Have a Messy New Year

img_0519

It’s January 1. My Christmas tree is still up: crunchy, drooping, and shedding needles profusely. (Bonus: my vacuum smells like pine every time I light it up.) Laundry is piled in the easy chair, Nerf bullets and Legos dot the living room rug, and dirty dishes are stacked in the kitchen sink. Clothes are piled in my bedroom, clean but homeless, and there’s a pink ring inside my toilet bowl.

I did follow through on my one resolution to do a morning devotion upon waking. Granted, I was still snuggling under my bedcovers and squinting at Scripture readings on my phone, but that’s a win.

Commercial breaks on New Years Rockin’ Eve were saturated with Weight Watchers commercials. (Um, Oprah, what’s up with the Groucho Marx glasses?) I appreciated the Planet Fitness ads supporting Squishy People working out. But I’m not biting.

15726644_1210204792388527_7802526339389564338_n

It’s hard to be excited about 2017 when all you want is 2014. It’s hard to be giddy about future life plans when what you really want is to linger in the past.  I know a lot of folks want to give 2016 a Heisman-esque stiff arm. And as years go, 2016 did kind of suck. That said, every Times Square ball drop, for me, is just another mile marker separating me from my son, and it’s nothing to celebrate.

At some point in the last month, I had an epiphany. (HAR! See what I did there, liturgical friends?) I realized, or perhaps, had revealed to me, that the holidays suck for a lot of folks because control issues. Even my best intentions to keep traditions and rituals for my family are stressful for me. Why? Because it means keeping careful control of how things are done, control that dissipated when my son died.

Making New Year resolutions means actively taking control. And that’s not something I feel capable of doing, on so many levels. I told my counselor recently that surviving child loss gives me the same unmoored feeling I experienced during my first, legit California earthquake. I looked around at all the furniture shaking, heard the train rumble of undulating earth, and understood that even terra firma wasn’t trustworthy. Pun fully intended: it’s the most unsettling feeling ever. In that moment, I felt pinprick tiny and utterly powerless.

Maybe there are a lot of folks who feel unready, unworthy, or incapable of seizing the reins of 2017. Maybe this feeling isn’t unique to the grieving. Maybe I’m not the only person who is sorely reluctant to crack a new wall calendar.

Maybe there are other people who also believe retro is better than nouveau. 

So what to do? Well, I’m sure as shit not going to the gym. Yay for all my squishy friends, but I’m not into crowds. I’m not making myself a nasty ass kale smoothie for breakfast. And I’m definitely not emptying all my kitchen cabinets for a thorough decluttering. (Probably should start with the dirty dishes first.)

Instead, I will surrender any pretense of control. Not to chaos, or hopelessness, but to the present. My house is messy. My life is messy. My heart is messy. And I don’t have to pretend otherwise. I don’t need a new schedule. I don’t need resolutions I resolutely won’t keep.

The only plan I do intend to follow through on, in addition to early morning snuggly bed devotions, is an online class in “Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction.” A dear friend suggested it, and I think we can keep each other tracking. We’ll be learning and practicing how to be present and accept what we’re feeling without judgment. (If it sounds granola and West Coast, that’s probably because it is.) It’s basically a course in relinquishing control.

And on January 1st, I’m totally cool with that.

img_0510

The Weight of a Life

A few days back, I actually cleaned off and polished the bookshelves in my living room. I’m good at a lot of things, but cleaning is not my jam. (Just ask my husband, God bless his patience.)

The smiley faces my kids had written in the thick dust kept leering at me. So I sighed, grabbed the can of Pledge and a rag, and got busy. Everything was dusty, including the books, electronics, photos, and aviation bric-a-brac my husband collects like squirrels burying nuts in the fall.

I usually avoid the shelf that is my son’s memorial: his urn, cleverly disguised as a mantle clock; a few memorial candles; a photo book my husband put together; and a carved wooden turtle with Kai’s name on it, a gift from one of my husband’s island friends.

IMG_7983

As I started to move things around, and I lifted Kai’s urn/clock, I was startled by its heaviness. I had forgotten how much it weighed. I haven’t opened the back of his urn, and I really have no desire to see whatever it contains. In my mind, it’s just a bag of grey sand. Having read Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: and Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty, though, I know that cremains aren’t smooth, hourglass sand. And I don’t need to see what’s in my son’s urn.

I don’t want to peer into this small but weighty bag of chunky ash and think,

“This is all that remains.”

Because it’s not all that remains. At least, not right now. Someday, generations from now, Kai will be forgotten. I know that, and it makes me sad, but that’s the truth. He was only 12, so the only legacy Kai has is what we keep. The stories we tell, the pictures and videos we preserve, the clothes and toys and books that are still in his room … those things combined, those are the weight of a life.

I don’t know how much an eternal soul weighs. I assume it’s weightless, as a part of the ether. And my belief that an eternal soul is unchained and unburdened just confirms for me that life in the hereafter will be blissfully scale-free. But for those of us left behind, lifting urns and boxing up toys, a lost life is so heavy, it’s hard to lift.

I’ve avoided writing for almost a year now because I assumed my time was up. I had my window for grief, and at the year mark, that window closed. I assumed. A year was enough, right? A year to be sad and withdrawn and excused is sufficient, right?

What I discovered was this: the first year is about survival. It’s about white knuckling every holiday and anniversary, about gritting teeth and getting through family moments and “celebrations.” It’s about just. Getting. Through.

Year Two is a sickening gut check. It’s, “We’ve been here before, and we’re doing it again, and we’ll have to keep doing it for the rest of our time here.” It’s the realization that this (holiday/ anniversary/ first day of ___) isn’t a one-and-done deal. It’s coming to accept that this backpack of grief may feel lighter at times but that we’ll never take it off, never set it down, never closely examine its contents to decide what we can jettison.

It’s the weight of a life, and I will carry it until the day I die. I will carry it sometimes gladly, sometimes resentfully, but always gratefully. Because I had the privilege of bringing this life into the world, I will carry it all the days that abide. It’s a privilege to carry what remains, because it reminds me of everything I loved, will always love. Like the heaviness of my swollen, pregnant belly; or the weight of a toddler on my hip; or of a sleepy six-year-old lifted into bed; or a snuggly 12-year-old squirming into my lap, this weight is strangely, absurdly welcome.

It reminds me of what was, and what remains, and what I must keep. I think ee cummings said it best.

 

[i carry your heart with me(i carry it in]

BY E. E. CUMMINGS

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in

my heart)i am never without it(anywhere

i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done

by only me is your doing,my darling)

i fear

no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want

no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)

and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant

and whatever a sun will always sing is you

 

here is the deepest secret nobody knows

(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud

and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows

higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)

and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart

 

i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)

 

 

 

 

 

Not bitter, not better, just broken         

Today is our son’s 14th birthday. Well, what would have been his 14th birthday. He’s forever 12 ½, but we can’t forget the day he was born.

