Monday, January 21, 2019

For Us Who Were Invincible

College was weeks ago. I was 20 and boundless and too new to be afraid. 

Somehow between then and now I grew babies and pounds and gray hairs and a little bit of wisdom. And yet still, if you ask me how old I am, the answer, the truth itself, sounds like an impossibility. 

Yesterday I went to the celebration of life for a friend who, in my heart's memory (and yes, there is such a thing) is eternally 22. How surreal to stand there looking at a table filled with pictures of her throughout past years I don't remember. How, when there is a picture of her, right there in the middle, where she is the way she will be forever, whenever I think of her? 

Those babies I somehow had aren't babies anymore. I've lived in eight homes and raised four dogs and my firstborn is taller than I am now. I went to my high school reunion and all the people who should still be kids, too? They weren't 20 anymore either. 

I thought as I looked at the face of that girl who isn't here anymore and should be. I thought thoughts that didn't have words but only feelings, and then I decided to try to put those feelings into words and I failed. This is all I came up with. 

That we invincible people, we have to account for what happens when it turns out we're not. We have to plan for it, we have to safeguard our hearts and our bodies against it. We have to get those scans and those scopes and those paps and those grams. We have to remind our friends to do it, too, because there's a time stamp on invincibility. 

We have to find ways every day to enjoy the moment, even when it's hard, even when the day is heavy and we just want to drink all the coffee and eat all the fries and sleep till Friday. We HAVE to, because if we don't we'll wake up one day and realize we missed all the good parts because we were waiting for the next thing. And the next thing. And the next. 

I can't tell you the last time I held my little boy. I can't tell you the first time I noticed a gray hair growing out of my head. I can't tell you when I last wrote in this blog. I know these things happened, though. And I'm going to make an effort, a real one, to notice the passage of time. Because she wasn't invincible, and they aren't, and I'm not. All of our days are numbered.

Best we can do is make it count. 

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Future Perfect

There are things that, if I stop to think about them too long or hard, make me want to cocoon with fuzzy socks and a Judy Blume book. Or a glass of wine and Stephen King (a book, not the man), also with fuzzy socks. Whatever the grownup equivalent is of sticking fingers in ears and singing really loud to drown out the undesirable.

One of the things that make me want to do this is the concept of mortality.

It’s simple, childish, and absurd. You see, I don’t want anyone to go anywhere, ever. Like, bear with me, my world is a hostage situation, and nobody leaves. I can stomach an eternity spent holding hands in a circle with everyone I care about. No one breaks the chain. Considering some of the personalities that comprise my fantasy crisis-of-eternity, there would likely be bickering, sarcastic banter, eventual coup attempts. But we’d stay. We’d stay and hold on and I could breathe when someone says the word death because I’d be able to look around that circle and see all those faces and all those linked hands and know that all is right with me and mine.

Almost four decades on this earth and I’ve grieved, sure. I’ve lost people-people and dog-people. I’ve lost places and hopes and pieces of myself. But overall I’ve been lucky. And I try not to look down the road too far because that’s where things get scary. You can’t see past where you’re standing right now, or shine a light down the tunnel to see what might be lurking in the shadows. You can’t call time-out and double check everyone’s seat belt. You have to just keep moving, step by step, holding on to the ones you can for as long as they’ll let you, squeezing hands of those just passing by and lock-stepping the others, the ones whose presence keeps you centered, or keeps you firmly in touch with who you are and where you came from.

I guess that’s where my comfort lies, what makes me less likely to round up all my people and ask them to form that human chain. It’s in that tunnel where all I can see is the ground beneath my feet and the people directly to my right and left. It’s sensing those behind me and feeling confident that there are others, some just out of sight, up ahead. It’s taking those steps we have to take and knowing that no matter what lies at the other end, or even how far the path goes on, my people are walking with me.

One of these days maybe I’ll be brave enough to fathom the unfathomable. Till then, please keep walking with me.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

When My Job Description Changed

I used to reach for his hand when we crossed the street. Recently I did that, accidentally, and we both laughed.

