Friday, January 31, 2014

Letting Go of Painful Memories

Thursday morning, E1 and I performed an exorcism of sorts.

We drove to Winston-Salem to a play therapy appointment then stopped at Krispy Kreme on University Parkway and ate a doughnut.

It sounds simple on the surface, and before I made the trip with my daughter and all three Es earlier this month, I would not have been expecting ghosts around every corner. But after the earlier trip derailed me so badly, Thursday's journey was loaded with a bit of trepidation on my part.

Not so long ago, I made the same trip on a monthly basis with Ethan. We followed the same route from Mount Airy down U.S. 52 and across Winston to Stratford Road. We didn't go to the same clinic, but it was on the same street. We always stopped at Krispy Kreme and bought doughnuts on the way home, sitting inside or at one of the picnic tables on the sidewalk to enjoy part of our purchase and catch our breath before the final dash home.

Ethan was visiting an epilepsy clinic for treatment of the seizures he had begun having. His abuse of dextramethorphan was a likely trigger as it is one of the cited risks for overuse. Because it was causing so much physical damage -- he was gaunt and prone to falling in a seizure at any time -- I wrongly assumed that my intelligent son could see the harm and stop. I did not realize he was still using and was, in fact, addicted to the drug during the 18 months or so that we made the regular journey.

Each month on appointment day I would drive to his apartment -- I paid for the apartment and utilities because we were such a volatile combination when he did use that I was afraid to have him at my home where it was often just me and E1. He would come out and meet me and we made the drive down and back in a mostly companionable atmosphere. Sometimes we argued over music; sometimes he slept or feigned sleep. Often we talked, spending the closest to quality time that we managed at all during his adult life as after a few seizures he typically declined invitations to go anywhere. (At the time I blamed the seizures, now I blame the drugs.)

He was on Medicaid and we went from the time the seizures began until his 21st birthday, when he no longer qualified. The seizures were largely under control. He still had a prescription for medication when he was arrested after an altercation with a store manager who caught him shoplifting. He was still taking the Rx when he went into psychosis after taking the DXM and threatened his new roommate (who was also using) with one of his Japanese swords. He spent the next three months in jail and our relationship was irreparably harmed to the point I did not visit him (oh, what I would give for the chance to do so now) although we did write regularly.

So making that journey, even for an almost entirely different reason, was one I dreaded, but felt I needed to do. E1 goes each week for an hour of activities aimed at helping her reprogram her nervous system to be more "normal" and her mom and I have agreed to rotate driving duties while the other adult stays with the smaller girls.

I was looking forward to the chance to see what they do and perhaps gain a better understanding of what we're doing with our at home activities. I also anticipated some fun in the trip, as any one-on-one time is a treasure when I'm generally so badly outnumbered.

Heading down, of course my thoughts turned to Ethan. There was no big boy in the seat next to me, but I was in a different car, so it didn't seem quite so empty -- especially with the back seat full of car seats. I felt a bit teary eyed a time or two.

Then I looked in the rearview and saw E1, with her adorable kitty-cat hat and her focus entirely on the Kindle she had brought along for entertainment. Instead of a tear, I smiled and the ghost that had threatened to occupy the passenger's seat -- a painful, hurt ghost, was replaced by a happier ghost who enjoyed our outings, even if they were part of living a lie. That ghost was more of a happy memory of stops at Taco Bell and a bag of burritos, of missing the turn, getting caught in traffic or failing to set my clock ahead for daylight savings time and being late, of enjoying chocolate-covered, creme-filled doughnuts at a picnic table while we people watched and felt the warm sun on our faces.

Driving home afterwards, E1 was eager for a doughnut treat and wanted to go inside and pick out her own. I was up enough to feel ready to deal with those memories as well, so we did.

There were no unhappy memories there either, just a warm memory of the handsome young man I called a son enjoying himself and new, good ones to be made with the beautiful little girl I call a granddaughter.

While she enjoyed her pick -- the same chocolate-covered, cream-filled concoction he would have chose -- I joined her and added a cup of coffee. We spent a while at the window watching Valentine shaped pastries make their way from dough to glazed.

I came home happy, not burdened with guilt and not dreading a return trip.

I know not all my journeys will be that easy. We're talking about a family trip to the Outer Banks in the spring -- the place Ethan, his sister and I had our absolute best quick vacation, and I know there may be some of the same ghosts there. They should be a laughing, happy little boy who had not yet begun to battle his demons, and I don't know whether they will be easier, or harder to face. But we will find out.

I'm beginning to believe that Ethan's ghosts and I can come to terms with one another, gradually. I'm beginning to believe I can make peace with the past.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Nothing Like a Snow Day to Mess Up a Plan

Of course, I no sooner realize how I need to work on getting my life organized than we finally get snow. And there's nothing to put the skids on a regular life for everyone like snow in the South.

Not a lot of snow, mind you, only an inch or so, but it's enough to seriously derail pretty much everything. Especially when the temperature takes a tumble to the teens and suddenly there are three generations snowed in at my house.

What started out feeling like an adventure to the little ones began feeling like a bad dream when they were asked to sleep at Ma's house Tuesday. Seriously, you'd think they had never spent time here let alone slept. No, they don't overnight typically (the last time was when E3 was born and 1 and 2 were here nearly a year ago), but Mom was here and it is a familiar place.

Wednesday morning we were all suffering from variations of sleep deprivation, including my three house dogs who for some reason felt it was their duty to patrol and keep tabs on all the sleepers through the night.

Heck, the snow wasn't even pretty falling and didn't even amount to enough to enjoy for a snowman, even if it were significantly warmer. Still, we made the best of it. Tuesday, while Mom was sending me messages about the rapidly deteriorating road conditions -- she is a 911 dispatcher -- the baby went to bed and the girls and I bundled up in a gazillion layers and went outside.

The girls didn't have really high expectations for the snow since I don't think we've had a significant snowfall since the oldest was born, so the scrawny amount that accumulated first on the roads and driveway was enough to be entertaining.

They were delighted to follow bird tracks in the snow and examine the trails left by the yard dogs making their morning rounds. The snow was crunchy under foot and I was surprised to find it was so sticky that it made a decent snowball, but not nearly as surprised as they were the first time I pelted them. Of course, since they couldn't master snowballs, I wound up making balls that they used to pelt me -- well, try to pelt me.

E1, ever eager to experience more, had to sample the snow while little sis just got cold and snotty nosed. Still, we spent nearly an hour in the chilly temps and falling flakes before determining it was time to get indoors and thaw out. Well, that and it was nap time as well. Before going in, I let them try snow angels, although the snow wasn't really deep enough for a good impression. E1 declared they had made snow "whirlies" instead because their bodies and heads weren't visible.

It turned out not to matter a whole lot, since the snow kept falling and soon snow angels, bird and dog tracks, and any hopes of getting home for the night were lost.

Before we go further, I am a competent snow driver and have an SUV. However, after manning the 911 consoles for the afternoon, their mother wasn't eager to have them out on the roads. Plus, because of her role at the 911 center, she could get an emergency ride home or to my house without having to brave the elements in her mini-van. It was just safer all around for them to stay at my house, which only about three miles from work.

Safer, but not necessarily saner.

First of all, although our little house has three bedrooms and two baths, they aren't all functional as such. The master bedroom has become the children's playroom and the attached bath no longer has a usable tub (not an issue this time). The smallest bedroom has my husband's computer area, our Bowflex and a recumbent bike. The futon that once took a big chunk of the playroom got reassigned to storage two weeks ago due to lack of use. We just aren't set up to sleep extra people.

Still, we made the best of the evening.

After dinner, we made snowcream, scooping clean snow from the back porch where we hadn't been stomping around all day. Strangely, I had never made or eaten it as far as I know (I must have been a really deprived child but didn't know it.)

The weirdness started when Mom arrived and the girls realized they were not going home as usual. Despite the futon mattress on the floor in the playroom for 1 and 2, and baby's normal pack-n-play relocated to the smallest room, the evening went downhill quick. Only baby was happy with the change in schedule and went right off to sleep. E2 quietly fought it. E1 threw all variety of fits, including a panic attack because she wasn't at home with Mommy and Daddy...nevermind that Mommy was closer than at night at home. Mommy got to sleep on the sofa where she could hear all her girls and be harassed by my dogs who made regular use of the doggy door in our bedroom and were disturbed by the extra people in our house.

Morning was hectic. This blog, which I'm supposed to finish writing for the next morning before 9 a.m., is winding down at 12:34 p.m., although I did manage breakfast at a decent hour -- at least partially because I was fixing cereal and boiled eggs for the house guests.

Before Mommy left for work we had another snow outing, this time with a sled on the packed snow of the road. Once again, my deprived childhood comes to the front as I've never been sledding (not one of the things my dad allowed). We do, however, have a sled as a souvenir of my husband's childhood, so we put it to work on a small hill near the house. The big hill further away seemed too intimidating with preschoolers and a novice driver. It was also out of sight of the house, where baby was napping, so unnacceptable. (Still, I would love to try it after finally getting the hang of the sled, so look out next time!)