IMG_9635

We were stationed at NAS Whiting Field in the Florida panhandle, and I was already gravitating to the “crunchy” side. We had hired a doula, Shining Moon, to accompany us to the Naval Hospital for Kai’s delivery in May 2002. She was Taiwanese, with penciled-in, very arched eyebrows, and she spoke soothingly in her Asian accent. I wanted to deliver naturally, which perplexed my husband. “Pilots NEVER get to take drugs. Get the free drugs, baby!” I was in good shape, almost 32, and confident I could do this.

We went into the hospital that morning because I admitted I was leaking amniotic fluid. Tick tock, they said. Must start the Pitocin. All day, as I rolled around on an exercise ball, the Pitocin flowed freely and increasingly. Shining Moon whispered affirmations, massaged my back, and brought me heat packs for my contracting belly. Finally, at 9:00 PM, all hell broke loose. Transition.

Leaning against the edge of the hospital bed, I knew the baby was coming. It was too late for any pain relief. We didn’t know the gender, but I felt confident it was a boy. Just as Kai started to emerge, a doctor ran into the room, latex-covered hand outstretched, barely in time to catch the baby who came flying into this world. In my postpartum haze, I decided our child needed four names: Jacob Kai Wallace Wright. Not too far away from John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt, right? By two months, we realized Jacob-Kai, or my suggestion, Ja’Kai, were just unworkable. We had his name legally changed, figuring “KWW” would look better on a monogram anyway

In our family, on your birthday, you wake to baby photos strung across the living room. Your birthday gifts await you, so you can open them at breakfast. You choose the menu all day long. It’s YOUR day, and we celebrate YOU. For the second time, we’re bumbling through how to celebrate someone’s day when they’re not present.

IMG_9639

We hung the photos for Kai. We made his favorite breakfast, a Dutch Baby Pancake. Later I’ll go pick up steak and potatoes for Kai’s birthday dinner. But today, there will be no cake with candles. No “Happy Birthday” song. No gifts to open. It’s the un-birthday, and we’re all acutely aware that’s our truth.

IMG_9643

I’ve heard, and read, in several bereavement groups that the second year is harder. The first year is white knuckling through every holiday, every anniversary, every moment. It’s survival. The second year, reality has settled like a San Francisco fog. Every moment is the realization that this is it. This is our forever. This is our every year. We’ll continue getting older while Kai stays forever 12. Someday, not too long from now, our 6 year old will be 12. The thought alone is crushing.

On days like today, I abandon that whole, binary “getting bitter or getting better” paradigm. It’s very ‘Murican, believing hardship can do one of two things: ruin you, or make you stronger. As Americans, we’re very fond of the “hard times make you better” scenario. I totally bought into that as a military wife, surviving multiple combat deployments. What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, we would tell ourselves. Every time we grit our teeth and lean in, we’re only growing our superpowers. Put on your big girl panties, ladies, and embrace the suck.

Today, I’m embracing the suck, but not because I’m seeking healing, or superstrength. I’ve decided I’m OK in the place where I am today, broken, and sobbing, and weak. I’m OK wanting to stay in, stay close, stay tearful, stay quiet. I’m OK touching Kai’s clothes, his origami, his Nerf guns, his Rubik’s cubes. I’m OK looking through photos and videos, invoking the moments and memories that are all that remain. I’m OK being broken.

IMG_9641

I’m discovering that this place, this broken and vulnerable place, is where change happens. It’s in this place that I have to lean in on faith, and abandon my own resources. It’s in this place that I can feel the deepest compassion for all the other loss mothers in my new community. It’s in this place that time becomes precious and memories become treasures. It’s in this place that I am humble. It is here that God speaks to me and tells me I am not alone, and don’t need to make this journey by myself. In this broken place, I am better. I am more real, more kind, more accepting, more open. It’s OK if the wound stays open.

The gift today is the one Kai has given to me. I am better for knowing him and loving him, even though it’s painful. The suffering I’m enduring now is the price of great love, complete love. I am open, and broken, and often scared, but at the same time, I feel brave. If I can survive Kai’s birthday without him, I know there are much greater things I can accomplish. Being broken, ultimately, is what changes me, in so many beautiful ways. I don’t want to be bitter, and I don’t want to be all healed and better. No. I want to stay broken, ever mindful of my heartache, and allow that wound to grow dendrites. I want it to be a place where I meet my God and I meet other hurting people.

Kai was always looking out for the new kid, the outsider, the one who needed help. Let my heartache channel Kai’s desire. May I be the helper Kai was, and may my brokenness help me meet people where they are.

 

Still Standing. Like a Boss.

My little guy is running a fever, and just wants to hang out on the couch. He snuggled up to me, digging his curly noggin into my chest.

“What happened to your pillows, mom?”

It was his 5-year-old way of commenting that certain parts of me are shrinking. I’ve been on this not-so-awesome eating plan called The Anxiety Diet, which mostly involves not eating. Or sleeping. Or breathing normally. It’s the worst way to lose weight.

Last week, dread was feeding my anxiety like trash into an incinerator. The hotter the fire burned, the more I ground my teeth, and avoided eating, and drank adult beverages. I wanted my pulse to slow down. I wanted the panicky feeling to go away. I wanted to sleep. I wanted to just stop feeling so much.

IMG_8083Today, I’ve consumed almost every carb in my house. Months-old tortilla chips? Good. Stale biscotti? Better. Trader Joe’s Lemon Squares? Why is the box suddenly empty? My appetite has returned with a vengeance. No worries, Little Man. The pillows will be back soon.

My jaw has unclenched. My forehead has unfurrowed. My heart is beating normally. Yes, my heart is still beating. Last week, Dread had convinced me I wouldn’t survive this week. Dread kept whispering that it was too much, that I just couldn’t, that I’m not able. What did I think would happen? That I’d become so overwhelmed with emotion that I’d stop functioning? That I’d be catatonic or psychotic? That Jesus Lord I will completely lose my shit and CPS will come take my kids and my husband will divorce me and I’ll have to be hospitalized indefinitely?

So far, none of that has happened. Kai’s Homecoming Day is still a few days off, and I know there will be difficult moments. There will be crying. There will be a few waves of grief that will smack down hard and pull away slowly. There will be moments I still have those terrible guilt/anger feelings that are nauseating. But they won’t last, and the sadness will subside.

IMG_8084

Something released. For all the times in the last few weeks I heard, “You can’t, you’re not able, it’s too much,” my faith has reminded me this week, “You don’t have to be able.” It’s hard to explain to someone without faith that surrender doesn’t mean I’ve given up. It means I’ve turned outward, upward, rather than inward. It means I’ve relinquished the illusion of control. In the immortal words of Carrie Underwood, Jesus took the wheel. (Which is a very good thing, as my husband will tell you I’m the girl who makes all female drivers look bad.)

