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Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Grief and friendly neighbors

My arms bore the weight of an extra large Google Shopping Express box filled with tin cans and glass jars emptied of their contents as I wandered to the side of the house to our recycling bin. It was Monday night after all, and garbage trucks begin their weekly roll down our street each Tuesday morning before neighborhood sparrows being their morning chatter.

Our home is downslope from the row of houses along the side of our property. Our neighbors’ backyards line our side yard. Above my head to the west is our new(ish) neighbor’s deck. The family who lives there moved in last fall. And almost as soon as I heard voices from the home that had been empty the two previous years, Bay Area rainstorms kept everyone in their dry homes, and prevented us from connecting with each other since then.

Last night was different, though. It was probably 75 degrees as I plodded along trying to avoid tripping over children’s shoes or our makeshift downspout extenders on my way to the bins. The evening’s warm air enticed bodies from their homes and into their dry outdoor spaces. In this case, it was onto the deck above my head to the west.

bereaved mom
Riley heart helps me run
Going about my business, I could hear them talking to each other, talking to their children. But I didn’t look up. I just raised the bin lid and dumped the contents. Then I took the empty box back through the house and into the garage where it would wait to collect the next batch of emptied jars and tins and no-longer-wanted newspapers. Then I went back into the yard and along the house to drag the full bin to the street. Their voices punctuated my activity like a bass line, but I never looked toward them.

Once I’d gotten to the street, I heard my friendly husband, “Oh hello… nice to meet you…” and so on. He’d come out to help with the undesirable task of moving bins that smell of rotting food and dog poop. I busied myself at the curb, picking up squashed limes that had fallen from our tree waiting for the niceties to end. I was trapped. If I went back toward the house, I would be sucked into the conversation. As I fiddled with the limes and bits of plastic along the curb, I felt my limbs become stilted with tension. And then the line I knew was coming (and very much avoiding) slapped my ears.

“So how old are your boys?” she asked. She’d met two of them several weeks ago when their basketball went over the fence and they’d knocked on their door hoping to retrieve it from their backyard.

The ones that are living or the one that has died? I asked in my head, imagining how this conversation would have played out, had I chosen to be a part of it?

“One is 12 and the other is 10,” answered my husband who followed his reply up with the scripted question asking about their boys’ ages.

This friendly banter carried on for another minute or so before I realized I could avoid the side of the house and our neighbors by going through the unlocked front door.

I returned to the garage, found a new garbage bag for the kitchen bin and went back to my Monday evening tasks. As I scurried about, my husband appeared and leaned against the countertop. I looked toward him. “I’m just not ready to have that conversation yet,” I’d said.

“I know, that’s why you have me.” He eyed me with his compassion and reassurance, knowing that talking to our neighbors about our children is not innocent neighborly smalltalk.

“They probably think I’m a terribly rude person, not making eye contact or anything.” I glanced over at the picture of Riley on the counter next to him, beaming with pride before a first grade choir performance.

“It’s okay.”

I don’t know what’s okay. I do know that talking to people is filled with land mines. And for now, avoiding those land mines is the easier path, given that I have to be on this path in the first place.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Grief and alcohol

bereaved mother
Salty grief snacks
I’ve had beer; I’ve had chocolate covered cookies. And I’m contemplating making popcorn. The trifecta of vices: alcohol, sugar, and salt covered carbs. Apparently that's what happens when the kids are in bed and my husband it out. But I’m not feeling that much better. Only slightly numbed out because of the beer. A little warm. A little forgetful.

Years ago, when Lawyer Friend and I would go out dancing, we shared a single cocktail because neither of us drank much and one of us had to drive, but now I can drink two vodka martinis and I sleep all night and wake without a hint of a hangover. Tonight, a single beer only softens the edges a bit and only for a short amount of time. Living in California, people drink wine. Often daily and it’s normal. But that was never me. I really only drank when I went out. Before Riley died, it was a Moscow Mule. Before those were invented, I'd get a Mai Tai. That is, right up until I had two one evening on an empty stomach and I spent most of the night in the alley behind the restaurant heaving the pineapple-sweetened contents of my stomach onto an unsuspecting azalea bush.

(I've given up on popcorn because of the effort. Instead, like a pile of coins, I have a pile of tamari-flavored rice crackers on the couch beside me...see photo).

