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Monday, October 07, 2019

Grief and October

I’ve been anticipating you the last several weeks and here you are. You just show up and expect everyone to get excited about fall sweaters and boots and thick socks. You’ve been pounding on the windows trying to get my attention and I’ve done my best to ignore you. You’re not good at taking a hint.

You punt the sun up into the brisk morning, and then speckle the sky with pink and orange clouds as the sun hangs in the west. It gives everything a warm and cozy glow. I hate it when you try to be cute. It doesn't suit you, and you can’t fool me. Yes, you bring pumpkin spice and pumpkin pancakes and cinnamon brooms because you want me to like you. But I don’t. I never will. I know who you really are.

You stand up a little taller than normal because you carry all of the lasts like badges sewn onto your freshly ironed shirt. His last day at school. His last puzzle. His last joke with his best friend. His last family dinner. His last middle-of-the-night picnic (something we did before every hospital visit). His last words to me (I love you, too, mom). His last hug. His last surgery. His last day. His last breath. And with all of those lasts and this death, you rally humanity to celebrate death and gore and blood and the stuff hospital nightmares are made of. Skeletons hang from trees. And tombstones appear in front yards. And bloody severed limbs lie on seemingly-normal neighbors' front steps. It’s all part of the festivities, you say. Lighten up, you say. I can’t lighten up. I have no interest in your kind of fun. Death isn’t fun. Or festive. Or light.

As I walked the dog around the darkened streets tonight, I couldn’t remember if Riley’s last day of school was today or tomorrow. I should know. If he had a pre-op day, then his last day of school was today. If he didn’t have a pre-op day, then his last day was tomorrow. Why can’t I remember if he had a pre-op day. My feet take me past his school and the gate that he exited through on that last day. I pause by the wall next to the playground across the street. That was where I waited for him after school that day, where I waited every day. Riley’s best friend rolled his backpack for him. There was an awkward, “Well, I guess I’ll see you sometime” goodbye between them, since we weren’t sure how long he’d be in the hospital postoperatively.

All of the images start lighting up. They've been on stand-by all these months waiting to affront me. I keep them close to the surface. Why should I forget. I wouldn't want to. It was part of his story. It's who he was. It's what happened. But most of the time, there is a sheen covering them so that I can drive. So that I can shop for groceries. So that I can cook dinner. So that I can play games with my other children. So that I can kiss my husband like I mean it. But this time of year, the sheen is scratched away. All the rawness is exposed. And there's something about this fifth anniversary.

That last day at school plays in my mind as I stand by the wall next to the playground. I start imagining alternate endings. I hate the forever of this ending. It makes it hard to breathe. My lungs keep insisting on pulling in air, but my throat tightens. I open my mouth because getting oxygen into my bloodstream has become a conscious effort instead of an unconscious reflex. My heart bangs on my ribs. It happens a lot this time of year. Fuck you, October. And then I back away from that scene. It's late and my feet start taking me home. 

Wednesday, October 02, 2019

Grief and WTF

Riley would be 16 ½ today. Instead we’re 18 days away from the fifth anniversary of his death. And to be clear, him being dead for four years, 11 months, and 12 days really is no different from him being dead for five years. The pain of grief is unchanged, really. A handful of days or months really doesn’t change the pain of living without him.

But it’s those shifts in time that change the language I use to talk about how long he’s been dead that make it harder. Even though it’s just a word: one versus three versus four or five. Five is all the fingers on one hand. It's all the toes on one foot. It's the number of points on a starfish. Clock numbers are five minutes apart. A musical staff has five lines. Five can be all of those things. But it can't be the number of years my son has been dead. It can't possibly be the number of years that my lungs have continues to inhale and exhale. It can't be the number of years my heart has continued to beat after his stopped beating. It just can't be.

