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  • The Vail Project

Choke it Down or Drown

In the wake of losing Vail, we pretty much live day to day. Ok, more like hour to hour. Despite needing to focus on the future for basic life functions, like meal planning or activities for Aspen, it continues to prove to be a huge challenge for me. And mostly, that is because the weight of her loss is so heavy that it forces me to chose between choking down the pain or drowning in it.

I think it is hard for those who haven't lost a child to really grasp this reality. Blessed are those who cannot begin to understand. Vail is everywhere. She is unavoidable...not that I would ever want to avoid her or her memory. What I mean is that there is a never-ending, relentless onslaught of sadness, memories, and emptiness that are present in every minute of every day. Not a moment, or a menial task goes by where I am not smacked in the face by her absence. I imagine it can be equated to a direct hit from Mike Tyson. It's a knock out blow. Over and over and over again, every moment I continue to breathe. Facing that void begins first thing in the morning and it doesn't end when I lay down at night. Example: Last night I woke up at 2am to check to on Aspen and couldn't go back to sleep. So when the clock hit 3:30am, I knew I had just better get up and face the day.

Today, like most days, I am forced to choose the former: choke it down. I am still responsible for Aspen and Steve and I cannot often indulge in the luxury of the drowning option. The depths of that ocean call to me, like sirens singing their mystic, silky, smooth songs. Pretending to have a choice between choking it down and drowning is a game I like to play with myself. As if I have any control over my ability to cope.

Aspen and I went to Walgreens today. A pretty standard trip for prescriptions, conditioner and contact solution. Nothing special. On the way in to the store, I had to stop myself from acknowledging the slight panic that I had left Vail behind the car. Even after 8 months, I still have this reaction every single time we get in and out of the car. While locating our items, Aspen's expert kid eye was caught by the mini Ty display at the end of the seasonal isle. If you have a child under the age of 16, you have been coerced into buying your child a Ty stuffed animal. Don't try to deny it. They are bright and fun and come in every possible variation, every animal, every animal with a unicorn horn added to the top, every character ever invented. I mean, there must be thousands of these things, and every kid wants every single one. Aspen is no exception, and she has conned Steve and I into way more than any child should ever need in a lifetime. But that didn't stop her today (or any day). This Walgreens display held more than one new variation that she immediately identified as missing from her collection. I caved and agreed that she could pick out ONE mini animal. She immediately chose the Orca, and then proceeded to explain to me that Orcas are not whales, they are in the dolphin family (Thank you Wild Kratts and Octonaughts for your extensive education in aquatic animals). I was already walking away when her grubby little 4 year old hand reached out and grabbed the mini giraffe. Before I even noticed she had it, she said "We need to get this one for baby Vail, she will love it." All present tense, as if baby Vail was waiting for us at home and would be severely disappointed to not receive a mini giraffe. What was I supposed to say? No? That is probably the fiscally responsible adult thing to say. But I couldn't do it. She was right. We needed to get that $2 mini giraffe for baby Vail. Why? Because she would love it. More importantly, because that tiny, insignificant little animal was the way Aspen needed to honor her sister today. So, I stood in the Walgreens and sobbed, tears streaming like hot lava down my face, snot running into my cloth face mask. Choke it down. Or drown.

Immediately after we paid for our items and exited the store, we had an accident. Aspen was looking at the clouds and tripped on the curb, epically scraping her knee. It was a superficial abrasion, but the kind that bleeds a lot. So we retreated back to the comfort of the Walgreens first aid isle for emergency supplies. While I blotted her bleeding knee with a cotton pad and administered some bactine spray, Aspen was providing me encouragement in the way that only an innocent child can. She said "Mommy, you are a great doctor." As I applied the neosporin and a large bandaid, Aspen reminded me again of what a great job I was doing. "You can fix everything Mommy." And while my heart swelled with her love, it broke under the weight of my failures. I can't fix everything. I can't even begin to fix this. Or myself. And I'm not a great doctor (even if I was an actual doctor this would still be true) because I couldn't save her sister. I can't even go to Walgreens...the darkness follows me there.

