I am mostly doing really well, honestly, but this past Saturday night I cried until mascara made black half-moons under my eyes while Renee and I walked our dog. (Renee gets bonus points for acting unembarrassed by my sobbing on Rt. 116 as I picked up Lola’s poop.) I’d held myself together for Thanksgiving, but two days later the realization hit me: No matter how much gratitude I practice nor how many new traditions I embrace, I will always have a giant hole in every single special day in my life, forever. Understanding I was permanently damaged just made me cry.
Our Thanksgiving was lovely, spent with my wife, my mom, and old and new friends, cooking, drinking mulled wine, feasting, and crafting collages about our gratitude. But all day long I felt like I was experiencing the day from behind glass. I was there but not there. I knew what words to paste and images to clip out for my collage – love, poetry, nature, friendship, rest. I knew how to play hostess and thank my dear friends for spending the day with me. But the absence of Kyle in the world – and my extra-acute awareness of his absence — felt bigger than anything happening right in front of me.
Having to act normal, let alone festive, when the day had that huge hollow center was exhausting. (In fact, I threw up Thanksgiving evening before the first guests left and several more times since then, which is a bummer, as I thought I had my mysterious cyclic vomiting thing licked, but more on that another time.)
Until now, every holiday since my son’s death has been a first – first birthdays without him, first Christmas without him, etc. For all these firsts, it seemed only right that our open, messy mourning would dominate the day. But this year’s holiday marked our first second – this was our second Thanksgiving with Kyle dead… Soon we’ll have the second Christmas without him alive. And it has become clear to me that each year, we’re going to be expected to act a little less sad. Mercifully, I am less hysterical and shaky than I was the first year, more able to practice normalcy – but it turns out I’m no less heartbroken.
I’ve been working hard on gratitude and acceptance. To help keep my Thanksgiving focus on the blessings of friendship and love I still have in my life, I created a slide show of photos of all the loved ones coming to dinner on Thanksgiving. We all enjoyed seeing it play throughout the day. But at the end of the night, I felt compelled to try to convey my underlying sorrow, so I briefly played on repeat a 5-second video of Kyle laughing and talked about how haunted I’d been by the sound of it after I’d stumbled across it while making the slide show. Everyone who heard it was suitably saddened. But why did I do that? Sharing my sadness does not relieve it. Amplifying my grief by making others feel it with me only makes me sadder – and then I feel regretful about ruining someone else’s mood. There is nothing new or helpful left to say about how sad it is that Kyle’s gone. There is now only a hole that we all have to accept and step around.
Holidays and other special occasions when Kyle and I would always have been in touch, if not together, make the hole he left yawn even bigger.
My delayed tears flowed when I realized that the widened pull of the hole – like the dark opening to the Upside Down in Stranger Things — was always going to make holidays scary. Special days will now include a maw opening into an even larger well of grief than I am already facing on regular days. So now this whole month leading up to Christmas (I’m Jewish, but was raised celebrating Christmas) has an ominous spirit. Even worse, I feel this same fear when I know I’ll be seeing Kyle’s daughter; she’s delightful but is also a constant reminder of what he is missing; her most precious moments open the hole widest of all.
I do know that a form of this grief is universal at the holidays, even when we aren’t mourning – because holidays are often a reminder of how our families are seldom quite what we want them to be. The gap between our hopes and our realities can be vast, particularly if we’re aiming for a perfect Hallmark holiday free of criticism and disappointment. Divorce, mentally ill family members, not having the money to buy the presents our kids want, all of these can create their own holes. Even in the best years, when everyone I loved was gathered in my warm and cozy house cooking and laughing together. there were still tensions and squabbles, judgments and tears.
So for Day 28 in my month of gratitude, I return to acceptance. I am grateful for what is still good (so so much, and I never forget it), grateful that technology let me end my Thanksgiving night with a video chat with my daughter and a video performance and reading by Kyle’s daughter, grateful that Jamie had a good celebration with friends and that Amy made her husband a heart-filled treasure hunt for his birthday, grateful for my mom living near enough for a sleepover on Thanksgiving night, grateful the universe put two wonderful pseudo daughters, Priyanka and Natalie,
in my life – and let them be part of the slumber party here, grateful a friend’s cancer surgery the previous week went well, grateful another friend found homes for several homeless boys this month, grateful for the fabulous mother-daughter film Ladybird that I got to see with my mother the day after Thanksgiving, grateful for the writing accountability buddies who have been meeting with me virtually and in person.
