Thursday, May 30, 2013

A Fish out of Water

There are anywhere from 5 to 7 to 10 stages of grief and loss depending on who you ask and what website you click on. There's denial and anger and bargaining and depression and all sorts of terms that range from makes sense to coldly technical. And, overlapping all that grief and loss, is the normal emotions that any normal person experiences on any given day: hunger, love, sadness, happiness, stress, confusion, frustration, giddiness, goofiness, and, well, I could go on and on. I guess I tell you this because I need you to know I feel like a fish playing a crazy game of Emotional Twister.

Imagine, if you will, a floor of painted circles, each labeled with a different emotion. Now, go grab a carp from the lake and plop him down in the middle of the playing field. That fish is going to flop this way and that way (and never in any logical direction). Just when you think it's headed towards happiness it flips on over to anger. In the blink of an eye it has flopped on over to hope. On and on it flips and flops. It's exhausting to watch.

It is exhausting to live.

Yesterday I was driving along, doing fine, when I saw two kids walking down the street. From the back the girl looked just like Avery. I found myself so excited! So hungry to see her face - even though I logically knew there was no possible way it could be her. The disappointment and let down I felt when I saw that girl's face; a face that was not Avery. I sobbed driving, my heart caught in my throat making it impossible to breathe. And yet, thirty minutes later I'm explaining my words, "I don't like that this happened, but I like where it has taken me." How do you explain this hope that exists amongst such sorrow?

I want to scream at people: LOOK AT YOUR KIDS! Really look at them! Look inside to their hearts and their souls. Stop huffing and puffing because they don't act exactly the way you want them to. I want to tell parents to line their children up, side by side. Look into their smiles, feel their love for you. Now, imagine one gone. Imagine one of your beautiful, precious children 100% absolutely gone, never, ever to return to you. Never to again speak your name or hold your hand. Never to pout or stomp a foot. Never to sing or play or skip or smile ever, ever again.

Can you imagine? I mean. can you even begin to fathom what that means? What that feels like?

Because if you can, you will never take for granted your child again. Because if you can imagine the hurt and crippling angst of losing a child you won't care if their hair isn't laying in a perfect braid tied with ribbon or if their socks don't match and are totally different sizes.

You won't care if they want to play basketball or chess or if they want to be a doctor or a gardener or a jazz singer.

You won't want to use them to compare with the neighbor kid or criticize for not being more like the valedictorian.

You will only want them to be happy and healthy. You will only want to see smiles on their faces.

You will only want to be able to wrap your arms around them and hold them tight from time to time.

Too many parents forget this; this threat of in the blink of an eye. They forget because they want to. No, because they need to. The thought alone is so paralyzing and cruel it is best to push it away and forget it even exists. The problem is, when we forget how fragile life is, we forget how to properly appreciate it.

How does one properly appreciate life? Love it. Cherish it. Take care of it. Enjoy it. And say thank you.

How do we know when we have given someone a gift and they truly, truly like it? They thank us. Usually more than once. They remind us of it over and over. "Remember that awesome pen you gave me when I got my first real job? I felt so grown up!"

Thank your children. Thank your husband. Thank your God. Because this life you have been given, with all the people and places and experiences - this is a gift to you. Cherish it. Love it. Enjoy everything in it! Because it is oh, so fleeting.

The Principal of Avery's school told me that a young girl in Avery's class had come to him upset, crying. She could no longer see Avery's face, she sobbed. He smiled at this young girl and told her not to try to picture Avery's face but rather to remember something they did together, an experience they shared. The young girl thought about the times she and Avery had together and soon the girl's face lit up. "I can see her face! I can see her smile!"

It is what I see most: Avery's smile. Her goofy, all joy smile. The way she skipped through a room singing, the way she mimicked opera singers and rock stars. The way she couldn't get enough happiness in a single setting. As if she knew, somehow, that joy is there for the taking - all you have to do is never stop trying to reach for it... like grabbing hold of a fish out of water.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Keeping Secrets Out Loud

I have a secret.

It is an image ingrained on my eyelids; with each blink I am reminded by the vision of her face. My skin is covered by the flesh of another, yet you cannot feel it. There is a stone in each lung; huge, blocking, rough edges beginning to wear smooth with each labored breath. And yet, I stand in front of you and smile sweetly. Nod my head accordingly. Pretend I hear the words you speak.

But inside, where your eyes cannot see, my seams are coming apart. The thread unraveling. I try so hard to break the thread off with my hands but it refuses to snap. I hold on tighter and tighter, fingers gripped white, shoulders aching because I cannot catch a break. I cannot rest. Or, rather, I cannot find the time to fall apart.

Grief - traumatic or not - has been described as waves in an ocean. Some days those waves are manageable, almost compellingly soothing. There is a comfort of sorts in the gentle lull of grief. Closing your eyes and remembering a smiling face feels like the warmth of the sun touching your cheek. Remembering a funny story or a tender moment can bring a smile laced with salted tears. It is in this calmness of grief that one can easily remember their faith, can easily draw strength in creating or doing something positive in honor of their lost loved one. You find you can tolerate the frigidness of the water because it only covers your ankles. While cold, it is manageable.

