Last Christmas I sat on the floor surrounded by wrapping paper, new toys and happy kids, then 7 and 9 years old. It was like being in a bubble bath with too much soap – ribbons and knots flying as each new box tore. It quickly became difficult to tell what was a gift and what was a trash.
The year before, our 20-month-old son, Aiden, died suddenly during surgery to remove a tumor from his brain. It was our second Christmas without him, and I was still getting used to shopping for two kids instead of three.
“I think it’s mom’s turn to open her stockings,” said my husband, Nick.
My daughter brought it to me, exaggerating her movements while walking on her knees.
I pulled out the first thing from my stocking – a round plastic button, like the one you would hit if you were in a game show. These are called easy buttons.
Usually they are bright red with white letters that spell out “Easy”. They became popular in 2005 when Staples started promoting and then selling them. The idea was that you could fix your problem just by pressing that button.
The one on my bottom looked like an imitation – it was just white with a black base.
I looked up at my husband from the floor with a raised eyebrow in confusion and annoyance.
“Is this for me?” I asked.
“Tap on it,” he replied.
I hadn’t noticed it before, but the kids were watching me closely, waiting for me to push the button as well. I pressed it and the room filled with sound.
There were muffled voices, and I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to hear. Then I heard a shrill cry that turned into laughter. The room blurred, and when I lifted my head to look at Nick, gravity took the tears from my eyes and made them run down my cheeks. It was Aiden playing with his siblings.
In the recording, my daughter says “Hello” and my oldest son says “Oh no, oh no”, then there is another big belly laugh from Aiden. The sound stopped as abruptly as it had started, and the room was silent.
Nick broke the silence. “The recording takes 15 seconds, so if you want to change it, you can.”
“It’s perfect,” I say. Nick and the two kids looked proud, and I realized they must have chosen the recording together.
I put the Easy button on my desk and didn’t think much about it until my best friend Ashley asked me to watch her toddler, Will. She was going to have another baby and needed someone she trusted to take care of her while she recovered in the hospital.
It was never a question of whether we would take Will. Nick and I are babies and toddlers are our specialty. We knew it would be difficult, but I thought having a toddler in the house again might be what we needed at this point in our grief.
“I didn’t know if this was something you would be ready for,” Ashley said.
“We can’t wait,” I told him.
Aiden’s crib was still in our room. We moved him out of his room after he got sick, and now he’s been in our room longer than Aiden was alive. The manger had become a sanctuary overflowing with blankets, stuffed animals and knickknacks from his life.
To make room for Will, I crammed everything into the cradle in a corner, being careful not to break the plaster mold in Aiden’s hand or lose the plastic bag with the clippings of his. hair.
Then I emptied my office. I stacked my books, laptop, and favorite pens in the living room. I put the Easy button on the top.
Will is the same age as Aiden when he was diagnosed with brain cancer. That first night, I listened to Will speak in half-words and watched him take half-steps, and for a moment I couldn’t tell who was who. He was doing everything Aiden did before the cancer smirked and her blonde curls fell off.
My daughter was quite ready to play mom and almost started crying when I told her she wouldn’t be the one rocking Will to fall asleep at night. My eldest son was more reserved. More than once I have heard him say “It’s exactly like Aiden”, his voice fades – maybe lost in memory? Maybe you don’t want to remember completely?
The next day I asked my oldest son, “How do you feel about having Will here?” Is it hard for you? “
He paused, considering the question. “No, I mean, it’s difficult but in a good way.”
I’m embarrassed by the part of me that wanted him to be upset, so we could cry together how unfair this all is. Instead, my 10 year old made me feel better both sad and happy.
The next night, Will was crawling around my stack of things in the living room and he picked up the Easy Button.
I wanted him to press it. It was like a great time in our family, and I wanted Aiden to be a part of it.
He tapped on it, but instead of letting it play throughout, he kept pressing and squeezing so that it came out of Aiden’s stops and bursts of laughter. Nick and I smile at each other from across the room.
Throughout the week, I prepared bottles and cut chicken nuggets and strawberries into bite-size bites. We sang songs and read books, and I remembered what it was like to look forward to nap time.
By the end of the week we were exhausted but satisfied. My friend came to pick up Will, and I saw him meet his little brother for the first time, and my heart was so full.
We did it. We spent a week with a living, breathing, exhausting, lovable reminder of our grief, and we survived; I would say we even had fun. But grief is a sneaky man.
I had grown used to seeing bibs, bottles, and hooded towels that looked like dragons. I used to scan the floor for choking hazards and a crawling little boy in matching pajamas. And now they were all gone again, and the house was quiet.
It was a familiar feeling. After Aiden died, the older children returned to school and Nick returned to work. it was just me and the house. I wandered from room to room, looking for what I knew I wouldn’t find.
Decades before I was born, my mother’s brother died in a tragic accident when he was 4 years old. I remember a photo of him in sepia on my grandmother’s dresser. No one ever mentioned him, and I felt like I shouldn’t ask.
My grandparents came of age during the Depression. They are part of the larger generation, but also date from a time when many people pushed grief into a dark corner and rarely talked about it.
For my part, I had the instinct to keep my grief in the foreground. I placed pieces of Aiden all over the place so I only had to turn my head a little to remember him. There were pictures all over the house, a pair of socks in the trunk of my car, and the poster my friend had made for his funeral leaning against a living room wall.
It was in mid-November when Aiden died. The start of the holiday season also marks the start of the mourning season, a time to meet around a table that will always have an empty high chair, one less letter to Santa Claus, the end of the year. more without our son.
Our family will never stop crying, but the way that grief is expressed will change. The things that give me comfort will change.
The cradle that I wasn’t ready to take down before is now stacked in pieces in the rafters of our garage. I always catch my daughter playing with Aiden’s toys, but I know someday it’s time to give them away.
Next year we’re renovating our home and I imagine I’ll have plenty of opportunities to decide what to display, what to store, and what to let go – kind of a Marie Kondo process for mourning. Never rushed, never forced, never because it’s something I think I should do.
Before my family gave me this Easy Button, I would have called it an unnecessary gift, but it has turned out to be one of my most precious possessions. It brings me comfort. It keeps my grief close, keeps Aiden close as I go through these phases. I use it when I need a smile or a cry or when I want to wallow in anger. It’s a nice reminder. It helps me remember not just Aiden, but the love we all shared. This love has gone nowhere. I can still feel it. And by celebrating Aiden’s life and remembering the joy he has brought us, we keep that love alive.
I press this button to remind myself that what we have been through is not easy but in a good way.
Emily Henderson is a runner and writer living in Santa Barbara, California. His essays have appeared in Scary Mommy, Writing Class Radio, and the Santa Barbara Independent. She is currently writing a memoir on dealing with the loss of her son as she roamed all the streets in her town. You can follow her on Instagram at @emilykathleenwrites or visit emilykathleenwrites.com.
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