Saturday, December 27, 2014

Life and Change is a Choice after Loss

Three weeks ago I had a modified abdominoplasty -- a mini tummy tuck for those unacquainted with plastic surgery lingo.

During the year since my son died, I've taken care of myself in ways I had never done before. Putting a period on his life reminded me that there will someday be an end to mine, and I don't want to have regrets for the things I could have done. Even if I don't have time for regrets, I want time to enjoy the things I want in life, whether it's weeks months or years.

So there's a convertible in the driveway, even though I haven't driven it in weeks due to cold weather. There's a hot tub in the back yard where I regularly relax with a glass of wine, looking up at the cold winter stars. I had my eyeliner tattooed on my eyes a few months ago. Last spring I spent four glorious days at the Outer Banks with my family. One to three times a week I splurge on a drive to town to workout for an hour or two. And now there's a long scar across my abdomen where I've said goodbye to a physical attribute that has bothered me for years.

I know we all handle grief and depression differently, and I've tried to think each decision through and separate a temporary feel better from something I really wanted.

There have been times when I've rushed into things myself, although I've since learned that big decisions shouldn't be made while dealing with grief or depression. Years ago I fell and broke my right wrist badly and wound up depressed, especially after the convertible I had at the time came back from the mechanic with cosmetic damage. Oh, and I couldn't drive it because it was a five-speed. Rather than waiting until I was well and taking the issue up with the mechanic and tow company that had caused the problem, I traded it for a loss for a car I drove only a few months and hated virtually the entire time. Don't, I've learned. Don't rush into something to make you feel better.

So I haven't.

But at the same time, if there's something I know I've wanted for a long time, I've decided to make it happen if possible. I've scrimped and saved and planned and things have fallen into place.

I knew from the time I sold my previous convertible that I would want another one when it became feasible. When I first read that it was possible to have permanent makeup tattooed on, I wanted eyeliner because I can make it and feel good if I'm wearing eyeliner. The Outer Banks has been my favorite vacation getaway since the first time I went, even though I had not made it back in a decade. The hot tub was the closest to a spur of the moment purchase I've made, having not had the opportunity to enjoy one very often, but I've used it enough to prove it was a good luxury choice.

The abdominoplasty was probably the hardest to embrace and thankfully most people, including my husband, would not have said I needed one.

After birthing two 9-pound babies, two abdominal surgeries with resulting scars and tucks, and losing 20-plus pounds in the last decade, I wasn't happy with the way my skin fit. It bothered me in yoga poses, in a bathing suit or jeans, or even when I simply encountered the unwelcome bulge. The more I exercised, the fitter I became, the more I hated it. It seemed, however, that I would carry my little roll to the grave because I couldn't entertain the idea of plastic surgery long enough to find a doctor or make an appointment.

As it turned out I didn't need to. A small skin cancer on my leg sent me to a plastic surgeon to arrange removal and while there I asked about the loose skin on my stomach. I quickly learned it wasn't as expensive as I thought for a mini procedure and that it could be performed without general anesthesia (a deal breaker). Before I left I had a quote for the costs and something to ponder. When things are meant to happen, I firmly believe they will.

I spent the next week doing research and considering the cost. I watched YouTube videos and read reviews. I talked to my husband. Then I called and scheduled the surgery and the presurgical visit and began making payments. I had my visit with a nurse who took measurements and talked with my about what to expect from surgery and recovery.

Then one Friday morning my husband took a vacation day and drove me to Winston where he waited while surgery was performed. It was as bad as YouTube made it look, although not so much painful as much as I knew what they were doing and liposuction (a small amount was included) is brutal at best.

The first two weeks of healing seemed to take forever. The last week has been wonderful. At no point have I regretted it and my only debate was whether to share it.

I decided this changing of my skin, so to speak, was part of the journey of losing Ethan. Had I not lost him, I would have continued to deny that I deserved it. I would have continued to be uncomfortable in my own skin, simply because there were other needs and wants.

Because I lost Ethan and made the decision to live, I want to live fully. I want to do so in a body that is aging, but aging well because I take care of it inside and out, and one that I feel fits me, however long I inhabit it. I want to exercise and dance and run and enjoy the sun on my face and the wind in my hair. I want to eat things I shouldn't, and things I should. I want to hand money to homeless people and shelter stray dogs. I want to listen to baby talk and feel the wonderful sensation of my grandchildren's arms embracing me. I want to watch them grow and try to be a person they can emulate. I want to say the right things, and sometimes the things no one wants to hear because they need to be said.

I want to reach out to other mothers, or fathers, who wake up to the same unimaginable loss I've endured and help them realize that they are not alone. I want them to understand it's OK to grieve and be sad and feel that life isn't what you expected it to be, but at the same time realize that living is a choice to make every day and that the rest of our lives doesn't have to be about grieving.

It can also be about moving forward and doing the things you've denied yourself. Because in my loss I've realized not to take tomorrow for granted, to seize the opportunities and take care of things today instead of tomorrow, and that the things that need taking care of aren't always someone or something else -- sometimes what needs care the most is me.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Most Wonderful, and Difficult, Time of the Year

I've always loved Christmas.

Even when I was a kid, I don't think it was just the toys. It was the family gatherings, especially the big Christmas Eve get together at my great aunt's house where cousins normally spread far afield were all under one roof for an evening. It was magical.

Between the memories of Christmas past and the high expectations set on the holiday by our Norman Rockwell dreams, Christmas is especially hard when your holiday doesn't "measure up." That's especially true when you lose a loved one.

Somehow it feels like the heart goes out of the season.

When my grandma died less than two weeks before the holiday several years ago, it was hard to go through the motions. When my grandpa joined her 11 months later, we didn't even really try and many of those family connections faded just as those on the other side faded when my paternal grandparents died.

Becoming a grandma in my own right brought a lot of that sense of family back. Everyone gathered at my house, my immediate family -- parents, children, son-in-law and a growing number of babies -- plus relatives who had no other plans, to eat together and make memories on Christmas Eve.

Losing my son last year just two days after the anniversary of my beloved Ma Mary's death pretty much knocked the wind out of Christmas again.

The brightly colored lights on the eaves taunted me. The Christmas tree with its promise of wonder held no magic. The gifts I still had planned to buy were never purchased. Had it not been for a big-hearted friend who arrived one day with a box of wrapping paper, I'm not sure the ones I had would have been wrapped.

After Christmas was no better. There were all those memories to pack away. The ornaments with an E and a date on the bottom that I'd bought for Ethan through the years were almost more than I could bear. If it hadn't been for an obliging ice storm, I'm not sure I would have ever got the lights off the house, although they were quickly unplugged. The spruce tree at the corner of the porch, well, let's say it didn't take much to light it up this year since the lights were left hidden in the boughs.

The months rolled around and now the season is here again and I've found that like everything else in my life, Christmas is permanently changed and redefined.

I had trouble getting in the gifting mood, until someone reminded me we were celebrating Christ's birth and that is an occasion worth celebrating no matter where we might find ourselves otherwise. I remembered we give gifts to those we love to honor the ultimate gift of love. But it still took walking in a Christmas parade with all the lights and sounds and shouted greetings before I felt an inkling of what I always took for granted before.

All that said, Christmas is still a little bit dimmer this year. The big lights that hung on the house a year ago are still in their storage tub. Even after I carried them and the ladder to the house I found I wasn't up to the task of hanging them or the more distant idea of taking them down. The tree is decorated with lights and shatter proof balls, and the ornaments so loaded with memories are spending the holiday in the back of the closet. I gave myself permission to do less this year.

Although I've done my shopping (virtually all on-line), there are still no gifts under the tree. I've yet to tackle the challenge of wrapping them all. The menu has been chosen for dinner, but none of the groceries have been bought. Every Christmas card makes me feel guilty, because that's one of the tasks I gave myself permission to omit. I've been unable to tell anyone anything I want, because to be honest what I want most isn't a gift that anyone can give.

Still in a week or so, Christmas will arrive. Little girls eyes will sparkle with magic and excitement. God willing, family tensions will be set aside and we'll celebrate and try not to notice an unshed tear shimmering in someone else's eye because to do so would mean acknowledging the ones in our own.

There will be less laughter and more leftovers and a sense of Ethan's absence that's as glaring as a piece lost from the center of a jigsaw puzzle. The puzzle will still make a picture, but it won't be the same. This year it feels like a big bright piece of a 20-piece puzzle. Next year the puzzle may feel like 50 pieces instead, and the absence will be less noticeable. Maybe in time it will be such a huge puzzle of memories that all those tiny missing pieces will make their own part of the puzzle -- a shadow of what could have been.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Last First -- The Anniversary of Goodbye

Today is my last first.

