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Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Grief and sibling trauma

As we walked home from the frozen yogurt store last week, my son pointed out some Halloween decor at the end of our street that he liked. There were some scruffy black cats and pumpkins and a scarecrow. My neighbors were offering a gentle version of the holiday that's become anything but gentle. When I asked what he liked about them, he basically said that they weren't upsetting like some of the other stuff. When I asked him what he meant, he had a hard time articulating what he was feeling, but it was obvious to me. So I helped him make sense of his feelings as best as I could without putting words in his mouth.

He is also traumatized by the holiday gore lining our streets.

He's seen postoperative pictures of Riley. And he lived with his brother's scars -- the six-inch scar down his torso and the holes from the stitches and the puncture wounds from drainage tubes. All of those scars were familiar to him because that's all he ever knew of his brother who endured six open-heart surgeries during his lifetime. He is familiar with Steristrips holding skin together over wounds. He is familiar with bandages from blood tests. He spent time with his brother in the hospital when he was a baby. He lived with his brother and the aftermath of those long hospitalizations for all eight years that he was lucky enough to have an older brother. So seeing the undead around town with bloody incisions and gaping wounds and bandages is upsetting. He knows what those are in real life. He doesn't want to be reminded of them on the streets of our town. It reminds him of the trauma in his own family. It reminds him of his dead brother. I'm sure he imagines what his brother looked before he died. And afterwards. Those images probably look like the worst of what Halloween offers.

The bloody clown emerging from the gutter is not on display this October. And I have avoided the house near school, the one that incorporated their son's imaginary death in their decor last year. As a result, I don’t know what decorations, if any, they’ve put out this year. But I’m very much on edge as I move through town this time of year. And apparently, I'm not the only one. Still Standing just published a slightly altered version of my piece from last year. Read it here.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Grief and flashbacks

How do you go to bed the night before your child will die? Is he cold? How do you brush and floss? Is he in pain? How many sleeping pills do you take? Does he know that he’s dying? How many minutes beforehand do you take them? Is he scared? Do you look at Facebook before you begin all of this or do you wait until you’re closer to turning off the light? Does he know that you went home? Do you send a message to tell people that your son is actually still alive even though someone has posted that he has died? Does he know you're coming back? In that email, do you tell them that while he is still alive, he probably won’t be this time tomorrow? Does he know the surgery failed? How do you undress and climb onto the cold mattress? Does he have brain damage? How do you sink your head into the pillow and pull the blankets over? Is he angry? How many minutes will it take before the sleeping pills paralyze the limbs so that the shaking stops? Has he heard you screaming? How many more before they punch you into blackness to make the hours pass? Does your screaming scare him? When the alarm knocks the blackness aside, how many seconds will it take before nothingness is replaced with knowing your child will die today? Was it wrong to let the kids see him? How do you push the blankets back? Does he feel trapped? How do you lift your head from the pillow? Has he wanted to die? How do you raise your body from the mattress warmed from the hours of nothingness? Does he blame you? Do you see if anyone has responded to the email that you sent last night? How much is he aware of? Do you do that now or do you wait until you’re ready to turn the light on? Did you ask the right questions? How many minutes before you take the Ativan? Did you choose the wrong hospital? How many anxiety pills do you take? Did you choose the wrong surgeon? As you wonder how many to take, will you also calculate when you’ll be able to take the next dose? How did you let this happen? How long will you stand in the shower before you remember to wash? What should you have done differently? How will you comb out the knots and style your hair? Does he know that he will die today? How will you decide which skirt to wear? Which blouse to wear? Which boots to wear? Did someone make a mistake? Will you brush? Will you eat? How will you walk out the door and get into the car? Will he be relieved? Will you notice all of the other cars rushing to work or to school? Does he know that you want to die and be with him? Will you need to lean on your husband as you walk toward the hospital and into the room where the machines that have been keeping him alive will be turned off? Does he forgive you? Will you recognize the sounds coming from your body? Does he know that you love him? When the machines are quiet, how will you walk away? Does he know that you will always love him?

Monday, October 07, 2019

Grief and October

I’ve been anticipating you the last several weeks and here you are. You just show up and expect everyone to get excited about fall sweaters and boots and thick socks. You’ve been pounding on the windows trying to get my attention and I’ve done my best to ignore you. You’re not good at taking a hint.

