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Tuesday, October 04, 2022

Grief and making space

Sand wedged itself into the spaces between my socks and my shoes as we walked along the path near Secret Beach. Sage held the leash and led the dog to the place where we play fetch as sand seeped into her shoes as well. “Can we go in the lake today?” she asked.

The air had turned cool and my daughter didn’t quite understand why I wouldn’t let her take her shoes off and run into the blue water like we had done countless times over the summer. As we walked along the beach, we noticed sticks and pinecones and shells grouped together in collages at the lake’s edges. My daughter reached for pieces of the abandoned artwork. I redirected her, asking her to find her own sticks for her own art. 

She galloped off, looking for treasures to pile and sort and push into the sand. Twigs and bark and tiny shells that we’d pretended were soup bowls and plates and forks became the foundation for our project. A row of sticks here, a group of pinecones there. She continued to gather and add to our project as I added my own touches. It morphed into a heart – most things do. One of the larger pieces of bark became a tool to flatten the sand. From there, I wrote “FOREVER RILEY” around the outside. 

“What does it say, mom?” she asked. I felt a small amount of shame as I told her what I’d written. It was just the two of us. We were collecting bits of nature and making art together, and yet, Riley was there. He’s always there. 

After I told what it said, she responded, “I’m going to write FRANKLIN over here.” She proceeded to drag her own branch through the sand to include the scratchings of one of her imaginary friend’s names.

Trying to parent my dead child and my living child is like trying to unravel strings of tangled Christmas lights. These two humans are connected and yet they are separate. In that moment, I was reminded of a piece that Jayson Greene did for the New York Times in 2020. It was about introducing his son Harrison to his beloved daughter Greta who had died 15 months before he was born. It was about imagining the language he would need to explain to his son why he has a sister who isn’t here to play with. It was about wondering when the question would come up. “We’re on his timeline,” he said. I'm on Sage's as well. 

I'm also in her reality. This childhood is hers, too, even if an 11-year-old boy is also permanently lodged into my reality. I realized that next time we play at the beach and make art, I need to write SAGE in the sand. I need to let some moments be just about her, about us. She will grow up in Riley’s shadow no matter what. But I need to make an effort to let the sun shine just for her some of the time. 

Thursday, September 22, 2022

Grief and an unexpected find

As I silenced the Dyson, I looked toward the canister layered with gray – dust, hair, topped with a fine layer of fluff. There were also a few colorful tiny beads that had fallen into the carpet fibers years ago. They were now mixed with remnants of what I would empty into the trash. But as I looked at the pile of gray, my mind knew what was also there. Riley. Pieces of my 11-year-old boy’s skin, hair, and probably a few nail clippings that had fallen to the floor. 

You see, I moved his bed today. It was the first time I moved it since we put it in his bedroom nine years ago. And I had not vacuumed underneath it since then. For the last three-and-a-half years, he has been sharing a room with his baby sister. She’s running out of room in her crib at the end of his bed, and soon she’ll be using his bed with the duvet patterned with green circles. In preparation for the change, the room needed cleaning. HIs backpack is still under his desk. His water bottle is still tucked inside with the remains of the water he took to school on his last day of school. His daily calendar on his side table still says October 8, 2014. 

After he died, I left everything in its place, yet over the years, his room has also become a dumping ground for all of the things that I have collected, for all of the things people have given us. There is a giant green paper lantern from his memorial at the elementary school he attended for five years. There is a jar of post-it notes with words of kindness written on them from his classmates from the first anniversary of his death. There are rolled up banners in the closet and t-shirts hanging on the walls from the charity runs that his classmates organized each year until they graduated from high school. 

His bed still has the sheets that he slept on the last night he slept in this house. His pillow case has not been washed. His beloved stuffed penguins wait for his return, their black heads resting on his pillow. 

As I moved the bed frame, I was confronted with the piles of his art from school that I’d hoarded over the years, yet never hung on the walls to enjoy. Each precious piece made during school art classes encased in folders made from large pieces of construction paper. They are all priceless, irreplaceable. Part of me doesn’t want to open those folders because once I do, I will have seen every last piece of art that he made. It’s possible that there won’t be any other opportunities to see things he’s made that I’ve never seen before. 

The room was left in disarray when I went to pick the three year old up from preschool. Seeing all of Riley’s stuffed animals in a big pile on the floor, she said, “Move all of this stuff out of here.” I hadn’t expected that request. “No, I’m just cleaning. They will go back on the bed once it’s made again.” She asked why. “Because you’re still sharing a room with Riley and these are his things.”

She was satisfied with my reply as I closed the door for her nap time. The Dyson is still full of dust, though, and I like imagining the physicalness of Riley. His hand in mine. His arms around me and mine around his torso. His weight in my lap. The shape of his ears, the boney boy knees, his nibbled cuticles. Along with a few hair clippings, some baby teeth, and his ashes, there isn’t anything else. LIke the art that I’m apprehensive about looking at, knowing there won’t be more in the future, I’m apprehensive about emptying the dust into the trash. It feels like a last gift. Or an unexpected hello from my boy. 

I will empty the canister when she wakes. In the meantime, I will open the pouch with his hair in it, brush it against my cheek, and try to remember how it felt all those years ago when I hugged him, his mop in my face and in my eyes. Exactly where it should be, even though if he were still alive today, it would likely be my hair in his face and my cheek on his chest as the boy would have grown into a man.

