New School Year Is Like After My Toddler Drowned This Summer

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Why Back-To-School Is So Painful For Our Family

Nicole Hughes

Trigger warning: child loss

When I took my children back-to-school shopping this year, I only bought two backpacks instead of the three I should have purchased. My oldest daughter, Lily, chose a turquoise backpack free of any childish characters, because she is 9 but would prefer to be 13.

My younger daughter, Reese, chose a backpack shaped like an actual unicorn, covered in glitter and girly sequins, because she is five and wants to be five forever.

Nicole Hughes

My three-year-old son, Levi, who was supposed to begin preschool this year at the same school as his sisters, will not be choosing a backpack. On June 10, 2018, while on vacation at an Alabama beach, he slipped away from us for moments during a non-swim time and drowned. He had worn a life jacket all day, but when we were cleaning up from dinner, he somehow got out of a room filled with adults and kids, down a spiral staircase, and fell into the pool, all within minutes. I now know that a child under 30 pounds can drown in 30 seconds and that almost 70% of drowning occurs during a non-swim time.

When we went school shopping, there was no Paw Patrol backpack carried with pride throughout the Target store by a toddler boy so desperate to follow in his sisters’ footsteps. When I hang up their backpacks on the hooks by our garage door, there will be one hook that is empty.

Levi was supposed to be starting pre-3 at my daughters’ school this year, this treasured gem of a place where I am also a teacher. This was part of a plan that was made as soon as I became pregnant with our little caboose: all three in the same school. There would be one drop-off and the same school schedule. And, there would be plenty of stolen hugs in the hallway, holding hands as they walked out to carline, and futile attempts by the adoring big sisters to calm the little brother who would most definitely be running through the hallways. Our family has looked forward to this particular first day of school for years.

But, now it is here, and it is so very different than we could have ever imagined.

Nicole Hughes

My two months of grief may seem short, but when you have to see your son’s little shoes sitting unused on the shoe rack, each day is actually an eternity. I have discovered, as I navigate this journey, that the waves I am prepared for have not been the hardest ones. I am braced and ready, almost daring the grief to come at me full force on the anniversary days or for each new “first.”

It is the moments I am not expecting that knock me over, when I have let down my guard and am slammed with the sudden realization that he is gone. The moments like moving the dresser and finding one of his tiny Thomas the Train toys. Or when my 9-year-old asks in the car, “Mom, how will we know what Levi wants from Santa this year? And, how will we get those toys to him?” Those moments are the daggers to my heart, that strike without warning.

This past week was an “Open House” for preschool and kindergarten. I naively thought I was ready, because I was prepared for it to be painful. But, grief is ruthless, and it proved me wrong. My daughters were ecstatic to be back at school, and I let them lead, pushing them forward as the buffer, me staying behind them so they would not see the panicked look on my face. We walked into the hallway, my 5-year-old daughter grinning as she proudly carried her school supplies, tiny arms overflowing with Kleenex boxes and crayons.

My 9-year-old, ever the big sister, beamed, thrilled to watch her little sister embark on this important milestone. The hallway was decorated in a Dr. Seuss theme, bright trees and signs, spreading joy and color. The sounds echoed around me: the giggling, the chatter, the rustling of back-to-school papers. But, my head was swirling, and it took every ounce of strength to stand there for my daughters, to breathe.

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I have discovered the only way to manage this crushing weight is to take it one second at a time. This night, it was quite literally one step at a time. The kindergarten room is right next to the 3-year-old classroom, which meant I had to walk past it, physically feeling the empty hole from Levi’s absence.  There will be no “Levi” name sign in a cubby or a laminated name-tag on the Circle-Time rug. Walking past this classroom felt more painful and took more effort than reading his eulogy or taking his carseat out of the car.

Leading up to this night, I thought my sadness would stem from just missing Levi, from him not being there to share in this milestone. But, while I walked down the hallway, I realized exactly why this “first” proved to be particularly crushing. We are starting the first new season of life, the first in a lifetime of new ones ahead of us. We lost Levi at the very beginning of summer, but now fall is beckoning, and he is still not back. The beginning of a new season is not just painful because I miss my son, but also because this transition reminds me that this loss of Levi is permanent.

Standing in that kindergarten room, I felt as if I could not breathe. I was so overcome with anger at the unfairness of this tragedy. Why did I have to lose my son? Why did so many years of careful parenting have to be canceled out in less than one minute? Why did I not know the real truth about drowning? The abyss of darkness, that magnetic force of grief and bitterness, was pulling me toward it. More than at any other point since June 10, I wanted to slide in, to just give up.

The darkness is always waiting, looking for the weak moment to pounce. I clearly know very little about grief. But, the one part of which I am clinging to above all else is that if you choose to see the light and goodness, you will find it. As I was trying to figure out how I would keep breathing, I realized these teachers and friends were breathing for me. We were alI smiling, making small talk, signing up for class-mom responsibilities. But, even without ever mentioning his name, they were watching me, ready at a second’s notice should I have given any indication that I was about to fall. Each of them was ready to catch me.

We are all genuinely happy for our children as they start a new school year. It is impossible to overlook the joy and excitement in those rooms. But, these teachers and friends are broken, too. They know there should have been a giggling 3-year-old boy, jumping, climbing on the desks, making silly noises, trying to steal Reese’s kindergarten balloon.

I cannot fathom why I had to lose Levi, how the sudden death of a 3-year-old could ever be part of any plan. Yet, every day, I choose to see the goodness that still exists. These treasured teachers and friends were placed into my life years ago. They knew Levi, they loved him; they watched me parent with intention and can understand just how quickly Levi must have slipped away. This current chapter of my life is horrific; I just need to erase one sentence.

But, how can I ignore the chapters leading up to this one?  How can I not be grateful for these beautiful friends who helped carry me during Open House and will continue to do so? How can I not see the beauty in my family, close and extended, who have been with me on every step of this journey? Of my friends who will make sure I am not alone on this first day of school, who are already planning to spend it with me.

When school starts, I am supposed to have a little boy walking into the classroom, shooting furtive glances back at me, proudly hanging his Paw Patrol backpack on the hook in the cubby marked “Levi.”  My little “Mama’s Boy” is supposed to cling to my leg until I leave, and then throw a massive fit. His teacher is supposed to have to get Lily from her 4th grade class, his treasured Lily. She would pull him into her lap, dry his tears, and whisper promises of candy and slime-making as soon as school was out. He is supposed to pass Reese in the hall, on the way to Library and Spanish, giggling in delight at this marvel of seeing each other at school. I know this is what is supposed to happen, because we have been planning it for years.

I desperately wish I had known the real truth about drowning before June 10: that it takes seconds and often happens when a child slips out during a non-swim time. I want nothing more than to rewrite my present chapter. Unfortunately, I cannot, but I can choose how my succeeding chapters will be written.

There will be sadness, anger, and missed milestones. But, there will also be purpose and meaning, laughter and relationships, kindergarten reading and 4th grade fractions. Each day without Levi feels impossible. Grief will never stop following me, never stop trying to suffocate me with its darkness. When I try to imagine months and years from now, still without Levi, I feel paralyzed. But, I am acutely aware that my present choices determine my future. So, I am choosing to breathe, to advocate, and to create meaning out of this devastating loss.

Grief is powerful, but I am choosing to believe that the beauty in the midst of this tragedy is even stronger.