Whales and Grief

Even on my best days I feel unsettled and disoriented. When I leave the house I check my purse several times to make sure I have everything — phone, keys, wallet — it’s all there. I go through a mental checklist, but I’m still uneasy. Then it hits me — It’s not something I’m missing, but someone.

I’ve written about how hard this time of year is for me. Seven years ago this month, my oldest son died from brainwinged-heart cancer just when he was supposed to go into fifth grade. Each day that passes in August I feel my chest grow tighter and my nerves shorter. I can’t concentrate. I have flashbacks and PTSD. I brace myself for the 24th, and again two days later for when we buried him on the 26th. And then Childhood Cancer Awareness Month starts in September — but let’s be clear — I’m never not aware.

I followed the recent news story of a mother outside of Seattle so consumed by grief she refused to let go of her deceased baby for seventeen days. Medical professionals who observed her behavior said they’d never seen anything like it. They were worried for her health and even her survival. She neglected to eat. Her family never left her side. They tried to help, in fact, relatives took turns holding her baby so she wouldn’t starve or become exhausted. She became exhausted anyway, but still wouldn’t let go.

I understand this momma’s heartache. It doesn’t really matter that she’s a whale and I’m a person. Grief transcends species and manifests similarly among bereaved mothers.

Scientists wonder if the orca, named Tahlequah, actually experienced grief or if we humans projected the emotion onto her. The fancy word for this is anthropomorphism. Well, I’m no scientist but I don’t think I’m projecting. I think it’s arrogant to assume we are the only species capable of primal and even complex emotions. I recognize a sister in bereavement when I see one. I can’t deny Tahlequah the authenticity of her heartache, which was on obvious display for two-and-a-half weeks.

Like Tahlequah, I know what it’s like to not let go. I held onto my son for ninety-six days while he lay in a coma in the PICU at Children’s Hospital. At first he was minimally responsive to my voice and touch — his increased heart rate was his response. I passed long hours each day holding him and whispering I love you in his ear. Summer progressed and the tumor snaked throughout his brain, and eventually his vitals stopped indicating if he knew I was there. Still, I held him. I knew he would die when the cancer finally touched the part of his brain that controlled his heartbeat.

One morning in late August, a concerned social worker gently asked my husband and me why we thought our son was still here when he should have died months ago. I said, “For the love.” My words hung in the air when his heart rate monitor went silent and his lips turned gray.

I told my best friend I would have held him for another ninety-six days if I had the chance. She said, who are you kidding you would have done it forever.

It’s torture to never hug, kiss, touch, tickle or hold hands with my son again. No more wiped tears, kissed boo-boos, or counted freckles. High-fives, winks and pats on the back are gone. I can never crack his toes. His voice and (oh, god) his laugh — what can I say…

Some people might say I’m anthropomorphizing to think Tahlequah knew what she would lose when she finally let go of her baby, but I know there’s no other explanation to hold on like she did.  It is a desperate and crazed way to prolong the inevitable — the real hell — that begins the next morning when you wake up without them.

It is now seven years after the first morning I woke up without him. I’m afraid still when I cry it will be impossible to stop. There’s a scientific myth that the cells in our bodies replace themselves every seven years, essentially making us different people from whom we were before. Except for neurons in the brain. Those don’t change. Those will hold my memories of my baby forever. 

A Small Medium At Large

I don’t remember exactly how long it was after my son’s death — maybe a year — when I saw an ad in the local paper for a “spiritual gallerywinged-heart-love-transparent” with a psychic medium who could connect attendees with deceased loved ones. I made a reservation using a shorter version of my first name and paid cash when I arrived. There was no way to do any background research on me.

The psychic medium was a young woman named Nikki, and she was very nervous. She admitted it was her first time doing an event like this. About eight of us turned out, including my husband. Nikki was a tiny wisp of a woman with long hair and a sweet face. She clutched a large Diet Coke from Burger King and occasionally took long sips, and long pauses, throughout the session. Oddly, for someone so tiny and cute, she was also a former US Marine.

