Tuesday, December 31, 2013

A Different Kind Of Memorial

Not long after Ethan's funeral, his sister said that she wanted to get a tattoo to remember him because he always liked them but never got around to getting one.

"I've always liked the inner wrist tattoos," she said. "I think I'd like it there because I can't see most of my tattoos and I want to see it to keep him with me. Something like his name in a neat font. Do you want to go with me?"

In a moment, the idea was born for a different kind of memorial to the young man we love and miss.

She went to Pinterest to look up memorial tattoos, I went to a small stack of letters I received from Ethan while he was in jail one summer. I can't bear to read them yet, but I could glance at them. They were signed "Love, Ethan," and I didn't need Pinterest to tell me what I wanted.

Both his sister and I already have tattoos. Some are meaningful, some purely decorative. Earlier this year I had monarch butterflies with my granddaughters' names tattooed down my right arm. A few summers ago, a circle of paw prints went around my ankle on the day Otis, the best dog in North Carolina, died. A new tattoo wasn't an entirely foreign idea.

Then there was the fact that we both knew Ethan thought our tattoos were, in his sister's words, "bad ass." He wanted to get one, but had trouble deciding what to get. Then there was the obvious lack of finances, since any time he had money it went to video games or the purchase of his favorite cough suppressant. Tattoos aren't cheap.

In talking with Ethan's best friend, who has become part of our lives, not quite as a surrogate Ethan but because we're all hurting together, the idea expanded to include all three of us. A coordination of times and a couple of calls to our favorite part-time tattoo artist and we were committed.

So a few days ago the three of, an unlikely group with a bit of hurt still lingering in our eyes, gathered at the tattoo studio with photocopied bits of some letters and half formed ideas.

I had not waivered from my original idea, so I had the pleasure (if you can say that of a tattoo application) of going first. A copy of Ethan's familiar signature was applied inside my left wrist and I watched as the tiny needle made the handwriting part of my flesh. The pain I'd been warned about for that location was nothing compared to the last two weeks' mental anguish. I knew I didn't need it to remind me of him, or even to carry a physical scar of his life since he was a c-section birth, but after the work was done, looking at did give me a sense of comfort. It was though Ethan had written on my arm.

By the time I was finished, my daughter had ironed out her own idea. Also pulled from one of his letters was the phrase "I love you all," which she followed with his name. With more words, the preparation and application took a bit longer and the words themselves were a bit smaller.

During her time under the needle, his friend who had been like a brother to him most of their lives waited his turn and the two of us talked.

We talked about their relationship which had been so close until Ethan turned 16 and jumped the tracks to live with another friend and severed his ties with the real world, but which had resumed after Ethan moved back home and lasted until about a year ago. That was when Ethan's drug use and his friend's decision to get clean drove them apart. We talked about how we had both encouraged him to get clean, how he'd offered to help him and they could do it together. How Ethan just couldn't turn his back on the drug.

We talked about how smart Ethan was and how he changed. How there was possibly some chemical imbalance or mental illness such as so many truly gifted people carry that helped drive his addiction. How I wished that I or one of the counselors he had dealt with in school or after had seen through his brilliant bullshit to recognize the problem.

We talked about the drug itself, (dextromethorphan) which they both had used, and how it affected the way he thought and acted. "I'm not an angel," he said, "but the high from that was so intense. There's nothing like it." We talked about the rages it would induce, which he had also experienced and which had made me fear my son at the same time that I loved him. How his mom and I had both been forced at some point to "call the law" on our own children and his agreement that was all we could have done. How hard it was to get straight and how the drug still haunts him, despite a full life with a job, a wife and two small children.

"When he was straight, he loved us and he knew we loved him," I said. "When he was high, I don't think it mattered."

"No," he said. "When you're high all that matters is you and dealing with the feelings you have. No one else matters."

I told him for the umpteenth time how much he meant to me and that having him as a small part of my life now helps, just a little, to hold on to what I no longer have.

By then it was his turn and we'd also, somehow, managed to talk about designs. He took the "E" from Ethan's signature, had it enlarged, and added the dates of his birth and death. We had all agreed that "Love, Ethan" in any form wouldn't go over too well in his regular life -- at least not without overmuch explaining, regardless of how comfortable he was in his sexuality.

As he took his turn, we waited again with a different pair talking. We hugged and said our goodbyes before heading out in different directions.

Afterwards, I realized that in sharing the common bond of the experience, the common loss of someone we all loved and wanted in some small way to hold on to and remember, we had held our own small memorial service. I was surprised to find that doing so, that saying goodbye in a very personal way beyond society's expected way, brought me another measure of peace. I found out we all three got more from the experience than inked.

We left scarred at last with a mark the world could see, nowhere near as painful as the ones on our hearts, but one that will be just as lasting. It wasn't enough, but it was something and there was comfort in doing it together.

Monday, December 30, 2013

I've Already Been Grieving A Long Time

When my son, Ethan, was found dead in his apartment two weeks ago he had been dead for several days.

Even though Dec. 15, 2013, may wind up being the date on his tombstone, what really died that day was hope. What died that day were the hard to kill dreams that someday, somehow my beautiful, talented boy would find a purpose in life that no one else could give him and quit killing himself a little bit at a time. What died that day were my still harbored hopes that he'd get clean and become the man he always dreamed of being.

Although there is no indication his death was suicide, Ethan had been killing himself for a long time and, little by little, the people that loved him had been forced to let him go. All we had left were our hopes, our dreams, our prayers, and when he was clean and in the mood to be sociable, little glimpses of the Ethan we so wanted all the time.

Addiction may end in death, but it is in reality a lot of little deaths. The death of personality, stability, contact, interaction, early dreams, relationships, health and so much more.

I've been saying goodbye to Ethan for so long, that I thought this last goodbye would be only a little more difficult than many of the others. I was wrong, the finality makes it far worse, but the fact remains that while it's another level of grief, I've been grieving a long time.

Ethan was a wonderful, caring child who never wanted to hurt anyone. He turned into an angry teenager who demanded my attention on his schedule, my support for his demands. He was verbally and emotionally abusive when it was just the two of us at home. He punctured his walls and doors with knives and fists, and had no regrets for breaking things that weren't his. Although he couldn't support himself or make all of his own decisions, he refused to comply with any standards outside of his own. Household chores (taking out trash and emptying the dishwasher) weren't done. He overloaded the dryer until he burned it out and I started doing his laundry. A HAZMAT suit would have been needed to enter his room. Still, sometimes we connected although I couldn't get him to see life from a different point of view; one where he needed to be responsible and think about a driver's license and job, where he needed to think about school as a step toward his dreams, one where he would always need to follow someone's rules to get ahead.

When he turned 16, he decided that since he was legally an adult in North Carolina, that meant he no longer had to do anything I wanted. He was, by God, grown. The drug use, which I think had probably only been spotty until then, undoubtedly increased. That was the year I feel like I began to lose my son. The young man I interacted with at times bore only a passing resemblance to the boy I had raised.

I've been grieving him for seven years now.

People who have never dealt with addiction cannot understand that special kind of pain. It comes from forcing yourself to let go, to realize that there is nothing within your power that can be done to change them. It comes from accepting that they must make the change if it is to be made.

You force yourself to stop running to their rescue, to stop giving them money (although I was always willing to buy food), to stop trying to tell them what's wrong because all it does is make for an angry conversation without changing them. You may stop mentioning their addiction, they'll lie or defend it and it's just another barrier that keeps away those few stolen moments of happiness.

You quit expecting them to behave like a non-addict. They often don't show up for family gatherings, they don't see the need to work, they don't bathe or do laundry. They don't answer the phone. They don't have regular contact with anyone. Their health deteriorates.

And each time you realize they won't do that little thing, you grieve. You grieve for the person that they were once upon a time, the person that they sometimes become again in your mind.

In the last two weeks, I know I've grieved as much for the Ethan who should have been as for losing my son. If you've not dealt with addiction, you cannot understand. I'm not grieving some perfect son, but the boy who slipped slowly away from us a little bit at a time. I realize sometimes when I beat myself up over something that I didn't do, that it was probably only the Ethan that has been largely gone for seven years that would have wanted to do that any way. That even in the moments between planning it and accomplishing it, he might have become someone who wasn't interested.

I've grieved over not taking more advantage of the sober times, not making more effort to pull him back into the family after he had forced or scared us away. I've grieved over not making the time to share his successes. I've grieved over hopes and dreams and all the "what ifs" that I can dredge up sometimes.

And then I remember him high in a fit of anger, when my normally docile lab suddenly stepped between us hackles raised and a threatening tone to his bark. I remember garbled conversations, the fact that he couldn't be counted on even with an advance invitation and a car at his door, the fact that I never told him he could not come to my home if he was straight, the fact that there were months at a time when he had a license and a car, but didn't choose to spend time with me.

And I grieve again for what we lost in bits and pieces to the drug that finally pulled him under one last time.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

All Grieving Parents Belong to a Terrible Club

Two weeks ago I joined an exclusive club, although I've found it wasn't as exclusive as I would have liked to imagine.

The thing is, nobody wants to get in. No one wants membership, especially the people that have it.

It's made up of people who have lost a child and until you become part of the group, you may never realize how large it is or how much pain there is in the world around you.

