In the lead up to what should have been Hugh’s eleventh birthday, I find myself thinking about the barbed wire and the paddock.
That’s the image that’s grown with me since Hugh’s birth and death, eight hours apart, October 29 2004. His bare little chest, strong, rising and falling with the respirator. Inside, a pair of lungs that never processed oxygen the way they should have.
The death of a baby is such a clean, public pain. In a small town, everybody knows. The librarian, whose face falls as three-year-old Jem and I return our books two weeks after the much talked about due date, my belly flat, our arms empty. We have the wrong story to tell. Jem’s swimming teacher, eyes filling with tears. The guy in the garden centre, from whom we buy a tree ‘for my little brother, a special one.’ Everyone participates, in some small way, in the terrible sadness it is to expect a newborn and instead, to carry the tiniest white coffin and place it in the earth.
From day one, I saw Hugh’s death as a piece of barbed wire, a sharp and rusty thing into which I blundered at all times of the day and night, tearing me up, never out of sight for long. That wire coiled around me and its thorns managed to break more than skin in a whole lot of places at once, the way barbed wire will.
But in my mind, that wire has always been in a paddock – a paddock where the grass whispers, knee high and dry, or green and eagerly trampled by the feet of a slow-munching cow. (There are usually cows in my stories. I like them). There are birds. There is sun, rain, breeze. A child. In time, another child. And around the wire – over it, through it – I’ve watched vines grow, and flowers. The barbs are there, but the paddock is full.
Part of the reason it’s like this is because this grief is ‘good’, if grief can ever be described that way. It’s open, acknowledged, talked about. Hugh is part of our story. We share him openly. This wire cuts, but the wound was always clean. In the absence of our son, our family has been loved and loved and loved again. And in the lead up to his birthday, I can’t help thinking how lucky we are in this.
Because many wounds are much more messy.
Think of the unspoken sorrows that people carry, the secrets and hurts too deep to speak of, the silent dreams and buried shames. Marriages quietly dying, abuses and insecurities, children unconceived, failures, frozen hearts and the fear of never being loved. No one speaks these things aloud. No one brings a card, cooks a meal, remembers the anniversary. These griefs are rarely shared. But for many of us, they’re there.
Hugh’s birthday always makes me wonder what our little guy would have been like – mischievous? Head in the clouds? Thoughtful? Exuberant? More and more as time goes by, I hope he would have been kind. It seems such a shy little word, kind. Yet kindness has muscle, more so when it comes unexpected.
None of us knows what another person is experiencing as they go about their everyday life. And exactly because we rarely know, it seems to me that one of the greatest gifts we can give each other is simply to be kind. Kind to each other, kind to old ladies and lost dogs, kind perhaps most especially to those who seem to deserve it least. The arrogant, the irritating, the insecure, the thoughtless, the reckless, the opinionated… who knows what drives any of us to be the way we are? Grief, loneliness, sickness – these things bite hard. And rarely are they clean wounds that communities want to share.
Today, on the day we remember Hugh’s birth and death, I am grateful for a clean grief and a community who shared. We are the lucky ones. Many aren’t. So today, most especially, I wish for kindness – kindness for everyone whose pain remains unseen and unspoken.
Amidst all the rusty wire of life, it makes flowers grow.