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Monday, September 21, 2015

Grief and quiet, powerful moments

mother grief
Cover art for the second issue of Six Hens.
Like glossy carpet, photographs lie all over my son’s bedroom floor. They’re spread out, poured from tipped-over boxes. They’re stacked in piles. They stand in a line at the back of his desk. It’s the same boy over and over again. There he is posed in his Astros uniform. There he is holding hands with a friend outside the Exploratorium. There he is, face pressed against his brother’s as they concentrate on something just outside the frame. There he is perched proudly in front of the 1000-piece puzzle he completed the summer before starting second grade. There we are, tongues out, eyes wide attempting our silliest expressions on his 10th birthday.

There are 11 ½ years of regular moments. There are 11 ½ years of milestones. On the morning of his 6th heart operation last October, when he sat next to his brother and two step siblings in the waiting room, how could I have known the last picture of them would be captured? As doctors escorted him through the double doors, his voice fell into my ears for the last time. “I love you, too,” it said.

“I don’t know what to do without you,” I say to his wardrobe, to the assorted stuffed animals, his map of the United States dotted with pushpins. “I don’t know who I am anymore. I don’t know how to be me, without you.” Waiting for a reply, I hear a skateboard roll past our house, a child shouting to a friend, laughter. I’m reminded of a day when our neighbor’s dad gave Riley a tandem ride down our hill on his skateboard. Riley beamed. That was probably one of the few moments where he felt really alive, invincible. Normal. You see, his single ventricle heart prevented him from having energy to master physical feats like skateboarding. Or the wherewithal to endure the falls that go with them.

As I stared toward the laughter, lost in memory, my husband found me sitting on Riley’s sleeping bag with a stuffed penguin in my arms. “He’s everywhere and he is nowhere,” I say. “I don’t understand. I can’t understand.” I bury my face in his cotton-filled sleeping companion, searching for my son’s scent.

“I’m not sure it will ever make sense,” he said softly, looking into this closet of neatly folded t-shirts. We scanned the room, me wanting to inhale what he had exhaled. There were puzzles and LEGO and books and posters on the walls. “These are all of his things; he’s touched all of these things.” It was only a couple of weeks earlier that I spent the weekend in his bed wearing his t-shirts, his watch, his Rainbow Loom necklace. “And look, he forgot to put his socks away,” he added, trying unsuccessfully to tether a smile to my grief.

After my husband wandered back into the house, I found myself curious about the woman in all of those photos. She’s smiling, laughing, joyful. I studied her long blonde hair. It cascades down the sides of her neck onto her chest. Through the years of photos, she’s the same. Even when a hat covers her hairline or glasses outline her eyes, her long strands follow her through the years. The baby grows into the toddler, who becomes the Little Leaguer and viola player; the long locks are consistent. Like a mother’s love, I think. Through long hospitalizations, holidays, separation and divorce, it’s there. Through new love and step-family and pets, it’s there. As his heart slowed last October and squeezed for the last time, it was there.

Four months later, it was still there. I pulled my fingers through it. It was coarse and dry from years of highlights and lowlights. I dragged a clump of neglected strands across my cheek. Frayed ends scratched dry skin. Pulling at brittle strands, pieces broke. I kissed the penguin and tucked him into the sleeping bag before heading into bathroom light.

“Who are you?” I demanded of the reflection. I stared at the her; she stared back, vertical crease between her eyes, eyebrows pinched, unrelenting furrowed brows clenched. I ran my fingers over the pinched skin trying to smooth it out, relax the angry, heartbroken muscles. There were several inches of dark growth near the scalp. “You were so happy, weren’t you? Smiling and laughing. You ignorant, stupid woman.”

Through the basket under the sink I rummaged until my hand grasped my husband’s beard trimmer. Inserting the plug into the outlet, I stared into her unblinking hazel eyes. “You don’t know anything about me.” My thumb pushed power into the clippers and vibrations ran through my arm. “Fuck you.” Blades skimmed across the ends of my hair sending clippings into the air like dust. I couldn’t go any further. For a long time, I stared her down, beaming hatred toward her, the clippers buzzing, threatening to destroy that long-haired stranger.

After a few minutes, I silenced the clippers, too chicken to shave it off. Instead, I retrieved the scissors from the kitchen knife block. Clasping a fistful of hair, I chopped through one side, then the other. Then, pulling clumps away from my scalp, I chopped those too. Again and again, I cut and sawed and chopped until any visual sign of that happy woman was gone.

