Friday, February 28, 2014

My Son's Best Friend Brings a Gift of Memories

Until last Friday, I hadn't seen Nathan since the day he joined my daughter and I to get memorial tattoos.

If Ethan could have had a brother, he would have been Nathan. The same was true with Nathan, and Ethan's loss has impacted him in ways young men in their early 20s don't expect to be hit.

From the time we moved to North Carolina when both boys were 7 and I worked with Nathan's mom, it seemed the two boys often grew up in both homes. Even their names made them sound like twins separated at birth. Our homes are full of pictures of both boys; Nathan's mom and I both feel maternal toward both young men, we both worried and tried to get help for Ethan and we both mourn that he's beyond our reach now.

Nathan and Ethan started skateboarding together and he was staying with them when the boys decided to use a nearby hill to luge on their boards and Ethan wound up with multiple fractures in his lower leg. They were here playing video games and raiding the refrigerator or playing with Ethan's decorative sword collection. They harassed each other's older sisters.

When they were a little older, they used drugs together. I've never had the nerve to ask whose idea it was. It doesn't really matter and some part of me almost believes it might have been Ethan, raising the bar a little and thinking it was safe.

By Ethan's senior year, he had lived away from home for about eight months and was probably already an addict, although I didn't know it. Our relationship was strained when he came home to finish high school. He refused to ride the bus and I refused to provide parental transportation. Instead he rode with Nathan, and most days I think they made it to school -- at least they went often enough to graduate. Nathan worked and had a license and a pickup and a girlfriend he later married, things I tried to encourage Ethan to do. He had the girlfriend, most of the time, but they never actually dated and in fact weren't supposed to see each other.

I knew about things happening in both our homes. I knew about sex and pot and sneaking around, but I didn't know their darkest secret.

I didn't know about the dextromethorphan that they both used, that their girlfriends used, that they both became addicted to and which eventually destroyed Ethan's life and very nearly Nathan's as well.

In many ways, Nathan and Ethan, although they worked so well together, are polar opposites. Ethan was big and blond and a talker; Nathan is slight and dark-haired and quiet. At the same time, being around Nathan is a dose of "what might have been" for me. He found a reason to get straight, something Ethan never managed to do, and he's married with two children. Being around me is probably a reminder of Ethan for him as well, as Ethan was pretty much the masculine version of me -- amplified, a bigger bone structure, a deeper voice -- and I know that both boys surely spent a lot of time dissing their moms as we struggled with their teen years and addictions.

Yet I think each time we manage to struggle through those emotional hurdles, to navigate our different schedules, and share the same space for a little while it is healing for us both. We manage to let go of little bits of guilt and find better memories of the young man we loved.

Immediately after Ethan's death, when my mom and I addressed his meager possessions (a person with no job and an often temporary home doesn't accumulate a lot), Nathan wanted something of Ethan's to hang on to and remember him by. Last Friday he got a video game and one of the old swords he remembered from he and Ethan's golden days. I also gave him Ethan's favorite video game Final Fantasy.

He said driving to my house brought back all those days when he hauled Ethan back and forth to school. That Ethan was always different, but it was a good different. Ethan, however, just wanted to be like his friends, I said.

"You were a good friend to Ethan," I said, knowing that he had tried to get Ethan to quit when he did. Knowing that Ethan had stayed at his home and lied to him like he did everyone else who loved him and wanted to help.

"Not always," he said.

I knew he meant that they used together. "You didn't know," I said. "Neither of you did. You thought it was an easy way to get high and stay away from the 'bad' drugs. You were both so young that you didn't know what could happen."

"We never thought it would end up like this," he said.

We hugged before he left, promising to stay in touch, which we have managed in cyberspace for the last two months.

I hope I gave him something that will bring back happier memories. Memories of a boy who still laughed and smiled, had a great imagination and was super smart.

He gave me hope that we didn't lose them both and that someone else still treasures the memory of the young man we lost.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

I Don't Miss My Son, Or Do I?

I don't miss Ethan.

The idea came to me Wednesday just in a flash and I thought, "How horrible!"

But it's the truth. With what feels like forty-thousand other things on my plate, from E1's SPD therapy to the baby's fractious behavior with cutting molars and my husband's broken arm, I don't miss Ethan's needs being part of what I have to deal with every day. In fact, I think if I had to deal with one of Ethan's meltdowns on the phone -- either anger or tears depending on whether he was using and what was going on in his life and head -- I think I'd just go ahead and check myself into a psych ward for a few days and let everyone else sort it out.

I don't miss his drama. Someone was always pissing him off and it was usually the person doing the most to help him. It could be the secretary or the pastor at the church where he had his shining moment as video production coordinator for about six months. It could be my mom or dad, who lived closest to where he had finally came to rest and tried to get him to doctors or the grocery store or pick him up for an occasional odd job. Sometimes it was me, and I guess he called someone else to rant and I didn't hear from him for weeks.

I don't miss worrying about his drug use and what it was doing to him. I knew he was using and lying because that's what addicts do, although he always denied he was addicted. He even asked me to print out his bank statement so he could settle a bill, and there was the evidence in daily trips to a dollar store where the OTC cough medicine he used was cheap and I could have probably done reverse math and figured how many packs he bought and used each time. When I finally told him I knew and just wasn't going to fight about it, it was a fight from his side in defense of how much better it made his life. We didn't talk for weeks after that and had just begun talking again a few days before he died.

I don't miss knowing that his life was so far from anything I could understand or have ever hoped he would have. That it was a grimy little apartment with video games, a guitar, and getting high, that he was always just one step away from a return to jail or the emergency room or homelessness.

I don't miss knowing that the smart, sensitive boy that I knew so well didn't really seem to exist any more and that the DUKE TIP and top student awards were just languishing in drawers, that college was probably never going to be his reality, that I wasn't even sure he'd ever be able to take time from fighting his demons to support himself.

I grieve for Ethan and the loss of the person I know he really was before all of the drugs and heartache buried him in such a shell of pain.

And there are things I do miss.

I miss knowing that I'll see him at his best at family events when he would clean up, sober up, and pull himself together long enough to endure it. Those get-togethers that felt like fun and hope to me probably felt forced and painful to him because there was probably always a part of him that just wanted to escape it all, just as there was a part that wanted to be accepted and stay forever.

I miss the occasional good phone calls, where something funny had happened that he wanted to share, or he just wanted to hear my voice or see how things were here. You have to understand, those were rare, but I always grabbed the phone when he called at a normal hour hoping that it would be one of those calls.

I miss his sarcastic sense of humor, him mimicking my dad's voice, which has been altered by a damaged larynx, or pretending to be someone else on the phone.

I miss his boyishness, although it worried me because it seemed his addiction had in many ways frozen him in time. Although he was aging, his dreams weren't adapting. One of the last things I bought him was a skateboard because he loved skateboarding before the drugs took over and he didn't have a board any more. He called and asked for one and it was expensive and I put off ordering it for a week or so, but finally did. It's at my house now, the wheels and deck scuffed with evidence that yes, he did use it although I don't think he ever told me he did.

I miss his smile and laugh and his beautiful blue eyes.

I miss watching him eat a chocolate-covered, cream-filled Krispy Kreme doughnut, or a piece of cake, or a Taco Bell burrito, or pizza, or huge plate of any of the foods he loved, because he enjoyed eating especially when it was a treat not part of his regular diet.

I miss the sound of his voice.

I miss his hugs when he completely enveloped me in his arms and often picked me up just to remind me that he was so big and strong and could pick up his momma.

So I guess, when it comes right down to it, I do miss Ethan. I'm just relieved that I don't have any of the bad parts to deal with this week.

But I'd take them all just to have his arms around me again.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Think Back Tuesday -- Some Things Make Me Smile

My random bits of joy were all over the place this week, and for a while I wasn't sure that I had a lot of those peace down to my soul and a silly grin for no reason moments, but I did.

1-Baby snowman. OK, so not really a snowman, and not so much of a baby any more. But come on, who couldn't get a smile and a few moments joy out of those pudgy baby cheeks and a plastic carrot in her mouth, coming so close to a snowman's nose.

