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Monday, December 15, 2014

Grief and other people

Before Riley went into the hospital in October, he had to have his teeth checked by a dentist. This extra dental appointment happened before each of his surgeries. When he was in the soft chair, reclined for optimal viewing and the dentist asked how he was doing, Riley gave with a matter-of-fact reply: “I’m having heart surgery this week.” The dentist and the technician exchanged glances before cobbling together a response. “Heart surgery? Oh, wow.” (To be fair, what do you say to an 11 year old who just told you that he’s going to have heart surgery in a couple of days?). That was followed by, “Well, let’s take a look…”

Since Riley and his brother have always been together--at every dentist appointment and pretty much everywhere else since C was born--the dentist asked about C. “Oh, he’s at school and probably due for a cleaning as well,” I said, “but we’ll take care of that on the other side of the hospital. Hopefully November or December.”

My son died
I used to have four children

Anyone who knows Riley knows that he died after complications from heart surgery. That is one of the reasons that I’ve avoided going anywhere. I’m afraid of seeing people who know Riley, who know me, who know my family. I’m afraid of seeing my sorrow reflected back at me. I’m afraid of seeing pity or relief that it was my kid and not theirs. When they ask, “How are you doing?” Do I say fine? Do I say terrible? I’m pretty sure no one actually wants to know I’ve lost of bunch of weight. No one wants to know that I’m still taking the anti-anxiety medicine and the sleeping medicine. No one wants to know that as soon as I fall onto the couch or heave myself into bed, my leg shakes uncontrollably. No one wants to hear how dividing Riley’s death has been. Before Riley died, I had four children. Now I have one dead child and one living child and my husband has two living children. No one wants to hear that spending time with the other children does not make me grateful that I have the other children. It simply illuminates that there are three instead of four. I suspect they do want to hear if I’m thinking about having another baby.

In the handful of times that I’ve gone to the store with my husband and the clerks have asked How are you?, I know they don’t really want to know. What I’ve wanted to say is this: “Not very well actually, my son just died.” I say hello instead. Hello seems less rude, although I'm not sure why saying that my son has died seems rude. When they say Have a nice day or Happy Holidays, I just lower my eyes. Social niceties are too loaded. For the children’s band concert at school, I wore a cap low on my face and avoided eye contact with hundreds of families. I peaked glances at the students, hoping to see Riley’s friends. I’ve missed them. I sobbed while they played and made the decision that I want to go the high school graduation ceremony for Riley’s class six years from now.

But C’s dentist appointment was different. The dentist falls into a small, special list of people who know Riley, but who do not know that he has died. This small list of people who will ask about him and I will have to tell them. I will have to speak this horrible truth. I even talked about it with C on the way to the appointment. “They will probably ask about Riley,” I said. “What would you like to happen when they ask?” I wanted C to have a say without leading him to want one thing or another. “What do you mean?” he asked. “Well, do you want to answer or would you like me to answer when they ask about Riley?” He thought for a minute and decided: “I want you to answer.”

The receptionist said hello when we entered the office. We sat down and I pulled C onto my lap. I felt less exposed with his weight pressing into my legs. I grabbed a magazine featuring several different kinds of pie and asked him to name each kind pictured. As he guessed at apple and pumpkin and chocolate, she leaned over the desk and casually planted the question I’ve dreaded. My eyes swung over to her face and my lips opened. “Riley died,” I said, holding her gaze for a moment. “Oh,” she said. I looked back at the magazine cover and squeezed C. A minute later, she leaned over the desk again. “How was your Thanksgiving?” And just like that Riley’s death had come and gone for her. For me, it was real in a new way.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Grief and forgetting

Bedroom on wheels
On Thanksgiving I was in a tiny camper van with my husband and our dog. The interior was blue and white with a little kitchen and a mini shower stall. There was nothing to distinguish that specific Thursday from any other day that week. 

