At the beginning of the last school year my friend Gwen and I were on the playground at Glencoe, watching our boys run around and talking about fate.
"Do you realize," I said, doing some quick calculations, "that, say, two of the families at this school are going to have something really tragic happen to them? We just don't know which ones yet."
"Where'd you get that math?" Gwen asked skeptically.
I admitted that I had pulled it right out of my ass. Still, she agreed that the premise was sound. Tragedy was going to strike. Not a tsunami, probably not an earthquake that would flatten the school and kill everyone inside, like in China. But statistically speaking, someone was fucked.
"Someone here is going to take a bullet for the rest of us," I said.
I am pretty certain that I'm not the only person to do that kind of mental calculus. Still, it felt pretty creepy when the someone who was doomed was my baby, and the person who was fucked was me.
I'm shy. It isn't easy for me to strike up conversations, make small talk, cultivate casual friendships. But when my son started kindergarten and I was standing in the hall outside his classroom every day waiting to pick him up, I made an effort. I cooed over little brothers and sisters and listened to stories about hoof and mouth disease and the crazy neighbor and the best contractor for a kitchen remodel. I contributed my own anecdotes of questionable interest: the trip to Louisville, the barking dogs that keep us up at night, how the kale was doing. I did it for my son, to help make a place for him in the school and in the community, and thank God I did, because when Balthazar died, those (mostly) mothers were who I had.
Balthazar was born on Tuesday night. I went back to the playground Friday afternoon. I was bleeding and incontinent, but I had to go. I knew if I hid I might never reappear and I couldn't live my life like that, afraid to go to the grocery, forced to switch to a different hair stylist who would never get my color right. Jonathan went with me and I brought a camp chair to sit in. It made me feel conspicuous, but there was no way to blend in anyway. Everyone at the school knew who I was. I was famous. I was Tragedy Mom.
Being a writer means trying to connect with people by going into a room by yourself and closing the door. There is exposure, yes, but also a measure of protection in being a step removed from people. Being Tragedy Mom is more like being an actor whose sex tape was just leaked to the internet. The way the air shivers when you walk into a room. People smell a charge in the atmosphere and turn around to look. All of the eyes are on you.
I don't like eyes on me. I had to take a Klonopin to make it down the aisle.
Being the locus of so many people's attention, for the brief time that I was, forced me to ask myself what it is that I'm hiding from. Am I afraid I will break down in tears on other people? Am I afraid the other people will break down in tears on me? Am I afraid to accept help? Am I afraid to be vulnerable, to be human? I think what I am most afraid of is reaching out my arms for help and there being no one there.
What I encountered instead was an outpouring of generosity and grace. Flowers. Food. Cards and trees and donations to charities. Women I didn't recognize (and I'm good at recognizing people) showed up at our door with things. Women whose names I didn't know hugged me in the halls. Almost everyone tried, in some way, to show their concern. I cried on some people's shoulders, and some of them shed tears for me. It was all awkward and painful and of course it wasn't enough. But it was more than I ever could have imagined.