Much as I hate it, I am even learning to accept the hole. I don’t expect ever to feel grateful for it — but I am grateful for the love that dug it, and for all the love that pulls me out of it every day.
My lack of faith sometimes causes me to miss some pretty bright signs.
Or perhaps … my delusional wish to believe in an afterlife sometimes causes me to imagine signs where there are none.
You can decide, depending on your own bias, which of these statements is true about the signs – or the delusions – I had the last couple of nights.
Our friend Carolyn had come to watch some disappointing episodes of Stranger Things with us, and as she was getting ready to leave, I stepped outside to give our dog her night outs. As soon as I clicked on Lola’s harness, I looked up at the sky — and drew in a breath at the beauty of the full moon shrouded in fall clouds over darkly silhouetted trees (see totally inadequate picture).
The moon, as I explained when sharing this photo in a Facebook post, was a symbol my children and I used to communicate our connection to one another. Wherever we were, if we wanted to tell the other two we loved them, we would send a photo of the moon – even though photos cannot do the moon justice. We understood this meant we were shining our love up at the moon – and that the moon, in turn, was beaming our love back down on the other two. This practice stemmed from a fun elementary school assignment in which students had to find the moon each night (even if it meant driving around for a viewing) and then create a project about it each day. Kyle and Jamie wrote poems about the moon, did artwork and science projects about its phases, and looked forward with excitement to our nightly search. So did I.
Since Kyle died, the moon’s beauty is often a reminder of how there are now only two of us looking up at it – and only one other person to whom we can send a photo. But the moon is still a reminder of our spiritual connection, now as a symbol of how Kyle’s love continues to shine down on us even though he’s not here with us. I try to keep my heart open to that idea, though sometimes seeing the moon just makes me tear up with how terribly I miss my son.
Jamie has a haiku she’s saved in her phone that Kyle wrote and texted to her about their moon connection – and I thought he’d sent the poem to both of us. After sending Jamie a message last night while looking at the full moon, I yearned for a connection with Kyle, too, and thought I would dig up his haiku message. Turns out I couldn’t find it – nor any of the messages I know he sent me with moon photos. Nearly all my many texts and FB messages from him seem to have disappeared. (Perhaps this is a sign that I am supposed to stop looking for them, part of my letting go.) But as I looked at our last FB Messages, I was prompted by a yellow hand in double parentheses with the words, “Send Kyle a wave.” By this time, I was crying a little, telling Renee why I was sitting outside in the dark tearing up at the sight of the moon, and so when this prompt showed up on my phone screen, I laughed through my tears and said, “OK, fine, I’ll send him a wave.” And I pushed the button and a little wave showed up, and now the screen says “Waiting for Kyle…” at the end of the exchange.
It wasn’t until I woke up this morning that I realized how I had gone looking for a sign from Kyle, and then he had pretty much waved at me… This idea really made me smile.
I know part of why this didn’t occur to me while it was happening is because my wife is as close to actively atheist as an agnostic can be — as Kyle sometimes was. She doesn’t believe there is any higher power, doesn’t see how it’s possible that there could be a supreme being caring about each individual hair on our heads. I get it. The idea is impossible to conceive, beyond human understanding. A friend of mine in high school who had found Jesus but managed never to get preachy about it wrote a poem about how trying to explain the vastness of God’s love was like trying to scoop up the ocean with a Dixie cup. Our minds are the Dixie cups, way too small to hold on to an idea so big as God. Kyle liked that analogy, too, and told me he shared it sometimes in meetings. (Here, as a total aside, is the value of poetry, even when we don’t know who our audience might ever be. I read this line in high school; it was never published outside the school — but I still remember it 35 years later, and it has now been shared with countless others)
But back to my musings on signs from the beyond: I feel better when I believe in them and worse when I discount them. So hey there, Kyle, thanks for encouraging me to wave at you. I’ll try to keep my eyes and heart open for your next sign. And I’d also like to recognize that maybe your daughter dressing up the same way you did at the same age could have been a sign, too. I hope you could see her following in your Power Ranger footsteps from wherever you are:
P.S. I called my cousin Debbie two nights ago to make sure she was OK after the NYC terrorist attack; she was, thank God. But she mentioned that she’d read my last blog post and wondered if I’d ever finished compiling my poetry manuscript. YES, I did, and I am sheepishly proud of it, and I’ve sent it in to several poetry publishing contests and also sent several individual poems in for consideration by various magazine editors. I did all this while I was in Maine staying alone in the empty home of our friends, and am hugely grateful I had that time and space to get that done. Now on to National Novel Writing Month, because it’s good to have goals.
