In my memoir, Losing Malcolm: A Mother’s Journey Through Grief, I write about my reaction right after the doctor tells me my newborn son has a life-threatening heart murmur. I’m recovering in my hospital bed after a 40-hour labor and a C-section. I become aware suddenly that it’s a mother’s job to count and track time whether she wants to or not:
“There was a buzzing in the electric clock on the opposite wall and I wondered how I could have spent so many fitful hours in this room without hearing it until now. I watched the second hand progress around the circle of numbers. For nine long months, I had marked the passage of time—checking off days, weeks, trimesters, and seasons on my calendar. When the doctor had finally held up the blood-streaked bundle of folded arms and legs and declared my son “perfect” I felt unutterably relieved. . . . The breathless waiting and worrying was over.
“But now I wanted to smash that noisy clock. The counting, it dawned on me, would never stop. I would count the time between feedings and wet diapers, the hours of sleep I wasn’t getting, steps taken, words spoken, teeth lost, and finally the days until my child left home. A mother, I realized, counted until she died.”
I had no idea back then, thirty years ago, the deep truth of my observation. Nor did I know that mothers count, even after their children are dead. My son-in-law Bryan was born the same year as my son Malcolm, two months and seven days earlier. Bryan turned 30 in 2012. Malcolm didn’t. Bryan wears size 13 shoes. I imagine my big-footed baby, who died when he was 42 days old, would have had large man feet too.
All the mothers in our Farther Along group are aware of the birth and death days of all our children. We acknowledge, send hugs through cyberspace if we aren’t together. Peggy’s daughter Rebecca was born on Bryan’s birthday, July 15. Bryan is turning 31 this month; Rebecca would be turning 35.
Barbara’s son William died on September 19, 1997. Last year at that time, our writing group was in the Loire Valley of France, staying at a gorgeous chateau for a week.
I don’t know how we got started, but Barbara and I (we’re both jocks) exercised together each morning, before the other moms came downstairs, doing a routine called 4, 3, 2, 1: Four minutes of cardio; three, strength training; two, core; and one, stretching.
We’d meet out back on the stone patio at 7:30. I’d set my iPhone for 4 minutes and leave it on a step. Barbara would head off at a run towards the far gardens and fields out front. I often took off in the other direction, to the chateau chapel, and wove my way back, between the tall dark-green topiary—running, skipping and fast-walking.
When the timer sounded 4 minutes later, we were always, magically, back at our meeting spot, our internal mother clocks in fine working order. We moved inside, into the grand, wood-walled sitting room for the rest: three minutes of planks, lunges, and bar-belling whatever weighty objects we could find. We were serious, quietly working up a good sweat, side by side.
At the end of our one-minute stretch, we went again, out into the pristine French country air, for another 4-minute run.
After dinner on the night September 18th Barbara told me she wasn’t sure she’d be down to exercise the next day. This was the first year she hadn’t been with her husband Bud on the anniversary of William’s death.
“I just don’t know how I’ll be feeling,” she said, “if I’ll want to get up at all.”
When my alarm sounded at 6:30, I pulled on my work out clothes and padded down the curved staircase to the kitchen to start the coffee, journal in hand. I drank a cup, wrote a bit, and at 7:28, headed through the mirrored dining room where we had enjoyed many a splendid feast, to the double doors, leading onto the sweeping grounds.
I am usually a solitary exerciser, preferring to go to the gym alone, to walk and run alone (I get stitches when I talk), and even to ocean swim alone. But I had, over the week, welcomed Barbara’s steady company, eager to share with her the bird song, the luminous light, the sweetness of the French flowers and boxwood, the glory of each perfect morning.
I certainly understood that she might not make it.
But there she was, ready, in her sneakers, spandex shorts and t-shirt.
The morning of September 19th seemed darker, definitely chillier. Summer was clearly coming to an end.
I set the timer and we took off, alone yet together—celebrating and missing William, fifteen years gone.
We are mothers. We count.