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Casey Mulligan Walsh
Lullaby and Good Night
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Casey Mulligan Walsh and I have moved in the same writers’ circle for years now. I’ve always been impressed with her as a literary citizen, how generously she supports fellow writers, and, of course, the astounding beauty and sensitivity of her prose.
This beauty and sensitivity are hard won. By the time Casey was twelve, both her parents were dead. When she was twenty, her only sibling died. And then in 1999, her beloved twenty-year-old son Eric was killed in a car accident driving down a road he knew well.
These layers of grief inform all her writing. But so does a persistent joy. And it’s this beautiful intersection of the two that has become particularly profound in her recent writing. Her essay in the New York Times about travelling to Ireland with her husband touched me so deeply I wasn’t sure whether to weep or celebrate. I did both. And her lyrical essay for Split Lip comprised of one long sentence about tending to her dead son at the hospital brought me to my knees. Heart-ripping sorrow and yet, once more, she lands on joy.
Immediately after reading it, I reached out to see if Casey might write something for Beyond and was delighted when she said yes. Here, too, an elegant contemplation of family. A tender delve into an “almost” life. An experience we all have our version of, though perhaps not so threaded with death. And the devout hope and appreciation that carries her through.
Casey lives in upstate New York with her husband Kevin. She’s working on a memoir The Full Catastrophe: All I Ever Wanted, Everything I Feared story about the search for belonging, the fight to save a struggling child, and the quest to find meaning in the wake of repeated loss.
Lullaby and Good Night
I was already planning the funeral while my first baby was still in the womb.
If pressed for a reason, I might reference my melodramatic nature. More likely, though, given the loss of each member of my family before I turned 21, it was simply a need to rehearse grief, an antidote to the very real specter of another life ended too soon.
After all, from the moment of conception there was nothing but good news, and even the protracted labor did little to mar the joy at the birth of our healthy little one. Whatever the reason, I bravely forged ahead with optimism.
We have our stories, each of us, full of things expected and completely surprising. Mine is threaded through with a vein of “almost.” Orphaned at an early age and soon the only surviving child, I became practically a sister, nearly a daughter, a litany of close-but-not-quite that could add up to an almost life, if you’re not careful. But there are the all-the-way parts, too, the loving husband, the children, the grandchildren, the for-real friends, no almost about it. And there are the stories we tell. Here is mine.
For all the things in life that have no explanation, there are others for which the reasons have always been clear. I’ve long understood that my deep desire for a daughter was born of having had a dad and brother for all too brief a time; never at ease with boys, I was convinced that if I were to have a close relationship with a child, it would have to be a girl. When she finally arrived, sleep eluded me for days as I grew accustomed to the foreign idea that I was the mother of a girl, one like me, who could complete that mother-daughter circle broken so long ago. What a constant surprise she was, not at all what I’d expected, yet my baby girl nonetheless.
Before her arrival, though, there were two boys, so alike in their features, yet true opposites. The first, the very definition of a bouncing baby boy, captivated everyone who met him. By the end of a meal, this little one had most of the restaurant asking to hold him, or at the very least so distracted by his charms that he, rather than their dinner partners, had somehow become the center of their attention. And as he grew, he was quintessential boy. Social finesse and athletic prowess became his defining qualities. The big kids called him “Mayor,” leader of all the cool little kids in town, so they said.
The second boy, arriving just three years later, was as introspective as the first was extroverted, as wont to fly solo as his brother was to run with the pack. As the big boy was regularly swept up by his daddy and grandparents and even the neighbors, off to become a part of the world, this one became mine. His musical, culinary, and snowboarding talents evident early on, he grew into a special soul, a thinker. One of a kind.
Yet, always, there was only the one baby whose funeral loomed. Looking back, I see the young mother, teary as she tucked him in for the night, praying to see the child through to adulthood, clinging to the dream of family. I wonder what, if anything, I have to offer her. She would say that life requires nothing short of bravery. She would tell you that love, and determination, and faith will carry her through. And, though she couldn’t know the measure of courage these things would require, she would be right.
Sometimes we rehearse for rehearsal’s sake, to help ourselves grasp the irrational nature of our obsessions, a desensitization of sorts. Other times, rehearsals simply fold without warning, giving way to a command performance. For me, it was a sparkling early summer day, that first blue-sky, sun-bright Saturday of the season that demands drinks and a cookout on the deck with friends, no worries. At eight a.m., we were off to join the festivities on a busy day in our typically sleepy little village. At noon, the deck was filling up, the boys, 17 and 20 now, in and out, their 12-year-old sister biking the neighborhood streets. By four, the busy-ness of the day began to subside, with a sense of easing into an all-is-well evening at home. And at five? The police were at the door, and the boy, the first boy, the Mayor…was gone.
Imagining the baby’s funeral, simply a melodramatic rehearsal? Sadly, almost.
What are your “almosts”? What carries you through? Please share in the comments below.