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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Grief and another death

Like getting ready for a date, I drew black lines over my eyelids, dabbed mascara to darken my fair lashes, and pressed a few curls into my hair. I slipped my feet into black heels. Gray slacks encircled my legs and a black blouse hung around my torso. As I assessed this dressed-up version of myself in the full-length mirror near my closet, I didn’t recognize my reflection. “You can do this,” I said to the woman starting back at me. She didn’t reply, only looked at me with her sad eyes and sad face and solemn outfit.

Heart made by his daughter
The act of getting dressed and styled had nothing to do with a date. Our family was headed to the memorial for our neighbor—a husband and father with two young children. I didn’t really know him, but we saw him every day as he walked his daughter down the hill to school with his young son and family dog in tow. Holding hands, looking at leaves in the gutter, and admiring stones and bugs, they were a part of our morning routine as we looped back from dropping our big kids at middle school. That simple act of walking with his children will be the image I hold of him; it’s a lovely image. He had a gentle, loving presence and a gentle, patient voice.

“I wish I’d taken some Vitamin A,” I’d said to my husband as my heels clinked along the sidewalk, referring to the anti-anxiety medicine I’d been prescribed before Riley went into the hospital. “Do you have it with you?” he’d asked in reply as he extended his arm for me to clutch. I didn’t, and my body was rigid with the emotions of my son’s death and of walking into his memorial only a few months ago. Another untimely death. More grieving children and families.

Where Riley, father, and family cat live now
This Death seems to have paid no attention to years. This Death has given little consideration for the young people left behind who grow up without their brother or their father. This Death couldn’t care less for the bereaved mother (vilomah) or the bereaved wife (widow). This Death is a thief. This Death has stolen time. This Death has snatched the yet-to-be celebrated milestones because someone will be forever missing. This Death has dropped us into a forest thick with lost and sorrow. Death—you greedy, unfeeling charlatan.

These two unrelated deaths—an 11-year-old boy and a father just three doors down—seem related. I like imagining this father’s energy mingling with my son’s energy, looking after him. This sweet man who walked his children to school every single day.

As I sat in a row of chairs, my eyes were locked on the images of this man’s life. There were pictures of him as a toddler, the preschooler (like his son), the elementary schooler (like his daughter), his teenaged years, college years, the young couple in love, their engagement party, wedding, with his newborn’s sleeping body pressed to his skin. Friends and acquaintances sat by my side, held my hand, asked about how I’m doing and how I’m feeling about Riley’s approaching birthday. Their questions tried to bridge the gap between the two realities we now live in. “Today isn’t about me,” I replied. But with barely a pause, I talked about Riley anyway, cried, and cried some more for this now misshapen family.

It’s true that the day wasn’t about me. It was about us—all of us: her, her husband, her children, the rest of her family, me, Riley, my other children, the rest of Riley’s family, and the community of other people who also grieve these losses. And even though the day wasn’t about me specifically, it would have been impossible to turn the volume down on my own grief. So perhaps when I told my reflection that morning: “You can do this,” I meant that I’d get through the memorial by being as authentic to the experience as I could. I didn’t pretend to be anything other than what I was—a grieving mother who is also grieving for her neighbors.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Grief and Opening Day

I’d forgotten about all the socializing and cheering that happens at Little League games. I am not up for socializing or cheering. I hid under the brim of my cap at the edge of the field or against the wall of the nearby school when C played this past week. He had two games since Opening Day, and Opening Day was last Saturday. All that playing put me in the middle of more social situations than I’ve been in since Riley died in October.
Life goes on

Over there, across the blacktop is a mom whose taken C after school several times since Riley died. She’s talking to a woman that I recognize, but am not sure I’ve ever officially met. She scoops her long hair with her arm and it cascades down her back. There is smiling and laughing and small talk; there is clapping and an ease at just being in the moment talking with a friend. I’m largely scared of the non-grieving population, as I’m sure they are largely scared of me. Sunglasses are adjusted, hair is twisted and tied at the back of her head. The sun bakes our mid-March bodies, forces layers to be peeled away and pale skin soaks the up the heat and threatens to become pink.

Their interaction seems effortless, easy, relaxed, normal. I wonder about the baseball season three years earlier when Riley played on this field. At the time, the kids seemed so big, grown-up, skilled for eight- and nine-year-old players. They whacked the ball into the outfield. They sprinted to first base. They dove to catch balls that seemed almost out of reach. I notice the kids on the field doing those things now. When did C become a big kid?

When Riley played on this field those three years ago, I made a connection with another player’s mom. She marveled at my son who’d endured five heart operations, yet was very much alive. Very much a part of the game. Very normal looking despite his mixed-up insides and uncertain future. That season she joined me in celebrating Riley’s accomplishments. To an outsider, my enthusiasm and praise may have seemed beyond what was called for, beyond what a child with normal abilities may have received for hitting, catching, running, and just swinging his bat. Every at-bat was praised—every walk, every foul ball, every strike out. For trying, for getting back in there again and again, even though it was hard for him, the boy with the faulty heart and not enough oxygen to nourish his cells.

Riley didn’t run fast—it was more of a shuffle—so if he shuffled to first base after getting walked, it was a big deal. If he snagged the ball from the air, it was a big deal. As he trotted to the grassy spot where the ball smacked the earth after missing his glove, I cheered. Him showing up again and again for every game and every season—he played for seven years—was a big deal. He was out there trying, even though each of those things involved an effort so far beyond normal effort. He loved the game.

I always feared the day he would decide not to play another season. When the games became more about winning and less about having fun. When he felt his struggle on the field was hurting his team and decided to use his energy reserves for something more stationary like art or reading. He never made that choice. And I’ll never know if he would have signed up for this season. I like to think he would have. In the meantime, I go to C’s games and wonder about the cheering and the life-goes-on normalcy around me. Like so many things in life, I will always feel sad about all of the things that did not happen, the life experiences un-experienced, the milestones met and marked by others, the seasons coming and going, the beginnings and the endings.

C had been invited to throw the first pitch on Opening Day for the league Riley would have played for. Some of Riley’s friends showed up and helped C warm up his pitching arm. C told me: “I feel sad all of the time, even though I don’t always look sad on the outside.” I was amazed at his eloquence; that's definitely how I feel too. That morning on the mound, he looked proud and happy and sad and nervous. That’s probably how I looked too, at least when I wasn't hiding under my hat.