LIVING THE DREAM

We drove Nick back to Boston on Thursday. We spent Friday and Saturday moving his stuff out of the storage unit and into his new dorm room and shopping for every other thing under the sun that he could possibly need to get him started in his second year of law school. He’s excited and I’m excited for him even though I am now back home sitting again in my empty nest after enjoying his company for the last 3 months. It was so nice to be a “hands on” mom again, if only for these few months that Nick lived at home and worked at his summer internship.  673 miles of highway now separate Nick from us, but those miles are nothing compared to our separation from Ben.

While driving home from Boston yesterday, I looked up from the passenger seat to see a motorcycle in front of us. We followed the young couple on the bike for just a few miles, but during those few miles I was taken back to our long trip home from Wichita, Kansas, after Ben’s memorial service there. I had driven my car to and from Kansas and Nick and Gina had ridden with me. My husband rode most of the way there and back with Paul, one of our dear friends who had volunteered to go to Wichita with us for Ben’s memorial service and to trailer Ben’s motorcycle home for us. On that trip home I remember how devastatingly sad it was to follow Paul’s truck, knowing that the motorcycle being pulled behind the truck would never again be ridden by Ben. I watched as it bounced and occasionally rocked from side to side on the trailer, all 995 somber miles of the way home, traveling down the highway without the only rider it had ever known. Like the riderless horse.

I had noticed a decal on the storage trunk of the motorcycle in front of us yesterday. LIVING THE DREAM in fancy calligraphy. I watched the young couple disappear from sight as they rounded the curve of the exit ramp. I, of course, don’t know those people from Adam, but my wish for them is that they do end up living their dream, whatever that may be, that they live a much longer life than Ben did, and that their hearts are never stricken with a pain as intense as the one I live with every day.

As for me, I wonder how does one go from living the dream, a life with three kids and the white picket fence in the front yard (which we literally had) to accepting what lies ahead? Every day presents a struggle between what was and what is, between what I had and forcing myself to stay hyper-aware of what remains that brings joy. I envy those who appear to be living the dream, since Living the Dream has now become a lost ideology to me. How to Survive has become my mantra as I continue the every-day struggle of how to transition from the life I knew to finding balance in my life. It was easy for me to believe I was Living the Dream. The big question now is…How do I go about Living the Shattered Dream?

I’m missing Ben so much right now as the image of his “riderless horse” remains with me…in stark contrast to the young couple on their Living the Dream motorcycle.

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SLIDE BY SLIDE

I remember when I was a kid being coaxed to climb that ladder. I didn’t want to do it because it seemed to lead up into the sky, way too high for me. “Come on, you can do it,” they’d say. “It’s fun going down the big slide.” Too embarrassed to say I was afraid, I’d cling to the handrails and lift one tentative foot after the other until I reached the top of the ladder. As promised by the others (in the way that little kids chatter), the view from the top was beautiful, offering from the top step a totally different perspective of the world. But what about swinging that last foot over and having faith that I could maneuver my body to a sitting position at the top of the slide and then let go, trusting that my two feet would soon be safely on the ground? I remember sneaking a peek behind me and seeing the ground so far below. Which would be worse? Turning and going back down the ladder, admitting that I was a chicken? Or just sucking it up and pretending to the others that I wasn’t a trembling mess inside? I ended up sliding down that slide many, many times, but I was always trying not to think about the fact that I could literally fall off the side of that huge slide and fly through the air before coming face to face with the hard ground. Splat!

The last couple weeks have been tough ones. Nothing drastic, just quietly sad and reflective because little boxes of reality have been regularly deposited one after the other in front of me, as if I really needed stark reminders of what life is like now.

It started with calling Ben’s fiancee to wish her happy birthday and hearing that a “male friend” had taken her out to dinner for her birthday. Because she was so good to (and so good for) Ben, I really want her to be happy, and not lonely, but reality hit.

And then listening to Gina last Friday as she told me that she had called her good friend a few nights before, crying and sobbing, telling her how being sad about Ben was a constant in her life but on that particular day, after listening to a song that Ben liked, she was angry, so very, very angry, that he is not here. Reality. My poor Ben and my poor Gina.

And then a few hours later in our swimming pool with Gina and Ben’s two sons who are now 8 and 10, I was wishing I could go back in time and be in the swimming pool with Gina and her two older brothers, Ben and Nick, as we had been for hours upon hours year after year during the lazy days of their childhood summers. I had a great time for those few hours in the pool with my grandsons, but it was tempered by the fact that Ben is not here to enjoy. Simply reality.

