Thursday, December 25, 2008

A Different Kind of Christmas

Poor neglected blog. I really did think I've have more to say. I guess the words, like the grief, will come in waves. We'll ride that out, too.

Today is Christmas; my fourth without my girl. Much of the last two months has been consumed by thoughts of this day: what would we do? how would we manage? who would we see? would it still be so hard? Christmas stings especially because it had always been so wonderful. Christmas Eve dinner at the in-laws, midnight Mass, a few hours of sleep before we tumbled out of bed - too excited to wait - and dragged a way-too-sleepy Daddy to the tree. Presents (always too many, always beloved), breakfast, and then a large family gathering of grandmothers, brothers and sisters, and piles of nieces and nephews. In what I have come to think of as the 'good years' (and, no, I wasn't wise enough to call them that then) we hosted that gathering and the house was filled with laughter and love.

The first Christmas after Britt died, we opted out. Completely. No decorations, no gifts, no visits, no feasts. Just interminable hours wishing the day would end. The second year was worse. No longer marking 'firsts', reality was sinking in and the idea of Christmas after Christmas after Christmas with this huge gaping hole was almost more than I could bear. Last Christmas we decided to decorate, but I couldn't bear the thought of pulling out the ornaments she'd made or the Santa collection she'd loved. In one trip to Wal-Mart, I procured an entirely new Christmas look: blue and silver ornaments on a sleek and slender pre-lit fir, blue lights for the front porch, and a star to replace the angel who used to perch atop our tree.

This year, Christmas seemed to stalk me. Decorations started showing up in stores before Halloween, there was much tussle in the office about who was taking time off and who wasn't and what was fair; everywhere I turned, there was Christmas. And, really, I tried hard to be interested. I ordered wrapping paper and planned presents for the Little People in my life. I retrieved the Blue Christmas trappings from the attic...and brought down a few of our old things as well. There's a mercury glass Santa who looks gorgeous next to the blue & silver bedecked tree; some lovely spun-glass hummingbird ornaments that work nicely; even the chunk of lucite engraved 'Baby's First Christmas ~ 1985' found a place this year.

And yet. And still. Not so much with the 'spirit of Christmas.' That seems to have vanished along with my faith and it leaves an odd space to fill. When you have spent a lifetime celebrating the birth of Christ and you can no longer say with any certainty (or even any interest) that you believe God exists, Christmas becomes a bit of a boondoggle. Less about a celebration, and more about what to do with this day. This year, we tried minimal presents, a movie, and a nap. The seats at the the theater threw my back into a spasm and my nap included a heating pad...but overall, it wasn't a terrible way to spend a day. A different kind of Christmas, indeed.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

This Day

Today marks the fifth anniversary of the death of my cousin, Anastasia. She was a smart and beautiful young woman; a new wife and an even newer mother; a dancer; a dreamer; a librarian. Her death, at 23, stunned me. I remember thinking a lot about my aunt and wanting nothing more than to hold my own daughter close and keep her safe. There is comfort in not knowing what the future holds

Five years later, my aunt and I are an isolated group of two in our large and boisterous family. Inside our own griefs, we stand together and watch the rest of them and shake our heads. We ask questions there are no answers to; we keep putting one foot in front of the other.

And, on days like this - birthdays, anniversaries, holidays - we search for meaning and ways to both mark and pass the time that will somehow mitigate the pain, honor the lives ended too soon, make this day more bearable than the ones that came before. Each year we try something different: this time we'll stay home/travel/gather with a group/be alone/wallow/try not to think. And each time, I think, we come back to the same place. This day, like every other, we will remember.


August 16, 1979 - October 18, 2003

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Everything Old is New Again

A few days ago, in need of distraction, I was browsing my bookshelves, in search of something I’d not yet read. In between the Hemingway and Faulkner, old friends that I’ve traveled with many times, I spotted a copy of T.R. Pearson’s A Short History of a Small Place. Catchy title, I thought, and I like Pearson. That’ll do.

