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Friday, October 20, 2017

Grief and three impossibly long years without you

On the third anniversary of your death, sweet boy, here is the handprint memorial we made for you. My heart hurts every minute of every single day missing you. Love, Mom

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Grief and black and white

Neglected garden animals
At first, I rejected the idea of participating because I don’t like participating in things. Grief has made me a curmudgeon. But I kept thinking about it. If I were to participate, how could I possible sum up grief -- my grief -- in black and white photos? It seemed an impossible a task. How could I possible capture the idea that half of me died when my eleven-year-old son Riley died three years ago? How could I possibly sum up the weight, emptiness, isolation, anxiety. How could I manage to capture my inability to make decisions, how seemingly small tasks paralyze me, how it's easier to give up than it is to try because tying equals failure. When trying to move forward equals several steps back. When all of it makes me want to hide in bed for a few more hours.


Tattered flag
Between coughing fits -- I'm several days into a cold -- the plant on the coffee table with its brown edges and drooping fronds etched with crispy patches caught my eye. It’s half alive, I thought, clinging to life. Overwatered. Drowning. I grabbed my phone, played with the filters and made it black and white; it looked unrecognizable with its sharp lines and faded spots. I feel unrecognizable, too.


Garbage from the orchard
I headed outside. There was tangled rope in a box of garbage collected from the orchard last weekend. I feel tangled, trapped, unable to move much of the time. I feel like garbage, useless, unwanted, a burden. Even when I'm reassured that I'm loved, lovable, wanted.


Dead plants
There were the broken wood animals, their missing ears and broken snouts. It started as a project with the kids the summer after Riley died. But they are neglected. The tipped over penguin, forgotten. Unloved. Alone. Hiding its face, avoiding eye contact, hiding behind others. How did this happen?


Tattered plastic
From there, I noticed all of the soil that used to be lush with tomato plants, zucchini, and basil. Now barren, neglected garden boxes are everywhere. If there is any plant life, it’s nothing like it's former self. Shriveled, crisp, dead branches drooping or parched and brittle. Uncared for. The rosemary bush continues to grow, but it looks stressed.


Webs and debris

Kites, once vibrantly reaching 30 feet into the sky, are tattered, torn, faded, limp. First seen at a house we'd rented for a week in the summer after Riley died, I loved how they sounded like sails luffing in the wind. I ordered several to brighten our yard. Now they, too, are garbage. Disintegrating plastic encircles the trampoline. The mesh guard on the sides is torn like a large mouth waiting to eat children who bounce toward it.

Hundreds of shriveled plums never picked cling to branches. How did we miss plum season? And fig season? And pear season? Dropped fruit waits for rats to nibble at its flesh.

Tipped over pots, any seedlings neglected and shriveled. Dirt in piles near the pots that wanted to give life.
Disintegrating garden art

Grief is everywhere. Neglect dominates. Barren. Unkempt. Untidy. Damaged. Broken. Turns out my yard is the physical representation of grief. It is so obvious -- I couldn't believe how easy it was to see grief all around me -- yet I had never seen it before. Shocked by this realization, I headed into the house. As I sat on the couch and uploaded my pictures, it made me wonder what else I have been blind to these last three years. 

Friday, August 25, 2017

Grief and Anger

When my husband got into bed last night, he ended up talking to the back of my head. I couldn't even meet his gaze. Yes, I was tired, but I didn't even bother to try to look at him because I was angry. His love for me baffles me sometimes because I'm not nice a lot of the time. And when I am nice, I'm a mess of a person with the snot draining from my nose and pile of soggy tissues nearby. He might argue that it's only some of the time that I'm angry and some of the time I'm a mess. But inside, it's all of the time. The rest of the time, I'm doing a good job of faking it.

Don't bother asking me why I was angry at him because I wouldn't have a valid answer. Please note my "faking it" face in the above picture.

If we were fighting, maybe I could channel some of the anger into that fight. At least it seems logical to associate anger with fighting. Anger with someone, instead of anger at nothing. Angry at the universe for stealing my 11-year-old son, my 11-year-old son who should be 14-years-old now and just starting high school. Angry at the air; angry at the clouds. Angry at the friendly cashier who asked me how I'm doing, when asking me how I'm doing seems like such a rude and invasive question. But I'm not much of a fighter. And my husband is just the scapegoat. I have a twisted feeling that it might be easier if he just got angry back at me. We could take turns being jerks and eventually, after a scoop of silent treatment, a serving cold shoulder, and a helping of being-really-busy-doing-other-things, I would apologize for being unjustly angry at him. Then I'd let him administer a big bear hug. Then I'd slap on my "faking it" face for another unknown period of time.

