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How Being a Mom Kept Me From Drowning in Grief

My mom called on a Wednesday morning, just as I was about to step into the shower. "How are you?" she asked, not one to skip over the usual social niceties.

"Stark naked in my kitchen," I said, hoping she would get to the point. "I was about to take a shower."

"Oh," she said. I could hear her swallow.

"Your uncle is finally at peace."

I felt my recent stomach pain flare up. A pressure behind my eyeballs. A lump in my throat. It was only six days since we'd first learned my uncle was sick. Five days since we'd learned it was cancer. Four days since we'd learned that nothing could be done.

"Well, he couldn't have been comfortable these last few days," I whispered, pretending there was a silver lining, pretending I hadn't been praying for a miraculous recovery—a second chance—even though I am not someone who prays.

"I'd better go call your brother," she said.

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I hung up the phone and returned to the bathroom, easing my way around the Rock n' Play from which Em beamed up at me, gap-toothed, elated. I smiled back at her, turned on the hot water in the shower, and stepped in. After pulling the curtain shut behind me, I leaned my head against the tiled wall—the water raining down on the crown of my head, hitting the back of my neck—and sobbed. When my nose started to run, I aimed a snot rocket at the drain and blew. It was an act that, on any other day, would have disgusted me. But my grief was an ugly thing. It was choking me. Snot rockets? Who gave a shit?

Then I lifted her into my arms and pressed her tight to my body, as if she were the flotation device that would save me from drowning.

Still, as I neared the end of my shower, I turned my face toward the water, washing away all traces of my anguish. Then I peeked my head around the shower curtain. Em was, of course, delighted to see me. "Hello there, beautiful," I said as I shut off the water and grabbed my towel. Then I lifted her into my arms and pressed her tight to my body, as if she were the flotation device that would save me from drowning. I carried her upstairs and got the both of us dressed.

I felt lost the rest of that week. In fact, I had felt lost ever since I'd first heard of my uncle's sickness. Still, where once I would have succumbed to my grief, perhaps curling up into a ball in bed, listening to sad songs, and crying, I now forced myself to remain a functioning human being. After all, there was Emily to think of.

So I built my days around those simple tasks required to keep her alive: peeling nectarines, chopping them up, steaming them, pureeing them. Feeding her, changing her. Swinging her through the air until she laughed.

It has previously occurred to me that it's hard to be depressed—or, rather, to succumb fully to depression—when you have a baby relying upon you. You must maintain some semblance of normalcy, even when you yourself are barely hanging on by a thread. As someone who has worked for years to manage her own chronic depression, I used to worry about how I would handle this when I eventually became a mother. Could I hold it together for her? Could I be the mother I needed to be?

I soon learned I could do anything for her.

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The other day, the day after my uncle passed away, I found myself unable to focus on my work. I went through a period of manic activity in the kitchen, pureeing eggplant, baking cornbread, baking cupcakes. Finally, with nothing left to bake, I turned up the music on my iPod and pulled Em up out of her Jumperoo, bracing her on my hip, one arm around her back, my other hand holding hers so that we were dancing. I danced us back and forth in front of the mirror in the living room and she giggled and screeched and kicked her legs in excitement. Thrilled at seeing her so animated, I threw my head back and laughed, which only made her laugh more. Then I stilled, feeling it was somehow wrong to experience such happiness in the midst of everything else that had gone so wrong.

But when I looked at Em, whose smile was now as wide as her entire face, a smile I couldn't help but return, I knew she was saving me. So I kissed her cheek and I let go of my grief and I spun her around the room once more.

Image via Twenty20/alexafandv

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