We paid for our first aid supplies and headed to the park. A known trigger location for me, but unavoidable as Aspen loves it and needs the physical activity, fresh air and sunshine. It doesn't matter which park we go to, they are all the same, even if we never went there with Vail. She loved the swings. She loved the slides. She loved to follow her big sister up every step. Her absence is like a nuclear fallout. Even after the shockwave has passed, radioactive shit continues to pummel me from every direction. Some days, I can hear her laughter and I whip around expecting to see her. Others, I watch Aspen intently and remind myself over and over that I only have one child to watch. If I don't, that wave of know the one, it's the same one every parent gets when their child is out of their eyesight...and my fight or flight mechanism kicks in. From zero to kidnapped in a split second. It's like part of my brain knows she is gone but that part doesn't communicate to the other parts all the time. And then I can't breathe and the overwhelming emptiness threatens to swallow me up. Without making a conscious choice, I'm drowning.

I find that the days following nights where I don't sleep are the absolute worst in terms of keeping it together. Faking it anyway. I don't have the energy to pretend I'm okay or to put on a brave face, not even for Aspen. Tears flow uncontrolled like a broken dam. My ability to get anything substantial done is so poor that I don't even try. I literally did absolutely nothing today. I didn't make one call or respond to any emails. I barely ate. I certainly didn't exercise or brush my teeth or comb my hair. I'm not even embarrassed to admit all of that. This is who I am. I refuse to be ashamed of pain or my inability to manage it. I never wonder what people think of me, crying in the toy isle at Walgreens, or anywhere else. None of that matters anymore. All I can do is chose between choking it down and drowning. Sometimes that is a minute by minute choice. And yes, it can vary minute to minute as well. One moment I can swallow my pain and keep it together enough to explain to the mom I met at the park how we lost Vail. Like I did today. A mom asked me how many kids I had and when I said two she asked if Aspen was my second. I said no, she is my first. So that got a response along the lines of 'oh you must have a very little one waiting at home.' She isn't waiting for me at home. Often, Aspen pipes in and lets people know that Vail is with Jesus. More often than not, I am grateful for the ease of which she blurts out this information. She says it as if this is a totally normal thing for a 4 year old to say. And that makes it easier for me to tell our story.

When I cannot choke it down and the vicious swell of pain and sadness crashes over the bow of my personal lifeboat, all bets are off. Sometimes I have no idea if it is a sink or swim moment until I am in it. But when I know ahead of time (like on days like today) that I am going to drown, that I cannot cope, that I cannot fake it, even for a single second...I avoid everything as much as possible. As if not talking about Vail makes the suffocating submersion less so. It doesn't of course. Not talking about her or avoiding making eye contact with her pictures around the house, doesn't help at all. Yet I'll do it, without hope of relief, because I can't bring myself to do anything else. In those moments, I don't have the courage to voice my pain or even look into the mirror. The mirror is a trap: Vail's big brown cow eyes (that's what Steve and Aspen always jokingly called our big brown eyes) are staring back at me. That's 95% of the reason I don't comb my hair or put makeup on. Those tasks involve looking at myself. Drowning.

I can't wrap this post up with a neat or pretty bow. There is nothing finite about these feelings or my ability to cope from one moment to another. I'm living on a wing and prayer. Honestly, most days I am surprised to crawl into bed at night, surprised that I survived another day. When you live moment to moment, the thought of the end of the day is unfathomable. Not that I think something will happen to me; no, I am just genuinely unaware of how I managed to make it there. When people comment about my blog posts and the rawness of them, it always fills me with a little awe. To me, they aren't raw, they are just my life. Which, I guess, is completely unfiltered now. If you are living with the same pain, I hope that you get some comfort knowing that you are not alone. You aren't the only one not brushing your teeth or sobbing in some toy isle somewhere. For those of you who read this and don't carry this burden, I hope that you find something in my honesty that helps you support those in your life who need it. Some understanding of the obliterating impacts of loss and grief. Take from it what you will. For me, the writing, at the very least, forces me to process the depth of my sorrow. Especially when the only options are to choke it down or drown.

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