This week Will turned five, and the reality that birthdays will never be the same is suffocating – twisting my heart, steeling my breath, sitting on my chest, welling in my eyes. Especially his birthday. Especially five.
His birthday unfortunately, unfairly, is more a reminder of when our life stopped being our life – the one we knew, the one we controlled, the one that was easy; instead of a reminder of the day this miraculous child came into our world.
Will was born seven weeks before Libby’s diagnosis; how could the two not be wrapped up in each other? How could this day come and not take me there – to when he was a newborn and his sister was admitted to the hospital – to when he learned to sit up on her hospital bed – to when I nursed him in the chair next to her and pumped his milk between her doctors rounding. How?
So every year, as the numbers counting his years go up, so do those marking the years since she was diagnosed, since we lost her, since we said goodbye to the life we knew.
During those first weeks in the hospital, I would lay in bed at night thinking forward – to the end of treatment, a cured child, the nightmare behind us. I thought about her returning to friends at school, learning letters and numbers, giggling on the playground in her mischievous little way. I thought about her getting to be a big sister, teaching Will how to sing and play and dance. I thought about them getting to wear matching smocked outfits, posing in the sand dunes for photos. I focused on that – getting there – back to our normal.
But mostly, I dreamed of her turning five.
Five would be over two years after diagnosis. It would be two years since her bone marrow transplant. She would be leukemia-free, she’d be healthy, she’d play with friends, she’d go to kindergarten, she’d have a cute little bob from the hair that grew back in – that luscious, thick, dark, shiny hair. The dream was vivid – the image rolling through my mind constantly – her stepping off the school bus on her first day in kindergarten wearing a navy blue cardigan over a white collared shirt, giant navy bow in her hair. I would be standing there with a two-year-old Will, tears pouring down my face, because she had made it – there – to five.
But she didn’t.
We didn’t see that. That dream was not realized. It was too much of a stretch – she was too sick – there would be no getting us back to our old normal.
So for our family, there would be no schoolbus, no learning to write or ride a two-wheeler. For us, there would be no five, until now. A dream realized, but with a different child.
Her baby brother, her chunker monker will soon be sailing off for kindergarten, stepping off the school bus, running to my arms, with his two-year-old sister by my side, and his eight-year-old sister missing from his bus.
I looked at him yesterday, snuggling in my arms watching TV. He was being so sweet to Leighton, I couldn’t help but tell him how Libby had loved him just like that, so I told him: “you know Libby loved you like that – the way you love Leighton. She thought you were cute, and funny, and very chunky. She told all of her doctors and nurses about her ‘baby brothy.'” He said “I know, you tell me that all the time.” I cried through the memory, and he rolled his eyes. Five.
We had Will’s teacher conference this week. This was the big conference – at least in my mind. The one where they tell you how ready your child is for kindergarden. I sat there in a preschool chair listening to his teachers talk about the miracle of Will, the person he was becoming. They talked about his writing and coloring, his friends and interests. They talked about how he holds a pencil and that he’s the leader of the pack. A real little person, our Will. And for the millionth time this week, tears poured from my eyes as I heard the words “he’s ready for kindgergarten.” Growing up. Moving on. Five.
Times like this that make me shudder thinking “how on earth did we get here? To this exact place in time.” How did we go from then to now. How did we have her, and now we don’t. How did we get Will here. How do we again have two children – but not the same pair we had. How did all of that transpire when these last years feel more like a haze of memories, places, circumstances, cruelties, and life scattered over decades. So much more has transpired than could possibly squeeze into five years, but it did.
We had a new baby. Our two-year-old got sick. We fought like hell. We lost. We said good-bye. We grieved. We took baby steps. We clung to what we had. We fought for our marriage. We lost friends. We made new ones. We understood reality. We searched for hope, faith, and the possibility of Heaven. We had important conversations. We cried. A lot. We decided to have another baby. We miscarried. I hit rock bottom. We decided to try again. We were scared. We had Leighton. We fell in love with another baby girl. We watched Will’s joy at becoming a big brother. We felt more complete. We have a gaping hole in our hearts. We feel like a family. We cry many days. We grieve every day. We put one foot in front of the other. We apply the perspective we harshly learned. We cherish what we have. We fight.
This is why his five is so hard.
And we continue moving on, becuase that is what you do. For them.
After Will’s teacher conference, I decided it was time to move forward. I had his kindgergarten registration sitting on my desk for months – it was time – his teachers told me so. I could not keep him in preschool forever. So I drove to his school and parked my car. It took tremendous effort to hold back the sobs – becuase as I walked from my car to the office, I thought mostly about her, and how I should have been here two years before. I dropped off the paperwork and stood in the main hall looking around, and my heart took me to Will – thinking this is the place for him. I could hear him giggling in the halls, making friends, becoming a big kid; and I was happy for him, for us. This certainly was not our plan, the past five years had been filled with excrutiating life and grief. This may be plan B, but this is his plan – he is happy and healthy and learning, and five.
Standing in that hallway, I felt all those feels – the good, the bad, the excrutiating, but I felt proud – of him. And that’s how I walked back to my car – proud of this little boy – the newborn who was put aside while his sister was sick, rasied mostly by his grandparents, not seeing his parents sometimes a month at a time, spoiled by his mother who didn’t have the patience to say no, raised by parents grieving in his presence. Proud of this miraculous little boy who come from that. He is five, and I am one proud momma.