The words were spoken with a hush, gently and quietly as the dim lights softly flickered in a darkened hospital room while I held my 6 ½-month-old child, his last breath taken hours before.
After spending nearly seven months in a pediatric cardio thoracic ICU with my infant son, the hard part should have been behind me. And yet, it wasn’t. I knew it, but I didn’t want to know it.
Life stood still in that moment. I didn’t know how I would pick myself up and keep going. I was young, but my future just looked crumbly and I was buried in grief. All the perfect pictures I created of how my life would look months and years before weren’t my reality. Mine was supposed to look like two boys, 15 months apart, growing up together, playing cars on the living room floor, me breaking up fights with time-outs, them running out to the backyard and getting dirt under their fingernails as they dug for worms.
I would have gray hairs by the time I was 30 and appointments with a colorist every month to keep me looking presentable, because the stress of having two lively and rambunctious boys would keep me running on coffee with no sleep. I’d drive them to playdates in my minivan (which I’d feign embarrassment over but secretly love). Daddy would come home, relieve me of boy duty, and then we’d all sit down at the table to eat the meatloaf I accidentally burned.
We’d talk, we’d laugh, and at the end of the night, I’d tuck them both into bed in the room they shared, kissing their foreheads and turning out the light. I’d complain about my lack of sleep and my lack of sanity and all the silly things they did. We’d be stressed, happy and slightly dysfunctional, but we’d be together. It would be normal. And as far as I knew, nothing would get in the way of that. As far as I knew, life would unfold without a hitch.
But none of those dreams would come true. Instead, I sit here on the other side of my younger son’s six-and-a-half-month-long hospitalization after he was born and postnatally diagnosed with a serious, severe form of congenital heart disease and another disease that I now know as a curse word: pulmonary hypertension. I sit here on the other side of his death, having held him in my arms as he breathed his last breath. I sit here on the other side of my divorce, one that had been a long time coming, and that only through my younger son giving me strength did I have the courage to do what I knew I had to do. I sit here on the other side of 11 months of grief—horrible, agonizing, grief. I sit here, seemingly crushed. I sit here, all of my former dreams shattered.
And yet, I sit here, still breathing, still laughing, still relatively normal, and still a functioning human being. (Some days, even that is an accomplishment.) My soul has been crushed beyond despair, but in the crushing, something unexpected has happened. Like a tiny flicker within me, hope has arisen. Strength has arisen. My faith has become my backbone. I’m not there yet, but it’s through looking to those who have overcome that I survive.
I’m surrounded by fellow survivors, much further along in this journey through hell than I. People who have learned to carry on when their lives are reduced to ashes. People who have stood their ground through deep pain and searing loss. People who have learned what it is to will their own heart to keep on beating, who put one foot in front of the other, even when they limp. These ones are my teachers, my guides, and my brothers and sisters. They are the ones I look to and remember that no matter how hard life gets, I’m never alone.
From them, I’ve learned that the most radiant people aren’t the ones you see on billboards or whose names are in lights. It’s the quiet survivors who have been shattered beyond belief and have overcome. The ones who grit their teeth and carry on, day after day, clinging like hell to hope, even if it’s by a single strand.
I’ve watched them. I’ve admired them. I’ve never understood their strength or their tenacity, but I knew I needed it. I knew to keep breathing, I had to have it. And I’ve learned that there’s a funny thing about being crushed. When your dreams have shattered, and you lose it all, you find what keeps you going. When you’re stripped bare, you find a strength that is at a soul level. You find the thing that keeps you taking the next breath when all reason tells you to stop. You find the true reason you live.
None of my former dreams have come to pass, and truly, they never will. This is the hard part, and yet, even in the darkest moments, in our deepest grief, when we reach out, reach up, and let love and hope in, we can claw our way back to hope and joy. We can take the next breath, and the next, and after time, we find that it comes a little more easily. We take the next step, and we realize that no matter how weak we feel, that we all can overcome.