A stream of encouraging messages and emails has already started. This week, there will be people bringing us meals. There will be many people praying for us and with us. There will be people on both coasts thinking about us often and compassionately. There will be a group gathering at the beach in San Diego to remember Kai and hold my family close. People are setting up, making candles, preparing music, buying bags of marshmallows, helping with the little guy, doing whatever they can to make the gathering easy for my family.

And at the end of this week, I will wake up The Day After. Yes, I will wake up, still the mother of three, still surviving, still believing. I’ll still be a terrible driver, and I’ll still be missing my son. But I will know unequivocally that I survived this week because of faith, and friends, and family. And I will still be standing. Like a boss.

Breaking Bed

IMG_7981

It’s been a while, friends. I’d found that comfortable thinking/not really thinking mode that allowed me to float through a summer without Kai, prep for a school year without Kai, plan a holiday vacation without Kai.

The bubble finally burst four weeks ago with the onslaught of back-to-school photos. All the freshly-braced faces, all the clean haircuts, all the squeaky sneakers of all the thirteen year old, sweet, gangly boys, ready to start a new school year with their new backpacks and longer shorts. All those lives with so much promise, and Kai was not among them.

I could feel this visceral spiral into constant anxiety, where my gut twists in that horrible, unsettled panic of sliding sideways in my car on a patch of ice. It’s that feeling that I may still be able to keep this under control, but only if my tires catch traction in 3 … 2 … 1.

IMG_7889

Right now, my daughter and my husband are dismantling Kai’s bed, the bed where I found him nearly a year ago, not breathing, tongue protruding, lips purple. That horrible, indelible moment is all I see when I look at that damn bed, and I thought I couldn’t wait to take it apart. Now, hearing the banging, the pieces dropping, the deconstruction of my boy’s favorite place to hang out – it’s eviscerating. We’re taking the bed apart because we’ve finally, finally acknowledged he will never sleep there again.

The shrine of condolence cards, secret romances revealed in notes, My Little Ponies, Rubik’s cubes, stuffed animals, pajamas, paper cranes, photos, certificates that had all assembled there? They’ve been put into a box without too much thought. No energy to linger over each memory right now. After the bed goes, we can haggle over what should remain. I want a freshly painted, earthy Zen retreat that holds no reminders of a 12-year-old boy. I want a fresh backdrop for new memories. The rest of my family wants to remember it as Kai’s space, and keep some mementos in place. We even debated washing the bedding and clothes that have sat for almost a year. Surely all the Kai smell has diminished by now and we can rinse away the last of the adolescent bugs?

The negotiations get tense, but we try to approach them with calm, loving, compromise. We all have different memories we cling to, spaces we hold sacred, framed photos that are meaningful. How do we honor each other’s memories, but still create a place that’s comfortable for each of us? It takes a lot of raw conversation, with tears, occasional yelling, lots of deep breaths, hugs, open  faces, and acceptance. I keep praying with my breath one of my favorite quotes from Julian of Norwich: ““All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”

IMG_7983

It has to be done. Kai isn’t in a 10 X 12 carpeted space. Kai isn’t limited by our photos, our tschotske, our paper cranes, or even by our love. He is so much bigger than our perceptions and our memories. We want to keep him in this neat little figurative box, but that’s not Kai. He was an explosion of love, of life, of faith, of family, of friendship, of kindness, of Kai-ness. We debated what to do with the bed, and ultimately decided it had given our family 11 years of sturdy service, but that we didn’t want to pass any memories on to any other families. More practically minded folk may have said, ‘But, but, a needy family could have used those bunk beds!” To which I would say, “Ikea can help you make new memories, and they’ll be happy to sell you a box of pieces and an Allen wrench.”

IMG_7982

I won’t miss that bed. Whatsoever. I’m glad it’s in pieces. I’m glad my husband is cutting it apart even now in the garage and sending it to a slow death in the landfill. It was a part of our story, but it doesn’t need to be anymore, and it doesn’t need to be part of another family’s story. It had a finite purpose. There are times I feel the same way about Kai’s life: it had a finite purpose, but with infinite meaning. His memory doesn’t need to be limited by things, or places.

As the one-year anniversary of his “Homecoming” approaches, I want to think of him without the parameters of this world. He’s transcended blankets and bean bag chairs and Legos. Do those things exist in heaven? Maybe, but I know we don’t have to cling to them to know Kai is still part of us, still part of our family, always. I like to believe Heaven isn’t geographically far away, but more metaphysically distant. Maybe it exists right next to us but we’re not able to comprehend the mystery of it? That brings me immeasurable comfort. Kai doesn’t need a bed to sleep in, but he still needs people to come home to sometimes. And he will always, always be welcome, bed or no bed.

IMG_7979

I Would Rather Be Ashes than Dust

Jack London has always been, will always be, one of my favorite writers. His style is terribly manly, his subjects hubris-filled survivalists. I remember listening to his short story, “To Build a Fire,” in Mr. Shobe’s 7th grade English class, on an actual phonograph, anxious and chewing my nails because I knew its inevitable conclusion.

Although the provenance of this quote isn’t absolutely verifiable, most sources attribute it to Jack London. It has his cadence and his brashness, and I’ve loved it since I first heard it on an Outward Bound sailing expedition in Penobscot Bay, Maine, back in my early 20s.

11

Not too many weeks ago, on the 9 month crap-versary, actually, I read this quote again. As I turned it over, I had an epiphany. I can continue stumbling through my days, white knuckling everything on The Family Calendar, dreading seeing people, ignoring my phone, hiding online, praying and breathing through the hours until I can sleep again. It’s gotten me this far, and it’s kind-of-sort-of working. I’m what a lot of recovery programs would call “high functioning.” I can keep doing what I’m doing.

Photo by Emily Wright, 2015.

Photo by Emily Wright, 2015.

Or maybe … maybe there is another way. Maybe I can do more than survive this. Maybe I can make the choice not to just survive, not just to exist, but to live. I would rather be ashes than dust!

Photo by Emily Wright, 2015.

Photo by Emily Wright, 2015.

It means I need give up the fight, to give up this illusion that grief is something I need to beat back into submission. Grief isn’t my opponent. She is an unwelcome interloper who has taken up residence in my guest room. Ignoring her, diminishing her, pretending she was simply passing through, refusing to acknowledge her constant presence, or actively trying to hold her at arms’ length – all that requires a ridiculous amount of energy. Energy I could be spending on my husband, my children, my friendships, my faith, my writing, my education, my aspirations. I need to maybe not welcome her, but at least accept her as a constant companion.

Ann Voskamp, www.aholyexperience.com, 2015.

Ann Voskamp, http://www.aholyexperience.com, 2015.

It means I need to relinquish My Future. My vision of homeschooling and raising three kids to adulthood has been radically changed. All those plans, all those future celebrations, all the photographs of milestones, all the trips and family nights and even quiet moments with my three kids snuggled around me … I have to open my clenched fists and just. Let. Go.

