It was the middle of March 2007, a month after my seven-year-old son had died at home from a bacterial infection we’d initially thought was just the flu. I was sitting on the living room couch, facing the fireplace and the charred logs from the night before. My husband, Matt, had left to drive our four- and six-year-old sons to school. Outside, gray clouds stretched to the horizon. Maybe it would rain later. There was certainly no chance of sun.
My friend Rose sat next to me, our feet resting on the coffee table. As we talked, the stereo played a mix of songs that moaned in harmony with my mood: Ray LaMontagne asking, “Will I always feel this way” in a tone that suggested the empty feeling would last forever. I clung to the sounds of melancholy because I wanted assurance that I wasn’t greedy in my continued estrangement from a functioning life. I hated the pain of grief, but I needed it. Without grief, I might return to who I used to be: happy and unhappy but smiling nonetheless; guilty and offended but apologizing either way; ambivalent or desiring but always agreeing.
When I look back at myself, I can still feel the leaden weight of questions that sank me deeper into the couch. If one finds value in sad songs, is there value in a sad life? What about a sad woman?
Rose grabbed a stuffed pillow that was slumped against the armrest of the couch and hugged it on her lap. Then she pointed to the stone mantle above the fireplace. Propped on top were new pictures of Tommy and Ray. She asked when I put them there. I told her it was Matt. He was worried that with all the attention going to Luke, our two younger sons were feeling neglected. I shook my head as if the idea was preposterous. But how would I have known how Tommy and Ray felt about the burst of framed photographs of their seven-year-old brother that now stood on the end tables, the shelf in the dining room, and on the desk in the kitchen? I didn’t question the prominence of Luke’s image around the house because it was the only way we would ever see him anymore. The photos Matt had placed felt like a reprimand: instead of providing comfort, I was contributing to the loss.
From the couch, I could see Matt step into the kitchen from the garage. Setting the keys on the counter, he glanced at the two of us, his expression weary. He walked around the stove, poured a cup of coffee, and then, from the periphery of the living room, told me he was going to work.
“Why?” I asked. He hadn’t worked in four weeks, and I didn’t expect him to return for a while.
“To get away for a little,” he said, heading back into the kitchen. I loosened myself from the couch and followed so we could talk privately. He brushed some crumbs from the counter into the sink and stared at the drain for a moment, flipping the garbage disposal switch on and off before he turned to face me. His dark hair was longer than it had ever been, a few waves touching the tops of his ears. I liked how the disheveled look accompanied these heavy days and made him look less polished and precise, like someone who didn’t care as much about going to an office.
I didn’t understand what he needed to get away from. Out of earshot from Rose, he answered that he felt confined, like the house was closing in on him. “I’m hearing the same stories over and over: the morning Luke died, what we should have done differently, how you could have known better, how you’re feeling, how I’m feeling. It’s okay,” he said, “but I need to be in my own space, someplace where I can control my surroundings.” He hugged me stiffly. “I’ll be gone for a few hours,” he said, “and I’ll still pick up the kids from school.”
When the door to the garage closed, I placed my hand over my throat. I didn’t feel angry that he was leaving, just insufficient. I recalled dismal rumors on the survival rates of marriages after the death of a child. The thought of our separation was both outrageous and perfectly logical.
• • •
Grief exaggerated us. In the past, I had always attempted to extract causes and implications of problems; Matt searched for solutions. Now, while I wanted to talk about our loss and witness an emotional crumbling that would validate my own, Matt stayed busy. His half days at work became full days. When he was at home, he was often looking at the computer. Sometimes he’d find something broken or in need of replacement: a cabinet hinge, a bike chain, a clock battery, a light bulb. He’d try to repair whatever he could.
But as much as we tried, Luke’s death was neither comprehensible nor fixable, and as the days continued, our patience for each other wore out. Soon, frustration replaced tolerance; resentment displaced support. Matt started going to bed earlier than I did. I’d quietly crawl in later, hoping he was asleep.
