I miss my engagement ring.
I feel like I shouldn’t say that, but I do. It was beautiful. A half carat solitaire diamond set in a simple band of white gold. My husband bought it in Singapore, and, typical of him, he didn’t just buy something that looked pretty, but did considerable research beforehand. He went from knowing absolutely nothing about diamonds, to being able to tell me all about the cut, colour and clarity. What I loved about my engagement ring the most was that it wasn’t my husband’s style at all – he tends to encourage me to wear more flashy jewellery, while I prefer simple pieces. On this occasion though, he put aside any thoughts of encouraging me to try something different and he bought something that he knew I would love, something I would have certainly chosen for myself. As soon as I saw it, I thought, this man knows me.
Craig proposed to me at one of our favourite restaurants in Canberra. I had just come back from a two-week work trip to Cairo and while he had planned to propose as soon as I got back, I fell violently ill on the return trip home – something I had eaten on one of my last days in Cairo I’m sure – so he had to postpone his proposal. I remember that on the night I arrived home he received an unusually large number of phone calls from family members and I found out later that they were all calling to find out if I said “yes”, and he had to subtly let them know the proposal hadn’t gone ahead.
I had come home from Cairo feeling particularly unsettled. I had been dealing with a hectic work schedule and some family drama and the time away was supposed to give me some space from the chaos that seemed to be overtaking my life. The annual trip was known at work as a bit of a junket, a reward for employees who had been performing well. It was two weeks in one of the fanciest hotels in Cairo, with training each morning and “cultural immersion” (e.g. sightseeing) every afternoon. But it hadn’t been a relaxing trip by any means. The noise and chaos of Cairo was beyond anything I had experienced before, and while I was in absolute awe of the rich history and culture, for two weeks, no matter where I went, no matter how I dressed, or what I did, I, like many women in Cairo, faced a barrage of sexual harassment. Guys made lewd comments, tried to grab me, and followed me through the streets.
The hotel was no respite, despite being one of the best in Cairo. A cleaner decided he had taken a fancy to me. I would return to the room to find he had made swans out of the towels or had left rose petals on my bed, then he started calling my room to chat. In the first few days, I had happily engaged in small talk when I saw him, but he quickly made me feel uncomfortable. One afternoon, I passed him in the corridor as I made my way back to my room. I said a quick hello but kept moving. Once I entered my room, I put on the “do not disturb” sign and fastened the door chain. Within minutes of me entering the room, the phone rang. I ignored it. A few minutes later it rang again, and then again. I hoped that if I ignored it for long enough, it would stop, so I went to have a shower. As I was undressing, I heard a beep at the door. The unmistakable sound of someone using a key-card to unlock the door. Sure enough, someone was trying to enter. “Thud, thud, thud” I heard, as the cleaner tried to push the door open, thwarted only by the door chain. I cowered in the bathroom, shaking, until he finally gave up. Too nervous to leave the room, I immediately called one of my male colleagues. He urged me to report the cleaner to hotel management, but I was stupidly afraid of getting him fired. Looking back, of course he should have been fired. For the remainder of the trip, my male colleagues took turns picking me up and dropping me off at my hotel room each day. It helped, but I remained on edge the entire time.
I returned home exhausted, shaken and feeling incredibly vulnerable. I couldn’t wait to leave Cairo, but I also didn’t want to return to the drama at home. And then, just days after returning, I saw the man that I loved present me with this ring, this perfect ring, and ask me to spend the rest of my life with him. He was my rock in the chaos surrounding me. My teammate in life. The person who knew me better than anyone.
But now the ring is gone, buried somewhere amongst the millions of glass shards that carpeted our bedroom floor following the Beirut Blast, along with all the hopes and promises and sense of stability it represented. Craig searched for it. I remember the pained look on his face when he told me he couldn’t find it. While he desperately wanted to continue searching, it was too much for him – emotionally and physically. I reassured him it was fine, the last thing I wanted was for him to injure himself searching through all the broken glass, and I knew that just being back in that apartment, seeing the destruction, was taking a toll on his already fragile emotional state. So, I said to leave it, it was not worth it. And while I absolutely meant what I said, it hurt, and I feel like I cannot mourn its loss. Because how can I think about material objects when the blast took something even more precious – the life of my two-year-old son. Nothing, and I mean nothing, compares to Isaac’s death. I say that 99 percent of the pain I feel is to do with Isaac’s death. But there is a lot packed into that remaining one percent – the loss of all of our belongings, our sense of security, our future plans. Not a single aspect of our lives remains untouched. Normally, if a family lost everything they own – say in a housefire – that alone would be reason for them to grieve, and to receive an outpouring of support. But in the shadow of the horrific death of our son, the destruction of all our belongings pales in comparison and it feels wrong to even think about it. But I can’t help it, I miss my ring.