2-A walk in shorts and a tank top with the neighborhood dogs. There's a magical period in the spring when the days are warm and the underbrush, especially poison ivy, isn't growing, that I like to take to the woods on weekend afternoons. When I do my big dogs and the big dogs who live down the road join me. We're not there yet, but a warm Sunday saw me slipping on my hiking sneakers and my cargo shorts and taking off for a quick hike to the river. The dogs were ecstatic and promptly jumped three deer that I managed to not get mowed down by. I lost one of the four accompanying dogs, (the newest to the area)but my dogs plus one enjoyed going to the river and a quick dip.

3-Sending Shelby, a rescue pit bull, to a new home. Don't get me wrong, Shelby is a great dog but unlike Pedro, who has never known life as a real pet so doesn't mind being kenneled, being in the kennel for more than a month bothered her. The young man who came and picked her up seemed nice and sincere and that's about the best you can hope for with most rescues. I know that some rescuers go to extremes to find a "good" home for dogs and cats in their care, but honestly, some people who might not come across as the most outstanding people in society take the best care of their animals.

4-Unexpectedly making it to PiYo and Zumba last night. The classes are a wonderful outlet for me and not only let me exercise, but socialize. I feel like they help center me sometimes. Monday afternoon I didn't think I could go because the babies' daddy was stuck at work after someone hit the building with their car, but he was off in time and three little ones were able to go home early.

5-The wren who has hung out all winter on my front porch, stealing random bits of soft cat food and eating from the suet block. Monday morning he (or she, there are actually two of them) was perched in the dogwood outside my window singing up a storm.

6-The least one's excited greeting for me when I took her sisters home after gymnastics on Thursday. She had gone home early with her daddy so I could help E2 with her moves. When we got home, she met me at the door with her little arms up and her happy sounds.

7-My mom and dad stopping for an unplanned visit on Friday. When we all lived closer, we were a drop-in any time family, but since I moved to Carolina, even though they are nearby often, they don't usually just stop by. E1 practically threw herself at my dad, which I know made his day if not his week, and we had a sweet visit before they headed back up the mountain.

8-A call from my cousin in Richmond, Va. She is several years older than me, so despite being my only girl first cousin, we were never close growing up and after Granny died we didn't speak or see each other. A year or so ago she called out of the blue and we're closer than we ever were when we spent time in the same house every Sunday. She never had any children, but she rescues dogs and we understand one another at that level as well as sharing family history. Sometimes she's a better outlet than someone much closer might be.

Once again the challenge -- remember your moments of joy from the week because perhaps, like me, it means that whatever has you down at the moment isn't as all consuming as it feels.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Three Boys in Church

Three teenage boys sat in front of me at church Sunday.

It was awful.

They were laughing and talking together during fellowship time. They shook hands and were polite. During service they were attentive to the pastor, but also aware of one another and their place in the world. They were so full of life and potential. I wanted one of them to be mine.

Ethan should have been one of those boys. The problem is not only was he not one of them Sunday, he was never one of them.

He was never that comfortable in a new place, or even among extended family and probably seldom with his best friends. He never seemed to know for sure how to react, if he had the right expression on his face.

For a long time I've been haunted by a similar smile on his face and E1, a forced smile or a hesitancy that shows in the eyes. Now we know hers is a Sensory Processing Disorder. I suppose had we had such a name for it, his might have been another variety of the same disorder. Looking at the world a little differently. Experiencing the sights, sounds, smells and touches around them just a bit differently.

E1 knows already that she looks at things differently. I think Ethan had to figure it out on his own, but he didn't have the right label for it. He thought he was mentally ill, maybe crazy. E1 is going to occupational therapy to learn how to reorganize the way she sees things. He self medicated to shut out the sensations he couldn't control. We will help E1 learn to recognize and appreciate her uniqueness. Ethan knew he was different and wanted nothing more than to fit in.

"Ethan was always different. It was a good different. He was smarter, he saw things different," his best friend told me last week.

Without perspective, however, there came a time when he only wanted to fit in. Using drugs with his friends was a way to do that and simultaneously shut down the things he didn't understand.

He sometimes accused us of just wanting him to be like other boys. To be normal.

The sad part was that was what he wanted, too, far more than we did. He wanted to be like other boys.

He wanted to be one of those boys with their half-formed good looks, their leather jackets, jeans and cargo shorts and their self confidence, sitting on the second row in church.

When he couldn't find a way to be that, he found oblivion in drugs instead. As surely as he lost the things he was fleeing from, he lost himself as well.

Finally, we lost all that remained, the battered body that still could have been all of the things we all wanted him to be, had Ethan been able to be honest and accept the help that was so often offered.

Three teenage boys sat in front of me in church Sunday and I don't think any of my makeup survived the services. The sermon turned to Exodus, and I was Moses, put into a dark place to glimpse the glory of God, and it was the hardest church service I've sat through, ever.

I hope next week the preacher has a different topic. And I hope those boys sit somewhere else.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Time to Seek Some Professional Help

It's time to admit I need professional help. For my hair, that is.

I have an appointment next week, my first in nearly five years.

I don't expect miracles, and I don't really think that even a miraculous change in my hair would take away the perpetually tired look that I see when I happen to catch my reflection in the mirror unexpectedly. At the same time, it's a step in putting myself back together, which has been a work in progress since Ethan died.

So this week, I've been obsessing about my hair.

After all, my hair practically has a personality of its own and is probably one of my most recognizable traits. Down between my shoulders, thick and curly as all get-out, and typically out of control or in a ponytail or braids, I recognize it is a dominant feature on its better days.

Of course, my hair has suffered from benign neglect pretty much since I moved out of the public workforce. I think I swapped dog boarding for highlighting that winter five years ago, and since then my hair has been left to my tender mercies. While I may be able to groom a dog and give my husband a decent clip (if you've seen him lately I was not responsible for the one he's trying to outlive now), my hair is another story.

It is the longest and probably the healthiest it has been in years, thanks to completely abolishing heat and chemicals from use on my hair a year ago. Still my efforts at addressing split ends involve bending over, combing my wet hair so that it hangs down towards my knees, and taking a pair of scissor to trim the longest bits back. Probably not quite what is needed.

My sudden attention to my hair, however, has come out of the need to move forward and the fact that yes, I'm tired of looking tired. It's come from seeing shiny hair around me, well groomed hair, and usually straight hair. While my hair may never achieve all, if any, of those things, I can at least make an effort.

When I mentioned on Facebook early in the week that I wanted to do something to my hair, there were a few suggestions. Some people expected that I would be cutting it off, straightening it, or something equally drastic. No, although I might enjoy someone else's short haircut, I know that those styles take more maintenance than I have time for. Remember, it's been five years. I give new meaning to low maintenance. It will stay long. It will stay curly. And although I may not be happy with the gray, I won't color it in any way that means maintenance and roots.

I also had a question about why I stopped using shampoo and conditioners. It began with the innocent download of a Kindle book entitled Hair Gone Wild by Diane Kidman, which was offered free one day on Amazon. The more I read it, the more intrigued I was, especially when she talked about her hair and it sounded like mine in its general characteristics. In addition, I was equally prone to dissatisfaction with my shampoo, changing it frequently and filling my cabinets with half-empty bottles of shampoo and conditioner that no longer seemed to be doing the job.

As a result, for the last year pretty much everything I've used on my hair has been something I could eat. It is washed in a mixture of baking soda and water and rinsed in diluted apple cider vinegar, generally only about once a week. I typically treat it to honey once a week as well. If my scalp or hair seem too dry, a mixture of glycerine and aloe with a few drops of essential oil for fragrance. I've also made a deep conditioner of cocoa butter, olive oil and essential oils that I use when I have time. I smooth frizzies with coconut oil or jojoba oil. That's pretty much it.

So I'm facing the possibility of losing an inch or two, layering, and any kind of salon treatment with a bit of trepidation, if not downright panic.

