Saturday, December 27, 2014

Life and Change is a Choice after Loss

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

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

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

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

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

So I haven't.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Most Wonderful, and Difficult, Time of the Year

I've always loved Christmas.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Last First -- The Anniversary of Goodbye

Today is my last first.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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