Tonight marks the start of Yom Kippur, the day of atonement and most somber day of the Jewish year, a day meant to be spent fasting and repenting for the previous year’s sins. In the exact opposite of that spirit, I would like to share an irreverent poem I wrote about repentance 15 years ago in a poetry circle with my children:
ATONEMENT FOR ALL
The Catholics go in weekly
to seek forgiveness for each deed.
They confess each sin, bow meekly,
do penance as their priest decreed.
The Baptists seek more salvation:
“Praise the Lord” louder, “Christ is great.”
One born-again exclamation
wipes clean a lifetime’s whole sin slate!
The Buddhists urge a strength of mind,
an inner path to living pure.
Avoiding sin means being kind;
confession just is not a cure.
The Jews have got a special spin
on the matter of redemption:
We set aside one day to win
a mea-culpa exemption.
On Yom Kippur we fast all day,
a swap for falling short all year.
Give God our regrets, then we pray
to get the once-a-year “all-clear.”
If we’re sorry, God sets in stone
our names in the Book of Life.
Then it’s a year til we atone
for the next twelve months of strife.
I need relief from Jewish guilt,
so I like that we make amends.
But even contrite to the hilt …
one day seems not enough to spend.
So I propose a medley:
a forgiveness potpourri:
When you’re wrong, admit to it fast
When others are failing, be kind.
Don’t wait all year for God’s die to cast:
Atone as you go for true peace of mind.
I hope that didn’t offend anybody, but I am discovering there is no way to be a writer without taking that risk – so what I really hope is that it made some of you laugh.
Regarding my own Yom Kippur, I will not be spending the day atoning. My son is dead, so if I believed in a punishing God, which happily I do not, I would expect I’ve already received the worst punishment I could have been dealt for whatever sins I may have committed. More to the point, I have spent the entire past year praying and reflecting on the suffering I have caused myself and others, so I think I’m covered for the day.
Instead, I am enjoying a blessing beyond measure. Dear friends have loaned me the use of their bright and beautiful home in Cape Neddick, Maine, and I am here for two weeks putting together a book-length collection of my (more serious) poetry for submission.
Renee was with me for a romantic getaway the first couple of days and is coming back to share another whirlwind mini-holiday with me Sunday-Monday, and at the end of my stay here I am thrilled that Jamie will be flying out from Portland for a mother-daughter writing retreat with me here during the holiday formerly known as Columbus Day weekend. But mostly I am here on my own.
When my friends first generously offered me the use of their home while they were traveling, it was because I was grieving and in need of time alone to mourn. But that was many months ago, and something about building myself up for the one-year mark has helped me turn a corner. So instead of mourning (or rather, in addition, as mourning is part of my forever now, like breathing), I am here writing, reading, revising, compiling, doing yoga, dancing, eating, circling poetry book contests in Poets & Writer’s Magazine, and playing with pastels on the lawn overlooking the ocean. I am blessed. God is good. And I am glad to be here. If I have anything to atone for, it’s for all the days I’ve failed to be this fully alive.
Yom Tov, everybody – which means, “have a good holy day.”
Today, even though it is the one-year anniversary of my son’s death, a chihuahua with wheels on its hind legs attacked my little terrier mix, Lola, during our morning walk. (Lola’s shaken but OK; I yanked her up into the air by her harness, and wheels-for-legs may be fast, but she can’t jump.) The chihuahua let me know first thing that the world is not going to stop to help me mark this sad day. The dog still needs to be walked and comforted. The gas still needs to be pumped, the online bills paid, the deodorant applied.