A year ago I awoke not knowing my world had shifted on its axis. At noon I received the call that my 23-year-old son had been found dead of an apparent accidental drug overdose.

Every day since then has been a journey into uncharted territory. Burying a child. A Christmas without him when I had hardly come to terms with the idea that he was gone. His birthday. Mother's Day. Birthday parties and family gatherings. The anniversary of the last time we touched in August, the last time we talked a week ago. Finally today. The last first.

I wish I could say that it has gotten easy, but at the same time that would feel like a betrayal if it were true. In fact, I still feel almost guilty if I go a day without thinking about him and the fact that he's gone, if I don't spend some time every day mourning him. But the fact is although when I have a hard day, it is almost as hard as it was a year ago, the hard days aren't every day and there are days when I can think of him with a smile instead of with tears.

When I got that call last year, I was alone and it felt like the most lonely time in the world. But the year since then has been filled with a fellowship and grace I never have expected to find. From the moment I told the world that Ethan was gone, I was wrapped in virtual and physical arms and held up in the prayers of people I may never meet across my home county, the nation and around the world. I'm still in awe of the God that would put these people into my life, and put me into their lives as well. Instead of walking a dark road of pain alone, we've held one another up with text messages, phone calls, visits, and occasional long dinners filled with laughter and tears and an occasional glass of wine.

Although I lost the church that I cherished a few months ago to the all-too-human failings we don't manage to check at the door, I never lost God's grace. On the day of Ethan's funeral, when I felt I just had to get through the unbearable idea of burying an unopened casket that held my son, I had a vision of him laughingly shaking off his scarred and pain filled body and glowing with an inner light as he rose holding the hand of being of light. I've wept and worshipped and prayed. I've felt Ethan's presence around me in the sunlight, been visited by his visage in my sleep and heard his voice at unexpected times saying "I'm fine, Momma."

That's not to say I haven't struggled. I've asked God why a million times; why sometimes faith and prayers are followed by earthly healing and sometimes by the ultimate healing; why me and also why not me; and then expanded that why to embrace those who've joined me on my journey as they've grappled with children lost to addiction, accidents, illnesses and sometimes an unexplained fate. The closest I've come to an answer came from the message of a fellow grieving mother who in counseling was told that divine intervention was rare, but that God feels our pain. He may not fix it, but He shares it. Mine and everyone else's and I've taken comfort from those words in Digging for the Light. I've largely come to accept that untimely death is simply part of life in this world that was sent off course by sin -- largely.

For a time, I had to quit listening to my favorite radio station KLOVE, because it was too positive and encouraging and the whys would leave me weeping, but I soon found that other songs would make me think of my son as well. There are times when it's as much about my mood as it is the lyrics of the song. More recently when I've found myself singing the words of worship, I've realized that they apply not only to me, but to Ethan as well. I've found special peace in "I Will Rise," by Chris Tomlin. I will rise when He calls my name, just as Ethan already has.

Through the last 365 days, death has gradually taken a back seat to life.

Two of my three granddaughters, who spend most of every other week with me, have been diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) and although many of their symptoms have been far different than the struggles Ethan faced, there have been similarities that have made me believe he may have been grappling with the same disorder. I can see his preschool face quite clearly in the face of the oldest, in her expressions and smile and bright blue eyes and I know that losing him may mean saving them because we won't discount their discomfort.

There have been job schedule changes that have disrupted life; a family vacation to the beach; illnesses and broken bones and bills and all the things that fill up the lives of everyone, whether they've lost a child or not. Those of us still on this earth have gotten older and changed and life has gone on, one first after another.

For a long time, I virtually abandoned my writing. It's one of those things that is hard sometimes. I didn't mean to neglect what I know I've been called to do, but it was easier to not dredge up the emotions, even if doing so meant that, like dredging a river means the water runs freer afterwards, I would feel better and maybe share something that helped someone else. Yesterday my new spiritual leader talked about doing God's work and accepting whatever it was we'd been given to do, and then this morning a friend reminded me how much this work of mine has meant. So although it may mean typing on my iPhone while the baby naps, that still small voice has reminded me that this is what I'm supposed to do with both the gift of my words and the pain of my life.

Tomorrow everything begins to be the second time. The second Dec. 16 when I wake up knowing Ethan is no longer in this world. The second Christmas when he isn't here, his second birthday in his first home and so on. I'm sure I'll add the numbers in my mind every year as those dates roll around. It will be two years, then three, then 10, and at the same time it will always feel like yesterday, moments ago in fact, when my heart shattered.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

We Never Really Grieve Alone

I struggled all day Tuesday, although it probably didn't seem like it.

The very first person I talked to told me two local girls had been killed in a car wreck on a stretch of four-lane I drove through twice yesterday, and that two brothers who were also in the car were in the local trauma center. She was bringing her dog to stay with me for the Thanksgiving holiday. We'd never met and she had no way of knowing how the news of a child's death hits me. As soon as she left I stood in my kennel yard and cried and prayed, for the families, the injured, those destined to go on with holes in their heart and enough regrets and what ifs to cripple them if they aren't careful.

All day that awareness hung over me, stopping me in whatever I was doing and sending me back to tears and prayers.

After a brief visit to my newsfeed on Facebook, I had to stay away. A friend of mine had posted that one of the girls was her niece. There were pictures and tributes and other parents that had lost children were posting; other Facebook friends were related. All day I argued with myself about going back to the computer.

I thought about how wrong life is when children die and how those deaths, so undeserved, may make us question God. I thought about how God gave us a perfect world, but we weren't content with that and how all the tragedy on every scale, the wars and genocides, abuse and neglect, car crashes and illnesses are part of the choice humanity made. God isn't any happier with it than we are, but to end it, well that time isn't quite right apparently. When I hurt for people I don't even know, I have to believe He hurts as well for people that He was willing to send his son to die for.

I wanted to wrap my words around it and unravel it all in my mind, but I didn't want to blog about someone else's tragedy. It wasn't about me, it was about them.

Then I went out to gather my eggs, tuck my hens in and get the kennel towels off the line because the local forecast says wet weather and possibly snow tomorrow.

I almost never see a sunrise or sunset because of the hills and trees around my home, but the sky was lit up in a way that could not be ignored. I set my laundry basket down and walked to the end of the drive. The clouds drifting in from the south were all painted pink on their undersides and the horizon was molten gold where the sun was sinking.

As we're wont to do in this camera/phone era, I snapped a picture of the first sunset I'd seen in ages, then went to put my phone back. Already the pink was fading, and I noticed a small white spot in the clouds. It didn't seem to match, just a little circle of light in the darkening sky, no way the sun was reaching around a cloud to be there.

Then it hit me and I felt like the spot was Ethan, my far from an angel son gone on to heaven all the same. There was a feeling of peace, even as I stood and cried one more time.

I shared it from my phone and tried to explain what it meant. Then I came inside to get ready for Zumba, but suddenly the stomach ache I've had for two days was back and I decided I wasn't driving 30 minutes to class only to not feel like dancing. Instead I came to my computer, thinking I could post the picture to my blog and that would be enough, but as soon as I set my fingers to the keyboard, it all came pouring out.

When you lose a child, you feel so alone. Mothers and fathers love their children so differently that it's easy to feel that not even your spouse understands. You're on this island of pain where you cannot imagine how you are supposed to ever laugh again, or enjoy a meal, or lay down at night and go to sleep without crying. You can't hardly even keep breathing because it feels like there's a vice around your chest and you're not even sure you want your heart to keep beating.

Beyond the circumstances, once the rest of the world has processed that your child is gone and sent its condolences and tried to help, what you're left with is the same emotions that virtually every grieving parent feels. When I lost Ethan, I had friends who had lost children in far different ways who still knew what I was going through and who were here for me. Whether it's war, car accidents, illnesses, or drug abuse, what we parents are left with is the same sometimes crippling burden of grief. It's the endless questions that can never be answered about what could have been different, the unfulfilled expectations, the inability to see an altered version of ourselves in our child, the rest of our lives without what should have been an integral part of it.

I think once you've lost a child, then you feel it every time you hear of a child dying -- whether that child is a baby, a teenager, or even grown. Any time you hear of a parent losing their son or daughter, you grieve with them because you know down deep in your heart and in the very core of your being what they're going through. Depending on the timing or the circumstance, you may almost feel it all again, even though you never saw the child except when they were already a memory.

Knowing that, I have to believe that God feels our pain.

It's easy to forget in the grand scheme of worship that Jesus is God's son. He came to earth and died and in order to die had to be separated from God for a brief span. On the third day Jesus arose, just as God knew he would, but for those days He felt what we feel. He understands our pain and every time He grieves with us.

