Grief, and When Our Children Show Us the Way Out
As I type this, there is an estate sale company in my mother’s house, sorting through her belongings. The estate manager called me from where she stood in my parents’ dining room this morning to ask me some questions, and when she looked outside, she paused our conversation. “It’s just beautiful here!” she said. “This is a lovely home.”
I hung up and cried.
I need to tell you about this past weekend. We’d decided to do some sort of Fun Family Fall Activity, and Quinlan really wanted to go to a place with a corn maze, so after we finished cleaning the house Saturday morning (Cian: “Why do we hafta keep cleaning the house all the time? It’s just going to have to get cleaned AGAIN.”), we drove to an apple orchard about thirty minutes south of us. We handed over the bonkers-expensive entrance fee, donned our masks, and made our way to the corn maze after dodging a small handful of social media influencers in their Instagram Hats as they teetered out of a pumpkin patch.
All Quinlan wanted to do was this corn maze, right? Forget apple picking. Forget pumpkin patch-scouring. The corn maze was the Fun Fall Activity she’d asked to do–but it only took her five minutes of watching us twist and turn and get us lost and backtrack through this thing to decide a) she’s claustrophobic, b) corn mazes are the worst idea on earth, and c) if she left it up to us knuckleheads, we’d be stuck in this thing either forever, or at least until the coyotes came to eat us.
She watched us bumble around some more before she decided she was fed up. Without another word, and in Full Quinlan Mode, she charged off at a clip, leaving us to follow her. She marched, turning this corner and that, while the rest of us scrambled over dried corn stalks and stones to keep up with her. I had to ask her to slow down once, when we lost sight of her around a bend. But if you know this daughter of ours, you also know that none of us thought for a minute to question if she knew where she was going–this is The Mighty Quinn we’re talking about. You’ve heard the stories. Let me tell you: this maze was supposed to take us forty-five minutes to navigate. With Quinn leading the way, it only took us fifteen minutes before we tumbled off the end of the path and out of the maze behind her. We emerged, a little of out of breath, to see this ten-year-old standing with her fists clenched, glaring at the maze’s entrance like it’d personally offended her.
This kid. She stays even-keeled, usually. But when she does get upset, or thinks something is ridiculous, or feels anxious about something, it’ll bubble under the surface, tormenting her, until she simply decides she’s had enough and, well, charges off to do something about it.
David has stories of coming home from school to see his mom single-handedly ripping up all the carpet in their home because she’d finally had enough of it. I’ve done this, too, actually: ripped up carpet (I swear I knew there were hardwood floors underneath). I’ve also moved cities on a whim, repainted rooms on a lark, and, just last week, asked my hairdresser to chop off six or eight inches of hair the day after I decided I just didn’t like detangling it anymore:I see Quinlan operating the same way: overthinking and overthinking, followed by snap–the point where she just breaks and does something about it. I hate this in myself, but admire it so much in her.
A forty-five-minute-long maze, conquered in fifteen.
There’s an estate sale company in my mother’s house right now. I’ve just received another phone call, this one from our real estate agent to discuss the listing. I hate all of this so much. This is the corn maze–the grief and the quiet and the noise of wondering what turn is next, and why nobody seems to know how to get out of here. I feel quiet, but my head is noisy.
And then there’s my Quinlan, who finds herself in the maze full of dead-ends and looming stalks and allows herself to get overwhelmed just long enough for it to become determination.
And then she charges out of it. Without thinking, she finds a way. Without worry, she knows where she’s doing. She acts on instinct (and, okay, a little bit of rage) and finds her way out.
When Paul and I were about Quinn’s age, a couple of years after my grandfather died, I used to catch my mom watching us, often when we were seated across from each other at a table, with her chin on a hand. She’d just watch us when we were doing something simple, drawing or talking, just being us, and there’d be this look on her face. My brother will make fun of me for describing this–I wonder if he remembers it–but there were moments growing up, when our relationship got tough, or I was at wit’s end, and I’d remember that look. It was more than love–it felt like, in that moment in a booth at Little John’s Restaurant on York Road, she couldn’t believe her good luck in what sat across that table from her.
I say all the time that I want to be more like Quinlan: affectionate but fierce, sensitive but strong, full of integrity but completely compassionate. The corn maze, my sadness, this business of grieving and estate-settling and patching a new kind of life together over the hole of what we’ve lost–it’s all layers of the same issue. And, as always, the children show us to handle them.
My mom knew. And now it’s my turn to watch and learn, too.