I am glad for this anniversary marker, though, just as I was glad for the one-year memorial event; both dates gave me a deadline to work toward and let me imagine I might achieve some closure. Of course there’s no end to my grief, but I am hoping to use this date as a demarcation between the year I spent actively grieving and the years I will spend with grief as my steady, loving companion rather than as a micro-managing, hyper-critical, tyrannical boss who doesn’t believe in coffee breaks.
The memorial event this past weekend was beautiful, or at least that’s what the friends who attended have kindly told me. I spent most of the day feeling a bit out of my own body. It was blazing hot and muggy, and I had set up craft tables outside for people to do scrapbook pages with Kyle’s photos, paint rocks with messages from Kyle on them, and write letters to his someday-teenage daughter, Maggie, about what Kyle might wish for her or want her to know. I didn’t do any of the crafts and mostly stayed inside in the air-conditioned cool of the house playing video clips of Kyle as a baby, as a stand-up comic, as a poet, as a rapper, as a brother and a friend and a son. I felt huge gratitude to every single friend who showed up (or even just sent loving messages) and to the dear ones who flew and drove for many hours to be with us — but I didn’t feel Kyle’s spirit when we stood around the grave marker and lay down our heart-shaped rocks and tried like hell to feel him in our hearts.
Happily, when we were a smaller group gathered inside that evening, his spirit infused us all as we held hands at Jamie’s suggestion and sang Stand By Me — and then had a truly joyful dance and karaoke party. When I had asked Kyle what we should do to mark the day, he told me he wanted us all to laugh a lot and have a fun party. I was annoyed; I didn’t see how that was possible. But it turned out he was right; laughing and dancing and being joyful is the only true way to feel his spirit as it lives on in us.
As I was typing this, Jamie called; she said Kyle had directed her to reach out – and it turned out the last words I had typed before my phone rang were “messages from Kyle,” so that was kind of cool. I read Jamie my opening paragraph and she said she was having the same thought as she looked at her day’s calendar: she has two home visits to make and a class of 20 pre-schoolers to teach, and will be seeing a parent whose six-month-old baby is having open heart surgery today. So she, too, was struck by how life was pulling her in and demanding her attention, despite this supposed momentous anniversary. We both know keeping up with life is good for us; the alternative serves no one.
In Judaism the one-year mark is significant; children, parents and spouses who have grieved all year are supposed to mark this anniversary with a Yahrzeit candle reflecting the fragility of life, the light of the soul, and a verse from Proverbs: “The soul of the man is the candle of God.” This year, making the significance of this anniversary even more clear, the anniversary of Kyle’s death falls on the start of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah –a day when Reform Jews eat round challah to celebrate the circle of life. Many Jews also mark the occasion with a tradition called tashlich, which means “casting off” in Hebrew; when my children were little we would throw bread into the water to represent everything we wanted to cast off from the previous year. We would each say something we were sorry for and wanted to do differently in the year ahead.
In my current friend-family, we celebrate by making water colors of what we are repenting and wanting to shed — and then throw our artwork into a baby pool until whatever we’ve painted has been washed away. I’m not sure I can join my friends for this ritual tonight; I think I need to stay home – but I know what I want to cast off. It’s been a year of self-absorption and sad reflecting, of questioning every choice I made and wishing I’d done so many things differently.
Today I will endeavor to let my regrets go and to celebrate all that was bright and beautiful in my boy, as doing so is what truly allows his memory to be a blessing.
Shanah Tovah, my friends — here’s wishing us all a good year.
Here’s how today’s writing practice went: I wrote a poem, or rather, a poem started to pour out of me, and I caught it and splashed around in it for several hours. (How lucky am I, how privileged, to have time to do this?) Then I sat down to post the poem here but lost courage, so wrote a long blog-post to precede and explain the poem. Then, through the act of writing the explanation, I rediscovered my courage and realized I should just let the poem speak for itself. Of course. So here’s the poem… no explanations. (I think this is progress, I’ll take it.)
What Is Wrong With Me: Sickness As Symptom
Our bodies manifest the pain
our souls cannot express.
When my son was an infant
I became engorged
when I couldn’t express
my breast milk, turning my
once soft skin into stretched
stone that hurt when touched.