I’ve had readings with several psychic mediums before and after that first session with Nikki. Some were world renown. Some had television shows. One charged so much money I’m embarrassed to admit what we paid. All of them start out with generalizations and engage in what seems like fishing. I don’t fall for this and only play along to a certain extent. I wait patiently for them to say something so personal and private and specific that there’s no earthly way for them to know this detail about me or my loved one. Few psychic mediums deliver something that makes me sit up and think well that’s interesting! It happened occasionally with the famous ones, it happened with the expensive one, but among all the psychic mediums, tiny Nikki said the most personal and unexpected things.

Nikki said a prayer on her rosary before starting her spiritual gallery, and wound up giving everyone in the room a personal reading that lasted about fifteen minutes each. She was exhausted by the end of the session. I don’t remember what she said to anyone else that day, but what she told me still remains vivid.

At first I thought Nikki winged it. She spoke about my father coming through, and then my mother, but the information seemed too general. The facts applied to my parents, like they were in love their whole lives, they died months apart from lung issues, my dad was sarcastic — but none of it was personal enough to make me a believer. Then it got more interesting. Nikki said my mom was with a young blood relative and was holding his hand. He’s running around and it’s important to him to show that he’s able to do that. She claimed he wants me to give all his toys to his little brother (I had not mentioned a little brother). She was surprised there wasn’t also a little sister at home (not yet!).

And then it happened. Nikki took a long sip from her Diet Coke, then asked if I ever cracked my son’s toes. I immediately began to cry.

Who cracks another person’s toe knuckles? It’s one of those weird, embarrassing, idiosyncratic quirks that should never be revealed beyond immediate family, yet somehow Nikki knew my son and I did this all the time. I asked her how she knew, and she said, “He cracked my toe.” The lady in the front row confirmed she heard it crack during my reading. I was amazed.

black-blue-scribbled-heartNikki finished the session by saying our loved ones constantly leave us signs, and they are always with us. Their heaven is watching us and they want us to be happy.

The famous psychic with the television show told me a person is supposed to have one amazing reading that blows their mind, and then move on with their life.

But that’s not what happened. I wanted Nikki to be a telephone line to my son. I was desperate and hopeful and wanted to connect with him on a regular basis. I returned to her galleries every four months (or so) over the next three years (I noticed the same people there as well). I wanted to know if my son was with us at such-and-such a place, or if he came along to some other family event. I wanted to feel like a complete family again and this was the closest I could come. I also wanted more signs — obvious, unmistakable ones. But the more I went to see Nikki the more depressed I got. With each subsequent visit I experienced diminishing returns. Over time, Nikki had less and less to tell me.

I realized I wasn’t being fair to Nikki. She’s not a telephone with a direct line to my son. That’s not her job. Her job is to give me comfort, let me know my son is okay, and assure me that love endures all obstacles including death.

Eventually, I stopped seeing her, although once in a while I think about making another appointment. Every year around this time I feel a strong urge to connect with my son — he died at the end of August, just when he should have been going back to school. All month I brace myself for the day he died, and two days later for the day we buried him. I have flashbacks…the funeral director telling us to “kiss him goodnight” before he shut the coffin (the same wood finish as his bedroom set). If I close my eyes I can see handfuls of dirt fall on top of the burial vault until our family and friends, one by one, finish the  Jewish ritual of dropping pieces of earth into his grave.

Aside from the birth of my daughter, the only thing that truly helped me with grief was seeing Nikki. They say time heals all wounds. Well, I’m still waiting…

Like Space Mother, Like Daughter (a repost in honor of Mother’s Day)

little-girl-astronautMy daughter is at an age where she talks a lot of nonsense. Her stories lack focus. Not to be too critical but they generally lack a beginning, middle and end. But hey, she’s not even potty trained so there’s still hope her skills can improve.

