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Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Grief and The Question

The question was already rumbling in my stomach when my thoughts rose into consciousness this morning. I rolled from one side of the bed to the other as the uneasy feeling lingered. My husband had already gone to a meeting. I inched to his side of the bed, rested my head on his warm pillow and waited. Waited for the right answer to appear.

The sun had yet to color the sky, but I could sense movement from the other room. The preschooler was awake, needing the bathroom. “I had a thought that turned into a dream,” she said, as I tucked her back into bed. “What was that?” I asked. “Me getting into the car to take dad to the airport with you.” I smiled at her as I pulled the blanket around her shoulders. “That’s a nice dream,” I said, "but dad isn’t going to the airport for a long time and so you need to go back to sleep." As soon as I got back into my room, she was sitting up, waiting for it to be time to get up for real.

Even as I showered, as I dressed, as I pressed my foot into the gas pedal, I was still wondering about the question. And the answer. You see, I was going to talk to a woman I went to graduate school with that night. She had read all about Riley’s hospitalizations and surgeries when I wrote about him more than a decade ago. I cannot even recall the last time I saw her, probably at graduation. Or shortly after at a party at her house in San Jose. I can’t remember if she was at his memorial. If she was, I certainly haven’t seen her since then.

But when we talk on the phone, I will say hello. She will say hello. Then she will say, “How are you?” And I have no idea how to answer that question, especially when asked by someone I haven’t talked with in so long. Someone who hasn’t witnessed the howling, the blood-shot eyes, the twitchy version of myself that exists when I leave my safe bubble at home, when I venture into the world. The half-eaten version of me, even though I look normal on the outside. Or normal enough. The mom of a 3-year-old.

This woman didn’t witness all the months when I didn’t leave my bed. And after that, when I didn’t shower or comb my hair and wore the same thing for six or seven days in a row because I didn’t know how to get dressed. The woman who cut off all of her hair to look ugly, hoping to match how I felt on the inside. When we talk, this woman will hear the fast-forwarded version of me. The one that can talk on the phone, the woman who has taught creative writing and who founded a literary magazine in grief’s wake. The one that lights up talking about narrative arcs and creating three-dimensional worlds.

And all this thinking about the different versions of me since Riley died in 2014 makes me wonder how I got here. How did the accumulation of time and space from Riley’s death allow me to do those things, to get to the place where I can wonder how I should answer that question. Early on, that innocent question felt so offensive. It doesn’t anymore, and when I’m at the checkout counter, I can say, “Fine, thanks. How are you?” But wondering about it in the context of this pending phone call feels splintered. And strange because I am different from before Riley died. And I am different from the time just after Riley died. And I’m different from before the baby was born. I’m still broken, like a bone fracture that wasn’t set and the malunion impairs function longterm. I’ll always be broken, impaired. But I’m also other things. And I won’t necessarily cry when I talk about Riley.

As I downed a hot cup of tea in the moments between scratching things off the to-do list, I figured it out. When she asks the inevitable question, I will say, “I’ve been wondering how to answer that question all day.” Because it’s the truth.

Tuesday, October 18, 2022

Grief and meaning

Riley's death took eleven years, but we saw it and feared it and anticipated it from the moment he was diagnosed as a newborn. His eighth anniversary is October 20, and in trying to understand the passage of eight years without him, I had a thought the other night when I was driving. I wondered if all the joy Riley felt in life – despite multiple heart surgeries and long hospitalizations – was his attempt to teach me. Perhaps he was showing me that if he could feel joy despite what he'd been through, then perhaps I could eventually feel joy despite what happened to him.

The idea that I could live a joyful life feels improbable, even though if you spend time with me, I will let my guard down from time to time and smile with my children or my husband or a friend. People have often told me that Riley would want me to be happy. There have been times when I”ve wanted to punch those people in the face. How could they possibly know what Riley wants? I now realize that those kinds of comments are that person wanting me to be happier because it will make my grief easier for them. You can’t move someone along in grief. Everything in grief has to be innate. You cannot make someone feel something other than what they are feeling. So maybe Riley would want me to be happy, and maybe he would like that I’m still so broken all these years later. Maybe he would find my brokenness refreshing in a world desperate for Hollywood endings.

