The Truth In All Its Wretched Detail

There is a photograph of my family – my mother, sisters, brothers-in-law, niece, nephews, and my husband, daughter and I – from our ‘early family Christmas’ lunch. The sky outside is a brilliant blue and we’re all smiling – you can feel the summer heat radiating through the image (I live in the southern parts of the globe). I can remember the moment the camera snapped that photo: we had just found out that my eldest sister would be bringing another little person into our family. We were elated. High on the happiness of good news and a healthy family, the moment that photograph captured is one of pure joy; everything was perfect and right with our worlds when we took that picture.

Looking at it now, my heart aches. Unbeknownst to any of the happy, smiling people in that photograph, a heinous monster was already lurking among us.

It’s a funny sort of feeling when you’re told someone you adore is going to die in six months. At first, it feels as though you’ve been punched in the gut while the air has simultaneously been sucked out of the room, leaving you gasping for breath in-between heaving sobs of anguish. After a time of weeping – deep, in-your-gut, twisted-face sobbing – your brain kicks into defense mode: this can’t be happening, your brain assures you. There will be a miracle. This is a bad dream. I will suddenly wake up and laugh about it over coffee in the morning.

Except you never wake up. And you don’t laugh. Not for a long while.

Any happy moments – of which there are still plenty since life continues even once your world has stopped spinning – are lined with tragedy. Any joy is quickly snatched up by the snarling reality that scoffs it down like a rabid dog tearing at a fleshy carcass. And so because it hurts too much to smile, and because you have cried all the tears you have inside you, you beat that dog with denial until numbness sets in. Until you feel nothing. You busy yourself with the mundane comings and goings of daily life – get to work, photocopy documents, schedule meetings, shop for groceries, cook supper, bathe the baby, brush your teeth.

It’s only in your alone moments – usually driving between home and the office – while listening to a generic pop song that the hungry dog skulks into the room, heaving and foaming at the mouth as you remember in a sudden panic all the gory detail of the truth. And more tears come. And fresh pain grips your gut.

The truth in all it’s wretched detail: a three year-old you adore is going to die in a measly few months. In less time than it took to grow this tiny person, the earth will be devoid of his laugh, his vivacity for life, his beautiful little cupid lips that are so tricky to get a kiss from, and the adorable little brown cow’s lick that’s crowned his head since the day he arrived. In no time at all, the world will be less bright as one of heaven’s angels returns home.

The truth in all its wretched detail: you don’t get to spend every second of those last few precious months with him. You don’t get to give him soft sleepy kisses at bedtime. You won’t be there to hear his laugh fill the rooms of your home. You won’t get to tell him everyday he’s still here how much you love him, and how much it has meant to you having him in your life. You won’t get to soak him in, because he is not yours.  

It is not your place to despair. You don’t get to fall apart. And although that feral dog keeps gnawing at your heart, you hold yourself together because your sister needs you to be strong: her son is dying. And so you carry on shopping for groceries and washing the clothes, because what else do you do when you’re waiting for someone you love to die, and it’s not your place to share in their last precious days?

I think about how lucky those people in that photograph were. I think about how absolute their collective happiness was, how flawless their joy. I know we will be happy again. We will share happy occasions, memorable milestones, and exciting news. But we will never experience that uncontainable delight ever again: our joy will always be incomplete, diminished, because he won’t be there to share it with us.

And that is the truth in all its wretched detail.

Guest post written by Natalie Tannous. Natalie is an unplanned mom of one and a planned aunt of four. She loves writing,  hates cooking, and adores all the Tiny Humans she's been blessed with. She enjoys her daily search for good in one of the most dangerous cities in South Africa.