Family

CHRISTMAS IN THE UNDERWORLD

When the daylight’s gone and I sit alone, I often have thoughts about my worlds, the two worlds that I’ve resided in since Ben died.

Part of my time is spent living in a world where life just seems to go on as it always has. Wake up. Do what I’ve done for years. Look at me in motion and don’t take the time to really see me or listen to my silent signals and you would believe that I am doing quite well. Hardly any exterior tears any more. Some laughs. Some jokes. She’s all better. And I am better… depending on how that word is qualified. I’m functioning again. I can now work and cook and clean and socialize, sometimes all in the same day. When I laugh, I feel it. I’m getting good at balancing joy with sorrow. I’m grateful for who and what I have, but I’m still devastated. Missing Ben is as persistent as every breath I take. So, I stand back and see those wandering around as if the universe is still the same while I know it’s completely different. Facades are deceiving, so I go back and forth between this world and a separate, totally divergent world that very few are conscious of, unless they too live in it.

In my other world, where the real me exists, dark grief and sorrow live. But all is not dark and dreary and dreadful in that world. I have come to know quite a few people in this world. Many have lost their children, many have lost their spouses, so we all share sorrow caused by tremendous loss. Often, there are references to becoming a tribe. Expressions of wanting and needing to be real, to be who we really are, in our grief are prevalent. We expose our vulnerabilities to each other and allow ourselves to lean on each other. Feeling validated is important as many express how they feel as though their grief has been ignored by many in that other world. We talk about how we feel rushed to be all better and act as though all is as it was before. Many, including me, talk about how we’ve been fortunate to have at least a few people in our lives who are able to look us in the eyes and see what death has done to us, but how unfortunate it is that many that live in that other world want us to pretend as we go about our daily lives. Acceptance is paramount to our well-being and our healing and we find it in each other. We spend many hours holding each other up when the rest of the world falls silent as it relates to our grief. Kindness, compassion and empathy flow. This underworld that we have found (in large part a courtesy of the internet) enables us to feel understood, express our hurt and anger and to give and receive solace as needed. The words “shallow” and “unreal” could never be used to describe those whom I’ve met in my new world, this underworld of grief.

Yesterday I met for the first time a woman who is in my online writing group, a group that I found in the underworld. We learned that we live only 30 miles from each other so decided to meet for breakfast. Ironically, the town I work in is where her husband had lived before they married. At breakfast, I learned that she has been a young widow as long as I have been a grieving mother. Her husband died on the exact same day that Ben died… April 30, 2013. When I heard we shared the same devastation day, the words gushed out, “Oh, my God. Your world imploded on the same day that mine did!” It took only minutes for me to start sobbing as I told her about Ben. I don’t do that often any more, sob like that, so I was surprised that I so easily let my guard down with my new friend. Releasing my emotions like that made me realize that it’s become all too common for me to hold my emotions close to me. I’ve been programmed to do so in that other world, I guess. Over breakfast, I understood that even though we may never meet again, our fragmented worlds had brought us together, for some reason. We were two people aware that our lives had been permanently altered on the same day. I knew I was not alone. I am not unique. I am part of an infinite space where deep sorrow and pain are existential and ugly bedfellows, in the now familiar underworld of grief.

With Christmas approaching, my new friend and I talked about our plans for the holidays. She moaned about not wanting to visit her family out of state but how she felt guilty for wanting to be home in her “safe haven.” In my other world, I would have questioned how she could want to be alone on Christmas Day, but I get it. I understand. My longing for Ben increases each time I hear “Merry Christmas.” I feel the kick in my gut when I hear Christmas songs like “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” My balancing act goes into overdrive as the holiday season emphasizes my feeling of being a spectator, of being disconnected. I watch those, bent over and arms laden with Christmas gifts, wandering around as if the universe is still the same while I know it’s completely different. I understand the “reason for the season” as they say, but in the underworld I see a constant struggle to rise to the challenge of the superficiality of it all. For some of us, it’s a chore to decorate a Christmas tree, to visit outside of our safe zones, or to stack piles of gifts beneath the Christmas tree after our hearts have been broken. I watched as my husband walked by Ben’s urn this morning and casually rubbed his hand on top of it, as naturally as if Ben was sitting in a chair and he had walked by and rubbed his head. I fought back the tears. How can Christmas ever hold the same magic for us that it used to? Or for others in this underworld who have empty chairs around the Christmas table in what used to be our Norman Rockwell homes?

All I want for Christmas is to do the bare minimum. I want my family to feel a touch of Christmas in our home but not be too Christmas-fied. I want to be home, with my loved ones, where I can pull the memories of past Christmases close to me for comfort or push them away if necessary if the pain rushes at me. I want my family to feel, really feel, how much I treasure them and how desperately I love them. I want to make lovely, memorable Christmas memories with them, ever conscious and grateful for the presence of each and every one of them. I am all too aware that when the clock strikes midnight that day will join the others, will become a Christmas of the past. And at some point in time, it very well may be a Christmas which I wish I could return to, to find some of the Christmas magic which I thought I had forever lost but which was in fact present on this upcoming Christmas Day.

And then, when the daylight’s gone and my house has fallen quiet, I will reach out to my new friends in my new world to see how they fared on Christmas Day, to make sure they know that I am aware of and care about their broken hearts. Christmas in the underworld…in this life of After.

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FOR YOU, MY FRIEND:

I will slow the pendulum of time and stand sentry over you. I will allow you to lie dormant, heedless in your healing, until you, and you alone, believe the time has come to fight your way through another layer of debris, to lift your face toward the sun, toward your next season of grief, of life.

