Parenting

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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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.

DEEP OR DEEPER DEPTH?

It’s been almost 9-1/2 years since my nephew Cameron died. My God!  9-1/2 years! Cameron celebrated his 5th birthday on a Saturday, became ill a few days later and died the next weekend! From innocence and happiness watching Cameron blow out 5 birthday candles to gut-wrenching sorrow for those of us who loved him…. within a week’s time. Sorrow, sorrow, sorrow….a lifetime of sorrow! My youngest brother Bill is Cameron’s dad.  Bill, of course, was devastated when Cameron died. Shattered! Being a mom, I thought I understood. I could imagine myself in Bill’s shoes…so I sympathized and felt deep, deep compassion for Bill and his wife, Karen. Utter horror! I thought I understood but I didn’t know. I barely comprehended the depth of Bill’s pain until I found myself devastated and shattered when Ben died. Two siblings out of the 8 kids in my family dealt a shitty hand!! Bill’s son died. My son died. One 5 years old. One 27 years old. Our babies.

Bill and I have been talking a lot lately. He, of course, is one of the people I feel the most comfortable around because I don’t need to put on an act with him. “Now” there’s only a handful of people in my life with whom I feel I can be myself. Bill is one of them. Few words need to be spoken between us. It’s just there. Few words…..yet understanding. I am more comfortable revealing more of my sadness to Bill than I am to my husband or Nick or Gina. They are already sad, and I fear making them sadder by forcing them to see and feel my deep, deep sorrow on a 24/7 basis. They know my sorrow is deep but I don’t show them its magnitude on a regular basis. I, of course, don’t want to make Bill feel sadder than he is, and always will be, but he is one step removed from my immediate family, making it easier for me to spit my feelings at him.

Bill says he is now ready to start helping others who have had to face the horror of the death of their child. He and I plan on attending our first support group meeting together in mid-August. A brother/sister team. Old pain/new pain. Young child/young adult. Different stories yet the same. He’ll help. I’ll cry.

Yesterday, while talking about attending the meeting, Bill said to me, “I was worse than you are.” But he felt the need to clarify that statement by saying he was not referring to the depth of our grief–he was referring to how we handle our grief. Bill shut down, shut out. I shut down yet haven’t totally shut out. Cameron was Bill’s only child so he didn’t have other children to maintain for. I have two other kids so I can’t allow myself to shut the world out, to sink to where I would be if I didn’t have them. I hide behind my eyes. Bill is more transparent.

So, in dwelling on his words, it’s as simple as this. There is no way to measure one’s grief or sorrow or anguish or devastation or isolation. No way to measure our pain or sense of loss or count how many pieces we have become after being shattered. It’s kinda like going to the doctor’s office and the nurse asking you to measure your pain on a scale of 1 to 10. There’s a cuff to measure your blood pressure, but there is no device to measure your pain. We throw numbers to the nurse without basis, without thought to concrete comparison. Because there really is no way to measure. And grief is like that. There is no way to compare. No need to compare.

Being in this situation, my heart breaks for myself, my family, and every other soul I know who is climbing this mountain. There is no deeper depth than where we are….or have been.  As I crawl along, I’m seeing that some function better than others. Some juggle joy with their sorrow. Others find a gift in the pain and inspire with that gift. Some seek light while others prefer the darkness. Crowd-seekers travel the same road as those that find comfort in being alone. And all of that is right.  As it should be.  As for me, I’m just now adjusting to the weight of my sorrow and learning to balance my pain on my shoulders so I don’t continue to fall on my scabbed knees. I’m learning, but this I do know…….There is no “deeper” to the depth of our despair and sorrow. It is there. It is endless. It is deep as far as we can see into the darkness. And we, the unfortunate who have lost our precious babies, carry our sorrow with us, ingrained deep within us, each day, every day. We may not feel comfortable allowing others to see our pain, or see our vulnerability….we have learned to hide our pieces, but that pain is a part of us and will always be….at least for me, until the day I die. A broken heart is a broken heart. The depth unfathomable, it cannot be measured. You hurt. I hurt. So many broken souls, missing our children and trying to find our peace, walk this earth. And my heart hurts for those I know that carry this immeasurable pain.

I continue to miss Ben with every bit of who I am.

FOUR IS THE LONELIEST NUMBER …….

