19 September 2010

Because sometimes, a broken heart is good enough

What People Give You

Long-faced irises. Mums.
Pink roses and white roses
and giant sunflowers,
and hundreds of daisies.

Fruit baskets with muscular pears,
and water crackers and tiny jams
and the steady march of casseroles.
And money,
people give money these days.

Cards, of course:
the Madonna, wise
and sad just for you,
Chinese cherry blossoms,
sunsets and moonscapes,
and dragonflies for transcendence.

People stand by your sink
and offer up their pain:
Did you know I lost a baby once,
or My eldest son was killed,
or My mother died two months ago.

People are good.

They file into your cartoon house until it bows at the seams;
they give you every
except your daughter back.

Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno

15 September 2010

School board meetings, love, and how change works on all levels

Jefferson Elementary School, September 15, 2010
School Board Meeting, Opinion Forum, 7 p.m. -- My three minutes.

Seven and a half years ago, I found out that the baby I was about to deliver had died.

Had Grace lived, she would be in second grade today.

What does her death have to do with the re-building of Jefferson school?


In that moment of her death, my family’s life changed dramatically. Our lives changed not because we wanted them to. But over time we changed for the better—slowly, surprisingly, unwillingly at times.

We are here tonight not to talk about the death of an infant, but the re-birth of a school that teaches hundreds of students to go forth in the world and change it for the better. This time of passionate, stubborn, immovable opinion, should not in fact be about anything at all except the lives of our children and our children’s children, who will have the privilege of going to an amazing school, of waking up and saying yes to their education, of saying yes to life in a school that offers what we promise them:

A safe environment in which to learn.

So I challenge the school board to offer our children the safest environment in which to learn, off of arterials and away from grocery stores. I challenge the neighbors who live nearby to embrace these children, to watch with wonder as five- and six-year-olds cross the street for the first time with their backpacks awkwardly strung across their shoulders. I challenge you to lay aside your disgruntled ways and choose instead to marvel out your windows at the beauty and wonder of what childhood has to offer and perhaps even open yourselves up to learn what these kids might teach you about life, about learning, about love, something that as I have sat and listened to you over the last six months, I think all of you have forgotten.

In her absence, Grace has taught me only love. Here among these neighbors, I have felt embarrassment and animosity all because we worry about our park-like view, and how change might come into our lives.

I am here to tell you that not all change is welcome certainly, but if you are open to the mystery of change, you might find yourself in awe and wonder of it.

Every day of my life, I will miss my daughter Grace, but every day of my life, I am thankful at what she has taught me: Change, even in its darkest form gives way to light.

We are talking about the transformation of thousands of lives over the course of decades. And I challenge the school board not to let a few disgruntled folks stand in the way of what is best for our kids.

The facts, as we know them speak loud and clear: The west location is indeed the best and the safest choice. Nothing less will do.

10 September 2010

Letting go

There are pieces of my life I hold on to fiercely. I can't let them go no matter what.

Some of these things are good: memories that hover in my mind like small pieces of blue sky, crisp and soothing.

Other pieces are more than likely toxic: arguments, embarrassing moments where in front of my kids I acted more like a child than they did. Times when I exposed myself to someone in ways that I never wanted to be seen.

But I hold on to these as a reminder of where I've been, how far I've come and how much farther I need to go.

Recently, on Facebook, I had a discussion with some friends about happiness. I mentioned that I am leery of really happy people--those people who really and truly seem happy all of the time. Truthfully, I envy them, I watch them, I wonder how to become that kind of person. But then the demons come back, the dark spaces inside of me that I can't seem to really purge. When they appear, all thoughts of being anything other than who I am disappear.

And I want to disappear in that moment. I want to become something or someone other than myself. Only I'm locked inside that place that I can't leave.

At a grief conference I recently attended, MISS Foundation Mindful Grieving, there was a lot of discussion about remaining in the moment, being mindful of what was happening in that moment. Not falling prey to the monkey brain that we all are familiar with--leaping from thought to thought, not being present, unable to concentrate.

And I wonder if I spend more time remaining in the moment, will things get easier? Or harder? Will joy present itself more often or less often? Can I practice letting go of those demons so that they become distant memories of things past rather than things future?

I can't be anything other than what I am, in the moment, but I often exist in the past or the future and memories tug at me, pull me down. Instead, I'd like those memories to set me free, to give me permission to become something better, something larger than the memories themselves so that eventually I can let go of some things that create weightness rather than lightness.

And in that moment, I can be lifted up and fly.

04 September 2010

Mindful Grief: 2010 MISS Conference

My final talk at the MISS Foundation memorial service, 2010:

Once upon a time, in a faraway land, a long, long time ago, I was a mother who only knew about the joy of caring for a five-year-old son, a two-year-old daughter and the joy of carrying the child that was growing inside of me. I went to baby showers and played those silly baby shower games. I knew that babies were born with their eyes wide open to the possibilities of what would come. I knew about the beauty of the world, I saw the laughter on my children’s faces, and I knew that life was indeed good and beautiful. The sun shone, the skies were blue. The air was fresh.

And then, one day, that world changed forever. The skies darkened, the rain fell, and the technician in the hospital turned toward me and put her hand on my shoulder and said, “I am so, so sorry. There is no heartbeat.”

There is no heartbeat.

Why then when I heard those words was it my own heart that was still beating? For the next hour, I stared out at the world, my heart beating hard and fast, while the clouds rolled in, and the skies darkened.

In this story, there is no happily ever after: the rain fell much longer than 40 days and 40 nights. Until one day, on a day I could never have predicted or imagined, a piece of light fell from the sky and into my lap.

The MISS Foundation Passages Conference 2004.

And here we are today: Exploring Mindful Grief, 2010.

I have finally returned home after two long years—I am certain that many of you feel this way. We are all back together again as brothers and sisters in mourning.

And for those of you who have come for the first time, I am so sorry that you have to be here, but I hope that you’ll come back. I hope that coming here to this place, you have found a kind of safety, and a kind of beauty in our pain that you can’t really find anywhere else.

I’m pretty sure that most of you will understand this statement when I say, I live two lives. One as the mother of my absent daughter, Grace. And the second as the mother of my present daughter, Grace. Here in this home is where my daughter Grace is most present all of the time. Grace is both absent and present—her presence is felt by all of us, her spirit is alive. I can feel her here more than in any other place. It’s as if the walls of this hotel speak her name.

But for most of the rest of my life, my daughter Grace is missing. She is missing when I am standing in conversation with someone at work and they see me but they do not see her. She is missing when I bring my other three children with me to the grocery store and the clerk smiles at them and tells me what lovely children I have. She is missing when we go out in public and there is nothing to show the world that Grace matters. There are no name tags to wear in public that tell them I am the mother of this missing child. They don’t see her like the rest of us do.

But here amongst you—my other family members—Grace is present. And that is a kind of gift that each of you give to me.

And so there are gifts here among the incredible amount of pain and anguish. I couldn’t even begin to quantify the amount of loss in this room. It is palpable. But it is also, in its own way, a lovely and beautiful thing.

Where else, after all, can all of us feel this comfortable setting out pictures of our children? Memories hang like Christmas ornaments in the air. And we come together year after year to set out our memories, anxious and nervous at first. What will someone think when I set out a picture of my child, 20 weeks old, sitting so quietly in the palm of my hand? What will they say when I tell them that I had to decide when it was time to turn off the machine that kept my child alive?

The first time you come is always the hardest, the most awkward, the most angst filled. But here you are anyways, and for whatever terribly tragic reasons that brought all of us together, I want to say thank you for sharing your most intimate sorrow with me. I will forever be changed by your presence in my life.

Sixteen years ago, there was a mother in labor who had the vision of a daughter that would join her growing family. This mother had a vision of a daughter who would change her life forever simply by being present among her sister and brothers. Little did that mother know how much her daughter would change the lives of so many without ever taking a breath. And so tonight I want to read a love letter to this child’s mother, Joanne, that goes something like this:

Dear Cheyenne,

You should be sixteen by now. You should have gone out for your driver's test with your mother earlier in the summer. You should have known the lusciousness and heart ache of sweet sixteen. By now, you should have tasted your first kiss, and you should have been at first perplexed by it, maybe even a little uncomfortable about it, but then you should have kissed back with a kind of earnest and longing that all of us still feel—an earnest and longing.

Instead of all of those firsts, we continue to experience our firsts by the continuous presence of your absence as Anna Quindlen once wrote. The continuous presence of your absence.

All of us, Chey, long for you. For our children. For the possibilities of what will never be.

But you should know, Chey, that you have the most incredible mother.

Because of you, she has created a place where all of us childlost parents feel a little less lost, a little less lonely, a little less marginalized in our grief.

Do you know how huge that is?

Many people live their entire lives without doing something this large, this selfless, this courageous. And without ever having take a breath outside of your mother’s womb, you have created all of what is here tonight, in this room.

Your mother could have chosen to remain on the floor of the closet, but instead she built the MISS Foundation—on the tears of your absence.

Chey, your life and what your mother has done because of your life is really indescribable on so many levels.

The way in which we come together every two years, is our lament, our pining for you.

And here is what I have understood thus far from knowing you:

For the rest of your mother's life, she will wonder if you would have laughed like your sister or like your brothers. She will wonder what it would be like to console you after the stupid boy who first kissed you decided to break up with you. She will wonder who you would have married, if you would have married at all, what you would have done after that stupid boy broke up with you.

We all wonder, Chey, about so many things.

But I want to thank you for being who you are. Because your gift to me is the gift of knowing your mother, is the gift of knowing every single person in this room, and letting me stand up here on this stage to tell you what a difference you have made in the lives of so many wounded and lost souls. The number of lives you have saved is immeasurable.

And to your mother I want to say that I love you with all my heart, and I am so, so sorry that you have to cry so many tears with all of us. And I am so sorry, really in so many strange and complicated ways that we have to know each other at all.

But for that I am forever grateful.

And I will never tire, Joanne, of watching you becoming...

And finally, to all the families who are here this year for the very first time, I want to tell you that tomorrow might be a certain kind of hell when you find yourself returning into the world that still misunderstands and misinterprets our grief. And I want to tell you instead of being afraid of re-entry, to go boldly into the world carrying your grief like a child who laughs and dances and sings and stubs her toe and gets up again.

I want to tell you that this is our opportunity to show the world that the paradigm is indeed shifting, that we are not okay with the way that they think our grief will look. That instead we will teach them about our messy, sticky, unpredictable grief, and that we will survive this because in this room, what we know for certain is that our grief is love.

And our love will be spilled out into the world for everyone to experience whether or not they want to be a part of it.

Because every person in this room is love, and love is the only thing that can ever truly save us.