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Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Grief and the woman on the phone

My email signature
There was a woman’s voice on the other end of the call. Far away from Lake Tahoe, somewhere in Florida. I figured our connection was a mistake of the internet as I looked for a contractor to replace some doors at our house. But she was part of the call center, probably working from home during the pandemic. She was helpful and offered to set up an appointment for someone to come take a look, take some measurements. The appointment was set, then after talking it over with my husband, we changed our minds. We wanted a local shop with a showroom, where we could go look at doors and feel the difference between wood and fiberglass. I emailed to let her know that I called the Sacramento office and canceled. That would have been the end of it, but she followed up.

“On another note; I noticed the bottom of your email.

My heart sank.
I am so, so sorry for your loss.
My heart goes out to you.
No parent should ever lose a child.

My prayers go out to you and your family.
May little Riley rest in peace until you meet again.”

This woman in Florida is the first person to ever respond or even mention the words that finish every single email that I have sent for more than six years. The first time. In more than six years. I've often wondered if the words were really attached to my messages and I've looked at my sent mail to verify its existence. And there it is. Every. Single. Time.


As time goes by there are fewer and fewer times when people ask about him and fewer and fewer opportunities for me to talk about him. I responded with a thank you. I thanked her for bringing him into the moment for me. I thanked her for taking a chance. I told her that Riley loved maps and baseball and Tabasco. He loved telling jokes, the color green, and sitting in my lap. I told her that he was the love of my life. And while her email brought fresh tears to my eyes, I assured her that her message did not make me sad.

Silence is what hurts. 
Acknowledgement is what heals. A bereaved parent needs a lot of acknowledgement. We need to hear our children's names said aloud. Or typed in an email. This faraway woman helped my broken heart feel slightly less broken. Her note definitely did not make me sad or remind me that Riley has died. I'm acutely aware of his death and absence practically every minute of every day. Rather, her mentioning him made him alive. And I thanked her for her the gift.

Monday, February 01, 2021

Grief and finding unlost

I sometimes try to count the days that Riley has been dead. Sometimes they are on the tip of my tongue. Sometimes they are shouted into my head over and over like an alarm, blasting without an off button. Sometimes I walk the streets and imagine he is walking beside me. Sometimes I can only see him lying in the hospital bed cut and stitched and bleeding because the stitches can’t stop the bleeding. When I see the tears drip from his eyes with the ventilator preventing him from telling me how much it hurts, it burns. An all over burn that starts in my forehead and simmers through each of my limbs until they stop working and I crumple onto the floor again. Sometimes he is the sun blinding me with a beautiful dream that I once had. It’s about a baby who came into my life and made me a mother when I was just 29 years old. He was perfect and imperfect and no amount of love or medical attention could make the imperfections go away. This dream is punctuated by months of nightmares all seemingly separated into years. This beautiful imperfect and perfect boy smiled and laughed and read books and arranged elaborate traffic jams on the coffee table. He learned to walk and then when a long hospitalization took that ability away, he learned to walk again. He learned to ride a bike the summer before he started kindergarten. He made friends and loved school, but struggled with PE and came up with excuses as to how to avoid participating. He was thirsty, he said. Again and again he’d get a drink of water.

Today I know that it's been six years and three months and 12 days since he died, but I cannot tell you what time of day he exhaled for the last time. I don’t know how I cannot know that detail. I remember the day, the hours of removing life support bit by bit hoping that his heart would be able to beat on its own, enough to give him more months and more years of being a son, a brother, a friend, a classmate, a teammate.

It’s been all of these years and yet the pain is just under the skin like a bruise that can be felt at any moment. I just watched the trailer for a movie being released in February. It’s called Land. This new movie was advertised to me when I was searching for a mushroom risotto recipe. The protagonist's hard, lost face reminded me of mine. So I clicked the link and was taken to the movie trailer's web site. I clicked play. She had moved to a remote cabin, presumably to escape the pain of grief’s jaws around her heart. There were flashes of a child, flashes of a former life. Another character finds her freezing and starving and eventually asks her what she wants her life to look like now, in the aftermath of the grief. 

His question was a sucker punch to my own existence. It is a question I started asking myself a few months ago. I asked myself how I would change my life. If I could make any change, what would it be. How would it look? Who would I be? Because I don’t know who I am, even though there are many labels that give names to characteristics that make up parts of me. Wife. Mother. Reader. Writer. Friend. Person who likes walking. Person who has a dog. Person who drives a minivan. I had stopped going to my moving meditation dance class long before covid took everything away. But sometimes I dance in the kitchen. But who do I want to be and what do I want my life to look like. I have no idea. Anything I choose to do, any changes I make to my life will be made in a world without Riley. I don’t want to change in any way that he wouldn’t recognize me. Don’t put that on me, he whispers into my ear. I will always recognize you no matter what you are doing or where you are.