Five feels like bus coming toward me while I stand on the street and watch. It’s not coming fast. It’s inching toward me. It has been every day since he died. But it’s getting closer now. I could smell the exhaust if the wind were pushing it the right way. I won’t move; I’ll stare it down, just like the others. And when it finally reaches me, the grill will push into my torso until I fall to the ground and it rolls over me. Crushing me all over again. Because this bus isn’t the first vehicle to run me over. That first month. The sixth month. The first year. And so on. But five has a new kind of meaning. Half a decade. I can’t help but say, WHAT THE FUCK.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Grief and certain death


My husband has been asleep on the sofa downstairs for almost two hours. I assume that means he’s died. He’d been to the doctor yesterday and wasn’t feeling well today and he said earlier that the medicine he’d been prescribed made him feel funny, a bit wobbly. So now he’s asleep downstairs trying to recover from the thing that has made him feel unwell. Meanwhile I’m upstairs with our crying newborn daughter. I can’t bring myself to check on him. To watch from a distance to see if his chest rises and falls. To listen for each inhale and exhale that would assure me that his heart and lungs continue to cooperate as they work to circulate blood and oxygen through his veins, to his organs, to his brain.

If I check on him and he is dead, it means that I’ll need to call 911 and there’s no turning back from that. It would be another division in my life separating before from after. It would be another grief so loud shouting into my already sore ears. It would pummel me in new ways and bash my heart already bruised from profound grief. And I’d have to raise our newborn as a single parent. Without my love. My rock. The man who has helped me walk the life as a bereaved parent. So for now, I will stay in denial upstairs with our crying newborn and hope that she falls asleep soon. She’s been crying on and off for hours now.

You see, my 11-year-old son died four years ago. And since then, it feels like everyone will die as soon as they’re out of sight. Before school ended my living biological son was off at Yosemite for the week with his class. The whole 7th grade went. Mothers posted online about how much they missed their kids. They said they wandered from room to room sobbing because they longed for the faces and bodies of their babies. The ones that they grew in their wombs and who became tweens. They imagined their kids would walk in the front door any minute from baseball practice or from having lunch downtown with a friend. I wish I hadn’t read those posts. I wanted to reply: “You know that they’re alive, right? That they’ll be home on Friday?”

And while I felt that way, there was a dichotomy. There could have been a bus accident as they drove back from Yosemite. I was (secretly) convinced that there would be a bus accident. An inferno and twisting metal stealing more children’s lives. There are so many ways for children to die. I’ve learned all about them from my grief group for parents whose children have died. They can choke on their dinners; they can have bowel obstructions; they can have cancer; they can die in car crashes or get hit by cars. They can have rare medical conditions; they can have heart defects, like my son. They can get murdered; they can have concussions; they can get crushed in freak accidents; they can kill themselves.

Please stop crying baby girl.

But when she does finally stop crying and she is quiet in her bed, I worry that she’ll stop breathing. That she’ll choke on spit-up and that she too will be gone from this world. All of my beloveds extinguished because life doesn’t care if I’m a good person or a bad person or a mediocre person. Life doesn't care about what I deserve or don’t deserve in the aftermath of my son’s death. One child’s death doesn't somehow protect me from other people dying, from other tragedies, from my own demise. There will be blood clots and pulmonary embolisms. There will be cancer. Or a car accident. A plane crash. Anaphylactic shock. Blood poisoning. It won’t be pretty. Death never is.

I pull the blanket around her body, quieting her flailing arms and her sad cries. She finally settles in her bassinet, and I listen for the pulling and pushing of air, the pushing and pulling of limbs against cloth. She sighs and my muscles relax for a moment. Glancing outside, I see the brittle leaves, the brown stalks, the wilted branches. I let all of the plants in the garden go -- too many things to keep alive. Too much responsibility. I focus on the ones that matter most.

A sneeze followed by creaks on the steps lets me know that my husband hasn’t died. Not today, anyway. He walks into our room and I push my index finger to my lips before pointing to the baby. I sit near her and wait for her to wake, wait for her to cry again, her sounds indicating her aliveness.

And then the cycle will begin again.

Thursday, May 02, 2019

Grief and because of...

After Riley died, there was only what I could describe as a primal urge to be pregnant. I imagined it was nature’s way of making sure that our species continued thousands of years ago when children dying was normal because nature was harsh, predators were abundant, and accidents were prevalent. If that urge didn’t exist, I suspect our species would have become extinct.

