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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.  



Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Grief and friendly neighbors

My arms bore the weight of an extra large Google Shopping Express box filled with tin cans and glass jars emptied of their contents as I wandered to the side of the house to our recycling bin. It was Monday night after all, and garbage trucks begin their weekly roll down our street each Tuesday morning before neighborhood sparrows being their morning chatter.

Our home is downslope from the row of houses along the side of our property. Our neighbors’ backyards line our side yard. Above my head to the west is our new(ish) neighbor’s deck. The family who lives there moved in last fall. And almost as soon as I heard voices from the home that had been empty the two previous years, Bay Area rainstorms kept everyone in their dry homes, and prevented us from connecting with each other since then.

Last night was different, though. It was probably 75 degrees as I plodded along trying to avoid tripping over children’s shoes or our makeshift downspout extenders on my way to the bins. The evening’s warm air enticed bodies from their homes and into their dry outdoor spaces. In this case, it was onto the deck above my head to the west.


bereaved mom
Riley heart helps me run
Going about my business, I could hear them talking to each other, talking to their children. But I didn’t look up. I just raised the bin lid and dumped the contents. Then I took the empty box back through the house and into the garage where it would wait to collect the next batch of emptied jars and tins and no-longer-wanted newspapers. Then I went back into the yard and along the house to drag the full bin to the street. Their voices punctuated my activity like a bass line, but I never looked toward them.

Once I’d gotten to the street, I heard my friendly husband, “Oh hello… nice to meet you…” and so on. He’d come out to help with the undesirable task of moving bins that smell of rotting food and dog poop. I busied myself at the curb, picking up squashed limes that had fallen from our tree waiting for the niceties to end. I was trapped. If I went back toward the house, I would be sucked into the conversation. As I fiddled with the limes and bits of plastic along the curb, I felt my limbs become stilted with tension. And then the line I knew was coming (and very much avoiding) slapped my ears.

“So how old are your boys?” she asked. She’d met two of them several weeks ago when their basketball went over the fence and they’d knocked on their door hoping to retrieve it from their backyard.

The ones that are living or the one that has died? I asked in my head, imagining how this conversation would have played out, had I chosen to be a part of it?

“One is 12 and the other is 10,” answered my husband who followed his reply up with the scripted question asking about their boys’ ages.

This friendly banter carried on for another minute or so before I realized I could avoid the side of the house and our neighbors by going through the unlocked front door.

I returned to the garage, found a new garbage bag for the kitchen bin and went back to my Monday evening tasks. As I scurried about, my husband appeared and leaned against the countertop. I looked toward him. “I’m just not ready to have that conversation yet,” I’d said.

“I know, that’s why you have me.” He eyed me with his compassion and reassurance, knowing that talking to our neighbors about our children is not innocent neighborly smalltalk.

“They probably think I’m a terribly rude person, not making eye contact or anything.” I glanced over at the picture of Riley on the counter next to him, beaming with pride before a first grade choir performance.

“It’s okay.”

I don’t know what’s okay. I do know that talking to people is filled with land mines. And for now, avoiding those land mines is the easier path, given that I have to be on this path in the first place.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Grief and alcohol

bereaved mother
Salty grief snacks
I’ve had beer; I’ve had chocolate covered cookies. And I’m contemplating making popcorn. The trifecta of vices: alcohol, sugar, and salt covered carbs. Apparently that's what happens when the kids are in bed and my husband it out. But I’m not feeling that much better. Only slightly numbed out because of the beer. A little warm. A little forgetful.

Years ago, when Lawyer Friend and I would go out dancing, we shared a single cocktail because neither of us drank much and one of us had to drive, but now I can drink two vodka martinis and I sleep all night and wake without a hint of a hangover. Tonight, a single beer only softens the edges a bit and only for a short amount of time. Living in California, people drink wine. Often daily and it’s normal. But that was never me. I really only drank when I went out. Before Riley died, it was a Moscow Mule. Before those were invented, I'd get a Mai Tai. That is, right up until I had two one evening on an empty stomach and I spent most of the night in the alley behind the restaurant heaving the pineapple-sweetened contents of my stomach onto an unsuspecting azalea bush.

(I've given up on popcorn because of the effort. Instead, like a pile of coins, I have a pile of tamari-flavored rice crackers on the couch beside me...see photo).

Numbing out, feeding Grief sugar and booze and salty crackers; it does help, in some twisted way. It's cliche isn't it? People having been using alcohol to forget for thousands of years. I'm not so special. Giving in to something that makes me feel better, whether it’s only for the moments it’s melting on my tongue, for the seconds I'm crunching it between my molars, or for the 35 minutes it gives everything a slightly warm glow, I like it. I don’t like that I like it, but I do.