You punt the sun up into the brisk morning, and then speckle the sky with pink and orange clouds as the sun hangs in the west. It gives everything a warm and cozy glow. I hate it when you try to be cute. It doesn't suit you, and you can’t fool me. Yes, you bring pumpkin spice and pumpkin pancakes and cinnamon brooms because you want me to like you. But I don’t. I never will. I know who you really are.

You stand up a little taller than normal because you carry all of the lasts like badges sewn onto your freshly ironed shirt. His last day at school. His last puzzle. His last joke with his best friend. His last family dinner. His last middle-of-the-night picnic (something we did before every hospital visit). His last words to me (I love you, too, mom). His last hug. His last surgery. His last day. His last breath. And with all of those lasts and this death, you rally humanity to celebrate death and gore and blood and the stuff hospital nightmares are made of. Skeletons hang from trees. And tombstones appear in front yards. And bloody severed limbs lie on seemingly-normal neighbors' front steps. It’s all part of the festivities, you say. Lighten up, you say. I can’t lighten up. I have no interest in your kind of fun. Death isn’t fun. Or festive. Or light.

As I walked the dog around the darkened streets tonight, I couldn’t remember if Riley’s last day of school was today or tomorrow. I should know. If he had a pre-op day, then his last day of school was today. If he didn’t have a pre-op day, then his last day was tomorrow. Why can’t I remember if he had a pre-op day. My feet take me past his school and the gate that he exited through on that last day. I pause by the wall next to the playground across the street. That was where I waited for him after school that day, where I waited every day. Riley’s best friend rolled his backpack for him. There was an awkward, “Well, I guess I’ll see you sometime” goodbye between them, since we weren’t sure how long he’d be in the hospital postoperatively.

All of the images start lighting up. They've been on stand-by all these months waiting to affront me. I keep them close to the surface. Why should I forget. I wouldn't want to. It was part of his story. It's who he was. It's what happened. But most of the time, there is a sheen covering them so that I can drive. So that I can shop for groceries. So that I can cook dinner. So that I can play games with my other children. So that I can kiss my husband like I mean it. But this time of year, the sheen is scratched away. All the rawness is exposed. And there's something about this fifth anniversary.

That last day at school plays in my mind as I stand by the wall next to the playground. I start imagining alternate endings. I hate the forever of this ending. It makes it hard to breathe. My lungs keep insisting on pulling in air, but my throat tightens. I open my mouth because getting oxygen into my bloodstream has become a conscious effort instead of an unconscious reflex. My heart bangs on my ribs. It happens a lot this time of year. Fuck you, October. And then I back away from that scene. It's late and my feet start taking me home. 

Wednesday, October 02, 2019

Grief and WTF

Riley would be 16 ½ today. Instead we’re 18 days away from the fifth anniversary of his death. And to be clear, him being dead for four years, 11 months, and 12 days really is no different from him being dead for five years. The pain of grief is unchanged, really. A handful of days or months really doesn’t change the pain of living without him.

But it’s those shifts in time that change the language I use to talk about how long he’s been dead that make it harder. Even though it’s just a word: one versus three versus four or five. Five is all the fingers on one hand. It's all the toes on one foot. It's the number of points on a starfish. Clock numbers are five minutes apart. A musical staff has five lines. Five can be all of those things. But it can't be the number of years my son has been dead. It can't possibly be the number of years that my lungs have continues to inhale and exhale. It can't be the number of years my heart has continued to beat after his stopped beating. It just can't be.

Five feels like bus coming toward me while I stand on the street and watch. It’s not coming fast. It’s inching toward me. It has been every day since he died. But it’s getting closer now. I could smell the exhaust if the wind were pushing it the right way. I won’t move; I’ll stare it down, just like the others. And when it finally reaches me, the grill will push into my torso until I fall to the ground and it rolls over me. Crushing me all over again. Because this bus isn’t the first vehicle to run me over. That first month. The sixth month. The first year. And so on. But five has a new kind of meaning. Half a decade. I can’t help but say, WHAT THE FUCK.