But then there are the moments and days when the grief is the dangerous waves that crush spirits and end lives. Breaking waves that collapse on top of themselves; swell waves that seem cruelly never ending, destructive plunging waves so powerful they drag token objects back into the unrelenting sea just because they can. Unpredictable rogue waves that seem to come out of nowhere are probably the most lethal: no one ever sees them coming.

Those days, when the battering of grief attempts to slam me against the rocks, burying my head well into the depths of the frozen, darkened sea, it takes every ounce of energy to raise my head above the surface to take a gulp of air. I just want to stop treading water. I just need someone to throw me a life vest so I can float for a minute and catch my breath. That's all.

I've tried to schedule my breakdowns. I know they're simmering beneath the surface. One doesn't mother a child for nine years and grieve only for six months. I realize fully and completely that this is just the beginning of my grief journey. I have gotten my course schedule and I'm headed off to pick up my books... but I've got an entire semester ahead of me. I need to figure out how to find my classes, how to negotiate new teachers. I have passages to read, assignments to complete and tests to take. And then I have another semester after that.

Immense Grief is not a quick and easy process.

Probably the most ironic thing that has happened - and I don't believe ironic is the proper word - is the not-so-subtle reminder that per employment policy we are only allowed 3 days off for funeral leave. Three days to bury a child and return to work as if nothing ever happened. Three days to makes sense of it all so you can focus on spreadsheets and staff meetings. Three days is not enough. I took seven.

Seven days is not enough.

I just want regular time periods to lay on the rocks. Silent or sobbing or pounding my fists against them, before I need to jump back into the ocean and give it another go. I need to remember this for when I win the lottery and create my own business: that per policy, my grieving employees will have rock time.

I'm not asking to be handed a free pass to shirk my responsibilities. I've proposed working four 10-hour days and taking Wednesdays off; a scheduled breakdown day, if you will. It hasn't worked out. I have enough strength for two days, then I seem to fall apart. Without being able to regroup, the rest of the week just gets awful. I get to work at 7:30 and leave at 5pm. Then I have to get Brody, make dinner, do household chores, attempt to effectively parent a now sibling-less child, give baths, brush teeth, read books, tuck in. And if I stay up late to grieve - to sob, to shake my fists at God and question why my daughter? Why was this part of the plan? Surely whatever you wanted me to learn I could have learned another way. Surely You could have made another way! - - if I stay awake until the birds stop singing and the train whistle blows and the only sound is the occassional siren, in order to feel the touch of God again, hear his gentle whisper, she is well; I will help you through this - - if I stay up all night to do my grieving then I am simply too exhausted the next day from lack of sleep to do any good. (Trust me. I've been doing that. It's not working.)

I believe that if I could just have Wednesday I would be able to glimpse the roadside sign offering a grieving respite. I would be able to hold out just a little bit longer until I get there. It's like when you have to go to the bathroom really, really bad and you look out your windshield and see blocks and blocks of warehouses; you convince yourself you're not going to make it, you'll explode and it will be awful, but the second you see the glow of that 7-11 up ahead you know that you're going to be okay. You'll get there. You will make it.

I'm just asking for a chance to try and make it.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Some Things Stay The Same

Even when everything is different, some things stay completely the same. Unchanging. A well-worn security blanket of sameness, if you will. And by that, I mean Big V.

Or Matt. Because that's how we all know him now. But he was always known as Big V in my pre-10/24 posts and somehow, well, somehow this post is deserving of reverting back to Big V status.

You'll remember we were blessed to have a real Christmas Tree donated by a local company (Hugs and Thank You's, Geneva Trees!) to put by Avery's grave. This was important to me because (1) she didn't have a headstone and I was afraid I'd be talking to a random clod of snow covered earth when I'd go to visit, and (2) she had made us promise to get a real tree this year, so I was able to keep my promise.

Also, it was super cool to see how Avery's classmates, the neighborhood kids and families decorated it.

It was so beautiful I didn't want to think about taking it down. I wanted some way to remember it. I wanted something to hold on to. I mean, the decorations we kept and are all wrapped up in purple tissue paper... but I wanted something from the tree itself.

That's when I saw this:

And I was all. "it's perfect!" Except I would use Avery's name. Obviously. And include the year of her tree. I vowed to do this each and every year! I ran to Big V with my picture and said, "Look! This is what I shall do to honor and remember my loved one who has passed on!" Okay, so I may have said it differently; the point is I showed him the picture.

It hung on our calendar. I spoke of it often. I referred to it. I joked that there would be a time when we'd need to get a whole second tree in the house just for the Avery Tree Ornaments. I had a vision. We were on the same page.

Until he went to go take the tree down and forgot I wanted a slice so he had to run back out and get one so I showed him the picture again and told him to get a good slice (it didn't matter where it was from, I just wanted to make sure it was a good slice) and I showed him the picture again...

And yet he came home with this:

I'm not exactly sure what happened.