So my thought is a work in progress. It just seems messed up that the 11-year-old boy would need to be the teacher. And because humans are meaning-makers, I’ve been trying to make my thought mean something. But it's equally possible that it means nothing. Our therapist said time and again that our minds are full of thoughts, many of which are not true. This might be one of those examples. Riley’s life and death wasn’t a lesson, even though I went to a "healer" at one point who told me that Riley and I made an agreement to have this life experience together. She also told me that his final surgery failed because there was nothing else for him to learn from this life. 

So for now, I'll think of his laugh and his loud voice, his love of garlic and Tabasco, his floppy hair, his love of baseball and reading and maps. I will think about how he hummed while doing his math homework and how he really wanted to learn to play the viola when he came home from the hospital. I will also think of how it will start raining soon and everything will turn green. And I will think about how he would love that. The rest of it, I'll just keep thinking about. 

Tuesday, October 04, 2022

Grief and making space

Sand wedged itself into the spaces between my socks and my shoes as we walked along the path near Secret Beach. Sage held the leash and led the dog to the place where we play fetch as sand seeped into her shoes as well. “Can we go in the lake today?” she asked.

The air had turned cool and my daughter didn’t quite understand why I wouldn’t let her take her shoes off and run into the blue water like we had done countless times over the summer. As we walked along the beach, we noticed sticks and pinecones and shells grouped together in collages at the lake’s edges. My daughter reached for pieces of the abandoned artwork. I redirected her, asking her to find her own sticks for her own art. 

She galloped off, looking for treasures to pile and sort and push into the sand. Twigs and bark and tiny shells that we’d pretended were soup bowls and plates and forks became the foundation for our project. A row of sticks here, a group of pinecones there. She continued to gather and add to our project as I added my own touches. It morphed into a heart – most things do. One of the larger pieces of bark became a tool to flatten the sand. From there, I wrote “FOREVER RILEY” around the outside. 

“What does it say, mom?” she asked. I felt a small amount of shame as I told her what I’d written. It was just the two of us. We were collecting bits of nature and making art together, and yet, Riley was there. He’s always there. 

After I told what it said, she responded, “I’m going to write FRANKLIN over here.” She proceeded to drag her own branch through the sand to include the scratchings of one of her imaginary friend’s names.

Trying to parent my dead child and my living child is like trying to unravel strings of tangled Christmas lights. These two humans are connected and yet they are separate. In that moment, I was reminded of a piece that Jayson Greene did for the New York Times in 2020. It was about introducing his son Harrison to his beloved daughter Greta who had died 15 months before he was born. It was about imagining the language he would need to explain to his son why he has a sister who isn’t here to play with. It was about wondering when the question would come up. “We’re on his timeline,” he said. I'm on Sage's as well. 

I'm also in her reality. This childhood is hers, too, even if an 11-year-old boy is also permanently lodged into my reality. I realized that next time we play at the beach and make art, I need to write SAGE in the sand. I need to let some moments be just about her, about us. She will grow up in Riley’s shadow no matter what. But I need to make an effort to let the sun shine just for her some of the time. 

Thursday, September 22, 2022

Grief and an unexpected find

As I silenced the Dyson, I looked toward the canister layered with gray – dust, hair, topped with a fine layer of fluff. There were also a few colorful tiny beads that had fallen into the carpet fibers years ago. They were now mixed with remnants of what I would empty into the trash. But as I looked at the pile of gray, my mind knew what was also there. Riley. Pieces of my 11-year-old boy’s skin, hair, and probably a few nail clippings that had fallen to the floor. 