One morning, about six weeks after Luke died, we were lying under the covers. It was early—before sunrise—and we were both awake. In my head, I replayed the night before. I can’t remember how it started. Maybe Matt had said something irresponsible or insensitive. Maybe I had. I remember the physical rigidity of wanting to be right—my jaw, hands, and even my rib cage clenched with the effort. Now, from Matt’s side of the bed, the sheets moved. I expected him to get up and leave the room. Instead, he rested his hand on top of my arm and said he loved me. I resisted his truce for a moment but soon blinked away tears. I wanted to say something in return, something kind, but when I finally spoke, it was unoriginal. “This is so hard,” I said through sobs. His hand clutched my arm in support. I stared past the French doors that led to the patio outside our bedroom. Branches of a budding tree bobbed in the wind. I asked what Matt thought about getting some help.
We already had the number of a counselor, someone we had seen a couple times before Luke died. Back then, we had said that our marriage was easy except for just one thing. Maybe all marriages have that one thing, an impasse that outweighs the other irritabilities. For us it was sex.
If a week had passed without lovemaking, Matt would grow chilly and authoritative. He would point out that I had left the kitchen counter a mess or carelessly filled the closets he had recently purged. I would respond defensively, then withdraw to nurse resentment. And while a rendezvous under the sheets filled my husband with peace, my own afterglow felt murky.
We were deep in the slough of grief when this growly catalyst of conflict emerged from hibernation. While we still couldn’t agree on the frequency of intimacy, our frustrations with each other were high and our reserves low. It was easy to hurt. But grief requires kindness; otherwise, it hardens inside the body it inhabits.
When I dialed the number of the counselor, I hoped we’d gain perspective and that the greater crisis of our son’s death would diminish the challenges in our marriage. I had yet to learn that tragedy does not simplify a relationship’s issues; it amplifies them.
• • •
On the first Monday in April, we entered the bright lobby of Dr. Laub’s office, a buzz down the hall signaling our arrival. As on our previous visits, the white desk in the waiting area was unoccupied but faithfully topped with a bowl of candy. Matt chose a mint, crunching the candy between his teeth. I took a seat on the chair closest to the wall and glanced behind the desk at a row of closed doors, jittery with the anticipation of facing our therapist, someone I hadn’t seen since Luke died. I wondered how she would react to our story. I never knew what to expect. Sometimes, people would break down and pull me into their arms. Others would stand silent and face the floor, speechless. And there were some who smiled too much. Each encounter reflected my new reality—that around here, my loss was rare, an experience foreign to others. There was no rehearsed etiquette, no guidelines for acknowledging such misfortune. My presence triggered floundering reactions, and I couldn’t help but feel self-conscious in the face of other people’s discomfort.
Dr. Laub stepped into the frame of the doorway. “Ready?” she asked, just like she had done when we’d come before. I hesitated for a moment, thrown off by her indifference. I stood and walked inside.
I joined Matt on the white love seat. Dr. Laub sat across from us on a swivel chair and opened her notebook. She said she was sorry about our son, then asked where we’d like to begin. I was taken aback. Asking us where to start seemed haphazard. We were clients under her care, submerged in disaster. I’d expected her to offer a sensitive condolence, fortify us with compassion, and steer us into safety. As we sat in silence, she buffed her glasses with her red scarf, offering us time to answer.
When we’d decided to call her, I’d thought we were lucky to already have a counselor—someone invested in us, someone who knew who we used to be. But now she felt like a cold stranger, gazing distantly at us from across a gulf. Matt and I huddled near the center of the couch, our shoulders inches from each other.
• • •
When we’d first met her six months earlier, Dr. Laub—a name picked from a phone book—wore high heels, a skirt and blazer, and a skinny smile that elevated her formality. She didn’t strike me as the tenderest of mentors, but her PhD and French accent were encouraging. She was from another country, and I entertained the possibility that she brought a foreign perspective, and maybe an unconventional approach, that could shed light on our domestic troubles.
