Fear by Chanel Brenner
No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.
—C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed
The way the afternoon light floods our front porch helps make my sadness bearable today. I scan the other houses on our block, their yards darker, but with greener grass, and wonder how ours, the one with the dead child, has the brightest light.
This morning on YouTube, I watched a TODAY show interview with Matt Mauser, the husband of one of the victims in the Kobe helicopter crash. The newscaster, Savannah Guthrie, asked him if he felt angry. I am scared more than anything, he said.
His words penetrated me. Somehow, he breached the grief dam I have built for survival since Riley’s death. He told her that he has three small children to take care of on his own. Three young children to keep alive, I think. Three young children to somehow make feel safe after the shocking death of their mother. One morning she’s there. Poof.
Now, I am pondering the role of fear after a devastating loss. How the loss breeds fear of more loss, like amoebas dividing and separating into ever more anxieties. How fear has changed the way I mother Desmond after his brother’s death. How the fear of making a mistake and causing him harm has guided me. How the fear of my fear and the fear of being overprotective and not being a good mother has also guided me. I have been wrestling with this for nine years, since Riley died when Desmond was two years old. I remember a mother who lost her toddler from a random accident saying, I could be afraid of everything or live.
Weeks after Riley died from his second brain AVM hemorrhage, we met up with our friends, Tina and Jeff, and their two children at the Omelet Parlor. Their oldest daughter had attended preschool with Riley, and we had quickly become friends. I remember forcing myself to eat the Spanish omelet, and the overwhelming loudness of people’s voices, laughter, and the clanking of dishes that jarred me like an alarm.
Tina asked if we wanted to go for a bike ride after breakfast. It was the last thing I wanted to do, not just because I hadn’t been on a bike in years; the idea of moving fast and navigating people felt overwhelming. Even walking on the boardwalk with Desmond sounded terrifying. He was known to spontaneously start running without looking back. Tina said they were trying to be an active family. I laughed in my head, and thought, We’re just trying to be.
In that moment, I realized we were worlds apart. I was a survivor, navigating the terrain of dead-child world, and she was still thriving in a world where her children were safe.
We agreed to go to a nearby park. I was apprehensive, but acquiesced because it was good for Desmond to spend time outside and run around. I was afraid of not doing what was good for him because of my fear. I don’t remember the name of the park and haven’t been back since. In my memory, it’s vast, with concrete paths that loop around, and there are multiple steep grass hills, but it’s probably small, with one low-grade hill. My memories in the early days after Riley’s death are akin to my recollection of places from childhood, looming larger in my mind’s eye than reality.
I remember the harshness of the sun that day in the park as it pierced my scalp, how I wished I had remembered my hat. Desmond was running up and down the grass hill with their son. My heart pounded hard as I watched Desmond speeding downhill, letting the force propel him. He had always been more athletic and in control of his body than Riley, who had fallen a lot.
When Riley was three, he fell running from the bath, wrapped in his giraffe’s-head hooded towel. We were playing tickle mommy, running and laughing. He didn’t automatically brace his fall with his hands, and irreparably damaged his two front baby teeth. The dentist confirmed what I already knew at the time: he’d lose both front teeth early. When he was five (before we knew about his AVM), he ran to tell me something and fell with his left limb caught oddly underneath his torso, like a snapped tree branch. It was his first and only break.
After Riley was diagnosed, we wondered if his awkward falling was a symptom, but the doctors were unable to confirm or deny the possibility. Some children are just more athletic, one of them said. Unlike Desmond, Riley hadn’t been interested in sports. And Riley wasn’t a risk taker like his brother. I became aware of Desmond’s risk-taking nature when he was one year old and jumped from a high play structure. A couple of moms with me said, Don’t worry . . . he knows it’s too high . . . he won’t jump. He did, and he landed it.
At the park that day, Jeff and my husband Lee, were making small talk while I stood with Tina. I couldn’t stop watching Desmond long enough to hold a conversation. The whole time, I wanted to leave. The sky felt too open-ended. I needed finite walls and a roof. Then I got distracted and turned to look back at Desmond just as his head hit the concrete walkway. I remember the debilitating fear, and Lee and I both yelling, Fuck at the same time, the expression on Lee’s face mirroring my fear. I can still see the discomfort and the shocked expressions of our friends, their surprise when we left. That should do it, Lee said in the car. I don’t think they’ll be hanging out with us again anytime soon.
It was the last time we spent together as families.
Weeks earlier, Desmond was running around our living room in Spider-Man pajamas while Lee and I talked to the rabbi about Riley’s service. Desmond circled us with a toy plane, pretending that it was crashing into the couch, nosediving to the ground, yelling explosion noises, smiling and laughing. I apologized to the rabbi. He had tears in his eyes, and said, He’s playing . . . that’s what he’s supposed to do.
I wanted to make Desmond stop. Every time he ran by the fireplace mantel, I held my breath and tried not to envision him falling and crashing his head into the stone. But I knew in my heart that the rabbi was right. I needed to let him play. I needed to manage my fear. I needed to not fuck him up because of his brother’s death and my grief. He was a boy that needed to run, play, and climb trees.
A couple of years after Riley died, Desmond attended kindergarten in Riley’s former classroom with the same teacher. A photo of Riley was displayed on a mantel, and an apple tree was growing in his honor on the playground. Desmond was overjoyed about being in Riley’s class, and still had memories of dropping his brother off at the school and visiting the classroom. I remember Desmond saying to me, I want to stay at Riley’s school forever.
That was the year Desmond collided with a friend while jumping off a dirt hill on the playground. His upper front teeth punctured his lower lip. He left teeth marks on his friend’s head. You might want to take him to the dentist, Desmond’s teacher said when she called.
I remember saying, Fuck, fuck, fuck. I can’t deal with this right now, before asking, How bad is it? Are his teeth okay?
When I learned that Riley would lose his front teeth at age three, I was already pregnant with Desmond, but didn’t know it yet. We had been trying to get pregnant for almost a year and had given up. I remember Lee saying, It’s okay, Riley is enough. It was days after Riley’s fall that I took a pregnancy test on a whim and saw the vibrant plus sign. I instantly felt comforted by the idea of future front baby teeth growing inside of me. Is there a maternal instinct to have another child in case one dies? Or did I intuitively know that I was going to lose Riley?
After Riley died, I remember standing in my living room, talking to a friend. You need to have another child. You need a backup, I heard myself saying. I knew I was out of line, but as I watched my surviving child play, I wondered how I could have survived Riley’s death without Desmond. I wanted to protect her.
Now I know that I can’t. Even if she had another child as a backup, it wouldn’t lessen the grief if her firstborn died. She would source another place to channel all that earthly love—the way the afternoon light can’t stop itself from flooding our front porch, even though it burns our lawn brown.
Chanel Brenner is the winner of the 2021 Press 53 Award for Poetry for Smile or Else. She is the author of Vanilla Milk: a memoir told in poems, (Silver Birch Press, 2014), which was a finalist for the 2016 Independent Book Awards and honorable mention in the 2014 Eric Hoffer awards. Her work has appeared in HerStry, Modern Loss, The Good Men Project, New Ohio Review, Poet Lore, Rattle, Barrow Street, Salamander, Spoon River Poetry Review, Literary Mama, and others. Her poem, “July 28th” won first prize in The Write Place At the Write Time’s contest, judged by Ellen Bass, and her poem, “Apology,” won first place in the Smartish Pace Beullah Rose Poetry Prize. In 2018, she was nominated for a Best of the Net. Find her at chanelbrenner.com and on Instagram at @chanelbrenner and Twitter at @chanelb2 and Facebook at @chanelbrennerauthor.