Sure, I remember the fun of having my hair done. The spring I broke my arm I had to go every week and get it shampooed and blown out simply because I was unable to do so. It was the most pampered my hair has ever been. But it's been so low priority for me that to take time now seems wrong at some levels. Surely there's something else I need to be doing Tuesday morning.

Then again, maybe there isn't. Perhaps it's like Zumba a couple of times a week, something I need to do for myself that is long overdue.

Just please be gentle with me.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Two Ships That Passed in the Night

Thursday evening I sat in the endless line waiting for post-gymnastics pizza and cried and prayed

I wasn't crying for Ethan, although in a way I was.

My thoughts were for Corey, the young man I had just met at the gas station when I stopped to add a few gallons to my SUV because the gas gauge doesn't work correctly and I cannot trust it below a quarter tank.

I was just digging out my debit card to pay for gas so I didn't have to walk in and leave the two big Es in the car, when Corey passed by me in his pickup and pulled up to the other tank. I started around the back of my vehicle when Corey approached me with his cell phone in his hand and a note of desperation to his voice.

"Ma'am, can I ask you a favor?"

He was tall and lanky, his wardrobe thrown together in the way young men often dress with total disregard for what they're wearing, yet in a way that somehow works. You know the look, jeans and t-shirt, topped with a hoodie, a careless hat of some kind, and generally disreputable shoes. He had dark hair that his mom probably wishes he'd get cut, or at least comb.

"I shouldn't even ask you this, but I can't get my mom or dad on the phone, and I've gone as far as I can go. I'm out of gas and..."

"Sure," I said, because he was in so many ways Ethan. Still at that age of not quite remembering all the things it requires to keep a vehicle moving; not quite getting that whatever you plan on doing, put gas in the vehicle first. How many times had I heard that same lament from Ethan, about where he'd ran out of gas, had to walk, got someone to give him money?

I gave him a ten dollar bill.

Relief swept over his face. He wouldn't have to repeat the scenario, asking some stranger for money. He wouldn't have to deal with a lecture when he made it home late.

"Thank you<" he blurted.

"Can I give you a hug?" he asked, this tall, young man in the Hess parking lot.

I almost said please and I took his hug with all the longing my heart has for Ethan's.

He ran in to pay for his gas and when he came back I, having had time to think about the cost of gas, asked if that was enough. He said it was. I asked his name, told him I'd lost my son and he asked his name. He didn't know him. I told him I wanted to pray for him and to take care of himself.

We parted company in the parking lot, but he passed me again headed back out Rockford Street, weaving through traffic in that rushed way we all have when we're young.

I pulled into the Little Cesar's line and prayed for Corey, that God would protect him and lead him to better choices than Ethan, that his mom and dad could appreciate the wonderful miracle of their living, breathing son with all his mistakes and poor judgement, that he'd have the chance to be what he dreamed of being. I envied his parents, who might be hearing the tale of the woman who gave him gas money, and perhaps even learn that she had asked him name and told him about her dead son. I prayed for his mother that she could understand how wonderful it was to have him come home, that she never have to feel the way I've felt for the last two months.

This morning I said the same prayers again.

I also said a prayer for thanks for Corey, for the chance to reach out and remember that there are a lot of boys (and girls) still trying to make it, a lot of young men finding their way, a lot of families still with much to be thankful for.

I thank God for sending Corey and I to the same gas station. I thank God for Corey's hug.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

The End of the Road Not Taken?

When I was a teenager, there was a road not taken.

I grew up in a rural area with not a lot of neighbors, but there were two brothers who helped their father farm the cabbage fields that covered much of the land around our home. At one time, their dad had even leased my grandpa's farm and they had worked much closer. The brothers were a bit older than me, so I never really knew them in school growing up, but knew them and their family by name.

The summer after I graduated from high school, however, we had a constant supply of cabbage.

The older of the two would regularly stop to visit briefly with the offer of fresh cabbage as a pretext, so we ate a lot of coleslaw and fried cabbage that summer. It became a regular source of amusement with my family, because the young man in question never said anything beyond the quick exchange, despite the frequent visits.

I remember his car, and waving at him when we cruised around town, and one night I actually stopped and talked to him in the Hardee's parking lot. But it never went beyond that. He never worked up the nerve to ask me out, and I was too backward to initiate a next step.

Later that summer I met the children's father and followed a different road, away from farms and cabbage, cattle and close family ties. I married someone else and so did he, but we always maintained that friendly connection when we bumped into one another on family outings, like at a local seafood restaurant on Sunday afternoons. He did farm work for my grandpa so Pa didn't have to own all the equipment for putting up round bales of hay.

When things were tough, when my marriage ended and the children's father turned out to be the worst sort of deadbeat dad; when I made other bad choices and found my life in places I never wanted it to go, I often wished that things had been different and that one of us had the nerve to say "Why don't we go out?"

The person I finally grew into would have done it, but the 17-year-old social misfit I was that summer never imagined it.

While I had no idea if that relationship might have developed, I often thought that the life he gave his wife, a brick house not far from my parents and his, and a life built on farming, family and church, was what I would have wanted had I had better sense at 17. I never really coveted that life, just always imagined it would have been a better fit for what I once wished for.

So Monday's news from my mom left me shaken.

Sunday afternoon, the farm boy I grew up near apparently got into an altercation with his wife at the gymnasium where one of their kids played in a Christian sports league. He shot and killed her, pushed her body out of her vehicle, then drove to a barn where he had cattle and killed himself.

With my own real grief so fresh, my heart was broken for his family, for her family, for their children. Although we were never more than casual friends and neighbors, and I never met the orphaned children, I've cried for them and prayed for them off and on all week.

With my reflections the day before on what I might have done differently, I was also shaken because a total change in my life could have also been a change in theirs. If I'd had a do over, and opted for a totally different path, would it have been the better life I imagined? Was what happened between the two of them what would have happened between him and his wife, whoever she might have been? Did he have buttons that were pushed too often, or was there a totally different man beneath the surface of the person I knew?

Because I'd already spent the morning thinking about paths not taken, and because my own grief has left me raw, I know the news hit me harder than it would have six months ago.

Sometimes I know it is the accumulation of things, rather than the events themselves. Just as, years ago, a former coworker's suicide on the morning after I talked to her by phone, following so close on the heels of her husband's accidental death and my ex-husband's suicide, hit me harder than our fading friendship would have made me anticipate, a tragedy in my home community left me reeling.

It also reminded me that the paths we sometimes imagine walking may not be any smoother than the one we've chosen to follow. The grass, it seems, is seldom greener.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Think Back Tuesday, What Brought Me Joy?

When I sat down at the computer to look back on the previous week, watching the birds still gorging themselves at the bird feeder and the "all you can eat" seed buffet in the snow-covered landscape, I thought, really, the last week hasn't been that joyful.

Peaceful, maybe, but not full of joy.

I didn't see the three Es for four days as the snow kept their daddy home from work for two days, then it was the weekend and they didn't make it to church Sunday. In fact, I've pretty much been home most of the last week, shrouded in a comforting blanket of snow that kept the world away.

Then I started thinking and there were actually a lot of random memories that brought a smile to my face.

1. The birds trying to work up the nerve to eat from the suet feeder while I was sitting in the sun just below them. This was after the snow, when the sun came out all bright and glorious and warm and I was in my shirt sleeves on the phone and had no intention of moving. The maple was aflutter with hungry birds who would swoop in for a landing, give me the eye and then flee without a bite.

2. The fact that I had my husband get two D batteries and still knew where the second one was at when the carbon monoxide detector started beeping. The other smoke detector and three crazed house dogs got me out of bed one night and I had put them on our weekly shopping list. Of course, the batteries come in a two-pack, so that wasn't the tough part. Actually knowing where it was at when the second one started beeping was the amazing part.

3. Snow. I dreaded the snow's arrival, but once it took over the landscape it was magical. It trapped me and my husband at home for a day without children or work. I decided it wasn't such a bad thing after all.