I settled on the couch and dove in. Somewhere around page 75, I found a receipt from Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi. It seems I bought this book on the same day I purchased Britt’s copy of The Odyssey for her sophomore Lit class. Small pause there, as that day came flooding back: classes for me in the morning, then off to work at the University Club. Britt walked from school to the club and spent a little time doing homework while I balanced out restaurant receipts from the night before. We skipped out a little early and wandered over the square; purchases were made at the bookstore, ice cream was consumed; we ran into my biology professor on the sidewalk and he was charming to my girl.

The clarity of that memory is startling to me, mostly because – to be frank – my memory is now most often like a fine Swiss cheese; there are holes big enough to drive a tank through and much of what gets poured in leaves just as quickly. That wasn’t always the case. Until Britt died, one of the things I liked best about myself was my ability to remember everything. Big things and little things and all the in-between things. I never forgot a birthday or a name. I could recite conversations verbatim, months after I’d had them. I knew all my projects at work as well as I knew my own phone number, both current and for every address where I’d lived since I was 16. This made me an excellent employee, a sometimes exasperating wife, and a formidable Mom. Now, I’m working on becoming a list maker and a note writer, and trying to come to terms with yet another side-effect of grief: trauma not only slams your metabolism into park, clouds your judgment, and steals your words, it short circuits your memory. Please don’t ask me to tell you where things are or what we did or when we did it. It’s a safe bet that I don’t have a clue and will only begin to recall after you’ve laid it all out for me.

Which brings us back to the Pearson. The book I’d never read, remember? Except, by page 264 things were feeling awfully familiar in those pages. And by page 370 I had remembered the ending. Of course, it ended on page 381, so that’s not saying much. Maybe this will get better and maybe it won’t: the literature is mixed and my doctor won’t commit. I suppose only time will tell. In the meantime, I own at least a hundred books I don’t remember the plots of, a shelf full of movies I can watch again for the ‘first time’, and stash of neon hued Post-It’s to help me muddle through.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Hey, Mister...Can You Spare a Minesweeper?

It’s been a long, melancholy two weeks worth of convention-watching here and I’ve been feeling the loss of my girl quite keenly. Even in the midst of the Democratic convention, where it was easier to get caught up in Hope and Change and History, I wasn’t quite able to escape the sharp pointy sticks the speakers had no idea they were wielding: Everyone kept reminding me that we do this ‘for our children and our grandchildren.’** Well. Hmmm. Okay, then…I’m off the hook? Nonono, not really. And, yeah, I know I could read that as a universal “our” and yes, of course, I can do it for your children and grandchildren and I’m happy to, really, and yes I can do it in the name of Britt’s legacy …but, to be honest, I wish they’d find another way to describe the future, at least some of the time. Because even when you don’t see the sharp, pointy stick, sometimes…ow.

A dear friend recently compared navigating another’s grief to walking across a minefield. I know that she’s right and one of the reasons I love her is her willingness to walk that minefield with me every day. Most of the explosions are just as big a surprise to me as they are to anyone and often I’m shocked (and sometimes alarmed) at what brings me to my knees, what hurts, what enrages me. It’s often a struggle to maintain perspective and consider both the source and intent, - even though I know I should - especially when people insist on saying the most ludicrous things.

No, everything does NOT happen for a reason…some things are just random, meaningless accidents; and No, I do NOT believe this all part of God’s plan, and if you do then I most definitely don’t want to know your God as he is surely an evil, vile being and I'm not even sure I believe in God anymore so can we just give the whole God-thing a rest already?; and Yes I DO have a child, she just happens to have died and that doesn’t mean I “don’t have kids” and it Damn Sure doesn’t mean I’m willing to forgo taking time off around the holidays every year; and…you get the picture.

It’s exhausting and maddening and sometimes contradictory and absolutely like dodging landmines. Another thing I love, in a world where so many things are wrong, is how often my friends are right.

[**It also did not go unnoticed that there was precious little talk of “for the children” at the RNC; I can only assume they are taking care of their kids and you and your kids are on your own.]

