In just a few weeks, you will be a big brother again…on the heavenly side of life. Your newest sibling will be a boy, too, like you. I was buying shirts for he and your sister and had a sudden longing to add the “Big Brother” size 3T shirt to my shopping cart. I wanted to buy it so much, even if it were just to bring it to your gravesite and lay it there. I didn’t. Because I can use that money for something else. But the urge was there, strong and true. I wonder if that urge is stronger this time because this little one is a boy and makes me think of you in a more specific way. Or perhaps because this time my pregnancy has been a bit less full of minute-by-minute anxiety, which is how I spent my pregnancy with your sister. I still have those moments. Particularly when I think of looking at this new little persons face and seeing you in him. I loved that about your sister’s birth…finding the similarities between the two of you made me smile while I cried. I worry more this time that I will unfairly compare you because he is living and you have died and you are the same gender. Which isn’t fair to either one of you. I don’t want that weight. But I worry it will be there and I won’t be able to stop it. Which I suppose is part of the process of remembering…remembering that so much of the miracle of life and death is outside of our control. I have not allowed myself much room this time to think about it. I’ve been too busy trying to coral a 2 year old and work and breathe. But it sits there, in the dimness of nights when I can’t sleep, which happens more and more often these days. I’m not sure what to do with it. I do know that hearing your brother’s heartbeat in the twice weekly appointments I must now go to should be comforting. But then I remember that I heard yours just as strongly and you didn’t get to stay. I heard you cry and then you stopped. I felt your breath against my chest and then I didn’t. For reasons I cannot understand, like much of my experience with the cycle of life these last four years, I find myself clinging to those memories as if to prepare myself for battle. I’m excited to meet your brother. But I fear it at the same time because once it starts, he’ll be born and could die. Which I know we all could. At any time. Logically I know this. The mind games of pregnancy after loss that I found myself trapped in with your sister have been replaced by those of birth after loss and the grief of looking into a little boys face and seeing not him but his older brother. Which is a perfectly imperfect way of looking at new life. We all compare our children. It’s human nature. I hope to see you in a few weeks. But I also hope, for all our sakes, that I can see past you and meet your little brother. Any help, from your end, is appreciated buddy. Love, Mom
Today, you would be 3. Who would you be? I like to think you’d be rambunctious and precocious and full of joy. I like to think you would have kept that stink eye and would be using it well. I like to think your sweet red hair would be sticking out in all directions because you were so busy playing we couldn’t be bothered to brush it. I like to think that you would have a Twins hat like your dad and be catching fish in the river. I like to think you would be pulling the cats tails while they yowled and then snuggling them during naps because your little sister told you to be nice…and you would be…at the heart of it. I like to think you’d be full of giggles over messes and telling us bad kid jokes you learned from your cousins over supper. I like to think you would be asking for a bike or a football for your party. I like to think you would be running up and down the sidelines at practice and making buddies with the guys. I like to think you would be still happy to give your mama kisses goodnight and snuggles in the mornings. I like to think you would be full of peanut butter and jelly. I like to think you would love baths and tormenting your sister. I like to think you would be kind and like to help. I like to think you would be curious and unafraid to explore. I like to think you would love to ride on the golf cart with your papa and throw rocks over the bridge. I like to think you’d love stories, both reading them and telling them. I like to think you’d like frogs and mud puddles. I like to think you you would smell messy and sweet at once, like boys do. I like to think you would sleep with a baseball and be learning to throw it in the yard. But mostly, I like to think you would be here. With us. And three. I know that you. ❤ Happy birthday Benton. Love you, forever and always.
Yesterday, we were fortunate enough to participate in a giving day for the charitable fund we have formed in honor of our son. This day is phenomenal. It is all online and raises millions of dollars for regional charities. As a co-worker said to me, “It’s like shopping…but for a cause!” The group that oversees the administration of our charitable fund coordinates this event and it is our primary source of donations during the year. I love this day. Not because of dollars raised. While the “real time” ticker is a fun novelty, the main reason I love it is because it’s a full day, 24 solid hours, of giving. To kids and dogs and hospitals and places that make our communities better just by being there. As a non-profit staffer for most of my professional career, I understand the tremendous impact a day like this can bring. How many amazing things can happen because of those donors. While $10 may seem like a small gift, imagine if you have thousands of people looking at your charity…and that even 100 of them give. That one day makes you feel like you have a staff of thousands behind you. It’s empowering. For the organizations and hopefully for the givers.
