Owen would occasionally cry so deeply that if you were to witness him in those moments it would shatter your heart. It would start small, imperceptible to those who are unfamiliar–but once it began, there was no stopping it. Many tried to jiggle or funny-face or tickle him out of his despair, always losing in the end and in fact escalating his intensity.
It always began on the tip of his bottom lip which would protrude and quiver just ever so slightly. Then you could see it move slowly, further into his head, up to his nostrils which would flare, then into his eyes, filling them with round bubble-shaped tears which would immediately threaten to spill out of their lower-lid cups, surface-tension holding them in place until the well of liquid simply became too much.
Once the dam broke, it was like he knew he was done for and might as well just commit to the whole thing. Next came the full-body shudder, the big gasp-y breaths between high wails of sorrow only heard in movies, usually off-screen. Sometimes the wails would drop in pitch to something low and scratchy, as though his throat was closed off and his belly was forcing the air through anyway. His arms would soften but float out to the sides. Like he was a bird, soaring. All the while, Owen would maintain eye contact with you. Eyes fixed on yours. Imploring, maybe? Demanding? It’s hard to say. I can’t think of a time when his episodes of sorrow were brought on by something in particular. They came out of the blue.
Sometimes the sorrow would turn angry. Dark rain clouds seemed to form over his head, cartoon-like. His green eyes would go almost black and deep stress creases would appear all over his face like a wrinkle dog. And he would howl out the frustrations of his soul.
I was working from home that day, a warm Friday in October. I was sitting on the sofa, feet up on the coffee table, computer open on my lap. The sofa is near my front window and I heard the ruckus outside of Mark returning home with Owen from an outing. They were coming back briefly to prepare to go to Michael’s–it was his weekend with the boys and Mark was going to take Owen downtown to Michael’s condo near Harbourfront, on the subway.
When Mark and Owen entered, I could see that Owen had already started. Poor them! Mark looked concerned and flustered. Owen looked, well, furious and sad and manic. This was possibly the first time Mark had seen this side of Owen and boy, it was the Mother of all Sorrows.
Mark quickly unbuckled Owen from his chair while I moved everything aside and prepared to hold him, which in itself is a bit of a production. Move to the corner of the sofa, fluff the pillows, sit your bum way back in order to have proper back support. All set! Mark placed him on my lap. I shuffled us around so that he was seated sideways, legs dangling over mine to one side, his back braced against my right arm. This way, we could see each other.
We held each others’ gaze as he cried and I breathed. I didn’t try to make myself look calm for his benefit – just holding him and seeing him cry made everything inside me drop a few notches. Nothing else mattered and no one else existed. His sorrow moved into the space between and around us and held us for what felt like a very long time.
I’ll be honest: I liked these moments. I could hold him close, loosely and easily, swaying slightly or rubbing his back, and know that I was doing something that mothers all over the world do. I could offer an abiding calm and comfort to my child–an act so normal, so right. It was a rare treat to offer him this solace. It happened maybe once every six months.
I don’t remember what broke the spell. A glimpse of Mark, or a shift in position, or maybe it had just run its course. Owen eventually started to breathe normally again, his odd but usual-for-him muscle tone returned and his attention moved to the television, which had been turned on so that Owen would be entertained while Mark assembled his overnight things. I laid him on the floor in his customary bed of pillows, and returned to my work.
I was glad that Owen had held things in until they got home and that I could be there for him and Mark. I was also glad they were leaving; it was my weekend off and as soon as they were packed up, they would be heading out and I could look forward to a peaceful weekend. I felt a pleasing satisfaction as I waved goodbye to the two of them as they rolled down the street. Happy to have been with them, happy to see them go.
It was a perfect last time.
Oh I remember that day well, he had started to get upset as we left the Science Centre. I felt so bad when we met Mark and I left to head home :(
The Science Centre! I dropped you guys off! I hadn’t associated that with the same day… Maybe something there spooked him :)
Oh. I have chills all over my body — so unexpected, this ending. This real ending. I was still warm in the corner of the couch with you. Oh.
Hi Elizabeth! Yes, it’s a lovely spot, the corner of the couch. I often curl up there and remember.
I’m sitting uncomfortably with my last sentence – “It was a perfect last time.” Perfect and tragic and shitty, all at once. Sometimes the memory is comforting, sometimes haunting.
…then it was perfect, in order to hold the memory.
perfect for you both ….
You described so beautifully what it was like for you while you were holding him in his sorrow… You write things with such detailed honesty Jen…I appreciate your perspective
Your writing is very enlightening very much so…. My soul just yearns for you just so much people wanna say but don’t know how or just feel overwhelmed… Right now my son wa s taken by child services for me taking him outta a respite situation they felt like I disobeyed doctors orders which is so stupid to me and I was consider as homeless even though I had my mom and dads home to live if I wanted but anyway its really stupid but … at this respite care place he is at I just hold him tight usually he screams ( muscle pain I think ) but I love it when he just lays his head on my shoulder and I feel his love and all of his ups and downs when he is just not happy and having a melt down or muscle spam pain… This touched me so deep I want my son home with me which is in the process of happening but to lose your son and this was your last time with him is very remarkable it is raw it is heartbreaking… Also at the end I feel your need for being happy that it was your day off ( I often feel that same way when my husband gives me much needed quiet time..) Your book was very thought provoking … My son has severe disabilities he reminds me of Owen he has curly hair and the same size as Owen… I pray and think about you often … ( I always tell my family it is not at the funeral that people need you it is after all the services is over and when a Mother is all alone months later even years later is when you need the love and support….
Thank you very much for taking the time to write. I have been sitting with your comments for a few hours now, pondering your situation and feeling so very connected with your heartache. I hope your family can be reunited very soon.
This lonely feeling I have, thinking about your story, reminds me of a dream I used to have. I wrote about it, ironically, in my last blog post before Owen died. I hope you don’t find it distressing – I hope you will perhaps simply know that you’re not alone.
I used to have a hard time articulating my own feelings of futility and helplessness, combined with a steely determination to keep seeking resolution of some kind. I think the dream was my way of processing that. The link is here.
I have learned that the heart connection can remain strong, despite whatever is keeping you apart. All my best to you and your son,