I imagine that other pop culture enthusiasts will remember the film Sliding Doors in all its late-90s glory. While this movie is largely solidified in our collective memory for Gwyneth Paltrow’s trendsetting hairstyle and questionable English accent, in addition to its underrated soundtrack feature by euro-pop sensation Aqua, I’ve been returning to this film for a host of other reasons since Leah’s death.
For those who haven’t seen it, Sliding Doors explores how drastically our lives can change in a solitary moment. For the film’s protagonist Helen Quilley, this moment occurs when she narrowly misses (or catches) a subway train, after which her life unfolds as two different parallel narratives. I assume that many of us will be confronted with a similar moment at least once in our lives, when we can suddenly see two distinct life trajectories unfolding before our eyes: The life we have, and the “other life” that could have been.
This time last year, I assumed my foray into “the other life” began when I laid eyes on the bold pink lines which confirmed my surprise pregnancy. In that moment I could suddenly see two divergent paths materializing before me: There was the life that I had planned for as an aspiring academic, wherein my abstract ideas about motherhood would manifest at a later time, after my husband and I had purchased a home and were settled in our careers. But I immediately accepted that this orderly life would simply not be mine, and in that moment I was ready to plunge into all the uncertainty and messiness that the other life of imminent motherhood would bring.
Last year it seemed like life had thrown me the ultimate cosmic curve ball, but I now understand that my pregnancy only coaxed me into a new normal that would be slightly less predictable than the life I had planned for—after all, I assumed that I would be a mother eventually, and while my current circumstances would not allow me to approximate our culture’s economically privileged ideals of good motherhood, I did have enough social and financial resources to make the arrangement work. In short, while Leah’s unexpected presence in my life presented a slight detour from the linear path I had envisioned, I could still incorporate it into the larger autobiography that I had penned for myself.
Fast forward to June 21, 2016, and the nature of my story changes drastically. Try as I might, I cannot make peace with the injustice of Leah’s unlived life, thereby reducing it to some momentary plot twist in my own life narrative. After all, while we expect to outlive our grandparents, parents, and perhaps even our spouses and friends, a child’s death is simply different. Likewise, as the passing weeks usher me further away from the life I had envisioned with my daughter, the possibility of salvaging a new normal seems less and less likely. Instead, it feels like I began a different life entirely the moment Leah died—one that feels more like a dream than a new reality.
On one level, for the past two months I have confronted the surreal nature of this “other life” when I go to my new private sector job each morning. After festering in my grief at home all summer, I decided to start testing the waters for career opportunities outside of an academe that I had only been halfheartedly committed to throughout my doctoral studies. Then, following a surprisingly brief job hunt, I suddenly found myself employed in a permanent, salaried position that was a far cry from the precarious teaching contracts I was prepared to chase upon completing my PhD. It is the exact sort of challenging and rewarding job that I spent countless days during my graduate studies worrying that I would never attain. Sometimes I still cannot believe that I stumbled into this opportunity as quickly as I did, and each day I am cognizant of how privileged I am to have done so at all.
But I also understand that acknowledging this privilege is not synonymous with mustering gratitude. Before Leah’s death, the latent prosperity theologian in me would have thanked God for providing me with this opportunity, chalking my good fortune up to the omnipotent Creator fulfilling His divine purpose for my life. Some Christians might still reason that this opportunity is a blessing from God in some way—after all, He supposedly works in mysterious ways—but I would beg to differ. You see, each day I am also acutely aware that the only reason I have this job is because my daughter is dead. If Leah was alive, I would still be caring for her at home, vacillating between unadulterated joy and extreme exhaustion as I navigate the messy terrain of mothering an infant. Moreover, any job hunting on my part would have been for the contract academic work that I have now left behind, since such positions would have given me the flexibility to earn some semblance of an income while still spending the majority of my time at home. In short, it is difficult to be thankful for an opportunity that has only come into my life because Leah’s life was cut tragically short.
Yet this new career trajectory and daily routine are only the tip of the iceberg; more fundamentally, it is my worldview and guiding life mantras that have been unceremoniously turned on their heads. Before Leah’s death, I used to be one of those people who believed that every wonderful and challenging life event serves a larger purpose, and I tried to view each struggle as an opportunity to learn and grow. Long story short, I now understand that it is very easy to adopt this ontological lens as long as one is relatively healthy, fed, and housed, and has never watched the person they love most suffer and die before getting the chance to experience any of the beauty that life has to offer. For me, a world that was once imbued with meaning is now a capricious cocktail of privilege and random chance, an epiphany that is equally sobering as it is terrifying.
Similarly, since I have always been a compulsive planner, my levels of life engagement can generally be gauged by my levels of control-freakishness. For instance, throughout the first half of my pregnancy I struggled to make plans for my daughter’s life because I knew they could be undone in the blink of an eye. I did not create a baby registry until I approached the 30 week mark, at which point I cautiously waded back into my default planning mode. By the time I reached my self-designated “safe point” of 36 weeks, I plunged ahead into my future plans with renewed vigor. Never before was I so fully present and engaged: Suddenly the sun was brighter, the grass was greener, and the seedless red grapes that I was eating by the fistful each day tasted sweeter. Every moment I experienced was simply bursting at the seams with love, joy, and possibility.
But that life is gone. In contrast, as I now peer ahead into the other life that I am forced to lead without my daughter, I only see a vast, empty space. While my old life was full of purpose and definitive plans, I no longer see the point of being fully engaged in a world that Leah will never get to experience. For the first time there is no envisioned future on my horizon; I can no longer place stock in the mystical promise of God’s provisions or derive assurance from science and statistics, and so I take this life day by day. I have accepted that this life is an unalterable force that is going to happen to me whether I like it or not, and any successes or hardships that the future may hold do not matter nearly as much as they once did. While it may sound like a defeatist declaration, the compulsive planner in me finds this pragmatic apathy to be strangely liberating.
More than anything, however, this other life is one where truth and fiction blend together so seamlessly that I have a difficult time discerning one from the other. Each day I go into the world projecting all the vital signs of a functional human being: I smile, laugh, and engage with the people around me, and I am frequently awestruck by how normal it all feels. Yet each evening when I return home to the deafening silence, I am reminded that none of it is real. In this other life, I can only live my truth during the scant hours that I spend in solitude, weeping over photos of a baby girl with dark hair and porcelain skin. Rather than settle into a new normal, this life mostly feels like a dreamworld, as if the life I should have had—the one I envisioned so vividly during my pregnancy—is unfolding in a parallel universe that is almost within reach, if only I could rip through the invisible axioms of time and space to touch it.
In short, each moment of joy that this other life has to offer is invariably tethered by grief, just as each moment of beauty is a painful reminder of all that my daughter will never experience. It is a life where death is no longer an abstraction, but a concrete force that shadows every inch of my reality. Still, I try to take solace in the generic wisdom that, eventually, things must get better. After all, the concluding moments of Sliding Doors hold the promise of a happy ending for Helen Quilley, even though she loses a baby along the way—but I suppose that is another conversation entirely.