Sitting down with Chanel Brenner’s memoir Vanilla Milk is harder than it sounds. She doesn’t hide the fact that she is going to open a door to her grief and allow you walk through it, but I didn’t realize that from the very first line that I was going to dive head first into a lake of her tears, wonderings, and hurt. The bravery with which she writes is, frankly, incomprehensible and her straightforwardness is a primer for anyone who knows someone who has lost a child.
Riley, her 6-year-old son, has passed away from an arteriovenous malformation brain hemorrhage. She never explains exactly what that means but she doesn’t have to. This collection of free verse and essay-like vignettes is about moving forward through the concrete that is unexplainable loss. As you trek through the book you learn that she is not just grieving the loss of Riley, but also the slipping away of friendships, safety, and the general feeling of normalcy that accompanies everyday life.
Truly, it is the simplicities of the moments she captures that really moved me as a parent. If you scroll through my iPhone you don’t see pictures of huge events, you find my efforts to capture the magic that I see in the common times when I look into my children’s eyes. You see her doing the same thing through small events such as when their favorite delivery driver comes to their door with food and finds out Riley has died. The author sums up the exchange:
(The Driver) says, My cancer came back
and almost got me. I picture
the last time they saw each other,
Death’s finger pointing,
Eeny, meeny, miny, moe.
The air goes out of the room when you read such a clear moment and as a reader you force yourself to internalize the emotion rather than run away, which is what you find yourself wanting to do at times. Brenner has a way of closing out each poem with lines that knock the wind out of you, but turning the page doesn’t feel optional.
Vanilla Milk is raw, uncensored, and beautiful. If you know someone who has struggled through the loss of a child this book will offer you insight into things they are probably afraid to vocalize. Chanel Brenner writes as if she is unafraid of judgment, and perhaps she is, since she has suffered so deeply and understands the depths of loss in a way I pray I will never have to.