Back then my only cure
was ice and weeping
with agonized longing
to be home nursing.
was a one-day outlet
that made me miss more
the antidote I craved,
which was to breastfeed
longer than six weeks.
My latest maternal pain
also fills me with rocks;
if I had a pump this time
I’d use it. Instead, my body
manufactures new outlets.
The pain moves out
while I’m in motion:
the herniated disc,
the blade-divided heart,
both muted by distraction.
Only when I stand still
do pain’s pincers seize
my lower back, clamp
the spot where my neck
meets my shoulder,
rip my meal back out
through my gasping mouth.
The miracle is: my soul will
be able to absorb my son’s death,
just not all at once. My breasts
had one day to dry up, don armor,
and get back to a job they didn’t want.
What lies beneath them, my enlarged
heart, is a damaged muscle; she won’t
work well against her will, even
pumping double-time she can’t fill,
then empty in so great a hurry.
I’ve let in the needle, but speeding
the plunger would kill me. Sometimes
the wall holds me while I catch my breath.
I’ve been delicately making my way,
one memory at a time, trying to digest
all the moments that made this outcome,
chewing each misstep mindfully,
remembering to breathe between bites,
so the glass is smooth when it goes down,
so I can forgive each choice I made.
So I can make his memory a blessing.
Sometimes I forget to pace myself,
and everything rushes in at once,
all the knowledge that made Eve
sorry she was naked, sickened
by the bitter worms in every bite.
My body rejects the speeding influx
forcefully enough to scare me.
For every ache and itch I’ve had,
my soul has an explanation:
My stiff neck asks how it can ever
turn easily to face this full-on.
It orders me to better manage
my peripheral vision, which plays
tricks now if I’m not watchful.
I’ve been crawling out of my skin
since I heard the news, too,
wishing to be out of this body
before the full brunt bears down.
No wonder I tear tiny wounds,
scratching at the backs of my hands.
Yet pained or not, here I am;
the six weeks this body fed my son
were the only ones I will ever get;
and the lifetime I have left in this body
will be all the time I’ll ever get
to miss him in every cell of my being,
and for that alone I must cherish it.
To satisfy my worried wife,
and to keep the will to live this life,
I smooth on the creams, take
the medicines, see the doctors,
even though I know there is
nothing in me they can fix.
What can a stranger do to treat
the wind-rush of pain I breathe in
upon waking? When my heart expands
until the membranes near rupture,
it’s up to me to let air out of the valve
by breathing in. Then out. All day.
I do the yoga (thank God and Adriene for the yoga).
I write – my own prescriptions and this poem. I pray
and wish I knew You could hear me,
but give thanks I don’t know You can’t.
I cry to release more steam,
I enjoy each taste my tongue chooses,
I let the open sky touch my face,
I take joyful kisses from my dog
and watch my cat discover sunshine.
I cheerlead all the warriors
in my circle and in the world.
I laugh at comedy and read
universal stories of suffering
so I am less alone. I love as a verb
the dear ones still here on Earth.
Including, most challengingly, myself.
I look at lists my son was ordered
by his sponsor to write of his fears:
“That God is a lie I tell myself,
that I will die without doing anything
I hoped to get done.”
I resolve to write a list of hopes instead,
just as soon as I feel ready.
Like most women, I feel I have failed if I have not made everyone I love (or even know) happy.
Probably most people who know me don’t think of me as conflict-averse (I’m not) nor shy about sharing my feelings (ditto). But this blog https://thelifeididntchoose.com/2017/01/10/healthy-boundaries-in-grief/ about being able to set boundaries, especially with the people closest to me, really spoke to me today.
Like most women, I feel I have failed if I have not made everyone I love (or even know) happy. No amount of therapy or self-help reading has been able to cure me of my sponge-like absorption of everyone else’s feelings, especially the negative ones, nor of the ridiculous notion that it is up to me to fix every problem brought to my attention. So when Kyle died, my only relief was being cleared of nearly all my emotional-support responsibilities. Having failed to make Kyle happy enough to value his own life, I obviously wasn’t going to be expected to make anyone else feel happy anytime soon. (I am being sardonic; I recognize it isn’t my actual responsibility to make anyone else happy — but it was a relief to know I didn’t even need to try for a while.)
