“He would have been 32 years old,” my husband said. “He might have had his own family by now.” Even ten years after our son’s death, we still maintain two stories of his life--the story that was our son’s life and the story of his life that we began to imagine on the day of his birth, thirty-two years ago. Some stories are so compelling that we will not let them go, even when it becomes clear that the story is both imaginary and unattainable. At that point, the imaginary story is a form of grief.
Each week, as I work beside the parents of children with autism, I become aware, from time to time, that grief is present, like a fragrance, often faint but sometimes overpowering. I can start to feel impatient if grief seems to blind a parent to his or her own child. I think that these are moments when the imaginary child story is more real to a parent than the real child’s story. I want to say, “Your child is amazingly, wonderfully here! Enjoy this child! You are so lucky!” My impatience, though, is tempered by an awareness of how compelling that imaginary story really is. “Ten years”, I think, “and you, Tahirih, are still writing an imaginary story for your son.”
What is the power of these stories that seem to write themselves on a parent’s heart? Maybe the imaginary story is important, too. Maybe it is the imaginary story that motivates us. In my own case, it seems a bit futile, but perhaps the imaginary story fuels the extraordinary effort that characterizes parenting. I don’t know if we would be able to strive the way we do if it were not for this second story running parallel to the one based more on reality. Strangely, we can usually carry on with competing stories ever-present. We can be amazed and fiercely proud when our child learns to talk or read or write three years later than our imaginary child learned this skill. We can feel great joy and celebration right along with grief and loss—the two emotions wound tightly together. I don’t know if there is a reason, really, but I do know that the reality of parenting seems to include a persistent and ever-present imaginary story. We find a way to manage this, as best we can.