I wish I could say I came up with that entirely on my own, but at least part of that comes from my friend Annah Elizabeth's book Digging for the Light. Annah Elizabeth and I were pregnant with our sons at the same time. In the spring of 1990, Ethan was born about a month before her son, who died shortly after birth. We've never met, but through the wonder of the internet we've become supporters of one another on our journey of grief. During her grief and depression following her son's death, she met with a woman who she called a wise woman. This woman told her "God is always with us. Divine intervention is rare. He was in the room with you.... He was crying out in pain with you...."

Those words were healing to Annah Elizabeth and they were healing to me as well. Sometimes, albeit rarely, there are miracles. Most of us have known of one or two and if we've lost a child we've been jealous that miracle wasn't for us. But it makes a difference to know that God is no more happy with the situation than we are. I take it a bit further in thinking that not only does He weep with us, but He feels as keenly as I feel the pain of mothers I've never met over the loss of children I do not know.

So I stand and cry and look at the sky, and in the clouds there is a spot of light, and I realize I cannot keep it all in or limit it to a few lines on Facebook. Perhaps the light was not only to comfort me, but to remind me of my gift and that unraveling the pain with words is what I do and isn't always just for me.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Sweat Doesn't Have To Be a Dirty Word

I realized the other morning during the second of my two one-hour workouts that I hadn't put on any deodorant.

Then I realized I didn't really need it because despite the fact that I was in a yoga pose that had my nose in fairly close proximity to my underarm, I didn't smell anything.

That set me to thinking.

Deodorant was one of the first crunchy things I made. Before I tossed anything besides my shampoo, I had read a few blogs expressing concern about the effect of antiperspirants on our bodies' ability to expel toxins through sweat. Those writers pondered a possible connection between limiting the effectiveness of our underarm lymph nodes with antiperspirant and the rise in breast cancer, more so in women because we shave and therefore put the chemicals in antiperspirants directly on our skin.

When I decided shampoo free hair was working and my daughter who had spent too much time reading Pinterest suggested "crunchy" was better, I made my first batch of deodorant. It broke me out. I frequently had to go days without using it in an effort to heal, and at the time it was a big deal. I could tell I'd forgotten some important hygiene.

My daughter, who had bought her deodorant off Etsy, said she'd got a batch with Shea butter in it and had the same results. I tossed mine and started over with basically coconut oil, baking soda, tea tree oil, and beeswax as a stabilizer. No more problems with rash and I could go back to my regular use routine.

I continued my crunchy journey and gave up body and face lotions loaded with chemicals for homemade or natural alternatives. Shea and coco butter, beeswax, olive, almond and coconut oils and essential oils for fragrance have replaced all the petroleum-based products and chemicals I once used to battle dry skin. The last time I picked up a commercial product because it was handy, I felt like my hands were smothering and had to wash it off.

When I realized I'd missed Tuesday's deodorant, I couldn't honestly remember the last time I had used it. Although an hour of Zumba and an hour of yoga will make me sweat even in cold weather, I don't notice the odor I used to expect. Could it be that without the toxins put on my body my sweat is no longer a desperate attempt by my skin to save itself?

It was one of those light bulb moments.

Our skin is actually our bodies' largest organ and the chemicals we apply in lotions and cosmetics are quickly absorbed. As long as we see the result we seek we don't generally give it a second thought. Perhaps we should. Maybe just being clean and keeping the chemicals away is enough.

Perhaps the lie we've bought into about cosmetics and beauty products is really part of what's aging us, overloading our systems in ways that cause chronic ailments, and filling our bodies with toxins that kill us.

Perhaps if we go without we will find we are better off in ways we never expected.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Growing Closer to Remembering Goodbye

This is going to be a tough month.

Not November, necessarily, but the 30-day span between Nov. 15 and Dec. 15, the time when a year ago my son was leaving me for the last time.

I'm all too acutely aware of the date that is approaching, too keenly remembering how things were a year ago, too often asking the unanswerable "why?" and struggling with the "ifs." I'm angry, and guilty, and struggling to accept how things are now, which is so different from how they were last year or how I imagined they would be a year ago. I'm beating myself up for the things I wish I'd done or said when I still had the chance -- how I'm not sure he knew that I thought he was beautiful, and talented, and still so full of potential and that I loved being his mother.

Just to be sure I remember, Timehop yesterday reminded me of what I was thankful for on Nov. 15, 2014. I was thankful for Ethan, thankful that he was still alive and had a chance at recovering, living, being the person I knew he could be.

My mom showed him the post when he visited her house a day or two later and he was enraged. I had told everyone he was a drug addict, when I hadn't even mentioned it. There was a blast of text messages, then a cutoff in communication. What I had intended as a good thing and an expression of my love for him turned into something else to fight about. I told him I knew he was getting high again and I just wasn't going to fight about it, that I loved him all the same but that I didn't truly believe he was happy as he claimed.

A couple of weeks later, he announced to my parents that he wasn't going to join them in coming to Thanksgiving dinner at my daughter's house. I'm sure it was because he was still mad at me, but the disappointment of not seeing him that day weighs all the more heavy a year later. He should have been with us that day instead of choosing his addiction and loneliness. Maybe it wouldn't have made a difference, but it would have at least given me a more recent memory to hold when they found him dead in December.

Not too long after that he picked up the phone and we resumed talking as though nothing had been said. Although he frequently cursed me in texts, calls, person, or Facebook posts when he was angry, I never asked for, expected or received an apology. I never put any requirements on our conversations or receiving my love. I tried to let him know that was unconditional, even if I wouldn't buy him the latest games and gadgets or send him money.

Now I'm struggling because I'm so aware that a year ago I could have gotten in my car and drove to see him. I might not have been able to get him to the door, or he might have been high, or he might have been glad to see me. A year ago, he was still within my reach but because he was so unpredictable and hard to be around I chose not to seek him out and risk being unwelcome. I chose to let him make his choices, always holding onto the mistaken idea that eventually he'd grow tired of the path he was on and come back to me.

I truly believed that what was broken within could be mended and that he would see that his addiction wasn't moving him toward what he wanted out of life -- a woman to love, a good job, children. I suppose I just cannot understand the power of an addiction, not completely. I cannot understand how the desire to feel a certain way to cause a person to push away everything else and knowingly risk death time and time again. I'm thankful that of all the mistakes I've made in my life, none of them ever lead me down that path.

All the holidays ahead have already passed once without Ethan. He wasn't there for Thanksgiving, and we were hurt and angry that he chose to stay away. This year, I'll just feel his absence and picture him with his ridiculous hat of the day digging into a pile of macaroni and cheese and a helping of stuffing and potatoes. By Christmas, he'll have been gone more than a year and I'll have marked the anniversary of the hardest day of my life.

Knowing this final month of the first year without him is counting down, I'm crying more and looking for more distractions -- harder to come by with cold weather descending. I'm struggling with too little sleep, unexpected memory flashes that sometimes bring me to tears, and the mental countdown to Dec. 15. I'm frequently distracted and moved to either smile or cry when I glimpse a face or figure that could have been him -- a young man walking on the side of the road hunched against the cold in an oversized sweatshirt, a pudgy middle schooler at church, a teenager with long, bushy curls waving at me from a yard as darkness fall.

I imagine how things were a year ago. He was sinking deeper into his addiction, developing pneumonia from chronic use of cough suppressants that kept him from even knowing he was sick, in pain from the infection in his lungs, calling to talk with his tongue so twisted from the drugs that we couldn't understand him, choosing to stay in his apartment and self medicate rather than go to a doctor who might question his drug use, his mind not functioning properly and not realizing he needed help, too grown up and stubborn for anyone else to make that decision for him.

Finally, it was too much and he turned on water in the bathroom sink and stretched out in the floor, maybe to listen to the water run or maybe just to try to catch his breath before splashing his face with cold water. He cocked one leg to the side and folded his hands on his chest -- the same position I lie in when I sleep on my back -- and slipped away.

I try to close my eyes and see him as I did on the day of his funeral, rising from his broken body with a glow of absolute joy on his face and pulled into the arms of the angels. But too often, I find myself feeling his pain and loss in my bones instead, stretched on my back as he was, clasping his memory against the pain in my heart.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Election Day Brought Another Pain in Focus

The last place I expected to find myself in tears yesterday was the voting precinct where I was putting in 15 hours as a voting official.

But I suppose I shouldn't be surprised at the places where something is still suddenly too much.

It built up through the day, and, thinking back, even before.

A week or so ago I received a political mailer for Ethan noting he hadn't voted in an election recently and shouldn't miss his opportunity. I remembered that two years ago he was in Winston-Salem in a boarding house where he could be transported back to his doctor's office for care after breaking his back in a car wreck. He wanted an absentee ballot to vote for the presidential race, but he gave me the wrong address so he didn't get to vote. By last year he was surrendering to his addiction and couldn't have cared less, even if it had been an important voting year.

