I dreamt of a blind child the other night, a little boy with his hand on a cane. In my dream, I did not know at first that the child was blind, but I knew he was not my son, and so I assumed of course that the boy had taken Evan’s cane. “That doesn’t belong to you,” I said, taking it back from him.
The boy’s father gently intervened. “Actually it is his,” he said. “See?” And he showed me the boy’s name written on the handle — “GARRETT” — just as my own son’s name is written on the handle of his cane. I saw too how this child’s cane differed from my son’s, that its handle was composed of thicker, molded rubber. Of course the father was right. Of course this cane wasn’t Evan’s.
“I’m so sorry,” I said, knowing instantly and by feel that this cane did not belong to my son. “I had no idea.”
I have dreamt of defending my son before, of intervening on his behalf, but in seven years this is the first time I have dreamt of another blind child, and of another cane.
“Life changes. Life changes in an instant.” So Joan Didion begins the narrative of her year of Magical Thinking, following the sudden death of her husband and life partner, John Gregory Dunne, of a massive heart attack. That line has always resonated with me; after my twins were born, I understood how life could change in an instant, and never be the same.
I also understood the terror of the counterpoint, “Life goes on.” A friend made this remark shortly after Evan’s birth and Ellie’s death. She’d patiently listened to me talk about the suddenness with which my life had changed, of my inability to think of the future or of a time when I wasn’t bowed under by grief. “Life changes,” she said, “but life also goes on.”
What I could not tell my friend, but what I knew to be true was this: when life changes in an instant, it does go on for others, but not for you. Grief holds you tight, and only loosens its bounds slowly, in unpredictable bursts. Three weeks after Evan and Ellie’s birth, my husband and I had dinner and drinks with friends. I laughed and made jokes and imagined the possibility of happiness for the first time. It felt like grief had lifted, until I went to the restroom where waves of guilt passed over me for even letting loose with a smile. My son was gravely ill, my daughter dead. How could I even think to laugh? Grief, I found, was tricky that way. It was there, practically speaking, to keep me in line and remind me that life had changed. “Don’t go thinking things are the same, that you can laugh and have a night out with friends,” Grief seemed to imply. “You’re not getting off that easy.”
From the outside, it’s reassuring to think that grief has its stages; these imply that eventually life does go on, that grief is a tunnel with an end. I found that the stages were more like dead ends to a maze, and that I backed in and out of most of them disoriented, the same way I backed in and out of hospital parking spaces that winter.
In the world of special needs, when one is in the midst of grief — by way of illness or diagnosis — there is no predicting the moment where it feels like life will go on. When our child walks, or talks? A birthday party with friends? A successful school year with real progress? A doctor’s appointment with only good news, one where everything’s the same? I have often wondered which benchmark would tell me that we were living a life I recognized, even as I knew our lives had forever changed. Evan learned to walk and I reminded myself of the time I wondered if he would ever need shoes. He learned to drink from a cup and I realized how far we’d come from the days of tube feedings and syringes. He met milestones I never believed possible, and with each one I thought, Is this it then? Is this what it feels like to have life go on?
I believed in those signs of moving forward, but I also saw how so many reminders could bring me right back to the place where life had changed in an instant and would only stand still — another need for surgery, a therapy session gone awry, a son who might never speak. I wondered if I’d simply been tricked. Life hadn’t gone on, life had only changed in an instant.
The night I dreamt about the boy and the cane, I understood that life finally had gone on, without my even knowing it. That dream cane, with its thick rubber handle, offered me a strange and tangible recognition I had yet to receive in my waking life. It belonged to my world and my life. And there they were too: another blind boy, another father, my son. Fellow travelers from my unconscious to keep me company on my way. This was my life then, moving forward at last. So much so that I would not only be living it, but dreaming of it too.