Photo by Emily Wright, 2015.

Photo by Emily Wright, 2015.

It means I have to move past thinking “I’ll never get to” and embrace “I’m grateful I can.” Instead of dwelling on everything that will never be, how can I welcome the possibilities? What are the possibilities?

I get to be healthy. I’m choosing to beat back not grief, but high cholesterol, high blood pressure, extra weight, and constant fatigue. I get to choose food that will make me feel better, not worse. I get to sweat a few times a week when I run realllly slowly. I get to stretch my middle-aged muscles and calm my mind in yoga class. I even get to work out with my husband and feel closer through our almost-20-years-married commiseration.

I get to be spiritual. This is probably fodder for a separate post. Separate blog. Separate book. The self I knew has been not just diminished, but demolished. There is so much room for His grace, His love, His perfection. I get to start over, recreated in His image. By relinquishing my own plans and my control, I allow Him to use my life in ways beyond my understanding. I am not a victim. I am a witness. How, Lord, can I open myself to Your love, Your glory, Your intention? How can I grow deeper in my relationship with you? My wound is still so wide and so deep. How can I allow You to fill it with healing and grace?

I get to be connected. We were created for community. The harsh truth of grief is that it acts as a winnowing fan. There are friends who will walk with me through the valley, and there are folks who will stand on the cliff and pray. That’s not a judgment, whatsoever. I know the people who are praying still hold my family in their hearts but maintain a respectful distance. We are not forgotten, and the random messages I get weekly remind me of their love. There are a handful of women at my elbow, who are willing and able for whatever reasons, and they grab me when I falter.

I get to be transparent. Maybe this seems like a terrible side effect rather than a welcome gift. As a woman in well into her 40s, however, transparency is something I relish. I have no secrets. My feelings, my grief, are at the very surface of my life. To know me is to know my suffering and my sadness, even though I try to gloss over it sometimes. I’m broken and hurting. If you’re OK with that, then welcome, sister. Let’s be authentic together.

I get to be sad. How often do we give ourselves permission to feel sadness? It sounds hokey, but the foil for sadness is happiness. Embracing one means celebrating the other. The moments we’re happy as a family? So much brighter. The moments I keen for my son? So much sadder. “I would rather be ashes than dust. I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet.” I get to LIVE this existence to its fullest.

Today, friends, what do you choose?

Best. Weekend. Ever.

IMG_6823Since long before my conversion to Catholicism my senior year in college, I kept a few quotes from St. Augustine in my Bible. One of them, probably my favorite one

“Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.”

What teen doesn’t feel longing and searching? Isn’t that what adolescents and young adults do? Search for themselves? In that one sentence, I found my beginning, my end, and everything that would happen in between. As a middle-aged adult, I relate more to the finding rest part, but I still love me some Augustine.

I spent this past weekend with 5000+ Catholic young people at a faith conference here in San Diego. Somehow, I wasn’t surprised when the t-shirts for our parish showed up on Friday and featured a riff on that very quote.

It’s difficult to describe the energy of thousands of kids packed into one arena. Thrilling? Vibrant? Pulsating? It’s a very pure, unjaded energy. As adults, I think we sometimes assume teens are smaller intellectual versions of us, and that their cynicism is already clouding their worldview. That’s not what I saw, what I experienced, this weekend. IMG_6812 Straight fact: teenagers have a lot of energy. Magnify that 5000 times, throw in some thrumming music and enthusiastic shouting, and the building starts vibrating. Add the rushing wind of the Holy Spirit and now the arena is practically lifting off its foundation. I know for certain this isn’t what most people picture when they think of Catholicism. Really, teenagers are THIS happy to celebrate their faith?

For a lot of people, both inside and outside the Catholic Church, we can’t imagine young people so thrilled about an ancient faith, its teachings, its rituals, and its rich sacraments. We don’t realize that young folk are capable of deep reverence, deeper respect, moments of meditative silence, and ministry to each other. I saw all that, and more.

Throngs of teens waiting to receive the sacrament of reconciliation. Photo by Pamela Poe.

They waited for hours approaching midnight, some the next day in the blazing sun, to receive the sacrament of reconciliation. Teenagers waited and suffered so they could confess their sins, be absolved, and fall back into the waiting, open arms of Christ and welcome His grace. During the masses, every voice echoed. Every response was solid, every song confident. Hands were raised in worship and praise and stretched out in prayer. Eyes closed and faces raised.

Watching young people, so deeply invested and committed, participating so fully – it was strangely intimate. They were so unabashed and so transparent. How often do we, as parents, get to see our teens so completely unguarded? I almost felt like I was intruding on a deeply private moment.

Deeper still was adoration on Saturday evening.

As Roman Catholics, we believe in the True Presence of Christ. During mass, with the priest’s words of consecration, simple bread and wine are transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit. Though they appear the same, their substance is changed. They become for us the body and blood of Jesus Christ. In that consecrated host, Jesus is fully present.

Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament with Father Dave Pivonka

Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament with Father Dave Pivonka

That means we have the privilege of Jesus’ company, believing He is truly, physically present with us. We reverence that host (aptly named), kneeling and praying in adoration. When 5000 teenagers fall to their knees before Jesus, overwhelmed by tears, joy, reverence, devotion, and worship – no words can capture the impact of that experience. These were young people encountering their God on a deeply personal level. I had to remind myself to breathe. In Saint Augustine’s words,

“O Beauty ever ancient, ever new … you called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness.  You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness.  You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you.  I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more.  You touched me, and I burned for your peace.”

I watched them, ablaze with faith and hope and love, hugging and holding hands and searching each other’s faces because they knew. They knew they were being changed and that they were not alone. What a privilege to witness such a sacred, beautiful moment.

It was a lot to process afterwards, even as a middle-aged adult. As I’ve prayed in the days following, I asked God to reveal how what I experienced could change me. I think more and more will be revealed in the weeks ahead, but one truth became clear.

We revere, we adore, something so terrible. The broken, battered and crucified body of Christ is the summit of sacredness. It’s so deeply holy because it is the means of our salvation. His suffering, so violent and awful, is made beautiful because of what it accomplished. In my own life, could my own suffering be a path to holiness? Could something so terrible be transformed into something beautiful?

After what I witnessed this past weekend, I know the answer. And I’m confident a generation of young people are rising, full of faith, set apart for a holy purpose, and united in their hope. We have hope because we have Christ.

IMG_6785

I Surrender

It’s been a few more weeks of firsts, in this year of firsts: my birthday, the start of summer, Father’s Day, the annual county fair. I had my first encounter at the community pool with a mom I hadn’t seen since last summer. “Where’s your other son?” she asked brightly. “My guy is so excited to swim with him again!”