My contribution, beyond whatever my husband and I choose to give, is to remember. To remember our son and why we do the things we do in his memory. To remember the enormous community of love that has surrounded us both during his life and after his passing. To remember the names of the babies of those we love that have been lost, a list that is much too long for my liking. To speak those names, out loud or in writing…because people don’t and I will never let them be forgotten. It is a day that I see most clearly the purpose in my life as Bennie’s mom. It is the day I see most clearly the depth of people’s hearts. It is the day I feel the closest to the legion of neighbors that hoisted us on their shoulders and moved us back to the living. It is the day I see and feel gratitude from the very soles of my feet to the tip of my nose. It is life affirming. And life altering. And fills my spirit up. Oh how much I love this day, even if the reason we are allowed in it cracks my heart open. The better to fill it up I suppose. The better to fill it up. What a day.
A few weeks back, after the rush of mixed emotions that the holidays always bring, my little family escaped to a resort where we spent our time swimming and relaxing and being tourists. Our daughter is now just over one and full of personality and sparkle. She runs at full tilt, talks (with a few words we can understand), has a very strong point of view about life, and makes us smile often. She is squeezable and exasperating and full of awesome. I love everything about her and I know, for a fact, that I appreciate each moment with her all the more because her brother can’t be with us. After her first month, they would never have any shared milestones. And even those that they shared were different given the fact that he was in a hospital hooked up to machines. Her milestones, rolling, crawling, walking, smiling, talking, and on and on…they are hers alone. We rejoice in them and exclaim over her wonder with the world and the things she is discovering in it. On one hand, I love this. I love that our hearts are so open to be present with her in those moments…and perhaps they would not have been if we had not learned all we did in our grief journey. So in those moments, I feel Bennie with me MORE strongly than perhaps at other times because I KNOW that the reason I can shut off the noise and clutter of life and clap and cheer for his sister in such a wholehearted way is because of him. At other times, oh those moments hurt with a sting so strong it takes my breath. Because I physically see what I have missed with him. What I will always miss with him. What was taken from him, and us, when he had to leave us. We will not have a first birthday, a first word, a first step…for him. For those of you on this path with us, you know the feeling. The stab in your heart when something joyful happens and you think, “oh how I wish my other child were here to see this, to do this with their sibling”…it is the one wish I know I will never fulfill. I have reconnected with a friend that came into my life shortly after we lost Bennie. She too has a daughter, not much older than ours. She too lost her first child. And for the first time, I could tell someone all these things, these wistful, soul deep yearnings that we know will never be. It is a good thing to find that person who understands, even if you wish they didn’t have to. I am sure that those who have more than one living child have similar concerns…am I giving them both enough attention and time? Am I supporting and cheering their accomplishments equally? Am I present enough in their lives or too distracted by mine? I think the thing that perhaps people don’t always think about is that, just because one of my children is not physically here, I think the same things. Always. And I am not sad if you talk about them, in fact I welcome it. We are not so very different, you and I. But my story makes you uncomfortable. And so we don’t talk. And I wish we would!