4. Going 24 hours without poop in W's cage. I keep W (no name to protect his identity) in my kennel all the time and he's this tiny, adorable little dog. Except he cannot go 8 hours without messing in his crate and every morning I'm greeted by the smell of dog feces. Sometimes, despite having been out a short time before, I'm greeted by that same scent in the afternoon or any other time I go back. When I went out Sunday morning, no mess. It was nice but it didn't last. Monday morning he had messed enough to need a bath.

5. Finally finishing Evie's turtle. Shortly after she was diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder, and we began to talk about weighted lap blankets we came up with the idea of a lap pillow. She has always liked crocheted blankets, so a crocheted pillow might be good. She loved the idea of a turtle, but of course picked one that I could not find a free pattern for. So I made it up, it just took longer.

6. The younger woman at church who sees me as an "earth mother" and has given me the hippy name of Rainbow Sunshine. Her smile and hug at church are always welcome and make me smile in return.

7. Finally making it home Wednesday after having to drive in the snow for the first time in four years. I went to my daughter's home to babysit so the girls would not be out, but the snow came before my son-in-law got home, so I got to drive home in driving snow with all the other idiots out there. It was nerve wracking and I was so glad to get home.

8. Not having to drive in the snow after I managed to get home on Wednesday. Until four years ago, I've had to drive in the snow for 25 years because news doesn't quit when it snows. I was glad to sit at home and watch it snow and not have to worry about getting anywhere.

9. Grackles and skunks appearing on the landscape. The scent of skunks and the arrival of the grackles at the bird feeders, as unwelcome as they may be, are sure signs of spring. It's mating season for skunks and the birds have come back from wherever they spent the bulk of the winter.

10. My neighbors pushing snow. I could literally have hugged them both. One came by on a tractor pushing the road and then stopped to ask if I would like my driveway pushed. Absolutely. An hour or so later when I took a shovel out to dig out the cars, another neighbor stopped with a small loader and did the finer cleanup. I was left with very little shovel work and a lot of gratitude.

So take a minute now and think back on last week. What random things made you smile, even in the midst of all the less than joyful things that may have been going on around you? Snow cream? Safe travels? Unexpected time with family? Power that didn't go out? Pull those things out and treasure them and their memory to get you through the week ahead.

I dare you.

Monday, February 17, 2014

What Would I Be Willing to Change?

Having dinner yesterday I had one of those flashes of deja vu that we occasionally experience and for which there is no real good explanation.

You know the feeling,"I've been here, doing exactly this with the sun slanting exactly this way and I know down in my bones what comes next."

While I don't believe in reincarnation, this was one of those moments that was so intense that I almost felt like Bill Murray's character in "Groundhog Day."

It set me to thinking, if we could get a reset on our life, what would be the point without knowing what was to come? If we had to stumble blindly through life not knowing what we needed to change, would we do any better or would we make the same tragic mistakes? If I had a reset, would I dare to choose a totally different path, or would I be determined to stay on the one I'm on but somehow change where it takes me? Not on Dec. 15, 2013, but on some day years before when there was a little boy with an uneasy look in his eyes who wasn't quite as much like his mother as I believed.

What if I were already reliving it and trying to change those moments? How many times would I choose to repeat the same painful cycle before I decided not to try it again?

Given a choice, would my soul say sure, send me back and let me try to salvage my son one more time, or would I say no, let me take a different path? Let me be a farmer's wife instead of a journalist. Let me have children and grandchildren I don't know in this life, but would love in that life. Or would I make another change and decide that one child was enough, that I could sacrifice the joy of knowing him to avoid the pain of losing him?

How many of us haven't dreamed of a do over? When we learn that high school isn't the end of the world, how many of us wouldn't like to go back and tell ourselves to go for it and not worry so much? When our marriage fell apart, wouldn't we like to have been able to rewind and never marry, or perhaps do something different in those early days that would have sent us down a different path? When tragedy strikes, wouldn't we love to change the course of events by doing something different, or at least taking the time to say the words we would have wanted to say?

I try to not be consumed by the what ifs, but that flash of deja vu sent me to wondering and made me a quiet dinner companion.

Would I risk the happiness I have now -- the man I love, my daughter and son-in-law, the three Es -- for a life with the potential for less sorrow? Would I trade the successes and disasters that have brought me to where I am now to change those bits of my life that hurt so bad? Could I choose never to know Ethan, if I knew that loving him would lead to so much pain?

It would be nice to get to live our lives over and over until we get them right, wouldn't it? To have the chance to start over at each point that we knew we screwed up and have that opportunity instead of the one we took, and if that one didn't work out either, go back and choose again.

But this isn't a dress rehearsal, it's the time we're given. It slips through our fingers like sand to pile around our feet and cause us to stumble through our past mistakes, clinging to us like the last remnants of a beach trip as we try to brush away the bad choices.

My flight of fancy came to a lurching halt on the idea of trading what I have for what I might have had. A beautiful, headstrong, slightly OCD daughter, a son-in-law with the same quirky sense of humor our family shares, three precious beyond words granddaughters and a man who loves me as I could only dream of being loved are beyond priceless, too great of a treasure to gamble on a different happily ever after.

The memories of a blue-eyed boy with white blond hair, who grew into a troubled young man with a big heart and a demon on his back are equally precious. Although there will be no aging and no happily ever after for him in this life, I would not undo his birth to save myself a bit of pain, although, if I could change it to save him I surely would.

The sense of having been there lingered, but I knew that even knowing where life has taken me, I would have to take the same path again, hoping things would be different and that Ethan would choose a different path of his own.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Snow Changed My Perspective, at Least for a While

Snow days have made everything a bit different the last few days.

I've eaten too much, sat around the house by myself and probably not gotten enough exercise, even though I did get outside every day and do chores as well as ride my bike.

When I saw Ethan's name tattooed on my wrist while getting ready for bed Saturday night, I realized I had allowed the snow, which made everything outside my home address feel unreal, make my grief unreal as well.

Ethan preferred the winter to the summer, not that he ever spent a lot of time outdoors. He liked cold and never wore long sleeved shirts and seldom a "real" coat, even on the most bitter days. Snow days, however, would have worked their magic on him as well. When he was a boy he'd have been out in it as long as he was allowed, coming in with wet clothes and soaking feet to take a hot shower and warm up.

Yet for some reason I haven't felt sorrow that he missed this snow. The transformative blanket of the snow seems to have also covered my heart and insulated it from my grief.

Trying to uncover the reason, I think it's because dealing with the snow, the worry of digging out and knowing family had to be on the roads, forced me to live in the moment for a few days.

Perhaps this is how the women 100 years ago survived burying baby after baby. Could it have been that the struggle just to survive meant less time to dwell on the child who was no longer there? When you were trying to nurse the rest of the family through a measles outbreak, or make sure you had enough food to get through the winter without the convenience of a quick trip to the grocer, you surely didn't have time to fall apart for anything.

In the cemetery where Ethan is buried, there is a row of small, nearly identical tombstones bearing the names of dead children; children who died within a few weeks time during some disease outbreak and who were all the children of the same parents. Even before Ethan's body joined the bones of those lost children in the hard Virginia soil, I had wondered how their mother managed to keep going. Why weren't her bones resting beneath a tombstone bearing the same dates? How could she stand, time and time again, by those small holes in the ground and say goodbye to her babies without curling up and dying as well?

When we laid Ethan's body to rest, I remembered those children and the others at whose graves I stood throughout my whole life and wondered. I thought of Ethan's tombstone there among them and the questions his death at 23 might create in the generations to come. I thought of those other mothers, burying their children and wondered how they had found the strength to walk away from the graveyard and go on living.

I wonder if during the last few days I've come to understand their strength, if not to possess it. Although survival was never a question for me, the intense focus on the moment changed my perspective.

It was not that I didn't think of Ethan, or that I didn't sometimes feel sad for his loss, but my focus on the living strands of my family trying to stay warm and navigate through the snow, on my isolation, on concerns about others I cared about who had to be out in the weather, kept my attention. The vast well of grief that sometimes opens unexpectedly in my chest has been closed since the day the snow swept in five days ago, and that's a long time for me.