I paused, exhaled, and explained simply that Kai had passed away in October. She looked stricken. I apologized profusely. And then she did something amazing, and beautiful. “Why are YOU apologizing?” she said. “You don’t have anything to apologize for, ever. Can I just give you a hug?” She told me how much her son, a few years younger than Kai, always looked for him at the pool. Kai always included her son in “The Big Kid Games.” Later, her boy approached me and told me that he was sorry about Kai, and that he would miss him. <cue tears>

11051974_1516232471985209_3440217270199262425_oToday, at the fair, I thought of Kai a thousand times. He loved the crazy rides, the fried anything, the carnival games, and the annual smoked turkey leg he shared with his dad. Last summer he was finally tall enough for the Really Big Kid Rides, the ones that twist, flip, jerk, turn upside down, and leave riders feeling pukey. I did one turn on one ride, screaming like a little girl, knowing Kai would have cheered for me from the blacktop below.

Truly, I was afraid for the school year to end and the fair days to begin. It’s not that I mind being with my kids, even the overly energetic and exhaustingly talkative five year old. I was terrified of having so much unstructured time to just sit, and think, and remember. I was afraid of finally having time to do the work of grieving, and no real excuse for avoiding it. But in these first lethargic weeks of summer, I’ve learned something.

Grief isn’t something I have to do right now. It’s something I just have to allow.

Somehow, in my mind, grief had become this series of gates I needed to pass through, and I could only do that by consciously invoking Kai’s memory. I felt like I needed a workbook or DVD series, something that would tell me “this is how you do the work.” A dozen self-help books perch on my nightstand and I’m sure I could glean some direction from them, discern some kind of path.

Eventually, I may need that, when my perspective is longer than a day, or a few days. The truth is that right now, each day is still its own struggle. Every morning before I push the bedcovers back, I breathe the same prayer: “Help me, Jesus. Help me. Help today be a good day. Help me to be of service. Help me to love You more. Please help me get through another day.”

905691_1516233081985148_1248125645455380819_oI still need help to get out of bed. I still need help holding it together in public when the tears well up and start to spill over. I still need help pushing away the recurring thought that I’m not ready to die, but that I don’t want to live without my son. I still need help taking care of the people who are closest to me. I still need help admitting how much I struggle, and need, and function moment to moment.

When I take the time to pray without words, what I hear is this: Quit trying so hard. You’re wasting precious energy trying to force this thing, baby. You can’t fight your way through this. Either you can keep swinging, or you can surrender. Just allow it, and allow Me.

What I visualize is a room with wide plank floors and windows open onto a pastoral scene. I’m sitting in an old cane chair, looking towards the verdant hills, and there’s an empty chair next to me. Grief comes into the room, quietly, gently, and sits in that chair. Slowly, she extends her hand towards me. Without looking at her, without even turning my head, I slowly reach out and take the upturned palm into mine. And we sit there, together, in silence, peacefully watching grass moving in the wind outside.

It’s a relief, such a relief, to just quietly accept her presence. There’s nothing I have to do, change, or move right now. I just have to surrender.

Today, when we got home from the fair, sun crisped and sugar sated, I paused to offer up a thank you prayer. Grief was with me all day but I didn’t have to work to find a space for it, for her. I allowed her, and I allowed His help. And as much as I missed my son at the fair, today was still a good day. It was a good day.

Sometimes, Facebook sucks

F_icon.svgMy husband voiced last night what I’ve been thinking for weeks.

“The last couple of weeks, Facebook has really sucked.”

We both spend a lot of time scrolling our newsfeed. Probably too much. And the last few weeks it’s been a steady stream of prom couples, graduation tassles, backpacks prepped for the last day of school, and shopping for college photos. It’s clumps of handsome adolescents dressed for dances, kids holding certificates, squeezed between parents, smiling awkwardly, “I wish they weren’t growing up so fast” snaps.

What are especially hard are the photos of kids the same age as our son. He would be finishing 7th grade now, getting ready to move on to his last year of middle school, the official entrance into his teen years. He would be getting lanky, pimply, brace-faced, and even more goofy. And like all my Facebook friends, I would be lamenting how fast he was growing up.

It’s easier to just scroll past those pics to look for DIY projects, book reviews, or meaty articles from Salon or the Atlantic. It’s not that I’m spiteful, or angry. I don’t want to steal anyone’s joy. I’m not wishing guilt on anyone for celebrating.

But I also know that sometimes, the reminders are too heavy. Every photo is another prick at my already sensitive skin. And every mention of “bittersweet” or “growing so fast” just reinforces that my son will forever be 12 ½.

In the months since October, I’ve met other “loss moms.” We keep in touch online, or through texts, and we say the things we can’t say publicly. A few of them just delete their Facebook app this time of the year, or make a conscious effort to stay away from social media. If I had more self control, and a weaker dependence on Facebook, I would do the same. Truthfully, though, it’s how I can interact with people without having to actually, you know, interact.

I’ve also had to make a few conscious choices.

I don’t have to applaud. All the young people I see online have loving people to celebrate them and their accomplishments. If I’m not in the virtual front row to cheer, that’s OK. In time, I will. My close friends are acutely aware that it’s a struggle for me. They understand if I’m not liking and commenting on every photo.

I don’t have to feel resentful. While my son was alive, I was proud of him. I will forever be proud of him. How could I possibly resent other parents wanting to show off their own kid’s amazingness? They should own that moment and embrace it, just like we did with our boy. I only start to feel bitter when I allow myself too much head room for the future.

I don’t have to measure my happiness against the online lives of others. The moments I’m seeing captured in all the smiling photos are just that – moments. While it’s true very few people are walking the exact same journey as my family, that doesn’t mean everyone else is living in Hunky-Doryville. Our online personas are only part of who we really are, the part we want people to see and admire. We keep the rest a little closer, and a lot quieter.

I need to celebrate the kids here, in my arms, as much as the one I’m parenting long distance. It’s a constant struggle to focus my attention on the present moment. Right now, the five year old is begging me to come play Legos, which is probably my least favorite parenting activity. But I will pause, and I will play, and I’ll be reminded of the importance of creating memories that don’t have a digital stamp. Last night, our teen received a leadership award at her swim team banquet. I was elated, for her and for me. I needed something to celebrate.

I need to choose gratitude, over and over. That sounds incredibly cliché. Truly, though, a steady stream of thank you prayers is what moves me through a day. It keeps me moving forward when I just want time to pause, to stop putting distance between my son and me. If I can be grateful for what was, and what is, then I won’t spend so much time grieving what will never be.

I need to spend less time online, period. Summer is nearly here and there are a hundred other things I could be doing. It’s laziness and security that draw me back to my laptop. I can lose hours on Facebook, reading news articles, looking up recipes I’ll never cook, putting things in my Amazon cart I’ll never buy, and going down rabbit holes of “research” into maudlin topics. It’s a distraction from the noise in my mind and usually an utter waste of time (unless I find a really good book recommendation.)