And then waking up very early the next morning to walk in the LifeBanc Gift of Life Walk and Run to honor my sweet little nephew Cameron, who was only 5 years old when he died ten years ago. Me hugging his mom and hugging his dad (my brother) and crying. I was so sad, as reality was again brought to the forefront. As I watched the beautiful sight of hundreds of balloons ascending toward loved ones in the perfectly soft blue morning sky, I asked myself, “Why Cameron? Why Ben?” Reality.

Later that evening my husband and I went to an outdoor wedding of the son of one of our best friends. So many young people were there, laughing and dancing and drinking and enjoying the joyous occasion. Ben was going to be married in our backyard last summer on a day he had chosen–the fourth anniversary of the day he had been diagnosed with cancer. I danced a few slow dances with my husband and really enjoyed chatting and watching the spontaneity and joy at the wedding of our friend’s son. But why couldn’t it have been Ben’s wedding? Reality.

Sunday night set the scene for me sitting nearby to witness the “friendly” argument between two men as they discussed life and death. I sat quietly as I heard over and over again: “There is no God; it’s all just luck; if you’re lucky, you live a long life; if you’re not lucky, you die; there is no heaven; when I die, all I’m going to be is dirt, nothing but dirt; etc., etc., etc.” I sat there silent, simply listening. It was difficult then to process my feelings as I listened to their viewpoints and still difficult now, several days later. What does happen after we die? What is reality?

The questions never end. That’s reality. But the who, what, where, when and why’s of my past need to be reconciled with my future…somehow.

I have yet to figure out why, since Ben’s death, my brain spits out very random thoughts at very random times. It’s as if it’s on overdrive. I may be quietly working or quietly walking or talking with someone but my mind is always racing behind the scenes. It’s as if I lead a double life. One actor on the stage as another actor works behind the curtain doing his own thing, an entire performance, never to be seen by the audience. Several people have learned how this mind of mine now operates. Fortunately, I am able to laugh with them as they have enjoyed many good laughs over the way my brain “ping pings” now. When I was ironing Nick’s dress shirt a few mornings ago and “you’re sliding down again” went through my head, I didn’t question where that thought came from. It had just popped into my head like so many other thoughts do. I’ve worked on processing my emotions related to that “slide” thought for the last few days, with the intent of analyzing and writing down my emotions so I can compartmentalize them and put them away. Hence, the slide analogy as I’ve found myself “sliding down” for the last couple weeks.

There were two slides on the playground in the schoolyard down the street from our childhood home, The Big One, and a smaller, less intimidating one. I was always content with the smaller one but could be persuaded to attempt The Big One at times. As I imagine myself standing at the edge of the playground now, at this stage of my life, I listen to the cheerful chatter of those around me. I watch the “kids” scramble to get in line for the journey to the top of The Big One. No one pays attention to me. I guess I’m now considered the spoil sport as I don’t choose to join in their quest. The thought of me taking one fearful step after another to prove to others that I can climb back up to the top of The Big One is no longer appealing or important to me. I’ve learned many, many things about myself since Ben died, and a very important one is that I can go at my own pace to achieve what I want to achieve. I strongly resist the pressure to be someone who I am not. In a nutshell, I am still, and even more so since Ben’s death, content with the smaller slide.

The view from the top of The Big One was beautiful, offering from the top step a totally different perspective of the world. But I’ve realized that the view from the smaller slide can be just as beautiful, especially since I now see the world from a totally different perspective. Standing in line to take my turn on the smaller slide, I look around and see that I am surrounded by a much smaller group of people than before, but I realize that these people are not standing behind me coaxing or chiding me to tackle The Big One. They may be smaller in number and some of them are new friends I’ve met since Ben’s death, but many of them are the same people who witnessed me literally fall off the side of that huge slide and fly through the air before coming face to face with the hard ground. When I went “splat!” many who had been “playing” with me forever ignored the disaster on the ground (me) and scrambled back to take another turn on The Big One. But these people, the ones who now surround me, they pulled me up off the ground, helped me to stand on my wobbly legs and still continue to regularly check on the damage to my brain and to my heart caused from going “splat!” I am not at all embarrassed to say to them, “I’m chicken and I’m trembling inside.” And they insist that I don’t need to “suck it up” in front of them. They don’t push me beyond my current courage and wait patiently until I say I’m ready for another attempt at the ladder. If they sense I need a little nudge, they give it to me. If I stumble on the steps, they give me the option to go higher, rest on the step, or return to the ground where I am most comfortable. And because they know that there will always be times when I feel like I’ve lost control as I start sliding down again, like now, they’ll watch as I drag my heels to slow down the descent and be waiting near the bottom to catch me before I go “splat!” again. That is love.

