Yesterday afternoon a friend invited me to do some restorative yoga (she knows I need some restoration!), but then we found out the class was cancelled, and Mark was cleaning leaves out of the gutters (so he doesn’t have to go out in his underwear the next time it rains) while his dad was mowing, and Mark’s mom was pretending to help with yard work, and Joel was napping, so I was bored and complaining, so Mark decided that we should all go to a pumpkin patch, since it was October 30, the day before our first Halloween with a living child.
It’s amazing what a difference a year makes… Two years ago, I wasn’t even pregnant with Matthew, and then, one year ago, Matthew had died just three months prior. Every season change felt offensive, and we wanted nothing to do with the holidays, so we jetted off to New York City for Thanksgiving (best decision ever), grilled some buffalo burgers for Christmas, and turned off all of our lights for All Hallows’ Eve, the excruciating kickoff to the hell that was the holiday season. And now, this year, we’re (thankfully) in a different place yet again – Joel is here, and he’s brought so much light into our lives, and, though we miss Matthew to pieces, our grief isn’t as fresh… It’s more familiar… There’s a scab forming over what, not all that long ago, was a huge, bleeding, oozing, gaping wound.
But, needless to say, last year, if someone had asked me if I wanted to visit a pumpkin patch, a quintessential fall family locale, I would have told said someone to go fuck himself, and then I would have cried in my bed for the rest of the day. Or week. Or month.
But this year, upon hearing Mark’s suggestion, I did not tell him to go fuck himself, even though quintessential fall family locales still make me sad, and, if I think about them hard enough, also make me want to vomit. Instead, I agreed that it might be a good idea to take Joel to the pumpkin patch, even though he’ll never remember it, because most of a human’s personality develops in his first three years of life, and, I thought it could be a good chance for Joel to see some new things, and he loves to watch people, so I figured there’d be plenty of opportunity to do this too. Plus, I craved some hot apple cider.
So we grabbed all of Joel’s gear and jumped into the truck and headed to a pumpkin patch out in the burbs. (Before getting into the truck, I noticed Mark was wearing his “Matthew’s Dad” shirt, which made me happy, so I snapped a picture.)
On the 20-minute ride to the pumpkin patch, I began to second guess our decision to partake in this activity, and, as we pulled into the parking lot, I could feel my anxiety creep in. “There are so many families here,” I said to Mark, “This could make me really sad…”
“Just focus on Joel,” Mark replied, “This will be fun for him.”
And I decided to do just this – focus on Joel and Mark and the rest of our family and my potential to drink some hot apple cider.
Upon exiting the truck and securing Joel into Mark’s baby carrier, I noticed a Wizard of Oz setup complete with a big rainbow, so I immediately demanded that we go take a family picture next to said rainbow. I then noticed a concession stand off to the left, so, after getting our picture, we headed this way, only to quickly find out there was no hot apple cider on the premises.
“What in the hell kind of pumpkin patch is this?” I asked Mark, “I want to leave.”
“Oh, come on. Let’s just walk around a little bit…”
“Okay…” I agreed reluctantly.
So we walked Joel around, and we showed him the ponies and the pigs and the chickens and the moo cows, which was exciting, because we’re certain Joel’s first word will be either “moo” or “cow,” because there is a picture of a cow over his changing table, so we’re constantly mooing at him, and sometimes I moo before I feed him too, though I’m trying to break this habit. The pig pen smelled like manure, and I hoped Joel smelled it too so it might enhance his sense of smell. And, as we passed each animal, we made the respective animal’s sound, laughing at how Joel will probably have many of his animal sounds confused, because his grandma (Mark’s mom) can get wild, making a pigeon noise for an owl or a coyote noise for a buffalo, etc. We then took some obligatory photos in front of the pumpkin pyramid and in and amongst the corn stalks, where, off to the right, some scantily clad high school girls were snapping what I can only imagine were fall glamour shots for Instagram.
Surprisingly, I had a genuinely good time. But, I found that having a good time took a ton of effort on my part to the point that I wonder if it will always be this way – will innocent visits to the pumpkin patch (and all other seemingly innocent things) always be so completely and utterly complicated for me?
Lately I’m finding that, to enjoy myself in virtually any situation, I must maintain extreme tunnel vision and exercise compartmentalization and mindfulness. I always have sad thoughts, but usually these strategies keep them from going too far, and, as such, I might be able to delay any resulting breakdown.
So, I’m standing in the middle of the pumpkin patch, and nearly everything, it seems, has the potential to upset me. I see a one-year-old boy riding a pony – his mommy is leading him around in a circle. I look away and see some more one-year-olds riding the mini-train, squealing with delight. I look away again, only to see a one-year-old go down a slide, laughing as he falls into his daddy’s arms.
“Focus on Joel…” I chastise myself. “You’re so thankful for him,” and it’s true… I am. So, for the next 15 minutes I smile real smiles.
Until my attention diverts yet again… I see a child Joel’s age, but then I notice his older brother. They’re both blonde haired, blue eyed… I think about how this is what my family should look like. I shift my gaze away to a couple of teenagers – brothers… My mind wanders – I think about how Joel isn’t our oldest, but he is our oldest here on earth. I wonder whether he’ll take on the stereotypical personality traits of an oldest even though he isn’t truly an oldest. I think about how, in pumpkin patches for eternity, Joel won’t have a brother. Or maybe he will have a living brother someday… But even then, there should be three brothers… I look in another direction – I see a family with three boys…
“Christine, stop trying to predict what your family will look like,” I chastise myself again, “You tried this before. It didn’t work. Be thankful for this moment – after all, this moment is the only one we’re really guaranteed.”
And this reminder to myself to enjoy the present for its beauty buys me another 15 minutes. I smile more real smiles. And this is enough to get me through the rest of our visit to the pumpkin patch. And eventually, we head back to the truck. And, as Mark loads Joel into his car seat, I see a blonde boy across the parking lot. But this time, I’m not sad… Instead, I laugh when I notice his hair is nearly as voluminous as Howie’s.
But the next day I’m angry again… Angry at the notion that the pumpkin patch is more complicated for me than it is for others. Angry that, to feel genuine happiness, I can’t think about my past, my future, or about anyone else. Angry that, in 50 more years, I’ll probably still feel like this. And I’m exhausted from the energy I expended to maintain the extreme tunnel vision and exercise the compartmentalization and mindfulness needed to get me through yesterday.
Yesterday was a good day. But it took real effort, and I need some time to recover. But there is no time. Instead, Mark is about to drop me off at work, and we’re rehashing the complexities of the day prior. “You think I didn’t get sad watching those kids with the ponies?” Mark asks.
And I’m even sadder now… To know he too was sad. And I’m feeling tired and worthless, as I so often do, and I miss Matthew so freaking much, and I’m not sure how I’ll get through the workday that lies ahead of me when I just want to sleep or cry. “Have a good day,” I whisper, as I slam the door and head into my building.
I’m happy this year is different and that I can do things that, just a short time ago, I never dreamed I could do. I’m beyond grateful for Joel. But I’m still struggling to keep my head above water and catch up and learn how to live in my new, complex world – the one with grief and joy and demands split between heaven and earth. And sometimes, it seems, all I can do is just keep hanging on for dear life and hope that once another year passes and 365 pages have turned, I find myself in yet a better place compared to the one I’m in today, a place I struggle to imagine right now.