- My hair started graying
- My son stopped watching cartoons.
- My son started using words like “actually” and “ludicrous.”
- My joints started creaking.
- My clothes stopped fitting right.
- My eyes got worse.
- My son started making his own breakfast.
- My son started putting himself to sleep at night.
- My son stopped being afraid of thunder.
- My soul got calmer.
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 brain 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.
- Take a drink every time I enter a room but have no idea why I came in.
- Take a drink every time I ask, “Where’s my _________________?”
- Take a drink every time someone asks, “What’s for dinner?”
- Take a drink every time I pick up someone else’s dirty dishes.
- Take a drink every time I sit in front of the computer but forget what I wanted to google.
- Take a drink every time my husband can’t find his phone.
- Take a drink every time my daughter asks for a new toy.
- Take a drink every time my son can’t find his shoes.
- Take a drink every time I have to pee in the middle of the night. (counterproductive?)
- Take a drink every time I sit down to write but forget my train of thought.
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 gallery” 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.
Nikki 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…
I call you “baby” because that’s who you are to me. My sweet baby boy with the enormous eyes like Oreo cookies.
Happy Birthday, Baby. You’re changing fast. Two weeks ago you weren’t taller than me. Now you’re taller than me. You have an adorable faint mustache, and your voice is in its Peter Brady phase. You used to have baby fat, but now you’re lean like a library ladder. It’s almost like you’ve become a different person overnight.
But you will always be my baby.
You were born into this family as the little brother. Your big brother loved you like crazy. You followed him everywhere. You climbed on his lap and the two of you stared at the little DS screen together while he played his games, and you cheered him on. He protected you from icky bugs, made sure you learned “parking lot rules” and taught you about Pokemon. You shared sushi, toys, a room and a deep love for each other. Many nights I’d find you asleep holding hands across the empty space between your beds.
The role of little brother fit you perfectly. You were a silly goofball, carefree and happy.
Then your brother got sick with brain cancer. You were left frequently with your Aunt. You were confused. Things changed. Your brother changed. He looked different. He was in a wheelchair and spent months in the hospital, but all you wanted was to be near him, hug him, talk about Pokemon and make up scenarios for your “guys” with the hundred stuffed animals you both owned. He put his arm around you when you climbed into his hospital bed to watch Nick Jr. You fell asleep holding onto him.
You were an only child for a few years, and this role didn’t suit you. You were anxious and lonely. You never wanted to leave my side (and I didn’t want you to, anyway).
Then you became a big brother to a little sister who thinks you hung the moon. You thrive in this role. You are an amazing big brother, and you say it’s because you learned from the best. You are protective and fun and funny. You teach her about Pokemon and sushi and “parking lot rules.” Now she’s the silly one and you’re the protector.
I am so amazed by you. Every day I am inspired by your resilience. I aspire to the level of kindness, compassion and curiosity you demonstrate naturally. You are my living example of how to be a good and strong person.
Did you know you saved my life? You were the reason I woke up and got out of bed the day after your brother died. Without you, well, I can’t imagine… You have transformative superpowers in your smile. I am helpless against your cuteness. You give me courage to face any challenge. Last year I wrote an entire screenplay about everything I learned from you.
You own my heart.
When you grow up you want to be a doctor/actor/comedian/research scientist/theoretical physicist — and I think you can make it. I believe in you.
You have a great friend group who accepts you with all your aspirations and antics, especially your bestie who is sunshine in boy form. You look out for each other like brothers — what more can you ask from a friend in Jr. High? What more can you ask from a friend in life?
But don’t be in a hurry to grow up. Stay immature and goofy a while longer. Stay silly. Stay innocent. And I know you will…
Recently, you said, “I know how babies are made. The man puts his ding-dong into the woman’s slipperslap, and then a baby comes out.” First of all, I don’t think I ever heard a better slang term. I’m the proud mom of a word inventor. Second of all, not quite. You really don’t know much at all, and that’s awesome. With all your excelling in academics, I’m relieved you lag behind the kids who ride the bus, go to sleep away camp or hang out behind the 7-11 when it comes to maturity.
I love that you’re a bit of a nerd. I love your dance moves and dry sense of humor. I even love our arguments (you’re so good at it!). You make me laugh every day. You make me happy. And you make me proud.
You make me look better at this job of being a mom than I actually am.
My birthday wish for you is to find your place in this big world. Do not to be overwhelmed by choices. Stay close to the people who love you. Keep a calm heart. Seek happiness, whatever that means to you — you deserve it. Your past doesn’t dictate your future.