Numbing out, feeding Grief sugar and booze and salty crackers; it does help, in some twisted way. It's cliche isn't it? People having been using alcohol to forget for thousands of years. I'm not so special. Giving in to something that makes me feel better, whether it’s only for the moments it’s melting on my tongue, for the seconds I'm crunching it between my molars, or for the 35 minutes it gives everything a slightly warm glow, I like it. I don’t like that I like it, but I do.

It worries me a bit because I come from a long line of alcoholics. I always said it was okay because I didn’t have an addictive personality. I wanted to prove to myself that I didn't have one, so as I was growing up, I noticed that my parents needed coffee to start their days. I decided that would never be me. I still don’t drink the stuff unless I’m driving a long distance. I’ve always joked I’m a social drinker when it comes to coffee. And even then, it’s mainly decaf. 

As for booze, I've only been a social drinker as well. But this is at least the third time in the last few months I've drank alone. 

All that's left... 
And in the last two years, probably more in the last six months, I have found solace in three glasses of wine, three beers, or two vodka martinis. I look forward to them. I crave them. I like the way they remove the grief cuff that is securely locked around my neck and I smile a little more openly. I flirt with my husband a little more vivaciously. I don’t look over my shoulder to see if I’m being seen out and about (because everyone knows that a grieving mother should never do anything light-hearted or entertaining or mildly amusing, especially if it involves being in public, especially if it involves being in public after dark on a Saturday night).

But with the alcohol's permission, or rather encouragement, I have heard the sound of my own laughter. I have worn a sexy dress and stood among strangers dancing in dimly lit bars. I have sang karaoke badly and blotted out all of the months since my son died as Taylor Swift lyrics erupted from inebriated vocal chords.

Each and every time I feel guilt when the alcohol is no longer giving permission to sing or dance or flirt. It pummels me. It's like lying at the bottom of rock wall as an earthquake shakes boulders loose. They crush, bruise, and cut--as they should. I feel anger that I allowed myself the opportunity to be in that place in the first place. I feel angry that my husband was my accomplice in the outing, that he, too, enjoyed this respite from grief with me. After the first time, I didn't talk to him for a few hours. Yet, I’ve done it more than once, more than twice. I order the drinks. I pull it into my lips, letting it saturate my taste buds, waiting for the warmth that follows almost immediately.

Then I stay in bed the next day thinking of my son, feeling bruised, making up for the lost hours when his beautiful life and the horrors of his last days weren't the forefront of my everything. That's not tonight, though; it's just one beer. (And cookies. And salt.) I'm sure it's nothing. Now I'll get back to Netflix, the other place I go to forget.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Grief and baby names

The wind and rain that pelted us with stinging force earlier this week couldn’t stop us from going to our grief group for parents who’ve lost children. It’s pretty much the only place where I feel normal. Or normal enough. 

bereaved mom bereaved dad bereaved parent
One of the women there talked about her infant who died and wondered if she had another baby if she could give her new baby the same name. Her daughter had been named in honor of another family member and she wanted to give that name an opportunity to have longevity with a healthy baby, if she were ever lucky enough to have another baby. A healthy baby.

Long ago before I had children, I spent a small amount of time researching my family tree. I found old documents from family members and from genealogy web sites. I remember looking at the large families with many births and usually some infant- and childhood deaths. A hundred years ago, it wasn’t uncommon. And having never been a parent, it didn’t really phase me at all. Births and deaths generations before me. All of it was just names and dates written in looping cursive on old documents. I remember noticing that some families had more than one child with the same name. It was confusing until I looked more closely at birth dates and death dates. It became clear that the families who had more than one child with the same name had more than one child with the same name because the first child with that name had died. And so that name was reused. If baby Edith died, then the next baby girl was also named Edith. At the time, having never had children, I didn’t understand the practice. I probably joked that those large families must have run out of names that they liked. An ignorant joke from an ignorant childless woman.

A few years later when I was the mother of three-year-old Riley, I approached the idea of reusing names from a different perspective. It was after his third heart surgery failed and an external heart and lung bypass machine was keeping him alive. I was six months pregnant with his brother. And as I sat at the end of Riley’s hospital bed, I rocked myself, trying to reassure myself that everything would be okay because I had a healthy version of him in my stomach. I imagined he’d be the same in every way, down to the way he said rhinoceros. Russell Norris.

Six Hens cover art, Issue 7
I wrote about that day in the latest issue of Six Hens.

So I could relate to this woman in my grief group, her desire to reuse her dead daughter’s name again if she had the opportunity. Of course she wanted to. Of course, I understand. No, it’s not strange. How beautiful to get to say that child’s name again and again and have it associate with life and not solely with grief and loss and pain.