The other thing that stays the same is people keep having birthdays. This is a good thing because it means we get invited places to celebrate. Places with food. And we like food. We were recently invited to a 40th Birthday Party that is a 1920's themed Murder Mystery. One of those things where we play out a real life version of CLUE. Each guest was invited with their character bio and a description of what they would wear. Since it's been a couple years since I've participated in community theatre I thought there is no way I'm passing this up. Plus, there will be food.

Only I didn't tell Big V about it because it was supposed to be a SURPRISE 40th birthday party and Big V can't keep secrets. I didn't tell him we were invited and I didn't tell him his character was a 1920's baseball player and I didn't tell him I already ordered costumes. Because, truth be told, I also wanted to mess with him a bit.

So, when I came home from work and saw his costume arrived, I nonchalantly tossed it to him while he was reclining in front of the TV. "Here, I bought you something." I tried acting all normal and uninterested as he tore into the package, waiting for his reaction. He was gonna be like, "what the ---??"

Except he didn't do that at all. Instead he pulled out the old timey baseball uniform, held it up in front of him, smiled, and said, "Thanks! This is pretty cool!" as if it is the most natural thing in the world to be getting a baseball costume in May.

And then... guess what? He tried it on. Never once asking why I got it in the first place.

And this, right here, is exactly why I love him. Because he graciously accepts bizarre gifts without asking what I was thinking. Someone told me the other day that I wouldn't be able to do normal; I think they're right.

Note: I have since explained to Matt the purpose for the costume. He wanted to know if he could talk in an accent. I may have to forewarn the other guests.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

You, Too, Could Learn From a 3-Year Old

It is so hard to comprehend that Avery, my sweet, smiling, climb on my lap even though she's in 5th grade and all arms and legs, precious little girl is gone. Gone. Never to come back. There is no waiting for summer camp to end, no picking up late night from a friend's house, no after the semester ends or training is over or mission completed. I walk into her room like a thousand other times and ... what? What do I really think is going to happen? I touch the top pillow, the one with the self-decorated pillowcase she brought to gymnastics camp. I run my hand along the top of her dresser. I think about how a 3-year old mind can't possibly remember all the giggles and the way a big sister wiped his chin. I look at the clothes hanging in the closet; think about her favorite shorts. And mine. They weren't the same. She looked beautiful in both.

Today, I was looking across the living room to a shelf that held a framed photo of Avery. She wasn't yet two. So incredibly innocent. Her brother looks so much like her it's almost scary. Brody looked at me, asking, "why are you so sad, Mom?" (I'm sad far too often, I think.) "Oh, I was just looking at a picture of Avery and was missing her." He looked at me while I dabbed at my eyes. I don't shy away from my tears, but I try not to let them last. "I'll come give you a hug and a kiss and you'll feel better, ok?"

If only it were that easy.

And, yet, it is exactly that easy.

This little three year old knows only that his Mama is hurting. That sometimes, the hurt he can't understand or put words to, creeps in, knocks her down, sometimes even kicks her while she lays there. He doesn't know how to stop it, or if it will ever stop, yet he doesn't get frustrated or angry or annoyed. He doesn't get embarrassed, or walk the other way, or sigh, or shake his head because he thinks this has gone on long enough. He simply looks into my eyes and asks if I'm okay. Knowing he can't fix things he does only what he knows how to do: he gives a hug. I am here, he is saying through his tender, toddler embrace. I will hold you through your tears.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Here to There

I went to a fundraising event at Avery's school tonight. They showed a slide show presentation that included pictures of all the students doing different events throughout various random school days. All those kids with smiling faces. Playing on slides and studying out of math books. But not Avery. Avery's face wasn't in there.

Avery started 5th grade in September and by the end of October she was gone. Just gone. In the most final, absolute way imaginable. She was gone.

And although everything I was and everything I had ever known ceased to exist in a matter of the blink of an eye - everything else around me continued on. The sun rose. Seasons changed. Students moved on to the next lesson.

And yet, Avery was in that slide show... just not in the way I would have imagined. Pictures of students decorating Christmas ornaments to hang on her tree by her grave. Pictures of her name. Picture after picture that showed she was not forgotten. That she was cared for and thought of and, oh, so very much loved.

I looked around and saw that Avery was still very much in that school. There were papers written by various students explaining what they loved about attending Delavan Christian School: they talked about God and learning about Jesus, and they talked about Avery. My Avery. They talked about being thankful that they knew Avery. They talked about how they got to understand a bit more about leaning on God when things got rough. And they talked about taking care of each other during tough times. Avery would love that.

And there was a beautiful bench that was made in her memory so that she would continue to always be part of that school. I love that. (I need that.)

I think about what a blessing it was that Avery was attending Delavan Christian School when she died. Can you imagine trying to comfort children in the loss of their friend without being allowed to mention God or heaven? I can't. My faith is what has made it possible for me to wake to another day. My faith is what has made it possible to see the joy that surrounds me, even in my darkest days. My faith is what is healing me.

I know no other way but through God. And His way is good.

"Enoch walked faithfully with God; then he was no more, because God took him away." 
Genesis 5:24.
I am not who I once was. When Avery died I chose to faithfully walk with God. He has taken me by the hand. Waited for me while I wailed. Showed me the way up the mountain. Who I once was is no more; God took that old me, put her away, and is working someone new. 

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