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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.