construction, and rain. But as we approached our home in Aurora, Ger said “Look, a rainbow!” Sure enough, I could see the faintest of rainbows peeking through the clouds. I almost never see rainbows, but I could see the entirety of the perfect arch. I remember the first time I heard the term “rainbow baby” along with the phrase “after a storm, there is a rainbow.” Losing Nelle was a storm, powerful and damaging the world as we knew it. Coming home, the rainbow that I saw wasn’t for Autumn, my Rainbow Baby. It was Nelle, showing up for her special day saying “Here I am. You didn’t get to spend time with me at the tree. So I followed you home.”