In the last two weeks, I've learned about a lot of it because, thanks in no small part to this blog and Facebook, I've reached out and other moms and dads, many of whom I still have not met, have reached back. Old and new friends have shared stories of pain and heartache surrounding a child's addiction and death; others have had a sudden loss; but the painful end result is the same.

We're all stumbling through a life we never expected to live. Our children were supposed to be there for us when we got old. They were supposed to grieve for us in the natural order of things after helping us through our old age and giving us the blessing of grandchildren in which we might live on. And it doesn't matter how many children we have, the loss of a child is like losing a part of our bodies, we feel crippled and maimed and we wonder sometimes why people don't see a visible sign of the pain that we carry.

Although people have said to me that it's not supposed to be this way, and in more modern times we've come to believe that, it is only our perception that this is wrong. As exclusive as this club is, as rare as we like to believe membership may be, it has been around forever.

The first death in the Bible was a son, favored by God and mourned by his mother who bore him in pain and watched him grow. We are not so special. God plotted this course for us from the first named mother sent forth into mortal life. Mary, favored among women, followed the same path when she watched her son, Jesus, die on the cross. She couldn't save him, nor could she know he would rise again in three days. None of that mattered at the time to her because her son, the baby she held in her arms as a crying newborn and watched grow with all the love in her heart, died. Perhaps her grief was short-lived, relieved in three days by an open tomb, but for that time she felt the same pain we feel.

The old family cemetery where my son's body was laid to rest is filled with rows of markers on the graves of children who passed away during some dread disease outbreak a hundred years ago. Not so terribly long ago mothers sometimes bore and buried a half dozen children in the hopes that one would survive to carry on.

While we are not Eve and certainly aren't Mary, and while thankfully I've only suffered this loss once, losing a child, gives us something in common beyond our humanity. I think for mothers, who after all know their child before they ever hold them in their arms, it's a level of pain that no one else can understand. And although I cannot speak to a father's grief, to their hopes and dreams unrealized and their pain, I've cried on the phone with one who still mourns his daughter 10 years after her passing.

Many times during the past two weeks, it has been other members of this group who have helped hold me up when I didn't think I could go on. Their words have held no promise of an end to pain, but they have been honest, caring and supportive. We've cried together about a pain that you learn to live with, a loss that isn't forgotten, a grief that you get through, not over. They've warned me that sometimes I'll be swept right back to where I've been for two weeks -- on a birthday, by a song, maybe just by the slant of the light that will trigger a memory I've forgotten now. We talk about death in a way that most people cannot understand. We're honest with each other in ways we cannot be with anyone else and in ways no one else can be with us.

Going forward, I know there are people I can call on to talk me down from the mental ledges where the "should have beens" and "what ifs" take me. They'll do it in a Facebook message, a text or a call on the phone. I hope there will be times when I can do the same for them.

When my writing voice falters and I wonder why I do this in the mornings, I'll get a message, or reread an old post and realize that despite how this hurts, it's part of healing. It's not just for me, but for someone else who has found themselves a reluctant member of this club. It's my message of hope and survival, my call to someone who needs a friend or stranger to reach out.

We don't want new members -- really. If I had an enemy, I would not wish this on them. But if you find yourself walking this path, hearing those words and opening that box of pain that you never wanted to receive, we're here. All of us.

And while I wish that no one had ever felt this pain, that it really wasn't the natural course of events it too often is, I'm thankful that I don't have to walk this walk alone.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Talk to Your Children About Every Little Thing, Especially Your Unconditional Love

I'm not sure at what age Ethan and his best friends discovered getting high off cough medicine, or who presented them with the idea. I don't know if it came from the internet or another friend, and it doesn't really matter.

If Ethan had died from long term abuse of alcohol, heroin use, cocaine, crack or meth, I think people would understand better that some system had failed. Kids are taught well in school DARE classes about the dangers of these drugs. Parents through the media and society in general have absorbed the knowledge that these substances are dangerous. Laws exist to make it harder and deter some kids who still feel the need to meet society's standards. There are numerous facilities to treat the addiction. I would feel like there wasn't a lot I could add to that conversation.

But that wasn't the case, so for parents and teens, even middle schoolers, here are some things you should know.

A drug that is legal can still be lethal. Cost, accessibility, and even the lack of a prescription doesn't make it safe. Although we're getting a little more educated about prescription drug abuse and its effects, even that isn't enough. Over the counter cough medicine can be just as dangerous although there are fewer studies, practically no laws, and in general neither children nor parents are aware of the risks. Children, teens and even adults feel like if they can buy it in a store, it's safer than using an illegal narcotic. They are horribly wrong.

According to a 2008 study (yes, the only thing I could find was that out of date), one in 10 teens has used OTC cough medicine to get high. And while we might assume, as the police officer who caught Ethan shoplifting at 16 did, that they are after the alcohol content in liquid medications, we would be wrong. We would also be wrong to believe, as that article did, that it is something they'll move past to illegal drugs as they get older and decide it is beneath them. If they become addicted, they don't move on. There is no need. It is still cheap, legal and deceptively safe.

The active ingredient in hundreds of cough suppressants, including the ones in my cabinet and probably yours, is dextromethorphan. It's a central nervous system depressant that, taken according to directions, is safe. Taken at levels from double to dozens of times the recommended dosage it can mimic everything from being drunk to PCPs. If your child is found in possession of it, no one is likely to think a lot of it. If you go to take cough medicine and discover it's all gone, you probably think you forgot and used it. If they wander through a pharmacy, or even the health care department of a grocery store, discount store, or dollar store, they can easily fill their pockets with boxes of the stuff, since it's not even behind the counter.

Even if you talk to your child regularly about the dangers of drugs, odds are good you won't think about cough medicine. After all, you give it to them sometimes. How do you make them understand that the hazards from abuse are just as real as with any street drug? Somehow you have to include medications from prescription pills to cough medicine in the conversation, because if you don't, someone else will.

That's the cautionary tale to parents.

But yesterday I just kept thinking about the kids. What do you say? How do you talk about a drug you hope they know nothing about in an effort to warn them without giving them ideas.

Be honest. Studies have shown that sex education classes that teach only abstinence don't work because they don't teach about what is really going on. I think that drug abuse classes sometimes have the same problem. Just say no is a wonderful idea, but it doesn't look at anything beyond the small gesture of denial.

It doesn't look at the peer pressure, or the desire to fit in. It doesn't look at the fact that sex feels good and it's easy to go further than you meant to if you don't know anything about the steps leading up to the big "it" you're not supposed to do. It doesn't look at the reality that sometimes you don't want to feel like a kid who doesn't fit in and a cough medicine that you and your buddies can grab off a shelf makes you suddenly cool and relaxed and all the crap you deal with every day doesn't matter quite so much.

As a parent, it's damn near impossible to convince a child that the pain of the ninth grade or the attention of a certain boy, is just such a little part of life that it really won't mean anything in a few years. It's hard for them to believe that the circles of life beyond high school will take them so far beyond both the friendships and rebuttals of their peers. It's hard for them to conceive of a time when it won't matter that they weren't popular, or that someone did or did not like them... a time when the people who are their world won't even be a small part of it.

I know because I tried so hard with Ethan. I didn't know the dangers of dextromethorphan. I didn't know the extent of his pain. But I did know the danger of peer pressure and how keenly he wanted to fit in, when what he really needed to do was carve his own path. I don't know how to tell anyone to fix that, but I know I have to tell you to try.

My son used with his two best friends, and to the best of my knowledge, all their girlfriends as well. One boy came across as trouble from the get-go, while the other was from an apparently stable, two-parent family, (just to show you that trying to pick their friends may not help). I don't know who the ring leader was and it could have been Ethan for all I know. In any case, they used together and supported one another in the path they chose. I don't know about the "trouble" child, but I know from talking with the other young man that he was addicted just like Ethan. I know he's clean now, but that getting clean cost him a lifelong friendship and left him with a load of guilt; that he's still troubled by a drug he left behind and that he'll never be the same person that he was before he used it.

I know that despite my efforts to talk to my son, I let things slide because I accepted that he'd become more secretive, less willing to share, moodier, as he became a teen and matured, and because other than the drug use, he shared so much of his life that I think now he was probably often covering what he wasn't telling me by oversharing in other areas. That quite possibly from the first use some part of his brain knew that was something to hide. I knew about alcohol, pot and sex, and sometimes about shoplifting, and we dealt with those things. But I didn't know about cough medicine -- something seemingly so innocent -- partly because I wasn't educated to the problem. I know I didn't force him to be part of family meals and outings sometimes because his moodiness and sulking would ruin a whole day, and I wish now that I'd drug him along because maybe that was what he really wanted and at least now that wouldn't be something for me to feel guilty about.

So I'm urging you to educate yourself about things you don't really want to know about, not just the easy stuff. Talk to your children, whatever their age, in an age appropriate way, about all the hazards and the joys life holds for them. Help them understand that sometimes there are trade offs, that not doing the thing that seems good at the time will make something better a part of their future. Make it easy for them to talk to you without judging the little things, so maybe they'll be honest about the big things. Know about things that can hurt them so you can warn them and watch for danger. If something seems wrong, take them to a doctor or a counselor and the sooner the better. Track down the problem if you can, even if it makes them mad and you feel like you're beating your head against a wall. Make them be a part of your life so you can be part of theirs.