I’ll enjoy watching those who continue to play on The Big One, but hanging around the smaller slide, with a much smaller group of people who are real and genuinely care for one another, is just fine with me.

THE RE-MIX

I never listen to music any more. It’s talk radio or sports radio I tune to when I’m in my car. Music “speaks to my soul” and I relate every song to Ben and/or memories of long ago when I was young and naive. New song or old song….the pain and longing emerge and the tears fall when the music starts.

But, when Gina’s in my car with me, it’s impossible not to have the radio on. She’ll flip to a music station and I’m too much of a mom to admit my weakness to her and say, “Turn it off because it makes me sad.” Occasionally I will hear a re-mix of a song and she’ll seem surprised when I mention to her that it’s a song from my past.

I think of myself as a re-mix of many songs. The words I say and the “tune” I play may be the same, but I know that there’s an imposter behind the scenes. I’m a re-mix of the me I used to be. The trauma of Ben’s death has affected me so deeply, so dramatically, that I don’t believe there’s much of the original me left. The backdrop behind the words has been damaged and changed and re-arranged beyond measure.  The rebuilding of my life has just begun, more than two years after Ben’s death. So, as I go about my business from day to day, I know that there’s a totally different “artist” behind the scenes, behind the familiar lyrics and tunes. I wonder how many other people, if any, realize that.

ANCIENT GRIEF

Time heals all wounds, they say. Good ol’ time….

I’m beginning the third year of my life. My new life. My new norm, as they call it. Oh, how I hate those words. When Ben died, the question “How can I live without one of my kids?” was on repeat in my head for weeks, even months. Even now. How do you do that? I simply don’t know….I just muddle through the days, still.

Every day is a new day of navigating through whatever pile of thoughts or emotions may be strewn before me, some old and some new. So often a thought will regurgitate in my head for days until I am able to process it. Writing down my emotions as they relate to a particular thought is really the only way I am able to work through the chaos in my head. Until I put the words on paper, I cannot rid myself of the chaos. It’s as though “The Thought” has an obsessive, possessive power over me until I do so. One of the latest thoughts that I can’t put down is “ancient grief.” I don’t even know how those two words got put together in my head, but they did, and they’re here.

There are two thoughts that are in my head every day: 1) LIVE IN THE MOMENT – Find joy in your life to balance your sorrow so that you are not sucked down through that hole into the muck that you can’t find your way out of; and 2) LIVE IN THE MOMENT – stay here, in today, because the tomorrows of life terrify you…they terrify you so much that you can’t allow yourself to go there because going “there” may cause you to break up into even smaller pieces than you are in today…you need to live in the moment to survive. That being said, I don’t know why I keep regurgitating the words “ancient grief.” So, it’s dissection time, time to put those words to bed in my head.

If I were to stand back and look at myself, I wouldn’t see what you see. I see myself as the epitome of grief. I may not show it, but I am still fully enveloped, cocooned, in my grief, in my sorrow, in missing my son. Ben is nowhere, but he is everywhere in my life. He’s in the places I go, the words I hear and say, every relationship I have. He is the vacant look in my eyes, that barren place inside of me that will always be. I have lived and breathed the loss of my son for only two long–excruciatingly long– years. It feels as though my grief has been a part of me forever. What will this grief, that already feels ancient, be like in 10, 20, 30 years from now after I have carried it for way too many more years by living day after day in this world without my son? Will I still be saturated in grief? Will it still be me? Will this wound heal, as they say, at least a little, as time moves on? I fear, really fear, the “me” that I will be as the years go by and this grief becomes even more ancient, even more ingrained in me.

This grief, this all consuming sorrow that I carry as I learn to move forward, is not unique to me. Shame on anyone who believes I think it’s all about me. My awareness of the pain and sorrow in those around me has grown exponentially since Ben’s death. I saw it in my husband’s shoulders, the grief that weighs him down, as I followed behind him as we walked the streets of Boston for a few days last month. I FEEL it the most in him when I see him from the back, when he doesn’t have to put on the strong man’s face for me or anyone else. I see it in his sagging shoulders. I feel his aloneness and his vulnerability in his tired steps. I do, I really feel it when I look at him from behind and also when I watch him while he’s sleeping. I FEEL the relief he feels when he has been able to escape his sorrow through sleep. It’s there. It’s palpable in my husband, in Ben’s brother and sister, in Ben’s two sons and Ben’s fiancee. Ben is nowhere, but he is everywhere. It is relatively new to our family, but this is ancient grief.