Don't be tricked by the anger, our therapist says. Mad Suzanne is actually Sad Suzanne.

If I'm not mad at him, I'm mad at myself. It's actually simpler to get angry at myself because I don't even have to wait for my husband to get into bed for that. I can simply battle it out internally. I'm good at that. Angry at myself for growing my son with only half a heart, no matter how many times doctors have told me that it wasn't my fault. That I didn't do anything wrong. That his malformed heart was just a fluke. Blaming myself is easier than chalking it up as a fluke. The word fluke should be reserved for flat tires or bumping into someone you know at a coffee shop in San Francisco. Flukes shouldn't cause immeasurable suffering to babies and children and their parents who must watch their babies and children endure immeasurable suffering. Fluke seems like far too nice of a word to be associated with what happened to Riley. What happened to Riley makes no sense. And it will never make any sense. It is senseless.

And even though it's senseless, being angry at my husband or myself is far easier than forgiving myself. For even considering to acknowledge that I was powerless to save my son. Even if I was powerless to save him. Even if my job during his lifetime was to love him, not to save him.

Riley in Newport, Oregon for eclipse.
I think the only people I'm not angry at are my sons. I will never be angry at Riley. None of this was his fault. He was born into it and had to endure all of the bullshit that went along with his fluke of a congenital heart defect. He never got a choice. And his brother is the light that remains in what is left of my broken, blackened heart. He is oxygen. He is water. He is food and clothing and shelter. When I'm near him, I feel slightly less dead. Because I am partially dead. Part of me died with Riley. And part of me is still alive because of his brother. And when that boy, the boy that makes part of me still alive goes off to his dad's house, it's like the little step stool that I'm standing on gets kicked out from underneath me. I get even more wobbly and it feels like the little piece of my heart that hasn't turned black from grief turns gray, and it's harder to move and to concentrate, in the same way that the chameleon struggles in Eric Carle's book when it's cold and hungry.

There are periods of time when the dread in my heart is so heavy that it's hard to move. Sometimes the sadness is more prevalent and sometimes the anger is more prevalent. I don't really know what triggers what. I suspect the angry volume goes up when my son is with his dad. But there are other things, too. Fall is approaching, the school year just started, launching my son--who is three years, three months and two weeks younger than Riley--into 6th grade, the same grade Riley was in when he died. Oh, October how I dread thee and the series of anniversaries that are fast approaching....

Riley (and Pepper) in the sand.
You see, October 8, 2014 was Riley's last day of school, his last day of 6th grade. And now that his brother is in 6th grade, as soon as October 9 comes around, he will have been in school longer than Riley was during his lifetime. October 9 was also Riley's final heart surgery. Then there are all of the horrible anniversaries associated with the downward spiral that followed surgery that led to his death. Then the younger brother will continue surpassing Riley--he's already taller than Riley was. In a couple of months, he'll be older than him. And just like that, the younger brother will become the older brother. Everything is upside down. Motherhood is much harder than I thought it would be. I think I need some more trees to chop down. In the meantime, I'm grateful for my husband who continues to love me all of the time, even when I'm angry.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Grief and endings

Travel Rileys
In my family, the end of the school year last month signified more than just the end of another year. It was the last year that Riley’s classmates were in middle school together, the school that Riley went to. At the ceremony, many eighth graders carried pictures of Riley across the stage with them (see the assortment of Travel Rileys on the left). Riley was given an honorary certificate, and all three of the student speeches mentioned him. It was interesting to hear about his death from their points of view. It’s only recently that I’ve started to consider how his death affected other people besides myself and my family. Hearing his name in their speeches was a relief; it also left me breathless. Mentally preparing for the day was the topic of my latest piece in Six Hens.

Me, trying to smile at the dance.

Later that night, my husband and I chaperoned the 8th grade dance. I felt like an interloper because parents of 8th graders are not welcome at the 8th grade dance. An exception was made for me, and I was grateful to get to see all of those kids one last time before they head off in different directions to high school this fall. A photographer friend made some almost-life-sized pictures of Riley on foam board to have with all of the props--big hats, and crazy sunglasses, and feather boas--at the photo booth. One of Riley's friends helped coordinate a photo of me with Riley's five closest friends. I imagine in the nearly three years since he spent time with them, those kids have moved through different circles of friends. But they were willing to take a moment out of their night to let me get a photo of myself with these boys--these boys who had been at my house for playdates and sleepovers so often when Riley was alive. These boys who I cherish and who make my heart flutter whenever I see them. I so want to publish that photo here--I even smiled--but they aren't my kids and it's not my place to put their photo online. Instead, see the picture of me with my husband (and fellow chaperone) above. I have a strained smile in that photo, too.