I used to point out big trucks to him. And airplanes. And fire trucks and ambulances and heavy equipment of all kinds. Basically, I pointed out all larger-than-average vehicles. When I do it now, like I did yesterday, just to see what he’d say, he glances over and says without missing a beat, “Mom, that’s not a tractor.” He was right. It was a bulldozer. Semantics.

Somewhere between the day almost twelve years ago when they handed me that shockingly big-eyed bald bundle of life change and now, my job description got rewritten. 

You know that’s going to happen, though. Every new mom hears “blink and you miss it,” “they grow up fast,” “enjoy them while they’re small,” and variations thereof so often and with such earnest passion from moms who’ve been there that she knows to expect it (please believe me, that earnestness says, or you’ll wake up one day to a broken heart). But then … well, then it happens. And then she’s the one saying those things to other newbies, all the while thinking, how? How, when I knew it was coming?

And it gets me thinking. When did I stop pointing out the big trucks? 

When did he stop looking?

When did I stop reaching for his hand?

When did he go from baby to little boy to this complex, stunningly self-aware adolescent? 

When did my job description change? 

From laughing because he said something cute to laughing because he said something hilarious.

From walking alongside him to “Be careful; text me when you get there.”

From cutting the crusts off his sandwiches (until the day he told me he actually likes the crusts, that is, and I realized I’d only been doing it because I don’t like the crusts) to asking him if he’s eaten lunch.

From songs and picture books at bedtime to “Hey, why are you still up?!” 

From teaching him to learning from him.

In a few years he’ll be driving. A couple more and it’s time for college. We will have a half-empty nest and my heart will ache and I’ll wonder, again, at the quirks and illusions of time.

But there’s still today. Today he regales me with sixth-grade drama and small-scale injustices and his valiant attempts to right them, and I share with him the best TV and music of the ‘90s and 2000s as he navigates the confusing between-time with one foot in childhood and one in what comes next. Today he makes me frustrated and annoyed and hopeful and proud, proud, proud.  

Today, he doesn’t need me to hold his hand or point out the big trucks. He needs me to listen when he explains the inner workings of his latest speed cube, to marvel over his artwork and praise his patience with his little sister and his wild ability to recall minor details of all kinds. Today he needs me to be his mom, sure, but also his friend. And I’m happy, excited, blessed to be both as he makes his relentless way toward adulthood.

It’s going to happen fast. I won’t see it coming.

But I’m paying attention.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

O Captain.

So much has been said so much more eloquently than I can say it in the aftermath of Robin Williams's death. The shock of it, such an unexpected and brutal end to such a talented and seemingly vibrant man, is not something we as a population are used to experiencing. It's hard to swallow. It's unfathomable. We can't wrap our brains around it, wholly, the soul-sucking desperation that forces one to that moment, that decision, that unthinkable act.

They call hypertension the silent killer, but I think the title is just as applicable to depression. Even barring the worst-case scenario, even for the lucky ones who glimpse a spark of light in the darkness, who cling to the hand of someone who gets it at their core, who claw and scrape and scream their way out, or at least to higher ground ... even if, there are still casualties. Pieces of you. Bits of your heart, your soul, your self.

Depression is a killer. A bully and a sneak and a thief and a killer.

I find myself looking at pictures of Mr. Williams and trying to see something in his eyes, something that might have tipped off someone to how very close he was to the precipice. We all want to think, don't we, that if someone we loved were in That Place, we would spot it a mile away, we would get them help, we would pull them back, pull them close, tether them somehow, somehow save them. But in these pictures, still shots from movies and candids from red carpets and awards events and paparazzi, these pictures that underscore the truly remarkable kind of life he led and the pressures that must have been inherent in that, all I see is blue, eyes that are clear and striking and that hint at kindness and softness and brilliance and sensitivity. Laugh lines crinkling their corners.

I didn't know him, of course, but it's what I think I see, now that it's too late to pay attention.

What I don't see is what bothers me most. It's what the friends and families of victims (Yes. Victims.) of suicide must look for in retrospect every day for the rest of their lives, as they what if and why didn't I and if only their way through their bottomless grief and misbegotten guilt.

