Grief is Forever

It has been ages since I’ve written in this blog.  Months.

Part of me feels bad because I want to document this process of grief that started…well, the grief started long before Luna, but my documentation started with Luna.  But what I’ve discovered is that grief is forever.

The way that my grief makes itself known is different now than it used to be, but it’s still there.  It’s a little monster that sits in my chest and waits until small tiny little nothings appear (like the perfect bite of pinto beans and cornbread or a Wonder Woman sweater that’s not my size) before it attacks and causes fresh pain all over again.

It will be six years in December since Jake died of his heart attack and I still pause before cleaning out his bathroom because I remember how I felt the first time I cleaned it after he died.  We found him on that floor.  He died in that room.  And the feeling I get is not disgust or sadness, it’s fear that I’m erasing evidence of his presence in that room.  Fear that I’m removing him from the space.  I still make my family call his room HIS room.  Not the spare room.  Not the blue room.  Jake’s room.  Uncle Bubba’s room.  Because he existed. He filled that space and to call it anything else ignores that…..doesn’t it?  (Forget the fact that my son, Bo, is like a mini-Jake in his interests and habits and personality.  Case and point:  he is currently working on a book of mythical creatures, now that he has finished his instruction manual for building a dragon robot.  I totally blame Jake for that one.)

Four years ago this month, we found out about Luna’s Turners Syndrome and started the whole medical rigmarole of appointments and ultrasounds and echocardiograms two and three times a week.  There are certain smells and sounds that I associate with that time in my life – medical tape, the rubber tubing of a stethoscope, the sound of velcro like a blood pressure cuff, the ppppbbbbbt sound of squirting gel out of a bottle.  It’s silly but every time someone squirts stuff out of a plastic bottle (ketchup, mustard, hair gel), it reminds me of the ultrasound where we found out Luna’s heart was no longer beating.

That means it has been almost four years without Jen.  I see so much of Jen in her sons that I miss her almost constantly. There is not a day that goes by that I don’t wish I could call her and talk to her.  Even to this day, I still forget sometimes that I can’t call her up.  Someone gave me some sad news this morning and my first reaction was to pick up my phone and call a dead woman!  The saddest part of this for me is that I find myself holding in a lot because she isn’t around to talk to.  That woman was so easy to talk to that I could vent about her TO her!  I have a collection of stories that I’m saving for her one day.  Maybe I should write them down.

And my dad.  Oh, Daddy.  I don’t even know where to start with my daddy.  I’m still not sure how I’m functioning without having hugged that man in almost three years.  I’m not ready to get in to that.

BUT, my point is that grief doesn’t ever go away.  It doesn’t stop.  Once you’ve experienced it, grief will always be a part of you.  Those of you grieving now?  Don’t wait for it to go away.  Don’t expect to “get over it.”  Don’t think there is something wrong if it still hurts after all this time.

It changes you forever. FOR.EV.ER. (How many of you said that like the kid from the movie Sandlot?)

But don’t let it change you for the worst.

Yes, I am sad more often now than I was.  But my happy is more happy than it’s ever been.  My joy is amplified to degrees that it never could have if I wasn’t given the opportunity to see and appreciate what God has given me.

I miss Jake and Luna and Jen and Dad.  I have these great big gaping holes in my life that cannot be filled up with anything or anyone else.  But I also have these amazing people in my life that love me and need me. My family.  My friends.  My students.  My coworkers.

Thank you God, for teaching me to love with more of my heart.  Thank you, God for showing me how to minister to my family, friends and students in ways I never could before.  Thank you, God for giving me the opportunity to help those who hurt.  Thank you, God, for making me more like you.  Continue to work in me, Lord.

Thank you, my loved ones, for loving me back.

Isn’t that what makes us grieve in the first place?  Our love?  What I mean is that I wouldn’t be sad about any of them if I didn’t love them in the first place.  I wouldn’t miss them if I didn’t love them.  I wouldn’t be upset if I wasn’t blessed by having them in my life in the first place.

Grief is forever.  But so is God.  And God is love.

 

3 years, 1 year, 9 months, 1 month

It has been 3 years since we found my brother Jake dead.

It has been about 1 year since we buried Luna.

It has been 9 months since we gathered at Jen’s bedside and she breathed her last.

It has been one month since our Baby Joe was born.

It seems that the longer we live the more anniversaries and milestones we have to remember. It almost seems like every day has different memories and every day marks some meaningful event.

I have been mulling over this entry all weekend because I thought I would have something more meaningful to add to this. The truth is that the more things change, the more they stay the same. It still feels like yesterday that Jake was slicing my throat with his hand and poking my side so I would jump a mile high. It still feels like Jen is a phone call away and a drive down the street. It still feels like nothing has changed and at the same time, it feels like nothing could ever be the same. Baby Joe will never get to fall asleep cuddled into his Aunt Jen. Maggie and Joe and their cousins Grace and Lolo will never get to play crazy imagination games with their Uncle Jakey. I will never have to whine about finding Jake’s hair all over my floors or complain to Jen about how she never lets me sleep because she wants to stay up late to talk. And Luna would be 9-months now!! What would she be doing? Standing? Pulling herself up? Getting ready to walk?

Some days I can convince myself that nothing has changed and then other days I feel like my loss is dragging me around behind it leaving me bruised and battered for weeks.

It’s strange the things that remind me of my siblings. We got this baby chair for Bo that vibrates and plays music when he was born. We used up the batteries when Bo was a few months old and hadn’t replaced them until a day ago. (Yes, that was four years and two babies ago.) So I hadn’t heard the chair’s music since before Jake died and when we turned that chair on for the first time with Baby Joe in it, my brain got confused. I totally expected to find Jakey in his room doing his ridiculous exercises or something.