Since my son died six weeks ago, I’ve spent most of my time horizontal in the safety of my blankets cushioned by piles of wet tissues. In order to get me out bed and out of the house, my husband rented what he called our “mobile bedroom.” The safety of bed could travel with us. There would be sunsets out our tiny bedroom windows near the beach, hikes in the hills or in the redwood forests—only if we felt up to it—and many rented movies watched while reclining on pillows. I even think we skipped Thanksgiving dinner because we’d eaten a late lunch. It didn’t matter. The point was that I was out of the house, out of our bedroom, with the safely of a bed and my familiar duvet.

We picked up our bedroom on wheels in Monterey. We camped that first night in a campground in the hills, then headed south to the trees of Big Sur, before spending the next three days in Morro Bay. On some nights the beach was just steps away from our parking spot. We strolled along the sand, watched the sky fade from blue to being streaked with orange and pink. We warmed up leftovers from the parade of dinners that our community delivered to our door in the previous weeks. We drank Moscow Mules and alternated eating chocolate-covered things and piles of radishes. Come to think of it, I'm the only one who ate radishes. “They’re like spicy apples without seeds,” I’d declared. My husband stuck with chocolaty things.

Each day, a black wooden picture frame displayed a different wedding photo, us smiling, any underlying cares invisible. It was my husband’s romantic gesture. I carefully examined each photo and marveled at the joy on my face.

I don’t know that woman anymore.
Unimaginable joy before death

Still, despite feeling so consumed by grief and disconnected from that person, there were hours when I didn’t cry. My swollen eyelids shrank to normal size. The pile of tissues subsided. And I joked about this and that—mainly the comically small shower, how our mini camper was basically a sailboat on wheels (my husband loves sailing), and how the only place the dog’s bed would fit was in front of the slim door to the bathroom, forcing her to maneuver her 70-pound frame out of the way countless times each evening as we went into and out of the bathroom.

On our last evening, when we finished our last movie from iTunes and I quit the application for the first time that week, I was confronted with the desktop picture on my Mac—a picture of my two boys. Riley was five; C was two. They wore matching sweaters and each held Christmas tree ornaments. I hadn’t seen a picture of my boys all week. My house is filled with photos; and since Riley died we have piles of photos out, new framed pictures hanging. He is everywhere at home and was nowhere in that camper. Until that moment.

Forgetting him and my intense sorrow for those days felt like betrayal. How did I allow myself to laugh? How did I allow myself to stop crying? Stop howling? Stop doubling over with grief to the point where I felt like throwing up? Stop screaming to the point where I burst hundreds of capillaries on the skin around my eyes, wondering how the neighbors had not called the police? I like all of those miserable things. Truly and honestly. They feel good, real, satisfying, safe. I swim in those feelings and dig my toes in the way one might with warm sand. That intensity and pain connects me to my dead son. As debilitating as it is, I hope it never ends. It is palpable and almost visible like our love.

The remaining hours in that camper were tainted by my betrayal. And I needed to go home again, to my real bed in my real bedroom, to roll around in my sorrow, to feel connected to him again. I'm terrified of forgetting anything, any moment. I can't imagine ever living normally because I imagine that feels like leaving him behind.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Grief has no name for me

Someone who loves is a lover. Someone who fails is a failure. Someone who disappoints is a disappointment. Someone who drinks is a drinker. Someone who learns is a student. Someone who teaches is a teacher. But what is someone who experiences a loss?

There certainly are a lot of adjectives to describe that person—sad, despondent, bereft, grief-stricken, let down, wounded, hurt, scared, worried—but no nouns come to mind. There are nouns that describe certain kinds of loss. A woman who loses her husband is a widow. Someone who loses a limb is an amputee. But I cannot find that definitive word that encompasses the common life experience of loss. Or more specifically, my loss.

Proud mama, dead son
I wrote this piece in 2012 when my son was nine years old. I felt lost in my journey with a child with serious medical problems who would eventually face more heart surgery, but it is more relevant than ever now that he has died. I was reminded of this piece the other day after another heart mom shared this: “A wife who loses a husband is called a widow. A husband who loses a wife is called a widower. A child who loses his parents is called an orphan. There is no word for a parent who loses a child. That’s how awful the loss is.” ― Jay Neugeboren, An Orphan's Tale

The quest for this particular word started as an exercise from a book I was reading. The objective was to describe myself using nouns--no adjectives allowed! I came up with daughter, friend, mother, divorcée (silly word, but it is the noun to describe a divorced person), dancer, and writer. But I also wanted a word that encompassed emotional trauma. Without a noun to represent that part of my life, my list didn't describe me completely. My loss is just as much a part of me as the way I leap and spin during dance class. It is a part of my essence, the way that writing is part of the way I communicate. A list describing me without including a word around loss, is like trying to describe a sunrise without the word light.