One day I hope mental illness can be spoken of and accepted for what it is: disease. Disease that requires awareness, proactivity, treatment, gentle understanding and tough love and all of these things in huge, heaping doses, daily, hourly, every single moment. Disease with a prognosis that ranges from complete recovery to utter despairing loss, that responds to treatment against all odds, when one believes only a single thing in all the world: that they are lost beyond all hope.

One day I hope depression can be met with a volley of support and open arms instead of judgment and censure. With acknowledgment that sufferers are brave, not cowardly, not weak, not a single solitary bit less than ... and that people who have never experienced it cannot. Even. Imagine.

For now the best we can do is to pay attention. Watch. Share. Listen. And know that no one is immune.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

I Can't Think of a Title, So Sue Me.

I've noticed that a lot of blogs start with some form of the disclaimer "I haven't blogged in a while." "I haven't blogged in a while because there are a million and two more important things for me to think about and do on a given day," for example, or "I haven't blogged in a while because I temporarily lost the ability to move my left hand."

Mine's just this: I haven't blogged in a while because I didn't have anything to say. My last few posts were Jack-centric, and I didn't want to step on them with some meaningless drivel about how hot it is (in SUMMER in ALABAMA, can you BELIEVE it?) or how much I need to do a clothing-and-toy purge and dust under the TV stand because when I'm exercising in the morning I'm afforded a disturbingly up-close view of the inch-tall layer of ick.

But I don't think Jack would mind my moving on to other topics, and even though I still don't really have much to say beyond those things I just mentioned, I hate to let too much time go by without writing something about life for the sake of posterity.

The kids turned 8 and 3, respectively. I haven't wrapped my brain around it yet. I mean, 8, sure, Alex has been going on 16 since he started stringing together complete sentences. At 2, instead of throwing an age-appropriate tantrum, he would stomp off to his room and slam the door, then emerge minutes later, voice shaking with barely contained emotion, to tell us "I am not very happy with you right now."

So his turning 8 shouldn't come as such a shock to me, right? Only it's an age I remember so well, and it doesn't seem that long ago. It was the year I busted my chin open trying to do a flip over the stair railing at carpool. It was the year we got my first dog, Bonnie, a sweet little black-and-white sheltie mix to whom I credit my enduring love for overweight, sweet-natured dogs with floppy ears. It was the year that I fell in love with Mikey from The Goonies and doodled "I love Sean" all over my notebooks.

It was, if memory serves, the year I found out the first skewed incarnations of all kinds of things that I can't fathom Alex knowing at this juncture in his life.

But, well, it's happened. He's turned 8. And as the instances of laughing at something he's said because it's cute and precocious have become fewer, those of laughing at something he's said because it's GENUINELY FUNNY have soared. He's turning out to be quick with a one-liner like his dad, one of those people whose sudden sharp wit catches you off guard in just the perfect moment in just the perfect way. It will take him far, that. It's one of the things that made me fall for Steven in the first place.

In the meantime, Katherine has taken 3 by storm. She is a live wire, our sunshine baby. It's like someone passed her a note, a 4-year-old, maybe, worldly and wise, disclosing the tightly guarded secret of how to temper maximum maddeningness with supreme sweetness and abject adorability so that no one ACTUALLY kills you.

She kisses with abandon, "lubs" everyone and everything, snuggles and giggles and lulls you into complacency, so that when you forget to let her open the string cheese by herself, or when her brother calls her Frieda (long story), or when the bow falls out of her hair, or when her doll won't balance on top of the dining room table, or when the sun is in her eyes, or when it's time to go to bed or time to get up, or when she puts on her pants with both legs in one leg hole ... when any of these things happens, you're surprised and baffled (and a little bit awed) by the deluge of insanity that erupts from this tiny person who seemed so demure and angelic a few seconds ago.

And then the storm passes and she's all smiles and hugs and love and sunshine and bunnies and rainbows again. It must be exhausting.

And then, because it's still on my mind a lot (a LOT a lot) ...

