My husband called. “It’s bad, really, really bad…get here as soon as you can.” I stood in my kitchen with the phone in my right hand, my arm limp. Riley’s deck of Go Fish cards was still on the table next to me. We’d played the night before. He had won, twice.
Also at the table were “Riley’s Robots,” his creation, made of empty five-gallon Arrowhead water bottles. The heads made out of leftover frozen waffle boxes. Swimming goggles for eyes. Wrapping paper spools for necks. Cut-up paper towel for the hair. They wore our old T-shirts and hats. Plates of food made of crayons were sat next to glasses of real water.
My six-year-old son was spinning through my head. His lanky bouncing body, his blue-and-green striped pajamas, his rumpled brown hair that matched his eyes, his sweet, high-pitched voice. We had gone out to dinner the night before, just the two of us. “A date with Mommy,” he called it. “Just like Daddy gets to do.” We sat across from each other in a large booth. He was wearing a charcoal gray sweater. His plate of half-eaten grilled cheese and fries sat on the table in front of him. The restaurant was dark and cold. We couldn’t go to his favorite restaurant, Paco’s, because the wait was too long. The manager came to our table and asked how our dinner was. “Why don’t you give out suckers like Paco’s?” Riley asked.
She apologized and offered him a free scoop of vanilla ice cream with chocolate syrup. My son’s face perked up. I sat and watched him eat his bowl of vanilla ice cream—plain—the way he liked it.
Only three hours earlier he’d been fine. I thought about his empty bed. His younger brother waking up and Riley not being there. What would Desmond do without his brother to follow around and make him laugh? Without his brother chanting, “Me first, me first,” while waiting for his morning juice. Without his brother…the phone dropped from my hand and landed on the tile floor.
Riley is going to be okay, I told myself. He recovered the last time. He will again.
We had decided that my husband would go to the hospital in the ambulance with Riley. I waited for my best friend to come and watch Desmond, so I could go too.
Not knowing what to do with myself, I sat down at my computer and started to write a poem. It was only the fifth poem I had ever written. It was not good. But writing it was. Thinking about words, the placement of words, controlling the words.
Riley died that night. His brain hemorrhage was caused by an arteriovenous malformation, a birth defect. An AVM is a structure of malformed vessels in the brain that are tangled and thin-walled, thus unable to handle the pressure of the blood that flows through them. It was Riley’s second bleed in two years. Miraculously, he recovered from his first bleed with no deficits and returned to school and a normal life. Riley’s AVM was unusual because it was very large and because it bled at such an early age. It was also inoperable because of its location in the brain. A catastrophic hemorrhage had been our worst nightmare. We knew it could happen, but it never occurred to us that it would.
Weeks after his funeral, I walked into my writing class and announced that my son had died. It was as if I was outside of myself, watching someone else’s grief-contorted face, someone else’s pain, someone else’s life. I was a ghost of myself, numb and lost. The act of telling the class my son died broke through the numbness and made me feel alive again.
So did poetry. The first poetry book I read after my son died was recommended to me by my writing teacher. The Andrew Poems by Shelly Wagner was about the death of her five-year-old son who had drowned. I found it more helpful than any book on grief. The poems were painful to read, but also comforting and inspiring.
And so, my obsession began.
I read and wrote. I carried my journal with me everywhere. I wrote poems at stoplights in the car, in the grocery store, waiting in line at the post office. Instead of crying, I wrote poems. A lot of poems. When someone asked me how many children I had, I wrote a poem. When I ran into Riley’s best friend at the market, I wrote a poem. When I saw a woman with a child at Target slumped over in a wheelchair with breathing tube, I wrote a poem. When Riley’s brother, Desmond, asked, “Why did Riley die?” I wrote a poem. When Geoffrey the giraffe from Toys “R” Us left a birthday message for Riley on our answering machine and added, “Can you believe you are another year older?” I wrote a poem.
I have never been much of a crier, but the death of my son didn’t leave me a choice. The pain had to go somewhere. Writing poems about my dead son was so much better than crying. I didn’t get a stuffy nose. I didn’t feel exhausted. I didn’t get puffy raccoon eyes. No wasted Kleenex. No lost tears. No lost time. Instead, I gained something: my thoughts on paper. Words arranged in a specific order. Something to honor Riley. Something to keep him alive.
Since Riley died, I have written over a hundred poems. I wouldn’t have survived the last year-and-a-half without poetry.
On the day, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Wislawa Szymborska died, I read a poem to my writing class. I had written it just the day before.
What Would Wislawa Szymborska Do?
Un-burn his flesh, chips of bone
and teeth, powdery ashes
like seeds in soil birth anew.
Reclaim his heart,
his kidneys, his liver.
Kindly return the recipients their own.
Cross a line through the words,
Reclassify an arteriovenous malformation,
a work of fiction.
Place him back in his bed, safely tucked,
to awaken after a dream-filled slumber.
Create something out of nothing.
Life out of loss.
Isn’t that what we poets do?
Chanel Brenner is the winner of the First Annual Write Place At the Write Time poetry contest, judged by Ellen Bass. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Caveat Lector, Cultural Weekly, Foliate Oak, Forge, glassworks, Sanskrit, Rattle, The Coachella Review, The Poetry Juice Bar, The Write Place At the Write Time, and Wild Violet. She studies with the poet Jack Grapes and is a member of his L.A. Poets & Writers Collective. She has written a collection of poems and essays about the death of her six-year-old son, Riley, called The Christmas Boy Will Not Disappear. Brenner lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their five-year-old son.