In two weeks my husband and I will be leaving on vacation, a week’s respite from caring for his elderly father while his sister comes to care for their dad. We need to get away. We are going to the ocean. My soul will be receiving solace, that solace which I am still desperately searching for, when I am on the beach. I will feel the timelessness of my grief. My sorrow will feel inconsequential as I watch wave after wave roll in. Just as time marches on, the waves will continue to break on the shore, repeating the rhythm of the hearts that have been broken every day–somehow and somewhere–since the beginning of time. I will feel the ancient grief in those waves, the grief that has permeated this earth since man began. Do you think perhaps the oceans have been filled solely with the tears from all of the mothers and fathers whose children have died before them? I will let my tears fall on that beach, as I stand alone in this world, and allow my tears to mix with the tears of those who have lived this pain since ancient times. May my tears become one with the tears that have seeped from the hearts of the other mothers and fathers who have stood on the shores of this world and cried for their children who have gone before them. I will feel less alone. I will feel their ancient grief in the waves, just as I feel this ancient grief in my heart.

I am the epitome of ancient grief….trying to survive in a world filled with ancient grief.

THE PENDANTS

As she filled my glass with ice water the waitress smiled, “I love your necklace!” I looked down at the “smiley face” pendant. I then smiled across the table toward my 88-year friend John. “Thanks. He gave it to me.”

I’m a plain Jane. I’ve always worn jewelry because of its sentimental value to me, not necessarily its beauty. Every day, for decades, I wore the gold crucifix I had bought in Rome when my husband and I visited his grandmother a few months after our wedding in 1981. I wore my wedding ring until I “grew out of it” and had to graduate to the larger anniversary ring that my husband gave me on our 19th anniversary. The Claddagh ring that Dad bought for me when we were in Ireland, Grandma’s simple silver band with diamonds I chose after she died, and the earrings given to me years ago by my Ukrainian friends completed the mix that I’ve worn every day for years, with variations only for special occasions.

About 13 months before Ben died, while he was taking classes at the firefighters’ academy, he kept having dreams that he died in a house fire while saving a 6-year old girl. I remember many conversations I had with him about that persistent dream. After one of those conversations, he sent me a text: “And if that happens, Mom, I want to be cremated and some of my ashes put in glass vials for you and Dad and Cami, and whoever else wants one, to wear around your necks.” I kept that text for some reason–only God knows why– and still have it on my cell phone today. Horrible to read it when it was received. Devastating to think of it today!

I had always hated the thought of getting a tattoo but, about six months after Ben died, I felt very compelled to get one to evidence my love for him. I chose to have Ben’s real Italian name (Berardino II) incorporated into an infinity symbol on the inside of my left wrist…the one closest to my heart. Thus began my affinity for the infinity symbol. Shortly after having it done, I got brave and showed my tattoo to my friend John as we were having breakfast one Saturday morning. John’s son had died 3 years before Ben, so he and I have developed a great love and mutual understanding and compassion for each other. Though I had anticipated disapproval from him (because he was an older man), John had not appeared shocked at all and actually seemed to understand why I had felt driven to have Ben’s name permanently inked on my body.

Up until that time, John had given me several pieces of jewelry which I had quickly become attached to…a silver pin and necklace resembling white feathers (one of my signs from Ben), a red cardinal pin (John’s sign from his son Mark) and others. After seeing my tattoo, John started giving me “infinity” jewelry. Beautiful pieces that absolutely touched my heart and made me feel closer to Ben. Every time I wore one of them, I felt more connected to Ben, and to the world…someone out there (John) understood my pain and had empathy. I could touch the diamond infinity necklace. It was solid and it was an affirmation that my love for Ben is infinite.

It was always in the back of my head as something I had to do, but I could not gather the strength, or even fathom where I would find it, to be able to “shop for a necklace to hold my son’s ashes.” Almost a year and a half after Ben died, I had to make funeral arrangements for an elderly friend of ours. While the funeral director was out of the room, I started leafing through the catalog that had been left laying open on the table. I flipped through the pages and there before me was a sterling silver infinity pendant. It was not a glass vial, per Ben’s text, but I instantly knew it was meant to be. It was time to do what I hadn’t been able to do. Even though it was still so emotionally terrifying and devastating for me to take the step that I had vowed to take “someday but not today,” I placed the order for the necklace to hold my son’s ashes. The funeral director took care of all of the details. When it was ready to wear, my daughter Gina went with me to buy a silver chain for the infinity pendant. She eased my pain and heartache by giving me a huge hug after we had chosen one and she had lovingly clasped the chain around my neck. The infinity pendant was where it needed to be. Close to my heart. I now wear Ben’s infinity pendant every day.