You see, I moved his bed today. It was the first time I moved it since we put it in his bedroom nine years ago. And I had not vacuumed underneath it since then. For the last three-and-a-half years, he has been sharing a room with his baby sister. She’s running out of room in her crib at the end of his bed, and soon she’ll be using his bed with the duvet patterned with green circles. In preparation for the change, the room needed cleaning. HIs backpack is still under his desk. His water bottle is still tucked inside with the remains of the water he took to school on his last day of school. His daily calendar on his side table still says October 8, 2014. 

After he died, I left everything in its place, yet over the years, his room has also become a dumping ground for all of the things that I have collected, for all of the things people have given us. There is a giant green paper lantern from his memorial at the elementary school he attended for five years. There is a jar of post-it notes with words of kindness written on them from his classmates from the first anniversary of his death. There are rolled up banners in the closet and t-shirts hanging on the walls from the charity runs that his classmates organized each year until they graduated from high school. 

His bed still has the sheets that he slept on the last night he slept in this house. His pillow case has not been washed. His beloved stuffed penguins wait for his return, their black heads resting on his pillow. 

As I moved the bed frame, I was confronted with the piles of his art from school that I’d hoarded over the years, yet never hung on the walls to enjoy. Each precious piece made during school art classes encased in folders made from large pieces of construction paper. They are all priceless, irreplaceable. Part of me doesn’t want to open those folders because once I do, I will have seen every last piece of art that he made. It’s possible that there won’t be any other opportunities to see things he’s made that I’ve never seen before. 

The room was left in disarray when I went to pick the three year old up from preschool. Seeing all of Riley’s stuffed animals in a big pile on the floor, she said, “Move all of this stuff out of here.” I hadn’t expected that request. “No, I’m just cleaning. They will go back on the bed once it’s made again.” She asked why. “Because you’re still sharing a room with Riley and these are his things.”

She was satisfied with my reply as I closed the door for her nap time. The Dyson is still full of dust, though, and I like imagining the physicalness of Riley. His hand in mine. His arms around me and mine around his torso. His weight in my lap. The shape of his ears, the boney boy knees, his nibbled cuticles. Along with a few hair clippings, some baby teeth, and his ashes, there isn’t anything else. LIke the art that I’m apprehensive about looking at, knowing there won’t be more in the future, I’m apprehensive about emptying the dust into the trash. It feels like a last gift. Or an unexpected hello from my boy. 

I will empty the canister when she wakes. In the meantime, I will open the pouch with his hair in it, brush it against my cheek, and try to remember how it felt all those years ago when I hugged him, his mop in my face and in my eyes. Exactly where it should be, even though if he were still alive today, it would likely be my hair in his face and my cheek on his chest as the boy would have grown into a man.