Like a mound of severed limbs, a heap of hair lay on the countertop. I stared into her eyes again. Without hair to hide behind, the dark rings from exhaustion and grief stood prominently above her cheekbones. While I didn’t recognize the short-haired stranger either, she was scraggly, ugly, and looked how I felt on the inside.

Certainly my son’s death was a defining moment, the tectonic plates crashing, destroying the landscape of my life. But what has surprised me is how many defining moments have rippled in its wake. As I’m learning from talking to other grief-stricken mothers at a weekend retreat, the deaths themselves knocked our lives off course, but their aftermaths continue to mold and shape us just the same. Those smaller defining moments are equally powerful, even though they are quieter, less public, internal shifts.

Every time I see the short-haired woman, it’s a visual reminder that I am different, physically altered as well as mentally and emotionally altered by my son’s death. And I still cringe whenever someone comments on how cute my new haircut is.

The second issue of Six Hens is now live. Go read and feel something.

Suzanne Galante, Editor in Chief

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Grief and Back to School

As much as I have enjoyed the days when school resumes and my children put on new sneakers and carry clean backpacks with freshly sharpened pencils and empty notebooks to school, it was no ordinary Back to School for our family this year. On that morning, two weeks ago, when they trotted off to their first day, I sent fewer children to school. It wasn’t a joyous day; it was yet another milestone etched with sorrow.

Ushering the day in without any kind of acknowledgement seemed wrong. So instead of taking smiling photos of my living children and posting them on Facebook, I composed a letter to my friends, the mothers of my children’s friends, the mothers of my stepchildren’s friends, to the principals at my children’s schools. I just needed to be heard. And perhaps understood, if there is such a thing. I got the idea from another grieving mom who sent one less to school this year. It follows:
my son died
Flying kites near Riley's memorial before school
Dear Friends,

Every day is hard in its own unique way. Death means that Riley didn’t start 7th Grade today. It means that C, H, and B took their “first day of school” picture without Riley; it means they went to school with a photo of Riley in their backpacks. It means that I said goodbye to C at Brittan Acres and walked up the hill aching to send Riley off with a kiss at the middle school.

Imagine him walking to the new middle school gates with H and B. Imagine him walking the halls of the new school. Imagine him bounding up the stairs to the second floor with energy to spare. Imagine him excited to learn. Imagine him excited to be with the orchestra, ready to learn new songs on his viola--even though "Dragon Hunter" would always be his favorite. Imagine him humming as he does his math homework tonight.

Would he have been wearing a green shirt or a baseball shirt today? Would he be in class with your child? What teachers would he have? What would be his favorite subject this year? Would he still be writing poetry? Would he still be playing “butts up” at recess?

We flew kites near Riley’s memorial at Pulgas Ridge yesterday. We hung a flag in our garden this morning and all shared one of our favorite Riley memories. Say his name, talk about him with your kids, remember a day when we spent time together. Think of C, H and B, too. They are also navigating this loss; it’s twisting and churning inside of them. We are already trying to imagine how we’ll honor Riley on October 20.

With my hat pulled low and covering my eyes, I left school with tears dripping down my face. I suspect that the other parents who saw me imagined I was a mom who had a hard time saying goodbye to her child, which isn’t entirely untrue.

With love,
It feels like part of my job is to continue to help people have compassionate awareness for Riley who is gone from our physical world, and also for his siblings who need to continue navigating the world with a canyon of grief alongside them. Along with that is my need to share this journey with anyone who will listen. It’s almost like being heard is how I’m ensuring that people keep remembering that just because a new year has started, the grief over losing my son, like the universe itself, keeps expanding.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Grief and laughter

my kid died
Riley was awesome at being goofy, as seen here.
The other day, I sat on the sofa in my yard with a half-eaten salad on my lap. The sun was shining and the broad leaves on the giant Sycamore were protecting me from the 80-degree heat. My husband sat by my side with his own half-eaten salad. We talked about C’s 9th birthday party that was held at our house a few days earlier. A few leftover Mylar balloons still swayed in the background; the bucket with uneaten fruit from our bobbing-for-apples game waited to be emptied; vases with drooping sunflowers and lilies reminded me of how I spruced up the garden for that day. If everything looked pretty, then I would get through it, I remembered thinking. I could show up in a way I couldn't with my husband's birthday. I had to.

We had swept and scrubbed and placed flowers. An extra strong Moscow Mule softened the anxiety I felt around talking to parents as they dropped off their kids. Orchestrating a water balloon toss and a game of “bobbing for apples” for twelve kids kept my grieving mind occupied during the party. And I did get through it, even if the crying jags pushed me off balance every so often. Riley wasn’t there. Being the younger brother, C has never had a birthday without him. Now he’ll never have another birthday with him. None of us will. In all the fanfare, I forgot to have the kids decorate a flag in honor of Riley.