So, just as it seems some routine might help, I throw routine to the wind. But then again, I guess that's what snow days, no matter what your age or issues, are made for. And maybe, after all, that's OK, too.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Still Searching for the Rhythm of My Life

I can't seem to get going these days.

I want to blame the weather and say that things will get better when I can get outside, and I know that at least in part that is true.

But I cannot blame the weather for what sometimes feels like a total inability to get anything constructive done. Last winter I remodeled my kitchen for crying out loud. Monday I walked a few dogs and scraped together a couple of meals consisting largely of frozen or reheated ingredients.

I cannot keep up with anything I plan these days and unless it's a well ingrained habit with commitments to someone beyond myself, I don't even do things I'm used to doing every day. Even things I enjoy.

Since Ethan died I feel like I'm rattling around inside myself and can't quite make everything fit and work together. People tell me I look tired, and I am. They tell me I've lost weight, and I don't think so, but I don't weigh. I also don't exercise daily, don't eat healthy, and drink way too much coffee.

I might get around to having breakfast by 10 a.m. after spending hours at the computer each morning. While I know that my keyboard time both for my blog and social networking are eating a lot of my mornings, I also know I need the therapy and interaction it brings. I need to limit it more, which would be easy if I could get motivated or get out, but not eliminate it.

So while I've gotten better at being alone and managed to find some parts of the person I lost with my son Dec. 15, I'm not all here yet and realizing that makes me sad at a different level.

Sometimes I'm not grieving for him, I'm grieving for me and the person I used to be.

I want to know what happened to my motivation, my get up and go, my darn can-do attitude. More importantly, I want those parts of myself back and I don't know how to retrieve them.

I've never been one for schedules, at least as far as what I'm doing is concerned, but I think until I can get all the parts of my life working a little better day to day, I'm going to have to make one for myself. Instead of fumbling through my day and ending it tired and aggravated, I'm going to have to start saying that at this time, I do this.

For instance, I need to have been away from the computer an hour ago (the cuckoo just reminded me it's 10 a.m.). I should have had breakfast no later than 8 a.m., instead of puttering through the kitchen for a banana and almond butter just before I sat back down at the computer.

That's going to require some planning on my part and some determination to make myself do the things that make me feel better beyond my twice a week trips to Zumba. (And thanks to the weather, I've missed one of those the last two weeks which does not help in the least.)

Making myself do the things that are right for me is an unfamiliar concept but I think once I force myself into better patterns (repeatedly, because I get the feeling I've had this conversation with myself, at least in part, before), it will eventually sink in. After all, I have managed regular wardrobe changes since realizing I was at gymnastics class in jeans I'd had on for days.

I think sometimes that mental t-shirt I want to wear could be as much for me as for the rest of the world. You know the one that says "My son died. Give me a freaking break!"

There are days when I'm tempted to make one to wear to all the places where I wind up feeling like I'm just not good enough any more, like the grocery store. I feel like I should be on crutches, or have an arm in a sling because there's so much hurt that I'm dragging around that just doesn't show and while I don't want a lot of fake sympathy or pity, there's a reason that my hair is still in the braids I put it in yesterday and I'm wearing no makeup.

Perhaps I need to mentally wear that shirt for myself sometimes and give myself a break. At the same time, I think the danger is in letting myself live in that shirt. My break can only last so long. I have to get back to the rhythm of life.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

My Faith is Strong, But I'm Struggling With Worship

I realized Sunday, in the midst of what turned out to be one of the best weekends in ages, that one of the hardest places for me to be lately is church.

It's not so much that I'm mad at God, although I am and He's letting me work through that, but that to worship freely I need to let down the barriers that help hold me together the other six days of the week.

Don't get me wrong, I've not dodged church as a result. In fact, my church family -- especially my Sunday school "siblings" and a few close church friends -- have been people I can turn to when I have an earthly need. Although I struggled with going to church that first Sunday afterwards knowing that the sincere hugs and condolences would be hard, I've gone every week.

Sunday school class goes fine. I probably don't share as much of what I'm going through on a day to day basis as I once did -- if anyone is familiar with the pain of loving Ethan, it's them -- but I can still contribute to the lesson. Being with a group that supported me for so long is good, even if we don't talk about it.

It's the worship, the music and song that gets me. Sometimes it's the sermon as well, where I just can't wrap my mind around how all this earthly pain ever stacks up to anything good.

When it comes to the music, it's probably the same root cause that has me switching from listening to KLOVE on my radio in the car, to playing CDs. At first I blamed it on the few commercials (especially those for Teen Challenge, an addiction treatment program that Ethan refused to attend), but I've realized it's because I cannot control what they are playing or even skip a song that strikes too many chords in my heart.

At the same time, I'm finding it easier to deal with in the car because it doesn't matter if I cry as long as I can still see the road. I've come to terms with the lyrics of a lot of songs that cause me pain and reached the point that I can generally sing along even if I simultaneously cry. If I find I cannot handle it, I can push the skip button or stop singing, which allows some of my defenses to come back up.

In fact, the first week that I started getting out, I spent most of my time in the car crying, no matter what my destination. While I was eager to get out, I found those alone times with Christian music, which frankly is all I've listened to in years other than my old stuff, were tough. Even if I had the girls in the back, I would cry between point A and point B, then put myself together enough to go on.

I've found that same problem carries over into the worship part of church service. I'm not sure if that means that playing the music in the car is a worship, which at times it does feel like, or not, but it does leave me struggling to get through the start of our church service Sunday mornings.

I cannot hit the skip button if the song the choir or congregation is singing causes me pain. I cannot change the station. I cannot turn it off.

When the pastor encourages us to celebrate our Lord in our worship, I stand there with my jaw locked trying not to cry, or perhaps losing the battle and just hoping I don't break down completely. Depending on the structure of the service, it may be all I can do to get through to the end having exhausted my emotional reserves early in the process. Although I do listen to the sermon, sometimes the lesson has a hard time taking root.

Because to be quite honest right now, I'm struggling with my relationship with God. It's hard to be close to someone you're angry at and I don't understand why any of this had to happen. Reminding myself that I'm not supposed to and that the world is an evil place where bad things happen only gets me so far.

Through some terrible paradox, while I'm angry at God, I have to depend utterly on my faith in Him to be able to make it on a day to day basis. I have to have faith that there is a reason for pain -- mine and Ethan's and all the other pain that I've become much more intimate with in the last five weeks -- or else I would sink into utter despair.

That this life is just a short part of our existence and the things that happen here are passing is hard to accept when mortality is all I know. Even accepting that, the need for pain and suffering and what impact it can have on our souls still baffles me. The Biblical lessons about how we endure trials here converting to treasures in heaven just don't satisfy my need to understand what's happening now.

I don't think church can help me deal with these things so I guess church may just be tough for a while.

I know these are issues God and I have to work out on our own in long, mostly one-sided conversations with me doing the talking. My answers some in brief flashes of insight, visions that might be dismissed as daydreams, the words of people I don't really know that without this pain I would never have touched, the ability to make someone else feel less alone during the hardest times of our lives.

My answers come in faith and hope in things I have not seen and won't see at church, but that I nonetheless believe in and which keep me going seven days a week.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Going It Alone Isn't for the Faint-Hearted

After four months of blogging, I feel I've made enough of a commitment to the task that I want to move on. That is, I've proved to myself I will stick with it, so I want my own domain and web page where I can control everything a little better and be more "visible."

In pursuit of that goal I have wasted the bigger portion of two days worth of free time trying to get a page up and running.

All I've managed to do is register a domain name that I'm not sure I'll be able to access after canceling the lousy web hosting service I had started out with, and a loss of money for a plug-in I was roped into buying in the process.

For the record, even though iPage apparently paid well for good reviews, offered reasonable pricing and a money back guarantee, the service sucks. Nothing worked. Customer service was always experiencing "longer than expected waiting times" if I called. An email for customer support always earned the response that it was working fine, although the instructions they sent me for the first problem kept me in a loop that went nowhere, and the second time the page I had spent all afternoon creating was not the page that came up under my domain name when I attempted to publish it as any idiot could tell.

To say I was frustrated by the experience would be an understatement. In fact, my husband has had a break from my normal woes by hearing me complain about the idiocy involved.

For someone raised before the computer era -- my college roommate took computer programming and it was with punch cards on a computer the size of a room -- tackling a webpage that will do what I want, which is basically host my blog with my name instead of, is a hassle and a half.

I don't consider myself computer illiterate, by any means.

By the time I graduated, we were using old school word processors and floppy disks at the first newspaper where I worked. When we filed copy, we manually carried the disk to the editor.

Within a decade, we were working on Apple computers to not only create our stories and ads, but do layout or paginate. We were networked so that what we created no longer had to be carried on a disk from one location to another, just filed under a different status for the editors. I moved up from writing to doing layout and creating a newspaper.

When I changed jobs, I went back to the old processors for a while with the new challenge that the office was carpeted. We had to be careful if we rolled our chairs across the carpet to touch our desk before we touched the metal cabinet of the processor or an static shock could erase our stories. A few years later Apple invaded that office as well and I was the first at my daily paper to know how to do pagination. I bought my first computer for my home and the Internet invaded our lives 24/7.

