I discovered the death fairies one cold February evening. Dusk was looming, but the day had been gray enough that the coming of night was hardly noticeable, except for the deepening dampness that gnawed more fiercely into my fingertips and joints. Fresh black soil was spilled carelessly over the aggregate drive where I knelt over my sanity, or at least what I hoped would return me to it. Twin pots, the color of mourning, stood like patient sentinels as I arranged and rearranged my collection—helleborus, saxifraga, pericallis, and muehlenbeckia. That's what the tags said. To me they were just late winter flowers and creeping vines. Yellow primroses were the only thing I could identity. I bought them for contrast, and cheer. I needed something to employ my trembling hands, to steady my palpitations; subdue the raw nerves that were choking off my ability to swallow, breathe, or see anything clearly. Nothing so far had been able to undo me. Perhaps planting, nurturing something, freezing myself into numbness would be at least a temporary reprieve. A reprieve from what exactly, I wasn't entirely sure. Until the little nymphs, hidden in the long-overgrown forest of my distant grief, came out of hiding and made it clear.
I'd been to the hospital that day, and a few days before. Our friend's nine-year-old daughter was sick with a mysterious illness that was baffling the doctors and frightening her parents. Her mother remained constantly with her. Her father kept us always updated; mostly because I stalked him for details. After a particularly unstable day which saw his daughter being transferred to a children's hospital and put in the ICU, he had very little to say, other than that he was scared. I wanted to say something hopeful, encouraging, but all I could give back was that I was scared too—powerfully scared, though I didn't confess it to that degree. I was scared in a way that seemed unreasonable over someone else's child. Not that there wasn't a multitude of family and friends worried as well, but something about the intensity of my fear was alarming. And as the illness continued without answers, I became frantic.
My every thought was consumed with this family. I lost sleep. And whatever hours of fitful slumber I salvaged were haunted by dreams about the situation. I'd wake full of worry, and during the day, my mind reached for every possible cause the team of specialists might have overlooked. It became an obsession. I constantly queried after the strength of the mother. How was she holding up? Every day I wanted to know. Because I knew the toll. I'd lived by my daughter's hospital bed nine times in a period of seven years.
I knew what it was to stare out the window for hours on end, watching crows and seagulls bobble around on the concrete roofs of the other hospital wings. I knew the numbing pastime of studying the sky without ever noticing what color it was. I understood the discordant lullaby of eternal beeps and buzzers; the constant crack and click of the door opening to the ever-present flurry of yellow paper gowns and masks. I was familiar with the dialogue of diagnosis, drugs, and dosages. And I understood the unspoken possibilities that hovered always in the room, like the tail of a flailing kite at the mercy of the wind. I knew what it was to wait and ache, wonder and pray, not knowing if my pleas would be the difference between life and death.
On two different occasions during the seven years my daughter's severe asthma was unpredictable and volatile, I held her in my arms believing I was letting go. I had those movie moments where everything switches to slow motion; where the medical bells and whistles go silent, the scrambling doctors and paramedics morph into transparent blurs that fade into the background; and all that's in focus is the unconscious child draped lifelessly across my lap, heavy head in the crook of my arm, eyes closed, unresponsive to every attempt to revive her. Both times, I studied her face to remember it. Took the moment not to panic but to will every last atom of my love into her. I caressed her chubby cheeks with my eyes and wordlessly promised to love her forever. In those moments, I had the presence of mind to hold steady and memorize everything. Because I had something already in my soul—something the parents of my little friend didn't.
My daughter recovered both times, and then again from a life-threating infection a few years later. So I've had practice worrying. It seemed simple then, my anxiety for my friends was merely me over-empathizing. But as their little girl got sicker, so did I. My muscles turned to stone, my heart raced constantly, I struggled to eat but managed very little. I seemed to have reached a level of anxiety even the threats to my own child's life had not matched. At one point, my frustrated husband confessed that he hoped the little girl would get better just so he could have his wife back. What was wrong with me? I don't know how many times I asked myself that. I couldn't find solace in any of my usual activities, couldn't escape by reading or watching a movie. Though not a gardener, fresh air and flowers were a last ditch effort to snap into sanity.