Know that all of that may not be enough, but that as important as it is to save your child, if you cannot do it, it may be just as important to know that you did everything you could.

And whatever happens, love them. Make them know you love them even when you say no, even when you have to let them suffer the consequences of their choices, even if they hang up on you half the time or wind up being lost in some place that you can't reach or save them.

Tell them you love them without reservation, even when they are an ass and when no one else does. Make them hear you above the noise of life and peers and pressures. Because right now, that's all I have to cling to.

A memory of a hug and knowing that whatever demons rode him, Ethan knew he was loved.

Friday, December 27, 2013

I Cry Every Day

I cry every day.

People ask me how I'm doing, careful about the question as if I were fatally ill, not someone still struggling with death. They know an honest answer won't be good, but they ask because they care although they may mentally cringe at what I may say, or at even asking the question. It's not just me who doesn't know how I'm supposed to act, it's all the world around me that doesn't know how to treat me.

I know at some level that it would be easier in so many ways to just quit. To wear the same clothes day after day, to sleep on the sofa with the TV muttering its distractions, to totally forgo life and just allow the grief to consume me. But while the grief occasionally swallows me whole for long minutes of time, I can't do that. Even though the addiction often wouldn't let Ethan think of anything except himself and getting high, I know the boy/man that I loved and who loved me would not want me to do that.

So I try to go on, not as though nothing had changed, but as though I were OK, because most of the time I am.

But I cry every day. Not just once, but repeatedly in moments when I find myself with nothing else that needs to be done, or when I sit quietly for too long and my mind begins to pull up fragments of memories, like a squirrel digging for acorns in the leaves.

There's a big hole in my heart, but you cannot see it and a doctor would probably never miss it unless he asked the right question. Then my heart would stutter along as it seems to do periodically throughout the day, a pulse that has nothing to do with the pace of my body, but with the faltering of the breath in my chest, the sudden streaming of tears down my face.

My clothes still seem to fit, although I think I've eaten three good meals in the last week and a half. I eat when I need to fix a food for someone else, or when someone else prepares food, because although I'm hungry, there is nothing that I want. Food is a wonderful idea, but one I only manage to embrace about once a day. My diet is mostly coffee. I need lots of coffee to wake me up in the morning, when daylight is a long way off but my eyes are open and so I must begin my day. Then more coffee after lunch to keep me awake with the girls, to be sure that I don't nap and sacrifice sleeping at night to the exhaustion that sometimes threatens me at 2 p.m. I usually manage to eat a little dinner, when my husband is home and the girls are ready to eat as well -- their appetites unimpacted by the grief that fills me. After the girls leave, I begin chasing sleep with the same zeal that I use all day to avoid it. Alcohol helps. A glass or two of wine and my eyelids are heavy and I can turn off the television and escape my reality for a few hours.

I try to convince myself that I need to exercise, to drink the quarts of water that I used to consume every day, and that to get moving and embrace old routines will make me feel better. But those things just don't seem important right now. I'm not going to feel good, so why bother? The disrupted schedule of the back to back holidays means I have to be self motivated, and right now I'm just not.

But aside from the liquid diet and my general apathy toward a lot of things, I think I'm doing OK. I'm feeding dogs and chickens and the cat and rabbit and gathering eggs. When the girls are here and going strong, I'm pulled from the brink of whatever pit of gloom may be threatening me and carried by their energy. When the sun is warm and the wind doesn't blow too hard, I want to be outdoors and moving with the dogs(it just isn't the season for much of that).

Most of the time I can keep my grief simmering in a pot on the back burner, but there are moments when I'm alone that the pot boils over and for just a little while it's really messy. I'll be coasting along doing OK and some random thought of Ethan will pop into my head, quickly followed by the bone-shriveling reality that he's gone -- not just mad and not speaking, not just out of minutes on his cell phone, not just high and not in the mood to talk -- gone from my life for whatever remains of it.

When I sorted his video games one last time before donating them to the local homeless shelter, I touched his treasures and my heart broke. Then I felt something in the side pocket of the gym bag where they were stored and pulled out a toothbrush and half a tube of toothpaste and that pushed me over the edge. The little losses and reminders, the bits of him that will always be part of me are sometimes just too much.

In those moments, I understand the despair that sends mothers to emergency rooms or drives them to lock themselves away from the world. In those seconds, I grasp how people lose the will to go on and are beaten down by grief. In those minutes, I'm often huddled with dogs who are not always my own and who lick the tears from my face and press against me with warm bodies, sensing some pain they do not understand but seek to ease. In those times, once I'm able to breathe again and trying to pull my head above water, I turn to prayer or the words of the songs that echo in my head to comfort me.

My prayer is often an angry one filled with questions and pain. On Christmas morning, however, I managed to thank God not only for the gift of his Son but for the 23-year gift of my own. Because despite all the pain and the fact that I do not like how the story of Ethan's earthly life ended, he was a gift that I might not have been given and I have to remind myself of that sometimes. I'm struggling to find acceptance and it comes in brief moments of clarity that I cling to when the tears come back again.

Perhaps, with the passage of more time, this wound will be less tender and the tears won't come quite so often. I won't start my day with this self-imposed therapy session where I often rip the scab from whatever healing I've managed and poke at the weeping pain beneath. Or perhaps, the scab will gradually be replaced with tender flesh and a scar that I'll touch gently forever. But right now I know I'm going to cry and working my way through it in words seems to help me wade out of the pit when I fall in. It gives me something to cling to, to remember. It's a free therapy session where the prompt isn't a psychologist's questions, but a blank screen.

If you ask, "How are you?" The answer is that I think I'm doing as well as I could be. The fact that I hold it together doesn't mean it's not even more awful than I imagined, it just means I don't see any other option.

And although you will probably never see me do it, I cry every day.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Wading the Ocean of Grief

"When the waves are taking you under
Hold on just a little bit longer
He knows that this is gonna make you stronger, stronger
The pain ain't gonna last forever
In time it's gonna get better
Believe me
This is gonna make you stronger"

I realized last week, two days out into this journey, that this kind of grief is like an ocean.

Sunday I was on the shore and the ocean was just something to look at and consider.

Monday I was struggling to stay on my feet through what often felt like the force of hurricane waves. By Tuesday I recognized the grief came in waves that would almost consume me, then subside for a time. They were irregular and storm driven, not the paced, rhythmic waves of a normal tide.

However hard the waves of grief come on me, that is how they feel. It's like I'm walking along the beach, maybe even enjoying a break in the clouds and a ray of sunshine, when a wave comes out of nowhere and suddenly I think I'm going to drown. I feel my ability to go on sliding out from under me like the grains of sand pulled out to sea by an outgoing wave. And once the waves hit, I know that I'll be pounded for a while before I'm able to struggle free of the water again.

So far none of the waves have pulled me so far out to sea that I cannot find my way back to my feet and back to the sunshine, but I'm still walking in the water's edge. I cannot get away from the grip of the sea.

I don't remember this sort of all consuming pain when my grandmother died. I loved her, but she'd had a long good life and I know she was ready to go. She'd had time to make peace with those around her and we had a chance to make peace with her. If there were things we wanted to say, because she had been ill, we had a chance to say them. Although her actual death was a surprise because her health had seemed to be improving, it was something we could accept.

Losing Ethan is a whole different level of grief. Losing a child, through a long illness when you have to accept that barring a miracle it will be over, through a sudden tragedy that takes the healthy child you hugged a few minutes earlier, through the series of small deaths brought on by addiction when it seems that you've said goodbye to bits and pieces of your child for years, is something we just aren't prepared for. There's no reasonable expectation that we have in our minds that yes, we'll be outliving our child. Ever. In any version of reality.

Then it becomes our reality.

A path we had tried not to even look down becomes the path we have to walk every day for the rest of our lives. Right now it's a dark and scary place where I look for glimpses of light just to keep moving.

It is prayers that keep pulling me along, because although people keep telling me I'm strong no one is strong enough to do this on their own. It is three little girls who drown me in a different kind of wave -- one of noise and motion and fights and cuddles -- and keep that dark sea of grief at bay. It is the kindness of friends and strangers who care about me, or who have felt a variation of my pain and want me to know they understand and that while I won't forget, in time it will get better.

When I began writing two months ago, this is not the story I expected to tell, but this is a story that seems to resonate. While we put on our "normal" faces and go about our lives, too many of us carry grief, or fear of this grief, down deep in our souls. Facing it makes my pulse race and my eyes stream, but I cannot push it away. If doing this lets someone else know that they aren't alone, then perhaps there is a purpose to it. Perhaps walking this dark path at the side of a stormy ocean we cannot see is easier together than alone, even if we cannot reach one another's hands. Perhaps knowing there is someone else on the path will make the walk a little easier.

It feels at times wrong to share my pain and let strangers inside the wall I feel I must build to hold myself together. And then a message from someone I've never met tells me they've been down this path and that they want to help me, or that they've stood on the beach where I was a week ago and they are as afraid of the waves as I am, and I know this is what I'm meant to do now.

That everything we've been through won't be for nothing if I can help someone else, if we can somehow save someone else from the journey Ethan took.

Somehow, like everything else in life, it will make me stronger and prepare me for something I need to do. I just wish to my soul that there had been another way to do it.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

God Bless Us, Every One

Merry Christmas.

No, really, I mean it from the bottom of my heart.