I wanted it so badly. My mind wanted it. My heart wanted it. My arms longed for it. I wanted to grow a baby and keep it alive with my body. And we tried. After months of negative pregnancy tests, the threshold of what we'd try kept moving. There were intrauterine inseminations, hormone injections, egg retrievals and finally in vitro fertilizations. With those, there’d been three pregnancies and three miscarriages. My body felt broken and my heart was exhausted from the emotional ups and downs. We finally gave up. Letting go was its own kind of grief.

And in letting go, we gave ourselves permission to dream of the not-so-distant future when our youngest goes to college. We began imagining ourselves in Europe or Central America with Adam as the water-sports instructor and me leading workshops for enthusiastic writers. I wrote about it in the last issue of Six Hens. But as it turns out, if you don’t use birth control -- even after many failed pregnancies -- one can get pregnant the old-fashioned way. Even if you’re pushing 45.

Because of those pregnancies and losses, I was six months along before I told anyone. It took me that long to start believing that the pregnancy would result in an actual baby because I knew that a positive pregnancy test didn’t guarantee a baby would be born alive. 

It also took me that long because I was facing an intense internal battle. 

In the three years of successes and failures, it never occurred to me how a pregnancy while in grief would feel. I had not been pregnant long enough to be faced with those thoughts. And how it felt was, well, complicated. How could I possibly be excited for a baby that was only possible because Riley died?

As a result, my pregnancy was emotionally complex and I'd done my best to hide myself and my changing body from the world -- under lots of layers. Fortunately it was winter, so layers were easy. As I quietly shared this news with my closest friends, I cautioned them that it would never be a congratulations kind of pregnancy. And just as it would never be a congratulations kind of pregnancy, it would never be a congratulations kind of birth. Even though births are congratulatory.

You see, I can't get past the reality that if Riley were alive I would never have been pregnant in the first place. And therefore I was pregnant only because Riley died. It's flawed logic, but when someone was excited about my pregnancy, it felt like they must be celebrating the fact that Riley died because the current reality didn’t exist without the other. Even though the intellectual side of my brain knows no one is celebrating Riley’s death, the emotional side of my brain finds it difficult to internalize that.

Ultimately, I do take comfort in the fact that Riley would have been enormously proud to have a new sibling. He’d proven over the years to be an excellent big brother, big cousin, and big friend to our neighborhood children. I imagine it will get easier over time to accept the pregnancy was because of Riley, not instead of. Because of how much I love him. Because of how much I miss holding him. Because of how I have so much love to give. Because of how I long for things to be different for him, for our family.

So, with trepidation, we introduce Riley’s new sister who was born on March 8, 2019. Her first name is Sage. Her middle names are Lois Riley. Lois is in honor of my mom’s sister who died at 4; Riley is for her big brother, who she will love, but never meet. Be proud, big brother. I can sometimes see you in her tiny face.  

Monday, February 04, 2019

Grief and wanting to die

My two boys
In the last four years, I’ve met many bereaved parents. One of the commonalities is that the desire to live vanishes after your child dies. It doesn’t matter if you have other, living children (I do). It doesn’t matter if you have a loving spouse (I do). Nothing matters. Because the worst thing has happened. And all you want to do is go wherever your dead child has gone. Which is away from this planet. Away from the pain, a screaming, invisible pain that permeates into every cell in your body. Because nothing matters at all. I wrote about my death wish in the latest issue of Six Hens.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Grief and hair


There he was sitting in a chair in the row in front of me at tonight’s middle school holiday band concert. We didn’t speak, and I didn’t tousle his blond locks, but I was so tempted. This tempting boy and his messy hair. The hair that looks just like Riley’s hair. His 11-year-old floppy mess, something he called his “straight afro.” Tufts rose in different directions, defying gravity and any comb. 