I think I'm on my fourth desktop now and my third laptop. My second tablet is frequently in use and I'm on my fourth smart phone. In general, I feel fairly computer savvy.

I'm used to being a consumer of the technology that is part of the computer age. Although I've never had to learn the basic coding, and shouldn't when using a template format, I have been on the creation side of pages for years as well.

The daily paper had a website and it was the editor's job to format and upload pages at the end of shift each night. When I started my own business several years ago I used a Yahoo template to build and maintain a page for my kennel. It didn't need to do more than describe my services and provide contact information and it worked just fine. I cancelled it when I no longer felt the need to advertise, especially to out-of-town people because my business was doing fine with local customers and a Facebook presence.

For the last three concert seasons I've handled updating the website for The Blue Ridge Music Center, telecommuting to publish concert information and provide other changes as needed. I use admin tools and the "back door" to accomplish that. I troll through the free calendar listings on-line to keep the music center's concerts on local, regional, and national musical calendars.

I'm not totally unschooled in how this process works, so I'm fairly well convinced it was a bad choice of a web hosting service, but I'm not really in a position to find out.

Now my domain is registered but stuck in place for 60 days and I don't have the info I need to transfer hosting to another service and start over. I'm not sure whether to wait, tweak the name, or give up entirely, which isn't really an option. I do know I'm frustrated.

I'm also tired of winter, in need of more sleep or coffee one, and thinking I really should do some housework instead of fool with this computer.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Feeling Guilty For Feeling Good

There are times when I find myself enjoying the day and I almost feel guilty. A brilliant sunset, a warm doggy snuggle, or even enjoying a movie and laughing with friends can send a pain through my heart if I let it.

I know so many moms -- some face to face and some just through cyberspace -- that when I have a good day, I wonder if I've missed some important step and gotten too far ahead of myself.

I'm far from done with grieving, I know, but I have never been as consumed by it as some people are. Is it because I had been grieving in bits and pieces for years? Is it because the addiction that stole my son had damaged our relationship so that I didn't even really know him any more? Is it because he did not have a part in my day to day life? Is it because the demands of life haven't allowed me the time I need to do it right?

Ethan's loss wasn't a sudden one, like parents suffer when a child dies in an accident or from a previously unknown health condition. It was gradual, over time. It was as though he had an illness that was likely to prove terminal, but doctors had not given him some set period of time. No physician ever told him, "Barring a miracle, you've got six months to live." At the same time, I knew deep in my heart that if he did not stop, it would kill him somehow.

Still, like parents who live with a terminally ill child, I hoped for that miracle right up until the day I learned he was gone. Miracles do happen, and although I'm still inclined to turn the radio or TV when I hear of someone beating addiction through prayer, the fact that Ethan didn't get that particular miracle doesn't make them any less real. I guess if they happened for everyone, we wouldn't call them miracles any more.

Yesterday, the thought crossed my mind as I headed to town for my Zumba class and to have coffee with a friend that I still feel like the tractor-trailer loaded with grief may hit me. I may think I've crossed the road, only to find out there is another vehicle coming the way I didn't look. I may be like the squirrel on the yellow line, scrambling in every direction and not seeing the truck that is going to get me just when I think I'm home free.

Has the toughest part of losing him passed, or will it hit on his birthday, or Mother's Day, or maybe next year on the anniversary of his death? Will it accumulate with every day that I don't hear his voice until I finally crumble? Will it be a song that reminds me of him, or cooking a pot of macaroni (his favorite food, which of course, the girls love)? Will I see a young man walking on the side of the road who all of sudden takes my breath because just for a minute he's Ethan and this whole horrible thing has been a nightmare?

Or will it be all of those things, as I have a sinking suspicion it may be.

Perhaps I can hope that it will be like a receding tide and the highest waves have already crashed ashore. Sure, there will still be big waves that knock me off my feet and they'll be brought on by the little things and all the big things as well. But most of the the time they may only wash around my ankles or remind me of their presence as they crash before coming ashore.

Perhaps, instead of feeling guilty for having a good day with friends or family, I should feel grateful for those times when I'm free for just a moment from the burden of grief.

There are people who proclaim on a warm January day, "We'll pay for this later," when I choose to sit in the sunshine and enjoy the break without worrying about next week's Arctic blast. Perhaps I need to learn to look at my grief the same way. Yesterday, I was spared the heartbreaking pain and I enjoyed the day. I won't waste the good times worrying about the hard times that may come.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

I'm Finally Ready for a Weekend

It's Friday night and I've wrapped up another day, another week, with the girls with the same mix of elation, exhaustion and frustration that I feel I end almost every day.

I did manage to put a balanced meal on the table. Of course, that doesn't mean they ate it, but at least I tried. I can prove that by the piles of dirty pots and plates, the macaroni dropped on the stove top and squished into the edges of the high chair. That I'm hungry three hours later is as much a testament to the fact I can't even focus on a meal when I prepare one as it is to trying to fix what they will eat instead of what I might want.

In fact, the kitchen isn't the only disaster area. The playroom is wall to wall toys; the living room has caught the overflow, much of it towed by the baby as she wandered back and forth and shifted gears from one room to the next -- a slobbery Duplo block, an escapee from the Little People zoo, a bit of macaroni that was stuck to her pants; the new work table (handily crafted in Pinterest style from the old crib) has already been decorated with crayons and two kinds of glue.

The day has passed like most others. I spent the morning grooming and bathing dogs -- no walks today due to the weather -- writing my blog and trying in vain to find a web hosting site that works well so that I can create my own domain for it. That's followed by the girls' arrival and a brief flurry of early activity punctuated by lunch and on milder days some outdoor play. In the afternoon we have naps that may be ushered in quietly or by threats of bodily harm for E2 and the baby and on some days E1 as well. While they rest, I do kennel duty again, with E1's help on days she doesn't sleep. Sometime along the way I grab a necessary cup of coffee or two, then Papi's home, naps are over and it's time to fix dinner.

Three nights we leave before dinner for activities -- mine or the girls -- but the night's we're home we've started doing crafts after dinner. That's another challenge for me (coming up with something, I really enjoy the process) but a quiet activity that lets the working man of the house retire since his 10-hour workdays start early.

Regardless of the day, or the week, we never get done what I hope we'll get done. I'm always undone by the diverse needs of three very different little girls at very different points in their development. Whatever achievements I manage with one, I usually feel I've neglected the other two and just trying to keep all three safe, fed and suitably rested on some days is a balancing act I feel lucky to manage.

I'm frustrated not only by my inability to do what I would like to with them, but my inability to successfully meet their expectations. E1 tends to have high expectations of miracles from Ma -- and my successes, which this week included a weighted blanket that seems to help her sleep, are often dimmed by my shortcomings as she cannot understand why it takes more than one day to make the crocheted turtle pillow we've agreed on. I'm frustrated because even though we are learning tools to help E1 handle her SPD, I have trouble remembering to do them, or finding time, or convincing her to participate, and I don't feel like I know enough to be a real help sometimes. I'm frustrated by not being able to be perfect and create memories that are flawless in my mind, because I know that the moments and even life are so ephemeral.

I'm elated when I do manage to accomplish anything -- the blanket for example -- and that we did, in fact, construct a pompom caterpillar on Monday night and tonight we did cutouts of their hands with a heart in the center. They were quite nice when decorated with glitter glue. Then E2, practicing with scissors (another mess entirely) cut off one of her fingers -- not her own, but the construction paper hand. I'm elated that I fixed a meal and that E3, at least, was willing to try everything on her tray and ate well, a true accomplishment since at 11 months she refuses to eat from a spoon so only finger foods work for her, although her definition of a finger food is broader than most. I'm elated when I make it anywhere on time, most notably to my exercise class, Awana, and their gymnastics. I'm elated when we have a positive night at gymnastics, because sometimes dealing with a handful of little people through nearly two hours of classes stretches my last nerve.

I'm exhausted, not just by the energy demands of three little girls, but by tending to my kennel, which even when slow as it tends to be this time of year requires time and care to operate smoothly and when busy, well, that's another big demand entirely. I'm exhausted by the fact that sleep seldom comes before 11 p.m. and sometimes midnight and I'm awake and heating coffee before 7 a.m., although lately I've managed to not be up before 6 o'clock. I'm exhausted by the emotional toil the last month has taken on me and my family and my relationships and inner peace. Some days, I'm even exhausted by this blog, although most of the time I find it therapeutic to unload whatever is on my mind.

So it's Friday night and the house is quiet. My Lab is barking and howling at some sound apparently only he can hear in the front yard, but only the clicking of the keyboard breaks the silence inside. It's time to turn out the lights and turn down my brain, but I'm not yet ready to relinquish my hold on the day.

Instead, the musings of a former coworker and friend who blogs about her own small child, (Anarchy in the Sandbox) have reignited the pain I feel for a lost little boy, and her dreams for her daughter made me revisit the dreams I once had for him. Instead I sit at my computer, a mental picture of him hovering behind my eyes and tears on my cheeks, as thoughts of what I lost do battle with fresher memories of slender wrists and toothy grins, tearful entreaties and gleeful celebrations, and "Ma! I love you" shouted and whispered at random times through another simultaneously tiring and priceless day.