Riley, in his signature hoodie.
There was even a slender, not-too-tall boy at the dance who was wearing a red hoodie with the hood pulled up over his head, the way Riley frequently wore his red MIT hoodie. I tried not to stare. And every time I saw him out of the corner of my eye, I did a double take. I mean, who wears a red hoodie to a middle school dance? But I'm so grateful he did. Between my photo with my five surrogate sons and the boy in the red hoodie, it was almost like my boy was there.

Or it was nothing like him being there, and it was just me clinging to anything that reminds me of him.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Grief and social events

bereaved
Looking for you in nature
All of the voices inside my head were arguing. They were shouting over each other, angry at all of the merriment around me. Much of it was about who is safe and who isn’t safe and what is allowed and what isn’t allowed now that you’re dead. There are so many rules and it’s so confusing that it's hard to keep track. And sometimes I forget the rules, which prompts the angry voices to shout and finger point and wear steel-toed boots just in case they need to kick someone. In all their rage, venom drips from the tongues, words too vile to include here. That anger was directed at everyone -- the people I live with, the acquaintances I saw at the park on Friday night. When the voices are shouting like that, I need to close my eyes, hoping to see your face, or stare into the distance towards nature.


I laid my head back on the blanket at the park and my vision grabbed a branch of leaves. The school jazz band concert at the park had finished and people were just milling about, chatting and visiting and laughing because it was a lovely night, and well, why not? Facing the sky, I saw a cluster of leaves that looked like a heart, if I wanted it to look like a heart, anyway. I always want everything to look like a heart because I know it means you are nearby, that you made it look like a heart so that I would know you are nearby. That leaf heart swayed with the breeze, thumping with the beat of my broken heart. I’m with you. I see you. I know you’re here, it said.


I had not been to a concert in the park since before you died. Although we did watch your younger brother sing a couple of songs with his glee group not long after you died at the same park, on the same stage. There was no blanket or picnic that time, though, and we huddled near the edge of the crowd ready to depart as soon as you were done. This was different. Very different.


You see, on Friday, I packed a picnic and made sangria. I spread our blanket at the park hours before the concert began. I left camping chairs, too. Then we went with our picnic and our sangria and the guacamole that I made. We brought the dog and it was so exciting with the people and the music and the sun warming our backs. And being a school event, there were lots of familiar faces. Other people had also set up their blankets hours ahead of time, and I had joked (yes, joked) with them that we’d be neighbors. And I waved at them and even went and said hello when I recognized the neighbor’s daughter from your brother’s second grade class.


Then it was all too much. Too much sangria, too much talking, too much of you not being there. How am I supposed to talk and eat guacamole and talk to the people on the adjacent blanket when you are not here, when you’re never going to be here? When they don’t know that you’re dead. I tried to recover by staring at the leaves, but everyone was laughing and eating ice cream when I just kept thinking about how you were dead and I was pretty sure that no one else was thinking about you being dead. I’m always thinking about how you’re dead and how you’ll never, ever, ever not be dead. That’s when the shouting in my head started. It’s so hard when I’m the only one remembering that you’re dead. It’s easier when other people remember and talk about you. Then it’s not all on me because that’s when it’s too much.


So I stared at the heart-shaped cluster of leaves and tried to make everyone think about you, but they kept laughing and someone who was talking with the family on the blanket next to us was talking about an interview that they went on. And someone at the end of our blanket was talking about what kind of camera they have. And they were licking their ice cream like it was the most normal evening in the world. This is great, we should do it again, my sweet, well-meaning husband said at one point.


The sangria made everything cloudy. Maybe I shouldn’t have had the sangria and maybe I should have eaten the caprese sandwich that I had made for myself because you like caprese sandwiches. I should have eaten more than chips and guacamole. And all of a sudden I was so angry at everyone. The neighbors who talked about their interview. My kids at the end of the blanket talking about cameras and ice cream. My good-natured husband who was having a good time and wondered out loud if we should maybe do this again another time when they have the regular concerts in the park. It was just too much. Probably the most socializing that I have done since you died. Too much. I so often feel like an observer in my own world, watching it unfold around me, unable to move into it, be a part of it. It’s like there are two different planes: I exist in one, the rest of the world exists in the other and we're separated by plexiglass.


