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Thursday, October 12, 2023

Grief and milestones

Photo credit: Jina Morgese, Ember & Earth
I hemmed and hawed. It would be our 10th wedding anniversary, then a few weeks later, it would be my 50th birthday. These are big milestones. Weighted. They are time markers. They are accomplishments. They are heavy with grief. I wanted to honor them, though. 

Attorney Friend, who now lives near the west coast of Florida, had offered to keep the four-year-old for three nights while we acknowledged these days, just the two of us. We jumped at the opportunity. We had only had one night away from the four-year-old since she was born. It was the night after a bear broke into our vacation rental. Our college-aged daughter was fortuitously visiting, so we left the small one with the big one and we drove away. When we got there, we screwed plywood over a smashed front door, cleaned up bear poop, made nail boards to deter other bears from getting too close to our house, and drove soiled rugs to the dump so that our tenants could move back in. 

So we would be in Florida. We would have an alternate reality for three nights. One in which we had childless lives. I rented a hotel room on the water in Sarasota, a short walk from St. Armands Circle. There would be warm water to swim in, white sandy beaches to walk along, and tables at restaurants to eat at that didn’t include a high chair and a small voice singing “Let it Go.” There would also be cocktails and dresses and late nights staring at the stars and into each other’s eyes. 

And I wanted to have our photos taken to commemorate it all. When I told Attorney Friend my plan, I couldn’t articulate why I wanted photos. “Why wouldn’t you want them?” she asked, as if the answer was obvious.

At the time, it wasn’t obvious for me. It was just a feeling. Or I just hadn’t found the words to articulate it. But I wanted framed photos on the wall that documented our love, the years we’ve held each other through joy and death and birth and graduations.

Photos have been difficult since Riley died. So many things have been difficult. The idea of smiling was difficult. The idea of smiling so that someone could capture it in a photo felt paralyzing. How could I smile? How could I feel joyful? I certainly wouldn’t want anyone to see the smile or to see the joyful photos because I wouldn’t want anyone to think that I’m done grieving. I’ll never be done grieving. And if your child hasn’t died, what I’m saying might be a difficult concept to grasp.  

But I still wanted that photo. I realized I wanted it because I want to make a conscious effort to honor the good as well as the pain. The pain is easy. The good is much more challenging, though not less deserving. I would need to let my guard down, though. And I figured a photo of the two of us would be easier than a family photo of our lopsided family where someone will always be missing.

I sent an email to a Sarasota-based photographer. It said, “Our 10th wedding anniversary was 8/3 and I'm turning 50 on 9/15. I have shied away from photos since our 11-year-old son died in 2014. That said, I'm hoping to be able to relax and just celebrate our relationship. And I'm hoping you can capture the love and not the pain that is part of who we are.”

I had to share about Riley because I need to live authentically. To not share it would be to deny all of the grief that now lives in my DNA. And it would be easier if she knew. I wouldn’t need to pretend that I wasn’t struggling. Because I would be, especially if she didn’t know. And in the moment, it would be harder to explain the tears that are always just below the surface.

“It would be an honor to photograph you and your husband, and I thank you for sharing your story with me,” she replied. 

And as soon as I confirmed the date and time of our photo shoot, I began questioning the decision. Anxiety built and I started worrying about dumb stuff, like what I would wear and if I’d look old. 

When the day of the photo shoot finally arrived, we’d already been at our hotel for two nights. We’d had time to swim and nap and see the Barbie movie. That day, we went to lunch and on our way back, we stopped at the Daiquiri Deck and had afternoon slushies. I had two – it was happy hour after all – and it was coffee-flavored and tasted like boozy coffee ice cream. The bartender gave everyone jello shots. I pushed mine to Adam while a football game blasted on the large-screen TV over the bar. 

On our tipsy walk back to the hotel, I dragged my feet through the surf and stumbled and giggled and slurred my words. As Adam napped, I went to the ocean knowing this was my last chance for an afternoon swim. As I watched hundreds of silver fish dart around my legs, I did some math and realized that it must be getting close to her arrival. When I got back to our hotel room, I only had 30 minutes to shower, dry and style my hair, do my makeup. It was probably just as well because I didn’t have time to fret or second-guess my outfit.

When we got to the lobby, she smiled at us. “You guys look amazing,” she said, which I imagine she says to all of her clients. 

“Thank you for coming. I’m really nervous,” I said as my voice broke. 

“It’s going to be okay. We’re going to focus on the love between the two of you,” she said.

“It’s just that pictures are hard for me since my son died,” I said, as I waved my hands in front of my eyes so that tears wouldn’t smear my mascara.

And for the next 40 minutes, she had us hold hands and kiss and walk and stand in the water. Adam spun me around and dipped me and I wanted to weep at the enormous love I feel for him. He has loved me on all of the days. And he “knows that nothing – not dancing or laughing or drinking or orgasms – will change grief. A temporary reprieve is just temporary. Grief is always coursing through my veins. Always will be.”

At the same time, so is love. And now I have these beautiful photos documenting it.

Thursday, June 15, 2023

Grief and effort

A child's hand pushed the bathroom door closed -- loudly. I feel this from the other side of the wall and I am awake. This is my alarm seven days a week. As we approach the summer solstice, this alarm is earlier and earlier each day. I roll toward the clock and know it will be earlier than I want it to be. My eyes open. It is 6:17 am. Chirping eases its way through the slider and into my ears. My lids fall shut, I roll onto my side, then pull the duvet up enough to cover my eyes and side of my head.

As I wait, an image appears in my head. I’m running. 

I've been running in my dreams. Fast. Long distances. Marathons. Legs effortlessly gliding across concrete and payment. I can feel the ease of moving as my legs stretch from front to back and my arms swing in sync. The breeze flows through my hair and flaps the sculpted edge of my black shorts. The effortlessness of it is what I keep going back to. 

Because my dream running is nothing like my actual running. In real life, I lumber. Trot. My arms go numb as I unconsciously bend them too close to my torso and reduce circulation. It requires tremendous willpower, this running. Especially when pushing a stroller. But I can run. One step, one block, then another and another. It's powerful to go four miles, six miles. For Riley’s birthday this year, my husband and I ran 11.5 kilometers – one for each of Riley’s 11.5 years. I always love the run after it's done. But never during. It’s just hard. Despite that, I vow that I will run 11.5 miles in honor of his 21st birthday next year.

It will be very hard. Everything has been hard. Since Riley died. 

There is another clunk as the child closes the door to the bedroom that she shares with Riley’s things – his stuffed penguins and picture books and lego creations and clothing. My finger presses the power button on the monitor and it comes to life just as she turns on her overhead light. I see a striped zebra, two pink and white unicorns, a cat pillow, Riley’s green dotted duvet. I cannot see her, but I can hear the turning of library book pages. 

Are things as hard as they were last year, two years ago, five years ago? As I wonder, I am transported into our family minivan on our way home from the grief group we took Riley’s siblings to. In the group, they draw pictures of Riley, write messages to him and put them in bottles, talk to other children who also lost siblings or parents or other important people in their lives. They also play dress up and laugh and eat cookies. I ask them how grief feels for them. “Sad, sometimes,” they say. 

“For me, it feels like I’m wearing a heavy cape. It’s hard to move. It’s hard to do anything. Because everything feels so heavy,” I say.

But now I’m running effortlessly in my dreams. I’m not sure if I'm running away from something or towards something. Maybe it's neither.

Just then, the handle on my bedroom door rattles, then opens. She steps across the threshold and pushes the door closed. “Good morning,” she whispers, as her hand gently cups my face. My eyes open. She’s wearing a pink party dress and holding one of the unicorns from her bed. “I was talking to Riley and he said he would like me to play with his marbles.” I think of the coveted tin of marbles he bought with his allowance shortly before going to the hospital that last time.

“We will, sweetheart,” I say, as she wanders over to dad’s side of the bed. 

I can’t help but wonder if my subconscious is pointing out that I can move again, that I am moving. Volunteering at my daughter’s preschool, coaching writers, editing manuscripts, sending queries to agents, applying for jobs. Even though I didn’t think it was possible, I am living and grieving, grieving and living. I would not say it’s effortless. But I’m doing much more than I ever thought I’d be capable of. I’ll probably grapple with this for a long, long time. I squeeze my eyes and wetness drips onto the pillow. Then I throw the duvet back and push myself out of bed.