All day yesterday as we assisted voters, there was a steady stream of little things.

One of the other judges mentioned taking his son and his mother to vote during early voting. It was his son's first time to cast a ballot and his mother said after voting, "Your grandpa would have been so proud." That hardly seemed to register at the time and I focused more on the loss of his father than the presence of his son.

But there were young men coming to vote whose style of dress, manner of movement, or even just general size kept triggering reminders of Ethan. There, my mind would say, that could have been him... or that.

Then a family with two grown sons, one voting the first time and one in his 20s, came in to vote together. The easy affection and teasing among them brought my own pain closer to the surface. I never voted with Ethan. He was never interested but the one time. I should have gone to Winston and brought him home to vote. It probably wouldn't have changed his life, but it would have given me that memory to treasure.

Finally another judge's son came into vote alone and she slipped around and gave him a kiss and a hug. One of those mom and son moments. He voted and left, tuning out her teasing remarks about fixing her some dinner. "He never listens," she smiled.

"How old is he?" I asked, poking at my own pain without even thinking.

"Twenty-four," she replied.

"Ethan never made it to 24," I said as tears slipped from my eyes. I realized they probably graduated together. Her son probably knew the troubled teen that was Ethan. Although I felt guilty about making her uncomfortable, I couldn't help myself. In a few moments I was able to excuse myself to repair the damage. I've known her for years and she knew about Ethan, but the other judges probably wondered what had gone on.

Afterwards I realized I shouldn't have been surprised. All too often something that never meant much to me before will knock the wind out of me. An autopsy on NCIS, a police drama featuring a death notification, actors portraying a mother and son, or the not-quite-right emotions of the character whose son has been murdered do it on TV, and books are almost as bad. Then there's real life -- a friend with her sons, someone Ethan knew with a real life, people I don't even know doing things they never think twice about and suddenly out of the blue that's the one thing I won't be doing with Ethan and I have to turn away.

I sit here this morning knowing that for the rest of my life there will be these moments filled with too much pain, too much regret, too much "I wish" and "If" and "Dammit life isn't fair." Knowing that, I dry my face, take a few deep breaths, and look for the focus to keep moving forward and walking the path I've been given to walk and treasure what I have been given.

Sometimes it feels my life and friendships are filled by souls battered like my own and, while it's painful sometimes to run into those who are innocent of this kind of grief, at the same time I want to shout at them in the most mundane of activities: "Treasure this moment! Not everyone gets it."

Even on Election Day.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Grappling with Goodbye

The last week has been tough for me and I've been struggling to figure out why.

I didn't think it was the impending fall, although I dread it.

For a while I thought it was the fact that my birthday is coming up in a few days, but it's not like my son normally remembered and sent a card I wouldn't get this year, or called, although there was always the off chance he might. I know every "special" day will be burdened with an extra dose of grief, so there is a chance that's been contributing to my sudden spells of weeping.

It took a Facebook message Saturday morning about my long-term rescue dog Pedro for me to say "Ah ha."

A teenager who just started volunteering to work with rescue dogs and help out around the kennel -- something I and the rescues need tremendously -- said it was too quiet without Pedro.

Suddenly I realized that was probably the reason for my way too frequent bouts of crying this week.

Pedro is gone. Moved on to the next phase of his life. Hundreds of miles away where he's greeting someone else with his questioning bark, giving his kisses to someone else, looking into someone else's eyes to see if he can love and trust them. Going to adoption fairs and living in a home and looking for his forever family in ways he couldn't do while staying with me.

And I'm broken hearted.

Of course, your first question is likely to be "Well, why didn't you keep him?"

It's a fair question because I loved him and he loved me and he is a totally awesome dog that I trusted with dogs of all sizes and my grandchildren.

But there was a sticking point -- I have a nine-year-old Labrador retriever who detested him. I have a prior commitment to Rebel and it broke Rebel's heart for me to have another large male dog in my life. I could see it in his eyes and the way he carried himself when I had Pedro out for a walk. Occasionally he'd snap and I'd be struggling to separate two large dogs locked in combat and someone would wind up hurt -- usually Rebel. I had dealt with trying to keep and separate two small dogs who for some reason beyond comprehension other than their basic similarity hated one another. One dog wound up with the short end of the stick and died before her time as a result. I couldn't do that to Pedro or Rebel.

It wasn't fair to my still struggling emotions, but to be fair to Pedro I had to give him up when the opportunity came along.

I know he'll be fine because Pedro is beautiful and loving and young and has overcome abuse and neglect and learned to let all that go. He's also never really known life as a pet, since he went from bad to the vet's office to kenneled with me. So his life is only going to get better and I know he'll be happy.

But I had to say goodbye and it hurts.

Pedro came to me in early October a year ago. He was a frightening dog to take on when he emerged from the back of a rescuer's vehicle, lunging against the leash and ready to fight any dog who got close. He was probably 60 pounds of underweight bulldog mix who didn't know a whole lot of good in his life. He was heartworm positive, had spent his whole life tied out and occasionally beat up by other male dogs, and was food and dog aggressive. He also didn't like to be confined and had scaled a six-foot dog lot at a previous residence.

Enter me and several weeks -- make that months -- of tough love. There was too much dog to get by with babying. We had to have respect first and that meant tough rules to be followed. Even at that he managed one dog fight in the kennel and I got bit when I reached to move his food bowl after I thought all those issues were behind us. Of course, he immediately knew he'd done wrong, released my hand and dropped to his belly, and I knew I'd done wrong as well to too quickly forget who he used to be. We adopted a very regimented feeding routine and, if necessary, I could remind him and touch his bowl, but we both recognized the line.

There were times I wanted to strangle him, and then there were tremendous breakthroughs. He learned to play first with Willie, my male Jack Russell terrier who is probably as lost without him as I am. Then female dogs of any size, and finally males. He learned to walk on a leash, going from a prong collar to a chain collar and finally just his vinyl, without dragging me down the road. He learned not to nip at a small finger or knock down little bodies, instead eagerly pressing forward for love, or dodging them. I trusted him with Yorkie puppies, a 100-lb. Akita, my little Es who would sneak into the kennel to pet him in his cage or stand near a wall as he raced by in a wild game. He learned to drop when I yelled "NO!" even if a particularly obnoxious guest was pushing every button trying to start a fight. He was treated for heartworm and finally tested negative.

When visitors came he was overeager, jumping on them in excitement, wanting more love, more affection. With me he was well behaved, standing gently on my shoulders to look in my eyes, lying across my lap to have his stomach rubbed, giving me a guilty look when he was caught destroying something he knew he shouldn't have.

When Ethan died, he had gone to stay at the vet's for boarding because we had planned a weekend trip out of town. He stayed away a week and the rescue group asked if I needed more time. I told them I needed him and something to do.

So for more than a year, Pedro has been my project. They told me time and again I saved him, and I know there were times I looked at him and wondered why I could save him and not my own son; why I could reach him with love and discipline, when my son couldn't respond to the same to beat addiction and live his life. There were times I held Pedro and cried into his fur because in some ways he became my atonement for Ethan, my canine troubled son. I dreamed of him finding a home before Christmas, of him finally achieving his potential and the happiness he deserved because both of us had worked so hard to put his past behind him.

When the rescue group called and told me he had a foster in New York, I cried. I cried several times during our goodbye walk the morning he left -- an hour long trek to the river with the neighborhood dogs. I cried as I sat on the ground and loved on him one final time.

Then, once I saw pictures of Pedro at an adoption even in New York that same weekend, I thought I was OK because he was, but I wasn't really.

Every time I go outside, I miss his questioning bark. His doggy ears would hear the door or my car, and I'd yell a "Hello, Pedro," whatever I was doing. When I go to the kennel, there's no big white dog eager to come out and play and be loved. There's not 70-plus-lbs. of packaged energy needing a walk or a game.

There's no surrogate for my son any more, even if I didn't realize it until today. Even if I had gone so far as saying it was like sending a child off to college and waiting to hear how they were doing. Even if I know that several of the dogs I keep have become surrogates for children moved away or gone like my son. I had not really recognized how strongly Pedro had played that role for me.

I'm glad he's gone and living his life, just as I would have been if he had been Ethan. I want him to be happy and healthy and loved and I hope I'll be able to keep up with his progress, at least for a while. I hope that he doesn't leave a new hole in my heart to join the gaping wound left by Ethan's death. I'm glad I could save him, even if I couldn't save Ethan. I wish it could have been the other way. Because I'll get over Pedro in time, but I'll never get over Ethan.

And I think I've learned that I may always struggle with goodbye.

