The Integrative Power In Going Back After Loss
“Life must be lived forwards, but it can be understood only backwards.” Soren Kierkegard
I felt pretty clear on what I wanted to see. The now “old” high school. The center of town, especially the Victorian house where I’d walk after school to take flute lessons. My childhood home I grew up in on the street I grew up on.
Flashback to June of 2013, the last time I was there. I was beginning my third round of IVF in six months. I arrived to give compulsory cleaning and packing help for my parents’ upcoming out of state move. I just landed at the house and didn’t see or visit anything else. I had a cold. And I mean really, who has a cold in June?? Who besides someone waging a years long, losing battle over infertility, that is!
I was without the energy but also the heart to go see things. Never one for going and looking back generally, new complications had taken root. “How are you?” and of course “Do you have kids?” had become supremely loaded questions to navigate. It was better for my mental health I not risk running into anyone.
But there was more.
My sense of meaning was fraying and I wouldn’t have known how to integrate anything I saw from my past. Commingling with particles of my formative years would have only pointed to a time when I thought I’d have children one day. The only relevance in witnessing fragments of my past being the future that I thought I’d have that was not coming to pass.
“When you are in liminal space – or limbo – you are not busily and unthinkingly going about your daily life. Neither are you living from a place of assuredness about your relationships and beliefs. Instead, you are unsettled. Both your automatic daily routines and your core beliefs have been shaken, forcing you to reconsider who you are, why you’re here, and what life means.” Dr Alan Wolfelt, from The Paradoxes of Mourning
Nine plus years is not such a long time to be away from somewhere chronologically. My husband recently returned to his home town for a few days after thirty years. But yet, the exponential layers of transformation I’ve had to go through over the last nine years practically deem linear time irrelevant.
I knew I needed to go, but not in any sort of an aching, yearning way. Something in the pit of my soul knew it was just simply time to go home. I halfmindedly assumed things had changed quite a bit in my inherently woodsy New England home town and was curious to see what it had all turned into. And, having grown weary with much of what living in New York involves, I queried – have I outgrown my childhood irritation with the place? Was I wrong about all that? Would I maybe want to go back there?
My husband and I drove into Groton, Massachusetts from a different direction than usual. On a road that I knew I should know but nothing in my visual surroundings looked familiar. We turned off and ate lunch at a trendy farm grill resurrected after my time there. We enjoyed our meal along with bucolic views of cows grazing on the hillside – something you’d totally expect in my home town. But other than that it was a “never could have imagined this town would have a restaurant like this back in my day” type of place.
In addition to the promise of craft herbed gin martinis for sale, I was also pleased to find myself in the presence of some racial variety. I felt not one sense of discord being there with my Central American husband. The constant shades of white skin throughout my childhood never felt like the right thing to me. It was one of the main things prompting me to leave after high school.
Walking out of the restaurant, I caught a view of the back of Lawrence Academy and immediately my compass was activated. “Oh, NOW I know where I am!”
As we proceeded through the quaint, well maintained town center, and I laid my eyes on the very sidewalk that used to carry me from school to my weekly flute lesson, I felt myself beaming into young Sarah in ways new and unexplored. I felt myself right there with her as she relished her first independent venture ever, getting herself from school to flute lesson, stopping at the P & C to buy M and M’s with her allowance money along the way. And then, mercifully dipping into unstructured, independent learning – a most delicious relief for those of us who are not well served by prescribed, traditional learning environments.
Other than a few paint shade changes, the historical homes and other buildings in the center of Groton were just as I remembered. We then drove up to the elementary school, my elementary school, which was also pretty much as I had left it. Looping around the small cul de sac where I used to get on and off the bus every day was followed by pointing out the door to my first grade classroom. Was it the second or third door in? I think it was the third. I began to cry as memories unearthed themselves.
I recalled sitting on the lawn in front of those doors at the end of first grade as our teacher let us watch the soon to be graduating seniors drive up and around the high school parking lot right next door. I could feel my seven year old self clear as day contemplating this auto parade with awe, fully aware then I could not capture the vast amount of unlived space between first grade and senior-hood. And especially whatever might lie beyond that horizon. And so I cried – for all I have lost since then, and for all I haven’t lost. I cried with gratitude for all I’ve gotten to experience beyond that day, stretched worlds beyond what my seven year old self was able to conjure. I cried because my fully integrated infertility survivor childless self could shake hands with my pure seven year old self so easefully.
