Have a Messy New Year

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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.

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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.

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.

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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

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

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