I've often wondered what the recipe included when mothers were created. Part superhero, part superhuman, moms surely have many ingredients: one wrist that can test the temperature of baby formula; three measures of skinned knee fixability; two cups of tear catching; zero sick days; little nightly sleep; a dash of fever-gauging with a kiss on the forehead; many heaping tablespoons of patience; endless pickups, drop-offs, and grocery lists; and several thousand sack lunches and dinners. Topped with the wave of one giant problem-solving wand, sprinkled with magic glitter from above, a mom is born. Mothers have strength beyond muscle, wisdom beyond intellect, magic beyond wands.
Until a mother loses a child.
I wasn't superhuman or a superhero on April 19, 2003, when my 11-year-old son Steven Brian Malin Jr. was struck and killed by a train down the block from our home in Lake Forest. Our only son, wedged between two dancing, soccer-playing sisters, was simply walking back from a quick chicken nugget Happy Meal at our local McDonald's when I never saw him alive again. I couldn't fix the biggest tragedy of our lives with a Band-aid and a kiss. I didn't have an ounce of magic to change the fate of our child and our family that ominously windy spring afternoon.
I was a mother who lived by the tried-and-true recipe for what a mother should be, and completely crumbled in a matter of moments. A million pieces of confused, furious, crumbled nothingness.
Superhero? Super zero.
There are absolutely no words to describe the black abyss you fall into when your child dies. The hole has no bottom; the descent has no final destination. Life goes from busy and noisy with the demands of a full family to the silence of a world entrenched in death. You want to rise back up to the light, past the whispered condolences, the endless "I'm sorrys"-back to "normal." The only problem is that life has no "normal" after you lose a child.
The four of us initially moved like zombies, no longer "living life" but "living death." We found it impossible to inexplicably have Steven "erased" from our lives, somehow deal with the permanence and move on.
Grief books told me that our family would get over these horrendous, anxiety-ridden feelings. I didn't want to get over death. I wanted death to go away. I prayed about it. I journaled about it. I just didn't believe that following the rules of death would bring us back to life again.
When we finally got through the shock stage and ventured back out in our everyday world, we'd run into little reminders of Steven's life. His favorite number at the deli counter. His favorite commercial on TV. A favorite story shared by a classmate. What might be painful encounters for many actually felt like little "hellos" to us. For our daughters, it was a refocus on the funny, active brother with whom they wanted to stay connected, and further away from the details of the accident, which physically stripped him from our lives.
The more we looked for signs and symbols of Steven's life, the more they came our way. Instead of spending our days in bed under the covers, we found ourselves out looking for hope and a continued connection to our little boy. It would've been easier to say goodbye and let go of his place in our lives. Instead, we worked hard to find healthy, well-adjusted ways to keep him close.
Some of the "signs" we've received over the past seven years have been quite impressive, and we acknowledge them as confirmation that Steven, our little guardian angel, is watching over us. Rainbows at the most unlikely of times. A double heart in the snow with no footprints around it. Getting on a flight last-minute and being assigned row 13, Steven's favorite number.
We started to call our steps toward hope and healing, "moving forward but hanging on." Going on without our little boy cheated us all. Moving forward with him still spiritually and symbolically close was the true answer for our family. Following this path led us in a new direction on the road of grief, one in which our daughters are thriving and we are "living life" again, not "living death."
Four years ago, I began writing the story of our journey back to light and life after the darkest days we ever knew. It is not a tale of magic wands that can bring back our loved ones or how moms can turn tragedy into triumph with a kiss on the forehead. It is, however, the truth of what good can happen when you decide that you love someone so much, you just can't say goodbye. I feel that it's especially true when the "someone" you've lost is your child.