The state truck passed yesterday, although a neighbor's farm tractor, more accustomed to plowing red Carolina clay than pushing 18 inches of pristine snow, had opened the road and cleared my driveway on Friday. The ground is still white and the world not the view I'm used to seeing, so I have to wonder how my emotions will shift yet again when life returns to "normal."

However it changes, I hope I can remember to give my energy and my focus, my emotional stability, more to what is here and now, what is real instead of what could have been, what I have instead of what I've lost.

I know that will be a step in the journey and one I may have to repeat many times before it becomes habit. Still, I hope even when the sun shines and the red mud returns, that I can hold on to the memory of the peace of snow.

Friday, February 14, 2014

I Think I'm In Love With My Bike

I have no anticipation of a romantic evening out for Valentine's Day.

There's about 18 inches of snow on the ground outside. My SUV is still buried in the wonderful frosting of mother nature. If I leave home today, it will be on foot, perhaps pulling a sled, and in the company of my dogs. My husband spent an hour this morning fighting his way to work after finding a tractor-trailer jackknifed on the next road out from ours, which also has not been plowed.

All the same, I think I'll spend an hour or so with my newest infatuation.

Don't tell anyone, but I think I'm in love with my stationary bike.

I may even give it a Valentine today.

I bought the bike back in the summer, when I was just frustrated by my inability to get out of the house and move due to the demands of three small children and the general uncooperative nature of the weather when I had free time. I wanted a cardio option that didn't require leaving the house or perfect outdoor conditions.

But like most pieces of home fitness equipment, it sat generally unused in my small bedroom until December. Although it is light enough to move, it is still cumbersome and the idea I originally had of moving it to watch TV just hadn't panned out.

Then one day in desperation I fired up some Amazon Prime video on my Kindle, popped in my headphones so I could hear, and rode my bike for 30 minutes (a good fit, since the bike also came from Amazon and was selected based on its reviews). It wasn't an everyday thing, but I discovered it did in fact make me feel better, just as I had envisioned.

I had gotten myself into a fairly regular habit of riding by mid-December and had found that a 5-mile ride, or 30 minutes whichever came last, was helping to break up the cold I was fighting. I was just finishing up a ride to nowhere when I received the phone call telling me that my son was dead.

In the general depression and apathy that followed, and perhaps in an aversion to the association with the call, I had pretty much avoided the bike in the nearly two months since then. Then a couple of weeks ago I decided it was time to ditch some of my doldrums by committing to six hours of exercise a week.

My bike and I had to get friendly again.

I'll admit, initially the relationship was a little shaky. I struggled to get in 30 minutes and didn't even look at the mileage. But I rode it almost every day as my cheat for that much exercise.

Last Friday, I don't know what happened, but I apparently was in the zone and I rode it nearly an hour. Zumba Saturday morning nearly killed me as I discovered exactly which muscles I had been using on that ride.

One day this week I repeated the feat with a lot less soreness after the fact.

I'm planning on doing it again today.

Yes, it's a bike ride to nowhere and far from the best exercise a person could get I'm sure. At the same time, it's so much better than no exercise at all.

The fact that I can watch videos, read or even play games and talk on the phone while I ride means it fits well into my day. Heated or air conditioned as the season warrants, I'm beginning to see a long term relationship developing, regardless of the return of friendlier weather and sunny blue skies.

No, it's not going to take the place of long walks with my dogs, hikes in the woods, or my addiction to Zumba. But it has not only piqued my interest in its capabilities, because it hangs out with the Bowflex I'm on speaking terms with that piece of equipment as well.

Considering that I bought the bike in August, I think it's time our relationship developed. Now, I've really got to go. I think I hear it calling.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

A Walk in Snowmageddon 2014

Although I hate snow when I have to drive in it, or when people I care about have to drive in it, when it comes in the quantity that we are still receiving and brings the world to a virtual halt, I can relax and enjoy it like a child.

So with none of my family forced to drive in it today, work called off or covered by someone else, or a professional driver to get someone from point A to point B and back, I've sat at the window and watched it snow most of the morning. Then I did what I'm prone to do, and what most people undoubtedly find a bit crazy, I bundled up, got my camera and went for a walk.

Face it, this amount of snow hasn't fallen here in 10 years. It's magical and transforms the world. Tomorrow I may be back to driving in it again, or the roads may be scraped enough that little people come here (either way there may be a sled involved), but here on my dead end road, there has been little traffic beyond one farmer and the dogs. It's as quiet and peaceful as today's busy world ever manages to be and to spend it inside is, to me, a waste.

My husband, out of work for the day, braved the elements with me. My house dogs, after a quick trip out and one bound through the snow (above) ran for the porch. My yard dogs are always game, no matter the elements so we were off.

When we headed down the road there was one set of recent tracks -- tobacco farmers planted seeds at their nearby greenhouse on Tuesday and had been in to check the temperature -- and one of the dogs quickly left his big-pawed mark on the trail.

My neighbor's steep driveway had not been broached by anything but dog tracks and looked tranquil and scenic.

Near the point where we turned around, the three black dogs were lured away by a scent in the nearby woods, although my red Lab Rebel stayed with us.

It wasn't too long before the source of the scent bounded across the road in front of us and disappeared again into the woods, far ahead of her pursuers, who turned back toward us once they reached the road.

On the way back, the snowfall was increasing again, and I noticed what I think is the same tractor (although in a different spot) that I photographed the last time it snowed.

Back inside, I watched the snow fall on our summertime hangout, the weeping cherry, swings and sandbox where we love to spend our evenings.

Then I sat at my computer, watching the birds flock to the feeder as the snow continued to fall and our totals continue to rise. It's a day to be at peace with the world and realize just how far out of my control everything, from life and death to the weather, actually is. I didn't want snow, just as I didn't want much of what has happened in the last couple of months, and yet it came.

So I'm going to keep looking for the moments to treasure and not let the snow, or my life, slip by unappreciated just because it isn't what I wanted. I'll huddle inside with one I love for a while, then I'll push out again to feel the magic of life wet against my face and wonder, is it the snow or my cold tears?

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Bracing for "Snowmageddon" -- I Hate Snow

It's been ages since we had snow here -- real snow, that is.

That little surprise of icy white stuff a couple of weeks ago, that was nothing.

It's been two years since I've made any snow pictures. Pictures of a snowy walk with the big dogs. More pictures of romp in the woods with my three Jack Russell terriers, who were completely unfazed and had a blast. A few pictures of my then two granddaughters checking out the snow. It was, in fact, Feb. 20, 2012, according to the date on my pictures and we might have had three inches.

It was pretty. Everything was white and magical looking for about one day. Most of the world as we know it functioned just fine.

Ten years ago, while my husband was away taking a course of study at the University of Massachusetts, we had a lot of snow. I had to drive our beat up old Dodge pickup nearly every day. I still remember riding home with Ethan, who would have been 13, the night the universal joint came out of the front of it. My daughter was away at college and it was just us a big chunk of that winter. It was just us getting back and forth to work, and I don't know why in my memories he is with me on that late evening trip. Maybe he wasn't, or maybe he'd gone in with me just to get out of the house a few hours.

It doesn't matter. It was a miserable winter when the snow stayed around long enough to be dirty and red with Carolina mud, then got covered by a fresh coating. It's been that long since we had significant snow.

For the record, I hate snow days. I don't mind snow on Saturday that is gone by Monday. But only children can really love snow days. Well, maybe dogs. But children are the only people who can just enjoy the magic of a world transformed by snow. For the rest of us, even people who work at home or who are retired and don't have to get out, snow days are a world of worry. Even if we have the luxury of sitting home, we have people we care about who are traveling back and forth to work. If we're among those people making our way to work, we have to worry about making the trip without a pile up even if we can drive in it. Once the main roads are better, odds are we wind up worrying about what to do with kids who are out of school, or daycare.

