When I was a little girl, my grandmother told me lots of different stories. One of her tales that had the greatest emotional impact on me was the Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone.
In the story, Persephone, adolescent daughter of Demeter and Zeus, is abducted by Hades, the god of the underworld. Once Demeter realizes that her beloved daughter has been snatched from her, removed from life in the light, and taken to a place Demeter cannot reach, the mother becomes inconsolable, roaming the earth, consumed with equal parts grief and rage.
In that first year after the tragic and sudden loss of her child, Demeter – goddess of the harvest – neglects herself, and also neglects the crops and flowers and trees that need her touch to bloom and grow. The world becomes bleak, cold and lifeless. The grieving mother, formerly healthy and full of energy, ages quickly and loses her previous vitality. She is old before her time.
Eventually, a compromise is struck between Hades and Zeus, who is troubled to see Demeter so despondent and lifeless as she pines for her missing child. The deal allows Persephone to leave the underworld for part of each year, during which mother and child are reunited, and the world comes back to life. But inevitably, Persephone is called back to Hades, and her mother is left behind, broken and grieving.
I’ve been thinking of Demeter ever since my son Henry died, my beautiful, beloved, adolescent child, stolen away from me to a place I cannot go. Since that day nine months ago when Henry disappeared from my ability to see or touch him, I have experienced the deep freeze of Demeter’s long winter. If I could roam the entire earth, seeking a way back to my child, I would. Given that I am a mere mortal, however, I spend long nights alone, sequestered in our house, pacing, unable to sleep. While the rest of my family sleeps, I clutch Henry’s shoe, or his sweater, and I beg the universe to give him back to me. When it becomes clear that the begging gets me nowhere, I offer to make a deal – any kind of deal – and sometimes I rage and threaten. But still, my child is kept from me.
Like Demeter, winter has descended on me and my world since my son died. It’s equal parts emotional, physical and spiritual. Since that day, I am rarely able to get completely warm. I shiver with cold, even when sitting next to the fire. I have aged radically and quickly. My hair wants to turn gray, and I am physically diminished. I feel smaller and weaker. My previous natural playfulness has been smothered, quieted, and I feel at least a decade older than I am. All of my senses are dulled; the music that I once loved often sounds like so much meaningless noise, and I no longer find even the most delicious food anything more than something meaningless that my body requires to remain functional.
Another aspect of the deep freeze that has enveloped me since Henry died has been an involuntary turning inward, a need for solitude and hibernation. Henry’s death came at the very beginning of summer, normally a season when I am outside in the sunshine as much as possible, playing with my children, taking long walks, visiting with family and friends… But when I try to remember last summer, I don’t remember anything about it. Did I go outside? I must have at some point, but I don’t remember doing it. Was there sunshine or was it perpetually gray through that first season? Surely there was blue sky and warmth, but on the rare occasions I ventured outside our house, all I can remember is a colorless landscape. How could there be flowers or music or sunshine in a world suddenly without my beautiful boy?
Then fall and winter came after the summer, and my perception of a cold, gray, sun-less world became reality. With the exception of going to work each day, along with a few attempts in the past six months at regaining my bearings by having friends over to our house, I have continued to mostly remain indoors and keep to myself during these darker, shorter days of this first year. I declined all invitations to holiday gatherings, and I have continued to guiltily fail to return many emails, calls and texts from people I care about, people who want to see me.
I know that I will eventually have to re-emerge from this long winter. IHenry would not want me to remain joyless and without sunshine, and his little brother and sisters need me to eventually come completely back into the light.
Today, it was warmer outside than it has been in a long time. Or, at least, it was the first time I can recall noticing any change in the temperature. When I stepped out onto my front porch and felt the balmier air, I knew that I needed to make an effort to leave my cocoon, even if only for a little while. So this afternoon, for the first time since my son died, I went outdoors – for real. J and E are with their father this weekend, and Jon was busy with work he had brought home from his office, so I got out the double stroller we’ve now had for months but never used a single time, I got C and Baby G settled into it, took a deep breath. and pushed forward, out our front gate.
The little girls and I strolled down our street and then went into the park, enjoying the rare winter warmth, and chatting with neighbors who were also out biking and walking. I realized as we went along that this was the very first time ever - ever – that I’ve taken 7 month old Baby G, born only three weeks after her big brother died, outdoors for a walk or stroll of any kind.
The walk was so successful that I was encouraged to next head over to a nearby playground to meet a friend and her children. I stayed for several hours, holding G on my lap, chatting with my sweet friend, and watching C play with the other kids. All of it outdoors, in the open, under the blue-gray sky – a world without Henry, but a world that seems intent on continuing to turn on its axis, with winter soon turning to spring, marking a complete year since my child was taken from me.
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