Published on October 16th, 2018 | by Cheryl Klein1
Time, Travel: Personal Apocalypses and What Comes After
Two-thousand twelve was an apocalyptic year for me, as if the Mayans had been thinking of a thirty-something white lady in Los Angeles when they drew their calendar. I’d just started to heal from a miscarriage and subsequent mental implosion when my partner, C.C., asked for a separation so she could reflect on her own life away from the noise of all my needs. Days after Obama was reelected, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.
But between those storms, there was a honeymoon summer: C.C. decided she wanted to work things out, and I believed the odd dent in my right breast was one more manifestation of the obsessive hypochondria that had haunted me during my post-miscarriage breakdown.
That August, we flew to Atlanta to visit our friend Amy, who had recently moved in with her newish partner, Carrie, and Carrie’s four-year-old son, Cooper. Their house, set amongst much Southern greenery, glowed with Carrie’s DIY touches. I had known Amy long enough—through her first marriage and its difficult end, through her own longing to have a child—to understand that none of this was easy-come. But I’m the jealous type. It was hard not to feel like she’d lapped me.
At night we drank fireball whiskey on the enclosed porch while Cooper slept. A few drinks in, Amy and Carrie got into a low-grade argument about the scientific validity of the aptitude testing service for which Amy had recently started working. I tipsily attempted to channel our couples’ therapist, and observed that Amy had fully immersed herself in Carrie’s life; her job was one thing that was hers alone. Of course she was a little defensive.
I was drunk and full of hubris and relief that their life wasn’t so perfect after all. Cooper was a cutie, but also very much a four-year-old hurling his way through the world. When he elbowed a toy off a shelf in a store we visited, Amy and Carrie paid for it and still let him play with it even though he broke it. Reader, I judged them.
Almost six years to the day, we returned to Atlanta. This time, we brought Dash, whom we adopted as an infant when Amy was six months pregnant with twins. (“The dreaded email: I’m pregnant” was the subject line of her announcement to me. She knew it was best to rip off the band-aid; I felt seen.)
I hoped we would also get to visit Sarah, on online friend I’d made through the adoption community but never met in person. More than most adoption acquaintances, Sarah spoke my language: She was sarcastic, she worked in education, she wasn’t an evangelical Christian. As a kidney transplant recipient, she understood what it was like to declare her right to be a mother despite ongoing health risks. I admired her audacity and tried to seize some of it for myself. Her son was two, and she and her husband had just adopted a baby girl. She was still on maternity leave, and we decided we’d play the visit by ear, to work around her daughter’s nap schedule.
When we got into town, I messaged Sarah twice and didn’t hear back. I chalked it up to life with a newborn; her absence meant more time with Amy and her family.
In almost every picture I took of Dash playing with Amy’s twins, at least once child is completely blurred. They jumped off of furniture and stairs and monuments. They doused themselves with water and cinnamon-butter and ice cream. They howled about who got to hold the chalk and who got to play with the submarine and who drank the last of the Gatorade.
If at any point, Dash had broken a toy in a store, there is a 103% chance I would have bought it and handed it to him.
Cooper, meanwhile, had grown into an outgoing sweetheart of a ten-year-old. He asked how C.C. and I met, and how C.C. and Amy met, and he pulled his siblings around in a wagon with little complaint. In between these feats of maturity, he compulsively performed dance moves from Fortnite.
I marveled at what life with three kids looked like. Amy was always shouting after one child while wrangling another. She voice-texted and multi-tasked and delegated. She employed and deployed objects strategically: iPads, coloring books, a giant waterproof gear bag.
I envied the independence she’d fostered in the twins. I envied the perpetual motion of their household. I also realized what a true luxury it was to give Dash my full attention. I could be a quiet-voiced, attentive mom who paused to let my child fully inhabit his feelings, in all their ingloriousness.
“It’s almost like there aren’t winners and losers in this parenting thing,” I told C.C. as we drove back to our Airbnb. We laughed at my tendency to see the world in such terms.
Time has a way of resisting easy narratives. When I was going through my personal apocalypse, a lay counselor at my church repeated a Buddhist saying: “We all get ten thousand joys and ten thousand sorrows,” she said. “Sometimes they come in clumps.”
Back home in L.A., I kept waiting for a “Sorry, things got crazy” message from Sarah. A lot of her posts this summer expressed blissed-out desperation: I mean this in the most grateful-for-my-life way possible, but being home alone with a two-year-old and newborn is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Such huge two-year-old emotions. Such total mental and physical exhaustion. This transition is temporary. I’m so grateful to have this time with them.
It finally occurred to me to visit her profile to look for clues, and that was where I found her husband’s posts spanning the last few days: There had been an infection, then a small pulmonary embolism, which led to massive, irreparable brain damage.
These posts were less than an inch above pictures from her son’s first day of preschool and video of her daughter rolling over at only a month old. She was still on maternity leave.
I’ve thought a lot about the possibility of dying before Dash is old enough to remember me. An adopted child will never hear someone say, “You have your mother’s eyes.” Dash has his birthmother’s heavy-lidded brown eyes, and I’m glad to see her in him every day. Time is all I have to give to Dash, but what if I don’t have it? If I die before he develops conscious memory, was I ever really a mom?
What happened to Sarah is number 3 or 4 on my list of nightmares, I texted a friend.
I am curious about numbers 1, 2, and alternate 3, she replied.
Oh, you know—Dash dies, C.C. dies, various war/torture/apocalypse scenarios in which we have to flee suddenly and it’s like getting through the airport with a 3.5-year-old but with Nazi guards.
In life, Sarah helped give me the courage to ask for it all: motherhood, motherhood again, a paying job and an unpaid job (mine is writing, hers was kidney-transplant advocacy). In death, she gives me the courage to answer my own question.
Her infant daughter will have no conscious memory of Sarah. Her son may have a few flickers, if he’s lucky. He will carry this trauma with him, but I believe he will carry Sarah, too. Sarah was an atheist, and I won’t disrespect her by saying she’s sitting on a cloud now, watching over Lucas as he naps at preschool. But if epigenetics explain intergenerational suffering—which various cultures described before science did (I’m thinking of han, the Korean concept of collective insurmountable injustice)—it stands to reason that we tattoo ourselves on other people’s lives in ways no one fully understands, but everyone knows.
How have I already imprinted myself on Dash? He smiles with all his teeth like I do. He begins sentences with “I was thinking…” like I do. Last week he said, “My leg hurts. I was thinking maybe a popsicle would help.”
Last night he fished C.C.’s loofah out of the tub and held it to his nose. “It smell like Mama,” he said. If C.C. died today, he might walk into a bath-products store a decade from now and find himself thinking of her—or maybe not even thinking of her, just feeling suddenly young and cared for and a little sad.
Ghosts are real enough. When we don’t have time, we still have connection. Or so I hope.