It's been two months and one week since we lost Jack. Most days I'm okay. Most days I can even think about him and talk about him without tearing up. But then there are times like when we got back from our beach trip with the Texas family. I was putting my shoes on, about to go to my parents' house to pick up Charlie. "Where are you going?" Katherine asked. "I'm going to get the dogs," I said, because we'd never been away before and NOT had two of them to pick up. And then, because I was tired and hot and because I had just accidentally poked myself right in the grief, I burst into tears.

So yeah, it's still there, sometimes, that horrible breathtaking ache when it hits me that he's not coming back, EVER. That I will never wrap my arms around him and breathe in his special Jack-scent as I give him a big bear hug. That he will never shove his head up under my hand so I'll have to pet him. That I can leave food unattended and it won't be gone in the time it takes me to turn my head.

But mostly it's better, and mostly we're happy, and often there's laughter and always there's love.

I'll take it.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Moving on, sort of

It's not easy, moving on.

I worry that moving on means leaving behind, that just the act of not thinking about something five thousand times a day will somehow lessen its importance in my life, no matter how indelible the mark it made.

Jack is still with us, one week and four days and three hours after we let him go. He's in the big space Charlie leaves on the doggie bed in the corner, the empty food bowl that Alex still doesn't want us to put away, the space next to the air vent in our bedroom where he always slept (effectively leaving anyone else in the room to sweat or shiver it out on their own).

He's even—and I thought this might seem weird until it didn't—in a prettily carved wooden box on our mantel. Alex propped a picture of him up next to the box, and I look at it several (thousand?) times a day and wish, wish, wish I could touch him. Just reach my hand down where he used to lie while I worked and feel him slowly lift his head and give me an obligatory lick or a lazy tail thump.

It surprised me that I didn't, I don't know, crumble. I struggle with big emotions, and everything surrounding Jack's illness and death was big. I don't know if the two months of "preparation" we were afforded did anything to take the edge off the grief when the time came, but I am glad we had it. I was able to evaluate potential regrets, and even to course-correct so that when he did leave us, those regrets were weaker, or not there at all.

And helping a child grieve is its own kind of therapy. Every night when I tucked Alex in for the first week we had an exchange, the same every time.

"It's not any better," he would say, a note of accusation in his trembling voice.

"It's not supposed to be, yet," I would say, gripping his hand or brushing his damp hair back off his forehead and fixating on those enormous eyes of his. "It takes time. But every day will get a tiny bit easier. I promise."

I promise. 

I didn't believe it, not one little bit. Not for me. I believed it for him, and hoped like hell it would be true, that I wasn't just feeding him a line because of my desperation to eradicate some of that deep sorrow from his eyes. But as far as I was concerned, it was just something a mother says to her child, like your cut won't hurt anymore once we put a Band-Aid on it (knowing that it will), or there's no such thing as monsters (knowing that there is).

I fully expected to be sitting here, eleven days after my Jack took his last breath, weeping onto my keyboard and spilling out the awful truth of unshakable grief, unhealable wounds, unutterable sadness. 

...I'm not.

I'm here, typing about him, thinking about him, dry-eyed and, more or less, whole.

Don't get me wrong; I miss him beyond all reason, sometimes so much that I can actually feel him, hear him, smell him. Some nights I hug Charlie, my ever-faithful sunny golden girl, as she sleeps at the foot of my bed and say "I love you. You're not him, but I love you."

But the hurt is less raw, and, like I told Alex, it's getting a tiny bit better every day. Thank God it wasn't just an empty promise I was giving him on those dark nights.

I'm not leaving Jack behind, I don't worry (much) anymore that "moving on" means that. I know what he meant to me. Anyone who knows me knows what he meant to me. I have to believe that he knew what he meant to me. And that will always be, will never be depleted no matter how many nights pass when I don't have to maneuver past him in the dark, no matter how many times I walk in the door and catch my breath because there is only one wagging tail to greet me, no matter how many years pass or dogs come into our lives.

He mattered.

He matters.

He is Jack.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

All Dogs Go to Heaven

I debated writing a blog post about this. I don't think I can find the right words or do the experience the justice it deserves. So I won't try. I'll just say these things.