It's Friday, and for most of two days I'll be Angela or Sweetheart, friend or lover, dog sitter or classmate. But behind all of those identities, I'll still be Momma to my daughter and my lost boy and Ma to three little miracles, even if like a super hero, I'm not always dressed in my special snot and sticky-hand covered wardrobe.

Now enough of this. For the first time in four weeks I don't dread the weekend and the lack of distractions it brings. I've got a turtle to crochet and a house to clean before Monday arrives. I need to get some rest.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Everybody Hurts Sometimes

If you're on your own in this life
The days and nights are long
When you think you've had too much of this life to hang on

Well, everybody hurts sometimes
Everybody cries
Everybody hurts sometimes
And everybody hurts sometimes
--Peter Buck, Bill Berry, Michael Stipe, Michael Mills (performed by R.E.M.)

The other day I was talking to a good friend on the phone and she said she just could not imagine what I was going through. She just wanted to spend some time with me.

Not too long ago, I remember when she was going through a really tough situation where I didn't think I knew how to identify with her and we cried and laughed our way through it. Since I've known her she's said hard goodbyes to parents and siblings and lives every day with the prospect of another heartbreaking loss.

Through the last five short, and yet seemingly endless, weeks, I've realized that most of the people we come into contact with on a day to day basis can feel some version of our pain.

As unique as my grief felt on Dec. 15th, it was like a drop of rain falling into a summer pond at the start of a storm. All around me, I've found there were nearly identical drops of rain falling, other mothers and fathers who have lost their sons and daughters, and different drops from the loss of siblings, spouses and parents. I've realized that there are very different drops from all sorts of losses -- the loss of health, the loss of independence, the loss of divorce, even the loss of a career. There is a storm of loss and grief going on around us while we are focused on our own individual drops of pain.

I've also realized that while the source of our grief is very different, making us think that our situations are so unique and sometimes beyond what anyone else endures, our pain is very similar.

Whatever loss we are grieving, what we are really grieving is the loss of the future.

As humans, we have the unique ability to think about the future. We envision watching our children grow to adulthood. We think about their lives and the spouses they may bring into our families, their future happiness, unborn grandchildren. Even if we don't sit down and daydream about the lives they will lead, our minds make these possible futures seem a part of the reality that we expect to live.

The same is true with any kind of loss. Either consciously or unconsciously, we plan for the future. We plan to grow old with the the person we stand beside and say "I do." We intend to be able to do certain things for ourselves. We plan to have our brothers and sisters to share our lives. We expect to have our parents until some undefined point in our future. We think we'll have our careers to support us until we retire.

Then those futures are gone and we grieve. Yes, some of these griefs are more intense and stay with us. In all likelihood, we will find another job and perhaps another spouse. We may adjust our expectations for our health or the health of those around us so that life goes on and that loss becomes our new normal. We come to accept the time that our parents leave this life, even though we still miss them. The loss of a sibling or friend varies with how close we manage to stay, and eases as life moves on without them.

Everybody grieves and hurts at some time.

Losing a child is a bigger ripple in the peaceful pond of our lives. I realize both from my own limited experience and that of people who have endured their loss years ago, that while the ripples from other grief may subside this pain will never pass.

I think in many ways it is still because we are grieving that future, because with the loss of a child we lose not only their future but our own. We lose a link to a time we will never see.

As mothers, we lose all the potential we created when we grew them inside our bodies for nine months of careful eating, swollen ankles and pain. As parents, we lose the baby we held in our arms and all the unrealized dreams we saw each time we looked at them as they grew.

We never lose the past, however long that was and however many memories we managed to store in our hearts and minds, but we lose the future. We lose knowing the person they would have become in a few more years. We lose having them to love, and to love us, as we grow old. We may lose the children they never had and all those possibilities as well.

There is a bond in grief that those who have not lost a child can retrieve and find some empathy for us, just as when they have loss we can relate with a small part of what we feel.

Everybody hurts. I've come to believe that the difference isn't so much in the intensity of the pain as in the duration.

Everybody hurts and I have come to realize that the pain for a while may seem unbearable, no matter what the loss. It's just that for some of us, it will never entirely go away.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Dancing My Way Back To Living

Surrounded by Your glory, what will my heart feel?
Will I dance for You, Jesus, or in awe of You be still?
Will I stand in Your presence, or to my knees will I fall?
Will I shout hallelujah? Will I be able to speak at all?
I can only imagine. I can only imagine.
Bart Millard (performed by Mercy Me)

I've always loved dancing.

Maybe not dancing so much as moving to music. From the time I was small I liked to dance with no reason.

Dancing always felt like celebration. It was a celebration of life, of being able to move and hear the music and feel it in my bones. I'm pretty sure that heaven is full of that kind of celebratory dancing where you just cannot be still because you feel so good.

Despite my strong Southern Baptist (which we of a certain age or older all know means dancing is a sin, nevermind that they did it in the Bible) upbringing, I grew up dancing. Whether it was square dancing at school, flatfooting with a local band, clubbing on my own (I never managed to pair up with a dancer), a few rounds of belly dancing classes, or dancing around the living room with or without a toddler on my hip, I've never stopped dancing.

It's not always about celebration any more, but sometimes it's about sanity. When I'm silently counting out the steps to a dance choreography, there isn't room for much else in my head. When I manage to remember the steps, it brings a spontaneous smile. If I think of Ethan during class, I have to push the thoughts away or lose my place. There's no time for grief or worry or planning or anything else but keeping time and moving.

I can't remember now when I first started Zumba, although I know it was my friend's enthusiasm and the fact that she had opened a studio of her own that got me going. Nowadays a week without one or two classes is a hard week to get through.

The women who lead my classes and my classmates at Move2Melt, many of whom I don't even know by name, are a different kind of support group. They're a warm smile and how are you and sometimes a hug. They were faces far from home that showed up, along with a few members of my church and two of my doggy family, at Ethan's funeral. During the last month they have repeatedly blown me away with their love and caring and made me feel far less isolated than my circumstances force me to be on a day to day basis.

Every chance I get, they're also a mental and physical escape from my house where the walls threaten to close in completely and from my mind where, left untended, my thoughts wander to dangerous ground.

The day after Ethan was found dead, I went to a Zumba class. I couldn't stand sitting at home feeling like I was turning into a shell of myself. At least there, part of the time, I could concentrate on where to put my feet instead of what had happened to my son. It was a thin lifeline, but it helped pull me through. As soon as the holiday hiatus was over, I was back for the first class and have been going to classes two days a week since as my schedule and the weather allow.

And although it isn't always about celebration any more, sometimes it still is.

Sometimes I'm celebrating being able to get out of the house and move when so much conspires to keep me weighted down by a blanket of grief. Sometimes I'm celebrating that even though I was never an athlete, I keep up with the high intensity moves of an hour long dance class, often after a 45-minute PiYo class. Sometimes I'm celebrating that dancing still feels good, whether I get the steps right or not.

Right now dancing is a lot like life for me.

I have to keep moving, even if I get the steps wrong.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Battling the Demon Grief

Last night I let the demon grief out of his box.

I know that he lurks around my house, waiting for me to stumble on a memory, find an old note, see a certain look in a child's eye. He no longer hides in the familiar photographs on the wall or my computer -- the ones I touch lightly in passing, sometimes bestowing a kiss via my fingertips as I go.

Those are faces of Ethan I've come to accept I won't see any more: the smiling preschooler with a bunch of flowers, the elementary school boy grinning with his best friend, the chubby middle schooler with glasses and braces, the high schooler posing with a friend in a formal dress, the last Christmas with Ethan clowning with my dog. Those are all of him I've been able to handle, and they are each so different as to be five different boys.

Although my mother took down photo albums and cried over them after Ethan died in December, I've avoided them because I know that right now they are filled with pain.

While trying to stack albums the other night after hunting for a notebook stored among them, I first found a treasure -- stories Ethan wrote in elementary school about my dog, Lucy, and her time traveling exploits. I wasn't brave enough to read them, but just knowing I have them, brought a smile to my face. It also put me off guard so that when the cover fell open on an album and the smiling face of a blond-haired toddler peered out at me from an 8x10 portrait, I smiled at that as well.

There was my little boy and it didn't hurt to see him.

So I looked to see what was behind that picture and there were more 8x10s. A whole stack of them tucked into the front of the album, the young man already beginning to take shape in a little boy's face. And that was when the demon grief got out of his box.

I stifled the scream that threatened to come from my heart, closed the album and gently placed it back on the shelf. But putting the demon back into his box wasn't that easy.

The house was quiet with sleep and I took the dogs and fled to the kennel and fell apart. I cried as I haven't since the first few days and it felt as though I were losing another piece of my heart. I prayed and asked God, "Why?" How can a loving God make a boy live in the pain Ethan lived in? How can He make me feel as though my heart is being pulled still beating from my chest over and over again?