It worries me a bit because I come from a long line of alcoholics. I always said it was okay because I didn’t have an addictive personality. I wanted to prove to myself that I didn't have one, so as I was growing up, I noticed that my parents needed coffee to start their days. I decided that would never be me. I still don’t drink the stuff unless I’m driving a long distance. I’ve always joked I’m a social drinker when it comes to coffee. And even then, it’s mainly decaf. 

As for booze, I've only been a social drinker as well. But this is at least the third time in the last few months I've drank alone. 

All that's left... 
And in the last two years, probably more in the last six months, I have found solace in three glasses of wine, three beers, or two vodka martinis. I look forward to them. I crave them. I like the way they remove the grief cuff that is securely locked around my neck and I smile a little more openly. I flirt with my husband a little more vivaciously. I don’t look over my shoulder to see if I’m being seen out and about (because everyone knows that a grieving mother should never do anything light-hearted or entertaining or mildly amusing, especially if it involves being in public, especially if it involves being in public after dark on a Saturday night).

But with the alcohol's permission, or rather encouragement, I have heard the sound of my own laughter. I have worn a sexy dress and stood among strangers dancing in dimly lit bars. I have sang karaoke badly and blotted out all of the months since my son died as Taylor Swift lyrics erupted from inebriated vocal chords.

Each and every time I feel guilt when the alcohol is no longer giving permission to sing or dance or flirt. It pummels me. It's like lying at the bottom of rock wall as an earthquake shakes boulders loose. They crush, bruise, and cut--as they should. I feel anger that I allowed myself the opportunity to be in that place in the first place. I feel angry that my husband was my accomplice in the outing, that he, too, enjoyed this respite from grief with me. After the first time, I didn't talk to him for a few hours. Yet, I’ve done it more than once, more than twice. I order the drinks. I pull it into my lips, letting it saturate my taste buds, waiting for the warmth that follows almost immediately.

Then I stay in bed the next day thinking of my son, feeling bruised, making up for the lost hours when his beautiful life and the horrors of his last days weren't the forefront of my everything. That's not tonight, though; it's just one beer. (And cookies. And salt.) I'm sure it's nothing. Now I'll get back to Netflix, the other place I go to forget.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Grief and baby names

The wind and rain that pelted us with stinging force earlier this week couldn’t stop us from going to our grief group for parents who’ve lost children. It’s pretty much the only place where I feel normal. Or normal enough. 

bereaved mom bereaved dad bereaved parent
Brothers
One of the women there talked about her infant who died and wondered if she had another baby if she could give her new baby the same name. Her daughter had been named in honor of another family member and she wanted to give that name an opportunity to have longevity with a healthy baby, if she were ever lucky enough to have another baby. A healthy baby.

Long ago before I had children, I spent a small amount of time researching my family tree. I found old documents from family members and from genealogy web sites. I remember looking at the large families with many births and usually some infant- and childhood deaths. A hundred years ago, it wasn’t uncommon. And having never been a parent, it didn’t really phase me at all. Births and deaths generations before me. All of it was just names and dates written in looping cursive on old documents. I remember noticing that some families had more than one child with the same name. It was confusing until I looked more closely at birth dates and death dates. It became clear that the families who had more than one child with the same name had more than one child with the same name because the first child with that name had died. And so that name was reused. If baby Edith died, then the next baby girl was also named Edith. At the time, having never had children, I didn’t understand the practice. I probably joked that those large families must have run out of names that they liked. An ignorant joke from an ignorant childless woman.

A few years later when I was the mother of three-year-old Riley, I approached the idea of reusing names from a different perspective. It was after his third heart surgery failed and an external heart and lung bypass machine was keeping him alive. I was six months pregnant with his brother. And as I sat at the end of Riley’s hospital bed, I rocked myself, trying to reassure myself that everything would be okay because I had a healthy version of him in my stomach. I imagined he’d be the same in every way, down to the way he said rhinoceros. Russell Norris.

Six Hens cover art, Issue 7
I wrote about that day in the latest issue of Six Hens.

So I could relate to this woman in my grief group, her desire to reuse her dead daughter’s name again if she had the opportunity. Of course she wanted to. Of course, I understand. No, it’s not strange. How beautiful to get to say that child’s name again and again and have it associate with life and not solely with grief and loss and pain.

I don’t know, but I wonder that if you reuse a name, over time the memory gets confused about which child you’re referring to and they blend. And in that blending, I wonder if the dead child gets to live. I doubt the grief subsides in any way and I doubt the pain of loss subsides, but I wonder if perhaps it’s easier to pretend that the living child is both children.