Something else happened on this weekend getaway. Something a bit harder to take. The last night, our daughter was overtired and had a runny nose and wasn’t so sure that sleeping in this strange place another night was a good idea. She screamed. And cried. And flung herself down. Nothing would soothe her. Not medicine. Not milk. Not a warm steam with mom. Not cartoons. Nothing. She was just desperate. Finally, after many hours, she was exhausted and began to calm. She and I, in a chair by the fireplace, snuggled into a blanket, trying to find our breath. She’d cried so long and so hard that she couldn’t catch hers…so every 3rd breath or so was long and strangled…like they were coming from deep in her chest as she gulped for air. And muscle memory kicked in and suddenly I was on a couch in a hospital snuggling my son close to my heart for the very first time as he slowly took his last breaths. They sounded much the same. And I held her tighter and I cried and I cried and I cried. For probably an hour. I cried for what we’ve lost. I cried for the fact that my connection to my two babies at the same time came from such a memory. I cried for all the future things that would trigger these moments and the shared memories that would go unmet. And as I cried, her breath calmed and evened and she relaxed into my arms and mercifully slept. And I stopped crying because this ending was good. This ending was full of peace and joy and love and continued futures. And oh how I needed that realization. That moment. My mama heart needed that more than I knew. For probably the first time since we lost our son I was not fearful of what could happen to our daughter…because of course, I realized that I am not in control of that any more than I was in control of what happened in that hospital room. The end there was perhaps the most beautiful moment of my life in many ways. That passage from life to what lies beyond. And the frantic crying and upset of my daughter, followed by the calming and closeness of a well comforted child felt much like that. It was perfect. And I sat up that night, as I had the other, and contemplated many things in the too quiet space. And I knew that we would be OK, my little family and me. This was my milestone…full of memories and a whole lot of love.
Lonely adj: affected with, characterized by, or causing a depressing feeling of being alone; lonesome or standing apart; isolated.
The day after the second anniversary of my son’s death was a horrible day. As with each anniversary date, it has often been the lead-up that is hard. The knowing, as we do now, that the terrible, crushing emotions of that day will surface again and we’ll have to remember them. Interestingly, there were moments that were hard that day. But the day after was somehow worse. I woke up and got ready and chased my daughter around. She is newly walking and that morning was full of giggles and mischief. It made me smile and laugh with her. I dropped her off and got to work. The scramble of morning was done. And it hit me. A deep seated, soul filling sense of loneliness. A longing for things that are out of reach. For the familiar. For friends who are dear but no longer close at hand and a house that is no longer mine. For a drive through rolling hills and a stop at my favorite coffee shop that came with a smile and kind words. For the banter of a workplace that had become comfortable and easy. For a circle of women who had held me up during the worst of those moments of loss, living in another home further away. In all of this I have learned that when these waves hit I need to just ride them out…letting myself feel whatever it is that I am feeling and seeing where it takes me. So, I did that. I sat in my new office with my new job in my new city with my new people and I felt the force of change. Pushing, heavy, hard. I let the sense of being overwhelmed fill me up and spill over into my coffee cup and wash through my body. And I realized that, in fact, it was perhaps not so much the longing for those many familiarities listed as it was a muscle memory of the feelings that filled me that other day after. When given space, these feelings of being so alone that I was LONESOME were actually coming from a place of recalled loss. The lonely in the marrow of my bones lonesomeness that went with going home without my son and waking up to face that reality.
I am grateful that I am able to recognize those feelings for what they are. Not really a loss of identity and self understanding as they felt early that day. Yes, I am having to reinvent myself here in this new place with these new people. But that I can do. I’ve done it before a time or two. The discomfort of change can sometimes mask the discomfort of loss right now. And it’s easier to let it. But really, this new place with these new people is a good one. I do miss the familiar. I like the warm, wrapped up feeling of it. But this loneliness that came crashing through was one that would happen even if I was surrounded by that warmth. The loneliness of a mama missing her son. So I hugged that lonely to me close and remembered that it was there because I loved him just as much as I miss him. Sometimes the longing of loneliness is in fact a filling up of the soul. It just takes time to understand it that way.
Last week, we sold our house. We’ve done this three times now in various ways. Three houses. 8 years. 2 states. The ups and downs that go along with moving are established and understood. Not being able to find anything. Tripping over boxes for weeks. Trying to make the new place “feel” like home. Having to leave memories and people behind. Each of those is hard in its own way. Now add a layer of grief on top. And a 9 month old baby. And two cats. This is where we’ve been the last 6 weeks. Chaos has reigned.