This past February, for my birthday, my friend John gave me my “smiley face” necklace. It’s probably an inch in diameter with white diamonds for the face and black diamonds for the eyes and mouth. As I opened the package, John had said to me, “I wanted to give you something that would make you smile every time you looked at it.” And I do. I wear that smiley face, along with Ben’s infinity pendant, every single day.

Perhaps it’s because I’ve been fighting so hard to find a balance in my life…carry your pain and heartache in your left hand while hesitantly reaching forward (toward “living again”) with your right hand…that I am continuously aware of the presence of the two pendants that I wear every day. Their innate symbolism may not be apparent to anyone else but me. A smiley face alongside Ben’s infinity pendant, which symbolizes all of my love for Ben as well as all of the heartache that my heart could possibly hold. The paradoxical pendants. Side by side every single day.

When I look down and see the smiley face, it does make me smile, just as John had wished. But almost every time that it does so, a thought similar to this goes through my head: “Here’s the smile that the world wants to see…even if I can’t wear a genuine smile on my face at this very moment, here’s one for you.”

Ben’s infinity pendant is always tucked inside of my shirt or camisole. Always. I haven’t quite figured that one out.  Is it because I want to keep Ben close to my heart, as my sister suggests when I wonder out loud? Is it tucked inside, next to my skin, as a reminder of the days when I cuddled baby Ben against my chest? Or do I wear it tucked inside in order to protect my grief, as an assurance that I do not need to feel pressured to get over it (my grief is there, it’s mine, even though you may not see it)? Or do I tuck it inside in self-defense, in order to avoid questions which may lead to tears? Perhaps it’s done in defiance of a society that is not as accepting of sorrow as one is led to believe (It doesn’t matter what you think….I will not deny my pain, at least to myself)?

It may be one or all of the above, but it’s definitely because I know that, regardless of what you may see on the outside, my heart is badly broken and always will be. That regardless of the millions of many genuine smiley faces I may give the world from now until my last breath, I, and maybe only I, will always be aware of the hidden pendant that lies close to my heart, the pendant that symbolizes my infinite love for Ben as well as the infinite void that will always be a part of me.

Only I knew the depth of the emotions behind the smiley face that the waitress admired as she filled my glass with ice water. “I love your necklace!”

I checked to make sure that Ben’s infinity pendant was where it was supposed to be.

THE GLASS HEART

Take me to the water when I am wounded and weary.

Let peace fill my empty spaces and let the water cleanse my wounds.

May my soul connect with the sad and lonely who live beyond my gaze.

May their sorrow become my sorrow and my pain become their pain.

May the waves become one heartache that reverberates from shore to shore.

(more…)

HEY, VICTIM……

“You can be a victim in one situation but that doesn’t mean you are a victim in all situations. I’m just saying.”

Not positive, but I believe these words were directed toward me (in a sly way) after I expressed my hurt and disappointment in people in my life who I feel have not been there for me since Ben’s death. If they were meant for me, those words came from a person who I loved but have not spoken with in more than a year and a half. They hurt me deeply.

If I am allowed to be a “victim” in only one situation, I obviously became one on the day that Ben died. I supposedly used up my one chance then so I guess that means that I am to separate everything that has happened to me since Ben’s death, and who I now am, from the actual event as if the very essence of my being is not now or never could again be connected to the most tragic, most horrific, event of my life, the death of my child. I am who I am because of every single moment of my lifetime, so how could I possibly perform that separation? Can I flip a switch and say “all better”? And on what day in the past two years could I (should I) have made that disconnection? There you go, all better now…no more time for healing or grieving allowed. Go back retroactively to the day that your son died. Hit re-play and perform as if you are no longer and will never again be affected by his death since, by relating his death to your disappointment and hurt caused by people turning away from you after his death, you are portraying yourself as a victim. His death and your life thereafter are totally unrelated.

People need people–all of us do! I never imagined that one of my children might die before me and, when it happened, I never imagined that people whom I thought loved me would turn away from me. But that happened. If my expressing my need to be shown love leads one to believe that I am “playing victim,” so be it. I am not ashamed to say it. I am a grieving mom who needs love, and I am hurt and I react when you run away from me. Love me! Wouldn’t it be a great world if those words worked? Love me in my pain–in all of its sometimes grotesque ugliness–because maybe, just maybe, you might discover there is an even greater kindness within a broken heart, a compassion born from pain! You can choose to love me or you can judge me and condemn me as playing victim for expressing a need to be loved.

I’ve always been one tough cookie, a really tough one, but I will readily admit that I am now weak and also dependent on those around me to sometimes lift me up out of my darkness and depression. I also admit that there is now within me an innate sadness and despair that I struggle with every single day. But I fight to keep going. I fight to find joy. I fight to be strong for my two other kids and my husband and my grand-kids, even though I admit there are times that I don’t have enough strength to battle the manic voices in my own head or the ache in my own heart that wears me down to a nub. But I do it, each and every day. I believe showing our weakness and vulnerability is a sign of strength. Am I perceived as playing victim if I show that I am weak and saddened by my son’s death?

When Ben died, I told myself that I would not run away from my grief, that I could not bury it. I knew I would carry that sadness with me forever. The day I started to say these words out loud: “You will be sad every day of your life” was the day I gave myself the freedom to not pretend with myself, to not pretend that I could ever be “fixed.” Perhaps that was the day that the balance started to come back into my life. Accept you will be sad–try to balance that with joy. I have fought through some of the darkest days and darker nights just to overcome the very fierce desire to be done with the pain. Pure hell on earth, but I will not run from it, and I will not deny that the pain exists just so others don’t interpret me as playing victim. I hurt. I hurt to the very core of my being just as I am sure every other parent does who has to endure this pain. I am a victim of that. I admit it. It is what it is. I will not lie to me. I will not lie to you to pretend that I am not who I am. I laugh. I cry. I love. I hurt. I am human and who I am will always be affected by my son’s death. Everyone of us are what we have lived and what our own eyes and hearts perceive…and while I may give in to my grief, I will not give up on balancing the good in my life with my sadness.

I am not sorry for stating that I need people to love me, and I am not sorry for being genuine in my pain, even if that means I am perceived by some as playing victim.

If I have learned anything in life, I have learned that we should not judge a broken heart–for we will all have one some day, for one reason or another– and we will all need people to love us through our pain. I’m just saying.

SIDE STREETS

It was always clear cut. A straight shot to where she was going with only slight bends in the road. Be kind to others and cultivate a few deep friendships. Be a good wife so she could look back fondly at the road she had traveled, pat herself on her back and relax with her husband in the last years of her life—in that far away future that always held the promise of less stress and more comfort. And, because she knew how important it was to leave a wonderful legacy behind, and because she loved her kids so very much, she invested all of herself in her children. Her identity was connected to theirs. She was Ben’s mom, she was Nick’s mom and she was Gina’s mom. She lived her life for them because she simply loved being Their Mom!

She had grown up in a large family of eight kids in a small village of about 300. The simple life was hers. She was a small town girl who wanted that simple life for her own children. She lived by the philosophy of “Be good and life will be good to you.” And then he died, her 27-year old son Ben. And at this very moment she is acutely aware that the last time she touched her son and the last time she actually kissed his cheek, his skin born of her skin, was two years ago yesterday, the day of his funeral. Now, the reality is ever present that the straight shot to where she was going is gone. And, as she begins the third year of her life without her son, her child whom she loved more than she loved herself, she wonders, where is the simple girl now?

She opens her eyes every morning in the house that she has lived in for more than three decades. It’s her home and has been the home of her children since each of them was born, no matter where they lived as adults. Their home is filled with countless sentimental items, so many that some may wonder why she keeps them all. But those “things” portray the history of her life and the people in it and are tributes to her love for her children. Sadly, though, she’s now become familiar with the raw emotions that are often elicited by those objects. The familiar can now cause searing pain or create such a deep longing for what once was. A quick glance into a drawer holding a forgotten picture of Ben, smiling up at her, now holds the power to cut her as deeply as if she had taken a knife to her own skin. She may live among the familiar, but now the familiar is often feared.

Gone is the simple girl. She is gone. In her place stands a refugee, displaced from her “taken for granted” world and abruptly purged to a place of existence where no parent should ever be sent. Left standing alone with limited understanding from others, she is frequently handed platitudes, “You’re strong….You seem to be doing so good now….Be strong for your two other children…You will survive this.” And the small town girl listens as she is forced to exist in a converse and always complex world in a city of grief so massive that it drains her will every day. Why was this simple girl sent to wander the maze of a mammoth city, a city with streets as twisted and as gnarled as her emotions that now control her manic mind? The simple girl now thinks too deeply. She continues to grieve deeply with her every breath. How could she have been sent to this God forsaken place?

