Children Don’t Always Live

My daughter, Greta, was 2 years old when she died — or rather, when she was killed. A piece of masonry fell eight stories from an improperly maintained building and struck her in the head while she sat on a bench on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with her grandmother. No single agent set it on its path: It wasn’t knocked off scaffolding by the poorly placed heel of a construction worker, or fumbled from careless hands. Negligence, coupled with a series of bureaucratic failures, led it to simply sigh loose, a piece of impersonal calamity sent to rearrange the structure and meaning of our universe.

She was rushed to the hospital, where she underwent emergency brain surgery, but she never regained consciousness. She was declared brain-dead, and my wife and I donated her organs. She was our only child.

The incident was freakish enough to be newsworthy. Requests for interviews flooded our email while we still were at our daughter’s bedside; television trucks trawled Manhattan looking for us. When we left the hospital, I caught my daughter waving at me from the corner of my eye. A picture of her from my wife’s Facebook page was on the cover of The Daily News.

Children Don’t Always LiveOver the next year, we became another local story about the quiddities of fate, the heartless absurdity of life in the big city. “Oh, you’re that couple,” a father said gravely when we introduced ourselves at a support group for bereaved parents. The attention was both bewildering and gratifying. We met couples whose children had died at home, in private, with only their shattered family to help them cope. There was succor to be drawn from all this awe and care, and I found myself leaning into it as often as I pushed it away.

Seven weeks ago, our second child was born; a son, Greta’s younger brother. They would have been exactly three and a half years apart. With his birth, I have become a father to a living child and a spirit — one child on this side of the curtain, and another whispering from beneath it. The confusion is constant, and in my moments of strength I succumb to it. I had a child die, and I chose to become a father again. There can be no greater definition of stupidity or bravery; insanity or clarity; hubris or grace.

Lying on the floor, talking to my son in soothing tones and jingling bright, interesting-looking things in front of his eyes, as I did with his sister, I yearn for him to feel his sister’s touch. Then I remember with a start: We were never going to have him. We always said Greta was enough — why have another kid? I gaze in awe. He wouldn’t exist if his sister had not died. I have two children. Where is the other one?

Becoming a parent is already a terrifying process. After a child’s violent death, the calculations are murkier. What does my trauma mean for this happy, uncomplicated being in my care? Will it affect the choices I make on his behalf? Am I going to give a smaller, more fearful world to him than I gave to Greta? Is he doomed to live under the shadow of what happened to his sister?

After Greta was born, my wife, Stacy, and I had a habit of checking to make sure she was still breathing. During that time, we ran into a fellow parent, a mother of two children, and Stacy made a nervous joke about it. The woman smiled. “They’re always breathing,” she said.

I imagine it’s the same for all parents. You begin to adjust to the reality of your child’s continuing existence. Their future begins to take shape in your mind. They’re always breathing, you tell yourself.

Life remains precarious, full of illnesses that swoop in and level the whole family like a field of salted crops; there are beds to tumble from, chairs to run into, chemicals and small chokeable toys to mind. But you do not see death at every corner, merely challenges. The part of you that used to keep calculating the odds of your child’s existence has mostly fallen dormant. It is no longer useful to you; it was never useful to the child; and there is so much in front of you to do.

At 2, your child is a person — she has opinions and fixed beliefs, preferences and tendencies, a group of friends and favorite foods.

What happens when that child is swiftly killed by a runaway piece of everyday environment, at the exact moment you had given up thinking that something could take all of this away from you?

When I am on the playground years from now, watching my son take a fall from the monkey bars, I might not panic. But some part of me will remember: A heartbeat can stop. Hearing a heartbeat for the first time during the ultrasound, and then watching doctors shine light on unresponsive pupils two years later, you stop thinking of a heartbeat as a constant, and more as a favorable weather condition. Now I am a reminder of the most unwelcome message in human history. Children — yours, mine — they don’t necessarily live.

When I realized Greta would not live, I wanted to die so purely, and so simply. I could feel my heart gazing up at me quizzically, asking me in between beats: “Are you sure you want me to keep doing this?” But I found I could not give the order.

Since my son was born, I’ve caught myself making concrete plans for my suicide if he were to die. I will draft a letter to my parents, or even tell them face-to-face. “I’m going to meet my children,” I will say. If the world takes this one, I am not meant to be here. It is a frightening thought because it is so logical. How would anyone argue me out of it? Who would even try?

I do not believe anything bad will happen to him in his infancy. It makes a sort of sense: Nothing bad happened to Greta as an infant. I do not wake up in the middle of the night to check on him. I do not even flinch when I hand him to others and watch them grapple awkwardly with his floppy neck.

However, some part of me is grimly certain he will die at 2. The evidence is all on my side: 100 percent of my children have suffered this fate. Even as I carry my baby into the world — this crowded, clamorous, septic world — I am holding a breath that I will not release until he turns precisely one day older than Greta.

During my son’s birth, I leaned into the crook of my wife’s neck while she pushed, just as I did when Greta was born. I closed my eyes and smelled the gauze from her deathbed. My boy came out sickly white, with the umbilical cord knotted around his neck, and he was silent for an eternal second before his gurgling cry bubbled through his lungs and my wife clutched him and wept. “This is a miracle baby, I hope you understand that,” said our midwife. She was the same woman who had caught Greta and handed her to her mother; Greta had promptly let loose a tarry slick of meconium all over Stacy’s belly and wailed, her feet swiping feebly in it like a bird in an oil spill.

Children, hospitals, blood: It’s all a confused swirl of joy and agony. Somewhere in my subconscious, my daughter is on a scale, her birth weight being calculated; in the same moment, she is blue and cold and being carted away. All I am is a spectator: Her body is not mine to protect, not mine to save.

My wife and I are young still. With our son’s birth, we have committed to another round here on earth. My son will always have a dead sister; when I am 50, my heart will ache in this exact same way it does today. Children remain dead in ways adults do not, and on bad mornings, in the wrong light, everything from here on out feels like ashes.

Thankfully, I see it that way only in the margins. A breezy day, a good drink, my wife laughing, holding my son’s head to my chest — these things help dispel it. I look at my boy, a beautiful already-fattening baby, and this world, the one that senselessly killed my daughter, is benevolent once more.

I talk to him about his sister, whom I think he met before arriving. “Your daddy will always be sad your sister’s not here,” I tell him. “But you fill Daddy’s heart up with joy and he loves you more than everything.” I also want to say, but do not: I’m sorry. I’m sorry that I’ll never be the same father I was before. I’m sorry that you will live with me, to some degree, in grief.

But life is good: Greta loved it. She found every second of it delightful, and at its best when appreciated with others. I think of her hand touching my cheek and I muster up every drop of bravery I can: “It is a beautiful world,” I tell him, willing myself to believe it. We are here to share it.

Jayson Greene is a senior editor at Pitchfork magazine.

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