It didn't help. Not at first. The plants were arranged and aesthetically pleasing in their matching black urns, but still a vice grip had a chokehold around my panicking heart. Still, every fiber of me hurt. My husband came out and initially admired the flowers. But he was clearly irritated about the money I'd spent on something that wasn't in the budget and was, with my lack of a green thumb, likely going to expire quickly. It's my sanity, I defended. It's cheaper than therapy and that's where I'm headed if I can't find some way to relax. Then somewhere in my rambling soliloquy about the plants and my inability to swim to the surface of the situation with this little girl, I began to see them—the fairies. It's as if they were awakening from a long sleep, slowly stirring, then frantically buzzing. What they were buzzing about took me completely by surprise; took me back thirteen years, back before my asthmatic child was even born.
I hadn't made the connection with my firstborn. There were no parallels between her and the little girl currently wasting away in the hospital. The only time I'd been to the hospital with my first daughter was to give birth. But she was already gone by the time I got there. She had already made her departure. I was only at the hospital to give birth to the 5 pounds, 15 ounces she left behind for us to bury. I was there to live through the nightmare of losing this long-awaited gift, who had made it to full term before suffocating in my womb.
Recovery from that loss was a mighty battle. But it happened. I was forever changed, but eventually comforted by a deep and steady peace. Sad movies, babies in the obituaries, her birthday—all triggered tender memories, but eventually ceased to devastate me. That's why it was so difficult to make the connection between then and now. But as I stood shivering in the cold February night, I began to recognize the symptoms. I felt the onslaught of pain pouring out from behind every sleeping recollection, like guerilla warriors emerging from an impenetrable jungle. I felt them banging against my heart and my flesh, screaming to be noticed. So I listened and the more I did, the more I realized these weren't warriors.
They were little pieces of my own tragedy, fragments of grief broken down over time into morsels I could swallow; first going down as the bitter pill of an enemy, then digested by time into silent, peaceful partners—so silent, I didn't recognize the quickening. So subtle was the fluttering of collective wings as they morphed within me from ashes to frantic pixies, that I didn't see them for what they were. The poor little things only wanted to be heard. But what could they need to say? They were supposed to be sleeping.
I now understood to my very marrow that though I carried life, I was not the master of it—that it wasn't mine to give or take away. I had conceded to powers and plans bigger than my own. I wasn't immune, nor could I escape the tides of what it is to be human. I knew how to survive grief now. I'd clawed and cried, screamed and prayed my way to healing once, so I knew it could be done again. When I held my second born as she lay fighting for life, I understood the nightmare I would face, the permanent and painful reforming of my soul if she died. But I also knew on some distant day, I would be okay. I knew that. For myself.
And that's when I understood. The ambushing fairies were panicking about the uncharted wilderness of a new threat. What if the little girl died? What if they had to stand by and witness the flailing tentacles of grief latch on to someone else? The anxiety, sleeplessness, the corset around my lungs—those were the physical symptoms of my own grief, stirred up again by the fear that, although I wouldn't have to live it firsthand, I would have to watch it. I would have to witness people I love navigate the death of their only child. The grief in me, the wakened fairies, didn't want to be disturbed—didn't want to experience it all over again. They wanted me to do something. They wanted me to stop it.
The rigid rebar of muscle across my shoulders slackened as comprehension dawned. While the death fairies slept all these years, I had continued living—had learned what they missed while napping. It was time to teach them—time they understood no amount of fighting what they didn't want to face, would remove it from their path. They, in turn, were awakening me to the reality that my grief, cloaked in different disguises, would sneak up on me from time to time without warning. Although peace had settled over the pain like a warm blanket, there would be storms that would shake the covers and rouse the sleeping sprites that were now, identifiably, a permanent part of my new landscape.
This understanding took root as I swept scattered dirt from the rocky drive, and gathered up the detritus of the day—empty pots, trowel, potting soil bag and tags. My lungs opened to the cold air of the night. I heaved the heavy black pots to their intended post on either side of the front door. I liked the way the vines trailed down over the sides and the way the bright yolk of primroses proposed their joy among the jungle of dark foliage.