I don’t know, but I wonder that if you reuse a name, over time the memory gets confused about which child you’re referring to and they blend. And in that blending, I wonder if the dead child gets to live. I doubt the grief subsides in any way and I doubt the pain of loss subsides, but I wonder if perhaps it’s easier to pretend that the living child is both children.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Grief and uncertainty

Riley in San Francisco
When Riley was alive, I always thought living with uncertainty would just become part of my wardrobe, like an old pair of jeans that I didn’t like but couldn’t seem to donate to the Goodwill. But it wasn’t like that at all. Riley’s medical problems were like razor blades under my skin. Anytime anything grazed against me, I got cut from the inside. I was always bleeding and the potential for pain was everywhere and constant.

When someone talked about their baby learning to roll over or crawl, in my mind, it was about how my son couldn’t do those things because mobility took too much energy for a baby with half a heart. When someone talked about their child going to preschool, I’d imagine germs fused onto toys layered with the saliva from a thousand toddler mouths. Then I’d stay home and away from others preschool-attending toddlers fearful for my son’s compromised immune system. When parents talked excitedly about the freedom that kindergarten would bring, Riley was recovering from his fourth and fifth surgeries; I was worried that he would never make it to that childhood rite of passage.

When it was time for flu shots, sobs from my boy were a reminder of the countless injections and blood draws that he endured as a routine part of his life. When friends talked of travel, a perimeter would be drawn on the map in my mind around the places we could travel without oxygen; all the others would be labeled forbidden and shaded gray.

Every baby and toddler I saw, I imagined, was perfect in every way and would be given the precious gift of growing up. Of annoying their brothers and sisters, frustrating their parents, and getting in trouble for staying out past curfew. I was jealous of the carefree ways in which their parents pushed them in strollers or held their hands as they walked up and down the grocery store aisles. Every middle schooler I saw roll past on a bike or skateboard may as well have been rolling to a mystical land where children’s bodies grew and were strong and had energy to transport themselves from place to place. Every single thing was crushing and exhausting.

And I know now that Grief is Uncertainty’s meaner, more tortuous cousin. While they seem to travel along a parallel paths, Grief’s razor sharp edges cut deeper, more often, and leaving purple splotches under my skin.

Only instead of being afraid of everything and fearful of what might or might not happen, grief cuts from the places we have been, the books we have read, and in beautifully mundane moments caught on camera, immortalizing the expressions of the face of baby who grows into the toddler who becomes the kindergarten and Little League-playing middle schooler--imagines that line the walls of my house. Each a reminder that he was alive, that he existed, even though I cannot go to a place where his face can rest in my hands and my cheek can sweep across his blond locks. 

And every single moment for the rest of my life, I will be aware of his absence. And I will wonder about the quieting ripple from his life -- all of the people who will never know him, never see his smile, never listen to his jokes, never marvel at his old soul who loved architecture and drawing comics and reading palindromes or The Far Side aloud to anyone who would listen.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Grief and rewinding

Riley's Matchbox cars
I’ve been to the hospital where Riley died exactly three times since then -- which is exactly three times too many. The first time was to visit another heart mom that I met a few days after Riley’s failed final surgery. Her son had also undergone heart surgery in October 2014. He needed to return for subsequent operation a few months later. I ignored the bile in my throat as the double doors slid open because I wanted to be a supportive friend. While I was there, I gave that little boy one of Riley’s treasured Matchbox cars. I remember how much Riley loved them when he was a toddler in the hospital. I had hoped it would offer that other little boy a slight distraction from the IVs and non-stop poking and prodding that goes with being in a cardiac ICU. The second time was to bring my kids to visit the Child Life specialist who had been a gentle coach to them while Riley was dying. They had asked to see her many times, so I finally found the mental ability to look up her contact information, and, well, contact her. While she lulled the kids with her soft and compassionate voice (and cool stash of art supplies), I wilted in the corner of the cafeteria and pretended that I was in some office cafeteria instead of that hospital cafeteria -- it didn’t work. 

This picture was part of the mental vortex
The third time was for my stepdaughter’s emergency appendectomy. And returning to that place with its lighted hallways and antiseptic smells for one of my children created a mental vortex of time and place and memory. The confusion was so beyond my capabilities. I wrote about its connection to my grief in the latest issue of Six Hens. If you've ever had the desire to rewind time, this piece is for you.