Thank you for being mine. Promise me you’ll never be too old to snuggle and watch Saturday Night Live on the couch. And thank you in advance for letting me live in a tiny house in your backyard when I’m an old lady.
Stay cool, Baby. Have an amazing birthday!
I love you more,
- Breast Cancer
- Normal Stress
- Abnormal Stress
- Seasonal Allergies
My son is entering puberty. He’s going to be in a bad mood for several years and grow more hair. He will be hormonal, irritable and confused but when the years long transformative ordeal is over he will come through it a stronger, calmer and more mature person.
His adolescence coincides with what is supposed to be my second adolescence, or midlife crisis — or middle pause since I’m a woman. I’m also in a bad mood but my hair will thin. I’m hormonal, irritable and confused, but hopefully when my years long transformative ordeal is over I will come through it a stronger, calmer and more mature person. But chances are I will just be more wrinkled and neurotic.
My son and I grapple with the same existential questions: Who am I? What am I supposed to do with my life?
Cliche dictates most people in a midlife crisis buy a sportscar. Or they get divorced, have a makeover or fall in love with youth culture. I think a midlife crisis is the natural outcome from realizing more of your life is behind you than ahead. You think, This is it? But I haven’t ________________ yet. So you make decisions designed to shake things up. But here’s the irony about shaking things up — it teaches you what your limitations are and maturity comes from accepting limitations.
I think the best part of my midlife crisis (so far) is cultivating a what the fuck attitude. I don’t mean the exasperated/befuddled “what the fuck???!” I usually exclaim. I’m talking about fuck it/why not/what the fuck do I have to lose kind of attitude that is remarkably liberating. It enables me to try new things like this hobby called blogging, or sign up to be the oldest student in graduate school this coming fall.
But previous to this I kicked off middle age with something drastic and insane by having a baby. While most of my friends prepare for an empty nest I’m preparing for preschool (again). My daily life has more in common with someone decades younger than me than it does with the lives of my friends. I potty train, play Candyland and know which one is Shimmer and which one is Shine.
We started thinking about having another baby while our oldest son was fighting brain cancer. We even discussed it with him. One day we asked if he’d like a baby brother. He said, “No thanks, we already have one of those.” Then he thought about it and said, “A baby sister might be nice.” He told us we should have more children, that we were the best mom and dad in the world.
Having more children didn’t seem crazy at that time, but it took a few years of fertility treatments before we finally had our daughter. We stuck with it because my husband and I knew one thing for sure — we loved being parents.
For those looking to shake up your shit, I totally recommend having a baby. Nothing adds new life to your life like adding a new like to your life. Plus, it’s the most optimistic thing a person can do. It requires a certain amount of faith in the future. You have to believe things will get better (or at least not worse). We decided to have a new baby at the lowest time of our lives, when we needed to find joy and attempt to lessen our pain.
Those last five words bear repeating because therein lies the optimism: attempt to lessen our pain. This is a very hopeful statement. It recognizes that we could change, over time, the debilitating pain we felt after our son died. The word “attempt” means we still had some strength in us to try something. The word “lessen” is significant because it’s not the word “heal” or “end” or “fix.” It lacks totality, as it’s impossible to fully heal, end or fix the grief after losing a child. However it acknowledges we had some power to change our situation — to make it more or less of what it was — but our pain would never be gone. The words “our pain” need no explanation.
I’m learning that second adolescence is a time to recycle one’s attitude and priorities. A time of physical change and readjustment. A time of questioning and repair.
Inevitably, I think about my mistakes. I can trace back and see several points when I made the wrong decision — my college major, quitting a job/taking the wrong job, not trying this or that. (I also see moments when I made the right choice — marrying my husband, having my kids, taking a risk on this or that). I can’t change the past, but I can attempt to lessen the impact of my mistakes (there’s that word again). I can rid my life of things that aren’t useful anymore — I’ll keep what I use and use what I keep. I’ll also detach (physically and emotionally) from people who drain me. I no longer have the patience or energy to pretend to be anything I’m not.
Oh, and I faced a breast cancer diagnosis this year (the ultimate Fuck You). Getting diagnosed with cancer puts everything into focus. It’s like perspective on speed. It forced me to face myself, let go of certain things and make decisions I had been putting off.
But all this middlepause makes me tired. From now on my motto is more midlife, less crisis.