For 25 years I was a journalist and I was one of those people who didn't get a snow day off. I remember forcing myself to learn to drive a 5-speed when I was snowed in and the only vehicle around was a 5-speed, four-wheel-drive Suburban -- talk about a tank. I knew the basics and I made it to work and back because I was tired of being chauffeured and waiting on a ride, or being stuck at home on a dirt road that wouldn't see a plow for ages. In fact, the worse the snow, the more I had to get out to record the disaster around me.

Even worse than having to leave in snow was trying to get home after a snow had arrived and there were lots of people on the roads who would probably have stayed home had the snow come before work. I can remember making it halfway and finding the mountain that was between me and home blocked by a wreck that forced me to turn around and go a different route. I can remember being caught out in "good clothes" and a car that wouldn't climb the hill to my babysitter's home, taking off my heels and walking in my stocking feet to get my kids. I remember doing a 180 on the last hill before reaching my house because I was trying to miss the car in the ditch and lost my momentum and tried to overcompensate, and hoping that the car coming down the hill would be able to stop before he hit me. I wound up parking my car at a nearby bar and hitching a ride with a guy in a four-wheel-drive Toyota, and no, I didn't ask how much he had drank. I remember when an actual blizzard hit in 1993, and buildings collapsed and people died of carbon monoxide trying to stay warm in houses without heat.

I hate snow.

So today, I got up with a sense of dread for the weather ahead. Forecasters have misjudged the last two storms -- we didn't get the one we were supposed to and we did get the one that was supposed to miss us -- but this one seems like a dead hit and they're bound to get one in three. The deer I saw grazing in the middle of a field on the side of the four-lane at 5 p.m. yesterday and the heavy traffic at the bird feeder out front this morning say the natural world expects something as well.

Before you say, oh, fun with grandbabies and work at home, think again.

First of all, my business depends on people traveling. So bang, a storm means cancellations because pups don't need a kennel when Mom and Dad are home. Sure, I'd like to be the woman stuck in Florida who has extended her dog's stay another week because she doesn't expect the roads between here and there to be good for a while, but she's the exception. Although, to be fair, he probably balances out the few bookings that will be cancelled.

Second, my daughter is a 9-1-1 dispatcher and she's been warned to pack a bag and be prepared to spend the night. That's a whole host of headaches that everyone has to figure out how to deal with. Do three little girls come here and spend a night? Does Ma go to their house so they can at least be at home? What about the baby, who is still breastfeeding and is used to having Mommy before bedtime? And what about the girls in the morning, if Daddy needs to leave for work super early like he usually does? Ma's SUV may come in handy for negotiating the route, but how early is reasonable to get going?

Right now the plan is for me to travel today and see when roads are passable tomorrow. I'll be leaving home before the snow is supposed to arrive, but who knows when I'll come home. Which means I still get to drive in the snow if it comes. Oh, joy, oh bliss.

So I face the prospect of snow with no small amount of dread, much as I have for most of my adult life, regardless of how things have changed for me.

And while everyone else was rushing to the store yesterday to buy milk and bread, I made a stop as well. I bought wine.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Think Back Tuesday -- What Brought You Joy?

Who celebrates Tuesdays?

Seriously, we dread Monday and back to work, Wednesday is hump day, Thursday is over the hump and Friday is the big exhale. Saturday and Sunday, of course, are the weekend and generally our time to rest and relax. What is Tuesday besides the day after Monday? Perhaps we should change that.

Although I read a blog where every Thursday the writer challenges us for Thankful Thursday, last week another blogger asked about moments of joy. Her reflections on things that made her joyful the previous week had me doing the same mental exercise and I found out a wonderful thing. It changed my perspective. Less of my week was spent grieving and more of it was celebrating life.

I set out to recognize those moments of joy in the week that followed and there were more of them than I had been taking the time to appreciate.

So, at least for the time being, I think I'll make Tuesdays my official Think Back Tuesday and try to remember the things that made me joyful in hopes of changing my perspective on the week ahead.

It may be a challenge this week, because we've been battling the norovirus in little people and my daughter has been sick as well. I've been puked on repeatedly and cleaned up way more little hind ends than I care to count. A small trash can took up residence in my car for road trips, and E2 had to be rushed out of gymnastics where she managed to not throw up in any inappropriate places.

Still, there were rays of sunshine in the less than stellar week. Some of them may have been really random in otherwise dark places, but in some ways those stand out most of all.

1. When E2 was still feeling under the weather at church Sunday, tired out from being sick, she had her mommy, but she wanted Ma. OK, I'm sad she was sick, but it made me feel so special that she still wanted me to come and hold her and talk to her.

2. In fact, E2 brought another random smile when she threw up on the table at church Wednesday. OK, that was horrible, but the reaction of the middle school age boys at the table was priceless. They weren't freaked out. One remarked that she had picked a really good place (after all, most of the church is carpeted, but not the fellowship hall) and they all just picked up their plates and moved.

3. Dressing up as a pirate for the big birthday bash. Kids were encouraged to dress up and some of adults went with the theme, too. Mommy, Nanny and Aunt were all princesses contending with long flowing dresses and tiaras. Although E1 told me I was supposed to be a princess, I informed her I was not froofroo enough. All the little boys were enthralled with my plastic sword and I didn't have to worry about my hair or who might be stepping on my dress tail.

4. Seeing two of my friends who haven't yet made PiYo or Zumba part of their routine at class last week. I had not seen them except through Facebook since before losing my son, but I know they've both had their own losses as well, so we have a bond. We all hugged and were happy about their upcoming wedding. It was one of those silly, almost giddy moments we women are sometimes prone to.

5. Grooming a rescue. OK, it was horrible, tough work and he was a big, dirty dog who did not like the idea of clippers making that awful noise anywhere near his head. Not only that, but he didn't turn out looking great largely because of that. But wrestling him with his rescuer, finally holding him my lap and getting him to calm down enough that I could remove the band of mats that had been beneath his collar, and freeing him from knots all over his body, made me happy because that was something I could do for him that no one had ever bothered to do.

6. Pedro, the rescue I have been housing for about four months, frequently brings me random joy. I'm his first human love and the look in his eyes when he avoids assaulting me (he is often over enthusiastic in his joy at sharing the same space as me) makes me smile. He sometimes frustrates me to no end and I dream of the day when he leaves for a real home, but remembering how far he has come from abuse and neglect brings me joy.

7. Lucy, my number two Jack Russell terrier, curling up in my lap Sunday night, while Abi, numero uno, was beside me, was totally random joy. They are not snugglers. Ever. Well, maybe on cold nights in bed, but in general they do not consider themselves lap dogs. After an emotional day, having my two little buddies lending their canine support to my well being was special.

8. E1's delight at the new kitchen furnishings that E2 received as a birthday gift. Each of the girls has a dollhouse and they seem to exchange furniture frequently and have a plethora of beds and baby gear. New kitchen equipment, along with tables and chairs, was an appreciated addition to the mix. She had a similar reaction to the Operation game. While it was, I'm sure, largely a reaction to what she anticipated as shared goods, her joy was infectious.

9. Watching E2 with her slice of birthday cake. While everyone was watching the baby take on her smash cake and making over her, E2 was quite content to not be the center of attention and enjoy her cake at a leisurely pace. While it can be frustrating to get her through a meal sometimes, recognizing her contentment at doing things her way and without a lot of hoopla is refreshing.

10. Baby hugs. No matter how many times I get one, E3's embraces are priceless and will, as she grows, cease to exist. Now when she is picked up she often responds by embracing me, putting her head on my shoulder and her little arm around to my back where she pats. Hugging a baby has to be joy at it's most pure form.

Just like last week, I'll challenge you to think of the things that brought you joy last week. Look for those things in the week ahead. If it's a tough week, they will be the things that penetrate the gloom and cast a ray of sunshine in your heart. They'll be things you don't work at, things you don't expect out of whatever situation you're dealing with. They will be the things that make another week not quite as tough as it could have been and give you cause to look forward to the week ahead.

Even if it is only Tuesday.

Monday, February 10, 2014

The Ghost of Birthdays Past

Yesterday we had a wonderful party, but there was a ghost.