This time of year those two words come easily to our lips when exchanging greetings with friends and strangers.

Merry Christmas.

On Sunday night a friend apologized for saying those two words to me. She was one of the first people to call and one of the most regular to call or text to see how I have been doing, but she felt guilty for those two easy words. She felt she should have somehow acknowledged my pain instead. Truthfully, I was glad she didn't.

Although I've gone to some of the holiday gatherings, it has been with a sense of trepidation. I wanted to go and be around my friends as though nothing were wrong. I crave that sense of normal, the sound of laughter and voices that aren't compelled to quiet themselves because of a lingering atmosphere of death. At the same time, I've worried that my presence might put a damper on festivities -- that people will worry that by being happy they remind me of my pain, by celebrating they remind me of my loss.

I wonder sometimes what they say after I'm gone.

I'll be honest, I've hugged a few young men I would never have thought of being quite so familiar with before. And watching families interact with their 20-somethings is painful at times. I've urged my friends to grab their kids and hang on tight, to hug their boys because that's something I cannot do.

But I don't want everyone to be sad because I am grieving.

My brand of grief doesn't feel that I should turn the world into a gray, lifeless place. I want to soak in the joy of the people around me like a sponge and feel the happiness of the season seep into my bones again. Sometimes, I will admit, there is an edge of pain to seeing someone else's joy, but I'll also admit that in many instances it had been there for a while.

I wish I could say that my response was universal, but it's not. I know people who have lost loved ones near the Christmas season and who still grieve, who years later don't want to celebrate this wonderful time of the year because it brings back pain. I know people who are more like the Grinch, begrudging everyone else their joy while they nurse the hurt in their own hearts, and I know people who just go through the motions because their grief still rules them even if they don't want to let anyone else know.

I'm determined not to be one of those people. I have too much in front of me to be painfully anchored in the past.

Instead, I want to drag Ethan's memory with me into every new Christmas. To let him live in my heart where I can love and protect him in ways I could no longer do in the flesh. I want to celebrate his life by hugging a stranger, by telling those around me that I love them, by remembering the things I wish I'd done more often and doing them every time I get a chance.

Merry Christmas.

The pain I feel is no more acute than it would have been had Ethan left us on some unremarkable day of the year, say mid-September, which to me is probably the least memorable time of the year. There is no reason to weigh down Christmas with my grief, but there are lots of ways to let Christmas and all that it really means lift me up.

This year, while my grief still has the sharp edge of a new blade, it's a little tough and I've dragged a bit. Christmas cards that had not been mailed have languished and been put away for another year. There's been very little holiday baking. The Christmas Eve meal was a bit light and missing Ethan's favorite mac and cheese, even though the girls love it as well. There have been things that I couldn't quite bring myself to do.

But the lights on houses and trees have been just as bright and the excitement in the faces of two little girls and one somewhat bewildered baby is still as wondrous as on any other Christmas. The warmth of gathering with friends and family, of touching and exchanging good wishes for the season, is just as special. The real gift that we celebrate each Christmas is even more meaningful.

Celebrate, make memories, hug and eat and fill your hearts with the love of the season.

Merry Christmas, and God bless us, every one.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

A Promise of Life in a Tree

Saturday I planted a fig tree in my back yard.

The FedEx truck had stopped with a very strange package just a short time before. It was a tall rectangle, heavy on one end, and it took me a while to realize what it was.

Back in the early fall after enjoying figs from a friend's tree, I had the idea that it would be nice to have a fig tree. I was also on my seemingly endless search for a cherry tree that would not only live but bear fruit, after the two trees that bloomed so heavily in the spring gave me nothing. (In the future I'll remember to check cross pollination requirements more carefully. It may not be their fault.)

While searching for dwarf cherries, so the trees will bear sooner and the girls could enjoy helping me pick those imaginary cherries, I found a turkey fig tree on the same website. In a fit of generosity to myself, I ordered two dwarf cherries and a fig (all self-pollinating).

Often people plant trees as memorials, and I hadn't planned on this tree being a memorial, but as I chose its placement and dug the hole according to directions, I realized that in my mind it would always be linked to Ethan.

I thought about how nice it would have been to plant the tree together, but then reminded myself that even before we were cut off from one another, a request to help me do something was not generally a welcome break from his inactivity.

That thought was followed, not so strangely, by thoughts of the grave. I thought of another hole dug into a hillside just a few days earlier, a hole destined to never bear fruit. A bit of me wished I'd had Ethan cremated as I originally considered, so I could have a bit of him with me as I did the fruit tree. But he had told me he didn't want that, and while I couldn't spare him the indignity of an autopsy, I could follow that wish.

And so as I planted, following the directions for shaping the hole and not disturbing the roots, for the size and depth of planting, far more closely than I typically do, I thought about Ethan. I thought about growth and potential and spring. I thought about the future, when I would be able to watch the tree that seemed so lifeless put forth leaves that I had never seen and grow and bear fruit.

I knew that even without any intention on my part, just by its arrival two days after the funeral, the fig tree would forever be linked to Ethan in my mind.

I wrapped it carefully in a length of plastic pipe to protect it from the rabbits and staked it in the ground with tall pieces of bamboo. When the rain came Saturday night, I welcomed it as a blessing for the fig tree.

As I started to write, I was reminded of how often the fig appears in the Bible and how important it was to the people. I remembered the story of the fig tree that bore no fruit and was caused to shrivel and die at the hands of Jesus. I couldn't help but think that despite its frequent repetition by the apostles, that was a tale that had never made a great deal of sense to me -- my human instinct would have been to make the fig bear fruit, not shrivel the tree, even as an example of what could be done with faith. Even that, in some strange way gave me comfort because if Jesus did things that the people closest to Him couldn't make sense of, then why should it surprise me that 2,000 years later, there are still things that don't make sense and aren't addressed the way I would have them addressed. If He could make a long standing story of faith from a fruitless fig tree, what could He do with the story of my son?

So this winter I'll care for the fig tree much as I did Ethan as a child, taking care to protect it from the hazards of the environment. I'll mulch its roots to protect them from the cold, brace it with stakes, brush away any snow or ice from its limbs so it can grow straight.

But like Ethan, there will come a time when it has to stand on its own and has to be strong enough to face the winds without a tether and bear fruit without breaking. When each spring will have me watching its limbs for the return of life that I cannot watch for in my son.

Saturday, I planted a fig tree. I've never named a tree before, but I think in my mind this one will be called Ethan.

Monday, December 23, 2013

My World Hasn't Ended, Even If It Feels Like It Has

Just the other day I sat with my canine family and thought, "A week ago, I didn't know my world was about to change."

Ethan was already dead. I just didn't know it yet.

My world was still rolling along in that pre-Christmas insanity. I had gifts to buy, a meal to plan. I had a cold. Those were the things at the top of my mind -- feeling crappy and the mental to do list that I needed to work through in the remaining 10 days before Christmas.

Then the phone rang and that "to do" list didn't mean a damn thing any more.

Although this experience is singular to me, it's also universal. Unless we're sitting by the hospital bed holding someone's hand, knowing that the slowing breaths will soon stop because we've been thoroughly warned, death catches us unaware.

We don't realize the candle that is someone's life, or maybe even our own, is about to burn out. That all those to do lists that keep us moving through our days sometimes can suddenly mean nothing. And that's really a good thing. Without that to do list, there's a good chance most of us would lack the purpose that gets us through our days. I don't think Ethan had a to do list very often, and we can look around and find a lot of people like him coasting through life who somehow missed the need for purpose. Dreams aren't enough, it's the steps we take to get there that count.

For a week, my to do list was very short, unless the phone rang.

It was caring for my dogs and chickens. It was greeting the dog who comes for day care and her owner each morning (with a hug, because he's tall and solid like Ethan) and taking care of her during the day. It was dealing with my grief and the people who reached out to prop me up time and time again. It was escaping that pain when my three granddaughters arrived full of life and promise and fights and needs that couldn't be pushed to the back burner. It was an occasional shower, an infrequent meal, a lot of coffee and falling into bed when I could no longer keep my eyes open, because the last thing I wanted to do was to lie in bed with my eyes open and my mind spinning like a hamster in a wheel.

My kennel/grooming business was hitting its first lull of the year. But when the phone rang and someone wanted a dog groomed, I welcomed the distraction. For another hour I'd have something else to think about and deal with. A Bichon, or a shih t'zu, or a really dirty poodle. While many of my boarders' families have become part of my informal support group, the dogs who come just for clean and cut aren't part of that group and I didn't invite them in.

But six days out, with the funeral finally behind us, boarders were coming back for early holiday visits. Life had to take a more normal tack, whether I was ready for it or not. So by Saturday, when I went out to spend time with the dogs and let them play, from the outside at least, things looked normal.

Then I had that thought and sitting on the ground with a lap full of someone else's dog, I lost it again.

I raged at myself and God and poured my pain out in white hot tears and gasps of breath. I prayed, once again, for understanding. And once again I got an answer.

Before I go on, let me say I'm not used to hearing from God. I know there are people who in their anger and pain turn away from God, but while God and I have a really informal relationship, (generally, I don't have a lot of time to spend on my knees) I'm in regular communication. Usually it's like my stupid cell phone in which I'm forever muting myself out of the conversation and sometimes whoever I'm talking to hangs up before I can get through; I talk a lot, and I assume God is listening and has nothing to say. But I wonder if He's just muted out of the conversation. I wonder how many of us have that type of relationship, and how often we hang up before we can get a good connection and hear the response.