In the first months after Kyle died, I said no more easily and asked for what I needed more directly. I took a medical leave from my job, where I would once have considered myself too indispensable to arrange two months off. (As one friend said to me, not meaning to be unkind, “You can probably get away with pretty much anything now.”) And now I am on permanent leave, no longer employed, because I was able to say I needed space and time to figure out how to live with this loss. (And also because I am privileged and married to someone willing to undergo a lot of economic changes.)
As my son’s one-year memorial is approaching, I am having trouble being as clear about what I need, even with myself — or feeling as entitled to protect my time and energy. Is it OK to shut off my phone when my daughter sounded sad the last time I talked to her? Is it OK to tell my mother I don’t want to go to all her doctors’ appointments with her? Is it OK to tell my wife I want to be alone again this evening when I have already spent all day by myself? Is it OK to always make my friends come here to see me because I have a new social anxiety? Is it OK to read a novel when I am “supposed” to be planning a memorial? Is anything I’m doing OK?
It’s a lot harder to tell what is the right thing to be doing when there are no longer any clear goals being set for me — and when I occasionally hear, “Oh, come on, you’re home all day now, so surely you can __________.” (Fill in the blank with whatever it is that person wants me to do.) If I try a tentative no and am asked to explain myself, I have no good answers. Is it OK to have no excuse, to not explain how I am getting through each day, to say — as my therapist instructed me — that I thought about what I wanted, and I simply don’t want to do what I am being asked to do. It doesn’t feel OK. It feels scary and bad. And like my grief excuse might be expiring, which is even scarier.
Unfortunately, my body is doing a lot of the talking for me, as I have been suffering from itchy hives, spontaneous vomiting, a propensity to injure myself by banging into things, stiff necks and severe lower back pain despite daily yoga. A good friend who is practicing somatic-experience therapeutic techniques (“where does it hurt? why does it hurt?”) worked with me yesterday and we concluded my physical pains are manifesting to distract me from the more agonizing emotional pain that is always lying in wait when I run out of distractions. Perhaps there is wisdom in letting ourselves access the full depth of our grief. I am letting in as much at a time as I feel I can take, but it seems like my body wants me to let in more — rather than, say, spending a day acquiring new furniture on Craigslist.
I had been pressuring myself to feel a sense of closure — as if my grief is going to be wrapped up in some way because it’s been a year. This fellow grieving mother’s article helped me recognize that my first year of grieving was mostly spent in shock, denial and avoidance as I continued working, traveling, and helping loved ones through major moves and life transitions.
I feel like I am just now getting into the heart of my grief — whatever that is. Kyle’s father, Larry, whose heart is surely as broken as mine, takes comfort in working multiple jobs and staying busy; he doesn’t understand why Jamie and I spend as much time as we do looking at pictures and “making ourselves sadder than we need to be.” I appreciate that avoidance works for him and have often envied his ability to be cheery in the face of grim news. (His last voicemail to me, the day before Kyle died, assured me that I was worrying for nothing, that Kyle sounded great the last time he spoke to him. I never wished more for his endless optimism to be on target.)
Meanwhile, I am still practicing my own methods of avoidance and distraction: Facebooking too much, for example. Even writing this blog was a form of procrastination that allowed me to avoid the work I keep meaning to be doing with Kyle’s poems. I wanted to assemble them, and a scrapbook, and a video compilation, all before/for the memorial, but I’m starting to think I might not be able to get any — or certainly not all — of that done. Reading his writing hurts so much that I must pace myself; knowing there is no more of it hurts, too; maybe I am better off having these projects still waiting for me after the memorial. I am trying to trust myself, even though many days I wonder what I am doing, why I’m not getting more done.
So instead of asking myself if it’s OK that I sit many days in a room surrounded by Kyle’s writing and photos, talking to him, trying to figure out how this happened, how I can best honor his life, and what I’m supposed to be learning from this, I will try to just be — to practice the radical self-acceptance I praised in my wife the day we were married.
I welcome all of you to keep reaching out — or even to start reaching out if you’ve been waiting for an appropriate amount of time to pass before being back in touch. But I’ll be grateful to know you understand if I’m not ready to say yes to your requests just yet.