It was the shared birthday of E2 and E3 -- the third birthday for the middle child who last year got a baby sister for her birthday and the smash cake extravaganza of a first birthday for the least of the grandbabies. Mom had gone all out and planned a splendid affair with the theme of Princesses and Pirates, because although she has three little girls, there are a lot of little boys in her circle of friends. The same cast of characters that I've come to expect at every birthday party for four years was there with some new additions, but we were missing one.


It was a glorious party. Beyond the cake, which featured the princess of the year Sofia (Sofia the First) as well as Jake (from Jake and the Pirates) there were games, tiaras and swords, eye patches and wands. Although I saw one father of three wearing his daughter's tiara, the boys pretty much avoided the girl glitz. Little girls, however, were apt to be wearing tiaras and carrying swords. From turning on the princess bounce house, where there was much joy to be had, to Little Miss with pink frosting in her hair, a pinata on the church playground, and baby after her bath in the kitchen sink, it was an action packed two hours. Odds are good that everyone slept well last night. I think I even relived bits of it in my dreams.

I was photographer for the event, looking for special images to capture the day for Mom and the girls. After 25 years as a journalist at small papers where I did double duty as photographer, that's the role I'm generally assigned. That, along with an unofficial co-host (a role grandmothers get when there are so many little ones) kept me pretty busy.

Sometime during church service, however, while I was anticipating a big time, it hit me that there would be a ghost at the party -- or not at the party, depending on how one looked at it. After the party, after the cleanup and the loading of tired and cranky girls, packages and leftovers, I completely fell apart.

I knew that I would have to fall apart on his birthday, but I didn't realize every birthday party was going to bring on the pain.

Ethan loved birthday parties. He loved children, and cake and, although whatever it was that made him feel separate always kept him standing in the background, he would have been there. E1 would have been so happy to see him. Although he wasn't around a lot, she doted on him and her sisters would have come to do so as well.

At all the birthday parties, he's been a shadow in the background. One I didn't always take the time to photograph while focusing on the little people, but who I can find bits and pieces of in most of my birthday pictures.

Yesterday, however, there was no warm, swallowing hug, no smart remarks about my pirate get up, no beautiful smile, no big, gentle hands catching little people, or getting a second helping of cake, or helping with cleanup.

The last time I saw him was at E1's birthday in August, nearly four months before he died. He'd been using again, but not that night and he enjoyed visiting with cousins, eating grilled hot dogs, cake and homemade ice cream in my front yard. I made not one single, decent photo of him, although I can still feel that last hug in the driveway when he left with my parents (he didn't have a license any more), still see him getting in the car, riding in the back seat while my dad stopped to make some smart remark before leaving.

I wish the party hadn't take so much of my time and that I'd had more time to just be with him, but there's a million of those things I would change if I could have a redo. None of them are an option, so I just have to learn to live with my regrets.

Learning more about addiction, I know that although he seemed to have fun, he didn't get the pleasure from those gatherings that we do. I've learned that his drug took over his mind so much that it was the only thing that could bring him real pleasure and that, perhaps, he stood back not just because he often didn't feel he fit in, but because in the back of his mind he may have been thinking about when he left and getting high again and how he knew that would hurt us but he couldn't stop himself.

I know he was filled with love for his nieces, his sister, and the rest of his family and friends, but not enough love for himself to realize that somehow, he was worth taking care of and saving. I know he would never have wanted to ruin a party for any of us, he would want to enjoy it with us.

Yet these parties and family gatherings, the times when I could have usually counted on seeing him, are going to be the toughest times for a while. I'd grown used to his absence in so many ways that it's almost easy to get through the days without focusing on the fact that he's not just a phone call away and he's not going to randomly call me. Almost. And when we are all together, there's enough activity that one often silent young man, may not be missed in the heat of the moment.

It's afterwards when everything becomes a memory that I store away that his memory is buried a little further back under the new memories. It's while I'm downloading pictures and almost looking to see where he was at. It's while I'm looking at the faces of children and remembering another child long ago. That's when it hits me like the train that didn't cause the crossing guard to drop, sending me spinning into dark places where I feel my heart shatter into a thousand pieces yet again.

I'm glad the girls share a birthday, so there will only be two of these parties to get through this year, not three. But I already know that the one in mid August will be hard. I will want to be very busy and very involved, not looking for another ghost in the shadows.

Because he won't be there at all, although he'll be everywhere for me.

Ethan's memory, his ghost if you will, caused me pain yesterday, but thinking about him this morning has brought me smiles as well as tears. That ghost that lingers around birthday parties is one I'll have to come to terms with and, eventually, be happy to see because it's a happy spirit and those are happy memories. What makes them painful is that they are just that, memories.

There will be no new memories, but Ethan lives forever in my heart.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Lessons I've Learned From Grief -- Part Two

Life is full of grief.

When I was little, I grieved over my cat running away or breaking a toy. When I was older I grieved because the boy I liked didn't like the girl with frizzy hair and braces, because my grandparents had the German shepherd I'd grown up with put to sleep without letting me say goodbye.

By high school, it seems I grieved over everything.

I still remember how bad it hurt to find out that my first date had stayed for the second show at the movies and hooked up with someone else. I grieved the loss of my two best friends when the ex-boyfriend of one of them asked me out, turning me into a social pariah my senior year. I grieved that the boy who sat behind me in social studies and aggravated me would never ask me out because we were just friends.

Then real life came rolling along and I discovered there were bigger things to grieve about and bigger hurts that lasted longer, like a marriage where I was the only one who was ever at home, first in an empty house and then with a baby. I grieved for the dog I'd had since I was a teenager, the cat who wiggled her way into my heart then ran across the road, another dog, for the end of that marriage, the loss of my paternal grandparents, the loss of the job I wanted to do for all my life.

But I picked myself up and went on to another marriage where I learned about addiction and pain and the grief of loving a person who couldn't always be the person you loved, until I couldn't love him any more and be safe or sane and I grieved another marriage. I found another job I loved, and another, and wound up grieving for them as well. I grieved the loss of more dogs, a few more cats, my maternal grandparents.

I thought that each grief helped prepare me for coping with the next one, and maybe it did. Grief was brought on by losses that were harder to get over, harder to pick myself up from. Yet even as I mourned the loss of my Jack Russell terrier Al last spring I thought, "How do people survive those really big losses without some training from the little ones?" Saying goodbye to hamsters and cats and dogs, teaching our hearts about mourning and recovery, surely has to help when it's our grandparents, our parents, or someone else.

And maybe it does, but it seems that we're in training for those foreseeable losses. We have to be able to envision a world where we say goodbye to those people. It's part of the reality we accept as we grow older and those comparatively little losses, while they may stagger us at the time, are like the training wheels on our bikes and they teach us to balance and keep going.

I've learned, however, that nothing trains you for losing a child. Nothing prepares you, even the doctor's diagnosis, the sudden silence of a fetal heartbeat, standing by the bedside of a child who is no longer really in the body you've bathed and cherished, or watching them slip away through years of addiction. Nothing.

No matter how much you think you're prepared, as a parent, all you do is hope for a mistake, a miracle, even misidentification. It cannot be your child that is dying, or your child that is dead. Even now I wake up some mornings hoping it's all been a bad dream. I go to bed at night hoping I can dream about him, just so I can see and hear him again.

Losing Ethan taught me that there is no way to be prepared for dying, no real way to be prepared for living. Love opens us up to the most incredible pain that destroys us in ways that no physical trauma ever can. Yet we do it, and do it again because it also brings us unmatched joy and because it is who and what we are meant to be and do.

But just as I learned about grief, I learned about myself. There were lessons I learned on that morning six weeks ago, lessons I've learned every day since, and lessons I continue to learn.

I didn't know I'd be able to share my pain. Really. There was a while when it felt like something I should lock into a box in my heart and treasure as something that separated me from the world. It wouldn't take the place of Ethan, but I could love my pain and suffering. I could keep it to myself and take it out when I was alone to wallow in self pity. I could wall it up and, without meaning to, let that wall stand between myself and the people I cared about and who care about me. I could let that wall keep me from moving forward down the path I've been given to walk.