Friday, October 31, 2014

The Eternal Lure of Barbie

The girls are playing in a relatively clean playroom for a change.

Why? Well, bribery of course.

I offered to let them play with their mother's Barbies if they would pick up. It had to be done before lunch today so that E3 could nap and they could go home leaving a clean room for the weekend.

Usually it's done with tears and a lot of threats, but I'm getting better at this grandma thing. Bribery works quicker and better and with far less drama.

Although they have a floor full of Barbies at home, they're still attracted by the lure of foreign dolls. Foreign, that is, in the sense that they are from another time some 20+ years ago. I guess when I'm really desperate I can bribe them with mine, which are also stashed in the same closet. This winter may see them coming out for a play date again, but I have to hold something in reserve.

The thing is, I can remember this same fascination with slightly older dolls when I was small.

My only female first cousin was about five years older than me so her Barbies were of a slightly older generation. They were mid 60s models, with different bodies and hair from the ones I had just a few years later. I loved the rare times when I was allowed to play with them during a visit to their home. I don't think she ever deigned to play with me, but I always hoped she'd get tired of her Barbies and hand them down to me. All I ever got was some clothes, although most of them never fit me.

Of course, other old toys work as well, and I was delighted to stumble on this bit of grandmother magic. Watching their peaceful play I wish I had kept more than just my old Barbies, who have already been well loved by their mother and I, which is probably why they've been allowed to stay in their travel trunks in my closet all these years. Still, I wish I had Jane West and her horse and all the saddles and tack and gear, or some of my brother's old GI Joes (who were always a much more masculine alternative to the insipid Ken I had). Those items are long gone at flea markets and yard sales of the past, or left behind in some move when that last box of toys was one box too many.

I'll try not to mourn the memories I cannot pass down -- easier some day than others, when I feel more mournful regardless of the situation. I hope I can pass recover a promised box of my lost boy's toys to share with them as well, although those days will be bittersweet, at least initially.

Today I'll delight in the sing-song play of three little girls rummaging through old dolls and clothes and revisiting the magic that was once their mother's. Soon enough the dolls will return to the closet, so the magic isn't lost, and I'll have one more tool in my chest to get me through the season ahead.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

That Woman Again, But Only for a Moment

I went into the pharmacy the other day to pick up a few items and wound up in a lengthy conversation with the guy ahead of me in the checkout line.

He had noticed my car, which has a vinyl decal for my business in the window, and struck up a conversation that led to telling me where I could get a job making six figures because I was good looking, if I wanted another line of work, and then hitting on me and, as part of giving me the website for that other job, giving me his phone number.

I wasn't at all interested in the number. Even if I weren't happily married, he wasn't my type.

But for just a little while, I did imagine myself as that other woman -- the woman I used to be just six short years ago.

The woman who wore heels and dresses and makeup every day and who never left the house with her hair in a ratty pony tail, wearing a pair of dirty jeans or shoes with dog poop embedded in the soles.

The woman who knew she looked good and counted on it to make her job go better some days, instead of the one who was lean and hard and didn't give a crap because she spent her time with children and dogs who loved her regardless of her appearance.

I imagined having that kind of money and what I could do -- help my daughter out and make life easier for what remains of my family, support causes, save for the future.

I thought about driving a new company car and spending a lot of time on the road, instead of having two well worn vehicles that don't leave the driveway every day.

I imagined myself as that woman.

That woman wouldn't need a back seat full of child safety seats and Disney movies and trash from little people snacks. She wouldn't get up early to greet snuggly little people, who all too soon will be big and marching off to school. She might not have time for lazy afternoons chasing children around the yard, or just hanging out watching the guineas and laughing at the girls' attempts to mimic their crazy behavior. Her schedule would mean she couldn't always be there for a host of dogs and their families, or dogs without families who need a place to stay until a rescue can find them a foster or new home.

She probably wouldn't have days of freedom, where she could be crazy and take two Zumba classes and a yoga session if she wanted to, or sit home and knit and watch "Downton Abbey" all day. She would give up comfortable ties to life at a pace that doesn't depend so much on the world around her, but more on the needs of those closest to her.

It didn't take me long to know I didn't want to be that woman. Not for a six-figure salary. Not for a seven-figure salary. Not for all the money I might ever need.

I tossed the website and the phone number together.

I hope he won't be too disappointed.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

My Happy Little Pill

About a month ago I commented on a YouTube video for a song called "Happy Little Pill."

The song made me think of the way Ethan talked about his pills, the OTC cough suppressants he took to get high, to escape reality, to "be happy," or normal, or what passed for it in his addicted life.

The reaction I got to posting my short reflection on the song has made mine the top comment on what is essentially a teen emo song, supposedly about antidepressants, and has been as mixed as my own feelings, and what I expect are the general reactions of people around me, to what happened.

Most of the commentators, who I suspect are mostly teens or Ethan's age themselves, have expressed sympathy, hope that I cling to good memories, sorrow that anyone has to go through what we've been through, and too often understanding as they've also lost someone to drug overdose.

A few have told me how I should have fixed my son.

Several have told me I was surely a horrible parent.

All things I've thought myself at one point or another during the last 10 months.

No one should have to go through this. Young people shouldn't lose their siblings, spouses, friends and lovers to drugs. Mother and fathers, grandfathers and grandmothers shouldn't stand by the side of a grave on a hillside and mourn a life cut short. Small children shouldn't lose a parent, an aunt or uncle. Especially not to something as avoidable as addiction. Yet it happens, and when it does we try to cling to the good memories, even when we have to dig them from the layers of garbage that addiction makes of a person's life. Sometimes we have to hunt them like pirates' gold, following a trail through our memories and finally digging down to what may only be a single gold coin that we can treasure. Or we're able to keep digging, keep hunting, and find enough to make us smile.

I know that I couldn't fix my son, that I wasn't a horrible parent. But sometimes, I relive the choices I made day to day long before his addiction. Would this have changed his life? Sometimes I'm like a rat in a maze, trying to find a way through my life that doesn't have me emerging next to his cold casket. But I have to accept that I was working with what I had at the time and doing the best I could; that even before the drugs he refused efforts at counseling with an addiction counselor who could have helped him had he been willing to open up.

Maybe, if I had known the risk of what he was doing when he first started, or if whatever behavioral issue he had were diagnosed and addressed when he was young. But even then I couldn't do it. It would have taken professionals, and by the time I had a clue what he was hiding, he was so good at hiding it that the professionals couldn't make any headway. He was, at least legally, an adult and no intervention program could hold him when he didn't want to go. Even if it had, if he weren't ready to say I need to change, then he wouldn't have changed. He was never ready to say that except when he was straight for a long time and had no choice. Even then his resolve quickly crumbled when the world didn't become the place he wanted it to be and life didn't get better.

Only addicts and people that have really lived with an addiction understand that. I'm thankful for the time I spent in Al-Anon years ago while dealing with someone else's addiction. Those Sunday nights with others trying to cope with the insanity of their lives helped me understand the problem wasn't mine, I couldn't fix it, I couldn't discipline or rehab or counsel it away. It helped me to understand that it wasn't a choice of drugs over me, that it wasn't him talking when he was consumed by rage, that he wasn't in control any more either. That it was never a matter of him loving the pills more than me, no matter how it sometimes felt. It helped me understand how powerful addiction is and that being an addict and overcoming it are hard and require first admitting that it is a problem, that you need to change your life (not just stop) and that you may need help.

Ethan died knowing all the help he could ever ask for to beat his addiction was just a phone call away -- to me, his stepfather, his grandparents, his former pastor, his lifelong best friend, that young man's mother and probably a host of other people who knew and loved him and would have made sure he got whatever help and support he needed. He never made the choice to admit it was a problem and that he needed help to get better. He never thought it would kill him.

I run down this thread of thought because every time someone goes on YouTube and watches that video, if they scroll down a bit, they see the top comment and the number of people who have liked the comment and the long thread of replies to that initial comment. And every time someone feels they want to add to the conversation, I get an email telling me what they said, good or bad.

Some days it's ugly. It's the "Don't you feel like a failure?" or "You should have helped him" type comments. Most days it's an RIP, or someone else correcting the others in what is often a tone I'd only like to use. I could edit it, delete it, or disable replies, but I don't because someone may read it who has their own happy little pill. Someone may think twice about what it takes to bring color to their skies and decide they need help.

Someone may live and someone else may never feel what I feel.

At the same time, there's a part of me that watching the video, listening to the song, smiles because I know how Ethan would have reacted because it wasn't the angry, loud music he always chose. And yet, I think he would have recognized himself in the lyrics and listened anyway.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Looking For a Bright Spot, Even a Penny

It's been almost 10 months since I learned that my son, Ethan, was dead.