Kai's collection of Brazilian jiu jitsu competition medals

Kai’s collection of Brazilian jiu jitsu competition medals

It’s not Facebook’s fault that it sucks sometimes. It’s just a different experience, looking at it through grief glasses. Everything is filtered through a grayer lens. I still have reminders of my son’s accomplishments I can savor: framed certificates, medals, photos, videos, memories of moments. I’m still a proud mom of our other two, one in high school and one starting kinder, bookending our parenting years. There’s still a lot of moments to come that I’ll preserve on my phone and in my heart.

For the next couple of weeks, though, I think I’ll go back to my one-day-at-a-time strategy that got me through those first few months. Get up, get dressed, do today, go to bed. Eat something healthy, go for a walk, pray, pray again. Keep moving and avoid lingering online for too long. The internet will be there when I get back, and in a few weeks, Facebook will be full of amusement parks and barbeques and beaches. The scenery will change and my digital dilemma will be resolved. Until this time next year. And by then, hopefully, I’ll be wearing a newer pair of glasses, and will have other things to celebrate, and maybe the fortitude to take a Facebook break altogether. Chances are I’ll still be working my way through all the books now sitting in my Amazon cart, too.

Kai's award for being a tissue donor, and for our toy donations in his honor to Children's Hospital

Kai’s award for being a tissue donor, and for our toy donations in his honor to Children’s Hospital

Life Is Too Short to Stay Angry

Cliches irritate me. So do platitudes. And I’ve heard a lot of them since our son passed away. They persist, though, because of a certain veracity. In the past few weeks, one phrase has resonated.

 Life is too short to stay angry.

RJLargeThe night before Kai passed away, I watched a movie with his older sister. She had just finished reading “Romeo & Juliet” so we rented the Baz Luhrmann version with Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes. It’s a bizarre take on it but I thought our then 14-year-old would appreciate the cool visuals and contemporary music. Kai wasn’t interested in the movie, whatsoever, and kept coming into the living room to bug us by making noises. Twelve year old boys cultivate their annoying noises repertoire and Kai’s was legendary.

We kept snapping at him to go away, be quiet, knock it off. Finally, I yelled, really yelled, with Angry Mommy Face, “THAT. IS. ENOUGH.” He slunk away and didn’t come back to bother us again. We watched the rest of that completely bizarre movie in silence.

In retrospect, I can see that he just wanted to be with us. He was jealous, probably, that I was hanging out with Emily. We invited him to watch with us, wanted him to watch, but really, what preteen boy has any interest in Romeo & Juliet? He felt left out. I did apologize to Kai later that night for yelling, but apologies don’t rewind time or undo angry words. So many times since he’s passed, I’ve asked Kai again to forgive me. I know he has. I’m just struggling to accept his forgiveness.

The irony of that scene with my son, that I’ve played over a hundred times now, is sharp. In Shakespeare’s story, two teenagers die because their families are angry over small offenses that escalated. I didn’t have to yell at Kai. I shouldn’t have let my anger get to that place. But I did. I’m not blaming that argument for Kai’s death, and there were plenty of other times I snapped at my preteen because he was acting like an annoying preteen. What I will never be able to change is the horribly unfortunate timing of a horribly stupid exchange.

In the New Testament, anger is mentioned multiple times. Christ himself was angry, white-hot angry, in that famous flipping-the-temple-tables scene. As a second grader in Sunday school, I would picture Jesus transforming into The Incredible Hulk and smashing the folding tables in the church hall with massive, green fists. I’m pretty sure that’s not how it actually went down, but I liked the visual of His righteous rage, and of Lou Ferrigno as Jesus Christ.

As an adult, I understand what was happening. Jesus was angry that His Father’s house, the temple, had become The Mall of Jerusalem. Even though his anger flared, and even though He acted on it, Christ didn’t cultivate his anger over days and weeks. He didn’t practice angry rebuttals while driving in the car, or compose multiple, snarky emails he may or may not have sent. Jesus’ teachings, and Paul’s discussions in the epistles, warn about holding on to anger. They warn that nursing an offense, at its core, is choosing not to forgive.

 Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.” Ephesians 4:30-32

Jesus knew His time on earth was short. The early Church, and Paul especially, thought Christ’s return was imminent. They had X amount of time. There was no room for the division anger causes. They understood wounds very possibly wouldn’t have time to heal.

Recently, some very angry words were exchanged within our extended family at a time when everyone was feeling particularly vulnerable. The shields were down on the Starship Enterprise and some major damage was sustained. Hurt continues to linger. Reconciliation feels impossible.

I’m not angry about it. I know, so acutely, that life is too short to hold on to anger. We assume there will be time for apologies, for forgiveness, for healing. Most of the time, we will have that opportunity. Most of the time. And sometimes we learn, in the most harrowing of ways, that time doesn’t belong to us, and there are no more days.

Yes, a Happy Birthday

IMG_5021Soon after our son passed away, I started dreading this day. I would often think, “Oh, God. His birthday. How will we ever get through that day? It’s going to be terrible. That will be the second worst day of my life.”

How would we possibly feel any joy on his birthday? It’s a day that should be all about celebrating him, but there is no him anymore, not physically. We’d talked about having a party but decided it would be too weird, having a birthday party with no birthday boy.

How could this day be anything other than wrenching? The anticipation of today, not the good kind, has fed the monster in my mind that eats anxiety like potato chips. I’ve spent the last few days constantly feeling like I could throw up.

Last minute, I decided to start the day by going to daily mass. Even if I couldn’t concentrate on it, I thought, at least I could savor the quiet time. At the start of mass, Father always mentions for whom the mass is offered. I hadn’t checked the schedule in the bulletin, so I was surprised to hear it was being offered for our Kai. A thoughtful church friend must have requested it, remembering today is Kai’s birthday. In the pauses between prayers, I listened to the fountain in our church that is the baptismal font.

I left mass with an overwhelming sense of peace, and, strangely, a strong feeling of gratitude. That surprised me. Where had that come from? Why would I be thankful, in any way, for a day that I had already anticipated to be flat out horrific? Driving home, I made a decision. I would consciously find reasons today for gratitude. Maybe it was corny, or fakey, but if I could turn my mind towards gratefulness, maybe it would keep me from feeling overwhelmed by sadness.

And then it began.

A cascade of messages, emails, gifts, prayers, and thoughtfulness poured over us. It continued all day. I had reason after reason to offer a thank you prayer, and then another, and another. Strung together, those prayers are what pulled me through today. photo 1 Thank you, Lord, for friends and family who lifted us up in prayer and remembered us in positive thoughts, and for all the messages they sent. Because of them, our loneliness is diminished. When we start to feel isolated, they remind us we’re not making this journey alone.

Thank you for the Hawaiian music that filled our house today. How can anyone listen to slack key guitar and Bruddah Iz and not feel happier?

Thank you for the promise of heaven. We know any birthday celebration here is just a portion of the eternal celebration with You. We know Kai is happy, and free, and living every moment in the Light of your Love. We know that we have the hope of seeing him again, perfected and joyful.

