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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.

Monday, April 02, 2018

Grief and making trades

Riley, I'm so sorry. Please forgive me... I would give you my breath, if it meant that you could laugh. I would give you my hands, if it meant that you could play catch with your brother. I would give you my legs, if it meant that you could run to first base. I would give you my heart, if it meant that you could sleep in your bed with your penguins, Freddy and Freddy, Jr. I would give it all to you, if it meant that you could be here, growing up. I would give it all to you, if it meant that you could be here growing up, even knowing that I wouldn't be here to watch it. Even knowing that in that version of reality, we still wouldn't be together. And you would be motherless. It would be worth it, though, because you wouldn't be alone. You'd be surrounded by people who love you. And you would have a working body. And you would get to celebrate your 15th birthday today. 

Sunday, April 01, 2018

Grief and labor

Labor has begun. Only it isn't in my abdomen, the tightening of muscles as contractions mount. No, this time, it's in my heart, my pulse accelerated. My feet twitch and there is a heightened anxiety coming on. Rapid pulse, almost hyperventilating. This labor isn't about giving birth to a baby. This is emotional labor, the intensity of reliving grief anniversaries. Tomorrow is Riley's 15th birthday. And while his birthday is unrelated to his death, it is a distinct marker that he is not getting older. His shadow life is growing up, a teenager with a deepening voice and peach fuzz and hairy legs, while his actual life ended three-and-a-half years ago.

Fifteen years ago tonight, I was 10 days past my due date with my first baby. Contractions would begin around 3 am on April 2, and would continue until 11:20 pm, when my 8 pound, two ounce boy entered the world in a frenzy of activity. Doctors surrounded us, even though I was oblivious to their concerns, about his heartbeat that had decelerated during contractions. About his failed APGAR tests. Tonight, in this heightened emotional state, I have created a flurry of tasks to accomplish. I'm too twitchy to be still.

Riley came into the world, and in a matter of hours, everything stopped being real. The certainty of walls and ceilings and the physics of gravity and the science and technology that gave me a monitored hospital birth were gone. I went from being an exhausted postpartum woman to an exhausted postpartum woman who was told that in order for her infant son to survive, he would need three open-heart surgeries. And he would need the first one in a matter of days.

We agreed to those life-saving surgeries. And then we agreed to some more. And my son still died. And I continue to get donation requests from the hospitals that treated him. They show pictures of children who have survived, who have lived beyond expectation. Those children are smiling and their parents are smiling. And yet, my son has died and they think that I want to give them more money. I write "Return to sender" on the envelope. I also write, "Please remove me from your mailing list because my son, despite his six heart surgeries, has died."

Tomorrow will come, and I will wake and put on my Riley grief bands. I will wear my Riley necklaces. I will wear green, his favorite color. I will hike in the hills near my house and visit his tree stump decorated with his name. I will donate blood to help some other person in need of blood. I will sob and the technician will ask if it hurts and I will say that my arm feels fine. I will make his favorite dinner. And I will hate that he is dead. Just like all of the days. And I will wait for this nightmare to end, the one that makes my son dead while I am alive. I just want to wake up into a world where my son is in 9th grade. Where he is at the table eating Honey Bunches of Oats or garlic toast for breakfast. Where he will get 15, and 21, and 30, and 75, and all of the ordinary years in between.

Thursday, March 08, 2018

2018 Riley Run

* Register Now for 2018 Riley Run *
It's time to register for the fourth annual Riley Run. 

Runners, walkers, skippers, scooters, and hoppers are all welcome. It starts at Brittan Acres Elementary at 4 pm on April 21, 2018. Register soon in order to get your very own Riley Run t-shirt with this year's mystery Riley quote on the back. 

The $25 registration fee will be split between the Children's Heart Foundation and Camp Taylor, a free summer camp for kids with heart defects. 

To register, email: