15 October 2016

Honeysuckle plants

This blog, it was born of grief, born of a deep love for my daughter who left too soon. Born of a sadness always there, always tucked away and I wonder when the sadness first arrived? Was it when I was five and my father died or was it long before that? Did it arrive when I was four months old, taking in the sounds and smells and sights around me and the first diagnosis came in: You have cancer. 

Did it arrive then? When the adults around me were trying to process what this meant? I have seen it so many times since. The cancer diagnosis. The hopes falling away and the fears arriving. The darkness descending. How bad is it? And then the hope kicks in and the fight arrives. We will beat this. And the fighting starts--the chemo, the radiations, the surgeries.

Four months turned to one year, a single candle upon a cake. The parents hovered around singing the birthday song. Then two years pass. Remission. Hope rises. Fear falls. Sadness gets tucked away.

Three years and three candles, and the cancer returns and the remission fades. More surgery. More radiation. More hope. More questions. Fear returns. The eyes and ears of a three-year-old see things that others can't. I know this because the eyes and ears of the five-year-old saw so many things that I tried to protect him from. He saw the masks come off. He wrote about that. He heard the voices of his parents shouting. He wrote about that.

And I saw too as a child things you should never have to see. The father screaming when the pain was too much and the medicine wasn't working and the screaming to get out of the room. I saw the hole in his back where the radiation burned him and ate away at his flesh. How is it that I can't remember the kindness of a man that so many talk about, but I can feel deep into my core the yelling to get out of the room? How is it that I cannot picture the hole on a body, but I can feel the hole burning into the backside of my rib cage making it hard to breath?

These memories are not just memories of some distant pain. These memories create the people we become. These memories are why when I step into a hospital my stomach twists and my throat catches because too many days from four months old to five years old, my father lived there and I was sneaked in to see him. These memories of ultrasounds and "I'm sorry, there is no heartbeat" is why driving by the hospital where she was born still causes me sharp pains in my lower belly.

And now this:

Our son has left for college. It's been eight weeks since I've seen him, and I know he's not gone forever. I know he's not dead. But this inability to touch and hold and see just inches away from me feels all too familiar. It feels so different. I worry about the sadness I feel because sadness feels all too familiar. Sadness feels too much like pain. Sadness feels too much like death.

So I have to learn to sit with the sadness more. To sit with the joy beside it when I see how happy he is, how thriving he is, how tired he his, how much distance there is between his five-year-old self and his 19-year-old self.

Today someone wrote to me because his devotion was about thanking a teacher, and he wrote to me to say that it made him think of my father who was one of his teachers. And I hold that note from him in my hand and I turn it over and over again grateful for its arrival. Overjoyed that my father's memory still lights up someone else's life. And I turn it over again and weep for everything I've lost, for this deep and everlasting sadness that I cannot pick up the phone to hear his voice, that I can't sink into his embrace when this sadness and longing feels like too much.

And I remind myself that this is the sadness I need to sit with. This is the sadness I am grateful for.

In two weeks, I will get on a plane to go visit my son. And I will hug him and see him and be in his presence. And this sadness I feel today will give space for the joy that feels tucked too far back at the moment but is still there.


Before we moved from my first home after my father died, I had a playhouse in my own private yard. It had a ladder so that I could climb to the flat rooftop and sit on it. There was a honeysuckle plant that grew up against the fence along the side of the playhouse. Sometimes I laid down on the roof and would try and make myself as small as I could so that no one could find me. I'd pretend to disappear and cry silently so that my body shook but the noises coming out of my mouth were muffled. The salty tears would fall into my mouth. And then I'd sit up and reach into the honeysuckle plant and pull out the long, thin white 'string' and suck on the end of it, letting the sweet nectar drip down into my throat. I did this over and over again until the bitter taste of the tears gave way to the sweetness of the honey.

There is so much to be thankful for.

31 May 2016

One the eve of your 13th birthday except not

Grace,

It is the evening before your 13th birthday except not. You see, it's always been a confusing and complicated time for me, not really filled with clarity on which day to call your birthday.

Is it the day of your birth that I should consider you 13? Tomorrow? Because on that day, the day you were born, you were wholly silent. Fully formed. And wholly silent.

So then, is it the day you died instead? Would that technically be your birthday? You know that moment before death and then death on the same day? Except that language is complicated and technically your birth day, is in fact the day you were born, yet you died two and a half days before your birth so is that the day I'm supposed to call your 13th birthday?

Do you understand my dilemma? Because each year, I feel confounded and confused by this complex situation. There is not a day. There is not two days. There is not: this is the day she was born, eyes wide open, she lived, she breathed, she was and was met and held and greeted. And then this is the day she died. There is instead, these series of days and images of heart stopping, of dopplers utterly failing me, of faces falling, and then the long and hard reality of induction and labor and birth so many days later into this cold and silent and dark world. And silence. The deafening cacophony of silence.

And the days are all jumbled and wrong. Because you died and then you were born. Do you understand my dilemma? You died on May 29th. You were born on June 1st. I've never been great at math but what does that make you at birth?  Minus three days old? Is that even possible? Can you be minus three days old? See that doesn't make sense. How can a person be minus three days old?

I want the plus three not the minus three, and I want the plus thirteen and I know we are taught not to be greedy, but I am and I want the celebration dammit. I want the balloons and cake and happy birthday songs and turning 13 years old.

I want it all. But mostly I just want you. Here. I want the 18 year old and the 15 year old and the 13 year old and the 10 year old. Because look how normal and right that looks:

18
15
13
10

And look how wrong this looks:

18
15
(-3)
10

Do you see my confusion? Or is it this:

18
15
(-13)
10

But really, it feels like this:

18
15

10

See that space between. That hole? That's what it feels like every time someone says how old are your children? And I pause and I say 18, 15, 10 and they look at me and say, "Oh, that's quite a gap." And I think, if you only knew. Yes, that's quite a gap.

That gap is the hole in my heart, the silent tears that fall, the endless tug inside, the catch in my throat, the darkness that lingers, the breath that I hold, the stillness of the air, the emptiness in my belly, the longing inside, the ache in my bones, the gap in my day, the space between all of it...

Grace.

my unfinished sentence

love,
mama





18 February 2016

March 4, 10 years old, an upcoming birthday

Dear Sawyer,

So tonight at the dinner table when you had that terrible meltdown, when all of us put two and two and five together to realize that on this upcoming tenth birthday, your eighteen-year-old brother will not be home for your family birthday dinner that we've had every year since the beginning of time for each one of you because he will be performing in the second night of his school play. Yes, that meltdown that we all felt? Remember how you cried and cried and insisted that he MUST be home for your birthday dinner and anything else was unacceptable and then you stormed off and slammed the door and proceeded to cry some more? I remember.

I remember my entire body feeling cold, and the tears welling up in my eyes, and the unbelievable sorrow and grief that rose up inside of me when you returned to the table and said, "well, how would you feel if Carver couldn't be at your birthday dinner in the last year that he was home?" And that's when the tears started falling from my eyes too, and I couldn't speak and I was barely able to whisper, "I would feel really, really sad," before I had to leave the dinner table and head to the bathroom to grab some tissue and sit on the toilet and sob for five minutes.

Oh, my dear, dear, growing up too fast son. I wish that I could tell you that this gets easier. I wish that I could take you into my arms and fix it all. I wish that I could find a way to tell you that this grief and sadness you feel will ease. I'm afraid that it won't. It won't get any easier. But I can tell you that what I learned from my dear friend Joanne Cacciatore is that our grief muscles grow stronger. I can tell you that as this difficult year goes on, as each of us tries to absorb the meaning of Carver's leaving all of us, what it means, how it changes the dynamic of our family, and how it mostly will change you too, that these days will go on, and we will learn how to live with this sadness.

I know that we don't always talk about it very well. I know that our emotions overcome all of us, and we hide into our corners of our home weeping because grief is so very hard for all of us to talk about very well. But I also know that we can share this grief together. And we can remember that our grief is so intense at times because my goodness, how lucky are all of us, that we love and adore each other so much.

The fact that you are so upset tells me that your love is deeper than I even realized. That what your brother means to you and represents is bigger perhaps that I give it credit. And for that I am sorry.

I am sorry that I cannot fix this. That when you shout over and over again, "it's my last birthday with him" that I can't take those feelings away. I know you don't want to hear me tell you right now that it will be okay. I don't even know what to tell you. I'm no longer certain that it really will be okay.

So just know that I feel sad too. And I feel overwhelming love for all of you, for how much you love your brother and sister, for how much we all love each other. And I just have to believe that our love will carry us through this very hard and amazingly wonderful time.

love,
mama

10 February 2016

Six Months...

Dear Carver,

Your first six months we sat on the couch together and watched a lot of baseball while you drank a lot of milk. You cooed. I cooed back. You gurgled. I watched in awe. In those first six months, you learned how to focus your eyes, you learned to smile, you lifted your head, you started following me with your eyes. These were huge milestones and yet rather ordinary ones because every healthy baby does those same things in good time. And still. You were my baby, my child, my first born.

I find it remarkable now, no, astounding that here we are staring down at your last six months before you head off to college. There is much we still don't know. What colleges will accept you? What kind of money will they offer? Ultimately, where will you decide to go? Will you be in New York, Bellingham, Seattle, Walla Walla or Baltimore? These are huge decisions to be made and yet rather ordinary ones because thousands of high school graduates find themselves wondering the same thing.

And I cannot help but reflect. On everything. On the joys of raising you, watching you become and coming into your own, and on my regrets (yes, there are a few because my regrets mean I am flawed, thank goodness.)

These tears you see in my eyes on an ordinary day are not going to be hidden away. You will see them more often in the coming months because whenever I try to imagine our lives here in Spokane without you, the tears rise and then fall. I cannot help it, nor do I want to help it.

My grief at your leaving is huge, but it should not be any kind of deterrent to your leaving. It is my love explored, my love felt, my love learning how to find a way without. I know you see it in all of us. Especially in Papa and Sophia. Sawyer's will come differently, more slowly, less fully realized perhaps until he is older. Or I could be wrong. It may be just as fully realized now.

This is your time. This is one of so many moments for you to be out into the world and become. We are not here to hold you back. We are here to launch you, and it has been one of my greatest privileges in this life to launch you.

Just know that my tears, each one of them represent love, deep abiding love and awe for you and who you are becoming.

I am filled with a desire to give you advice over the next six months; there is a rush inside of me to hurry and teach you everything I've failed to teach so far: please oh please wipe the counters and the stovetop when you clean a kitchen, your future love will forever be grateful. Open doors for anyone--a love, the elderly, a child, your mother, the cat. Hang your clothes immediately after they come out of the dryer or they will wrinkle. There are so many things that swirl through my head and yet...the truth is I have done all that I can already. So really all I can say is just continue to be the remarkable person that you are; all I can do is watch. Love and allow yourself to be loved. And read every novel you can get your hands on.

The rest will fall into place. (and eventually we will be okay)

love,
mama


31 January 2016

End of the first semester of the last year

Today was the last day of the first semester of my oldest son's final year of high school.

He is a senior. He will be graduating in June. With flying colors. With all kinds of accomplishments under his belt. With all kinds of changes between that first day of freshman year when I dropped him off at high school, and he didn't know a single soul, to today. Not. A. Single. Soul. On that first day.

My mama heart ached for him that first day of freshman year.  The quiet one, the one who was likely to sit alone silently at lunch observing the crowds of kids who were reconnecting from the area junior high schools he didn't attend, the quiet one who I left on the steps of that high school while I drove away with tears streaming down my face.

He wore a brave face those first few days, saying very little, as I tried to pummel him with questions. "Slow down," inside my head said. But those of you who know me, know that resisting saying what's on my mind is difficult. So I kept pummeling, and he kept remaining silent.

I still pummel all my kids with questions.

"How was your day?"
"What did you do today?"
"Do you have homework?"

And while I rarely get answers (you ask too many questions all at once, they claim), they too have their own set of questions: "What's for dinner tonight?" (Okay perhaps not a set, but a question nonetheless!)

It doesn't take much to make me cry these days.

I can literally close my eyes and remember pushing Carver out on the day he was born, 18 years and just a few months ago. I can still smell the top of his head. I can hear his sighing as he moves up onto my chest and settles in.

These are perhaps the greatest clich├ęs of all: It will go by in the blink of an eye. He'll grow up so quickly. Before you know it, he will be off to college. 

But I didn't believe them because of course it's not really a blink of an eye. After all on a day when your baby is three months old, and you are home alone with him, and he won't let you set him down for a moment, and you desperately need a shower, there is no time that moves slower than in that day before your husband arrives home to take him out of your arms so you can dash off to rinse the smell of spit up out of your own hair, and you can stand in the shower for just a moment alone and think, this, this is what alone feels like. And then that moment alone ends.

But here we are 18 years later and staring down at that final semester of high school.

There is not a single school within 150 miles that Carver has applied to. In fact, one of the colleges he applied to is 2,637 miles away. (Yes, of course, I google mapped it!)

When I think about him as a baby, as a three-year-old flying through the house in his Superman outfit, as an 11-year-old making videos with his best friend Will, last week when he dashed in from school to grab a sandwich and dash back out to work, my throat catches, and the tears well up in my eyes, and I find myself on the verge of a kind of grief I haven't experienced before.

This is no child dying grief; this is no parent dying grief (and god knows, I know those griefs with an intimacy all too well). No, this is a new kind of grief that hardly makes any sense at all because I want him to grow into an adult, of course. I want him to go off to college and grow into the person one can only become when off at college. I want him to experience all of the wonderful and terrifying and life-changing things that happen when you leave your home.

But dammit, I do not want him to leave us.

This is my grief.

Because, this now. This parenting thing, I've kind of finally gotten down after 18 years. I can do it pretty well now.

And the worst part of the grief?

I like him. I really, really like him.

I like the man my son is becoming, and I want to continue to experience him on a daily basis. I learn from him every day. I'm a better human being when I am around him.

And so I grieve. Pretty openly as those of you know who have found me accosting you as I walk past. Especially those parents who have gone before me, and I grab the sleeves of your shirts to tell you, "This is Carver's last year. He's going to leave us." And each of you give me the all-too-knowing look of kindness as I desperately search your eyes.

I have lumped people into two categories now:

1. Those who respond appropriately: "I'm not going to pretend with you. It's awful. I cried for the first month when my daughter left home."

"I'm so, so sorry. It is so hard."

2. And those who don't respond appropriately: "It will be great." "You'll love recapturing your life."

Go to hell, I want to tell those number twos. Fuck you. 

I'm not looking for you to tell me how I'll feel two years from now. In fact, I'm not at all looking for you to tell me how to feel. I'm looking at you for a little bit of empathy, a little bit of I've been in your shoes, and it totally sucks and I'm sorry kind of empathy.

And don't tell me that my husband and I should have done a better job of being on our own without because we have consciously decided to be fully present for our kids and forgo the weekly date nights. (And this is not what the books say you are supposed to do, but I could give a fuck about those books.)

I will tell you that I have not, for one single moment, regretted not going on a date night or not going overnight with my husband instead of all of us being together. (And I'm pretty sure that my husband would say the same thing.) Because I think I've known this all along. I think from the very beginning, that I've known this truth.

That these years with our children, these 18 years and some months will be just a piece of our entire lives, this time will be just a quarter or a fifth (with any luck, God please!) of our lives, and then it will be over, and I will have the time to sit on the couch and pen these words as he steps out into the night.

"Goodbye, mom," he says, with confidence. "Can I take your car?"

And I sit here on the couch with the tears streaming down my face feeling the ever so sweet milky breath of his mouth as we lie on the couch napping so many years before when every moment of his life depends upon the ability of me to simply be present to make sure when his feet touch the ground to go running, that he is indeed firmly planted.

My grief. My tears. His best years of his life still ahead of him.