Then, as you peer into your future, I will gently silence them, they who are determined to restrain you from returning to the depths of your pain and the darkness inside and focus only on the brightness that they see through their prisms. I shall teach them humble understanding, so they too will come to know that we, now and forever, will view the rest of our lives through the kaleidoscopes of our pasts.

As we wander through our canyons of grief, lost in the never-ending maze of hollows and bends, I will convince you that you need not fear being alone ever again; that if I become weak and falter along my way, and lost in my own grief, you will timely cross paths with another gentle soul who will reach for your hand and guide you gently along your way until we meet again.

I shall walk in the rain with you, seeking shelter in the barren caves as the storms pummel and overwhelm us. We shall rest together, and weep together, and watch as our tears roll down the canyons and meld into the rivulets that will lead us toward home.

And, as we near the end, I will carry you, still wounded and weary, to the water. We shall fall to our knees and weep silently as peace, at last, fills our empty spaces and the water cleanses our wounds. We shall let our souls connect with the sad and lonely who live beyond our gaze. Our sorrow shall become their sorrow and our pain shall become their pain. We will watch as the waves become one heartache that reverberates from shore to shore…and listen as the cries of the grievously wounded unite with ours on the soundless wind.

We have walked each other home.

DARKNESS

I am alone while darkness rises. Always alone. A silhouette in the dark, footsteps falling silently in a world no longer my own. There is no contrast between me and the night that has fallen. How could there be? We have been wed. We have become one, the darkness and I.

Separated from the world around me and from what was once, I feel the darkness as it descends upon me, becomes me, once again in the moonlit night. Everything declines while darkness rises. Nothing overcomes me – this must be life’s way. Welcome, Darkness, my old friend.

The Mirror

I stand in front of the mirror and look deep into those eyes, something I’ve done only a handful of times in the nearly two and a half years since Ben’s death. I’m now so good at performing the menial tasks of brushing her teeth and putting her make-up on without actually looking at her that it feels as though I’m working on a mannequin. As I stare into those eyes, my eyes, for the first time in many, many months I wonder, is it possible that there is a semblance of the woman who used to be, somewhere within that dead zone that stares back at me? Who was she? Is that her?

Is she the woman who loved to garden and marveled at the faces of the daises poised to usurp the mid-day sun? Or is she the tangled mass of roots half-dead and lying dormant, hoping that someday the world around her will thaw and breathe new life into her?

Was she the one behind the camera snapping thousands of pictures, capturing even the ordinary moments of the most ordinary days of her children’s lives so that she and they would never forget the wonder of it all? Or is she the woman now turning her head and shielding her eyes as she walks past a picture of her oldest son, her first true love who has gone on before her, because the knife slashes deeper whenever she looks into his eyes smiling back at her?

Is she the woman whose book had already been written, pages being turned as she willed, with the story simply waiting to be told? Or the one staring at the chalkboard wiped bare, the whispers of chalk marks discernible only to her naked eye, resembling the ghosts of her past screeching and screaming with unspoken words that a happy ending to her story will never unfold?

Is she the woman who lies next to her husband in bed, marveling that they still are together after having seemingly “survived” the sorrow of the storm, four decades after becoming man and wife? Or is she the one silently weeping, so as not to disturb him, wondering if he or anyone else realizes that she may sleep in this bed but no longer resides exclusively in this world?

Is that the woman, lying in that same bed, who would call each of her three children when a siren in the night would send panic to her heart? Or is she the mom now acutely aware that only two of her children are able to respond to their well-being check, as the scream of the third siren has already been quieted with the death of her dear son?

I continue to stare and reflect as I maintain eye contact with the woman in the mirror. Is that the person who was me? I need only look in the mirror to realize that answering the question of who I used to be is impossible without relating it to the death of my son. The reflection in the glass tells me that there will never be an old me without the new me in sight.

The questions and the comparisons continue. Why have I been so afraid to look into those eyes, my eyes? Was I afraid of what I would see or that I would not see the me that has gone before? Fear no more, I say out loud. It may be possible to see her, the woman I used to be, as she merges into and becomes accepting of the shadow that falls upon our reflection, the shadow from the dead zone that resides within me.

POST-IT NOTE REALITY

I remember at Ben’s visitation at the funeral home occasionally looking up to the next person in line and feeling, through the haze, a jolt of recognition. “Oh, my God. Your son (daughter) died too!” With tears in their eyes, those men and women were barely able to whisper to me through their sobs, “I’m so sorry.” Looking back now, I realize that I had seen tears of sympathy from all who had come, but specifically tears of knowing from those who had also lost their children.

A few days after the funeral, I remember standing at my kitchen counter and writing on a 3” x 5” post-it note the names of those people. The list was 13 life stories long. I stuck that post-it note inside the door of one of my kitchen cabinets and would look at it often. I’d stand there and read that list and think, “They survived it. You can too.” Somehow, in those early months, I was given strength each time I looked at that list of 13 people.

But what does “surviving it” mean?

Before Ben died, I’m sure I was sympathetic to those friends or acquaintances. My heart would hurt for them whenever my life would interact with theirs and they would speak of their children. And then I’d go back to my life. I now realize how simplistic it was of me to think that just because I had seen those people “functioning” in their lives after the deaths of their children that they had survived. I didn’t know.

My tears of sympathy have now turned into tears of knowing for them. Like me, each of them could write volume after volume of an autobiography and the wild range of tumultuous emotions that continually zap us as we go throughout each day, creating more havoc in our already restless and exhausted minds, could never be adequately documented.

Now when I see those friends or acquaintances, I make this clear to them, often times without words:

I hear you. I feel your pain. I understand.

I see you for who you really are behind your facade.

I’ll cry tears of knowing with you.

How simplistic of me! As if a 3” x 5” post-it note could summarize the heartache of 13 people?

Really?

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.

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.