She is often reflective, totally oblivious to the bustle of life around her. She never planned for this place to be her home, but pretending to be elsewhere is not an option. She knows she cannot escape so she is resigned to enduring life in this barren concrete city whilst understanding that nothing in life is ever concrete. Sometimes she wanders listlessly through the streets of the city of grief, frightened by the concrete monsters that loom overhead. More forbidding obstacles she has never seen. Insurmountable, she tells herself. Will she ever find her way out of this cold concrete canyon? Will she ever return to even a semblance of her once simple life, where a thought was just a fleeting thought and not one with the power to become her master and control her emotions for days on end? Will there ever come a time when she can have a happy thought and not have it immediately followed with a sad thought like, look at what Ben lost when he left this world?

She walks in the valley of the concrete monsters that tower above her, all of them casting shadows on her, behind her, alongside her, no matter which direction she turns. Please just let me see the light, she begs, as she seeks a glimpse of the light beyond the formidable monsters. Let me see some light. And then the demons pounce on her, coming out of nowhere, with no warning, and attacking as she crosses the intersections of one street and one dark alley after the other as she tries to find her way out of the maze. They are vicious and unrelenting, those demons. Leave me alone, she screams, as she hurries past another dark alley that harbors the demons spewing out glimpses of her happy past.

She continues her trek down one side street after the other, dizzied from being turned this way and that in this gruesome maze of grief that has no end. She searches for what is no more. It is lost. She is lost. She struggles to gain a sense of direction. Which side street leads back toward the simple life she used to live? Somewhere in this maze, in this hopeless, hapless mess of side streets, she hopes to find peace. And she hopes beyond hope, if she ever does break free from the bottom of the canyon of concrete monsters that constantly shadow her with grief, that there will remain at least a tiny fragment of the person she used to be…..way back when.

As darkness descends upon another day, she longs for the innocent star-filled nights of long ago when she could see the stars and she believed, as she was told, that if you were good, life would be good to you. Her mind and her body have grown weary from waking to this maze every day, tired of walking the side streets in this barren concrete city of grief from dawn until the early hours of the next day. Day after day she continues to search for her way out, for her way back home.

But for now she is lost in the side streets of life.

TIME-HOP AND BUS STOPS

I slid the ham into the oven and looked at the post-it note. I need this list to tell me the next step in preparing Easter dinner since I’m definitely not in the moment. I was remembering the mad rushes as we hurried our handsome little boys with their slicked back hair so we wouldn’t be late. They were intent upon tugging at those dreaded ties as they headed out the door and busy teasing their little sister, Gina, about her rings on each finger and the ribbons in her hair. All those Easter Sundays of painted eggs and Easter baskets and church followed by dinner at Nona’s house. Those now sacred days of long ago.

While the fresh pastels are being serenaded by others, I am blinded to them. Two years ago. Exactly 730 days ago today was the last time I hugged my son. The last time I touched my lips to his cheek, to his flesh, as I kissed him good-bye. I hugged him as he left for his early morning flight to Kansas. We were all looking forward to his next visit two months later when he would come home again. I watched as Ben and his dad crossed the yard and Ben slid into the passenger seat. He didn’t know, and neither did I, as the sun was beginning to rise in the sky on a clean fresh morning such as this, that when he got in the car and lifted his feet that last time that they would never again touch the ground that he called home. He would never come home to the only home he had known since the day of his birth. Today, while new life is rising from the same flower beds that Ben passed on his way to the car on that morning two long years ago, and the world is enjoying the promise of re-birth and new life and little ones are searching for their hidden Easter eggs, I am looking for salvation. For solace.

I miss you, Ben. I search but I can never find enough words, or words with enough depth, to describe how much I miss you, even to myself. As I set the table and think of your chair that will always be empty, I remember my dad telling me that death happens. Must have been after Grandma died. “People have to get off the bus to make room for others to get on,” he would say. Makes sense, though not in my world, in this order. I never thought you, my son, would have to give up your seat before me. Who took your seat as you got off the bus, Ben?

As Gina comes in the door with her boyfriend, I brighten up, hoping she doesn’t look in my eyes and see that I’ve been crying. “Happy Easter,” I murmur as I hug her tight. She brings light and sunshine into my world as she helps me finish the dinner preparations. After a while she shares with me. “Do you know what Time-hop is, Mom? It’s an app I downloaded. When I was at work yesterday a picture of the last time I saw Ben came up. A picture of him and Nick and me. I had to go outside, leave work, a couple of times, Mom. Two years ago, Mom!” My God, is there no end to this pain? I suffer as I watch my poor sweet daughter suffer. I hate to feel such pain in her heart. She misses her brother. We all miss you, Ben!

