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Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Grief and the woman on the phone

My email signature
There was a woman’s voice on the other end of the call. Far away from Lake Tahoe, somewhere in Florida. I figured our connection was a mistake of the internet as I looked for a contractor to replace some doors at our house. But she was part of the call center, probably working from home during the pandemic. She was helpful and offered to set up an appointment for someone to come take a look, take some measurements. The appointment was set, then after talking it over with my husband, we changed our minds. We wanted a local shop with a showroom, where we could go look at doors and feel the difference between wood and fiberglass. I emailed to let her know that I called the Sacramento office and canceled. That would have been the end of it, but she followed up.

“On another note; I noticed the bottom of your email.

My heart sank.
I am so, so sorry for your loss.
My heart goes out to you.
No parent should ever lose a child.

My prayers go out to you and your family.
May little Riley rest in peace until you meet again.”

This woman in Florida is the first person to ever respond or even mention the words that finish every single email that I have sent for more than six years. The first time. In more than six years. I've often wondered if the words were really attached to my messages and I've looked at my sent mail to verify its existence. And there it is. Every. Single. Time.

As time goes by there are fewer and fewer times when people ask about him and fewer and fewer opportunities for me to talk about him. I responded with a thank you. I thanked her for bringing him into the moment for me. I thanked her for taking a chance. I told her that Riley loved maps and baseball and Tabasco. He loved telling jokes, the color green, and sitting in my lap. I told her that he was the love of my life. And while her email brought fresh tears to my eyes, I assured her that her message did not make me sad.

Silence is what hurts. 
Acknowledgement is what heals. A bereaved parent needs a lot of acknowledgement. We need to hear our children's names said aloud. Or typed in an email. This faraway woman helped my broken heart feel slightly less broken. Her note definitely did not make me sad or remind me that Riley has died. I'm acutely aware of his death and absence practically every minute of every day. Rather, her mentioning him made him alive. And I thanked her for her the gift.

Monday, February 01, 2021

Grief and finding unlost

I sometimes try to count the days that Riley has been dead. Sometimes they are on the tip of my tongue. Sometimes they are shouted into my head over and over like an alarm, blasting without an off button. Sometimes I walk the streets and imagine he is walking beside me. Sometimes I can only see him lying in the hospital bed cut and stitched and bleeding because the stitches can’t stop the bleeding. When I see the tears drip from his eyes with the ventilator preventing him from telling me how much it hurts, it burns. An all over burn that starts in my forehead and simmers through each of my limbs until they stop working and I crumple onto the floor again. Sometimes he is the sun blinding me with a beautiful dream that I once had. It’s about a baby who came into my life and made me a mother when I was just 29 years old. He was perfect and imperfect and no amount of love or medical attention could make the imperfections go away. This dream is punctuated by months of nightmares all seemingly separated into years. This beautiful imperfect and perfect boy smiled and laughed and read books and arranged elaborate traffic jams on the coffee table. He learned to walk and then when a long hospitalization took that ability away, he learned to walk again. He learned to ride a bike the summer before he started kindergarten. He made friends and loved school, but struggled with PE and came up with excuses as to how to avoid participating. He was thirsty, he said. Again and again he’d get a drink of water.

Today I know that it's been six years and three months and 12 days since he died, but I cannot tell you what time of day he exhaled for the last time. I don’t know how I cannot know that detail. I remember the day, the hours of removing life support bit by bit hoping that his heart would be able to beat on its own, enough to give him more months and more years of being a son, a brother, a friend, a classmate, a teammate.

It’s been all of these years and yet the pain is just under the skin like a bruise that can be felt at any moment. I just watched the trailer for a movie being released in February. It’s called Land. This new movie was advertised to me when I was searching for a mushroom risotto recipe. The protagonist's hard, lost face reminded me of mine. So I clicked the link and was taken to the movie trailer's web site. I clicked play. She had moved to a remote cabin, presumably to escape the pain of grief’s jaws around her heart. There were flashes of a child, flashes of a former life. Another character finds her freezing and starving and eventually asks her what she wants her life to look like now, in the aftermath of the grief. 

His question was a sucker punch to my own existence. It is a question I started asking myself a few months ago. I asked myself how I would change my life. If I could make any change, what would it be. How would it look? Who would I be? Because I don’t know who I am, even though there are many labels that give names to characteristics that make up parts of me. Wife. Mother. Reader. Writer. Friend. Person who likes walking. Person who has a dog. Person who drives a minivan. I had stopped going to my moving meditation dance class long before covid took everything away. But sometimes I dance in the kitchen. But who do I want to be and what do I want my life to look like. I have no idea. Anything I choose to do, any changes I make to my life will be made in a world without Riley. I don’t want to change in any way that he wouldn’t recognize me. Don’t put that on me, he whispers into my ear. I will always recognize you no matter what you are doing or where you are.

Riley isn’t coming back into my life in the way that I so desperately want him to be in my life. He is so present, in nearly all of my thoughts every single day. I can take him anywhere I go, but I have to choose where to go. The days become nights; the nights become days. The hair I chopped off after he died has grown long again. Time continues. The calendar swings from one calendar page to the next. Old calendars are replaced with new ones. The years come and go. I am the same. So much of the time I just want to go backwards. But the backwards I want to return to has an alternate ending. One where he is alive and thriving. I am lost without him. And yet, I am the only one who can make me unlost. 

Monday, January 18, 2021

Grief and physical artifacts

I opened a tiny ziplock bag today and rubbed a tiny bundle of Riley’s hair against my face. I inhaled deeply and hoped to find his scent. It wasn’t there. I then pondered how I could fasten the clump of blond strands to my own hair. I thought I might be able to attach it to a barrette or a bobby pin. A blond streak in my brown tresses. The only physical things I have from him are these little bundles of hair tied with ribbons and a collection of baby teeth. Whenever I get these little bags of hair out of my box of special things, I am reminded of that fact. Hair and teeth are the only physical artifacts from his body and this life. I suppose there is also the box of his ashes that lives on a shelf in his bedroom. But the ashes are unrecognizable. I can’t look at the ashes and see him. But the hair -- his bright yellow hair -- is seen in all of the pictures I have. And the teeth are in those photos, too. At least in the photos when he let his guard down and smiled without caution. Smiled with teeth. And then with this reminder that there are the only bits of my son, my mind whirs and sputters as it tries to make sense of his physical absence from his clothes, his bed, his room, the dining table, our car, his shoes, the couch, my arms.