Riley isn’t coming back into my life in the way that I so desperately want him to be in my life. He is so present, in nearly all of my thoughts every single day. I can take him anywhere I go, but I have to choose where to go. The days become nights; the nights become days. The hair I chopped off after he died has grown long again. Time continues. The calendar swings from one calendar page to the next. Old calendars are replaced with new ones. The years come and go. I am the same. So much of the time I just want to go backwards. But the backwards I want to return to has an alternate ending. One where he is alive and thriving. I am lost without him. And yet, I am the only one who can make me unlost. 

Monday, January 18, 2021

Grief and physical artifacts

I opened a tiny ziplock bag today and rubbed a tiny bundle of Riley’s hair against my face. I inhaled deeply and hoped to find his scent. It wasn’t there. I then pondered how I could fasten the clump of blond strands to my own hair. I thought I might be able to attach it to a barrette or a bobby pin. A blond streak in my brown tresses. The only physical things I have from him are these little bundles of hair tied with ribbons and a collection of baby teeth. Whenever I get these little bags of hair out of my box of special things, I am reminded of that fact. Hair and teeth are the only physical artifacts from his body and this life. I suppose there is also the box of his ashes that lives on a shelf in his bedroom. But the ashes are unrecognizable. I can’t look at the ashes and see him. But the hair -- his bright yellow hair -- is seen in all of the pictures I have. And the teeth are in those photos, too. At least in the photos when he let his guard down and smiled without caution. Smiled with teeth. And then with this reminder that there are the only bits of my son, my mind whirs and sputters as it tries to make sense of his physical absence from his clothes, his bed, his room, the dining table, our car, his shoes, the couch, my arms. 

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Grief and After Life

I've watched the first season of After Life on Netflix, and it is probably the most accurate depiction of grief I have seen. My fear for the second season is that things get better and he finds happiness, blah, blah, blah... But hopefully it will be more like real life, that if he does fall in love, he will carry on grieving his dead wife. You can't replace a person with a different person. Because grief would be part of that new love or new marriage or new baby. Things are complicated because grief and love and life are complicated. It's all messy and I'm a mess and my shattered self will always be a mess, even if it doesn't look that way when you see me walking through the grocery store or hiking in the hills with my big, jovial family. Life after a significant loss is like a bone that has healed incorrectly. There will always be pain. Even as I love my other children and love my husband, I will ache for my missing son until I turn to ash. If you decide to watch this, have tissues nearby. And I don't think the trailer does it justice.

Friday, March 13, 2020

Riley Run 2020 is canceled

Given the current pandemic, this should come as no surprise. It's a disappointment, none the less. We'll be back next year. It will be the last Riley Run. Here is the message from our amazing run coordinators:

Hello Riley Run supporters!

Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, we were notified by the City today that the Riley Run has been cancelled due to concerns around the coronavirus. While we are disappointed that we won't be able to officially gather to honor Riley on the 19th, we don't want anyone's health to be jeopardized.
 
Along the same lines, we won't be printing shirts this year. If you have donated and would like a refund, please let us know and we will get your money back to you quickly. If not, your donations will be sent to Camp Taylor and Children's Heart Foundation in Riley's name as they are every year.

If the timing works out and it is more safe to gather, we would love to reconvene maybe without the run, but we will play that by ear at this point.

Thank you for continuing to support Riley and his family. We have a wonderful community and we feel lucky to be part of it.

Megan and Cassandra

In the meantime, think of Riley on April 2. It would have been his 17th birthday. Thank you to all who signed up for the first time, thank you to all who have been supporting us year after year. We are grateful for your love.

Suzanne, Riley's mom


Thursday, March 12, 2020

Grief and the little sister

It was a year ago last Sunday that they cut her out of me. A silver scar across my abdomen is the proof. I barely acknowledged the pregnancy, so it was equally strange to have a baby cut from my body and handed to me. A daughter, the doctor said. And there she appeared around the paper divider and into my line of vision with a mess of brown hard smeared across her head.

And now she is here already a year old. She lives in our house. She sleeps in Riley’s room. She holds Riley’s things while she nurses in the chair next to his bed. She reaches for the things hanging on his walls when I change her diapers. She is the sixth chair at the dining table, once balanced with four school-aged kids and two adults, only to be completely unbalanced after Riley died. His empty seat. His voice not heard. His laughter gone. And now there is a high chair at the table. It is not a replacement. Only a different kind of chair holding an entirely different child. Even though all of the seats are full, the table is still unbalanced. It will always be unbalanced. And I will always be unbalanced, even though my arms are full right now.