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

It's All So Personal Now

I have always been the sort of person who is passionate about politics. Raised in a military family, I took my patriotism seriously from a very young age. I love my country unabashedly; I cry when I hear the National Anthem and I wear red, white, and blue on all the appropriate holidays. Couple that with an adolescent love of historical fiction set in Revolutionary America, and it didn't take long for the ideals of our founding fathers to take root in my psyche. I joined the ACLU when I was 17 years old and have remained convinced that our constitutional freedoms are the backbone of this nation, worth defending at any and all costs. I voted in my first presidential election in 1984 and was sad, but not surprised, when my very first candidate - Walter Mondale - lost to Ronald Reagan. I still have a soft spot in my heart for Walter and I hope he's enjoying his retirement years in Minnesota.

By the time the next presidential election rolled around, I was the mother of an extremely precocious almost-three year-old. She liked to do what ever Mama did and so I took her to the polls with me to experience democracy in action. Thanks to the kind-hearted women working the tables that year, Britt was allowed to accompany me into the voting booth. I showed her how to flip the levers and pointed out the ones we wanted. In 1988 we (or Britt on my behalf, really) voted for Dukakis. She was heartbroken when he lost and she vowed to "vote harder!" next time. We did vote harder, each year heading to the polls together and requesting (and getting) a booth for two. The next two elections gave her a taste of the power of the ballot. 'We voted for him and he WON!" Indeed. We also developed a shared crush on Al Gore and were thrilled to get to see him in person when he and Tipper campaigned in one of our downtown squares.

As the years of the Clinton administration went by, her admiration for Al Gore continued to grow. She embraced his environmental causes with the sort of fervor that only teenagers know and she campaigned hard for him in the 2000 election. She was stunned by the shadiness of that election and took to referring to the sitting president as The Shrub. Where she'd once been a Democrat by default, she had now embraced the party on her own terms. On her 18th birthday, in December of 2003, she asked only for a Voter's Registration Card. I was happy to oblige and I still remember how miffed she was to realize that Georgia does not register voters by party. It pained her that her card didn't label her a Democrat.

In 2004, we voted separately for the first time in her life and I voted alone for only the second time in mine. Her own booth. Her own vote. Her own voice. I really couldn't say which of us was more excited. We talked for a long time that night about how important so many things were to her: gay rights, women's rights, the environment, immigration reform, access to health care, the poor...and I remember her saying "It's all so big, maija, and so important. How can anyone not see?" And I reminded her that it's our job to help people see, in the way we vote and in the way we live.

This week, I'm watching the convention without her for the first time in 20 years. I miss her passion and her commitment and some days it's So Hard to summon the energy to keep caring. But, I made her a promise: I won't forget that it's still our job and now I'm doing it for both of us.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Not Enough Duct Tape in the World

One nice thing about the Ostriches and Eggshells of the world is that they run away so fast; one is spared having to expend precious energy trying to explain anything to them. They’ve left skidmarks; they cannot hear you; save your breath. You’re going to need it for The Fixers.

The Fixers are not afraid of death. In fact, they’re not afraid of anything because they’ve never had a problem they couldn’t solve, a situation they couldn’t handle, or a relationship that wasn’t perfect or ended for a perfect reason. Of course, they’ve never had a child killed in a motorcycle accident either (a great many of them have never had a child at all) but that is, according to them, an insignificant detail. What they know is that something in my life is broken and needs repair. These are the fixers I’ve met so far:

  1. What-You-Need Girl: What You Need Girl has no children and most often no significant other. She may have a cat, but that’s iffy. Her MO is being self-sufficient and self-contained and she’s the sort of friend you love to have around when you're newly, unexpectedly single (What you need is a night on the town!) or feeling your advancing age (What you need are highlights and a manicure!) or feeling stressed and overworked (What you need is a vacation…here’s the key to my beach house!), because she’s always been so great at distracting you and finding things to fill the holes in a life. In the last year or so she’s become prone to saying things like “What you need is a new hobby!” or “What you need is to volunteer!” What she really means is she wants me to find something to fill up this hole in my heart. She doesn’t know how to let an empty space just be empty.

2. Move On Girl: Move On Girl is fairly certain that we have exceeded the allowable time for mourning by at least two years. Her mission is to help us box up our remaining grief and get on with the businesses of living. She offers books and seminars and self-help tapes. She talks a lot about resolution and closure and most of her sentences begin with “Don’t you think it’s about time you….” She doesn’t know how to take no for an answer.

