These walks through the park a few blocks from our apartment had become the thing I treasured most the past few months. As time had gone on, Amber and I had forgotten how to exist in the same space. It was as though the connection between us was a foreign language we were both slowly forgetting, but neither of us were willing to admit it was happening. Each day, she grew harder to read. Where once I knew how she was feeling with a simple shift in her breathing or a hidden smile tucked away in her voice, now she could be writing her feelings in the skies overhead and I would still remain hopelessly oblivious.
It had begun as a way to cope with our shared grief. After much trepidation, we had opted to go forward with artificial insemination. Amber wanted to be a mother more than anything in this world, and I wanted her to be happy. She dreamed of motherhood the way other little girls dreamt of being pop stars. It was the thing she knew she was meant for, and so we pressed onwards in spite of the risks. We were not struggling financially but you know what they say. Most of us are one medical emergency away from bankruptcy, and that of course included us. When we found out Amber was pregnant, the jubilation was impossible to hide. They always advise you to wait until at least the end of the first trimester to start telling people, but in our case it was almost impossible to resist. This was our third round of insemination. The other two had not taken and we thought we were out of options, honestly. And so seeing that positive test, going through those early appointments with both of us holding our breath, we thought why not? And so we told her mother, and I immediately wished we hadn’t.
Amber’s mother Sara was, how should I say this? A tough customer? Sara had faced more than her fair share of heartache and tougher times, which left her understandably distrusting. A hardened skeptic who turned into a helicopter the instant we told her the good news. We went from a happy home for two, nestled beside central park, to two inmates expecting a third under the hardened warden of a mother in law. Sara was relentless and as much as we understood her trepidation, Amber and I wanted to enjoy every moment of the pregnancy. We wanted to continue to have lives even as parenthood drew near. Only Sara was of the mindset that the moment you find out you are expecting, your life must end. Everything is to be sacrificed as though stood before some sort of alter for your child. But we knew better. We had such a clear vision for our lives with our little girl.
Amber grew up stuck in one little town all her life. Her family were not what one would call adventurous, and so for ten generations they had lived in the same sleepy little town. A town that was not what you’d expect, at least not in full. Amber, who came out to her family and friends at age thirteen, had been lovingly and very publicly supported. The few people who seemed to have a problem with it were very quickly shut down and shoved aside.
When I say they threw a coming out parade, I’m not being the least bit facetious. Sara wanted her daughter to know that she was not loved in spite of who she was, but because of it. That all of the pieces that made her who she was were worthy of being celebrated, and so they did. With Sara at the helm, the sleepy little town of Mountain Springs came together and celebrated Pride in October of that year. An entire town wide celebration went off without a hitch, including several speakers they had come in from all around New York State to help the town get a better understanding of the discrimination and vitriol a member of the LGBTQ community could face. The entire town was like a family in that regard, but sadly they still were subject to the pit falls of enclosed communities. The gossip when Sara had to leave her husband Marshall and subsequently had planned to move one town over was mind blowing. It was as though the town was the second child going through the divorce, and so Sara chose to stay.
But this meant Amber was left longing to see and do more. To experience the world through the lens of various cultures and communities, and that was how we met. I had set out at twenty five to travel the country, planning to visit all forty eight contiguous states and ending in New York City. But by the time I made it to New York, I was stretched far too thin, both mentally and financially. I fell in love with Central Park because it was the one place I could spend all day, escaping my new fate as I waited for the shelter to open each evening. In my need to see the country, and I’d hoped the world, I had run my funds completely dry after being assaulted and hospitalized in Texas. I watched helplessly as I racked up a bill I still have trouble believing existed, knowing I would have to cut the trip short and head straight to New York. I had an old friend from college who had offered me their couch once I arrived, but that had fallen through. She made herself impossible to get a hold of, and I couldn’t blame her. We had a dustup after college that I thought had been sorted out. I’d been in an abusive relationship and in my blind loyalty to that partner, had allowed myself to cut out or fall away from all but one friend who I had stayed in contact with in secret.
When my friend ghosted me, I didn’t feel right telling her my situation. Instead, I attempted to spend as little as possible as I searched frantically for work. But it was of no use. I spent four months homeless in the city until the day I was writing in my journal, tucked away in a corner of Belvedere Castle as children played and laughed around me. I’m not sure what it was about me being lost in my writing as two children played hopscotch over me that caught her attention, but it did the trick. We spent the next four hours talking about poetry, photography and our shared love for travel. How she had moved to New York after attending a college less than an hour from that tiny town she’d grown up in. We both wanted to see the world and that love for adventure and exploration was the cornerstone of our relationship. Amber helped me get a job, cheered me on as I found my footing again, even helped me find a therapist to start to work through everything I’d been through over the prior four years, and that was how she became my best friend and later my person. We found each other in that castle in central park, dreamed of one day taking our own child there to play and eventually having enough saved to live in a gorgeous brownstone in walking distance from the park.