Almost 10 months since my reality, my expectations for the future, my whole world was shifted on its axis.

Ethan had been troubled with drug addiction and the accompanying legal, emotional, mental, developmental and financial chaos since he considered himself an adult at 16. He'd pulled himself away from most of his family like a baby tooth working its way loose from the mouth. I always thought he'd eventually see that he couldn't keep on going like he was, that he'd reach bottom and come back to us.

He didn't.

Reaching bottom turned out to be fatal for him, as it too often does. The medical examiner ruled his death an accidental overdose, just a step too far along his search for escape and the ultimate high.

My reality was that there would be no more Christmases, no more birthdays, no Mother's Day cards, no special girlfriend leading to a wedding and more grandbabies, no more phone calls just to talk or even to ask for something. Nothing. Period. The end of the life I had a part in creating. There were days when it felt like just too much effort to cope, but I was needed by my husband, my daughter and granddaughters, my son-in-law, a lot of people and their dogs, so I kept going. I blogged and found a community of mutual support. I made new friends who had also had devastating losses.

For the last month, however, I've been pushing away the tides of emotions and letting my busy days keep me from following where they were taking me. Now it's October now, it's raining and sometime in the next day or so we're supposed to see our first dip into the 30s. I hate cold weather and I fear that the coming dark and cold will pull me into a void of depression. I'm scrambling for ways to avoid sinking under a dark cloud that won't go away.

Losing my church, albeit my decision, didn't help. Instead of somewhere I could turn for comfort, it turned into another of life's painful experiences that at best has me second guessing what should have been, much like my son's life.

Part of avoiding my emotions has been the all-too-easy option of not writing a blog. But my blog has been my therapy since Dec. 15 and it's helped me work through what life has thrown at me, so I'm back. I'm trying to arm myself in every way I can to fight the compounded effects of cold weather and grief. I'm trying to deal with things in small bits, so they don't become overwhelming like a the accumulated belongings of a hoarder -- a good analogy because instead of holding onto my sadness by hiding it, I'm going to start tackling it again.

I'm fighting back by joining the gym, going to Zumba classes (including one with the instructor and many other dancers from my old studio), and by buying a few things that I hope will be distractions as the weather shifts, like a big bounce house for the girls and a hot tub for the back yard.

I've quit letting myself indulge in eating binges of comfort foods that bought me short-term gratification, but were beginning to make my favorite clothes uncomfortable. I'm halfway back to where I want to be and already find a little more breathing room in my shorts and jeans. I got my hair cut, just a little, so that it had a bit more style than just long, curly mess. I'm getting a massage and an expensive cosmetic treatment that I've wanted a long time this month. In short, I'm looking for ways to be kind to myself that don't involve eating, although I've also fallen in love with a salad blend from Costco that I eat to excess -- far better than a Krispy Kreme doughnut at least.

I'm also reconnecting with the people that I found were so wonderful to be around, gathering them back like snuggling into a warm blanket on a cold night. Last week we did a quick, impromptu dinner with another couple and this week it's dinner at our house with a few more friends. Instead of working to exhaustion every Saturday and collapsing by the television, we're going to start engaging with others again -- people who have been here for me and my husband through thick and thin.

I don't know that it will be enough. I don't know how I'll work through the coming months, when already I feel like I'm teetering on the edge, and things as simple as a Facebook post about wonderful sons or a TV show where a dying mother tells her son goodbye will send silent tears sliding down my face. I don't know why I feel Ethan's blue eyes looking at me, intently as they so often did, and why if I have to sense that I cannot also feel some reassurance. Instead I feel like he's watching me, worried and uncertain if I'll be OK, because that's how it feels -- how I feel.

Then I find change outside my car door in the parking lot, a quarter and a penny, and I remember the poem about pennies from heaven. I smile and pick it up and toss it in my console, drawing comfort wherever I can. I close my eyes and send a mental hug to my baby and imagine his arms around me and his strong grip as he lifted me from my feet. I drive home with tears streaming down my cheeks again, but still hopeful that I won't let him down by failing in some way to do what has to be done.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Finishing a 5K May Be Survival as Much as Training

A few weeks ago I ran my first, and what could be my only, 5K race.

Well, I walked fast, anyway. Fast enough to win my age category and beat a lot of people younger than me who were making a more leisurely stroll and sometimes trying hard as well.

I can walk the socks off of a lot of people, thanks to many repeat outings with my dogs and the dogs who stay with me. We can manage a 4 mph clip for a long distance with big dogs or meander slowly with my house dogs. A steep grade isn't killer to me -- I've come up the hill at the end of my road more times than I can count. Rough terrain, well that's a quick trip to the river.

Our 5K turned out to be a trail run, for which I was ideally suited, even without extra training.

Still, I had hoped to train more, to go faster, to do more than run down hills and through straight stretches and manage not to have to stop when it came to a steep uphill grade.

I'm not sure what made me want to compete. Not really. It wasn't like it was on my bucket list or anything, but I decided when I heard about it that I would do it. Not only complete the course and get the t-shirt, but pay the extra $10 to be timed. If I hadn't been being timed, I know there were points in the competition that I would have quit -- when I could see the last link of the road leading out, but we were directed straight up a hill through the woods; when I was jogging on a flat stretch through a field but felt like stopping and throwing up; when the same child passed me for the fourth time (I eventually left her behind).

Thinking about it, it may be that I wanted to put more than the starting line (and that recurring child) behind me.

It was a mental barrier as much as a physical one. I was never the fit kid, the athletic kid, the runner. At least partially because I was never allowed to be. I won my first bicycle selling magazine subscriptions when I was in middle school (my brother and I teamed up and won back to back years, bringing home two 10-speeds). I always wanted to skate, but finally bought my first pair at Goodwill sometime in my 30s and still don't really skate, although I often carry my in-line pair in my trunk in case I have time and a level spot to play around. I wasn't allowed to run or climb trees because I might fall and get hurt, and my husband is frequently amused nowadays (and probably downright horrified) at finding me up a tree with a chainsaw, because I by gosh can.

I'll forever be haunted by the image of our physical fitness tests in elementary school. We had to do situps, push ups, run a 50-yard dash and a 600-yard walk-run. I'd be sloughing along in the back with the heavy kids, hating myself as I watched the others sprinting for the finish line.

While the every child gets a trophy mentality is surely wrong, this early exercise in self hate was just as bad. There was no effort between times to help us train, just a twice a year measuring of how bad or good we were. I was always bad -- weak, slow and unfit.

No one would say those things about me now.

Daily yoga, PiYo several times a week, two or three Zumba classes a week, push mowing the yard (no self-propelled mower for me), yard work, and lots of walking and hiking have over the last decade changed me tremendously. I'm pretty sure I'd fare better on most of those old tests than the fit kids I always envied would today.

Still, I don't consider myself a runner and probably never will, largely because the roads near my house are pretty much uphill or down and I don't have enough daylight hours to go somewhere else most days. So completing a running challenge was something some inner part of me just needed to do.

Starting out with the serious runners disappearing ahead, it seemed like a challenge that was going to be too much for me. Repeatedly swapping places with the little girl and her mom was another frustration.

But the 5K turned out to be a lot like life. Some of the runners lost all they had early, like the fit kids I went to school with who are now heavy and out of shape because they peaked in high school and quit caring or trying. Some were flat track runners who didn't have the stamina to tackle some of the hills, like people who cannot handle the hard things life tends to throw at us. Some were trying to change who they have been and were, in a lot of ways like me in that they were running to get away from old fitness habits or old self images, with varying degrees of success.

They fed us after the run and the girl across the table from me said she had started training earlier in the year for an upcoming race. She talked about her weight loss and goals and her frustration at being unable to catch me when I passed her about halfway through the race. She was young and knew she had grown too heavy and complacent with her lot in life.

I wanted to tell her she could change and keep changing, not to let the things life throws at her sideline her. I wanted to tell her you really cannot train for some things, that you just have to learn to keep moving and not quit, to not slow down too much. But I knew I would have been speaking from a place she couldn't understand. So I told her she was tough to catch and that she'd be better on the back end in the future if she hung in there, which was true.

Then I collected my medal with a smile and a quiet inside nod to my younger self.

You can run the race now, I said. You've gotten through everything else. Just keep on going.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Saying Goodbye to 'My' Church

I'm mourning again. Not for my son this time, although that continues, but for my church.

After a lot of soul-searching (no pun intended), my husband and I have decided it's time to find a new church home.

That may not seem like a big thing to a lot of people, and there was a time when it would not have been hard for me. It wasn't hard for me to leave my childhood church and I've drifted through a number of congregations during my adult years. But over the last six years my church has become a very important part of my life. I volunteered in the nursery and watched babies grow up. I trusted my Sunday school class like best friends. The people I saw there every Sunday and sometimes at other times became as precious as family. There are people I hug and kiss and say "I love you" and mean it from the bottom of my heart.

