The day he died, I wrote that I was not ok. That was true then. I looked at the post again today. I said that I didn’t even know what ok looked like anymore. And I think that’s exactly it. In this brave new world of dead children and broken lives, I do not know what it means to be ok in the same way. I’m still not quite sure what a new, post-James emotional neutral looks like. There was a time when I could wake up with some regularity and predict the contents of the day. James’ death removed the axis point around which that settled world revolved. The re-shuffling of the moving parts without their center of gravity has proved a sloppy affair, beset by a tendency to take two steps forward and three back, compounded by the fact that I’m not always even sure which direction is forward and which is back.
Perhaps that’s why I hate when people ask me that question. Usually I brush it off; it’s a rote question, the kind that you ask with no real expectation of meaningful dialogue in return. I should know, I’ve been guilty of doing the exact same thing. In fact, that’s probably why it bothers me more than “How are you doing” or something similar. “Are you ok” is my own preferred platitude turned back on me. The trouble is when people ask me it irks me- I want to ask them how they’re defining ok. Does ok mean that I woke up, showered, and was productive today? Because if so, yes, I’m ok. Provided you refrain from putting up pictures of him and talking about how he got sick and died, I am unlikely to burst into tears during the middle of our conversation. Does it mean that I am capable of laughing, making jokes, and even having fun? Then yes, I’m ok. That does happen, and I’m glad for it. Does ok mean that I am now untroubled by the fact that my infant son died of brain cancer? Because I am definitely not ok about that. I am whatever you would describe as the opposite of ok about that. I do not expect to become “ok” about that.
A few months after he died, a friend I hadn’t seen in a while asked me that question. For whatever reason (probably because I knew I could) I went off on him. I broke out the usual sarcastic barbs. “No, I’m definitely not ok. Remember how my son died? That was pretty not ok. But if you look past that? Yeah, I’m doing pretty awesome.” His attempts to apologize just encouraged me. “You know what? Don’t be sorry. I’m so glad you asked. I was really looking forward to an opportunity to talk about the defining tragedy of my life with you in advance of tonight’s showing of Moneyball. Can we get some drinks first though? I don’t want to miss the previews.” In reality of course, he was just trying, and happened to catch me at a bad time when I’d heard the question many more times—and much less sincerely—than I needed to. I apologized later. Far more troubling was that I didn’t actually know the answer to his question, or any time someone asked.
And that’s the strange thing. Because I still don’t know what “Ok” looks like anymore. I know what it used to look like, the sort of bland neutral that it represented nothing in particular, but I do not know what that means for me now. I am not the person I was before James died. I’m working out what ok means, because any definition must include what happened. It’s impossible to bury it in some kind of neutral way. In some ways, that has been the most difficult part about losing him, co-existing with the fact of his death and resisting the urge to drown in it. Recognizing that it’s always there, that ok is never going to mean that everything is fine because James is not fine, is a challenge. Whoever I am now cannot escape what happened. I can and do live with it, but I’m not going to suddenly be fine with everything that happened.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that I’m better about what happened than I was a year ago. I am much better now. I find it easier to think of all of the good times with James, and there are so many wonderful things to remember about him. He was a very special boy that I was and am honored to call my son. We were blessed to have him. So I’m doing better. But I’m still working on what it means to be ok. I like to think I’m at least headed in the right direction.
Thank all of you for your continued thoughts and prayers.