When someone is grieving, there is an expectation that they live for some undetermined period of time in misery. They are not allowed to do anything other people would consider enjoyable, let alone do anything that could be perceived as “moving on”. In this way, grief is a performance. We must perform certain rituals, look and act a certain way, not laugh, not smile. And if we don’t perform our grief all of the time, then the whispers start. “She doesn’t look sad”. “How can she be laughing, her son just died”. We perform our pain, even though it is exhausting always wearing your heart on your sleeve, always denying yourself a moment of respite, of normalcy. When I was in high school, a teacher lost his wife in a terrible car accident, leaving their four sons without a mother. Within a year, this teacher had re-married and I remember the whispers about how inappropriate it was for him to move on from his wife so quickly. People questioned how much he loved his wife and why he wasn’t still grieving. No one stopped and thought that maybe he was desperate for support. Support in his grief journey and support in caring for four young boys who had lost their mother. No, he was just expected to be both sad and strong all on his own. Anything else was deemed inappropriate.
Since Isaac’s death, I too have been questioning every single thing I do and asking myself whether I am grieving “properly”. Truth is, I no longer get any joy out of a lot of activities. I don’t want to go out to a fine dining restaurant, I don’t want to go to a party or the movies. I don’t want to spend
a hours sharing good food and wine with friends or family. I didn’t celebrate Christmas or my birthday and I don’t want to celebrate our upcoming wedding anniversary. But I also don’t want to live like a hermit, and I worry what people think when I am out, living my life.
Four months after the explosion and Isaac’s death, my husband and I took our 11-year-old niece to high tea for her birthday. She is an intelligent, empathic and sensitive girl and was deeply affected by Isaac’s death. She is at that awkward age where she is old enough to know what is going on, but too young to know how to process such devastating news. Before Isaac’s death we had been planning a trip home for months and she was so excited to see Isaac, her baby cousin. She loved that Isaac knew her name and always asked for “Bell” when we did video chats, but he couldn’t yet say her brother’s name. She was Isaac’s favourite and he, hers. In the months following Isaac’s death, we saw her push aside her feelings, yelling at her younger brother if he mentioned Isaac’s name, hiding under the seat in the car at the cemetery because she didn’t want to see anyone sad. After seeing her struggle, we wanted to do something nice for her birthday, to give her a special day that was all about her and to remind her that even though her Uncle and Aunty were sad, we still loved her. So, we got dressed up and went for high tea at the Crown Hotel. Walking into this luxurious hotel, seeing all the men in suits and women in their dresses and heels, laughing, drinking, celebrating, felt like stepping into a foreign country. What once would have been an enjoyable experience felt wrong, superficial, frivolous and even inappropriate. I didn’t want to be there, but I knew that I wasn’t there for myself, I was there for my niece who had suffered too much for a young child. The whole time though I was paranoid that someone may recognise me. What would they think seeing me some four months after the death of my son sipping champagne on a Sunday afternoon? That is not what a grieving mother looks like and I knew it.
While I have managed to avoid similar outings since then, what about activities that I can’t avoid? I used to love fashion and shopping. I never followed trends or got into “fast fashion” but had instead slowly built a wardrobe of quality, classic items. When we left our apartment on the night of the explosion, I ran out wearing nothing but a simple maternity dress. It was a sweltering Beirut summer day and because I was working from home, I had been getting around in a $5 grey ribbed dress with spaghetti straps that I had picked up from H&M, no shoes and my hair tossed up in a rough ponytail. Immediately after the blast, I quickly became drenched in blood. My own blood or my son’s, I am not sure which. Probably both. In order to tend to my injuries and monitor my unborn baby, the doctors quickly cut off my dress and my similarly blood-soaked bra. Where they went to, I’m not sure. Thrown out I imagine. All I was left with was a pair of underwear and a hospital gown. In the following days, my colleagues donated me some clothes. Some t-shirts that were far too big despite my burgeoning pregnant belly. Tracksuit pants with a hole. A pair of pyjamas. One colleague went to H&M and got me a maternity dress. My boss, guessing my size, bought me a bra and underwear. Another colleague, some socks. I returned to Australia with this small assortment of clothes and nothing else. Naturally, I needed to go shopping. The only shoes I had were an ill-fitting pair of sneakers donated to me by a colleague and I had a funeral to go to.
But how could I think about clothes when my son was dead? How could I go shopping, an activity that previously brought me joy, when Isaac was no longer here? I remember agonising over this when my brother firmly said, “Sarah, you need clothes. They are a basic necessity, not an indulgence”. I resolved that issue in the short term by picking up some cheap items from Kmart. I decided that if I had to buy clothes, I sure as hell wasn’t going to make the process remotely enjoyable by buying expensive things. Even now, many months later, as I continue to wear the maternity clothes despite no longer needing to, I find myself procrastinating about going shopping. Do I continue to buy cheap clothes to get me through the next season? Or do I dare to think about my own comfort and appearance and buy myself some nice clothes? Clothes I actually like? I find myself paralysed in indecision. I feel shame for wanting, for needing…anything.