Hmmm…there doesn’t seem to be a number three. Maybe that’s because “What You Need Girl” covers such a broad spectrum. Regardless, it’s getting harder every day to know they look at me and see someone broken instead of someone broken hearted.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Hard Truths and the Occassional Easy Landing

So, that last bit was a little harsh, yes? These days, I find it's best to get the hardest bits on the table early in the game. It's a fact that's not ever going to change and frankly I don't have enough energy to deal with people who cannot deal with that. The bad news is that's a lot of people. An astounding number of people. During the last three years I've met scores of them and have begun categorizing them in my head. So far, they break down something like this:

1. Happy Girl* – Happy Girl’s whole life is about, you guessed it, being happy. She likes to go to fun places, do fun things, tell funny stories. There’s no room for death in Happy Girl’s world because it is most definitely not fun. Happy Girl disappeared sometime between the accident and the funeral. We haven’t seen her since.

2. Eggshell Girl* – Eggshell Girl cannot bear it. It is just too hard for her and she doesn’t understand how we cope. In truth, she resents that we cope and rarely misses the opportunity to tell us how she wouldn’t be able to do it. She says things like ‘I’d still be in my bed’ and ‘I would have had to quit my job.’ Fortunately, her opportunities to say these sorts of things are rare because what she mostly cannot cope with is seeing us coping.

3. Ostrich Girl* – Ostrich Girl has reality issues. In short, she doesn’t like it. She spends her life pretending that bad things happen only to faraway people or people who deserve it and we are a constant reminder of the absurdity of that belief. Ostrich Girl doesn’t always avoid us but she avoids the topic or anything remotely related (motherhood – her own included – , traffic, college, etc.) as though it were the plague. The best we can say about this is that conversations are mercifully few and brief.

4. It Could Happen To Me Girl* – It Could Happen To Me Girl is convinced we are now carriers of some awful virus. If she gets too close she might catch Tragedy and then all sorts of terrible things will befall her and so it’s just better, you see, to keep as much distance between us as possible. She will call occasionally and we’re still on the Christmas Card List, but she won’t be dropping by. And just forget all about those holiday-party invitations and afternoons at museums and getting together for coffee. It might be catching and a girl’s got look out for herself.

The good news is that the people who are left are what my friend Kat would call 'Finest Kind.' And, if you're reading this, you're probably one of them; an easy place to land in a sea of rocky ground. It's pretty rare and I am grateful for every one of you.

[*This naming convention is not meant to imply that guys are any better at this stuff. I'm female and 'she' is my preferred pronoun default. There are plenty of Happy Guys and Ostrich Boys to go around.]

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Word I Won't Find

Before I plunge headlong into the words I’ve found, I want to mention a word I won’t be talking about here because it doesn’t exist: What am I, now that my only child is dead? I cannot name it. I haven’t been widowed; I’m not an orphan. I’m definitely not childless (more on that another day); my daughter is just as much my daughter now as she was the day before she died.

Try to imagine being something, becoming something, so outside the realm of rightness that no word exists for it. Try to wrap a brain that has spent a lifetime immersed in finding just the right word around the idea that it is now nameless.

Yes, I am a mother and a wife and a daughter and a sister. I am a niece and an aunt and a cousin and a friend. I have a title at work and some funny nicknames known only to a handful of people. But I can tell you all of that and you still won’t have the most important piece of the puzzle: I am a mother whose only child is dead.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Finding My Words

In the months after my daughter was killed, I often found myself at a loss for words. Not just the specific words for what had happened and who I had become, but the regular every-day words that had always come so easily to me. I could not describe what I was feeling or explain what I was thinking. I struggled to remember the simplest names for the most ordinary things. I pointed a lot and secretly wished everyone would stop talking to me just to save myself the effort of trying to talk back. Or that they'd at least have the compassion to learn to read my mind.

It took a long time for the words to start coming back. These days, I still struggle for the specific words (what am I now? who am I now?), but the ordinary ones have returned in a flood that threatens to overwhelm me. I will spill them here.