Even remembering that ache makes me hurt all over again. There have been days of peace and sunshine, but right now I feel like I'm drowning again.

Right now the pain of losing Ethan is as fresh as it was Dec. 15. Right now I don't want to do the things I know will make me feel better. I want to take the album off the shelf and turn every page. I want to play his CDs and take his old hoodie out of the storage bag and breathe in his scent and imagine him in my arms. Right now, while the demon grief has control, I just want to die.

But I won't.

I'll take a deep breath and drink a little more coffee. I'll take another deep breath and fool around on Facebook. I'll keep breathing and looking out the window at the stormy sky and the birds at the feeder and my dogs looking for spots of sunshine to warm in. I'll keep breathing and put on some shoes and take a pack of dogs on a chilly walk.

I'll keep breathing, and I'll put the demon grief back into his box and tie down the lid securely until I'm ready to fight him again, or until he sneaks from some unexpected spot and fills my heart with questions and despair and pain. And then I'll do this whole exercise over again, because that's the only way I can do this thing called mourning and this thing called life.

I'll keep breathing because in time, I'll be reminded of the reasons I keep breathing.

One of my house dogs will come looking for me and the click of little nails will remind me they need me. The phone will ring and it may be a friend, or my husband on his lunch break and there will be conversation and caring and I'll know someone else needs and loves me. My daughter will call with an update on her morning and the background chaos will remind me of a whole lot of reasons to get up every day. The morning will pass and the girls will arrive in all their drama and potential and the demon grief will be firmly in his box because there is no place for him when I'm carried along by their energy and life.

I'll keep breathing because there are still things I must do. Even if my heart is broken, it keeps on beating and I'll keep on living until those tasks are done and my journey complete

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Grieving the Loss of Unknown Children

Yesterday, feeding the noonday bottle to my smallest grandchild, I was reflecting on the fact that she'll soon be one and that bottles will be a thing of the past. Then it hit me that barring any unforeseen change of plans, she's my last grandbaby.

I'm not baby crazy at any time, but when I started keeping my daughters' babies, Ethan had warned me he would expect the same care for his children. I never doubted that the day would come, probably at about the time I was ready for a break from babies. At some level, having grown into the role of caretaker Ma, I was looking forward to it.

Although I've known many of the things I expected will never happen since Ethan died, yesterday it was suddenly all about babies.

Ethan always wanted to be a daddy. Not just a father, but a good daddy. He didn't really even know what that would involve, because he never had a role model, but it was something he longed for and missed. He would have been a good daddy -- E1 adored him, even though she had not had the chance to spend a lot of time with him. When he was straight, even children who didn't know him were drawn to him. He was funny and could be childlike in his focus. They could feel that he was full of love.

"A life-long goal of mine is to be a good parent if I have kids, because that can really affect a kid's life and what thy do in the future. If their parents get divorced or something, and they don't really get to know both of them because of some stupid law or some other dumb reason then that kid just lost a major role model in their life. They may not get certain talks that they need from their parents and may not know what to do when certain things happen in their lives. When someone offers them drugs or wants them to drink some beer or other alcoholic drink, they may not know how to say no and they could end up saying yes just because they don't know what to do. They may end up doing some bad things because they lost a vital role model in their childhood. There's no telling what they could end up doing when they get older. They could turn to drugs or something else. They could become a criminal and end up in jail for most or all of their life. Some people end up like that no matter what happens in their lives. There is a lower chance if they have good parents and they stay together and other things like that. That just shows how much having good role models like your parents can affect your life in the long run and can decide what happens in your life when you get older, whether you're a criminal or live a decent life, and who you hang out with. So that's why being a good parent is one of my major goals, because if you have that much control over someone else's life, I think you should try to do your best to make their life as good as you always wanted your life to be when you were younger and give them the right choices that they should have. Besides, I figure if I can be a good parent, then not too much else matters."

Ethan wrote that paragraph in high school as part of a project all kids did called "Who I Am," which is a collection of assigned essays. I was already losing him by then, and had been since high school began, although he had not turned the corner that eventually took him away from me. His notebook is one-third the size of his sister's, and while she pillaged photo albums and decorated the covers, he barely took the effort to insert a few pictures of himself and one of his sister.

Reading that, I wonder what bad decisions he may have already been regretting. Reading between the lines, I know what he was missing so often was something I simply couldn't be.

There is no mention in the book of his father, who felt child support was optional and disappeared from his life shortly after the divorce when he learned visitation meant he was supposed to spend time with his children, not leave them with his girlfriend and her kids. Although his father made a half-hearted effort to be around Ethan's sister when she got older, he never did the same for the little boy who was barely a toddler when we separated, the little boy who would call begging him to come get him for a visit, the little boy who soon quit calling and grew into a young man who still wanted his daddy to acknowledge him as someone worth spending time with, but never had that wish granted. I accepted my part of the blame for the divorce, and he was never a good father or husband even when we were married, but I struggle to forgive him his abandonment of his son.

Ethan longed for a daddy and dreamed of being one, and it was that pain that had me crying as I stroked the soft cheek of what will probably be "my" last baby. There won't be any blonde-haired, blue-eyed children who call Ethan Daddy, no little Ethans calling me "Ma." That's another dream dying on the vine that I hadn't really faced up to until yesterday.

I am blessed with three wonderful, beautiful and totally amazing granddaughters and to have dreamed of any more seems greedy at some level, yet it was something I had expected.

There was no version of my reality in which Ethan would not at some point be the person he meant to be and find his way out of the life he was living. There was no version in which he didn't see his dreams come true, no version in which he wasn't a daddy.

The Father he could count on decided that Ethan had been through enough and took him home and reality changed. Ethan is finally with a Father who loves him, and the mother who loves him is still struggling with that.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Sometimes, for a Moment, the Sun Still Shines

I've discovered that the overwhelming bouts of grief aren't the only thing that comes in waves for me.

When I began thinking about my grief, it was like walking near the ocean in the dark and occasionally being hit by a large wave that would sometimes pull me out to sea for a while.

My perspective has changed a little. It's no longer dark, although the large waves are still sometimes seemingly out of nowhere and take me completely by surprise. Now my walk feels more like walking on the beach when a hurricane is somewhere in the distance. My steps are often a struggle in the wet sand and the sky overhead is cloudy and threatening and sometimes the waves coming ashore are bigger than I would have expected.

Now I find that during this walk on a cloudy beach, listening to the rush of the water and sand, feeling the wind from the distant storm, sometimes the sun breaks through.

When it does, there are glorious moments when I can accept what has happened and feel a joy in my heart again for Ethan.

I had one of those moments Saturday while out running errands. I was in my car and listening to a CD, maybe even Natalie Grant's "Hurricane," but the music was secondary to the brilliant blue sky arching above me and the chilly radiance of the winter sun.

Suddenly it came to me that Ethan was no longer sitting in his apartment in Galax, and that was a good thing. He was no longer trapped there, waiting for earthly confines to bring us together for a few brief moments that would be fraught with our shared knowledge of his addiction and his lonely knowledge of his pain. I can no longer physically hold him in my arms, but I'll never let him out of my heart, and for just a moment I felt him all around me. He was no longer confined as I am, but he was free and a part of everything I saw.

Last week my father dreamed about Ethan and told my mom his dream. They were together at a house my father used to own and for some reason my dad expected him to be in jail.

"I thought they were holding you in Galax," he said in the dream.

"I got out," Ethan said, and I can just imagine the confident look he would have had. "Just wait until you hear the dogs."

To me my dad's dream had a different meaning.

For a long time, he had been held in Galax. He had lived in a homeless shelter and a cramped apartment. But what had really held him in Galax had been life and his addiction, and he had, indeed, gotten out. I knew in my soul the joy that he felt in finally making his escape and finally being free of the demons that had haunted him for so long.

Ethan got out. He's no longer being held in his physical body and for that reason I can no longer hold him in my physical arms.

I hate the way he left almost as badly as I hate the fact that he's gone, but he's only gone from this part of my life. For 23 years, I held him in my arms whenever I had the chance. But he lived in my heart before I ever held in my arms and he'll be there for the rest of my physical life as well.

And sometimes, I know now, I'll feel him in the sunlight and the very air I breathe.

Perhaps the hurricane will move on out to sea and I'll only battle the occasional waves of sorrow. I know that even when the storm passes, there will always be clouds and unexpected waves, but I also know now that there will be times when I can walk in the sun and be happy.

I know that while I can no longer touch Ethan, there will be times when I feel him touch me and that will have to be enough for a mother's grieving heart for now.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Prayers Are More Powerful Than We Know

I'm praying for you.

Often when we say those words, we often feel inadequate. It means we don't have anything more to offer, other than kind words that may not be heard, or a shoulder that won't be strong enough to share the burden.

During the last month, however, I've found that those words are a lot more powerful than we think.

There have been many days when it feels like the prayers of my friends are the net that catches me when I fall. Yes, I still fall, but it's not the bone crushing landing that I expect. Instead, I bounce back like the high wire walker making a misstep who bounces on the net, then comes back to his feet and climbs back up the ladder to go again. The fall is frightening and I feel like I'll plunge into the dark pit of grief and never climb out, but before I disappear into the abyss, the net of prayer catches me. I climb back up the ladder of life and start walking again.