The house that we left was my favorite of those that we’ve owned. When we went to see if for the first time, it just felt right. Like a place full of history and family and goodness. It had beautiful woodwork and hardwood floors hiding under 80s carpeting. A screened porch full of sunshine. A quiet neighborhood. It was the house that I planned to have babies in. To raise them. I imagined Christmas mornings, little feet running down stairs, dinners in the cozy dining room. I could see it ALL in this house. I was in.
So, we get settled. We tore up carpets. We tore down wallpaper. We painted. We dug a garden. We got comfortable. We found out we were going to have that first baby. We nested. We made a sweet room for him, full of love. And then life, as it does, changed those plans. Our son didn’t get to come home. Instead, he went to a cemetery. And that little room full of love became a little room full of heartbreak. That house became a safe haven, blinds pulled away from the too bright lights of the world that was still moving when we were not. That front porch full of sun became a place to read my way through the grief, finding comfort in words written by people who had been where I was. For me. For my husband, the house became frozen. A mark in time when life stopped. And then, a few months later, we discovered that baby number 2 was on the way. The house became a place of worry filled wonder. Unanswerable questions hung in the air. How would we make space for her when our hearts and our rooms were still full of him? We’d have to sort. Donate. Give a bit of him away. Could we do that? Could we let go of the things after already having to let go of him? It was hard. Really hard. But in the end, we had a “new” little room full of love for his sister that still had some pieces of him in it. It was good. She was born. She came home. We learned to be parents in a way we hadn’t gotten to before. We had to get rid of more things to fit all that comes with a new little person. So, more donating. More change.
Over time, we realized that there were whole parts of this house that we couldn’t deal with. The frozen in time parts. The garage full of garage sale finds, toys, benches, wagons. All intended for a little boy who would never use them. The basement full of books and office supplies that had moved out of the little room upstairs, never set up because time had stopped. A spare bedroom piled high with holiday gifts and spare clothes and items of sympathy that we didn’t know what to do with but felt to guilty to give away. It seems that the weight of new parenthood and the weight of lost opportunity were heavier than we realized. It was overwhelming. And in moments of lucidity between days of no sleep there were attempts to deal with these spaces. But they mostly ended in frustration because make one more decision was too hard. We’d already had to make so many hard ones. Deciding if we needed to keep a sequinned Christmas tree elastic tie was just enough to push one over the edge. So, mostly things got put in plastic bins and shoved in closets. We’d deal with them “later”.
Then, a new adventure presented itself. A new start, with more time for our family. This was, after all, the most important thing of all the things. So, with tentative steps we decided. We had to sell home.
Step one. Clear the space. Enough for pictures so that we could advertise. Fill the garage. Make it neat. Clean clean clean. Don’t worry about sorting much. Just declutter. OK. Deep breaths. We can do it.
A hectic week of showings. A quick sale. This is good. It’s what we wanted. But now, now we have to actually sell it. The reality sets in, like a one-two punch. What had we done?
Now, a forced sorting. A downsizing from house to apartment. So much to get rid of. And around each corner, reminders. The clothes that my husband was wearing the day our son was born in the scramble to get to the NICU sat, undisturbed for 2 years, in a stack in the garage. Small bits of clothing tucked away for when he would be older. Maternity wear shoved in a bag in the back of a closet. And memories. The last moments of expectation in the chair under the beveled glass windows, before we discovered things were not going to go as we’d hoped…sold with that same chair in a yard sale. A table of tiny sleepers. A clipping from the newspaper announcing his arrival, falling out of a forgotten book. The sweet blooms of plants meant to help us remember. It was too much for me. My husband was joy filled, preparing for a new future, and I was frozen, stuck in the gut wrenching sadness of these lost moments. I wanted so badly to be there with him, feeling joy. But it was a struggle.
Then, the big sort. The move, lengthened by distance and available help and uncertain space. After a while, I just wanted to be rid of it. That house that was a home and then wasn’t. I was angry about the fact that it couldn’t just be done. I needed it to be done. And then, it was. And I couldn’t breathe. I had to leave. I had to be far away. And as I drove, I sobbed. I sobbed for another loss on top of the biggest loss. I sobbed for the dreams that started in those walls that never came to be. I sobbed for the little boy who didn’t get to learn to ride a bike on the wide driveway and swim in the pool down the block. I sobbed for everything that was left behind. And this time, my husband joined me.