She uttered some such nonsense the other night while I was cutting potatoes for roasting. She stood next to me and said, “My diffwent mom teached me to do dat.”

Wait, what? Your different mom? And she let you use a knife? I had so many questions.

“She cut potatoes too,” my baby said.

I had to ask, “You had a different mom? From me?” She nodded. “What did she look like?”

“She have yellow hair. Yike me,” she said. I have brown hair.

“What’s her name?”

“Mom.” And then things got weird. “My baby sistahs ahr cute. Dem Beanie and Dot.”

I’ve heard of kids who sometimes talk about a past life and I wondered if this is what was happening. I actually believe in reincarnation — or I hope in reincarnation. When I was pregnant with my daughter I went to my older son’s grave and begged him to come back to me as the new baby. After she was born I looked for signs of him in her eyes and mannerisms. I never found any.

Something similar happened to me in my childhood. When I was about seven I told my mom she wasn’t my real mom. I said I was from outer space and I was going to wait outside for my space mom until she arrived in her spaceship to get me. I stood on the driveway that evening and looked at the stars. My mother stood at the dining room window and looked at me. It wasn’t until years later did I learn how much this freaked her out.

Now it was my turn to freak out. I looked at my daughter’s stunning green eyes. Mine are brown. “Beanie and Dot,” I said. “Are they twins?”

“Yeth,” she answered. “Dem twins.”

“When did you live with them?”

“Me unknow,” she said. Wow, I thought. She unknows. That’s deep.

The subject of her different mom and baby twin sisters came up again when I packed away some clothes she outgrew. “Don’t give dose away!” She protested. “Save dem for my baby sistahs!”

“Will I ever meet them?” I asked. “Me unknow,” she said.

“What was your different mom like?” I asked. “She never say no to me or yell,” she said. Whoever this different mom is I’m beginning to think she might be a lot better at this motherhood stuff than I am.

I only know a few details about “different mom,” like we have the same kind of slipper-socks, we both watch the news, and we both like hugs. I’m curious why she talks about her. Maybe there are things that feel familiar to us and we don’t understand why, so we make up a story to explain it to ourselves, even at a young age. Or maybe my daughter did have a different mom before she came to me, and is young and pure enough to remember bits and pieces of her previous incarnation.

I also wonder what I felt as a child that led me to tell my own mother that I wasn’t her real daughter, but a child from space abandoned on earth with a strange human family. I vaguely remember the feeling of going outside and waiting. Maybe we all feel like aliens in our own homes, different from the people closest to us and have no explanation for what we’re doing with them while we wait to finally find our home.

And maybe beyond the different hair and eye color, my daughter and I have much more in common. After all, what goes around comes around. Like an orbit.

Butterfly: My Daughter’s “Diffwent Mom”

I’ve written previously in “Like Space Mother, Like Daughter” about how my little girl surprised me with her claim she had a “diffwent mom” before me. I have since learned more details.

pretty-butterflyHer name is Butterfly, she has purple hair and wears skirts. She is married to Brian and they live somewhere cold (I asked her to show me on a map and she pointed to Alaska). Her siblings are baby twin sisters named Bella and Rosy, and a baby brother named Junior. Brian likes to fish and they eat what he brings home. My daughter says she was seven years old when she lived with them. She doesn’t know why she had to leave and live with me. She claims to love me and Butterfly the same.

I find it fascinating that Diffwent Mom’s name is Butterfly. The spiritual and symbolic significance impresses me, as many people believe butterflies represent the soul, and are a powerful symbol of endurance, change, transformation and resilience. The journey from caterpillar to butterfly is one of confusion and struggle before the creature emerges from the isolation of its chrysalis a more beautiful, enlightened, and less fearful version of itself.butterfly-chrysalis

The butterfly is a good allegory for recovery of any kind — from loss, grief or illness — all of which I know too well. You probably do too. A lot of people know what it’s like to go through a process of self-isolation and emerge braver and stronger.

I feel badly for Butterfly, if she truly exists somewhere she’s mourning her loss. She doesn’t know how much our little girl is loved and adored. She can’t see that she’s happy and glowing. I relate to her struggle, because I wonder about my deceased son every day. I wonder if his soul was returned somewhere in the world, being loved while he talks about his Diffwent Mom with brown hair who likes to wear flannels, whom he slightly remembers and hopefully misses. If this scenario is possible, I’d wish he’d still love me the same as his present mom.

I want Butterfly to know that I understand, and she doesn’t have to worry because I’m loving our girl enough for both of us. If I could write Butterfly a letter, I’d tell her she did a good job fostering our girl’s exuberant and silly soul which arrived intact, along with her big personality and feelings. She came with an overflowing capacity to charm and spread love, which fills my heart with joy every day.

My daughter talks about Diffwent Mom and “baby bwaddah and sistahs” several times a day. I think she was a protective and doting big sister because now she frequently wants to give them her leftover food, outgrown clothes and baby toys. She talks about their favorite foods, activities and colors. I’m fascinated by her stories, especially the details, like Junior won’t eat macaroni and cheese but her sisters love it. Her sisters have brown hair but Junior has no hair (“but him still cute”).

purple-butterfly-transparentI’m oddly comforted when she talks about life with Butterfly. It gives me hope that maybe our souls, no matter where they travel in the world, never forget love. If that’s true, then my son will never forget me. My daughter’s fantastic tale about a possible past life makes me believe my deceased son could still remember me. His Butterfly.

Our Mitsubishi

So I’ve been super busy and I’m a little late catching  up on This is Us

I didn’t cry when Jack Pearson rescued his family from the fire. I didn’t cry when he went back into the burning house to save the dog and a pillowcase filled with memories. I didn’t cry when Rebecca crumpled into a heap when she saw Jack died alone from a heart attack in his hospital bed. I didn’t even cry at his funeral.

I’d say I held it together pretty well during the the most traumatic episode of This Is Us. Until…

That damn scene in the car salesman’s office. Someone please explain to me why I fell into breathless sobs during a scene about a car?

But it’s not a scene about a car. It’s a scene about everything…

As soon as Randall spilled the soda all over the back seat and Jack turned around to glare at him my eyes welled up, but it was Jack’s voice-over that got me crying. The notion that every stain, every scratch on the family car is a “battle scar.”  I get this, because so much of family life is a battle — small ones usually, but sometimes the battles are huge and they leave scars on our flesh, fabric or fender.

boy-driving-carFor years our family lived in a huge sprawling city and so much of our lives wound up happening in our car. That car — a 2002 silver Mitsubishi Montero Sport — carried us through fifteen years of everyday errands and epic, cross-country road trips — oh, the amazing road trips! The spills and throw up and sand and mud and crumbs and stains! Plus the life moments and great conversations and arguments and plans!

That silver Mitsubishi Montero Sport was the first new car we ever bought. We needed a car larger than my Corolla SR-5 after the birth of our son. We needed something with a functional back seat. I remember being pregnant and waiting at a red light, looking at all the large SUVs that surrounded me. I thought, my little car can get swallowed by one of these things. I wanted something safer. In the words of Jack Pearson, I wanted us to be okay.

The plan was I’d keep the car sixteen years and then give it to our son. Sometime during the car’s fifteenth year, after it outlived our son for five years, I accidentally drove it going 5mph into a pole in the parking lot at Kohl’s. Nobody was hurt but the front end caved in. Our insurance company said the car wasn’t worth much (to them) and totaled it out.

My husband wondered if I hit the pole accidentally on purpose. (No.) He asked if I realized we were getting close to the time we said we’d give it to our son (I did.) He wanted me to get my eyes checked. (I didn’t.)

But maybe there is such a thing as accidentally on purpose.

Every once in a while in family life something comes up that marks the end of an era — a birth, death, graduation or moving houses. In a smaller way, even changing cars. Jack Pearson tells the car salesman that the Wagoneer he’s about to buy will someday tell his family’s story just by looking at it. I get this — we had a whole story planned for our Mitsubishi — but it never happened. Our car’s intended story never came to be.

