I talk a lot about my “modern family” situation, which after six years feels normal, stable and healthy. Sometimes, though, things happen to remind me how difficult and painful it was to get to this point. Our modern family was once typical and traditional; the transition to where we are now did not come without enormous loss. A few months ago, one of my older daughter’s classmates was killed in a car accident on her way to high school. Our experience is a fraction of the pain her friends and family are enduring. The tragedy of that child’s life ending has sparked my memories of the time my family as I knew it disintegrated. One person’s sorrow does not exist in relativity to another’s, and it is fruitless to compare my experience to the death of a child. But it has renewed my memories of loss, and even more so my gratitude for what replaced my “lost” family.
My memory of the evening our family said good bye is at once rife with clear details and a surreal blur of the most intense emotions I ever experienced… my children, my heart, their arms wrapped around my neck holding on as if for dear life…the four of us (my husband, myself, and our two daughters) wracked with sobs so deep and overpowering we could not move…my soon-to-be ex-husband and me, clinging one last time to each other and the children we both love so much, awash in the regret of having hurt each other, overpoweringly sorry for not having been able to figure out how to keep it together.
We sat as a family for the last time on the stairway of our empty house, holding each other, crying for hours. Every few minutes one of us would verbalize some detail or feature of the “old” life we would miss, sending us into a fresh spasm of collective sorrow. So much passed between us during that evening on the stairway of the house where we had spent our final months as “The Coleman Family”. Four hearts shattered that night as we came face to face the profundity of our loss.
They moved to Vermont the next day, and there I was in that vacant house in Colorado for one last day before moving to my new place. The echoes of the quotidian life of a “normal” family where everywhere. I could almost hear my six-year-old daughter yelling down the hallway, “Mom, is it going to be warm or cold out today?” as she had done every day while picking out her clothes for school. The absence of that humdrum question to punctuate the morning felt like a gaping hole in my life; the silence roared at me. I missed their mismatched socks littering the house, their bickering, the barbie doll graveyard they always left in the living room. I missed them asking me what we would be having for dinner, even though I had hated the drudgery of responding. I missed waking up before they did in the morning and admiring my sleeping beauties. A big part of me was gone. I was not sure I would survive that grief.
Over time, a new rhythm emerged for our family and gradually it became less painful. We are a distance family, enabled by technology, airplanes, substantial disposable income, and our love for one another. At some point several years into this configuration, we all realized it was working and that we were happy. I don’t think any of us will ever say this is an easy way to live, but we all appreciate the fact that we are, in fact, still a family. The conventional features of a “normal” family are nowhere to be seen, but we have not lost the heart of it; we have not lost each other.
The death of a child in the community reminds us to hold our own tighter and not take them for granted. While I still miss the daily “warm or cold” question ritual, I cherish the new things that have replaced it – the daily FaceTime calls, the weeks we spend together in Vermont, the adventures we have traveling, and all the little ways we have found to continue as a family of our own design. I am on a plane to spend the next few days with my daughters in Vermont as I write this. I will hug and kiss my children tonight, and I am blessed.