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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.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Grief and Defining Moments

defining moments
Introducing Six Hens
During the last few months, grief has edged ever-so-slightly from the center to make space for creativity. It is with great honor that I introduce Six Hens, a literary magazine featuring true stories about life's defining moments. They are moments that color events in our lives, breathe life into projects, make us shift, shape, and remember. They define us; they redefine us. They are bitter, sweet, and flavor the spectrum in-between. They create the outlines that we step into. They provide the lily pads from which we leap. This magazine is me leaping...Welcome to Six Hens.

Suzanne Galante, Editor in Chief

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Grief and blank spaces

grief and birthdays
The "H" Word
Saggy balloons hang from the wall outside my bedroom door. They are attached to a handmade sign declaring that thing you’re supposed to say to people on the anniversary of their birth that includes the “H” word. It was my husband’s birthday last Thursday and with great enthusiasm the children scurried around the house before they went to school that morning. They put gifts in bags and stuffed colorful tissue paper on top. They blew up balloons, made that sign, and taped those things carefully to the wall as they wondered what kind of cake we might eat later that day. I didn’t tell them that there wouldn’t be any cake.

But I was wrong. Last Thursday was also the final night of our family grief group, and at the end of the evening, there was a box of cookies, a plate of deviled eggs, and a cake. They were thrilled. Different activities beforehand made us end up with two cars there. The kids all piled into my husband’s Jeep and I drove home solo with Talyor Swift’s addictive love songs keeping me company. I was spared the children’s singing, the laughing, the merriment.

It was after their regular bedtime when we got home. Yet, the presents hadn’t been opened. As we sat on the ground near the sign, the kids presented each gift and Husband received it with fanfare. “We sang Happy Birthday all the way home!” they said. From there, they burst into several variations of the song, substituting silly words for the regular ones, making them fall all over each other with delight. Colorful bags and a rainbow of tissue paper covered the beige carpet. “How is this a happy day?” I wanted to shout at them, to temper their enthusiasm and jubilance. “Riley isn’t here. No days are happy days.”

But they are children and they don’t know about grown-up feelings. They lost their brother, they don’t want to lose Christmas and birthdays, too. I kept inching myself away from their sounds. I wanted it to stop. This line of being with the living and staying with Grief is a balance I haven’t figured out. I could feel Grief’s open arms waiting for me a few feet behind in the comforts of bed. It loves me, comforts me, feels safe. The feelings are mutual.

Husband shuffled the kids off to bed and I plowed my face into pillows and refused to speak. I transformed from Present Buying Wife into Bitch Wife, angry that Husband had a birthday in the first place. Angry that his family sent birthday cards. Angry that he called them and laughed and joked about who-knows-what. I could still picture him jumping around the kitchen like one of the kids repeating, “It’s my birthday. It’s my birthday.” In between each line, I hear: Riley died. Riley died. Riley died. Riley died. Riley died. Riley died. That’s what I always hear in the blank spaces.

I tried to explain the other day what the world is like to me. It goes something like this:

Husband: “Do we need milk?”

Wife: Riley died. Riley died. Riley died. “I’ll look.” Riley died. Riley died. Riley died. “Yes, soy milk and regular milk.” Riley died. Riley died. Riley died.

Husband: “Ok, I can stop at Trader Joe's after I get the kids from the Youth Center.”

Wife: Riley died. Riley died. Riley died. “Ok, will you also pick up some fruit for lunches? And cream cheese, too?” Riley died. Riley died. Riley died. Riley died. Riley died. Riley died.

Husband: “Absolutely.”

Wife: Riley died. Riley died. Riley died. Riley died. Riley died. Riley died. Riley died. Riley died. Riley died. Riley died. Riley died. Riley died. Riley died. Riley died. Riley died…

With my head pressed into the pillow and the blanket over my head, I refused to acknowledge the birthday boy for the rest of the night. I couldn’t look at the 44-year-old version of my husband. I don’t know him. My 43-year-year old husband cleans Riley’s glasses and gets Riley to roll his eyes. He carries Riley to the treehouse when it’s too hard for Riley to schlep up the hill for the kids' overnight in the yard. He reads the latest Rick Riordan to him as he lies in the hospital bed. He tussles his blond hair before burying his face into the unkempt locks to deliver a kiss. This 44-year-old husband won’t do those things.

The lights go off and Husband climbs into bed beside me, scoops me into his arms anyway. I don’t resist, but I don’t sink into him either. Once I feel him drift into sleep, I get out of bed and wrap my housecoat around my sad body. With flashlights, I fumble behind the house looking for the dull ax. From there, I begin whacking what used to be the “Gratitude Tree” in my front yard. “I hate you Gratitude Tree.” Whack. “Why did you have to die?” Whack. “I’m so sorry.” Whack. “Don’t be mad because I’m chopping down this tree.” Whack. “Please forgive me.” Whack. “Fall you fucking tree.” Whack. For nearly an hour I hack at it.

When it’s finally severed, I sat in my sweat-soaked robe on the brick wall and watched the full moon rise over the neighbors’ houses. From there, I crawled back into bed; I was finally able to sink into my husband, let him hold me, comfort me. I looked forward to admiring my handiwork in the days to come. But the next day, the gardeners removed the tree’s trunk and downed branches as well as the stump. Where it used to stand is just a clean, blank spot in the lawn covered with stones. Three days later, my right forearm and elbow swollen to almost double the size of my left arm, I wonder if it was worth it.