What Could Have Been

My girls’ birthday is in two days, and I have had a pit in my stomach since the weekend.

They would be three years old this year.  We should be having a party with pretty dresses and streamers and balloons and bubbles, and they should be giggling and twirling and blowing out three candles on two birthday cakes.  Or one.   (I tend to imagine myself being overly ambitious in these daydreams.)

I was listening to NPR on Saturday afternoon as I was organizing our boys’ bedroom.  All three of our boys share a room right now and the mess can get out of hand rather quickly.  As I worked, the TED radio hour came on and they were talking about languages.  I heard this talk by a Vietnamese teacher of Greek and Latin named Phuc Tran. In it, he talks about how our language affects our perceptions.  Specifically, he talked about the subjunctive mood, which is present in English and several other languages, but is not found in his native Vietnamese.  The subjunctive is a verb tense that deals in the hypothetical.  In wishing, in hoping, in possibilities.  Phuc talks about a near miss that his family had when he was a child in Saigon.  They made a last-minute change that saved their lives, as a bus that they were going to take pulled away from the station, was hit by artillery, and exploded.  He implies that because of the subjunctive mood in English, he was able to spend time thinking about what could have happened while his Vietnamese-speaking family, with their indicative mood, could not.  The former French teacher in me was intrigued.  Le subjonctif and I have a love-hate relationship.

Whether or not the lack of the subjunctive in Asian languages prohibits them from being able to contemplate what could have been, this got me thinking about grief and loss and the subjunctive.  When a person lives a full life, grows old and dies, we are not usually left wondering what could have been.  It was.  They were.  They lived their lives and then they died.  But when a child dies, there are so many possibilities that are taken away, from their appearance to their personality to what they would have done with their lives and how our lives would be different with them living in it.  There are an infinite number of possible outcomes, each with its own subtle nuances,  and we will never get to experience any of them.  We are left with this void and wondering what would have filled it.

But is that a good thing?

That is the question that Phuc brings up in his talk.  The “dark side” of the subjunctive is that we spend time thinking about what could have been when the reality is that it just wasn’t.  But I can’t imagine that there are mothers out there, even without the subjunctive mood, who aren’t wondering what life would be like with their children.  Is that just my cultural – or linguistical – bias? It’s hard to imagine life without the subjunctive.  It’s the basis for so much of our film and literature.  Imagine reading an O. Henry story without wondering what would have been if something had not happened.

A particularly trying day with my kids on Sunday left me thinking a lot about those things.  The two hours spent getting everyone dressed and out the door for, and then sitting through, church leave me feeling steamrolled, and maybe it was because of the girls’ upcoming birthday, but on that particular day, I spent a lot of time wondering if I could have managed if my twins were with us. And if they were, would we still have our sweet youngest daughter?  If things are difficult and I feel overwhelmed with four, am I glad that I don’t have two more?  Did God know I couldn’t handle it?

You can imagine that running that loop of questions through your mind for a day is futile and defeating, and doing it while meeting the needs of four little ones is quite exhausting.  It was indeed a dark side and my mood matched it. So it got me thinking about what it would be like to live in the indicative.

Our twins died.  They are not with us.  I don’t spend time dwelling on possibilities because that is a waste of time and effort.

I have to admit that it was a bit refreshing, but I couldn’t maintain it long before the  thought of “Yes, but…” crept in.

So what do you think?  I’d love to hear from someone whose native tongue does not include the subjunctive mood.  How does one grieve the loss of a child without the subjunctive?  And for the rest of us, is the subjunctive why we “dwell?”  Does its usage reflect a lack of contentment or faith?  Does it help our healing or hinder it?

I think that on Thursday, we will be celebrating their birthday the way we always do: by releasing some balloons, having some cake, and imagining what life in our home would be like if Fiona and Brigid were with us.


4 thoughts on “What Could Have Been

  1. To say in the least I am in the same boat. My family chooses to ignore my boys who died from TTTS, where I choose to embrace their memory. I should have cake and music this 17th, but won’t. I’m sad to know what I missed, birthdays, hugs, kisses, ect. I don’t believe my family endured TTTS as a big picture, the God picked me to be burdened with grief. Because I am not, I am not burdened with grief. It would be the same as saying I am burdened with love from my living children. (My girls who live are highs and lows of all sorts of emotions) I had the boys, I celebrate their life; as much as I am happy that my deceased Great Grand Father who packed up and left Yugoslavia in the 1920’s to become an American Citizen. Just because someone dies means we should forget or feel sad at the mention of their name, no. We remember them or events mo make our future better, more fulfilling.

  2. Pingback: Our God is in Control | Little Winged Ones

  3. Dearest Eileen,

    I want you to know that your words are the most beautiful concerning the reality of baby loss. My own little boy, Emeric James, was 12 days past his 2nd birthday when he was carried in the arms of our mother Mary to meet and be united forever with our Father in Heaven. I am in complete awe that your words can describe exactly the hope and sadness that I feel for my loss and the loss of all the little ones whose time, to us, seemed too short. I have struggled to continue being a part of this world that doesn’t seem to understand the amazing beauty of Emeric’s short life and only sees the “darkness” of our loss. I would tell anyone today that the joy I have for being Emeric’s mother (for two years on earth, and for eternity in heaven) and more importantly, the capacity for love that he taught me, is far more powerful than any sorrow. What an honor it was to care for my little boy in his moments of fatigue and pain. Scary and exhausting, but I remember when I told nurses that I wanted to change his diapers because it was one of the few things I felt I could do for him.
    I think that the subjunctive can hinder our healing for sure, if we allow it. When you write about trusting in God’s plan, your words echo so closely the feelings of my own aching heart. My husband and I remind each other often, especially in prayer, that Emeric was a gift from God. He was God’s first and always and was given to us to take care of for a period of time. So when I catch myself saying “could” or “should,” I remind myself how amazing of a little person he was and how much of a blessing it was to be his mother. I didn’t mention this yet, but Emeric died from Tay-Sachs, a genetic disease with no cure or treatment. 6 months after his passing, we welcomed home our son Oliver, through adoption, and every time he smiles I imagine Emeric smiling down on all of us. This is what should be. I don’t see it now, but someday, when I am holding Emeric in my arms again, I will know that I never have to let go again and maybe I will understand then, maybe not, but it won’t matter any more.

    So much love to you and your family. I am very grateful to have found your blog and to read your most wonderful words of love.

    • Oh, Michele – thank you so much for your kind comment and for sharing a little about your sweet Emeric James. Love to you and your family. 💗

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