Finally the shouting in my head was too much. I stood up abruptly and wavered a bit. I picked up all of the camping chairs and a picnic blanket that we weren’t sitting on and took them back to the car across the street. I put them in the trunk and sat in the driver’s seat for a bit, enjoying the warmth of the air toasted by the sun, trying to figure out what to do next. Husband came over with the cooler filled with all of the uneaten veggies and dip and watermelon and the caprese sandwich I should have eaten. I told him I was angry at everyone. Everyone, he asked? Yes, everyone, I said, and told him that I wanted to walk home.

So I did. When I got home, I watered the plants in the garden and then went into your room and laid under your desk and never told anyone I was there. And I stayed with you until everyone was in bed.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Grief and pressing the bruise

This month's Riley flag, made during Ski Week
Filled with a quiet, internal rage was how I moved through the world today. It looked like peacefulness to my therapist as we talked about a smorgasbord of things. I forget that I’m the only one with an accurate read on the death clock -- the internal monitoring of days and months that continue to scar my heart, as if I cut notches there to keep track of how long you’ve been gone. When I close my eyes, I see what they would look like, like a row of red toothpicks.

Two-and-a-half years today. An impossible two-and-a-half years of sleeping and overeating and under-eating and drinking and driving driving kids here and there and ruminating and sobbing and longing for you.

I often wonder how I’m still breathing without your exhales to kickstart my inhales. Yet, I keep breathing. I often wonder how my legs carry me from here to there without your hands reaching for me, your voice calling for me, luring me to from where I am to where you are. “Mom?” it would call out, and reflex expanded and contracted the muscles needed to get to you. I would go anywhere to hold your hands, hold your soft face, brush my cheeks against the “straight afro” you were growing.

After therapy, the quiet, internal rage continued percolating in the background as I went to the Post Office and to the gas station to have my car smogged. Then I was rude to A, who wanted to talk to me while he ate his lunch. All I could think about was how he didn’t know it was two-and-a-half years since you died. He didn’t know that it was two-and-a-half years since you died while he chatted at me about work things. He didn’t know it was two-and-a-half years since you died when he told me about his plans for tonight to meet up with a friend who just went back to work after having heart surgery. He didn’t know it was two-and-a-half years since you died when he told me he wished that he was meeting up with the friend who just went back to work after having heart surgery on another night because Thursday night is Pub Night.

He didn’t know, even though he knew it was Riley Day. It says so on the white board in the kitchen, as it does on the 20th of every month. It’s when we eat something for dinner that you would like, or at least eat something that includes ingredients that you like. Tonight’s dinner included some of your favorites -- garlic, basil, tomatoes, and pasta, topped with Romano cheese. I even used the Tabasco-flavored olive oil that you got for Christmas to give it a little kick. It also included lentils and onions and peppers, but I can't remember how you feel about those things. The 20th of every month is also when we are supposed to hang a flag. It’s also when we have hot chocolate. But then, because I said I didn't mind, A was leaving to meet the friend who just went back to work after having heart surgery even though it's also Pub Night, and I had to drive H & C to yoga. So there was no time to hang the flag we made when we went to Tahoe in February. Even though it's Riley Day. Even though it's the 30th Riley Day since you died. Two-and-a-half years of eternity without you.

Then the house was quiet while B did his homework. And I wore my quiet, internal rage like a badge, and I was mad at A, even though I said I didn't mind when he told me about meeting the friend who just went back to work after having heart surgery. So I sat in bed and started to watch the 60 Minutes news segment about Newtown, four years after 20 first-graders and six educators were murdered. And we still don't have any sensible gun laws. I shake my head at the continued stupidity of our lawmakers who continue to let people on the government No-Fly list buy guns. Who refuse to do anything to prevent more dead children. Guns aren't the problem, they say, it's mental health. But then they cut mental health funding. I'm sure those Newtown parents are shaking their heads too, or banging them against walls. Or just hiding under blankets like I do so much of the time, realizing their children will never, ever not be dead either. I wanted to look at those grieving parents, the dark circles imprinted above their cheekbones. I wanted to see what grief has done to them, to their ability to move and talk. If it's anything like me, I can talk and move better if I'm talking about you and moving for you, as in working on a project that has to do with you. It's all for you.

Mid-program, the dog started barking. And barking. And since B was doing his homework, I went to the door. It was our neighbor. She was returning some clean dishes from the dinner I brought them -- the one inspired by your food preferences and in honor of you on this anniversary -- with a half drank glass of wine. She came to sit with me. I brought her upstairs to my favorite sitting place in my bed. I didn’t know that I needed someone to sit with me; but she knew I needed someone to sit with me. And there she was. She could see the emotion on my face and I told her about the news segment about the dead children I'd been watching. “Sometimes we like to press on the bruise,” she said. And then loud, ugly sounds burst from my throat while tears streamed from my face and into my shirt.

