Mom and Dad

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.

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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.

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.

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.

DEAR GOD, KEEP ME INFLATED…..

I can fool some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time, but I can’t fool me. Maybe it’s because it’s coming at me from four directions today that I find myself sliding again into that big black hole.

When we dropped Nick off at law school two weeks ago, I was determined that I would head out of Boston with a smile on my face, no tears in my eyes, happy that Nick was where he is meant to be and confident that his mom would not fall to pieces upon walking through the door of our now empty nest. Since Harvard had so kindly given Nick a year’s deferral after they learned that Ben had died, we were given a reprieve, allowing us an extra year to still be “hands-on” Mom and Dad.  Now Nick’s at college, Gina’s in her apartment a half hour away, and Benny is gone. It’s officially empty…for the first time since December 16, 1985, the day before Benny was born. So, here I am, bobbing about, with my mind in a whirl and my heart all jagged.

When we decided to cut our trip to Boston short last week so that we could get home to Jack as he was dying in the nursing home, I knew the next several days would be busy ones. I’d be OK. I wouldn’t be home long enough for the empty nest idea to register. And when I went to sign Jack up for hospice the morning after our return, I assured myself and the hospice people that “This is nothing. My son died. I can handle this. Jack’s 75 and “only” a friend. Nothing can be worse than my son dying.” But Jack was like family. Divorced and estranged from his only uncaring daughter, he had spent every Thanksgiving, Christmas, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, baptism, birthday, First Communion, Confirmation, etc. with us, celebrating every milestone of our kids’ lives with us. I spent all day last Sunday with Jack in the nursing home and he died early Monday morning…in the same nursing home that my mother-in-law also lives in.  She’s been there for 3 years with Alzheimer’s, and two days ago the RN told me it was only a matter of time for my mother-in-law too since she had stopped eating.

The “sucking in” or “sucking out”, whatever you call it, started yesterday afternoon when I looked for pictures of Jack on my computer and in the big box of Benny’s pictures. The box that holds most of his pictures. The box we have to grab if our house ever catches on fire! After about a half hour of looking through pics, I emailed the funeral guy and told him I couldn’t find a decent picture of Jack. But really I didn’t have the strength, the heart, to look at any more pictures. My heart was breaking. So, I gave it up, feeling guilty that I had no strength to continue to look for a nice picture of Jack for his obituary. When we were shopping last night and I told Ben what I had emailed the funeral guy, he said he’d look through the dozens of other boxes of pictures we have so that we could find a nice picture of Jack and also a nice one of his mom since we would soon be needing one for her. Wanting to spare him that pain, I looked through about 4 boxes this morning. But I discovered there were lots of pictures of Benny still in them! So, hiding my pain from my husband, I gave up. I couldn’t look at pictures of my baby any longer!

And just now my husband, cleaning out a cupboard, came across a lunch box with Gina’s name on it and I said, “Oh, yeah, there’s one in there too with Nick’s name on it.” And then, struggling to get the words out, and debating whether or not I should do it, I told him about the two post-it notes that I had just found in the picture boxes.  Both written by me when Benny was about 2 or 3, quoting him:  “Mom, I are big now” and “Mom – did you ever hear ‘Don’t let your boys grow up to be cowboys – let them be nurses'”? So I told my husband about them and it was all over. Me as Mom and him as Dad, standing in our empty kitchen in our empty house, both of us sobbing, hugging each other, in tears, mumbling about how overwhelming this friggin’ nightmare is! “Oh, Benny! Oh, Benny!” my husband cried.

So, today the life is officially sucked out of me. I’m officially down and out. I’ve surrendered. The bravado mask I’ve kept plastered to my face has been tossed to the floor. Time to be nice to me as I sit in our empty nest….. no faking it today. So many pictures of my son!!! So many memories !!! And reading the email from my sister-in-law with a draft of my mother-in-law’s obituary… preceded in death by her grandson…..” Looking for a picture of Jack. And realizing that 9 years ago today Dad died. Dad, one of my best friends, who I could talk to about almost anything. Death surrounds me on all four sides. It envelopes me. Suffocates me. I miss my Dad and I miss Ben so much that I can’t see beyond today. What is life? What is death? How does one go on?

It’s like having a balloon, inflated, held tightly in hand, but un-knotted, air always seeping out of it. I know I have to keep going on. To search for strength when I feel I have no more. To find it somewhere, somehow. And to live my life so that, if there is a heaven, I can hug my baby again. But the air keeps seeping out of me, out of this “balloon” and it takes so much effort to keep it inflated and so much of my energy to keep puffing “life” back into it.  I’m trying so desperately to hold on tightly to “keep it inflated”, but it’s so damn hard. I can’t stay inflated all the time, I can’t keep smiling, I can’t keep fighting. Today I give in to my sadness. Death is wrapped around me today, closing in, sucking my spirit out of me, ripping my false bravado away. I am limp and lifeless and I have surrendered. I can’t fool me. I hurt!! My heart is broken, never to be the same again. Mom and Dad are home alone with the pieces of our hearts co-mingled in the wreckage of our dreams, our family. We bleed each other’s blood. Dear God, keep me inflated………..

I miss you, Ben, with every ounce of my being!