I hate change. It’s exhausting. Our bodies age and change. Our hair grows and thins. Our clothes fade and fray. Our relationships…well, don’t get me started, those constantly change. Our family changes, and this is the hardest one for me to get used to. I miss the past before all the changes happened. I miss my parents. I miss my son. I miss the way things used to be.

Maybe, at some level, it’s possible I wanted to end an era. How could our Mitsubishi outlive our son? Maybe, at some level, I didn’t care that my attention was focused on looking across the parking lot for the exit rather than seeing what was looming immediately in front of me. One rule of Karma is there are no accidents, but don’t tell that to my insurance adjuster.

broken-heart

I understand what it’s like to want to be okay. At first it seems like a mediocre goal — one even I can reach. But it’s not easy. I should know. I’ve been trying to be okay for years and I’m not there yet.

Could it be possible I slow-crashed my car to get closer to being okay? Sure, there are easier, smarter and better ways to change cars.

But like I said, it’s not really about the car.

 

The Pineapple Tree

palm-tree-clip-art-thumbThere’s a fat, squat palm tree that looks like a giant pineapple in the courtyard of the elementary school that my oldest son attended for most of his short life. He loved that tree. He ran endless laps around it to burn off his exuberant energy. He climbed up the knotty pieces that jutted out from its sides until a teacher chased him down. He balance walked all over the display of rocks set around the tree, and sometimes he simply stood beneath it and stared up at its miraculous starburst formation and let the golden sun shoot through the empty spaces and illuminate his curious face.

People took note of how much he loved that tree and started calling it “XX’s tree.” Kids told each other to meet at “XX’s tree” to play tag, and of course my son would play too. When we moved away I wondered if they’d still call the tree by his name. A few months after we moved, my son was diagnosed with incurable brain cancer. We received a lot of support from my son’s teachers at his old school — XX had the gift of charm and was easy to fall in love with and hard to forget.

After he passed away I ordered a memorial plaque and the aide from his kindergarten class oversaw its installation. I was sent pictures from thousands of miles away. I’m told my son’s friends arranged rocks around the base of the stake for decoration and protection. I was deeply touched by everyone’s expression of love for my son.

Those friends moved on to Junior High and then High School. The kindergarten aide retired. After a while, only three of his teachers remained. The school changed Principals. The building underwent improvements. Years went by before I returned for a visit, and when I did I dropped by to finally see the plaque.

But it was gone.school-kids-schoolhouse

It was after school when I snuck onto campus and the office was closed. I called the next day and left a detailed message for the Principal. She didn’t return my call. I called and spoke to the office secretary again. The Principal again didn’t return my call. Finally, she told me she’s never seen the plaque and never heard of my son. She’d ask around, but it’s likely gone.

One time when I was in the fifth grade the boy who lived across the street punched me in the stomach and literally knocked the breath out of me, so I know what it feels like to not be able to breath. The feeling I had when I hung up the phone was similar — fast, shocking and unexpected — my breath was gone.

Nobody wants their child forgotten. Nobody wants the memory of their child disrespected, especially in a place that gave him so much pleasure. My son was a friend to everyone who met him. He loved his school and felt love from his teachers.

bandaged-heartI needed to find out what happened.

I flew home and waited. A month later I sent an e-mail. Finally seven days later (after a follow-up asking if she received my e-mail) the Principal finally responded.  She said she asked around and nobody knows what happened. Sorry, she said, she tried her best. I got the feeling she wanted me and the whole uncomfortable and inconvenient business about a plaque for a dead child she never knew to simply go away.

But I wasn’t going to go away.

I followed up and urged her to look in closets, boxes, cabinets, everywhere. I figured someone wrapped it up and put it somewhere during the improvements, and with all the staff changes it simply got misplaced. I figured it was somewhere and it could be found if someone looked for it. If I lived closer than 2,000 miles I’d do it myself. I offered to send friends to look, but she didn’t want that.