But in the last three weeks, things have changed, as they often do.

Initially it felt like a death, like someone I cared for had been taken from me. I couldn't believe it was gone. That the music and preaching I'd looked forward to each Sunday wouldn't be happening again was hard to grasp. At odd moments, I would weep. It hurt to drive by the building (still does, in fact).

For two Sundays I went back, hoping there was enough of what I loved to help me through the transition, but instead I found faces I loved missing. Not all of them, but enough to know that there would be no going back. I found myself crying during service because it wasn't what I wanted, what my soul craved, the way I needed to connect with God.

Now it feels more like divorce. The relationship is damaged beyond repair and I'm going to leave and try to start over.

In fact, the more I think about it, the more it does feel like a divorce. There's the initial estrangement, and the fact that I still love and care for people I'll be leaving, and the fact that right now it's ugly and raw. And there's also the fact that like a marriage, a good relationship with a church requires some work and occasionally forgiveness and compromise. I've stuck it out before. It's not that I'm unwilling to work out the kinks in a relationship. There was betrayal before and it hurt, but it was clear cut and so obviously wrong that the congregation didn't split although there were gradually a number of people who left.

This time I'm one of the people leaving and like all those who vacated their pews already, I'm not waiting to see how all the dust settles.

People outside of a church may look at it as a sign of what's wrong with Christianity, but the fact is that although we may be a group of people who are Christians, we are still people. We are subject to the same desires and needs as everyone else and our efforts to get through life will follow different paths. We all may be genuinely trying to follow the same guidelines for doing so, but read our instruction manual (the Bible) differently. Just as Americans in general want the best for their country, yet sometimes split along ugly lines in politics, we are not always united in the path we see as best for our churches.

When that happens, we disagree and sometimes the disagreement is severe enough to split churches. Until I went through it, I didn't really understand why a group of people with the same goal couldn't get along. Now I do. The same things that divide us in our communities still make their way into church, regardless of how we try.

I realize that sometimes we choose to stick it out, expecting the tide to shift or deciding that the things that are not affected by a change -- maybe something as solid as proximity or family tradition -- are enough to see us through. Sometimes we watch the accumulating changes like weights being piled on a scale until it tilts and we decide the things that would keep us coming are outweighed and cannot hold us.

I'm still grieving for the fact that wherever I land, a large group of people that I dearly love won't be there and for a while, at least, I'll be struggling to fit into a new place. But six years ago, I was still feeling my way at the church that until recently felt like home, so I know it's a task worth doing.

Worship is too important to me to let it slide or let it be anything less than fulfilling. My relationship with my God demands it of me.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Long Hair and Little Girls

Yesterday, the middle E decided to play cosmetologist.

She was supposed to be practicing cutting with safety scissors -- one of those skills children need before starting school. Since she's a southpaw, it's particularly challenging for her because I really cannot help her. Still, it was going well. She and E1 were whacking up some magazines in a corner of the playroom while I sat nearby commenting on their shapes and entertaining E3 as needed.

Suddenly E1 proclaims that E2 is cutting her hair.

Well, of course I didn't think she could do that with safety scissors, but I look up and sure enough, she has bangs! Not only that, but before doing her own trim, she apparently cut a few random snips from her older sister's hair -- something that didn't elicit tattling. I guess it was only when it became apparent that their antics would be discovered did E1 decide to blow the whistle, but all the same it led to a lot of drama.

The first words I think I or their mom said were that they'd have to have haircuts... maybe even that they'd look like little boys.

Now that the storm has died down, I've had time to think about the whole long hair to make them "look like a little girl" and I'm angry at myself and every other adult who has ever used that and the threat of a haircut on a little girl. I'm angry that we place so much value on it, and in doing so devalue them for whatever brings a change.

I did it. My daughter hated to have her hair brushed. It was an ordeal for five years.

When she started school I told her it either got brushed like it should without the daily fight, or it got cut. It was cut and there was much less pain for everyone. Why did we suffer for five years? No one ever mistook her for a little boy, hair or no hair. Did she really want her hair long? I don't think so. I don't think she ever thought she had a choice and she probably didn't. It was just expected.

It must have been the same when I was a child, because my early school pictures also boast a short haircut.

From the time they are born, we start trying to make them into pretty little girls with long locks and hair is one of the first things they get complimented on -- not their beautiful blue eyes, their smiles, their kindness, their special skills. We never just acknowledge them as beautiful or wonderful CHILDREN. They have to be pretty little girls, not to be confused with little boys. It's our first attempt to make our children conform to some ideal, some image they may never succeed at reaching, something that can make our little girls feel like failures even before they're in school.

I've done it. Wondering how my cousin's little girl can have such long, luxurious hair when she's younger than E1, whose hair is mid shoulders -- or I should say, was mid shoulders.

And even though I've been unhappy to see it straightened with a blow out -- recognizing that as some change that could make them feel less than perfect as they are -- even I didn't recognize the false importance attached to simply having hair.

No wonder we grow up to have our whole days ruined by bad hair days.

On Sunday they'll be visiting their other grandmother, who thankfully is a master cosmetologist and will be able to salvage their hair. It will be shorter. E2's will have bangs and perhaps some creative layering. They may both benefit from the change, even while we mourn the loss of their hair. I've seen beautiful short hair styles on little girls and I'm sure no matte how short they wind up, theirs will be wonderful.

But even if their heads were shaved, even if they continued to sport the misshapen cuts that E2 administered, they would still be beautiful little girls.

I hope I can remember that when E3 gets hold of some scissors, as I'm sure she will. I did it when I was 2. I'm sure my daughter did it, although she's in possession of the baby book that might hold the evidence.

It's just hair. It doesn't make any of us better people. It isn't the fine line between the sexes and it's not the end of the world if a little girl is mistaken for a little boy, or vice versus.

Perhaps we'd all be a little better off if we decided they could grow it long when they were able to take care of it, if they wanted to do so. Because in the big scheme of things, when you're raising children, you've got more important things to do than worry about brushing their hair.

Or cutting it.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

We Were Never Meant to Live Here Forever

"Aren't you afraid to die?"

Not too long ago I was out to dinner with two friends who have become close as a result of our grief journeys and they looked at my little Miata and posed that question.

I answered, "No," without a second thought. "If I were killed driving this thing, right up until the last few seconds, I'd be about as happy as I've ever been, so I don't worry about it."

Since losing Ethan, I look at death differently. It's not that I'm suicidal or don't enjoy living, but I look at death as a step, not an end. It's a change from this plane of existence to another where what we are is different, but who we are is much the same, although unhampered by the pangs of life, the bonds of our physical being, the ache of physical hardship and addiction.

I know as a Christian, I should have looked at death this way for a long time. In fact, it's a wonder Christians strong in their belief aren't ready to check out immediately and skip the whole bit of trying to live like Jesus. Life is hard. Living like Jesus, with an unwavering moral compass and a love for everyone we encounter, is even harder.

Yet we cling to life, even when we're hurting, and fear moving on to something unfamiliar. We're right to do so. It's a gift to be enjoyed as long as it's ours. We should get up each morning with a prayer of thanksgiving for the day, asking that we live it as we should -- although I'd be the first to admit that I generally don't do either of those things. Instead I wake wishing I'd slept a bit longer, that the alarm clock wasn't blaring at 5:15 a.m., or my carpal tunnel setting my hands on fire at whatever time shy of 7. Anything after 7, well then I wake up thankful for close to 8 hours of sleep!

I take the gift of life for granted, even though I know that physically it's not an endless gift. I've said goodbye to family, friends and pets whose time has run out. I've mourned their passing, even when I've been assured that they've gone to a better place. I've never been willing to think about joining them.

Then on Dec. 15 I got the call that my son was dead. Although his addiction had pulled him out of my life so thoroughly that even now I cannot miss him except in an abstract sense because he'd been gone in so many ways for so long, still there's a hole in my heart just from knowing that I won't see him again. I've been angry and sad for eight months now, and I still am.

But at the same time, I've learned something.

Ethan was afraid of life, although he'd never admit it. Every addict is. Even before addiction takes over, they need a buffer to face life, some way to separate themselves from dealing with something -- anything from physical pain to feeling like they don't fit in. They try drugs or alcohol or food or porn or a whole list of what we consider vices to cope, and then whatever fuels their addiction consumes their life.

Ethan couldn't live straight, taking the good, the bad and the ugly that life dishes out every day. But he could die. He could get high and feel a bit out of breath and stretch out and just slip away without a lot of drama or attention. When it came right down to it, it was as easy as letting go of all the things, good and bad, that had held him or driven him for 23 years.