My son Nick, who is 23, and I have made it a habit to have lunch together every Wednesday since shortly after Ben died, with Gina joining us whenever possible, depending on her schedule.  Last Wednesday, while eating at Sal’s and Al’s Diner, our conversation revolved around federal taxation and the nation’s infrastructure. Of course it wasn’t me that steered the conversation in that direction. Nick did. It’s his mind that’s always active with world events, politics and social and economic issues. I was complaining about the amount of taxes we pay, so Nick was pointing out the benefits of paying higher incomes taxes and how the interstate highway near our house is maintained with our tax dollars. His words – “Think about if we had to pay tolls to travel Route 2 and how much our family of 4 would have to pay since we travel that highway a lot.”

Boom! Our family of 4! It registered immediately, but I don’t think I even hinted at the impact those four little words had on me! I think my face remained “normal” as the words slapped me right upside my head and threw my gut into a twisted knot. Having had no expectation of the wind being knocked out of me, I sat there in a stunned state with my mind blank, except for “”Our family of 4. Our family of 4…..” The truth. I didn’t hear the rest of Nick’s words on the subject, and I believe he never even realized the effect his words had on me or the magnitude of the pain I felt upon hearing them. They sliced right through me–cut this Mom’s heart to the core. Innocent and harmless and ordinary words. It’s always been Mom, Dad, Ben, Nick and Gina. Not “our family of four!!” First time I had heard anyone say that. Those four little words still reverberate several days later, as that Three Dog Night tune plays over and over in my head…..

Four is the loneliest number that I’ll ever do….. Oh, it’s the saddest experience that I’ll ever know……. How I hate living with this OCD mind of mine! Quit it with the song, will ya?!!

 

SAD SKIN

I had my therapist laughing at my last visit, as usual. I am always direct, up front with her. It’s so refreshing to be honest with her. I was telling her about my conversation with my sister, about me not knowing how to do “this” and how I wish I could push myself up off my knees and be inspired. I told her how I have saved several hundred uplifting and inspirational quotes from various Facebook posts since Ben died and how my collection has grown exponentially over the last several months, saved on my laptop and my new smart phone. After I held up my phone for her to see, I tossed it down on my chair, chuckled and blurted out, “But that ain’t my life.” And she burst out laughing, at my dry humor and my honesty.

I am not there. And that definitely “ain’t my life.” I do want to be inspired. I’d love somebody or some words to pull me up. I really do. I believe there will come a time when that happens, and perhaps there will even be a time when I can inspire and lift up some other sad soul, but not now. So I’m saving those quotes for “later.”

In analyzing myself recently, trying to “improve my outlook” (meaning being less depressed and sad), I’ve gained some important insights. I know everything is in the interpretation, and I’ve discovered that as I’ve read these numerous “inspiring” quotes, I interpret them to say (to ME): “Quit sitting in your own shit! Get up! Move on! Inspire us!” I can watch others inspire, but I can’t inspire others. And I may never be able to…..because there is no blessing in my son’s death. Consequently, I feel like a failure…..because I am not able to stand up and proudly proclaim that I am strong and so powerful and so insightful and so appreciative of the lessons learned from my sorrow–I cannot overcome whatever life throws at me. I can’t. So, in lieu of being my own worst critic, I’m realizing that I am putting expectations on myself to be the Super Woman of Grief. Knowing full well that I can’t be. I’m learning it’s OK to admit this to myself: I AM NOT STRONG.

So, for the last few weeks, when I’ve read the words “Be strong!” I’ve been able to tell myself that there’s strength in admitting you are weak. And who in the heck even knows what “strong” is….after your son dies? What better way to eventually become strong and less sad than to admit that I am sad and miserable and 99.9 percent of the time “uninspire-able”? Is there a kinder way to become more inspiring, to yourself, than to be real? I don’t think so. So, because I can admit that I am weak and accept that I carry immeasurable volumes of deep, dark, ugly pain inside me, I can accept that I am the most comfortable being alone now. I don’t like being around people for very long, with the exception of the few people who allow me to be myself. And I am being kinder to myself and expecting way less of myself than I did just a few weeks ago. It’s not that I’m anti-social and fatalistic and not seeing any joy in this world. I am just being realistic. I like being alone. To me “alone” is a place where I don’t need to put on a performance for others, feeling as if I am being censored. It’s a place where I can remember sweet memories and grind through those troubling thoughts that take my mind captive. It is calming and therapeutic for me…..which is something I am beginning to realize, as I continue to lessen the expectations I put upon myself.

