‘There Will Be More Light Upon This Earth for Me’
The following is an excerpt from Jayson Greene’s “Once More We Saw Stars,” a memoir about coming to terms with the tragic death of his two-year-old daughter.
Ever since the accident, I have avoided going to the park. The park was our place, Greta’s and mine—every tree, every leaf, every passing doggy belonged to the two of us. Even within my cocoon of shock, I am sure going there would pierce my defenses, flooding me the way my first trip outside did after she died.
And then, one day, just as the summer light is beginning to change, I wake up with a familiar itch. I need to go running in the park.
I step outside and feel only the warmth of the sun. I round the corner on the block that leads to the parade grounds, just outside the park’s southwest entrance. The street is wide, quiet, shaded. There is no one outside, no one to nod at, make eye contact with, step around.
I enter the parade grounds and run past fields full of children, my eyes fixed straight ahead. To my left, a middle school football team is doing speed and endurance drills, dancing frantically on their toes and dropping down for push-ups. Two boys swing a bat lazily to my right, smacking a baseball into the same bulged-out spot on the chain-link. It hits the fence with a loud bong as I run past, but I do not flinch. I reach the edge of the park, tennis courts to my right.
There at the park’s mouth, my heart stirs, and I feel a peculiar elation. I recognize her. Greta is somewhere nearby. I feel her energy, playfully expectant. Come find me, Daddy, she says. Tears spring and run freely down my face. I hear you, baby girl, I whisper. Daddy’s coming to get you.
Elated, I enter the park and immediately spot her; she is waiting for me, hiding behind the big tree in the clearing between the Vanderbilt playground and the duck pond. She appears from behind the tree with a flourish, giggling, just like in our old game: she would run out into the hallway from the bedroom where we had been playing, either naked or in her diaper, and cast me an impish look, asking, “Where’s Greta?” I would feign great perplexity, turning over small toys on the floor to see if she was under them, peeking behind the couch, clutching my head in mock terror. “Oh no, what have we done?” I would moan. “We’ve lost her!” She would laugh, run back in, and announce, “Greta came right back!”
Standing in the park, staring at her, I make a strange and primal sound, deep and rich like a belly laugh, hard and sharp like a sob. You are here. You picked the park. Good choice, baby girl. Oblivious to the people around me, I run to her. She wiggles in anticipatory joy. Stooping down, I scoop her up under her soft armpits, her shoulder blades meeting at the pads of my fingers, and I lift her up into the sky. She is invisible to passersby—to them, there is nothing in the spot next to the tree where she stands laughing and clapping but a patch of grass, and there is nothing in my arms but air. But she is not here for them; she is here for me.
She gazes down at me, her smile that turned crooked at the bottom like mine crumpling her wide-open face. I bend my arms and lower her face down to mine and kiss her, slowly. Then I set her back down in the grass.
You stay here, OK? I say. Daddy’s going for a run, OK, sweetie pie?
Oh yeah, OK! she says back.
I turn around and begin running hard along the perimeter of the pond, where we had dipped her hand in the water, splashing and saying, “Here we go, ducks! Here we go!” As I pump my limbs, my hamstrings groan and then open; my body awakens. The playground recedes behind me, where I had pushed her on the swing while she sang, “Poopy, poopy, poopy, poopy,” to the tune of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” at the top of her lungs. “If my kid’s saying ‘poopy’ tonight,” the mother next to me deadpanned, “I’ll know where he picked it up.”
As my chest swells like a bellows, I feel her presence filling up my heart, and with it comes a strange exhilaration that I have felt often in the weeks after her death. Grief at its peak has a terrible beauty to it, a blinding fission of every emotion. The world is charged with significance, with meaning, and the world around you, normally so solid and implacable, suddenly looks thin, translucent. I feel like I’ve discovered an opening. I don’t know quite what’s behind it yet. But it is there. I open up into a sprint, liberated.
I am treading ether, a new and unfamiliar kind of contact high. I have been raised secular by my parents, and I’ve never set foot in a church for more than an hour. But I will do anything for Greta, I am learning. And that includes becoming a mystic, so that I might still enjoy her company.
When I reach the edge of the park again, I stop and feel a torrent of words flood me. I grope for my phone, blindly choosing the most recent document, a mess of to-dos and grocery lists. Underneath a reminder to pick up pita and above a confirmation number for a UPS delivery, I write, “There will be more light upon this earth for me.”
Excerpted from ONCE MORE WE SAW STARS by Jayson Greene. Copyright © 2019 by Jayson Greene. Published by arrangement with Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC
This book excerpt was featured in the December 15th edition of The Sunday Paper. The Sunday Paper inspires hearts and minds to rise above the noise. To get The Sunday Paper delivered to your inbox each Sunday morning for free, click here to subscribe.