Sunday, February 13, 2022

Grief and a success

    After several failed attempts, I finally ended up walking with Auditor Friend. Her daughter was one of Riley’s classmates starting back in kindergarten, and her family has donated copious amounts of time planning and organizing the Riley Run each year. Aside from hashing out details for the annual charity runs in her kitchen a few times, I barely knew this woman prior to our walk. I was looking forward to knowing her more.
    We marched from her house along familiar streets in our neighborhood. They were streets that held the weight of hundreds of runners wearing green in honor of Riley over the years. We talked about her daughter who would soon be heading to college. We talked about what it was like to see Riley’s peers heading to college. We talked about lots of other things, like her son, where she grew up, how she met her husband, what she dreams about doing after her youngest launches in a few years. Then we circled back to life in Tahoe. I told her the story of my neighbors who invited us to their party. I told her about how I wait for people to hurt me, knowing they usually do.
    She listened patiently, then after a few moments, “Would it be okay if I offered a suggestion.” I said yes. “Is there a way you can tell people ahead of time, so that you aren’t waiting for them to hurt you?” she asked cautiously.
    For so many years, it was hard to even say out loud that my son had died. The words like broken glass in my mouth, I said it only when it was required. The thought of saying it preemptively felt like putting the glass in my mouth.
    Or would it be?
    Shortly after that walk, in an attempt to meet my 10th-grader’s friend’s moms, I invited two strangers over for sangria on a Friday night when my son was inviting his friends over for a movie. For safety, I also invited my son’s stepmom, whom I adore and another friend, who is another mom in this circle.
    I decided to try out Auditor Friend’s suggestion.
    “I have sweaty palms as draft this message, but it’s important for me to let you know ahead of time that my son Riley, Carter’s older brother, died when he was 11. Carter was 8 at the time. I don’t know who knows this and who doesn’t know this, and when we talk about our families on Friday, I will talk about Riley. And I might cry. I’m telling you this so that it’s not a surprise if you didn’t know.
    This is my first attempt to temper the social anxiety that has come alongside grief by being proactive. For nearly seven years, I’ve silently panicked while waiting for it to inevitably come up. But after talking with a friend the other week, she helped me come up with this plan to see if this is a better approach. Sorry for the long explanation and for understanding. I hope I haven’t scared you off.”
    And I didn’t scare her off. Rather, it opened the door for a calming exchange about Riley. “I know about Riley, and I think of him whenever I walk by his memorial on Pulgas Ridge. I just wasn’t sure if it was appropriate to bring him up. I am glad you did and are, and by all means, cry on Friday! I’ll be right there with you.”
    When she arrived that Friday night, I gave her a big hug. She hugged me back and gave me flowers. It was better than I had hoped. I go back to what my stepdaughter told me a few years ago… “There are probably a lot more safe people out there, if you’d only give them the chance.” Now I just need a crystal ball to know which are which. 

Thursday, January 20, 2022

Grief and innocent neighbors

For most of the past year, we’ve been living in Tahoe. We ran away just like so many others when covid sent us all inside, making it socially acceptable to stay away from people. We’ve been wanting to run away since Riley died more than seven years ago.
    As hot summer nights turned into cooler autumn breezes, there was an invitation from our Tahoe neighbor. We'd seen him in the yard every so often. We'd exchange niceties. And now there was an invitation. He was throwing a surprise birthday party for a friend. We didn’t know the friend, we barely knew the neighbor. But on the night of the party, we took a giant jug of sangria and a bag full of ice cubes in the shape of teeth to their backyard which connects with our yard. There were chips and salsa. A net was set up in the yard. Other neighbors were playing badminton. There was another toddler with a truck. More guests appeared, more sangria was poured, and the tightening in my chest began. Then the guest of honor was surprised with a dozen people he didn’t know.
    Eventually it was the baby’s bedtime. I volunteered to take her home and get her into bed. I appreciated the break – being in a group is like being surrounded by fire because someone would eventually ask how many kids we have. It seems to be such an innocent question. And our neighbors had clearly seen the teenagers coming and going. Just never all at once in a way that would make counting them up easy. Not that you could count up how many kids we have just by looking at the ones standing and breathing in front of you. My family isn’t that straightforward.
    After she was settled, I went back to the party and sat next to my husband. The group was smaller now. The guest of honor, his sister, our neighbors. I pushed my hands into my legs that rumbled with anticipation, trying to lessen the rumbling. I swallowed more gulps of sangria. My husband rubbed my back, then looped his arm through mine. I waited for this group of innocent people to hurt me. They always do. Not intentionally, but it hurts just the same.
    “So, how many kids do you have over there?” he asked. And there it was.
    I went with the line I’d learned in my bereaved parent support group. “Well, for most people, that’s an easy question, but in my family, it’s more complicated,” I stumbled. “We have four big kids, but my 11-year-old son died seven years ago. So we have three living kids, plus the baby,” I managed as I wiped tears from my cheeks.
    Wide eyes stared, unsure of what to say when confronted with grief. I’m always good at ruining fun with my reality. Then after a moment, our neighbor broke the silence with, “So you guys want some more sangria?” Everyone said yes, except me. I stayed for another few minutes before excusing myself to be closer to the baby. Adam decided to join me. We said goodnight and walked back home. And just like that, I didn't ever want to see them again.

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.