If he could do it, then I darn sure can.

Many times "This Life" from The Afters has brought me to tears, while at the same time brought me peace. "We can't own it, we just get to hold it for a while. This life. We can't keep it or save it for another time. This life... We were never meant to stay. We don't have to be afraid of what is waiting on the other side...."

This week a woman at our church died after a long fight waiting for a liver transplant. The church had gathered to pray for her. She left behind a family not unlike my own -- a husband, grown children, and a church family who cared for her. She wasn't elderly. We didn't feel it was her time. Yet it was.

While she leaves mourners, people aching in her absence with their arms empty and their hearts broken, she's never felt better. The pain, the mental anguish, the struggle is over. Just as it was for Ethan.

Death isn't the enemy that we make it out to be.

Of course, I say that from a distance. I'm not fighting for my life. But I believe that the lesson I've learned from losing Ethan means that while I will fight to live, should the need arise, I won't fear death. While I won't rush into its darkness, or even its light if that's how the transition appears, I'll go without fear to the presence of my maker and those gone before.

I still mourn for the loss of my son, the seemingly untimely loss of others. But my perspective on this loss has changed. It's not they who have lost a life, it is us who have lost a presence.

The only way a life is lost is if we do not choose to go on living the life we're given to its fullest -- however long it lasts.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Happy Comes From All Around

Where did my happy happen this week?

Was it at Elkin park, where a little girl was equally thrilled with a princess dress and what might be termed a little boy's toy dinosaur that transformed into a truck?

Was it when I finally packed the last piece of chicken into a freezer bag and could acknowledge the accomplishment of moving my old layers from the backyard toward the pot?

Was it the dog that crunched my finger last week, coming up to jump on my leg just four short days after arriving for what we hope will be a step in rehabilitation?

All of the above.

Before acknowledging happy, however, I have to admit to one moment of stabbing pain at the much anticipated birthday party. For two weeks the date had haunted me -- the last time I saw my son, Ethan, alive -- at his niece's fourth birthday party was one year behind us when this year's party rolled around. I looked at my parents and had the mental thought that they were missing something, like something had been forgotten, and I realized it was my son who had rode with them for the last year of his life to family events, having lost his license and car (and very nearly his life) in a drugged driving crash. I took a few deep breaths, focused on what I do have, and went on.

I tried to avoid giving the date too much power, but after being blindsided by his absence a time or two in the past, I think I was wise to have done my worrying and mental preparation ahead of time. It was another family gathering and he wasn't there. I ate an extra hot dog, stripped to just ketchup, thinking of him.

So besides celebrating the dichotomy of my granddaughter's personality and my debatable dog whispering skills, where else did I find joy this week?

4. PiYo. After a four-day break that didn't really want to end, I forced myself back into my daily PiYo routine. Yes, it hurt, but I was glad to quickly feel the familiarity with the routine returning. I still hate that I cannot get to a live class, but I'm enjoying a fitness routine that fits in my small open space.

5. Realizing that I had survived the party, without a breakdown, without making my E1 feel like the ghost of her Uncle Ethan had made me sad. It wasn't hard beyond the moment, and I know that each one that comes will loom as a marker of the time we've been apart, then pass a bit easier than I expected. Only eight months into my grief journey, I recognize this as how my life will be. The dread of missing him at a time he should have been there, then the date passing without falling apart (I hope) and life going on.

6. Being the first adult to hit the pool at a birthday party and having fun with my little people and a middle school boy who broke my heart when he put on his glasses, because I saw my son in the misfit youngster. Yes, the water was cold and chlorinated, while my little pool is salt, but I was happy to have the energy to play with the children and race them to the restroom instead of huddling in a lounge chair.

7. Zumba class, even if it is just working out with a bunch of strangers. I did exchange a few words with one, who turned out to be my daughter's mail carrier. Plus I'm learning the routines and knowing where to step next always makes it more fun.

8. Getting back in my pool after chilly nights and lots of rain. The girls and I had a great time (and another workout).

Look for your happy. Whatever is going wrong, or right, don't miss the good times. You may need the memory for another day. I know sometimes I do.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Taking Chickens from Backyard to Freezer

I did it.

For weeks I've been proclaiming the need to put some of my old laying hens in the freezer and remove them from dining at the backyard buffet since they were no longer contributing to the household groceries. Somehow, I just couldn't bring myself to do it.

I'm sure no one who has known me long would be surprised.

I'd raised most of the birds from day-old chicks, shipped overnight from a hatchery in West Virginia. I've carried them corn and laying pellets. Fed them scraps. Laughed at their skill in stripping the Thanksgiving turkey's carcass.

Then there's the fact that I'm a known animal lover and despite my stated desire to hunt deer, I've never gone hunting as I didn't grow up in a hunting family.

My grandparents lived on a farm, but if there was anything to be killed I was protected from the front line. Heck, my parents kept meat rabbits when I was a child, but I never had any interaction with that process either, even in my own backyard. So when it comes to rendering an animal lifeless and converting it into something to eat, I was pretty much without a clue beyond reading and YouTube.

But after Saturday, when I purchased six more pullets and a pair of Guinea fowl to add to my flock, I no longer could delay the inevitable. There was not really enough room for eight more birds in my small hen house.

So Sunday night I closed the whole flock into the coop with the intention of eliminating the old gals who weren't contributing. I had narrowed it down to only four hens possibly laying off and on and even had looked at pictures of how to tell a laying hen's vent from a liar hen's vent (the area where the egg comes out, which is not technically their butt). I planned to remove eight hens from the flock, one 3-year-old Rhode Island Red, and seven 2-year-old birds none of whom have produced regular eggs since last fall.

I had a very elaborate plan for zip-ties on their feet, a bullet to the back of the brain, a hatchet for head removal, and then skinning them and saving only the choice cuts of meat. I spent my morning coffee time watching videos of chickens being slaughtered and dressed. I had read blogs, including an entertaining one that I found when I was trying to determine how long I would need to wait between death and dressing.

Even that one, however, didn't tell me how exhausting it was going to be to carry it out all on my own, how much blood a flopping chicken could fling on me from head to toe, or how hard the wet feathers would be to get off the meat before I put it in the freezer. Despite all my research, it still turned into a learning process.

My first problem came in the form of the zip ties. I only had seven. Having evaluated the oldest bird a week or so ago, I knew she had little to no meat and couldn't be eating much. I decided to give her a free pass, even though she's probably laid her last egg long ago. She was one of my first hens, but even at that is nameless as I never wanted to attach that much sentimentality to them.

Wading into a hen house full of unhappy birds is not an ideal way to start the day. The newest pullets were quickly ejected as I'd trimmed their flight feathers Saturday, while the older ones were trimmed before gaining freedom. My Bantam rooster had the tip cut from his two-inch spur and I would have cut the whole thing, but it was surprisingly tough. The older birds got a cursory inspection and the white and barred Rocks and surviving Brahma were released while the others were trussed up for slaughter.

Soon I had a pile of gold and black birds trying to figure out how to move without the ability to use their legs. I toted three of them to a stump behind the man cave and moved on to step two -- execution.

Having their legs tied didn't mean there was no movement after they were shot, even though the bullet through the brain stem meant their heads were flopping and not really engaged in their bodies' activities. I expected that, however, as I've had to kill a few that were diseased or injured. I had to shoot a rooster once who had been hit by a car and paralyzed for days and once he was shot, his body began jerking so that reaction from the birds wasn't too surprising. I was surprised at how long they flapped their wings, how much blood they could throw, and how tired I got holding them. Once they got still, I detached their heads with a hatched and put them bottom up in a bucket to drain.

About the time I managed to have all seven hens bottom up, rain, which I had not expected, began to fall. That necessitated my move to indoor butchering, which actually worked out better. Instead of using an outdoor table, I completed my task in the wash pit of my kennel after disinfecting the sink.

While skinning a chicken is undoubtedly easier than plucking one, and cutting away only the meat I'll use meant I never had to deal with pulling out the birds' insides, it was still tough work. Skin doesn't peel away as it seemed to in the videos. Feet had to be removed -- a pair of pruning shears works great. Feathers wind up everywhere, even if you aren't trying to pull them.

I finally got the birds done, washed and bagged shortly after noon. About 10 pounds of choice meat went into the freezer for dumplings and chicken stew this winter.

Afterwards, in addition to exhausted, I felt accomplished. I had taken on something I never previously imagined doing and carried it out without losing my breakfast -- although I did have a salad for lunch when I was done. I had raised them, they had been well cared for, and I killed them as humanely as I could so that they could fulfill their purpose. I know I can do it without depending on someone else to help me out. It was empowering.

Now I think I'm ready for meat rabbits and maybe I really can kill a deer after all.