A while back, at Harlow’s request, we visited the nature & science museum. A place Piper loved, and a place we visited with her shortly before everything took a turn for the worst. Without Piper to direct our exploration, we visited things that made us feel close to her. That’s how we came to the Volcano IMAX.
When Piper wasn’t thinking about space, she was talking about volcanos. The film was fascinating, and I wondered what questions and reflections Piper would have had for us afterward. Harlow was so overcome by the spewing 3D lava and angry Earth sounds she resorted to sleep, and I imagined what words of comfort Piper would have given her. In the documentary, the scientists were attempting to get as close as possible to a rare lava lake in Vanuatu. They talked about how these beautiful, yet formidable places were sacred portals to the beating heart of Earth. How despite the many threats they posed, they were important to study because they lead to answers found nowhere else.
In the months since Piper died, I have come to realize there exists a similar lake of fire deep in my heart, and facing it is both terrifying and significant. It is my memory of the moment Piper’s heart stopped. The exact moment she left this life for the next. After watching her body fade and flicker, Piper drew a long and telling breath. Her nurse, who had been standing behind us (literally and figuratively) took a stethoscope to Piper’s chest, as she had so many times before, only this time came the world-altering confirmation, “she’s gone”. Those most-feared words were already hanging in the air, but when she said them, it became so final. In that moment, my lava lake was formed. In that moment, I felt far away from Piper for the very first time. And with that feeling came an explosive hurt, as hot and blinding as fear, and as deep as sorrow. After all our loving words and assurances that it was okay for Piper to go – I suddenly wanted to undo it – to breathe life back into her body at any cost for another ‘I love you forever’. It felt like we had been guiding her across a street, focused so entirely on her peaceful transition, that only when we reached the other side did my thoughts shift to myself, and realization that my heart was bleeding. Hearing “she’s gone” was hearing a door close with a deafening bang. Piper was safely inside, but we were left standing outside. Unable to walk beside her further. No one is ever really ready for that.
This memory catches me off guard often – in the car, in public, in the sleepless night. Cruelly replaying and repeating. Even now, recalling that moment is so disorienting and panic-inducing I don’t know if I should run from the pain or toward it, or if I have legs to run at all. It cannot be hidden or disguised any more than an erupting volcano can. Studying it has led to discovery of sorts too. I realize more clearly how abruptly our time can end. But also, that love is fireproof. I’m learning to see the memory of Piper’s final breath as something larger. Part of a process that built us all. One where what was gives way to what can be. Made with life-forming components from within, so that in time, you stand on new ground. It’s a landscape that will forever bear evidence of how it was formed, but won’t always burn.
Because it’s not enough to remember the day she died, but all the beautiful days she lived. Piper’s life was so much more than that final breath. And we are so much more for being her parents, even if loving her meant having to gently let her go that night.