At our first appointment, she asked us to tell her how we met and how we fell in love. I relayed the details: I was twenty-one; he was twenty-three. We were both living in Seattle, and I had not expected to meet my future husband in a bar, so pickup-y and boozy. I was drinking beer with my best friend in a booth. Matt and his best friend were playing a game of pool. When their game finished, Matt’s friend turned to our table and made a joke. My friend was a quick wit and made a comic comeback, and we all laughed. We scooted together in the booth so they could join us.
Matt told us how they had bought tickets to a basketball game downtown but at the last minute decided to come to the bar instead. I pointed to the restaurant across the street where we had eaten dinner; we had planned on staying for dessert but, like them, came here instead. We clinked our glasses to fate, unconscious of the fact that fate is only celebrated when the outcome is positive.
Half way through our beers, we made teams and played a game of pool. Matt and I buzz-bonded through shots of cheap tequila and sixty seconds of wall sits—our punishment for losing. Matt was more reserved than his friend. He was steady, calm, with raven-black hair, a tanned complexion, and a stunning pair of green eyes, and I felt immediately attracted to him. Later on, the two of us sat at the booth and talked alone. We asked the get-to-know-you questions. I said that I was finishing college. He had already graduated and was working at a bank. He said he was good with numbers. When the bar closed, I gave him mine.
We dated for four years. Then, on a Saturday in November 1995, we stood at an altar, smiled, kissed, and promised in good times and in bad. At the time, it felt as if the promise itself fulfilled any future obligation.
In the early years of our marriage, my expectations for what lie ahead were based on my certainty of the present. Whatever we wanted—careers, a house, a family—we could make happen. I wore my wedding vows like shiny chain mail, believing hardship would be armed with dull blades, not missiles.
• • •
I don’t remember how the second session started. Maybe Dr. Laub asked us how we got here—to a place that hurt but was still worth it. I explained our disagreements, our conflicting desires, and our differing expectations about the amount of sex we should be having. I told my version in my polite, reasonable voice—ensuring my words wouldn’t hurt my husband while baiting the marriage counselor to take my side and offer the bulk of her advice to Matt, sitting far on the opposite end of that white love seat.
Just listen to yourself, I want to say to the wife framing her sex life as a debate that can be won. It’s approval you want. From her. From him. From anyone.
• • •
So here we were in our third session, back on the couch. I scanned the hardbound titles on the shelf behind Dr. Laub’s desk while she looked from Matt to me; we still hadn’t answered her question. I didn’t know where to begin.
Finally, sliding her glasses back on, she asked us instead to describe the last month. “How are you managing?” I didn’t know the answer to that either. We’re suffering hard, I wanted her to know. Just as good parents should after losing a child. But is that managing? Were we doing well? I don’t remember what we said, or how long we sat there. At some point, she asked us, “What lessons have you learned since your son’s death?”
My lips parted in astonishment. Matt must have heard the puff of scorn exit my nostrils. He rocked his knee sideways an inch or so until it touched mine. When he spoke to Dr. Laub, his voice was steady. “I don’t think we are looking for any lessons,” he said.
We still had time on the clock, but Matt pulled out his wallet and handed over a credit card. On the way through the lobby, our therapist wished us the best. I didn’t answer. I opened the door. Matt closed it behind us.
The car seemed far. I walked fast, hearing Matt’s pace just a step behind. I hugged my jacket around my body, longing for shelter.
Matt followed me to the passenger door. I thought he was going to open it for me, but instead, he reached around my shoulders and pulled me into his chest. He hugged my raging, resistant body until I leaned in, burying my head into his neck. If people passed, I didn’t notice. If my sorrow was conspicuous, if my emotion made someone uncomfortable, I didn’t care. In my lack of self-possession, I was finally self-possessed.
As I stood on the sidewalk, my tears fell, weighted with all I couldn’t access: answers, solutions, understanding. I cried for my son and for my longing—my insatiable, empty arms. I cried for my orphaned marriage, for all the disagreements now between us, for my vulnerability and for my fear of what lay ahead.
The last tears were for Matt and for the relief of his comfort, for wanting to be with him and without him, too, and for standing here defeated together. When there was nothing left to fall, we returned home in the middle of our marriage, but also at the end and at the beginning.