As my husband and I ate our salads in the shade in our backyard, in addition to talking about C’s birthday, we also talked about wanting to paint the house, how the deck needs to be refinished, and in which order those things should happen. It was all very ordinary chatting about this and that. And then my husband said something amusing. It was a line I’ve heard before and one I will hear countless times during our years together. I cannot even remember what it was that he said. But laughter ripped through me. Heaving, can’t-breathe-laughter. My body’s response was far grander than necessary. It shook me, jolted me, and then slapped me across the face--it was that throbbing part of grief. The heat of regret bubbled up. There was anger. And annoyance, too, for allowing some other emotion to penetrate the wall I’ve built.

I used my napkin to absorb the regret that leaked from my eyes. After that, my husband held me for a while. I know people want me to laugh and feel better, but I don’t want to laugh or feel better. Not yet anyway. Maybe I will someday--at least that’s what people keep telling me. For now, my soot-colored world is where I’m meant to be. And the throbbing, like the pulsing of the umbilical cord that once connected us, is my constant companion as I navigate this world without him.

Monday, August 03, 2015

Grief and throbbing

My child died.
Riley flags in our yard
Imagine petting your dog through rubber gloves. Imagine kissing through a sheet of plastic wrap. Imagine showering wrapped in a rain poncho. Imagine trying to smell freshly baked cookies with nose clip. Imagine listening to your lover while wearing earplugs. Most of the day, I’m wrapped in this numbness. My world is a spectrum of gray; colors covered in soot. Numbness fills the space between each throb when grief grabs me and strangles me for a bit. It throws me down and for that period, I feel everything. All the numbness disappears while I’m overpowered by a current, a rawness, the force of every ounce of grief bound together as a bus that rushes me at 110 miles an hour. It flattens me, leaving me breathless and weak and feeling even more broken. When it passes, numbness returns for another moment or few hours or days, depending.

This is grief nine months in. It’s like throbbing--the punch and the space in between. My 11 1/2-year-old son has been dead longer than it took to grow his beautiful, imperfect body.

* Want to make a Riley flag for our garden? Use any bit of plain fabric, any color you like about the size of a piece of paper. Decorate it with anything you like on one side only--Sharpies, glue, sequins, other crafty thing you can think of--bearing in mind that it will live outside. So if you glue stuff on or use markers, try to use ones that are designed to withstand a washing machine (or Mother Nature). Please leave about an inch at the top undecorated, as I'll need to sew the top so that we can thread it onto our line. When your flag is ready, shoot me a message and I'll give you my address. You can mail it to me or leave it on my porch if you happen to live nearby.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Grief and Maddy Middleton

My son is dead.
Riley's hair that I carry with me
It’s Madyson Middleton’s mother, Laura Jordan, that I cannot stop thinking about. Her missing daughter, who was found dead Monday night in a Santa Cruz dumpster, makes her like me. Her child has died, our children are dead. And while her daughter’s horrific murder is not the same as my son’s failed heart surgery, their deaths link us. We are mothers of dead children.

Trying to remember what I was doing two days after Riley died, I keep wondering what she is doing right now. Sleeping, not sleeping. Vomiting, overeating. Crying, shaking, shouting, chopping down trees. Is she in bed? Who is checking in on her? Bringing her food? Tissues? Something to drink? What kind of medicine has she been prescribed. Is she taking it? If she is, does she feel guilty about it? Will she bring her daughter home in a cardboard box? I hope she gets to have a clipping of Maddy’s hair. Will she still carry it with her nine months later as I do with Riley’s?

Overwhelmed with the spotlight and media attention, I want to shield her, hold her. Her journey will not launch her into isolation as mine did. She has been launched into the media spotlight. There will be reporters and questions. There will be news vans and live updates outside her bedroom window.

I remember feeling like a rat inside a wooden maze. It felt as though everyone was looking down at me from the maze walls, scrutinizing my every move. No! Why did she turn left? Didn’t she know she was supposed to turn right? I felt as if they knew what I should be doing as I fumbled along in grief. Does she feel that way? Or it is just too soon to feel anything aside disbelief? I can’t help but wonder if the process of grief is some kind of riddle that each of us has to decipher.

I'm so sorry Laura. This is the worst kind of horrible. Maddy should be playing on her scooter. Riley should be playing catch with his brother. I'm grieving for both of them and for both of us. Life will never be the same.