This week, I've not had my normal distractions, so I've left the line open and I've been surprised to so often get what I need.

When I raged to the heavens and stopped to take a breath, immediately I realized how selfish I was being..

Really, grief is a selfish, narcissistic, all consuming thing.

Yes, I'm in pain, but would I want that pain relieved by somehow rolling back the clock a few weeks and putting Ethan back into his pain? What if he'd been healthy and happy and snatched from life by some totally unexpected tragedy? Would I want him to come back to deal with the pain we all deal with in a "normal" life, just to make me feel better? Would I want him to have to feel all the heartbreak, depression, loss, and the day-to-day pains that we absorb?


So Ethan is gone. His pain is over and in all my grief, I must choose to remember that. I must frequently resurrect the vision of a smiling, glowing young man shaking free the pain of life. I must try to cling to the knowledge that while I'm hurting, he's at peace and he'd had his share of pain. Although I will let myself remember the good times, I must also remember that deep inside he was hurting in ways I never understood and that pain is finally gone.

That doesn't mean I'll be able to stop grieving. It doesn't mean that I'm not going to cry, or that sometimes I won't be knocked on my ass by the pain. But a little part of me has accepted that the grief isn't for him, it's for me, and I'm not the kind of person who can spend my life wrapped up in worrying about me.

I have a to do list, and I'm not at the top of it by any means. It's not the same list I had before, although I still need to get ready for Christmas, three little girls consume my days, and there are dogs to care for and exercise classes to get back into my routine. That to do list now includes this as well -- my navigation through goodbye and my effort to help anyone else facing the same struggle; my dream to do something to keep Ethan's drug of choice away from other kids so they can learn to live with all the pain and joy of life and make choices that won't send them down the same path.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Angry at Life, Angry at Death, Angry at Myself, Too

Forty odd years ago, a look at the grieving process identified five stages of grief, beginning with denial and isolation, followed by anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance -- a generally accepted pathway for grief that of course, isn't a rulebook.

Yet I find that when I looked up the steps, they have indeed been the ones I've begun to stumble through, although I think bargaining will be more of a series of "what ifs," or perhaps a battle with the guilt I feel looming, as there is no negotiation with death.

A week ago, when I got the call, I sat alone and cried. I had stayed home sick from church after inheriting some upper sinus crap from the children, and when my husband called after service, I told him the news and sent him on to the the grocery store. I didn't want anyone to cry on. I didn't want to be comforted. I didn't want it to be made more real by existing in some space other than my telephone and the virtual world of my computer. I sat and spilled out my pain in the blog I sent out the next morning -- the blog I've shared repeatedly and begged people to share because it hurt, and I wanted it to mean something by helping someone.

For the last week I've done a fairly good job of hanging on to anger, but I know that will wear thin after a while.

It's easier to be angry at the young man who destroyed his life over and over again than it is to deal with all the other losses contained inside his death. Just like blowing up because his lousy father didn't even come to his funeral, I know I probably have to let this anger out to move on and really grieve.

So yes, I'm pissed at Ethan. I'm pissed at him for using drugs, for not calling except when he wanted something or was so messed up that he didn't make sense, for never seeming to care about anyone but himself.

I'm pissed at him for not going to the doctor because maybe, just maybe, there was something else going on that could have been treated.

I'm pissed at him for dying. At Christmas.

That's a lot of anger and it's not all purely true, but this last week it's been easier to hang onto those bits of anger because anger makes you stronger sometimes. When you're angry, you do things you wouldn't normally do. Like laugh at a funeral. Like let myself live because the depths of that the grief that consumes me might just drown me if I didn't have anger to hang onto right now.

But the facts about what I'm angry about will help me breathe a little easier, too.

I'm angry that Ethan decided, when just a little kid in middle school or maybe just as he was starting high school, that getting high might be cool. But I know that there was a time that he was very unhappy with the heavy boy who wore glasses and braces and that he couldn't see past that temporary reality to the man he would become. I know that his friends were doing it, and that he craved their approval more than I ever understood. I know that the DARE program that had warned Ethan about the dangers of alcohol and illegal drugs, hadn't caught up with the abuse of prescriptions and darn sure never touched on the dangers of dextromethorphan, which was so easy to get and deceptively safe.

I know that despite being so much alike in appearance and personality, Ethan wasn't a carbon copy of me. That loner streak that saw me through my middle and high school days didn't run through him. Unlike my first dog, the dog he loved wasn't the constant companion that got him out of the house and helped him find happiness in a world that didn't rely on friends (no fault of the dog's, mind you). He didn't develop the desire he had to create and do and accomplish things. I didn't have the addictive genetic makeup he apparently inherited.

I know it was an innocent choice at first, and that he was lonely and angry and confused and terribly young, and by the time he started sorting himself out of those feelings, he was addicted and it was really hard to fight. Addiction doesn't go away just because you aren't taking your drug of choice, it hangs around and whispers about the good times you had. It changes the way your mind works. It comes up in conversation with your friends to remind you how you miss it. When something goes wrong, it's there waiting to welcome you back. It takes over your brain so that other things that people think will bring you pleasure just aren't that great. It deceives you, like the Devil, promising only wonderful things while it wrecks your life and you cannot even see it happening.

Despite our efforts to help him negotiate being clean and learn to function without his old friend, Ethan just couldn't. I know he did his best, and while I'm angry, it's beginning to be the at the drug and its availability, not at the boy/man who couldn't escape it.

And no, he really didn't just call when he needed something. Sometimes I know he called just to hear my voice and that he missed me as badly as I missed him. But our connection was damaged and neither of us could fix it or say the right words. The love that pulled us so close meant we hurt each other, that I was the one he lashed out at in his pain. It was probably easier to ask for money than to ask for some less tangible thing he couldn't identify. It was probably easier to lean on the friend he could find at the Dollar store than confront the tangled emotions we had toward each other. And of course, we both thought we had time, a lot of it.

I know that he cared. Sometimes he would tell me I worked too hard. Sometimes he would admit he was glad I had a husband that took care of me. Sometimes his conversation was mostly about how things were here because he didn't have a life he could share, and sometimes a rambling, adolescent tale about what he wanted to do with his life. He still dreamed of doing things, but like a kid, not a young man, because the drug had stunted his emotional and mental growth. And how many kids actually remember a parent's birthday? But just this year, when he'd been clean for ages, he skipped a Mother's Day get together when I was so looking forward to seeing him. The little cards and gifts that other moms can count on never came from him. He was a tornado, taking everything in his path and needing more and that hurt and still hurts. Those moments of compassion were so consumed by his needs, by the fact that the drugs made him focus on himself because nothing else could bring him pleasure.

I wonder why we could not persuade him to see a doctor when he was in so much pain the last couple of weeks -- not just the emotional and mental pain that I think he dealt with almost constantly (and which he also refused to accept help for), but the physical pain. He'd never resisted seeing a doctor before when he felt bad. Had he done something he didn't want to deal with in a doctor's office? Was he afraid he knew what was wrong?

I'm angry that he died, not at him. I'm angry that whatever demons drove him were too much. That God decided he'd had his share of pain (how selfish is that?) and let him finally escape. I'm angry at God, and He knows it.

I'm angry at the people who went with him down the path of addiction, not so much the kids that he stumbled into it with, but the men who were still involved in it with him and eager to help him return whenever he got clean. I'm angry at everyone that failed him in any way, because it's almost impossible to accept that something could not have changed him.

To be honest, I'm angry at me. I'm angry that I couldn't force him to be different, better, happy, clean. That I couldn't find the words that would make him change. I'm angry because there is a part of me that no matter how many times I tell myself I did the absolute best that I knew how, that I prayed and wept and talked and gave and gave and tried to practice tough love too, feels like I failed.

I'm angry at me because no matter how much I love him, I couldn't save him.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

'I Just Don't Know What to Say'

Ten years ago, a friend of mine lost her daughter in a car accident. I knew she had to be in such incomprehensible pain, and I didn't know what to say.

We didn't have the fairly safe option of sending a post on Facebook, or a text message. I knew that to offer any sympathy, I would have to confront that raw pain. I would have to pick up the phone and let myself dip my toes in a dark lake where I didn't want to go, a dark lake where it would be too easy to drown.

So, for a long time, I didn't talk to her. Our jobs had changed and we weren't in as much contact anyway. Then came the day when I saw her across a drug store parking lot. I still remember thinking she hadn't seen me and I could just go in because she was almost to her car. Instead I called her name and walked across the lot to talk to her.

I still didn't know what to say, but it didn't matter. She didn't need to hear my words, she needed to feel my support and caring. She needed to talk about her daughter, her family, their process and pain, and for a long time I stood and held her and listened and cried.

This week she came to my house and held me and listened to my rambling voice and ignored the uncombed hair, wrinkled clothing and unmade face and the chaos of three small children and three small dogs beneath our feet. Before she left I apologized for not coming to her sooner.

In the last few days, I've received support from strangers who somehow found this blog and sent me comments or Facebook messages. I've been overwhelmed by the calls and texts and visits. I've been lifted up by the people in my life, some of whom I don't really even know beyond casually, who have gone the extra mile (sometimes literally) to let me know they care. But like my friend, who may have noticed that I didn't call, there have been people I know and care about who have been absent.