We then took a ceremonial whirl around the old high school parking lot. There’s a new high school now at another location, however this building too was pretty much as it used to be. And then it was off to my best childhood friend Kelley’s old house, where I spent much of my young time in the 1980’s having numerous sleep overs and more. Her parents moved eleven years ago, barely a month after Kelley’s first husband died suddenly.
I then directed my husband down the end of the cross country route I used to run, also the road where my childhood friend Scot’s house was. “I think that’s it?”, I questioned as I pointed to #58 (turned out I was correct!). We hadn’t been in touch since college, but he was quite a part of my formative years from first grade through high school and sadly passed away within this last year.
Interestingly, I noticed no aversion towards returning home after all that had transpired. When your world gets torn apart in middle age, it forces you to eventually see that on some level this is just life. Indifferent, absurd life. That we don’t know when any one of us or our loved ones might randomly get sick or die, and that the existence of our children is also random – a total IF, not a “when”.
I was feeling this truth well integrated into my reality as we headed towards the next stop on the tour – my house. Kelley, Scot and I all had gone off to Long Island New York for college, at different universities, pursuing our dreams in the fields of communications and the performing arts. As far as adulthood, I suspect we all became deeper, truer versions of ourselves along the way. In spite of and because of all that life threw at us. And interestingly, for different reasons none of us ended up having children. Returning to the roots of it all evoked a poignant sadness along with an oddly content sense of amazement.
I was struck at how surprisingly little the town had changed as we traveled the windy main road, this rolling, forested road which had been my pipeline to the rest of the world. Or, at least the rest of the town until I could drive. “Such a small world I had”, I commented. I had suspected as much then and I could now see my younger self had been on to something.
We turned onto my street, passed where I used to wait for the bus, and were greeted by way taller than I remembered them trees. Most of the homes were well tended to, some refaced, all amid that backdrop of striking sameness.
We didn’t want to linger at my old house as my Dad, who was also in town, had gone by a couple days before, ran into one of the new owners and kindly got a tour. I caught a glimpse of a swing set and other child paraphernalia in the back yard. This would have devastated me years ago, as I had once hoped to bring MY young children back to that house under one circumstance or another. This too now greeted me as an integrated part of my reality. The “other people arbitrarily getting to do what I worked so hard to get to do and couldn’t” part. That’s been, by far, the biggest pile of shit I’ve ever had to swallow. But somehow I’ve done it.
Beyond that, I felt a pull towards the woods behind and on the side of my childhood home. Also formative grounds no doubt, as hours were spent back there scheming, climbing, game playing and honing one of the most important skills a person can have I think, the ability to build something out of practically nothing. An ability that’s particularly crucial to have when you find yourself childless not by choice. Who knew at the time how relevant that would become.
I also found myself tapping into my complicated relationship with my hometown, especially with the adolescent and young twenty something version of myself who was so determined to leave. “You know, this place is such a piece of who I am, and it’s also such a piece of who I’m not” I said to my husband as we wended our way through town and past childhood landmarks. Into my view emerged a vivid appreciation for the determined ferocity it took to break out and take my inexperienced self to stomp around larger, exponentially more varied pastures come hell or high water. Both of which, as we now know, did come. While my life from childhood to adulthood hasn’t covered much in physical miles, I was struck at how different my adult lived experiences are and how far they have expanded from my roots.
“Pretty ballsey, making your way from here to there”, I thought, as I eyed my younger inner self with approval.
“Where is that person now?” I wondered.
“Go easy on yourself”, I warned back. “You hadn’t been anointed to the complexities of life or the cost of things back then when you were busy charging the hill.”
True. And because of all that, and age in general, I need to approach things differently now. Today, I’m still very much a work in progress post life altering loss.
“Don’t loose her”, I reminded myself of twenty something Sarah. “She really is quite awesome.”
My brief trip down memory lane revealed, unexpectedly, a new, easy and luminous integration with phases of my younger self. But why?
