Tuesday, November 25, 2014

We Never Really Grieve Alone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Sweat Doesn't Have To Be a Dirty Word

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

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

That set me to thinking.

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

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

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

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

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

It was one of those light bulb moments.

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

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

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

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Growing Closer to Remembering Goodbye

This is going to be a tough month.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Election Day Brought Another Pain in Focus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Twenty-four," she replied.

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

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

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

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

Even on Election Day.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Grappling with Goodbye

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I'm broken hearted.

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

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

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

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

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

But I had to say goodbye and it hurts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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