While I have wanted them to call or reach out in some way, I understand their absence, because at one time I did the same. Although we're fairly comfortable talking to someone who has lost a parent -- after all, that's the "natural" order of things -- and we come closer to being able to deal with the loss of a spouse or sibling, the loss of a child is something that we don't want to think about.

I understand that you don't want to get near a parent's grief because you think you can imagine how bad it is and you just don't know what to say or do. For a parent, the loss of a child is the worse thing you can imagine, and I can tell you it is worse that you can imagine. You don't want that pain to touch you, even from someone else. You don't want to imagine being pulled into that dark lake and knowing that your child, that baby that you held when they were born, that you helped learn to walk, ride a bike, and all the millions of things along the way to whatever point they have reached, is gone.

I understand, because that knowledge will knock the breath from your chest, set your heart racing and send you reeling through your days, looking for bits of a normal life to hang on to.

But from this side of the invisible wall that separates parents with living children from parents who have lost a child, I can tell you that reaching out is what we need.

Except for those few special people who I know who have already walked this path for different reasons, you won't know what to say. And here's a secret, even if you've lost a child, you still don't have any words that will take away the grief from another parents' heart, all you have then is the knowledge that it is something you can survive.

However people have reached out to me, they have said, "I don't know what to say." And do you know, I don't expect them to? I don't expect my pastor to have some magical answer from God or some scripture that will give me understanding. I don't expect my best friend to be able to make me smile. I don't expect the people that I've worked or played alongside to have the words to help fill this hole in my heart. I don't expect other parents who have lost children to be able to do more than offer me hope.

All a grieving parent needs is a hug, a shoulder to cry on and an ear that isn't already tired of hearing the same broken story that we come to feel we've repeated a million times. We need to cry. We need to touch life. We may find a hug that reminds us of the one that is gone and if we do, I'm sorry, but we may ask you for a hug a hundred times before the pain in our hearts eases one iota. We need to talk about our child because we know that child is dead, but we need to know that others remember that he lived. If you were the child's friend, share your memories and pictures. If you never knew them, let the parent give a memory. Just be there.

This week, my words have been about the struggle to save him from himself. Sometimes they have been about my guilt, because whatever happens to a child, a parent will feel some responsibility. With some people they have been about my hope that this can somehow be part of helping someone else and making a difference. There will be a time when I want to talk about how wonderful he was before he changed, when I let myself take down the photo albums and cry over the baby, the little boy, and the adolescent that I lost inside the broken young man who died. There will be a time when I slowly begin to take out my dreams for him and weep over them because they will never come true.

Everyone who has reached out to me, be they fellow travelers in this land of grief, friends, or strangers, has helped me keep going. They've helped me hold myself together because they have said they care, because they've sent up prayers, because they've been willing to listen in one way or another to what I needed to say, because they've let my son into their lives and grieved along with me.

No, there is nothing anyone can say that makes it better. As my friends who know have said, it's not something you get over, it's something you get through and live with. This will be my reality for the rest of my time on earth. Maybe there will be days when I don't think about it, and I'm sure in time it won't consume me, but it always will be a part of me.

So what can you do when there's nothing you can do?

Don't flee from the pain of a grieving parent because you don't know what to say. Don't avoid talking about the child you knew or mentioning the loss. Don't worry about doing the wrong thing. Don't feel helpless in the face of our pain.

Open your ears, your arms and your heart and be honest. Go ahead and say, "I don't know what to say." It's OK. No one does. We'll do the talking for you.

Friday, December 20, 2013

'Don't Cry For Me Down Here'

Yeah, when I get where I'm going
There'll be only happy tears
I will shed the sins and struggles
I have carried all these years

And I'll leave my heart wide open
I will love and have no fear
Yeah, when I get where I'm going
Don't cry for me down here

Melvern Rivers Ii Rutherford

Getting ready to go bury my child yesterday, this song as sang by Brad Paisley began playing in my head. Not word for word, but the chorus. Funny how my country roots have been showing this week.

I fumbled for the right things to wear -- somehow I'd never purchased a wardrobe for burying my son -- finally settling on black pants and a dark shirt, the black leather coat I bought the winter I was expecting Ethan and couldn't button when I was pregnant.

We were running late driving the 30-minute route from our house to Galax. Of course, I was riding shotgun, and the roads were more familiar to me so I might have made better time, but I was reasonably sure they wouldn't start the procession without me. His sister and her family were caught in traffic on the interstate, so I was glad we went the old roads. An accident clogged northbound traffic all day, but she was at the cemetery about the same time we were.

Traveling through Galax, I put my head down to pray for the strength to make it through yet another tough day. I had no more uttered the prayer than my mind was filled with a vision. It was Ethan, stretched out in the floor, but there was a figure of light above him and it reached down toward him and pulled him free of his earthly shackles. He rose up with a light of his own, and his face was split by the biggest smile I've seen in many years. I knew that he'd shaken off the addiction, the pain, the suffering that only he could understand and that he was free. God had sent me what I needed to know and the strength to get through the day. I could miss him, but I couldn't want him back in those bonds.

His best friend and that young man's mom, who had like Ethan and I battled the same addiction, were the first people I went to at the funeral home. They were Ethan's second family, just as in many ways my house was his second home, for years. He has a family, escaped the addiction, had to make the difficult decision to not spend time with my son, and I just wanted him to know that he did what he had to do to survive. I wanted him to know that some of the love I can no longer give Ethan will be his as he goes forward.

I cried with his mother, who had known both the little boy and the angry young man and, like me, loved them both. I am sure there was a part of her that shuddered at how close she came to being where I was at, a part that mourned and was also thankful that she wasn't bearing the full brunt of it. Had the roles been reversed, I would have felt that way as well.

The drive to the cemetery was peaceful and the weather was warmer than expected. The leather coat went in the back seat by the time we reached the rural cemetery where Ethan was going to join generations of his ancestors, my grandparents, and a whole sea of people I didn't ever know. My parents plan to be buried there. The view is rolling hills, trees and fields of cattle. The sun was shining bright as we gathered around the grave.

I expected a small, sad gathering of family members who could get away from work, maybe a few folks from the Hope House where he lived a while (they agreed to be pall bearers) and some people from his church. I was totally overwhelmed by the number of people who were there. It was rush of activity to get us seated and everything ready for the service.

My chair almost toppled down hill when I sat. My first thought was how funny it would be to just fall over and topple the whole family like dominoes down the hill -- how Ethan would love it.

The pastor from the church where Ethan had found the only job he liked, but where he still couldn't manage to stay on track, knew the young man that he spoke about. He said that he knew we were all asking if we could have done things differently, and the answer was yes, because we are all fallible. That nothing could separate Ethan from his God, including the demons who drove him. We shared a few stories and a prayer and the Vince Gill song "Go Rest High On That Mountain" was played. We gathered in a gusting wind and released 23 bright colored balloons into the heavens.

After that, I had a chance to see who had come. I was even more blown away than I had been at the sheer number. There were people from Virginia who knew and cared about him, many of whom I never got to meet. People from North Carolina who knew and cared about us. People who came just for me and brought love and support and an outpouring of grace that I never expected from the time we've spent together. Family that I hadn't seen in years and years. The love poured out on me at the side of my son's grave wrapped round me like a warm blanket and helped carry me through the afternoon.

While the gravediggers finished their work, several of us gathered in the old wooden church and sipped coffee. E1 and E2, who had hardly got the chance to know their uncle, ran the aisles and played, freed from the need to keep their good clothes nice for the ceremony they did not understand. E3 cruised the pews and complained about the disruption in her eating schedule.

Before we left, my husband and I walked back to the grave topped with holiday flowers. We knelt and prayed individually, then stood and prayed together. I thanked God for giving me Ethan and for the blessing that was his life and the lessons I learned from him. I wished I could have kept him longer. I questioned why his life had to follow the course it did. I asked if there was any way to let him know how much he was loved and missed.

Of course, there was food and conversation at my mom's house following the ceremony, more noise from boisterous little girls, a drive home in the cooling afternoon to resume the routines of life, late night texts from a sister who is now an only child and beginning to feel that loss more keenly.

This was the day I buried my son, still with no answers as to how he died, but I think, thanks to a gift from God, some understanding of why. The time was not right for me, or for his sister, or for the many people who cared about him, prayed for him, and held onto a hope that one day he'd be all they knew he could be. The time was right for Ethan, walking with God, to be free of the pain of this life and get on with what comes next.

From a day that I expected only sadness, I found the closure I did not think I'd find. I found a peace that may make it easier to deal with the sadness. I found the strength everyone had said I had, but I found it did not come from within, but from without from those same friends who gathered around me and from the God who made the decision I still wish He had not made.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

No More Goodbyes

I know your life on earth was troubled
And only you could know the pain.
You weren't afraid to face the devil.
You were no stranger to the rain.
Go rest high on that mountain.
Son, your work on earth is done.
Go to heaven a shoutin',
Love for the Father and the Son.
Vince Gill

This week I wrote my son's obituary.

It wasn't a task I ever contemplated doing, but when it came down to needing to be done, I didn't want to hand off the memories and words to someone else.