As we sat in the cemetery, needing to be near him, the realization hit. It was not the place. The place was just a place. A house that now belongs to great people who will fill it with joy. That was a good thing. It was time for the joy to come back into those walls. But the thing that stung was that that place, those tiny rooms, would be the only place that he would ever live with us. And that was hard. And we were sad.
A friend of ours lost her sweet son while living in a house not many miles from the one we just left. I remember talking to her about the fact that she and her husband felt the walls were pushing in on them, full of sadness. That they had to get out, to leave, to start fresh. They needed a new start. I couldn’t understand that, because for me the safe space of those walls, that had absorbed my sadness, made more sense to me. The connection of that physical space with the physical body of our son existing in it was too strong. But in hindsight now, I can see that I needed the push. Permission to make new memories that weren’t weighted down by grief. I am still uncertain what the future will bring. That makes me feel anxious. I am still not quite settled in our new home. That makes me agitated. But what I DO know is that this new start is a good one. A needed one. I understand now what she meant. That the connection of space to grief sometimes stops us from living fully. So, I’m going to work on getting back to living. The stress of change will over time be pushed aside by the next adventure. Time moves, life goes on. And home, the heart of it, comes with you wherever you go. But, I will miss that little house. I left a big piece of my heart there. And that’s OK too. Love is meant to linger.
Change and time. Both consistent. Forward motion happens, even if we want to stand still. Or feel like we are. Much like life and death. They happen and we are swept along with them. Whether we want to be or not. Last week, a family friend died. She was only a few years older than my mother. That’s a little close to home, friends. A little too real. This friend also happened to be the mother of a classmate, which made it easy to slide myself into that scenario. I went to the service. I sat with my mother, living and breathing. I was grateful for those breaths. Since we had to go through a funeral for our son, Sean and I have talked about the fact that when other people die we are somewhat numb to it. That our former overwhelming emotions seemed to be tamped down. It makes me feel unlike myself. Yet another thing that is different. That has changed. I understand why. Because somehow, the sorrow will never be as much. The sadness will never be as strong. And I suppose, that is the side affect of death when you are the one left behind. If you let yourself, you become comfortable with it. Not necessarily happy that it is there, but aware that it is and able to walk with it as your companion. I think sometimes that it makes me come across as unfeeling. And I don’t mean to be. But I think it’s what I’ve got to give, after. Most of my grieving has been done. Or continues to be done as we move along. On the other hand, I sometimes find myself driving to work or standing in the shower unable to stop the sobs. Big, gulping tears that seem to come out of the blue, spurred on by nothing obvious. They don’t happen because of something that has happened. They are not the result of a song or a smell or a memory. Meaning, I have moved from the constant state of heavy grief into the new excitement of what I call “grief bombs”. They just kind of blow up. Not on anniversary dates. Not because I am going to a funeral. Just because it is Tuesday and apparently that seemed like a good day. I go to visit Bennie’s grave and rub the stone and say hello and I love you and I miss you. Nary a tear. I watch a sappy movie, nothing. But I get up to move forward for the day and WHAM. Grief. Tricky, sneaky bastard. But, that is I suppose the new consistency of my life…the change at this time that needs to happen for reasons I cannot understand. As I don’t understand many things. Nor do I need to. Nor do I have to. Not my job. I just have to move, one foot in front of the other, and if on some days I can’t do that, that’s OK too. Do I like it? Not particularly. Don’t have to. Am I fortunate to have a little one who helps to ease it, or if she sees me crying, cries with me? Yes, I am. Do I hate the fact that she’s going to have to know from the time she can understand that death is not selective, it comes to all ages? Yes, I do. But, again, can I control it? Nope. Do I want to? Sure. However, I can control how often I tell her I love her. And on days when change and time happen at alarming rates, I can hold on to her giggles and her smiles and her cuddles and the sweet way she flops onto my chest when she’s tired. And I can smile. Which really, is pretty phenomenal. I wasn’t sure that would happen again.