Yesterday morning I received an unexpected sympathy card. For a couple of weeks the sympathy cards and Christmas cards mingled in my mailbox, a sad statement of the mixed joy and sadness the season brought, but there hadn't been any cards in a while.

Yet this friend, who I've worked with on some animal rescues, remembered me. She sent a card to tell me, beyond the sweet verses, that she was praying for me still and that my friends love and care about me. Far more than the card, which was nice, her handwritten words buoyed me up for another day.

Occasionally friends will message me that they are praying for me. Sometimes it's in response to a new struggle, and sometimes just a note to remind me they are there and care. Yet I know in my soul that there are prayers being said that I don't ever know about, because without them I could not be making it day to day.

I'll pray for you.

Those words are so much more powerful than we give them credit for being, because a prayer is a message to God and although we aren't always sure of the answer, He listens and responds. Without that response I know that I'm not alone in being a person who could not make it through another day.

We've all heard the misused saying that God will not put upon us more than we can bear, when in fact He regularly allows more than we can bear ALONE to come into our lives. (The actual verse 1 Corinthians 10:13 reads in part But God is faithful; He will not suffer you to be tempted beyond that which ye are able to bear and refers to temptation). Instead He gives us more than we can bear so we will turn to Him, and the way to do that is through prayer and faith.

In order to really rely on God and trust in God, we don't need to believe that He won't allow us to suffer more than we can bear, we have to believe that we won't be alone and He will be there to see us through. That's facing up to our limitations and knowing that we're not strong enough. That's a reality that I've had to face. When people look at me and say, "You're so strong," or "I don't know how you can bear it," the answer is I'm not, and I can't, at least not alone.

Alone I would stay in the bed and be of no use to anyone. Alone the sorrow would consume me. Alone I would have no hope that this has a purpose and that I have to work and suffer to fulfill my part of it, just as Ethan had to suffer for a time to fulfill his part in it.

I have to admit that there have been times in the past when I've looked at people and wondered how they went on. I've wondered how they had the strength, the courage, the faith to face another day and let the tragedy that had overtaken them become not just part of who they were, but a blessing to others. Now I know that it is a trial by fire and from the outside it's impossible to comprehend. It's clinging to the small lifeline of your own faith and allowing prayers and God to do the work that puts you back together and keeps you moving.

I still look at some of those people and know I'm a long way from there, but I feel the net of prayers holding me up and I know I have to get up and keep moving. I know it's not my prayers alone, because I'm just one voice and sometimes my voice falters and grows quiet. Without those who remember me, I believe I still might fall.

So instead of prayer being our last resort when we cannot think of anything to do ourselves, it should be the first thing we think of. We shouldn't undervalue its importance in times of tragedy, or in our day-to-day lives.

Ask for prayers. Send up prayers. Strengthen one another with prayers.

And don't feel like you're doing nothing. Recognize that you're doing the absolute best thing you can do.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Finding the Road Back Begins With Taking Steps

Yesterday I made 12 dogs very happy.

I slipped on my old Reeboks, not the new ones that are still decent to wear out, the grungy ones with the soles coming off; dug my handmade fingerless gloves out of the storage bench; grabbed a toboggan someone gave my husband when he worked at the golf course; put Pa Booker's old orange windbreaker on over my sweatshirt and stepped out the door.

It doesn't take a lot to make dogs happy.

As soon as I got the shoes and windbreaker out, my little house dogs knew there was a walk in the works, although they could only hope they would be included. Their hopes were a bit dampened when I went out the door without them, but their turn eventually came.

My yard dogs, Rebel and Macy, were over the moon immediately. They are used to traveling up and down our long, dead end road with me a couple of times a morning. Lately, however, they've had to make the rounds of the neighbors' houses on their own. And while they've been free to pursue the neighbor's cats and bits of old deer carcasses without me, they've missed the companionship of our walks.

Following through on the promise I made myself earlier in the morning, I pulled out leashes and rounded up dogs until everyone who was seriously interested in a walk had enjoyed one. One group of three larger dogs making a brisk trip down the road and one group of seven small ones wandering at a more leisurely pace. Rebel and Macy were on my heels both times, which is where they've longed to be for five long weeks.

It was a welcome return to a once daily routine that I let slip in early December when I came down with my first cold of the season. I was still in cold recovery mode when Ethan died -- in fact I had stayed home from church that morning because it was such miserable weather and I felt so bad.

Although walking with dogs had been a combination of meditation, therapy, and cardio exercise for years, it fell from my routine as easily as cold rain falls from a heavy winter cloud. It was as hard to pick back up as that same drop of rain would be if one were trying to recover it.

I'd made a few attempts at walking the last few weeks, but only with the bigger dogs who were more eager to get out and move. Each time I would start out with the plan to walk the little dogs as well, but I'd decide I was too cold, or just not in the mood.

Yesterday, however, I followed through. The rhythm of our strides felt good and familiar to my bones, even when I was juggling a few less than cooperative little dogs. The climb up the steep grade at the end of the road, which I normally don't notice, was a stern reminder of how I had neglected my routine as I could feel the burn in my legs. The chill of the weak January sun was still a welcome light to my soul, just as the arch of the cloudless blue heavens spoke to me of depths I cannot imagine.
Although I've spent many a morning walk in prayer for my son, I didn't need to do that yesterday. Ethan no longer needs my prayers. Instead I spent both walks humming the tune to an upbeat song entitled "Gold" by Britt Nichole, which I don't even know but for some reason had stuck in my head. And I did allow myself to think of him, never actually walking with me but sometimes randomly running out to meet me and once taking time to make my picture with the dogs on a day much like yesterday. (Like Ethan, most of the dogs in that picture are gone now, yet it's the only time I've had someone make my picture with the dogs.)

When I finished the walk, I jumped into day 17 of the 30-day challenge hanging on my refrigerator. I was glad to see those muscles hadn't suffered the same fate as my underused walking legs, although I did have to go for two sets instead of doing them all at once.

No, I didn't book a salon appointment, or get my nails done (any of them), but I ended the day feeling victorious over a lot of the apathy that has consumed me for the last month.

The old routines felt like what they were, familiar old habits that help keep me centered and make me feel alive. They were things I need to do to be true to myself. They won't take the place of what I lost, but giving them up will only make me feel worse not better, and there is no need to punish myself or avoid the simple things that bring me joy.

Perhaps, in time, the morning walks will again be a comfortable communion with God and the world around me. I'll pick up the conversation again on more friendly terms, instead of the brokenhearted discourse I've lately shared. Perhaps as well as peace, I'll find some of the answers I seek in the quiet broken only by footfalls on asphalt and the jingle of a dog's tags.

At least I know I'll begin to find myself again.

Friday, January 17, 2014

I Realize I've Misplaced a Lot of Myself

I realized Thursday evening while inspecting a random smear of strawberry yogurt on my jeans that I really couldn't remember when I had put on clean clothes. Was that a fresh smear, or not? Was it really strawberry yogurt?

I could remember showers and clean underwear. Wardrobe changes for church and workouts, but just everyday clothes, no.

Unless I plan ahead, most mornings I just grab whatever I've had on the day before. The dogs and children don't care and they will quickly turn anything that is actually clean into something covered in wet paw and nose prints, and smears of everything from strawberry yogurt to snot and poop. If I aimed to stay clean I'd be undergoing a wardrobe change every hour or so. Most days I look like I'm ready to star in an episode of "What Not to Wear."

The amount of clothing in the hamper this morning says that I've changed clothes occasionally or it's been a really long time since I did laundry. The basket of clothes from which I pulled the clean jeans, tank, and long-sleeved shirt argue that it hasn't been that long.

The fact of the matter is that having abandoned a nice wardrobe when I decided to spend my time with dogs and children, the cleanliness of my clothes stopped being a priority. When things that I had really given some thought slipped off the radar, the state of my wardrobe became a non-issue altogether.

So I've put on clean clothes, that was fairly easy. At the same time, I really have to start paying attention to the things that mean something to me.

I used to exercise, not only for weight management, but for health. I was self-motivated and rode my recumbent bike a time or two a day. Between DVDs and YouTube, I could grab a PiYo or Zumba session any time. I keep a 30-day Ab/Squat challenge on my refrigerator and was midway through repeating it for the second time in December when along with Ethan it sometimes feels like I lost myself. I can't motivate myself any more. I do go to class a couple of times a week, but that's support and companionship as much as exercise. Even then, a song can trigger an emotion that will have me slipping down the stairs to hide out in the restroom while I regain control of myself.

Aside from high intensity workouts, I used to walk lots of dogs almost every day -- health and really bad weather were my only excuses -- and I really enjoyed it. The dogs enjoy it and it is good for the mental health of everyone involved. Now just a slight chill in the air, and face it, it is January, will be enough of an excuse to send me back into the house most mornings. I miss it, yet I haven't been able to convince myself it was worth the effort more than a couple of times in the last month.