Sunday, February 13, 2022

Grief and a success

    After several failed attempts, I finally ended up walking with Auditor Friend. Her daughter was one of Riley’s classmates starting back in kindergarten, and her family has donated copious amounts of time planning and organizing the Riley Run each year. Aside from hashing out details for the annual charity runs in her kitchen a few times, I barely knew this woman prior to our walk. I was looking forward to knowing her more.
    We marched from her house along familiar streets in our neighborhood. They were streets that held the weight of hundreds of runners wearing green in honor of Riley over the years. We talked about her daughter who would soon be heading to college. We talked about what it was like to see Riley’s peers heading to college. We talked about lots of other things, like her son, where she grew up, how she met her husband, what she dreams about doing after her youngest launches in a few years. Then we circled back to life in Tahoe. I told her the story of my neighbors who invited us to their party. I told her about how I wait for people to hurt me, knowing they usually do.
    She listened patiently, then after a few moments, “Would it be okay if I offered a suggestion.” I said yes. “Is there a way you can tell people ahead of time, so that you aren’t waiting for them to hurt you?” she asked cautiously.
    For so many years, it was hard to even say out loud that my son had died. The words like broken glass in my mouth, I said it only when it was required. The thought of saying it preemptively felt like putting the glass in my mouth.
    Or would it be?
    Shortly after that walk, in an attempt to meet my 10th-grader’s friend’s moms, I invited two strangers over for sangria on a Friday night when my son was inviting his friends over for a movie. For safety, I also invited my son’s stepmom, whom I adore and another friend, who is another mom in this circle.
    I decided to try out Auditor Friend’s suggestion.
    “I have sweaty palms as draft this message, but it’s important for me to let you know ahead of time that my son Riley, Carter’s older brother, died when he was 11. Carter was 8 at the time. I don’t know who knows this and who doesn’t know this, and when we talk about our families on Friday, I will talk about Riley. And I might cry. I’m telling you this so that it’s not a surprise if you didn’t know.
    This is my first attempt to temper the social anxiety that has come alongside grief by being proactive. For nearly seven years, I’ve silently panicked while waiting for it to inevitably come up. But after talking with a friend the other week, she helped me come up with this plan to see if this is a better approach. Sorry for the long explanation and for understanding. I hope I haven’t scared you off.”
    And I didn’t scare her off. Rather, it opened the door for a calming exchange about Riley. “I know about Riley, and I think of him whenever I walk by his memorial on Pulgas Ridge. I just wasn’t sure if it was appropriate to bring him up. I am glad you did and are, and by all means, cry on Friday! I’ll be right there with you.”
    When she arrived that Friday night, I gave her a big hug. She hugged me back and gave me flowers. It was better than I had hoped. I go back to what my stepdaughter told me a few years ago… “There are probably a lot more safe people out there, if you’d only give them the chance.” Now I just need a crystal ball to know which are which. 

Thursday, January 20, 2022

Grief and innocent neighbors

For most of the past year, we’ve been living in Tahoe. We ran away just like so many others when covid sent us all inside, making it socially acceptable to stay away from people. We’ve been wanting to run away since Riley died more than seven years ago.
    As hot summer nights turned into cooler autumn breezes, there was an invitation from our Tahoe neighbor. We'd seen him in the yard every so often. We'd exchange niceties. And now there was an invitation. He was throwing a surprise birthday party for a friend. We didn’t know the friend, we barely knew the neighbor. But on the night of the party, we took a giant jug of sangria and a bag full of ice cubes in the shape of teeth to their backyard which connects with our yard. There were chips and salsa. A net was set up in the yard. Other neighbors were playing badminton. There was another toddler with a truck. More guests appeared, more sangria was poured, and the tightening in my chest began. Then the guest of honor was surprised with a dozen people he didn’t know.
    Eventually it was the baby’s bedtime. I volunteered to take her home and get her into bed. I appreciated the break – being in a group is like being surrounded by fire because someone would eventually ask how many kids we have. It seems to be such an innocent question. And our neighbors had clearly seen the teenagers coming and going. Just never all at once in a way that would make counting them up easy. Not that you could count up how many kids we have just by looking at the ones standing and breathing in front of you. My family isn’t that straightforward.
    After she was settled, I went back to the party and sat next to my husband. The group was smaller now. The guest of honor, his sister, our neighbors. I pushed my hands into my legs that rumbled with anticipation, trying to lessen the rumbling. I swallowed more gulps of sangria. My husband rubbed my back, then looped his arm through mine. I waited for this group of innocent people to hurt me. They always do. Not intentionally, but it hurts just the same.
    “So, how many kids do you have over there?” he asked. And there it was.
    I went with the line I’d learned in my bereaved parent support group. “Well, for most people, that’s an easy question, but in my family, it’s more complicated,” I stumbled. “We have four big kids, but my 11-year-old son died seven years ago. So we have three living kids, plus the baby,” I managed as I wiped tears from my cheeks.
    Wide eyes stared, unsure of what to say when confronted with grief. I’m always good at ruining fun with my reality. Then after a moment, our neighbor broke the silence with, “So you guys want some more sangria?” Everyone said yes, except me. I stayed for another few minutes before excusing myself to be closer to the baby. Adam decided to join me. We said goodnight and walked back home. And just like that, I didn't ever want to see them again.