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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.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Grief and pointlessness

Riley's jerseys
Gray clouds were smeared across the San Carlos sky like a thick layer of jam on that Saturday morning a few weeks back. It was early, but not too early as I set up my stadium chair at the top of the bleachers. With my cup of decaf, I cornered myself, away from other parents as much as possible because I was solo that morning. C’s dad was out of town; C’s stepmom was out of town; my husband was working. It was just me and I hate mornings when it’s just me at the Little League game. I just don’t know how to fit in. So I put myself in the corner and pretend I’m invisible. Then I scan the opposing team for blond boys with blue eyes and glasses that I can pretend my dead 11-year-old son is there. So that I can cheer for him silently. So that I can pretend that Riley is still playing baseball.

As the innings progressed, the clouds thickened and then colluded to make everyone and everything wet. It started as a few drops, but quickly progressed into a downpour. After a few minutes of rain, the umpires called a rain delay. Most people -- including the kids from both teams -- moved under the awning of the snack shack. I pulled my hood over my head, but stayed put. If I didn’t move, then no one would see me. I felt like a deer, frozen in place in my winter coat with the hood pulled over my head in an attempt to stay dry and invisible. One minute. Five minutes.

The other parents eventually joined the kids under the awning. Why hasn’t the game been called, I wondered. But I couldn’t ask anyone. I don’t know how to talk to the other parents. Do they know I have a son named Riley? I don’t know how to talk about the score or the at-bat or the home run. It’s easier to stay invisible. Ten minutes later and the rain continued.

For the sake of my son’s health, I mustered the courage to approach the team under the awning. I pulled him aside. “Do you want to go home?” I asked. “The game isn’t over yet,” he said. “But you are soaked and it’s cold. I’m worried you’re going to get sick. And it’s just baseball,” I said. “It’s okay. I want to stay.” I said okay and went back to my wet chair in the bleachers. A few minutes later, the drops became less frequent and the umpires said the game could resume as patches of blue punched through the jam layer.

The children went back to their sides of the field, their dugouts. The parents reclaimed their spots on the bleachers.I could hear their voices nearby. They talked about the rain delay. They talked about the score. They scolded their children for not catching the ball when they thought they should have caught the ball. They scolded the teen umpires for calling their child out when they believed that their child was safe. They cheered when a bat made big enough contact with a ball that allowed their child to run to second base without the need for scolding.

It’s all so pointless, I kept thinking. All the cheering and scolding and celebrating and complaining. But then again, what’s the point of anything? It’s all just a way to pass the time, to get through the weekend. An excuse to take pictures to hang on the wall. Something to do as a family. I don’t think it felt pointless when Riley played for all of those seven years. It was a place that he felt normal. A place where a uniform made him look like all of the other kids who had two ventricles and a spleen and their heart on the correct side of their chest pumping blood to its neighboring lungs and then to the far reaches of the body with ease. A place where I let myself believe that he was just like the other kids. And that him growing up was just a given instead of a fear sewn into my DNA that expanded and contracted with every breath.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Grief and showing up

I’d been up at night, fretting for weeks before the annual run in honor of my dead son. This year, it was held three years, six months, and one day after he died. I’d been trying to think of what to say to all of the kids that would be at this year’s run. Something uplifting about grief? I couldn’t think of anything uplifting. Something profound about showing up even when showing up to confront grief is hard? Something about how grief is forever because death is forever? Maybe a funny story about Riley? Maybe something about the importance of remembering?

I kept feeling like I was supposed to have some speech prepared. Sometime to say about grief to his peers who are now in high school, some lessons I’ve learned, some silver lining crap. I kept picturing my moving speech the foundation of some Ted Talk I would eventually produce on grief since I’m a grief expert these days. But no thought bubble appeared over my head helping me know what to say. All I kept thinking was that I have nothing because grief is awful and unrelenting and forever. I haven’t learned anything. I will never not be sad that my son died. I will never not be angry that he was stolen from me and his family and this life.

I honestly don’t know what I ended up saying when confronted with a group of dozens of his peers and their families who decided to spend the most beautiful day of the month thinking about Riley, running in the heat, and being offered hot chocolate at our house after the run (hot chocolate -- one of Riley's favorites -- seemed like a fabulous idea when I thought of it weeks earlier when it was much colder). As I stood in front of them, their expectant faces watching me, I could hardly find my voice. It wobbled and broke as I marveled at their size, them being there when they could have been just about anywhere.

I was humbled that they showed up. It made me feel slightly less alone that day. Another bereaved mom friend who was there said I had a glow about me. I think it was sweat combined with the way I feel when I’m in the middle of something to do with Riley. When it’s okay to say his name, okay to cry, okay to talk about him to people who don’t feel uncomfortable hearing his name or stories about him…at least in that moment. It’s the closest it feels to him being alive now.