While I used to aim to eat healthy, now food is just something that I eat, when I can muster up an appetite for something. Cravings generally haven't been for what I know is good for me, but it seems its either eat what I want or nothing. While that may be balancing out (I wouldn't know as I also haven't resumed a relationship with my scale, but my clothes aren't changing in their fit, but then again if you wear them a while -- oh, who knows), I don't have any numbers to be sure and skinny isn't the same as healthy.

I vaguely wonder if a day at a beauty salon/spa would make me feel better, but my hair hasn't been professionally handled in almost five years and I went shampoo free a year ago, so I don't imagine it would handle the shock well. Although I know the gray ages me, the thought of maintenance to fight it is too daunting to even begin. At the same time, I've never had a manicure or pedicure and with the dog wrestling of a typical week and the random acts of gardening that even now are likely to crop up, my nails are a wasteland. A massage might feel nice, but at the same time it would create that prolonged period of quiet that I've worked to avoid the last month, so it's questionable.

My poor husband is another topic. While not Ethan's father, he did love and care for him, which is more than his birth father managed to do. He cannot touch my grief, however, but tries to support me and tell me that it's OK to feel as I do and work my way through it. Still, between our schedules and my general lack of self motivation, I feel he's getting short changed in a lot of ways that I need to start correcting.

What little energy I have most days is exhausted on three small girls who hit Ma's house wide open. They are completely devoid of any care for my physical appearance, emotional stability or level of energy. They are a great tsunami of need and self absorption (like any small children) that sweeps everything away just for a little while. They are my daily salvation because I can't give myself much slack in dealing with them -- it's not an option. With them I have to be fully alive and alert, no matter how much coffee it takes.

In other words, I'm all to hell and I know it.

At the same time, I've found that finding out what is wrong is often the first step to fixing it. Just as I have to recognize a problem, facing it head on and evaluating it helps get me moving toward correcting it. That's the plan here.

I've cocooned myself in my home with three little tyrants and one noble knight for a while now. I may not emerge a butterfly, or even one of those not quite pretty gray moths, but I don't think I can keep tolerating the person I'm letting myself become.

The sky is blue and cloudless and I think there are dogs waiting for me as soon as the sun tops the trees. Seeing me bundled up in sneakers with leashes in my hand will give them a joy they deserve for always being there. I think walking down the road and back may be the first steps back to finding me.

Not the same me, who still thought life would eventually work out and prayers be answered, but a version of me just the same. A me who realizes prayers are answered in ways we don't understand and that we will never, this side of heaven, know the meaning of the faltering steps in this journey we call life.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Thirty-two Days And Counting

I survived the first anniversary of sorts. Despite my worries, I didn't fall apart, even when the memorial necklace I ordered off Etsy turned up in the mailbox shorthly after noon. Somehow, it seemed only fitting.

I know that at least for a while, the 15th of every month will bring a sense of dread. Now it's been one month, soon it will be two, then three, six, a year. Life, God willing, will keep rolling on and pulling me right along with it, no matter what part of the past I might want to cling to.

A friend who lost her son several years ago told me earlier this week that the dread was usually worse than the actual date itself. It turns out she was right. Thinking about how it was going to be had a whole lot more weight to it than actually living the day itself.

I've found in one month that the problem with grieving is that life gets in the way.

No matter how much some part of me has wanted to do the sackcloth and ashes bit and sit in a corner pulling my hair, there is an even larger part of me that wants to live each day fully, maybe doubly because Ethan isn't living it any more. His legacy isn't going to be about grief, it's about living and making a difference, about reaching out to other people who are hurting like I am and propping one another up on days that we feel like we're falling, its about doing everything I can to help keep this pain from happening again, even if it is only in one life.

I don't know how I'm going to do all that, but I know weeping and wailing won't do it. They won't even come close.

Not only do I want to live and make a difference, I decided years ago that I couldn't let his addiction wreck the rest of the family. I could not always be there for him because other people needed me -- not just his sister, but my first granddaughter and through the years her two younger sisters. Because I'm not just "Ma," but babysitter as well, I can't take time off from family life to grieve. I can't take bereavement days from what is a 40-hour-a-week labor of love.

Meeting their needs on a day-to-day basis gets in the way of worrying about the needs I can no longer meet.

You cannot spend too much time languishing on might-have-beens, when you're surrounded by what might be; you cannot spend too much time thinking about what if, when the sudden silence in the other room probably means someone is either writing on a wall or playing in a sink.

So, just as it has for every day since Dec. 15, the needs of the living -- mine and the people around me -- pulled me through the day yesterday.

The diagnosis of SPD (Sensory Processing Disorder) in E1 has added a new twist to those days as yesterday was not only the one month anniversary of losing my son, but also her first full therapy session. Like physical therapy, which having undergone it I know hurts, it appears this therapy has some lasting aftereffects as well that aren't all positive. Trying to learn how to help her, better judge what is going on in her head, and continue to deal with occasional meltdowns is a facet of my days that goes beyond dealing with three preschool children.

It means my plate is always full and yes, as people keep telling me, I look tired.

It would be easy to say I have too much to handle, and looking at everything going on in my life, I'd have to agree.

That's why there are days when I have to put some of it aside and not handle it. There are days when I give it to God and don't have time for it any more, although I may have time another day and, without so much as a by-your-leave, take it back.

Thanks to the demands of life, I've found that the easiest thing to set aside and leave in God's hands is my son, because he's already in God's hands and has been for his entire life any way. While I need God's help to get through every day, God has work for me to do as well and that work I cannot pass to others. Ethan doesn't need me any more, either through my physical efforts or my mourning.

No, that doesn't mean I don't still grieve him and feel his absence, or that there won't be days when that grief pushes everything else aside for a while.

My place, however, is living. It's marking off another day and going on.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

A Month Ago, My Life Changed

con·do·lence noun \kən-ˈdō-lən(t)s also ˈkän-də-\
: a feeling or expression of sympathy and sadness especially when someone is suffering because of the death of a family member, a friend, etc.

I hate the word condolence, or condolences. No matter how the dictionary defines it, it has to be one of the most meaningless words in the English language to me, perhaps because it is a word that I would never use.

It may be a proper sort of noun, but to me it's proper in that unfeeling, keep my distance, I don't really know you sort of way.

Sympathy isn't a lot better.

If you are sorry for what I'm going through, then simply say it. Don't look for pretty ways to make it less painful. Tell me you're sorry. Although I've received some beautifully written sympathy cards, I've found the meaningful part is the "I'm so sorry" scrawled above the signature.

A month ago, I would never have given a thought to these things. A month ago, I didn't know the rollercoaster of my life had already jumped the tracks and was sailing through the air on its way to a heartbreaking crash. I didn't know that while I thought I was traveling a familiar road, there was actually black ice and everything was going to spin out of control.

I didn't know that about noon the phone would ring and I would learn my son was dead.

Now, a month later there is still an unreality to it all.

Next to Ethan being gone, the thing that disturbs me most is not knowing when. Even if the autopsy gives us answers as to how or why, I'm not expecting an answer to that relatively meaningless question. He's gone and I learned he was gone on Dec. 15. But when did he die? Why didn't my mother's heart feel that he was gone?

As I've slowly regathered the unraveling threads of my life (most of them anyway) over the last two weeks, I'm still troubled by that question. I'll be heading off to one of the activities that was a normal part of my life and I'll think, "The last time I did this, Ethan was alive." That thought is quickly followed by, "The last time I did this, I didn't know Ethan was dead."

That's such a horrible question mark to have hanging over my life. I don't even care as much about why -- why to me is dextromethorphan, whether it was an accidental overdose, chronic overuse that caused organ failure, a seizure from drug use that finally pushed his brain and heart over the edge. As far as I'm concerned, I know what killed him. It was the drug that took a healthy teenager and turned him into an addict with seizures and physical damage and all of the emotional pain that goes along with addiction. Knowing what finally couldn't stand the abuse any longer really doesn't matter to me.

Having Dec. 15, 2013 as his death date and knowing it's not right bothers me beyond all rational thinking.

Then I have to wonder how many other families of addicts wind up carrying this same baggage through their lives. A phone call that tells them a beloved was found dead, not that they died with someone nearby who at least gave a damn, they were found dead. How many people with a network of loving, caring family members push everyone away, don't answer the phone, and isolate themselves for so long that they die alone and are found dead? How many families never even know that they should have gotten that call because the isolation pushes the addict so far that they leave everyone behind and are not only out of touch, but surrounded by strangers who don't even know who to call?

A month ago, I didn't know my life was about to change, but in reality, it already had. Sometime in the days preceding that fateful phone call, Ethan had stretched out in the floor of his apartment, folded his legs like he was apt to do, and simply slipped away with no earthly fanfare or outcry over his going. Because he had spent so long extricating himself, bit by bit, from so much of what went on in our day-to-day lives, we didn't immediately notice he was gone.