She cannot replace him. I never thought she would, but it was my fear. That somehow holding her and hugging her and nursing her and reading to her and feeding her and bathing her and loving her, that somehow, somehow she would rub away his memory that is seared into my heart -- my Riley-shaped scar. But that isn’t the case. I didn’t know what it would be like, but it isn’t like buying a new gallon of milk to replace the empty gallon of milk or getting a new candle after the wick is gone on the other. I haven’t stopped thinking about him. He is in my thoughts just about every waking minute of every single day. Maybe more intensely now. Now that I spend so much time in his room surrounded by his things. As I remember him at one month old, six months old. As I think of his weight and remember marveling at his tiny body, my first baby born.

Sometimes I call her Riley by mistake. Sometimes I wish she were him and that she would grow at high speed and become the nearly-17-year-old young man that he is supposed to be. But most of the time, I try to focus on appreciating her. It’s a messy, imperfect approach to living in a seemingly impossible world where she is here and he is not. It’s not her fault that her 11-year-old brother died. It’s not her fault that she was born. Yet here we are.

She is goodness in an abyss of pain. So I work on telling myself that at every chance. I want to make sure that I flip to the things that she is, instead of the things that she isn’t. I want to strengthen the neural pathways of love and appreciation for this being that has come into our lives unexpectedly. Here are some of my appreciations: I appreciate that she is an excellent sleeper; I appreciate that she is generally good natured; I appreciate that she will happily sit and play on her own while I make dinner; I appreciate that she will contentedly be in the carrier on my back while I do the things that need doing; I appreciate that she lets me hold her; I appreciate hugging her; I appreciate that sometimes she hugs me back. I appreciate that she continues to wake up even when my mind says that she will not. I appreciate that she didn’t die the night she choked on her dinner and was rushed to the ER. I appreciate feeling her weight and her warmth on my lap and in my arms and across my chest. I appreciate seeing her torso rise and fall on the monitor. I appreciate her tiny hands that reach for mine. I appreciate her eyes that look for me. I appreciate her cries that indicate her aliveness.

When I’m holding her and hugging her, I feel slightly less sad. This doesn’t mean there is less grief. It just means that the grief is being temporarily combated with this 19-pound force of love. It’s an internal battle sometimes to let it feel like love and not betrayal. But I hear his voice saying, “Love her like it’s me because she’s part me because she’s half of you.” It’s flawed 11-year-old logic, but I think what he means when he whispers those words into my head is that it’s okay to love her because he loves her, too. Of course he does. He was an amazing big brother. And she is his tiny sister, who already knows his name and waves when she sees his picture.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Grief and sales pitches

Riley Run 2020! To get this year’s shirt, register by March 19. To register, send email to rileyrun1101@gmail.com OR leave a comment saying you want to sign up. #only2runsleft #wewanttoseeyou #bringafriend #centralmiddleschool #sequoiahighschool #carlmonthighschool

Thursday, March 05, 2020

Grief and parents of San Carlos

Parents, this is for you... Many of you know Riley’s story because you follow my blog (even though I haven’t written in a few months). Since his death, you’ve learned about him and his love of Tabasco. You’ve also learned about a mother’s suffering through my words and stories. You might recognize me at Trader Joe’s. You might have seen me walk around school with a hat pulled low over my eyes. I can tell you that while most of the time, I move through the world with trepidation, the day of the year when I feel the most alive is the day when I’m surrounded by people who are thinking about Riley with me. That feeling happens at the Riley Run. That’s when I look out at all of the faces (maybe with tears in my eyes), and feel my boy’s essence in all of the faces looking back at me. There are only two Riley Runs left — only two. Come. Bring your kids. You don’t have to run. And maybe we’ve never met or maybe we haven’t seen each other since his memorial. Or maybe you only learned about his death after the fact. And maybe I wont recognize you (or your kids because they’ve grown up so much since 2014), but come anyway. To be honest, marketing the Run is my least favorite thing because it makes his death feel like a sales pitch. But I need you to come. It’s only $25, and it benefits some worthy charities. But those couple of hours fill my broken mama heart for a little bit. Can I count on you? It’s April 19, at 4pm. To learn more or register, send an email to: rileyrun1101@gmail.com.

Tuesday, March 03, 2020

Grief and peers wanted

You knew him... You were in the same classes; you played baseball on the same team (or on opposing teams); you played music together; you ate lunch together; you walked the same streets; you played at the same parks. Come remember him with us at the Riley Run (no running required). April 19, 2020. For info or to register: rileyrun1101@gmail.com

Sunday, March 01, 2020