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Monday, April 20, 2015

Grief and fighting

The soles of my hiking shoes crunched along the composite as I sauntered down the long, empty trail taking me from here to there. Inching along with the fog hovering over my shoulder like an enthusiastic editor, I willed someone to come out from behind the tangled poison oak and manzanita to mess with me.

Green worry stone
Nothing scares me. Not that I was anywhere scary. Pulgas Ridge is a county open space preserve sandwiched between sleepy San Carlos and Redwood City. Years ago, it was home to a tuberculosis sanitarium and skeletal remains in the shape of cement stairs are interspersed among the trails and fields of oak. I’ve been hiking there on my own since Riley was a newborn strapped to my torso in a baby carrier 12 years ago. The scariest encounters would include a fistful of teenaged boys wandering into the dusky acres to get stoned and an older man donning a hat and sunglasses that set of my dog’s attack instinct. And neither of those were actually scary. Still, I couldn’t help but hope for a fight. I pictured this faceless stranger and readied my response: “Yeah, you want to mess with me today? You might want to rethink that because I’ll claw you open.”

Today, you see, is the 6-month anniversary of my son Riley’s death. I rubbed a green glass stone between my fingers as my legs took me along the trail. I couldn’t feel them and was amazed that I managed to stay vertical. They are numb so much of the time. I have to think about my arms, too, and will them to grasp and shift and lift and brush. The only part of my body that I feel is my heart. It beats with mind-boggling regularity. The simplicity of it--unconscious, reliable, unfailing--yet something his heart could do no more. When I’m still, I feel the muscle thumping against my ribcage. Then I remember those hours as his heart slowed, slowed…… slowed…………. slowed…………………... until it squeezed for the last time. Afterward, I crawled onto the bed beside him and held his still body. Then I left him there, alone, and got into my car and went home without him.

The muscular golden dog trotted up beside us as we walked the hill to where I visit the stone memorial I made for Riley. It looked like the Rhodesian Ridgeback with the same name I met a few weeks after Riley died. How fitting, I thought to see that dog again on this sad anniversary. I hadn’t seen him since November when I couldn’t bear to speak that horrible truth to his owner.

“Haven’t seen you in a while, Riley,” I said to the dog as he followed my girl Pepper as she leaped after her tennis ball. Then coming down the hill was the dog’s owner and a friend. As they approached me, I said, “Is that Riley?” just wanting to make sure it was the dog I thought it was. The man said yes. “Do you spell it like this?” I asked as I pointed to the black grief band I wear with RILEY embroidered in kelly green. He said yes. “Is that your dog’s name, too?” his friend asked. “No, it was my son’s name. He died six months ago today,” I said.

Their faces twisted with compassion as the emotion dripped down my cheeks. “That’s got to be the most difficult kind of hard,” the friend said. “Are you getting some support from a counselor?” I am. “I have a lot of support; I’m really lucky that way. But I can’t say it makes it any easier,” I said. “I can’t imagine it does,” he replied. We talked about the dogs for a bit and I pet this furry Riley before continuing up the hill.

I am so profoundly sad and heartbroken and it is still so very impossible for me to believe that he has died. With two houses, it just seems like he must be at his dad’s house. And then there are all the days when C is with me and Riley is not there and that idea that he is just at his dad's house becomes even more impossible.

I miss the simple things...his crazy soft hair, the way he bites his cuticles, how he couldn't hear me ask him a question when he was reading, the way he said "mom." I miss the way he held his Freddies--his beloved penguins--one in each arm at bedtime.

Impossible for people who have not lost a child to understand what it feels like, imagine a gaping, constant loss. Every time you see one of your children--every time you eat together or go somewhere in the car, someone is missing. Every time you talk to one or your children or think of them. Every time you wash their laundry or pick up one of their books or shoes, or every time you imagine tomorrow or the weekend or summer vacation--delete them from each of those images. When you grocery shop, you don't need to buy their favorite cereal. When you go to a child's baseball game, or school event, or see one of their friends, it is a reminder that they are gone from this world. Every night when you kiss them at bedtime, they are not there. It's like losing Riley hundreds of times each day.

Imagine never having another photo of your child. There will be no more photos of Riley. There will be no more pictures drawn. The few precious times I’ve happened upon a scrap piece of paper that he doodled on, it instantly became a sacred item placed on the desk in his bedroom because there will be no more doodles.

No, there were no leery individuals on my hike at Pulgas Ridge. There were no fights for me to funnel my anger into. It was just me and my own internal battle, a wild spectrum with weapons crafted of rage and sadness, loss and disbelief, pain and numbness. It would have been his 12th birthday on April 2.