But I know it now and I've known it every day for a month. I've felt the hole that the loss of his physical presence has ripped out of my life, the knowledge that this side of heaven I'll never hear his voice, see his smile, or feel his arms around me. I try to cling to that vision of freedom, a happy smile as an angel released him from his pain and addiction, but that's not really enough. I'd like to say, just one more time, but that wouldn't be enough either and that would be a lie. I'm human and still bound by tasks I've yet to complete and a path I have to finish walking, and it may be selfish, but anything short of having him here to walk it with me to the end isn't enough.

So I suppose Dec. 15 will have to do. A month ago today my life changed.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Getting Back to the Business Of Living

Yesterday morning I found myself overwhelmed with life.

I was aggravated, until I realized that was actually a good thing.

I've been overwhelmed with death for so long that dealing with the frustrations of what consumed me just a few short weeks ago was a break, really. It was a sign that perhaps I really am going to survive this. It was the first time in a long time that I've felt annoyed enough with the mundane to feel like I was really living and not at some level forcing myself to go through the motions.

I'm still struck, however, by the image of a storm damaged tree with a large limb broken away and a ragged wound left behind. I know that if the wound isn't properly managed and the tree heals badly or fails to heal, the whole tree can die. Even if I'm living and moving again, I must still tend to the wound of Ethan's death.

Still, yesterday it was good to be simultaneously reading about SPD while trying to decide if it were warm enough to walk dogs, debating times for a doctor's appointment for the baby that I would need to attend, and juggling the rest of my day's activities (including my commitment to this blog).

Darn, I caught myself thinking. If everyone would just leave me alone a few minutes!

But wait.

The telephone messages, the calls, the doctor's appointments, babysitting, dogs and chilly walks were what my life was made of four short weeks ago. This is what life used to feel like.

Instead of getting frustrated, I took a deep breath and realized it felt good.

After figuratively sitting on a shelf for what feels like far longer than four weeks, it felt good to be pulled in a lot of different directions. I was like a toy that the children put away and forget, then rediscover and everyone wants to play with it at once. What would I do first?

Well, first, I wrote a few words because I hate to face an empty computer screen first thing in the morning and I wanted to remember how I felt.

Then I threw on an extra sweatshirt, dug out my gloves and walking shoes and went out to take in the day and make a few dogs really happy. It was, dare I say, cold, until I got about halfway down the road. But I didn't consider turning around, not that the dogs would have let me, but it was good to hear the sound of farm equipment, see the mud on the road and feel both the warmth of the sun and the chill of the air. It was good to feel my body moving again in an old, familiar beat.

After the walk I was rushed to get to Mount Airy and the pediatrician's office where I spent a singularly aggravating hour waiting for an appointment for which we were the designated 15 minutes early. Most of that time I was holding a snotty-nosed baby and keeping an eye on two Kindle-driven preschoolers who were at least not bouncing off the walls and touching everything in the room, unlike the other children. Finally the doctor and a diagnosis of RSV -- oh, joy, oh, bliss. It's been three years since we went a round with that particular nasty virus and I recall we were all sick and E2, who was born during that time, got to spend a week in the hospital. I can only hope we all still harbor some resistance to the bug so we're not quite so ill.

A late lunch, disrupted nap time, dogs and cleaning, a futile attempt at dinner, the roar of a bounce house in the playroom, a dogfight at the back door and one of E1's meltdowns that you have to experience to believe.

Life for most of the day yesterday consumed me and carried me along like the hero of a football game, lifted up on the shoulders of his teammates. I felt swept off my feet and lifted up, enjoying the sensation while it lasted and so tired when it was over that there was no time to feel like the person who has inhabited my body for weeks. I felt relief for a quiet house, instead of dread that I was finally alone.

Yes, I still miss my son and I still had my morning cry, along with random moist-eyed moments through the day. But living isn't all about mourning or grieving. It's about slipping back into old routines that feel a little awkward at first. It's about meeting the needs of each new day as it comes.

It's apparently time for me to get moving again as well and to be quite truthful, it feels good.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Was There Something Everyone Missed?

Among all the "what ifs" and "should have beens" that have swirled around me for the last four weeks, a new one was added to the mix last Tuesday.

After four years of believing our little E1 was just a bit more moody and sensitive than we expected, perhaps spoiled, perhaps just immature, a trip to Winston to see a specialist resulted in a diagnosis of Sensory Processing Disorder and a plan to begin therapy.

It also opened a whole new door of "what ifs," especially when a friend who had lost a family member to drugs told me he had struggled with SPD, as it is called for short, and been unable to cope or find a successful treatment or therapy regime; especially after my daughter mentioned there was often a genetic link, if not to a parent then to a close family member.

What if all the many things we always thought of as "just Ethan" were really symptoms of a disorder we had never heard of that could have been treated? What if when he said the drugs silenced the noise around him so he could concentrate, he really wasn't talking from purely an addict's perspective? What if Ethan had been born 15 or 20 years later when the Internet gave a concerned parent the research tools to try to find out what might be wrong with their child?

Among the many what ifs, this is one I couldn't change. But it is one I have to ponder.

We might never have found a diagnosis for E1's occasionally odd behavior, had it not been for the Internet and a mother determined to know. Although she was slow to talk, she was within the realm of normal. Although she forces her world to follow a schedule, her mother was a firm believer that being on a schedule was good and doesn't handle disruption too well herself. Although she is prone to meltdowns, she's only 4 and we don't really expect her to be in total control of her emotions.

Most of the world only sees E1 as an outgoing, bubbly little girl because most of the time we, meaning her parents and I as her secondary caregiver, have learned to manage her. Her physician said she was extremely bright. Her Sunday school and Awana teachers are delighted with her intelligence and eagerness to learn. No one outside the inner circle suspected there was anything different about her.

But her parents and I saw a little girl sometimes reduced to hysterics by the temperature of her food or her inability to do something she thought she should master. We saw a little girl who derailed from her schedule by an overnight trip or an extended family outing might take days to get back to herself. We saw a little girl who sometimes said "I can't" when asked to do a simple task, and who was consumed by her inability to do so.

Her mother was determined to know if we were doing something wrong, or should be doing something differently. If it wasn't us, then she wanted to know what it might be, especially if it were something that needed to be treated. Occasionally we bounced ideas off one another, but nothing in the spectrum of emotional disorders we had heard of seemed to fit. Then while searching the internet she found SPD and began reading articles by adults who have the disorder left untreated, she began looking at checklists and finding that E1's behavior ticked off a lot of yes answers.

Although I don't think anyone else was convinced, she called her pediatrician for a referral for SPD testing. In the meantime, Ethan passed away and our concerns for E1 were both secondary and more meaningful. In that, I meant we sort of forgot that the evaluation was looming, but were determined that if there were anything to be done for her it would be done because some part of me will always worry that there was a diagnosis no one made for my son.

I cannot look at E1 and say that Ethan was like her as a child. Of course, his preschool days were nearly 20 years ago, but they are characterized in my memory by an easy going little boy who never liked to be alone, not the demanding preschooler that E1 has become. His schedule was flexible, he could sleep anywhere. If anything, one would say he was her polar opposite.

On the other hand SPD is a condition in which sensory information is incorrectly organized or misinterpreted by the brain, so it can have different manifestations. From the present, I cannot go back and evaluate a checklist to find out if his behavior might have also resulted in a lot of affirmative answers, because I simply cannot remember.

Yet there is a similarity I have noticed, a hesitation in how to respond sometimes to a new situation and sometimes to something that you would think they would have been familiar with. I can see it in their smiles, captured in posed photographs of two very different small children, who both look a little uneasy and uncertain. It's a similarity that goes beyond curls and blue eyes, beyond the tiny pearls of baby teeth and one that had, even before Ethan's death, occasionally sent an icicle of dread through my veins. Each time I glimpsed that similarity, I was filled with determination to do anything to save E1 from Ethan's pain, even before his life ended.

Now we have a diagnosis and a path to follow that will in all likelihood lead to a happier future. And I'm wondering if the same path might have saved my son, had I, his doctors, his school counselors, or even the counselors he saw later, been more familiar with this disorder. I wonder how things might have changed if by the time we were concerned about him, he had not learned to mask his differences, fake normal and bullshit his way through any psychological testing. I wonder about the little boy who didn't fit in and had only a few close friends and how we accepted that was just Ethan, when perhaps there was more going on. Perhaps this wasn't the disorder that drove Ethan, but what if it was and it was just a matter of no one knowing and no way to find out. Even today's literature says SPD is often misdiagnosed, although it occurs in somewhere between 1 in 20 and 1 in six children.

Thanks to the internet, today's parents aren't limited to the knowledge of their peers and doctors or even what they can find in a library. They have the whole world at their fingertips and it requires only time and determination to pursue a solution when something doesn't seem right. I didn't have those tools and I won't blame myself for what we may have missed in our ignorance.

I will, however, urge today's parents and grandparents to be open to the possibility that your child isn't a bad kid or just a different kid, that sometimes there is something else going on. If you feel like they're having trouble coping or fitting in, look for answers and keep looking until you find a definitive yes or no. Maybe they are just unique and there's nothing wrong with that, but if they don't like who they are or they aren't comfortable in the world we as we know it, it could be that by looking for an answer you wind up saving a life.

I cannot go back and change the past, but you may be able to change the future.