She was right. Pressing the bruise was the thing that gave access to some of the quiet, internal rage I'd been wearing as a shield all day. Pressing it a bit let me translate it into what it actual was -- heartache. It was just easier to go to the Post Office and to the gas station to get the car smogged feeling angry than it was to feel heartbroken at the eternity of the last two-and-a-half years without you. 

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Grief and Riley's unexpected voice

Riley with Freddie circa when the call was made.
I sometimes use Riley's bedroom as a space to make private phone calls. Yesterday was one of those days. I was on the phone for 50 minutes with our health insurance company, trying to figure out why some bills are going unpaid even though we have coverage. Then I spent another 30 minutes on the phone with the doctor's office. After I hung up, I put my phone and pen on my stack of papers and walked to my bedroom where I set all of it on the bed. From there, I stopped in the bathroom, then grabbed my phone off the bed before heading to put on my boots so that I could go pick up kids from school. I set it on the table before bending down to pick up a boot. As I pulled the boot over my heel, Riley's voice came out of my phone. It was a saved voicemail. It was a call that Riley had made from my house to his dad's house when he was about nine years old. His dad had saved the message on his phone and shared with me via Dropbox not long after Riley died. And now here it was playing in my otherwise quiet house.

His voice was shaky; he had called his dad to let him know that he'd forgotten Freddie at his house and asked if he would bring him over in the morning. I remember that night. His favorite item several blocks away. He'd have to settle for a lesser-loved soft toy to snuggle as he fell asleep. There were tears. And hugs to console my sad boy.

But how did Riley's voice end up being played from an inactive phone? When I opened my phone to see what was happening, Dropbox wasn't even one of the active applications. I just stared at it for several minutes, bemused and delighted to hear him and also sad because he was so sad. And also sad because I'll never hear his voice shape words into new sentences or questions. He won't tell me any jokes or read me Jon Agee palindromes or describe situations in bizarre Far Side comics. There will be no puberty or deepening as his sweet boy voice transforms into a kind man voice.

I won't know how that voicemail played in my living room. But I do know that I am open to believing that Riley made it happen. I will just chalk it up as another one of the unexplainable messages from him that make him feel everywhere and nowhere at the same time.

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Grief and worlds colliding

Riley at 5th grade orchestra concert
Younger Brother had his first band concert last night. It was held in coordination with the orchestra concert. It took place in the auditorium that Central Middle School and the Arroyo School share. Riley went to Central. YB goes to Arroyo. And it's confusing. Even though Riley was a 6th grader when he died, he never got to play in an orchestra concert for 6th grade because he died in October and the first concert each school year is held in December. So the only two concerts he participated in were when he was in 5th grade. YB is in 5th grade. 

How can YB be playing in the band concert in 5th grade and Riley also be playing in the orchestra concert in 5th grade? The orchestra even played "Dragon Hunter," which was Riley's favorite piece of music. I looked for him among the cellos. He wasn't there. I also looked for him among the violas because he switched to viola in 6th grade. He wasn't there either. I scanned their faces, not recognizing any of his peers. That orchestra doesn't know Riley. There wasn't an empty chair for him; there weren't any green ribbons tied around anyone's arms in remembrance. I suspect if I had new memories of Riley playing in an orchestra concert in 6th, 7th, or 8th grade, it would make more sense. But I don't. So it's all mixed up, these two children performing at the same concert. 

Next year will be even more confusing because YB will be at Central as a 6th grader. And how can both of my boys be 6th graders at the same school?

Sunday, April 02, 2017

Grief and 14 years

First day of kindergarten
At 11:20 pm, 14 years ago, Riley was born. He lived for 11-and-a-half years. And now he will never, ever, ever, ever, ever, EVER not be dead.

All day, I've been wanting to disappear. But where would I go? There is no place on this earth that would feel less miserable. There is no better place because Riley is nowhere. Yes, he's in my heart, but there is no physical place I can visit him, hug him, talk to him. I miss talking with him. How I long for the Mirror of Erised.

It feels impossible to describe the hole inside of me, the massive heartache and longing for my boy who I will never get to be with again, at least in this lifetime. The forever of death is so painful and impossible. And relentless.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Grief and living forever

With Riley's birthday two days away, it's strange to think of him growing up. He'll be 14 years old on Sunday and also 11 1/2 years old forever. This song keeps going through my head... I just want to keep calling his name 'til he comes back home. I miss him so much it physically hurts.