When I had pushed my son into the world nine years earlier, I lost the motherhood I’d hoped for. Lost isn’t a noun, but it encompassed that feeling of not remembering how to breathe or sleep or eat. It encompassed the frustration around having to digest medical jargon. It encompassed the nauseating ache when wandering the hospital looking for the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. It encompassed the shock and disbelief after doctors said my baby only had half a heart and needed several operations. It encompassed that feeling of knowing that every dream I ever had around parenthood was just that—a dream.

And now that my son is dead, I feel even more disappointed that our language fails not just me who is feeling so raw from his death, but all parents who suffer the death of a child. What are we? Why is there no name for us?

In 2012 when I wrote this, I considered that the noun I was searching for was human, even though human did not technically complete the exercise. Being human means many things, one of which is someone who experiences loss. At the time, considering human reminded me that my loss wasn't unique or any more extraordinary than my friend’s loss when her baby died. It wasn't any more unique than my other friend’s losses with each of her failed fertility treatments. My loss wasn't any more painful or stressful than my friends' who have children along the autism spectrum. Experiencing loss is part of what unites us as humans. It’s also part of what makes us individuals and steers us as we identify with all the other nouns on our lists.

Sure, my loss had evolved and changed over the years as my son grew and endured each hospitalization. There were even times when it no longer swallowed me with every inhale or haunted me every time I closed my eyes. In the seven years between his 5th and 6th heart operations, people would have described me as happy, joyful, and full of life despite the challenges my son endured (and that I endured along with him). I laughed often and embraced love and life's opportunities.

But that was before my son died.

Now that my son has died, I no longer know who I am and human is definitely inaccurate and inadequate. Yes, every human experiences loss. But this specific loss is so horrid that being lumped in with every breathing person on the planet is not a comfort. It makes my loss feel even more invisible, isolating, hidden, solitary, indescribable, and unnameable.

Monday, November 17, 2014

My son is dead

As I hiked in the hills near my house with the dog this morning, we came across two other dogs and their owners. One of the dogs was named Riley. I almost managed the courage to say, “I had a son named Riley and he died four weeks ago.” But the words failed to emerge from my mouth and I wondered if sharing that news with a complete stranger was worth it. I ultimately did not share. What would I get out of it?

Practice, I suppose.
Would you like to hear about my dead son?

The family who lives next door to us doesn’t know that my son has died. We don’t really know them. We wave when we see each other. We’ve invited them to various backyard parties, my kids wanted their grown-up son to babysit them, they had an old yellow lab who died recently. But we don’t know them. One of the worst things that can happen to a family has actually happened to the family who lives 15 feet west of them and they have no idea. None. It's not their fault. It's just reality. Our other neighbors that share our side fence don’t know either. Should I put notes in their mailboxes?

I’ve wondering if there some sort of grief flag I’m supposed to hang from a tree in the front yard. I’ve wondered if I’m supposed to put a sign in the front windows of the house. Or on my car. I’ve thought about creating some kind of grief band to wear around my arm. It would say something like, “My son just died.” Our society needs some kind of indicator to give the grieving a little way to acknowledge what has happened. A quiet way to acknowledge that walking through the Trader Joe’s or Walgreens is surreal when your child has died. So that others may tread lightly. So that perhaps we’ll see others with grief bands and know that we aren’t the only people to experience this silent and isolating misery. Maybe then we'll feel slightly less isolated, even if we don't feel any less miserable.

I imagine at some point in the future, the neighbors will ask at one of our kids’ lemonade stands: “Where’s your brother? The one with the glasses?” At that point, the kids will say: “Oh, Riley? He died…” A look of confusion will surely consume their faces followed by an awkward series of questions and the inevitable, “I can’t believe we didn’t know.”