Thank you for the Eucharist, and for our church family. We can hold You so close, and be held close by others. Faith is what binds us together. When anxiety overwhelms us, in the moments we felt so scattered and confused, we remember we are tightly wound in Your love and in community.

Thank you for special gifts that appeared today: a book, a card, a beautiful birthday cake, bouquets of My Little Pony balloons, party supplies, a collection of funny stories. We didn’t want to celebrate today, but a pre-packaged party showed up at our door. How could we say no?

Thank you for hot wings. They were Kai’s favorite, and having them today reminded us of so many fun family times.

Thank you for gifting us with 12 ½ years of light and joy. We have so many good moments to hold on to, to take out and turn over, when the sadness creeps in. We could be bitter about the time we won’t have, but then we remember: those moments we will never have with Kai were never ours to hold. We were given 4,544 days. Those are ours to keep forever, and today, we celebrated every one of them. cake Today was not the nail-biting test of endurance I had anticipated. It wasn’t the best day, but it wasn’t horrible. It wasn’t anything close to horrible. Our family was together today, all of us, including Kai. In every kindness, message, and prayer that was gifted to us today, Kai was present. I was able to exhale, after weeks of holding my breath, and breathe in peace. With a lot of help, I was able to experience more gratitude than grief. Tears came, but they didn’t linger. Today was a happy birthday, and for that, I’m especially grateful.

Sand, Sun and Shingles

DSC_0182

Emily Wright, 2015.

Our quickie family staycation had been arranged a few months ago at a cute beach cottage, one of the many perks of living in Southern California. As all moms know, however, packing for a two day trip might as well be packing to flee the zombie apocalypse. Our SUV crammed with beach toys, blankets, firewood, roasting sticks, and a plethora of junk food, we headed 45 minutes up Pacific Coast Highway. This would be our first vacation as a family of four, not five. We purposefully chose a place that was new to us.

Regrettably, however, at my doctor’s visit the day before departure, I learned the angry, ridiculously painful rash on my neck was shingles. Wait, what? Isn’t The Shingles an old people disease? But I’m not even 45. OK, next month, but not yet.

My doctor explained, “Stress can make you sick.”

“Duh.”

“No, really,” she said, all thirty-something perky, “shingles is often triggered by stress, coupled with a weak immune system, which can be caused by stress. Have you been under any unusual stress lately? Are there any factors in your life that could be causing stress?” I was wondering how many more times she could say stress.

I briefly explained the last seven months. Said I was coping really well, I thought, and I have a therapist and a support group and go to church and even work out occasionally. And that OK, I eat too many carbs and drink too much wine, but I’m totally coping. In my mind.

My body, apparently, isn’t coping so well. Which is why the chicken pox virus lurking in my nervous system decided it was time for a rave. On my neck and face. I can deal with a rash that looks like leprosy. But the pain? I had unmedicated births, because I’m a martyrish dumbass, and the fire of herpes zoster brings back some horrible memories.

DSC_0759

Emily Wright, 2015.

I was hoping the sand, saltwater and sunshine would be a miracle cure, along with The White Man’s Medicine and some decent wine. The coast was slightly overcast and breezy, which meant perfect weather for reading on the beach. I brought along Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking,” a memoir she wrote about the year following her husband’s sudden death. Some of her literary references are so highbrow I had to google them, but much of what she writes resonates. This passage stopped me:

The English social anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer, in his 1965 Death, Grief, and Mourning, had described this rejection of public mourning as a result of the increasing pressure of a new “ethical duty to enjoy oneself” a novel “imperative to do nothing which might diminish the enjoyment of others.” In both England and the United States, he observed, the contemporary trend was “to treat mourning as a morbid self-indulgence, and to give social admiration to the bereaved who hide their grief so fully that no one would guess anything had happened.”

And there it was. The stupid shingles setting my nerves on fire? All the energy I put into appearing normal, functioning as normal, going on with life as normal, taking a family vacation as normal — that was energy diverted from my flagging immune system. There’s a visceral economy of grief, and I’d maxed out my card. In the immortal words of Stinger to Maverick, “Son, your ego is writing checks your body can’t cash.”

DSC_0695

Emily Wright, 2015.

The one benefit, if there is any benefit to the nastiness of shingles, is that I can complain. I can kvetch about how terrible I feel, in messages and texts and emails and conversations, and willingly solicit sympathy, and not feel guilty receiving it.

Focusing on physical pain is a welcome distraction from dealing with psychological pain and heart pain, which are a lot harder to describe, much less discuss.

My doctor noted my last visit had been to urgent care, in February, with chest pain and high blood pressure. Did we need to follow up on that? The EKG looked normal. No, I said. I thought I was having a heart attack, with the chest pain radiating into my arm and the sweating and the shortness of breath, but it turned out it wasn’t a heart attack. It was just my broken heart.

The sand and sun and saltwater helped, I guess. I still have shingles. And my heart still hurts most of the time. But at least temporarily, the stress abandoned me so I could read a book, and watch my little guy jump in the waves, and roast marshmallows, and be grateful the four of us could be together. Yes, the four of us.

IMG_6337

To the Mother of Freddie Gray        

150420103907-02-freddie-gray-large-169

I won’t pretend to understand your life, because I know I have no clue. I take for granted the safety and security of suburbia, our good schools, and our quiet neighborhood. I have no idea what it takes to raise kids in Baltimore. I know my situation is different and my experience is different, and I won’t insult you by saying something like, “I can only imagine,” because I can’t. I can’t even imagine.

What I do know is the unimaginable pain of losing a son.

What I do know is the disbelief of walking into your son’s funeral, not even beginning to understand what has happened. I know feeling thankful for all the people who are there to cry with you, pray with you, sing with you, but wanting to be anywhere, anywhere but in that church.

I know waking up every morning without your boy and without all the hope that he held. I know having to let go not just of a young man, but of everything you hoped he would be, become, change, do. I know how every thought of him now makes it hard to breathe.

I know thinking about how your son died is terrifying. All I know is what I’ve read. Before he fell into a coma, maybe he was scared and confused and calling out for his mama because that’s what boys do. My son died alone, and I’m pretty sure he died afraid. My mama heart is rent thinking my son was scared and I wasn’t there for him in the moment he needed me more than any other.

I don’t know if you feel the guilt that I do, the horrible guilt that as a mother, I failed at my most basic, most important job. I question every decision I ever made about my son, thinking “If only I had done this differently” about thousands of choices. There were thousands of moments I could have saved my son, up until the moment I didn’t.

I don’t know how your daughter is doing, your beautiful daughter. We have a daughter, too, and she is so angry that her brother is gone. She loved him, loves him still. She is angry, and so sad, and I can’t help her. I can barely help myself.

I don’t know your life, but I do know your grief. I am sorry, so terribly sorry, that Freddie is gone. I’m so sorry this is your journey, and worse, that it has become so public. I’m sorry people who don’t even know you are dismissive, saying things like, “It’s too bad, another black man dead” as though it’s almost expected, completely forgetting he has a mother who loves him even in death, and how he’s not just another black man, but your son, your beloved son.