Jack got tired. He was done. It was in his big, soulful brown eyes and in his heavy head and in the final few, weak thumps of his tail.

People told me from the beginning that he would tell us when he needed to go. I thought they were just saying that because it's one of those things you say, when you don't know what else to say. But they were right. We knew. There's no guilt.

No guilt, but plenty of heartache. It's strange that a dog who did little more than lie around licking his paws and looking mopey but sweet (until he wanted your lunch, or the empty paper towel roll, or a napkin, when his elephant ears would perk up and he'd watch you with that pleading look he'd perfected) could leave such a gigantic hole in his wake. 

But our house is quiet, unnatural. It's missing a vital and irreplaceable member.

I hope I live the rest of my life and never have to witness again my child's heart crack down the middle right before my eyes. If my grief was unbearable, his was unfathomable. Just bottomless. In a few words I tore away a part of his very soul, and there was nothing, nothing I could do to make it better. It was a mother's nightmare.

He couldn't stop saying goodbye. Once we'd gotten Jack tucked securely into the car, Steven and my father carrying him in a makeshift stretcher, Alex went back and back and back, his sweet heart rejecting the thought that it was his final look.

Jack was so calm on that last car ride. I think he knew, and that he was glad of it.
They had a room ready for us. They brought us Kleenex. He settled instantly on the pallet on the floor, and we knelt next to him and said all those things that needed to be said: I love you. I wish. I'm sorry. You'll always be. We'll never. THANK YOU.

I smoothed his silky ears and kissed his head (turkey) and listened as he breathed slowly, steadily, peacefully ... and then listened to the silence when he stopped. The doctor used her stethoscope and said "He's gone. Take all the time you need."

He looked like he was sleeping. The way I've seen him a million times over the past ten years. The way he hasn't been able to sleep for the past couple of months, his loud breathing and frequent sneezing fits precluding any real rest as he got progressively sicker. 

He was resting now, and it was awful and it was good.

We stood and watched him until they came to get us, and when I asked about payment they told us that everything had been taken care of. My amazing friend Leigh had come by earlier that day and paid for his cremation and ashes and euthanasia. Her text to me said "I did it because I am so so sorry and there's nothing else I can do. Don't mention it again. I love you." Later she brought us dinner, with beer for Steven, wine for me, and Coke (in a real glass bottle) for Alex. She barely said anything, just handed it to me, hugged me, and was gone. 

She may never know how much those things meant to me. How my eyes are welling up even now, thinking of those acts of love and friendship.

I'm also eternally grateful to my parents, who braved their own sadness to help us when we needed it most, who came when I panicked and pretended to be calmer than I could be that day, whose strength bolstered my own, which was all but depleted before the sun had even come up.

And to my friend Katie, always my emotional touchstone, who used her phenomenal photography skills a week before to (crop out the air conditioning unit he insisted on using as a backdrop and) capture some priceless images of my boy in his full glory, the way I will remember him always, bright and shining red coat, soft eyes outlined in black, a face that says, self-assuredly as no human has the right to be, "You know you love me. And if you have any doubts I will sniff your crotch until you relent and scratch me behind the ears."

It's quiet here without him. No one steals my napkins. His places are empty, the floors cold. I don't have to step over his giant furry body on my way to the bathroom in the middle of the night. No one licks my toes. It thundered last night and I didn't suddenly find myself with a big golden head shoved up under my arm. Charlie is sad but we're trying to help her through this. She lost a brother, after all, her constant companion since she left her mama and other siblings as a tiny little ball of fluff.

We want his ashes and are looking forward to getting them back. It feels like he'll be home then, and that will be a comfort.

Last night Steven and I shared a memory, a funny one of those many times Jack played the clown, and we laughed and didn't cry. I know that will happen more and more, and that one day the ache will fade and the good memories will override the pain the past few days have brought.

We'll heal. I guess the process has already begun. But we'll never forget.

We will always miss you, Jack. Thank you, again, for gracing us with your love, loyalty, patience, and quirks.

Now go play.