I spent 25 years in journalism and during that time I penned a lot of obituaries. I learned how to word everything from the sudden death of an infant survived by generations of family to the passing of a well known local citizen, remembered as much for the things he had done as for those he left behind. I used the form sent in by the funeral home, or I helped the family figure out what they wanted to say. During the latter part of my career I worked with a wonderful gentleman who specialized in obituaries and had written his own and put it on file at the funeral home. When he died suddenly of a heart attack, all that remained to be done was to fill in a few blanks.

But there are no words to sum up the life of a young man who had so much potential and love and who brought so much joy when he could allow himself to live life. There were no words to explain how it went wrong and ended too soon, how I feel as though I've lost a part of my body, maybe a leg, because I feel as though I'm pulling myself through the days, not walking and running, but dragging along. I couldn't let it go at born on, died on though. The best I could come up with was "He loved video games, skateboarding, his family and friends, and computers." None of that was enough to bring him happiness in this life.

Faced with the questions of what to do in planning my son's funeral, that song by Vince Gill came into my mind. When I looked up the lyrics and remembered why he wrote it, I knew why. I was a country music fan in those days and a huge fan of Keith Whitley, the first person I remember dying from an addiction he could not control. The song was begun after his death from alcohol poisoning as a tribute to him.

Now, a few decades later, it will also be played as a tribute to Ethan whose pain no one else ever knew, whose trouble we could never understand.

The funeral will be today, but I won't be able to touch Ethan's hand one more time and tell him goodbye. It's as unreal as if he had gone to war and they had shipped his body home, assuring me that the man inside the casket was indeed my son who had been absent from my life for months, but who I just spoke to a week ago -- probably only hours before he died.

The fact that he had isolated himself so much in his addiction meant none of his neighbors noticed they had not seen him. It meant family wasn't really surprised when he wouldn't answer the phone or didn't call. Often lost in his alternate reality, he didn't feel the need to respond to a ringing phone or a knock at the door. He never bothered to set up his voice mail account.

It was a note left on his apartment door, still there five days later, that led his grandmother to call police and gain entry to his apartment. He had probably been dead that entire time.

While he always insisted that it was his choice and didn't hurt anyone else, this is the reality of his addiction. I'm facing a closed casket and while an image of my dead son wasn't one I was eager to see, being deprived that last chance at goodbye breaks my heart over and over. No, he isn't there anyway, but the earthly vessel that I bore, the body that carried his troubled soul for 23 years remains and I long to see him one more time and to whisper my love, even to he empty shell where he was.

This is a harsh reality of addiction that no one knows or speaks of. Addicts often die while not under a doctor's care and without an illness that a medical examiner can quickly sign off on. That means an autopsy, which I know he would never have wanted and which, thanks to CSI and too many realistic crime shows, breaks my heart at a whole different level. Isolated in addiction, they may also die alone and despite caring family and friends, that self imposed isolation means that no one knows immediately that something is wrong. They may be dead for days before they are found and compounded with an autopsy, there is not enough of the person they were for family and friends to say goodbye.

That is just part of the price of his addiction that we will continue to pay. I know the picture that I have of him in my mind, the beautiful blue eyes and smile, the big hands and warm hug when he enveloped me in his arms, are a much more precious memory than I would gain from touching his dead body. But there is a part of me that so badly needed to do that, to touch him, to kiss him one last time, to know that this is real and not a bad dream.

It's so damn unfair that beyond all the pain of his death I can find yet another level of pain just because I cannot say goodbye. And yet, somehow I must. Whether I cry to the heavens or weep by his grave, today is goodbye to the earthly part of my son.

And with all the pain and heartache this goodbye brings, it also brings thanksgiving for the child I knew and the lives he touched, the love and blessings he gave as my son before his demons defeated him. It also holds faith in the peace he has finally found and in a future reunion when there will be no more goodbyes.


Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Why Did He Have to Die? Searching For Meaning

I remembered to feed my house dogs last night.

I'm not sure if anyone fed them the two days before or not. Maybe my husband mentioned it. Although my hens and outside dogs all are part of a routine that I've stumbled through blindly this week, the three little dogs who cuddle around me when I sit down are used to having food dropped in their bowls whenever they are empty. I honestly hadn't even looked at their bowls.

Of course, Monday I didn't even remember to eat until someone from my Sunday school class came with a box of food. I had started a pot of soup, because I knew in my head that we would need to eat. I had even forced my granddaughters to sit down and eat at lunch time, but food wasn't something that I wanted.

Once upon a time the death of a family member would have filled a home with visitors and food. Not too long ago, the phone would have carried the word from place to place. People would have stepped forward to make sure you ate and do what needed doing. Now I can't even think of what I might need when people do call or ask. There's no drawing together because life is so demanding that if you're not the one blindsided by the loss, it's hard to pull yourself free to do more than express condolences.

Now it's this glowing box that draws me like a moth each morning. Not long after I received word, it was Facebook where I turned to let my friends know. It's this blog where I poured out my feelings in an effort to find healing for myself and to try and wrap my head around the the way my life had suddenly changed. It's Facebook where I've found my friends and Ethan's friends reaching out and sometimes sharing memories, pictures, their pain and their prayers for us all. It's my infernal cell phone that I struggle to keep charged because of the texts and calls.

I've had so many people tell me I'm strong, but I don't feel strong. I get up in the morning and heat a cup of coffee, then sit by my computer for as long as I can stand. I write -- not everyone's response to what I'm going through, but what I feel like I have to do -- and I read and I cry. I do the same thing again at night after the children leave and my husband goes to bed. Those are the times when the house is absolutely quite except for the hum of the electric heater in this room and the click of the computer keys.

Part of me wants to stop the blog. Part of me says it's my lifeline. And then every day I look at the statistics on it and wonder if I've helped just one of the people reading it. Sometimes a stranger sends me a comment that makes me know I have and as I search for some kind of purpose in what God has chosen to work in the lives of my son, and I and all of our family and friends, some part of me believes this is it.

I prayed for so long that he would find sobriety. I realized it was not a gift I could give him, or something I could force on him either, so I prayed that God would do it. Every time he stumbled down another long hole that I never expected him to live in -- months in jail, a month in the hospital, months in physical rehabilitation, living in a homeless shelter -- I prayed that someone he might not have otherwise met would be able to say the words he needed to hear and show him the way to another life.

I pleaded with God, argued with God, tried to accept that there was a reason that he had to suffer so much. Although Ethan sometimes argued that he was happy with his life, with his drugs and addiction, there was often pain in his voice, his body was damaged from the drugs and accidents. He could never see it was his choices or seem to see a way to change, despite months of sober living, support groups, the kindness of strangers, and the deep well of love of his family and friends that as often as not he would turn his back on.

When he died, I asked why. Not why was he dead, because lately there had been so much pain in him that I had prayed for peace if not sobriety. Peace was what he was finally given. It wasn't the answer I wanted, but it was one I felt I could accept. Instead I asked why it took so long. Why did he have to hurt so long? Why didn't he die one of the times he was hauled to the ER unresponsive from an overdose? Why did he survive an accident that should have killed him? Why did he have to keep hurting?

The answer is that I don't know. I don't know how his experiences changed his soul. While he couldn't escape his addiction, he also couldn't escape his salvation, and perhaps there were things he learned about himself and his God in those months that he had no way to share with us.

Perhaps while he stumbled through a life that was destined to end too soon, he was the tool that changed someone else's life, if not in how he lived, then in how he died. Perhaps the people who helped him, or who tried to, learned something from the experience that will make them better at helping someone else. Maybe his friends who are still stunned and wondering what happened to the wonderful kid they grew up with will remember the path he took and not only avoid it themselves, but watch for those signs of danger in their friends, siblings, and their own children.

I don't believe that his life or his pain, or mine for that matter, were in vain, even though I may never understand it. Not in this life, anyway. And when the time comes that I could gain that understanding, it won't matter any more. I'll be able to put aside this pain and anger and leave it all behind, and if understanding comes, it will only be as a brief ah-ha moment when we're together again with our Savior and celebrating freedom from this world that is not our home.

So I sit at my computer, because while God gave him pain and addiction, for years he has given me words. This process is my therapy, but maybe someone else's as well. Just as I originally committed to writing every day just to get in the habit, now I'm committed to writing because there may be someone else who needs this as badly as I do. I know that grief consumes me now, that maybe it hurts as badly to read it as it does to write it some days, and that many people will never understand why I do it. And that doesn't matter.

I know in some bright, sunny future time I can hardly imagine now while I'm cloaked in this dark blanket of grief, the things that make my day once again will be lighthearted and the ups and downs that I once knew. But through it there will still wind a thread of pain and loss that I've got to learn how to live with and accept. Thanks to this blog and my inability to be less than honest, I know there are so many other parents and families struggling with that same fate and I'm going to be here so they know they're not alone.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

One Last Christmas

What would you do if you knew this would be your child's last Christmas, regardless of their age or what's going on in your life?

What if it turned out that his last Christmas was already behind you?

A song on the Christmas CD I've been listening to called "One Last Christmas" by Matthew West about a family and an entire town rushing Christmas so a dying boy could enjoy it one more time already moved me to tears before this weekend's events. I think I'll be hitting the skip button when it comes on now.

What if I could have Ethan back for one last Christmas, knowing it were the last one? How many times are we celebrating one last Christmas when we don't even know it at the time?