So, when I am alone, with my persistent grief around my neck, and I’m being introspective, I pat myself on my back, with a little bit of pride, because I am learning this:

I can accept that I am not just sad, I am devastated!!! My son died and I am damaged. There are ugly scars on my heart and slashes through the very core of me. But knowing that, I’m getting good at just being myself, feeling relieved when I don’t need to “perform” for others. I’m not fighting my sorrow. I AM my sorrow. And that’s what it takes, isn’t it? Taking a good look at myself and being honest? I’m getting to know who I am–where I am. And I’m lessening the impact and pressure I put upon myself when I feel like expectations are being put on me, by others and by myself. And, most importantly, I’m telling myself that it’s OK not to jump up and proclaim, “I am strong! I am invincible! Let me inspire you!” I am getting comfortable in my own skin.

So how about this for a post?

I am a mess. I am not OK. If you think I am getting better, you are wrong. I cry a lot….every day. I am just getting better at pretending. Often times I feel like a crazy woman! My only certainty in life right now is that I am going to die with a broken heart and there is nothing that can be said or done to change that! I cannot be “inspired” to run and hide from my grief. I miss my son with every ounce of my being. BUT……I am proud to say that I am becoming accepting of who I am and where I am….in this moment. I am being kind to myself. I am learning to live in my own skin. My sad skin, that is. Yes, you heard me……. I am learning to live in my own SAD skin.

Can honesty be inspiring?

THE GLASS

I’ve always been the pull yourself up by your boot straps, look on the bright side, praying for strength and grace, and encouraging others kind of person. I love many, many people, including my wonderful husband, and I am blessed to have had immeasurable joy in my life. But my life equals my kids. My three kids, Ben, Nick and Gina. It’s been that way since Ben took his first breath. I am a mom to my core.

(more…)

THE DEAD BIRD DID IT

I was having a “good” day today. Work in the morning, lunch with Nick, a little nap. When dinner was in the oven I headed out to mow the lawn, rushing out the door so I could have most of the lawn done before my husband came home for dinner. While starting the push mower, I remembered my daughter telling me when she’d called me on the 4th of July that I should move down south where it’s warm because “you’re a different person when you’re working outside, Mom”. I’ve always loved to work outside, so I knew she was comparing the me of this summer with the me of last summer….right after Ben died when I couldn’t and didn’t do much of anything. I know it gives her comfort to see me functioning. Doing. So, I was a bit upbeat and energetic as I started to mow the lawn, thinking “Gina’s right. This feels good.”

I did several passes in my front yard and then I saw it. A dead bird on the pathway next to the garage. I was instantly taken back to the “orange circle” I had seen painted on that lonely road in Kansas where Ben had taken his last breath. Like that bird. Was this a mama bird? Or her son? Do birds grieve? Was a mama missing her baby as much as I’m missing Ben? I avoided looking at the bird again. I couldn’t look at it. But I knew it was there. Like my grief. There. It never leaves me. With me every second. I mowed around the flower garden I had put in last summer…..Ben’s Garden….the spot where I was standing when the words “love you” and “love you too” were last spoken between Ben and me as we ended our phone conversation less than 24 hours before he died. Sacred ground.

I got on the riding mower to mow the field behind our house. And that bird made me see it all back there in my backyard. Me putting Ben’s 5-month old butt on our ground for the first time ever…in the early spring with our elderly neighbor telling me, “Don’t put him down. The ground’s too cold.” The fire pit and bonfires and  marshmallows on sticks. Ben and his teenage friends ending their “party”–running out of the woods when Mom and Dad came home unexpectedly. 2-year old Ben in our swimming pool with his daddy.  Endless summer days playing in the sandbox and swimming in the pool with friends. The holes in the tree used for target practice. That rusty 55-gallon drum that Ben and his buddy Matt had to “get off” someone’s property so they put it in our woods, promising they would remove it. The barrel is still here. Ben is not. The two new huge flower pots that Ben helped me fill with dirt. Ben laying in the grass by the back deck sleeping. My husband and me building the wooden play set for the boys when Ben was about 7. Torture, torture, torture every which way I turned the lawn mower. Snapshots of 27 years with Ben. Sobbing and talking to myself out loud. Mopping my tears with my t-shirt. Thinking I can’t do this. I can’t do this any more. I hate it. I want to die! I hate being sad. I hate knowing I’m going to be sad every day for the rest of my life. Varying degrees, I know, as time goes on, but every day. Sad every day for the rest of my life! Why Ben? I shut off the lawn mower thinking, “People are crazy if they can’t see that I’m crazy. I’m a crazy mother.” I went into the house and got my dinner out of the oven and set our table.

The dead bird did it today.  That’s all it took….a dead bird trigger.