When our beautiful daughter Sophia was born, our lives changed forever. We still wanted to travel the world, but we wanted to do it in such a way that Sophia could get the most out of it as well. As Sara begged us to stay put, we put into motion our first big trip. We were to head to California first to take our now three year old daughter to meet the big mouse in charge, and then fly to Hawaii for several weeks of waterfall hikes and other off the beaten path adventures. Only we never made it that far. As we headed from our hotel to the parks, a car came up onto the sidewalk and struck Amber and Sophia. Amber did her best to shield her, but Sophia died there in her arms. Our little girl was gone, and with her went our hope, our love, our light.
Amber and I did all the things they tell you to after losing a child, but is there ever a sure fire way to get through something so life altering? We each lost a part of who we were and in her grief, Sara blamed us wanting to travel for Sophia’s death, while Amber and I each blamed ourselves. I watched as we silently drifted apart, unsure what to say or how to be around one another. Everything about Amber reminded me of Sophia, and the same for Amber with me. She had been the most bubbly, kind hearted, intelligent child and I do not say that simply because I was her mother. Sophia was different, special, and the world never got a chance to experience her. We never got a chance to treasure her as much as we should have, and so as Amber and I set out on another of our daily walks, the leaves falling silently around us, I felt certain this was the end for us. My family was going to disappear and there was nothing I could do about it.
It was in these moments of despair washing over me that a red leaf caught my eye. It did not seem to belong to any of the trees around us and captured my attention deeply enough that I did not realize Amber was speaking to me. As I lifted the leaf to inspect it, I was shocked to find the corner of a sheet of construction paper beneath where the leaf had been. “Did you hear anything I said, Lux?” I stumbled on my words as I answered her, “I, yes, yes I heard you but I noticed this leaf—“ Amber’s anger was about to surge when she noticed the paper in my hands. It was a drawing done by a child who was likely around three or four years old. I could hear her breath catch as she took it in beside me. “That….Sophia used to draw that same thing over and over. Do you remember? The castle and the clouds gathering overhead, a little girl seated at the base of the window. It always reminded me of the day I met you, Lux. The way you were in a world all your own, hidden away in that tattered and beaten up journal. Does…does it have a name on it?”
I tried to answer her but my mind could not seem to remember how to speak. I had been quiet, lost in a maze within my own head for so long, it took me longer than I meant to, to answer her. But unlike the past few months, Amber was patient, understanding even and as I felt her hand rest on my back, it all came rushing forward. “I’m so sorry I couldn’t save her, Amber. I should have been paying closer attention that day. I—“ Her hand quickly covered my mouth, “No, you will not do this love. You will not sit here and blame yourself the same way you have refused to allow me to blame myself. Look at the drawing, baby. Look at the love and care the child who drew it put into this piece of art. How their little hands struggled with the shape of the window but it didn’t matter. It did not matter because they did the best that they could with what knowledge they had. Maybe we’ve been going about this all wrong.” I was stunned by her words but did my best to take in the drawing. “It, it says Soph, Amber. How can it say Soph?” Taken aback herself, Amber melted into tears beside me.
Somehow, one of Sophia’s drawings had made it to our favorite bench and just as I became convinced magic had to be real, I noticed a figure move a few trees to my right. It was Sara, but she quietly waved me off. With tears in her eyes, she looked into me and I knew what she meant. She had watched as we fell apart, had grown as she went to therapy for the first time in her life and tried to get Amber and I on the same page the past month of so. She knew this route and in some sort of last ditch effort, hoped a piece of our little girl could bring us back together.
I won’t pretend that things were magically fixed that day in the park, holding Sophia’s drawing between us, but something broke open that had been threatening to sink us both. The weight of the silently internalized guilt had nearly destroyed our love for one another, and in the year it took us to find each another again, I realized how important it is not to run. Or at least not to run too far for too long from our problems. From the pain and the hard parts of this whole being human thing. I learned that if we spoke to the shadows that haunted us, we could find common ground, a way to coexist and move forward in grief rather than drowning ourselves in the past. A well placed red leaf changed our lives that day, and all I can say is thank god for that sort of magic. For love that can overcome misunderstanding and for little ones who hold our hearts long after they are gone.