She did everything she could, she said. I told her — I understand it didn’t go missing on her watch, but it’s kinda her watch now and it falls to her to find it. She said she didn’t see it that way.

I get it that after my son died the world had the audacity to keep spinning. I get it that nobody probably meant to throw away a memorial plaque for my dead son. It’s likely missing because of thoughtlessness. But it’s a thoughtlessness that feels cruel.

boy-jumping-clip-artIf I close my eyes I can see my son’s pineapple tree. It was our meeting spot at the end of the school day. I’d park down the block and walk over to look for his shiny dark hair among the blush of boys, and finally spot him dancing and running around the giant base of his tree. I’d catch his bluish-greenish eyes that changed color depending on the color of the shirt he wore. My heart skipped a beat every time.

And I’d pause to catch my breath at the sight of my beautiful little boy.

 

How To Not Win Friends And Influence People

We all sat crosslegged on the floor in the playroom of the local library and held our drooly, wobbly babies on our laps. Miss Mary led us in animated baby songs. I looked at this group and was relieved to see several other mommies my age. When we got up to do the hokey-pokey I wasn’t the only one whose joints creaked. A few other mommies looked like they had just recently exited adolescence, which isn’t unusual in the town where we live now. However, it didn’t take long to figure out my contemporaries in this circle were actually grandparents carving out some special time with their grand babies.

kids-playing-with-blocksI went to mommy-and-me for only one reason, and it wasn’t to enrich my baby’s social and emotional development. I didn’t need to learn another silly song or have my daughter make another sloppy gluey art project with things she’d rather put in her mouth. I came to mommy-and-me for me — I came to find friends.

I had great luck before when I had my first son and joined a mommy-and-me group at a local temple. I clicked with some smart, funny and wonderful women who are still in my heart as I am in theirs, after years and miles apart, and the loss of my son who was the reason I found them in the first place. Those mommies became very close to me. We shared birthdays, playdates, holidays, food, clothes, swimming pools, babysitters, laughs, secrets, advice, tears, you name it. They anchored me in a sprawling city of millions and became my village.

I found that again on a smaller scale with my second son, and I hoped to find it with my daughter in my new, tiny town. Making friends at any age is hard, but making friends after moving across the country and experiencing the loss of a child is extremely difficult. Other mommies who know my story hang back politely, or once they learn my story they don’t know what to say and they hang back politely. I get it — I am the walking embodiment of their worst nightmare. Before I became a bereaved mother I wondered how someone like me even survived.

I don’t know what made me decide I needed new mommy friends. Maybe nostalgia. Maybe self-preservation. All I know is it’s a slow and shaky process to rejoin the world after a tremendous loss and this seemed like a good baby step. I made an effort. I wore actual pants instead of sweats. I even showered before the weekly class. I had high hopes but after a couple of ring-around-the-rosies I realized I wasn’t going to find my tribe in a sunny playroom at the library.kids-playing-with-puppets

It’s difficult to relate to me. Not many people have a baby in their late forties. I personally don’t know anyone, maybe a few celebrities, but nobody in real life except me. Despite the odds and risks and the tests and the constant doctors appointments (they called it a geriatric pregnancy of all things), I had a baby when other people have grand babies. I don’t know what I have in common with the millennial moms at circle time, I figure they look at me while we sing twinkle twinkle for the millionth time and think that old showered and dressed lady seems pretty cool but I’m not sure we can hang out and eat goldfish crackers together. 

I want to clarify — I have met some terrific mommies since moving here. My second son is great at making friends and I hang out with their parents who are only about one decade younger than me instead of two. These moms are awesome — an artist and a therapist — whom I adore and we love to drink canned wine from Trader Joe’s together, even if we have to drive forty-five minutes to get it.

But middle-aged ladies getting drunk on long-distance canned wine is a story for another day.