Between songs, I dug my phone from my purse, poised it to take a picture of my 7th grader who was performing. But in reality, I wanted to take a picture of this rounded head with the perfect, messy hair. This lookalike even wore a black sweatshirt with a red hood, just like Riley had. It would have been creepy, I decided, to take a photo and so I denied myself the pleasure of taking this head of hair home with me as a souvenir of tonight’s visit from Riley. I tried not to stare or alarm his father who sat at his side. 

I desperately wanted to tell Riley’s best friend who sat two chairs to my left. I desperately wanted to tell Riley’s stepbrother and stepsister who sat two seats to my right. I desperately wanted to tell Riley’s dad and stepmom who sat behind me. I wanted everyone to share in this moment, to agree that indeed looked just like the back of Riley’s head. Fortunately I found a crumpled tissue hidden at the bottom of my purse to blot away the emotions that came with feeling so close and then instantly reminded that he, my sweet son, is so far away.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Grief and Halloween



As the van rolls down the winding street, it passes a torso climbing from the gutter. The torso is topped with a head, its face painted white with exaggerated clown lips and topped with a shock of red hair. It's holding a red balloon in an outstretched arm. In the adjacent driveway, a skeleton straddles a motorcycle.

As I head to the library, the grocery store, the Post Office, a row of skeletons lines our neighbor’s front yard across the street from the elementary school. As I drive around town, there are bloody severed limbs on porches. There are partially decomposed bodies dangling from trees. There are bloody mummies. There are blood-splattered tools.

It’s gruesome. Horrible. Triggering. I’ve seen enough bloody bandages, exposed bone, pools of blood, and thick black stitches holding together skin. I’ve seen blood-splattered floors. Blood on the machines designed to hold the bloody fluid pouring from tubes leaving my son’s body. I see these things when I close my eyes. When I’m trying to fall asleep at night. When I have another nightmare. And now they are everywhere during the day. When my eyes are open.

When did blood and death and gore become mainstream entertainment gleefully displayed in front yards? I don’t know how to avoid it because it’s everywhere. I hate this time of year. I hate this holiday. For a society that tends to avoid talking about death and dying and grief, we sure love to slap it around for fun at the end of October.

Should I put my son’s ashes on display in the front yard? Should I scatter his collection of lost childhood teeth on our sidewalk? Or maybe put them in a small bowl next to our mailbox? Should I hang his t-shirts on a clothesline across the front porch? I suspect that would be in poor taste. Because actual death is offensive.

In the meantime, if you pass the middle school in my town, you’ll see a yard with a large decorative -- if that’s what you call it -- tombstone at the end of their driveway. In large letters across the front, it says “RIP Max.” Max is their son’s name. Is it fun to imagine that your child has died? Even when you know a family whose son has actually died? When you've been to their house and talked about grief? Should I put a tombstone in my front yard with Riley’s name on it? Would it still be funny?

I miss when Halloween was about pumpkins and kids dressed as firefighters or dinosaurs or cows and bunnies or Mario and Luigi. And the gore was restricted to rentals from the local video store.

Seriously people, WTF?

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

Grief and chances

Riley - perfect at 11
Two of the last three nights I’ve had Riley dreams. When I wake, instead of aching at the realization that my son is dead, I have a moment to reflect on the beautiful make believe world my mind let me wander in for a bit. Even though -- as dreams are -- they are nonsensical as they unfold in unlikely places in unlikely situations, they are as close to bliss as I get.

Two nights ago, I was in an imaginary physical therapy nursing homes on the east coast owned by friends from college. It was illogical that I’d traveled across the country with several bereaved families, my ex-husband, his wife, and our family dog. But that’s exactly what had happened. And while we were there, my dog injured herself in the rain and my physical therapy friends used their expert skills to rehabilitate her while all of us stayed indefinitely at their imaginary nursing home, waiting for her dog body to heal. Even though it was nonsensical and illogical, it was also fantastical when an inviting light beam shone from the ceiling. It was a magical spotlight and when I was under its brilliant beam, Riley was there. Alive, communicative as ever. Three-dimensional. And still 11 years old. His brother was eager to have a turn.

