Months ago, I came across a Facebook post a friend shared that was written by a parent who had lost a child. In the message, she implored fellow parents to embrace gratitude every day — to reshape thinking about the many chores and challenges they face in raising their children instead as opportunities others only wish for. I squirreled this away into the unwritten list of possible column ideas I stash in my brain and, unfortunately, its relevance is all too real today.
I’m writing this just a few hours removed from the funeral for a little boy who was in Jackson’s class at daycare. His passing was sudden and unexpected, making what I imagine to be the worst possible experience any parent can go through that much harder. I fumbled through offering condolences to his parents, knowing that the words I was trying to craft weren’t going to move their grief an inch. Seeing beautiful family photos in the visitation line, with the family at the front surrounding their tiny boy in a small casket is a dichotomy that just should never comport to reality.
As with any situation like this, I don’t think I was alone in uttering, “I can’t imagine what they’re going through,” and automatically shifting the focus to my own child. This little boy slipped away on Jackson’s birthday, just a day before his own first birthday, and ultimately passed away a few days later, the morning of Jackson’s first birthday party. Unbeknownst to us at the time, we were celebrating this happy milestone surrounded by all of our family and friends while the loved ones of this baby were saying their final goodbyes. I got chills while looking at the family photos in church and seeing a familiar frame, one that our daycare center also made for us for Mother’s Day with the baby’s footprints and photo.
While I only saw this boy and his parents in passing during dropoff and pickup times, our little ones spent eight hours a day together, and they were set to move up together shortly after their birthdays into the “big kid” room. While Jackson surely is too young to understand what happened, I can’t help but wonder if he does sense, on some level, that something changed or notice the absence of his young friend.
It drove home the sad reality that we will likely have to tackle tough concepts like this with him when he’s old enough to understand that the world is full of unfair and frightening experiences — from large-scale ills like wars and gun violence to microcosmic issues he may personally have to contend with, such as bullying or the loss of a loved one. That’s a very scary prospect that already makes me wistful for the simple times we have now of playing with him on the living room floor.
I’ve also been reminded of that Facebook post many times lately. The writer suggested parents should reframe phrases like “have to” and “need to” into “get to.” For instance, the night before I learned of this little boy’s passing, I was laying awake at 1:30 a.m., as Jackson had erupted in screams that we assume are related to teething. I was holding a pillow over my ears wishing I didn’t “have to” be woken up in the middle of the night. Looking at it from this side of the tragic news I found out the next morning, I “get to” be woken up by him. Sure, middle-of-the-night wake-up calls are frustrating, and moving through the workday without sleep is tough, but those are challenges that mean absolutely nothing when you look at the real alternative that other parents deal with.
I am trying to commit myself to this mindset shift every day. I don’t need to spend time each night prepping the next day’s lunch for Jackson’s growing appetite; I get to. I don’t have to deal with the unpleasantness of a diaper blowout; I get to. I don’t have to worry about saving up for the baby’s Christmas gifts; I get to. I don’t need to spend time picking up Jackson’s toys each night after he goes to bed; I get to. I don’t have to chase him through the living room when he attempts to escape if we leave a baby gate open; I get to. I don’t need to double-back and pick him up every time he cries when I leave a room; I get to.
If our experience is like that of other parents of one-year-olds, each day is entrenched in a seemingly endless list of chores: changing diapers, putting on clothes, driving to and from daycare and work, buying supplies, making and packing food — all the while trying to occupy this excitable ball of energy eager to get his hands on everything and anything. It’s beyond easy to succumb to the chaos and become a slave to the routine, completing every task like a robot — one who can get easily annoyed and angered at anything knocks the semblance of order off track.
But, when you look at that routine through the lens of those parents who lost their little boy, it must seem ridiculous. Why get overwhelmed at all the bottles that have to be cleaned? Why stress out over not having a vegetable to add to the baby’s dinner? Why worry about not having time to clean the bathtub because you took him to the park? Why get annoyed about not being able to concentrate on writing this very column because Jackson is screaming? All of these things are because I am lucky enough to have a healthy little boy, who will keep growing, learning and experiencing life. This week has shown me the stark reality of those who aren’t that fortunate.
To honor this little boy’s memory, and to find one grain of positivity from his family’s ordeal, I will strive to live each day with gratitude. Even on the hard days — when Jackson hits the tantrums of the “terrible twos” or learns how to talk back — I need to remind myself how incredibly blessed I am to go through those experiences with him because other parents aren’t as lucky. I can only hope that showing him how fortunate I feel every day will have a lifelong impact — a gift given to us by this little boy who was only here for a short time but whose influence we will continue to feel.