My mind flits between Time-hop and bus stops. Going back in time to sweet memories that now bring such deep, gut-twisting pain. Thinking of Ben and my dad and Grandma exiting the bus. On a beautiful day when I should be consumed with the treasured people in my life and new life and re-birth and my own salvation, I’m watching a bus on its repetitive route, going round and round and round, and people getting on and off. When will it stop for me? I want to give my seat to one with a wild zest for life….such a soul would be a wonderful replacement for me, me whose light is now filtered by death. New life, fresh hope. That’s what I wish for. A happy soul to replace this heart-broken mom who knows that she will be sad, from one degree to a thousandth, every day until the day it stops for her and she exits the bus. My seat to a happy soul!

It’s Easter Sunday and the wheels on the bus go round and round as I wait to see my precious son again.

It’s been two heart-wrenching long years since I’ve hugged and kissed you. I miss you with all my heart, Ben!

ONLY IN MY DREAMS

At the end of every day, I sit and wonder about them. Another day had passed and I still have not heard from those people. Those people are the ones whom I thought would never abandon me in my grief. The same questions are asked every day. What have I done? Did I say something? Did I do something? What could I possibly have said or done to become so alienated from those whom I believed shared a reciprocal love with me?

Nearly five years ago I befriended an elderly gentleman whose only child, his 44-year old son, had just died from cancer . At the time of his son’s death, he was being forced to make the decision to put his wife in a nursing home as he was no longer able to care for her at home. For weeks, I begged him to meet me for breakfast or lunch. He declined. I persisted and he finally agreed. Five years have passed and we now meet at least every other week for breakfast and email each other daily. In an email a few days ago, this 88-year old friend wrote, “You’re my very BEST, and probably the very last, treasured friend.” Had I been a fool to rush in, to show him that I cared, to sit with him in his pain, even if I was a stranger? No. The gift was in the giving of myself. To offer a glimmer of light when there was darkness. It was an honor to hold the candle so he could see.

Where are those people? Why do I focus on them? The ones who continue to hurt me every day with their silence? I am so very fortunate to have wonderful people in my life, ones who show me they love me and who allow me to be ME. I could not ask for anything more from them, nor appreciate them more. My husband and my two other kids and my three sisters and my best friend. My elderly gentleman friend who understands my pain and tells me he will sit with me as I cry, will listen to me bitch, will let me scream if I need to, whatever I need to do. My brother who has suffered the same pain as me and is dealing with the death of his son. My new friends, who also share this pain, who are being delivered into my life so that we can help each other and understand and learn how to live with our aching hearts. These people are my candle holders in my darkness.

So, why do I focus on the ones who saw my broken heart and ran from the pieces of me that were left? Because it hurts. It hurts to the core to know that I am not worthy of their caring. That everything I may have said or done to love them and care for them, to be with them in their good times and bad, was for naught. It hurts to know that I never made a difference in their lives. That my decades of sharing this life with them meant nothing to them. Did I not love them hard enough?

The death of my son changed me in ways that will never be perceptible to others. There are no words to describe the magnitude of the change or the pain. Internalization is a constant as is the continuous whirling of my brain. When Ben died, I lost my identity. I am no longer the mother of three children here on earth. I now mother two. I am no longer the eternal optimist….I struggle to find bits of joy in every day. The list goes on and on. The mind games that one plays just to stay in this world, to try to re-connect with the world, are exhausting. Devastated over Ben’s death, I never expected that I would suffer from the pain of being abandoned by those whom I thought loved me. And to realize that I am/was so insignificant in their lives, so insignificant that they give me nary a thought, makes me question it all. What is the purpose of life? Why am I here? How could I have started to dissolve into nothing the day of my son’s funeral, when they went home?

I work on these abandonment issues in my therapy. How do I combat the hurt, the further bruising of my heart? I’m working on compartmentalizing it, packaging it and putting it in a pretty little box and shoving it into a corner of the closet. How can we profess to love and put so much energy living in this world and then persist in allowing a mother whose child has died to have this same question every night as she sits in isolation….WHERE ARE THOSE PEOPLE? How do we allow a wall to be built around those in need…in order to protect those on the outside from the darkness and pain of life? A wall built simply to protect those people who sprint away with all the candles when the world has gone dark? Sad world.

I need to vent today. I woke up feeling sad this morning. I went to bed last night with another day of their silence echoing in my heart. Since sleep is the only respite I receive, I so look forward to the end of the day, to the wee hours of the morning when I am finally able to escape from the pain. I didn’t dream about Ben last night. I dreamt about them. A few of those people, the ones who so amaze me with their aloofness and callousness to the need of others to feel loved. We were standing in my front yard and I asked them what I had done to make them ignore me in my grief. No response. The end.

They always come to visit me, but only in my dreams.

I couldn’t escape from the pain.