I've often wondered what the recipe included when mothers were
created. Part superhero, part superhuman, moms surely have many
ingredients: one wrist that can test the temperature of baby
formula; three measures of skinned knee fixability; two cups of
tear catching; zero sick days; little nightly sleep; a dash of
fever-gauging with a kiss on the forehead; many heaping tablespoons
of patience; endless pickups, drop-offs, and grocery lists; and
several thousand sack lunches and dinners. Topped with the wave of
one giant problem-solving wand, sprinkled with magic glitter from
above, a mom is born. Mothers have strength beyond muscle, wisdom
beyond intellect, magic beyond wands.
Brian Malin Jr. was struck and killed by a train just a block from
his Lake Forest home in April 2003.
Until a mother loses a child.
I wasn't superhuman or a superhero on April 19, 2003, when my
11-year-old son Steven Brian Malin Jr. was struck and killed by a
train down the block from our home in Lake Forest. Our only son,
wedged between two dancing, soccer-playing sisters, was simply
walking back from a quick chicken nugget Happy Meal at our local
McDonald's when I never saw him alive again. I couldn't fix the
biggest tragedy of our lives with a Band-aid and a kiss. I didn't
have an ounce of magic to change the fate of our child and our
family that ominously windy spring afternoon.
I was a mother who lived by the tried-and-true recipe for what a
mother should be, and completely crumbled in a matter of moments. A
million pieces of confused, furious, crumbled nothingness.
Superhero? Super zero.
There are absolutely no words to describe the black abyss you
fall into when your child dies. The hole has no bottom; the descent
has no final destination. Life goes from busy and noisy with the
demands of a full family to the silence of a world entrenched in
death. You want to rise back up to the light, past the whispered
condolences, the endless "I'm sorrys"-back to "normal." The only
problem is that life has no "normal" after you lose a child.
The four of us initially moved like zombies, no longer "living
life" but "living death." We found it impossible to inexplicably
have Steven "erased" from our lives, somehow deal with the
permanence and move on.
Grief books told me that our family would get over these
horrendous, anxiety-ridden feelings. I didn't want to get over
death. I wanted death to go away. I prayed about it. I journaled
about it. I just didn't believe that following the rules of death
would bring us back to life again.
When we finally got through the shock stage and ventured back
out in our everyday world, we'd run into little reminders of
Steven's life. His favorite number at the deli counter. His
favorite commercial on TV. A favorite story shared by a classmate.
What might be painful encounters for many actually felt like little
"hellos" to us. For our daughters, it was a refocus on the funny,
active brother with whom they wanted to stay connected, and further
away from the details of the accident, which physically stripped
him from our lives.
The more we looked for signs and symbols of Steven's life, the
more they came our way. Instead of spending our days in bed under
the covers, we found ourselves out looking for hope and a continued
connection to our little boy. It would've been easier to say
goodbye and let go of his place in our lives. Instead, we worked
hard to find healthy, well-adjusted ways to keep him close.
Some of the "signs" we've received over the past seven years
have been quite impressive, and we acknowledge them as confirmation
that Steven, our little guardian angel, is watching over us.
Rainbows at the most unlikely of times. A double heart in the snow
with no footprints around it. Getting on a flight last-minute and
being assigned row 13, Steven's favorite number.
We started to call our steps toward hope and healing, "moving
forward but hanging on." Going on without our little boy cheated us
all. Moving forward with him still spiritually and symbolically
close was the true answer for our family. Following this path led
us in a new direction on the road of grief, one in which our
daughters are thriving and we are "living life" again, not "living
Four years ago, I began writing the story of our journey back to
light and life after the darkest days we ever knew. It is not a
tale of magic wands that can bring back our loved ones or how moms
can turn tragedy into triumph with a kiss on the forehead. It is,
however, the truth of what good can happen when you decide that you
love someone so much, you just can't say goodbye. I feel that it's
especially true when the "someone" you've lost is your child.
Maria Malin is a Lake Forest mom who recently published her
first book, When You Just Can't Say Good-bye, Don't - A Mother's
Personal Journey After Losing a Child.
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