You asked the rioters to be calm, that what they were doing “wasn’t Freddie,” but maybe … maybe seeing their rage was almost a release? When my son died, I wanted to scream, scream and seethe and break things and hurt something, hurt myself so I could feel in my body what was happening in my heart. But as mothers, that’s not what we’re supposed to do. We’re expected to sob quietly and talk in whispers about our lost sons.

I’m not that far into this journey. I don’t have any wise words, and it’s not my place anyway. You’re navigating charges, and juries, and justice, and I don’t know if that’s a distraction you want or if it just pours more salt into an already gaping wound. As if the sun coming up every morning isn’t enough of a reminder our boys are gone.

I learned your name. It’s Gloria. Gloria, Freddie’s mom, who misses her son so much, so terribly. Maybe that’s all we have in common. But that’s enough. That’s enough for me to say, “I know. Oh, how I know.” And I’m so sorry, Gloria. I’m so sorry.

I Shall Not Want

There’s nothing wrong with wanting, especially in the first few days of a new year. I’ve spent (far too much) time scrolling through Facebook and reading what friends are proposing to accomplish.

I want to spend at least 30 minutes a day reading.

I want to lose 10% of my body fat.

I want to donate my time monthly to a new-to-me charity.

I want to finish my degree by the end of the year.

We all want to be better versions of ourselves: less cynical, less self-centered, more giving, more patient, more healthy. Maybe that’s just my wish list, and it doesn’t change much from year to year.

I had good intentions of making my own resolutions for this year. I really wanted some kind of plan, any kind of plan that would help me move past the “let’s get through the day” plan I’ve been working since Kai passed. I still want this year to be better than last year, somehow, but the motivation hasn’t come just yet.

As I was procrastinating this on the day before New Year’s Eve, some songs popped up in my Facebook feed from an artist I’ve just started listening to in the past year. A friend suggested Audrey Assad to me, knowing I’d appreciate the artist’s back story as a convert to the Church and as a writer of intellectual lyrics. And there’s something about beautifully written music that brings me comfort when nothing else can.

Listening to this particular song, I had one of those epiphanies that literally stopped me. (Apologies to my family for the late late dinner that evening; I couldn’t stop listening and multi-tasking was impossible.)

 

At the core of my grief, I want.

I want my son here, in his home, in his bed, in my arms.

I want my life the way it was before.

I want the future I had planned, raising all three of my kids.

I want my daughter to grow up with her best friend instead of his memory.

I want my five year old to stop asking me questions about death.

I want to feel confident about my parenting again.

I want this constant sadness to go away.

I want.

And what I want, I can never have. Not in this life. It’s the ultimate unrequited everything, and there is no satisfying this need. Not with distraction, or numbness, or other relationships.

The Christmas season is almost over. (For we liturgical types, it lasts until Epiphany, Three Kings Day, on January 6th.) Somehow, my family stumbled through another holiday knowing our most desperate Christmas wish will never be fulfilled. That upbeat Christmas song, “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” would close my throat and fill my eyes every time it came on the radio. All I want is my dead child back. Is that asking so much?

All my father wants is his dead son, too. Tragically, a month before Christmas, my 39 year old brother passed away unexpectedly. Although my “little” brother wasn’t in perfect 39-year-old health, losing him to an apparent heart attack was shocking, as shocking as losing a 12-year-old to an accidental suicide. When my father called me to tell me, and I heard that awful keening that a parent makes in only the worst circumstances, I knew. I knew, and I felt a fist squeezing under my sternum. “Oh, dad. I’m so sorry. I’m sorry. This is the shittiest club ever, and I’m so sorry. I know how much this hurts. I know.”

My dad spent Christmas with us, a trip he had planned months ago under better circumstances. While he was here, we had many wordless conversations. I knew his sorrow, and he knew mine, and there was a lot we didn’t have to say. And as much as I enjoy watching my husband grow closer to my father, I want it to be for a different reason. Any other reason.

1916949_10208199042963452_4579842213189431984_n

From my 15 year old this Christmas: a hand-stamped necklace, “You are my sunshine” and her sweet embroidery: “Continue to share your heart with people, even when it has been broken.”

Intellectually, I fully understand my son, and my brother, are never returning. Trying to convince my heart that this reality is truth? That’s a Sisyphean task. To be cliché, the heart wants what the heart wants. If feelings were measurable, like forces in physics, what would be stronger than the draw between a parent and child? It is deep, immutable, unarticulated, and persists even through death. In God’s wisdom, He sent his Son to earth as an infant. Why? Because as humans, we understand that deep wanting and protectiveness a parent feels. How else could we have truly fathomed how the Creator feels about us as His children? How else would we have known the constant longing He has for us?

Listening to “I Shall Not Want” a few nights ago, “the Lord put something on my heart,” as my evangelical friends might say.

 

From the love of my own comfort/ From the fear of having nothing/ From a life of worldly passions/ Deliver me O God …

When I taste Your goodness, I shall not want

As long as I cling to The Wanting, which I can justify five ways to Sunday, my grief will limit me. It will limit my love, my other relationships, my willingness to give myself to others. I know, because it already has. Grief’s travelling companion is fear, and together they force me to look behind me rather than in front of me.

“When I taste Your goodness, I shall not want.”

Freedom from want is the only way forward. It doesn’t mean I’ll stop loving my son, or my brother, but it’s possible to love without wanting to possess. It’s a selfless and sacrificial love, the kind of love Christ modeled for us, the kind of love we’re called to live but struggle to embrace because it’s hard. Often, there’s no reciprocity with self-sacrificing love. The act has to be its own reward.

And yet, listening over and over to “I Shall Not Want,” I understood. By releasing what I want, from the smallest physical comforts to the abyss of wanting my child back, I create a space that can be filled with His goodness. Releasing my want will deliver me from the fear that is making my life smaller.

“When I taste Your goodness, I shall not want”

Thankfully, that conscious letting go isn’t something I have to do with my own (very diminished) strength. “When I taste Your goodness” can be literal, like the moments I experience Christ in the Eucharist, or in the sweetness of moments I’m fully present with my family. When I spend time every evening in The Examen, turning over my day and acknowledging God’s presence throughout it, I taste His goodness. When I look at photos of my late son, touch his clothes, allow the tears – even in those moments, I am grateful for God’s goodness; He chose me above all other women to be Kai’s mom.

I haven’t reached any kind of faith nirvana, whatsoever, and I fully anticipate a lot of tripping and falling. (My family calls me “Grace,” sarcastically.) I will snatch back my wanting again and again, nursing it and stroking it and feeling so justified in doing it. Hopefully, it’s in those moments especially that I can choose to taste His goodness. I can choose to love without craving. I can choose freedom over fear.

 

I shall not want.