Eleven will always be my favorite age. Riley was perfect. Perfectly curious about maps. Perfectly aware of the importance of family and telling people that he loved them. Perfectly excited about learning and reading. Perfectly content with always having vanilla ice cream. Perfectly sized for sitting in my lap. And perfectly loud in my household with four children, a dog, and a bunch of chickens. It was a heartbreaking moment earlier this year when I realized that no one in my house would ever be 11 years old again. I wrote about it here in the Fall issue of Six Hens.

Saturday, September 01, 2018

Grief and celebrations

Riley with Freddie
There’s a warm glow radiating from the dining room. I can see it from where I’m sitting outside in the dark. I haven’t moved in an hour. It wasn’t dark when I landed on the sofa outside, but it engulfed me and I feel invisible. I like feeling invisible. But I don’t understand the warm glow inside my house. It looks so inviting and I can see the family photos on the walls. I can see the green impasto painting I bought on Etsy, its swirls drawing one’s eyes around and around. You can’t see the dust from here or the cob webs. Everything looks nicer from outside when you peer through the windows. It doesn’t look like the house of family with a dead child.

It also doesn’t look like the house of family whose daughter is celebrating her 16th birthday today, either. There are no balloons or streamers. There are no envelopes or bits of wrapping paper. There are no birthday candles. Although there was a large kitchen mess this morning when her dad made eggs Benedict (her favorite) and waffles (Riley’s favorite) with strawberries and whipped cream. He’s a good dad, that one.

Every single day there is a struggle to be present in the day while being sucked into grief’s vortex. And to be fair, I like grief’s vortex. It’s familiar and I feel like after almost four years, I understand how it works. I’m over here by myself observing other people over there in the real world. I am only an observer these days. I cannot participate in anything without feeling angry or sad or mad. Today, I’m angry. I am annoyed. At everyone. For having a birthday in the first place. For wanting to sing that song that people sing. For being excited about presents or eggs Benedict and whipped cream. For wanting to be together and talk about how exciting it is to be 16 and all the things that kids who are 16 get to do, like get a learner’s permit. It doesn’t matter how many times I go round and round with my therapist. I know intellectually that I’m not actually angry that my stepdaughter is having a birthday or that people want to celebrate that. I’m angry that Riley is dead and that he’s not here celebrating with us or that he doesn’t get to ever turn 16 (or 12 for that matter).

But emotionally, it’s hard to understand those things when all I want is for Riley to be here. My stomach is hurting. Everything is hurting. Mostly my heart, though, even though I am used to feeling my heart hurt all of the time.

Most of the celebrating seems to be done now. I can hear the dishwasher whirring. I can hear the TV chattering. I can see the dog curled up on her bed snoozing. It’s time to get some bubbly water for my upset stomach. I'm looking forward to crawling into bed and falling asleep, the only place where I don't know that Riley is dead.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Grief and age

It wasn’t on purpose. At least, I don’t think it was on purpose. I was out of the country on my son’s birthday. My very-much-alive son. He turned 12 last week. That number I’ve been dreading. The one that Riley never made it to. He is forever 11-and-a-half (and also mythically 15). I think it was just the way the summer schedule worked out -- there are a lot of people to coordinate with. But it’s possible that there was some running away involved. Some covering of the ears while saying la la la la la… “But wasn’t I with dad last year on my birthday?” he asked when I told him that I wouldn’t be around that day. “Don’t we alternate?”

I’ve used this phrase a lot when people ask how I’m doing: “All days are hard in their own unique way, but some days are harder than others.” And there is something about my younger son who is three years, three months and two weeks younger than Riley becoming the same age as Riley (last year -- I definitely ran away last year), and now surpassing him in numbers this year that makes July rank with some of the harder days.

So was the end of the school year when this younger son finished sixth grade. The grade that Riley only started. I wrote about it here in the latest issue of Six Hens.

Riley’s dad calls it “mental math.” All that counting and comparing of numbers that individually and collectively are meaningless, but we, as humans, as meaning-makers, latch onto and attempt to harness and understand in the aftermath of nonsensical death.

The younger son has become the older son. Just as I knew he would.