But somehow that didn't happen and I know from messages and calls, from unexpected hellos and hugs, that God is using me to help other people. I never aimed to be used in this way, but I cannot deny it and turn away either. I've always had words in my heart and although I've never used them this way, it was because I never had these words to use. There was a reason they were always there and perhaps this is it. I didn't know that so many people were hurting, and that my words would be more than a salve to my own battered heart, but perhaps the words that they needed as well.

I know that is a singular lesson of my grief, but there's a greater lesson in grief that many of us learn unexpectedly. As my capacity to endure pain has grown beyond anything I expected, I've found that I not only grieve for myself but for the world around me. When I learn of someone else's loss, I stand at the brink of the same pit they are falling into and remember the pain of the plunge. When someone is in pain, battling a difficult diagnosis, struggling with an issue in their lives, I want to help. I want to reach out and tell them someone cares, even if it is someone they hardly know or don't know at all. I pray for people I've never met because I cannot reach them to let them know I care.

It seems in tearing down the wall that would have held my pain in, I've also torn down the one that kept the world's pain out.

When I manage to leave the house, I realize that I see the world differently. I don't feel as harsh toward the less than perfect people around me, more caring toward the seemingly disenfranchised, a desire to hug people who look as though they need one. I'm less inclined to be judgmental because I realize so many people are like me, burdened with things that not everyone knows.

The world is a tougher place than we realize when we are living our blissfully unaware, day-to-day lives and dealing with the easy things like getting where we're supposed to be on time, doing household chores, paying bills and even fighting over the things which turn out to be inconsequential.

When we finally have to cope with the hard things, we realize we're actually not as tough as we thought.

If we're lucky, we realize that about everyone and like many things about grief and loss, it changes who we are.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

What To Do When You're the One Who's Sick

Living with children during the cold and flu season is like playing Russian roulette.

No, seriously. You know if you play long enough, something is going to take you out. And you multiple the number of bullets in the gun by the number of children you're in close contact with.

I don't think the baby is really big enough to be picking up strangers' viruses yet, but I'm still spinning the chamber with two bullets in it and I was hit in early December with some sinus crap. Now there's a stomach bug making its way through the ranks now, apparently a norovirus, and I feel my days are numbered. I've cleaned my fair share of poop and puke in the last week and Mom has been sick as well. Although right now our focus is on the little people and getting them better, there's no guarantee that I've dodged the bullet as I'm often the last one to come down with whatever we're sharing.

So I dug up this draft from mid December, (I actually wrote most of it the morning of Dec. 15) when I was hit by our first virus of the season and when all the little girls and their parents had been sick.

Silly me. I thought I'd dodged the bullet that time as well. Then I got up a couple of days later feeling less than ideal. Actually, I woke before 5 a.m., two days running, just not feeling good. By the evening of the second day, I knew I was coming down with something and double dosing on Vitamin C and Zinc weren't going to save me.

You know that feeling when your body is just off. No real symptoms yet, and it's not like you could run to the doctor and get a preventative any way. Or a cure once you're actually sick. You do what you can to stay warm, take a little better care of yourself, and hope you can beat it off. Sometimes you do and you're likely to think you were just imagining feeling bad. Then there are the times you have to admit you're sick, can't get off the couch or you're going to die sick -- well, that is only an option if you're not the chief caretaker of little people who can't be expected to take care of themselves.

Moms can't take the day off from their children and unless I'm totally dysfunctional (an ear infection has done that once in the last four plus years), I don't take the day off from being Ma either. Generally, the little people roll in and I survive the day, although it may be touch and go by late evening.

Dealing with the virtually untreatable ailments of winter is one of the toughest battles most parents face. I know, we'd rather be sick than have to deal with sick children for a host of reasons. We know how bad we feel and have a larger selection of pharmaceuticals to treat our symptoms. When it comes to the children, we may never know exactly what hurts or how bad, and even then have a limited selection of doctor approved medications to dole out. While we may double dose ourselves into survival mode, we'd never do that to our children. And besides, when they're sick, we know it's just a matter of time because while we might manage to keep a germ away from them, they'll always share.

Even if parents had rather be sick themselves, it is the most miserable time. You cannot simply tell your child to leave you alone. No, you still have to care for them. You want to care for them. You're driven to care for them even when every fiber of your body screams for you to stay in bed. So you'll pull your chill-shaken body from beneath the blanket where you found a bit of comfort and fetch them a cup of juice. Or you'll hope the stomach virus doesn't hit too hard while you prepare them lunch. Ah, the joys of parenthood. Or in my case, grandparenthood.

So how do you cope when the children are jumping off the furniture and you've lost track of the baby because you just had to close your eyes for a second, even though you don't think you went to sleep?

For future reference, I looked for some ideas for when Mom (or Ma) is sick and toddler isn't. I think these are worth hanging onto, because winter is far from over.

1. TV time. Oh, I know, we hate the sound of children's shows sometimes and we don't like to count on television as a babysitter. But when the adult in charge is under the weather, relent. Depending on how sick you are and how good they are at entertaining themselves, consider using kids' shows or movies as an option. As long as you have good choices, it isn't always a bad thing.

2. Swap toys. Most children have more toys than they need to have out on a regular basis. You may have two toy boxes and keep one in backup reserve. Then you can rotate the toys on days you don't feel well. Another option is to dig the toys from the bottom of the box, where they've probably been forgotten, and reintroduce them.

3. Hide a few new toys. Seriously, what child doesn't get more than they need at every special occasion. Pick a toy that doesn't catch their eye quite as much during the gifting frenzy and put it away. We have birthdays this weekend, so we may have an opportunity to save a few items. When you need something new to entertain them, it will be there. Granted, you can do this with practically any toy that they don't play with on a regular basis simply by hiding it for a week or two. If by some miracle you don't need to pull them out, you can always celebrate the arrival of spring!

4. Take advantage of naptime. Well, if you're lucky enough that all your little ones still nap. Put yourself to bed when they lie down and don't get up until they do, regardless of what you might feel you need to do around the house.

5. Get the family pets involved. If you have a dog who likes to play fetch, let them play in the house as a treat for the child and dog. You may be surprised how long they are entertained and how much energy they burn, making naptime that much more effective.

6. Allow untraditional play. Does your toddler always want to pull out the tupperware and wooden spoons? Let them for a day. If you have something around the house that will entertain them that they aren't usually allowed to touch, but that is really safe, indulge them and take a break.

7. If you can talk, read to them. Most older preschoolers are willing to listen to way more books that you usually want to read, but since they don't take a lot of energy on your part, indulge them.

8. Be an obstacle course. This is best for baby or smaller children, and when you don't have a stomach bug. When you want to lie down, do it in the floor and let them crawl over you. E3 loves that now and she's not so big as to be uncomfortable. When her older sisters get into the game, however, they have to be reminded to be easy.

9. Get outdoors, if the weather permits and you feel up to it. Studies have shown that light exercise and fresh air help boost your immune system, so it may actually speed your recovery. If you have children, odds are good they have a few outdoor playthings that they can enjoy while you sit in the sun. Or, as an alternative, take a walk and the activity will warm you and tire your little one.

10. Ask for help. Oh, heaven forbid that we should admit we cannot do it all, but seriously, sometimes we can't. When Papi got home on the Friday I felt so bad, he inherited not only play, but discipline of E1 and E2. After getting tired of their bickering, he corrected them and they wound up snuggled on opposite sides of me, but at least the drama was over until Mom arrived. We do not have to be superhuman, just ask someone else to give you 30 minutes or an hour when you really need it. Maybe it's your partner, maybe a grandparent, or maybe another mom who will let you return the favor. Cut yourself a little slack and get well.

When you're sick and the little one isn't, it's really all about survival and getting better as quickly as possible, so take advantage of any trick in the book to get through the bad days. And remember that taking care of yourself is as important as taking care of them -- really -- because they can't have the best of you when you're not at your best.