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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
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.