But I can't escape those cracks. There are reminders, flashing like a neon sign on a dark city street, reminding me I'll never escape this path I'm on. A single white stretch mark beneath my belly button. A tattoo on my back with a scar running through the center.
The crows' feet at the corner of my eyes, less from aging gracefully and more from being thrust into a vortex of pain. My nose ring, a reminder of the numbness I carried and a desperate desire to feel anything once more.
Yesterday, a lady asked me how I cope on the rough days.
The day before I received an email asking how I survived.
The week before, a tweet exclaiming surprise and astonishment that I had a deceased child. They didn't know.
My wounds are no longer on my surface, festering with the rage of raw grief. They've scabbed over from time and endurance and the million tears I've cried. They're hiding under the surface of what you see, threatening to rise to again with a sudden memory or a sad song on the radio.
I wear a skin that is too small most days, fitting tightly to leave no room for the pain that follows me around. It is painful to live with a lost child. To hear of your child's antics. To see another four year old thrive. To watch a five year old blow out their birthday candles. To watch other's children live. It cuts sharp like a knife through the jello of protection I've managed to scab around my heart. I wonder, sincerely, if it will ever not hurt to see everyone else's children grow up, when my child did not.
Losing Shale was the most violent experience of my life. His death was sudden, swift and cruel. We were shredded in moments we never knew to anticipate, left alone in the carnage of death, our lives ripped violently apart with the quiet passing of a small child.
I haven't quite figured out how I survived that moment, or how I continue to walk around in various states of zombification. I can't think of that night, or the days that followed without clutching my chest and having to remind myself to draw breath.
But there are moments, more now than ever before, where the pain is pushed aside, hidden behind the clouds of joy I've peppered into my landscape. Like chasing butterflies, I've chased joy because it has been the only thing that has kept the monster of grief at bay.
Laughter rings in my ears now, and happiness is no longer a fiction to wonder about. It is real and it coexists with the stark reality that death is final.
Most people don't see the quiet moments anymore, the ones where grief sneaks up on me and shatters my joy. It doesn't take much. Shale is everywhere with me, imprinted in me as much as the freckles on my nose.
Small moments of wondering what he'd be like now. He'd be ten. Would he be tall? Would his hair still curl into soft ringlets when it grew out? Would he be able to say Mom? Would he look like his brother Frac? Would he like his brother Jumby? Would he walk?
Those questions torment me, haunting me with their answers held silent, and it burns my soul with a physical pain I would once have told you was impossible. Imaginary. But it is as real as the pain of getting kicked in the groin by a little boy on a playground. This pain exists. And worse, it seems to endure. Nothing stops it.
So I've learned to live with it, like a bad limp, or an eye that keeps watering. It is simply part of what makes me Tanis, whether I like it or not. I'm tired of fighting the fact I carry an inescapable pain with me that no one can see. I'm tired of being sad that others no longer grieve for the child that once shined so brightly with the love he shared.
It hurts to see my kids remember their little brother and cobble together their memories of him, hoarding them close in fear they'll forget the love they once shared with him. It hurts almost as much losing my son all over again.
So yes, I have a son you never knew I lost.
And no, I don't really know how I cope on the rough days. Mostly, because I don't cope. There is no real coping in the face of such loss. There is simply existing through the violence of the pain.
My great secret for learning how to survive this unthinkable loss is that I don't have a secret. I've survived and I hope I will continue to, always because it's a choice I've made. To survive this. For myself, for my existing children, for my son who never had the luxury of survival.
But more than survive, I choose to live and to love. Everyday, with great passion and forethought, because I never know if today is the last day I'm going to be able to hold my loved ones.
Death changed me.
It made me love harder.
Which, I guess, is the real secret to how I survive, how I cope.
I love. Even as it hurts to do so.
I hope you will too.