This past month has been an especially difficult one for our family. The fourth of September should have marked our daughter Peyton’s fourth birthday. Rather than planning a princess-themed party, or a bowling outing with her friends, my husband, children and I packed ourselves into the car and took a trip to visit our first-born daughter’s grave.
The visit was, as all visits to Peyton’s grave seem to be these days, brief and distracted. It was buggy on her hill, and our eighteen month old twins were not cooperating. We rushed over to her, flowers in hand, after a long and hectic day that made it feel as if we might never actually get there, just as the skies decided to open up and pour down on us. I left feeling unfulfilled.
For a year after Peyton died, I visited her grave every day, sometimes multiple times a day, and often for hours at a time. I screamed at the ether, beat my chest, dug at the dirt and rock and organic matter that separated what remained of my child, and my arms. I would lay where she laid. Look up at the sky above us both, and wonder which of us was more dead—my child in the ground, or my soul no longer open to living?
The second year my visits to Peyton occurred several times a week, but not quite daily. We were in the throws of fertility treatments, I was growing numb to my tears and sorrow, and focused my energy and anger at the news that I was given that I could likely no longer have children.
On Peyton’s second birthday, I was (thanks to the wonders of modern medicine) happily (and miraculously) pregnant with twins. We were readying to do a balloon release, our friends and family had gathered to celebrate her, and I felt what I thought was my water breaking. I was only 12 weeks along, looked down, and saw red. That day started 27 weeks of bleeding and panic and bedrest, and at the end of those long and fret-ful months, my beautiful, HEALTHY twins came into this world.
I tried to get up to see Peyton with the babies, but more often than not failed, and fell into this sort of pathetic routine of running up there and calling to her from the car, rather than to go through what I was sure would be a harried attempt at unloading the kiddos. Without fail someone always began to wail before we reached Peyton’s spot, and I would often leave feeling less fulfilled, and further from her than when I arrived.
October second marked four years since Peyton’s death. The fourth year anniversary of the worst day of my life (or possibly the second worst, as hard as it may be for some to believe, as the day Peyton was born and her diagnosis dropped on us like an atom bomb may forever rank as the most traumatic for me.) I told my husband I felt the need to visit Peyton alone. I wanted to talk to her the way I once had. To sing her the songs I had during her too-brief life. To say what needed to be said, without distraction. Just as it had on her birthday, the rains opened up on the day Peyton died. I stood in my rainboots and umbrella, atop a hill, pouring more out onto a 28 day old than any infant should have to listen through, and left thinking I felt better.
On the ride home it hit me. The guilt. The memories. The flashbacks. The pain. The grief. The anger. The disappointment. The bitterness. The sadness. The weight of it all.
My daughter Peyton was born with cancer.
My decisions in her care were not enough to save her.
She died in my arms.
I must have told Peyton a hundred times on that ride home how sorry I was for not saving her. I pleaded for her forgiveness. A blubbering, crying mess I hauled myself through the front door of my house and up the stairs, and straight into the shower. I needed to wash away my grief before seeing my other children. I didn’t want them to see the slump in my shoulders, the pain in my heart, the fear in my eyes, or hear the cries in my voice. I stepped into the hot steam, still flooded with the painful memories of all that the day signified, and I realized just how little healing I had really done over these past four years.
Sure, I am busier now.
Quite happy most days.
I am the young mother of twins that you see in the supermarket, whose clothes and hair tell you she is too busy taking care of little ones to catch a glimpse of herself in the mirror before leaving the house, but whose smile tells you her days are joy-filled and blessed.
But just bubbling beneath that smiling surface, there is the memory of all Peyton went through. All we went through. The hell that is cancer and trauma and loss and grief and pain.
Just beneath the surface is a pain that, given the time and attention to see the light of day, lives on.