I don’t know if or when I will ever allow myself to feel normal again, to participate in regular activities without feeling guilt or worrying that people will think that I have “moved on”. It is exhausting to constantly perform my grief, to not be able put it aside for just a second and be in the moment or to consider my own needs. At the same time, the alternative at the moment is to pretend that I am ok and that is another performance, another source of exhaustion. I find myself withdrawing from people because I don’t always want to play the part of grieving mother, but I have also lost the ability to engage on other issues. I am not a big enough of a person to be able to put my pain aside to share in other people’s joys and nor can I handle their problems. It makes me feel like a bad friend, and so, I largely keep to myself, where there are no expectations to be one thing or another. Another loss.
While I know I am not ready to have “fun” or be social, I am slowly allowing myself to grieve my other losses. I have come to terms with this by recognising that my belongings were not just material goods, but memories.
So, I am saying it out loud: I miss my engagement ring. I miss the jewellery my grandmother gave me. The delicate gold necklace with the coloured stones, the fine gold bracelet. Her pearl necklace given to her by my grandfather, which she then passed on to me. I miss the pearl earrings that my mad Polish aunt Maja bought me on a whim one day when we were out shopping in Sydney. She died just a few months before Isaac. I never got to say goodbye.
I miss our bed, a beautiful king size bed made of two different woods blended together. The bed where Isaac and I would sit every night and read his bedtime stories. Sometimes he would sit on my lap and listen quietly. Other times he would be bouncing up and down, bellyflopping onto the mattress while I tried to get him to calm down. Regardless, every night while reading his story, he would reach over to the pot of Vaseline on my bedside table, dig his little finger in to bring out a big globule, put some on his lips then hold his finger out to me, saying “Mummy lip” as he smeared the remaining Vaseline on my face. And each night when I told him that it was time for bed, he would grab his books, place them on the bedside table and toddle off to his own room, always stopping to check himself out in the big mirror resting against our bedroom wall along the way. The bed where, two weeks before he died, he sat on my lap, wearing nothing but a nappy and cuddled me for almost an hour. He wasn’t feeling well and every time I made a slight movement, he grabbed onto me even tighter, insistent that we stayed put. I lay awake at night thinking of what it felt like to have his little body snuggled into mine.
I miss our dining table, a wooden rustic piece, slightly uneven in places, where I had set up my informal office while working from home. The table I spent hours sitting at, typing away. Every so often I would see a little face peer through the sliding doors that divided the dining room from the living room. Isaac would smile with his cheeky grin and run over and climb up on my lap. There he would try to imitate me, banging on my keyboard, scribbling on my notepad. I listened to music while working, so Isaac too would want to listen to music while he “worked”, insisting I played “fruit salad” by the Wiggles.
I miss our mid-century pink velvet dining chairs. My husband had been resistant to the idea of pink chairs, so we compromised, two in pink, four in grey. But I loved the pink ones and so did Isaac. He would climb up onto one and look so proud as he sat at the table like his mummy. It wouldn’t take long though before he would climb from the chairs and up onto the table itself, leaving me scrambling to grab him before he fell off. I miss the pen mark he accidentally made on one of my beloved chairs. I didn’t get cross as I figured I could easily clean it, but I never got around to it.
I miss his little table and chairs. A white table with a chalk board in the middle that could be turned over when you didn’t want to use it and four little chairs, one each in red, yellow, blue and green. I had bought them when we first moved to Beirut, keen to make his playroom a comfortable and fun space. They then sat in the box for a week or two as we struggled to find the time to put them together. I came home one day to find that Isaac’s babysitter, tired of seeing the boxes sitting there, took it upon herself to assemble the pieces. I miss sitting on those tiny chairs with Isaac, him scribbling on the chalk board and asking me to draw increasingly difficult things (for someone like me at least who can’t draw) “Mummy, lower” (flower), “Mummy, butter-lower” (butterfly), “Mummy, bear”, “Mummy, shark”, “Mummy, zee-zee” (lizard). I miss our Sunday morning’s together doing playdoh and painting. He got into a habit where whenever he got some paint on his hands he would take himself off to the bathroom, certain that I would follow, to wash his hands.
I miss my chair, a purple and green jacquard wingback chair that I bought in New York. We barely had room for it in our tiny apartment, but I loved it and after outfitting the rest of our apartment with Ikea, I wanted to buy something nice for myself. It was the chair I sat in for days while pregnant with Isaac after he dislocated my ribs and I literally couldn’t lie down; the pain was so excruciating. The chair he and I sat in for hundreds of hours cuddled up breastfeeding. The chair we were sitting in the first time he looked up at me and said “Mama”.
I miss silly little things, like the pink goggles I used to wear when I took Isaac to swimming lessons. He loved to try them on and he called them “Mummy, pink eyes”. I miss the sentimental things, like the baby blanket I made for him before he was born and the mug with his handprint that he made at daycare for Mother’s Day. I miss our home. I miss our life.
I miss Isaac. I miss Isaac more than I ever could have imagined. Sure, everything else is just “stuff” and losing it is nothing in comparison to losing him. But it was also my stuff, and my only tie to my memories of Isaac. I don’t know when I will ever feel normal. Putting on a brave face to just get through the day is tough enough. But maybe it is ok for me to miss my things because my things are my memories and my memories are all I have left.