The traumatic grief that was present as I emerged from multiple failed fertility treatments without a child had lodged me exactly there – in the present. Like in the way people refer to that which gets “lodged” – a stuck nail or screw, a bullet in a brain, anything trapped in post storm rubble. My future was black, non existent, my past no longer sensical. Every moment of “now” in those early years rendered tremors or the threat of tremors, always flirting at the edge of too much. I had to survive, I had to know, daily, how this all felt, I had to immerse myself in the impossible reality that my children were never coming home. In addition, I had to relearn the outer world, a world oblivious to any non parented experiences and indifferent to my losses. A task that was proving to be nothing short of terrorizing. My difficult and overloaded present entailed being saddled with what is (or was at the time) alongside what should have been, also a very real part of my present back then. Being hammered into the present had its own glory. But it was also a forced exercise in extraordinary tunnel vision.
Like most people, everything in my past happened with the assumption I would one day have children. For a long time, I found reflecting on this considerably more innocent phase of my life to be quite the flinching experience. It was as if the existing narrative of everything that happened before infertility was now an inadvertent lie on some level. I didn’t know it then, but, like many others who have lived a life altering loss, the narrative of my whole past would have to be recalibrated somehow. And so I avoided it, smartly I think, as I didn’t need the extra pain and what with all else I had to do just to wade through the present. Parenthood is, after all, one of the most – if not THE most – assumed and presumed life experience on our globe. It’s not hard to conclude that finding yourself unexpectedly without it just might be more than a tad discombobulating.
Infertility and childlessness fray and often times destroy connection with so much – the biological connection to the continuation of life itself, connection to your peers, connection to family, connection to holidays, connection to future generations, or at least connection to future generations in the way you expected to have it, connection to the female gender and so on. The potential in self connection is often the surest thing we childless folks have left.
And with all else we have to figure out and navigate in a world that has allowed not one drop of space for us and our exeriences, I learned somewhere in my process that I didn’t have the time or bandwidth for any part of me that wasn’t real. Faking it takes an exertion I can no longer afford within the context of life altering loss. Can’t help but wonder, once much of the loss debris is finally cleared away, if this all doesn’t make space for a much sharper and more compassionate perception of our younger selves.
Either way, and I can’t tell you exactly how, it seems my not asked for non parented present has now integrated itself into my past – or is it the other way around? And then this trip home somehow, and especially the visuals of it, looped and clicked it all into place. While I believe there are no final destinations in the grieving process, I can say that, for the most part, my past has now been appropriately edited and revised to accommodate my losses. Which perhaps has rendered a sweeter connection amongst all of the Sarahs.
The richness of my jaunt back in time has not replaced the importance of the present in any way. Heck, I regularly engage in contemplative practices designed to root me in the present and increase my awareness of it. No longer lodged there, it’s still probably where I spend most of my time. And even eight plus years out of fertility treatments my present can still be quite the riddle. Truth is though, we need it all – the past, present and future and we are fractals of it all in some combination. And untimely life altering traumatic loss majorly shuffels and then reshuffles our orientation to all three.
And not in all ways bad. Returning home to a most welcome sea of Red Sox hats, I sensed a piece of myself in the demeanor and values of the people. Both in Groton and in Boston where we stayed on our trip. I got to quietly walk around with the feeling of “I’m one of you (for better AND for worse!)” for a couple of days. As one’s sense of belonging in the world can be quite fractured by involuntary childlessness, getting to do this is something I now value differently than I used to.
Given the intense and ongoing upheaval in my life over the last twelve years or so (which spans more than infertility and involuntary childlessness, have to leave that for another essay!), the unchangeable nature of my town functions now more as a gift than an irritant. With my more recent past being so hard to catalog, and without the prescribed milestones of parenting, the solidity of my origins now takes on a different meaning.
As we drove out of Groton, I continued to muse: “Who are we now and more so what matters to us now? After all we’ve been through and all we’ve lost, those are the questions we need to keep working on I think. And where will that take us to live next and will life allow us to go there?” Because, contrary to popular fantasy, the same basic rules and limitations of adulthood also apply to those of us who couldn’t have children!
So many questions. With my past recalibrated, and my compass rebooted my direction forward might evolve a bit more easily from here. In spite of the frustrations it brought, I was a lucky, lucky girl to have grown up in Groton, Mass. The place has my respect. And as I recently discovered, it also has a piece of my heart.
Accompanying Song: Often times there’s a song in existence that pairs well with the piece I’m writing. As you could probably guess, this time it’s “Who Says You Can’t Go Home” by Bon Jovi with Jennifer Nettles. Check out the lyrics here.