Why did our last conversation have to be me telling him that I couldn't see any way to give him the expensive gift he most desire when he was so badly in need of day to day essentials? But then, why did Christmas come to mean gifts and financially straining ourselves to give those gifts that we should sometimes say no to? Would I really feel better if that gift he had wanted were sitting unopened under the tree?

Somehow on his journey through addiction, my poor, broken boy had forgotten about everyone but himself. I think that's a common trait of addiction. He blew off Mother's Day, which I was really looking forward to, because he had just moved into his apartment and met a girl (and was probably high). He blew off Thanksgiving, which his nieces were eagerly anticipating, probably because he was still angry with me for telling him I knew he was using and I was not going to fight or make an issue over it. It would probably have required the presence of that gift under the tree to get him to sign on for Christmas.

If I could have had anything I wanted for Christmas, it would not have come from a box, it would have been time with him clean and sober, just one more day, one last Christmas. Now with this year's holiday breathing down my neck, all I can cling to is the memory of Christmases past -- when I did have the gift he wanted; a violin one year, a new Nintendo or game.

The gift I would have wanted is as unreachable as the gift he wanted, even if I'd had his present wrapped under the tree. He wouldn't be here to open it.

Monday was a really tough day. I don't know that it would be one bit easier at some other time of the year, but I do know there wouldn't be this feeling that I need to force some joy into moments that right now aren't filled with joy. I know that routines that help me navigate my week and balance my needs with the needs of the little people in my life are being doubly derailed by death and the holiday and I'm just not sure from one minute to the next how I'm going to hold it together.

Christmas Eve, when the family has for the last several years gathered at my house, is a week away. How am I going to pull myself together for that? How are my parents going to do it? And Ethan's sister?

But just as I'd been trying to focus on what was right about the holiday -- mainly three little girls with beaming smiles who slammed into me with wide arms this morning yelling "I love you, Ma" -- I know that this focus is one I'll have to use to get through the coming weeks. Not everyone in the world is grieving because I am and I can let their joy infect me rather than letting my sorrow pull them down.

We're never promised another birthday, Christmas, or even just another morning to say hello to the ones we love. Somehow, instead of letting the pain of what is missing from the holiday ruin it, I have to let the joy of what is there carry me through. I have to muster up the energy to wrap the gifts stuffed in closets and the man cave. I have to buy and cook the holiday ham.

Just like much of today has been, I have to go through the motions until they feel right. Because I know, eventually, they will.

Sometimes, I know I'm going to falter like I did today when I abandoned the dinner table to take shelter in the bathroom so two little girls wouldn't see me cry, again. Sometimes I'll laugh at the story of the baby's diaper blowout, or smile at getting a dance step right in Zumba, and have a little more faith that it will get better.

This is a rocky road I'm walking, but it's a road that too many of us can suddenly find ourselves on without any warning signs.

So I'm just urging you to treat this Christmas and every Christmas as one last Christmas -- not to be loaded down with gifts that aren't the real meaning of the holiday any way -- but to hoard memories and photographs that will make the day live again for many Christmases to come. Make Christmas really count and wrap your love tight around the people you care about.

Just in case it's someone's last Christmas.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Goodbye, My Little Boy

Yesterday the phone rang with the call some part of me has been expecting for a year or two now. It was the Galax Police Department calling to notify me they had found my 23-year-old son dead in his apartment after being asked to do a welfare check.

It's the call no mother wants to get, but after living with his addiction for so long it was one I expected at the back of my mind. I thought I was prepared, but really, until the phone rang I always clung to hope that he would turn his life around.

I'm still struggling to wrap my head and heart around the idea that this time he really is gone. Our communication has been so spotty for years, so full of anger at times, that I'm used to not hearing from him for days or weeks. Just a week ago, he called wanting a Playstation 4 for Christmas. I told him no.

He had skipped Thanksgiving, I think at least partly because he was angry with me over a Facebook post in which I was thankful for him, despite the fact that he hadn't always been the son I imagined. I was uncertain over what Christmas would bring. Maybe that was the cloud that's been hanging over my holiday. I hadn't even bought him any gifts.

Now I won't get to, ever again.

There's a picture of him on the living room wall holding my dog last Christmas, sporting a goofy toboggan and a grin. When he was straight, he had a lethal sense of humor and was always worried about me. In my memories he is the golden haired little boy who trooped behind his older sister and worried her to death as she played; the elementary schooler who liked being smart and didn't care for basketball or karate; the middle schooler who put on weight and had braces and didn't like himself as much as he should have because I still loved his smile. He's also the sullen teen who stretched out and became tall and lean, who gave up band and skate boarding, who put his fist through the wall and wouldn't do chores. Yet on good days he still gave awesome hugs and when he managed a smile, the room would light up.

The good days, however, seemed fewer and farther between the older he got. Instead of correcting his path, he intentionally chose it, repeatedly. We argued, by text, at great length last month about all the wonderful things he thought his drug of choice did for him and whether or not he was happy. When he was high, he thought he was Death incarnate, or maybe god. He was immortal and capable of anything he set his mind to doing. He hated everything around him except the video games in which he could further escape from reality.

I know he had dreams -- of being a video game designer, of having a family and being a dad. He told me he wanted to be a good dad, which was so sad because his dad was such a deadbeat, and he was great with children. His nieces adored him. But he poisoned his chances at all that when he started using drugs, when he chose repeatedly to keep using them. In many ways, I lost my son when he and his best friend started getting high. He was never the same after that; moody, angry, scary and demanding.

He always thought that since it wasn't an illegal drug, or even one he had to obtain illegally, that it was OK. Dextromethorphan is a cough suppressant and central nervous system depressant. It's sold over the counter and safe in recommended dosages. Taken a whole pack or more at a time, however, it mimics the effects of PCPs. It causes psychosis, seizures, organ damage, and potentially death.

He left home for nearly a year when he was 16, loading his belongings in a rage on the day my grandfather died. Even when he didn't live with me though, I gave him a phone to keep in touch, came to his rescue when he needed me, took afternoons off work to deal with a broken heart. He came home the next summer because they didn't have room for him any more and I wanted him to finish school, which he did. But frankly, I was afraid of him and his angry outbursts. He turned 18 and graduated, still with no purpose or desire to have one, and I made him move out.

He had a few jobs, wrecked a few cars, and was living in his car when one last accident ended its usefulness. By then he was having seizures. He was unable to work, so I rented him an apartment and took him regularly to Winston-Salem to see a doctor and psychologist. We didn't know that, even then, he continued to use. Then he found a roommate and they got high together, he went into a psychosis and pulled a Japanese sword on the roommate, and we found out the truth. He was in jail when we cleaned out his apartment and found bag after bag of empty blister packs where he'd been taking drugs -- drugs he stole, by the way.

I should have known by the illogical rages, I guess. But even though I knew the drugs had caused the neurological damage that brought on the seizures, I didn't know their effects as well as I would have some widely discussed street drug.

When he got out of jail, I refused to enable him any more. He moved to Virginia with my parents. He never worked again, except odd jobs at the church and for my family. When my dad's illness meant mom couldn't take care of him as well, he first rented a house, then lost his job at the church and wound up in the homeless shelter. During that time he had a horrific wreck in which he should have been killed. He was high and in a blackout, hit a parked car and went over an embankment. He was ejected and broke multiple bones, including his back, but was not paralyzed. We were all convinced that would be hitting bottom.

For months, back at the shelter, he stayed on the straight and narrow. He had to because of random drug testing. He was a house monitor, had friends and was fun to be around again. When he moved out into an apartment, the first thing he did was get high. This summer police called me and asked if I was his mom. I expected the next words to be a death notification. No, he was on the streets acting strange. He spent two nights in jail for public intoxication.

I hate to admit how seldom I've seen him since his birthday in April. He was in a downward spiral that I knew I was powerless to stop. I talked to him on the phone fairly regularly and tried to make sure he knew I loved him. Often when he called his voice was unintelligible and I would strain to have a conversation, never knowing if he were high or if were an aftereffect of the drugs. Sometimes he called in tears from emotional or mental pain. Lately there had been physical pain as well, but he would not see a doctor.

For years I've prayed for God to heal him, to make him choose sobriety, and more recently just to take away the pain that seemed to drive him. At last, Ethan hurts no more. At one level, my prayers have been answered.

There's a hole in my heart and an ache in my stomach. I'm not sure if writing about it makes it more real, or less. I know now I've had almost a day to process and I'm still not sure I'm ready to do anything else. I hate that, right now, so many of my memories are not good, but maybe that's what I need to get through the next few days. I refuse to take a photo album down and bring happier ones to the surface.

I've been touched by how many people have reached out to me and wept again when I realized how many of my friends have already, in some form, walked this path I'm on. I don't know what to tell people I need beyond time. I'm trying to go on with life and do the things I enjoy instead of trembling in a corner in sackcloth and ashes, and I know that may raise a few eyebrows but my grief won't change his death, just as it never changed the way he chose to live.

I know I'm fragile right now and I'm trying to take care of myself. I wish I could hug him one more time and remind him again that I love him, no matter what. That not being possible I want to hold my daughter and granddaughters and feel the breath in their lungs and the beat of their hearts.

I want to somehow know that he's finally at peace and that I won't ever have to feel this way again.