It's strange that I cannot manage to speak this news to people--like the man walking his four-legged, rhodesian ridgeback Riley--given I want nothing more than the world to keep talking about him, thinking about him, and seeing his light radiate through everyone who knew and loved him. Shine it out. Yet, I am silent. I'm mainly hiding away, avoiding the conversations, the looks, the inevitable sobbing that comes with talking about my amazing son. Did you know that he could draw the 50 United States from memory? Including state capitals? How I wish I had taken a video of him at the chalkboard as he demonstrated this skill.

I know that me staying hidden away is different from not knowing how to tell the neighbors or avoiding eye contact at the store, but both are about acknowledging what has happened. Sharing the news of his death with the world has been something I haven’t figured out yet. I’m sure if I looked, I’d find some kind of etiquette pamphlet about this kind of thing. This unbelievable, horrible thing.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Failure to communicate

There is a stack of unopened envelopes in the cubby downstairs. Red and blue and green and cream-colored paper displays my name and address neatly written in cursive. So many letters, so many names of people I’ve known at different times in my life. They have all gathered together to prop me up with their words. I don’t know what to do with them aside from put them in the cubby. That impressive collection of feelings is waiting to be felt as soon as I am strong enough to feel them.

Unread
Right now, opening them seems impossible. If I open them—when I open them—that will be the end somehow. The flood of support will be over. If I leave that stack of envelopes alone, there are still things to be said. And as long as I have that stack of letters, people are still thinking about us because their sentiments are unread, unsaid, waiting to hold me when I need to feel not quite so alone.

After Riley died, almost inconceivably, the World Series teams pitched and scored against each other. Children and grown ups slid into costumes and ate Halloween candy. Babysitters were hired, Saturday night cocktails were imbibed, and dinners in dimly lit restaurants were eaten. Now Thanksgiving is looming while the reds and greens of Christmas twinkle from shop windows. People are buying milk and condoms just like any other day because there is still cereal to eat and sex to have. The world keeps going. Yet, somehow I feel like I’ve stepped every so slightly from the earth’s surface and the wind is slapping me raw as the world keeps spinning without me.

All of our family and friends packed their neatly folded green sweaters into their luggage and left town a week ago. Riley’s celebration was the end for most people. But for me, it was the beginning of quiet. Of lonely. Of alone. Family may have returned to their own houses, their own towns, their own families, their own activities and distractions. But this is my house, my town, my family. Any activities or distractions I have are distorted because someone is missing. Our six-chaired table typically evenly balanced with four kids and two grownups is now lopsided.

Honestly, I don’t know what I’m doing aside from getting through the day so that I can go to bed at night and getting through the night just to begin the next day. I don’t know what I’m doing besides killing time. I have talked to no adults—aside from my husband—since family left. And as I pounded my feet along the sandy trail near our house this afternoon, I realized I’m terrified of talking to anyone. I’m afraid of seeing people I know. I’m afraid that someone might recognize me. Without the dog to walk, I might never leave the safety of my warm bed.

In all of this fear of communicating, I keep thinking of an email that a friend sent me after I told her that Riley would be having surgery. She wrote: “This news…reminds me of the special challenges you have been awarded (not quite the right words, I know) in this life. And yet... you do such an amazing job of being a person who glows and sends loving energy out beyond your skin to the people around you, which is such an incredible gift, and all the more special and awesome, given the fear and underlying uncertainty you live with.”

I thanked her for seeing those things in me and reread her words countless times in the weeks leading up to surgery. I hoped that those words could reinforce my unsteady frame, shield me from crumbing, disintegrating under the weight of what we faced, the unknown. It was almost a mantra: I want to be that person, I want to be that person, I want to be that person. The fact that I ever was that person seems incomprehensible. 

I cannot glow. I cannot send positive (or even neutral) energy to anyone because I am unable to communicate. I have not responded to text messages, phone messages; I have not read any meaningful email in a week. I cannot open that stack of letters. I no longer know how to be in the world.