And of course it’s Christmas season. So everything reminds me of Jen. Decorating the tree. Christmas shopping. Presents. The other day I saw PeeWee’s Big Adventure on TV. And whenever I dress my children to go out in the cold, at least one of them is wearing something she made.

And can I confess something? Sometimes, if I walk by a window or mirror at the right speed and angle, I think it’s her for a split second before I realize it’s my goofy reflection.

I guess what I am saying is that memories and reminders can be random. And those days where you are expected to remember the ones you’ve lost are no different from any other day except you are reminded more often in the day. And while I am confessing things, I admit that I sometimes like days where I get to think about them more than usual.

Joy

My grandmother recently posed a question in a daily devotional she emails to some of her former students and some family members like me. She asked “Are you joyful?”

What a question.

In the past two and a half years, the two siblings I considered my closest friends (the ones I saw the most often, opened my heart to and knew the best) have died. One died suddenly of a heart attack and the other died after many years of hospital stays and treatment for leukemia. One died in my home and the other died with her family by her hospital bed. On top of that, in November, I lost a baby at 25 weeks of pregnancy and delivered our Luna stillborn the day after Thanksgiving.

But that wasn’t what passed through my brain when my Oa asked if I was joyful.

I was thinking about Easter. I guess I should clarify by saying that she sent this email out around Easter, which is probably why it came into my head. But here we were at Easter celebrating the day Christ conquered the grave, rose from the dead and saved sinners around the world. How could I be less than joyful?

My joy does not rest in my life here on Earth because all these things are temporary. Losing Jake and Jen taught me that firsthand. If I thought my existence ended here when I died, or that their existences ended when they died, then I would have no joy. If my life here on Earth was everything, then all this pain and loss I have experienced the past few years would be everything. But it’s not. My life basically BEGINS when I die. I will be with Jen and Jake in heaven worshipping God for eternity and glorifying Him in ways I can’t here.

So yes, I am joyful. I am joyful that my God and my Creator had enough mercy and grace to save a poor angry, selfish, impatient, needy woman like me. I am joyful that I get to move past the hurts and the pain of this life and spend eternity experiencing joy that I can’t even imagine. I am joyful that the same God who gave me everything I have chooses to bless me continuously every day. I am joyful that my God has chosen me to bear the burdens of loss that I bear because I know He has a purpose for them and for me. I am joyful because the life I have been given is a life that serves a purpose.

I am also joyful because my losses have taught me not to take things for granted. My God has blessed me so many times in the past thirty years that I cannot linger on the losses and hurts without also thinking of a million reasons to smile. The majority of my memories of Jen are of when she was alive and vibrant and strong – not thin and tired and struggling to breathe. Praise God. My soul aches when I think of the infant I could be holding right now, but it also soars when I think of the tiny soul God has already placed in my belly, due less than a year after Luna was delivered. Better than that, it soars when I think of all that Luna taught me and all the time I got to have with her regardless of her early death. I cannot mourn the five miscarriages my sister had without also thinking of the gorgeous miracle that is her daughter Lolo Fe and the incredible (and gorgeous) miracle that is Jes herself – a woman who never gave in to hopelessness and continued to be joyful no matter what God gave her. I cannot think of my brother’s funeral without remembering the few chuckles I shared with my parents and siblings during the ceremony. I cannot remember my sister’s memorial service without feeling incredibly proud of my brother Chris and nephew Alex.

I guess what I am trying to say is that my heart is joyful. My heart is JOYFUL. Regardless of what I have been through, my God is the same God He always was and always will be and when I handed my life over to him, I did it because I trust Him. And that makes me joyful.

I am joyful because my life is about Him and not about me. Well, at least it should be and when I remember that, I am joyful.

Running on my Treadmill

Someone asked me once why I prefer to use a treadmill over running outside. (Notice I didn’t say “run” on the treadmill.) Sure, when you run outside, you get to watch the changing landscape, and the treadmill keeps you locked in one spot. And outside, the distance you’ve traveled actually feels like a distance whereas the distance on a treadmill just feels like the passage of time.

But the reason I use a treadmill is because I can’t trust myself to keep pushing through the rough spots. On a treadmill, I have to make a firm decision to slow down because I have to push a button to do that and it beeps at me in an annoying, judgmental way. Without that treadmill determining how fast I’m “running” I would run as slow as I possibly could while still looking like I am running. I would avoid those hilly or difficult paths and go for the flattest, simplest, easiest runs possible.

Now, I know that the benefits of exercise would probably be felt sooner and that I would get to my goal fitness level/weight/condition sooner if I had the discipline to push myself without a treadmill telling me what to do. But I know myself, and I don’t have that ability right now. For me, I get in shape faster when I use a treadmill because it forces me to burn calories in ways I never would choose in the midst of my sweaty, exercise-induced exhaustion.

In many ways I feel like my life is this way. If it were left to me, I would never choose to push myself. I would never choose to go through the difficult events in my life. I would have kept Jake alive. I would have kept Luna and would be anxiously awaiting her arrival even now.

I certainly would not choose to give my sister leukemia either. I have watched my sister battle leukemia for over 11 years now and her strength and faith have grown me in immeasurable ways. These are things I never would have learned if it was up to me to choose the path of my life. I would have skipped that path if I approached it on my “run.” I would certain be skipping this most recent hospital stay which feels so different and so serious.

Good thing God is my treadmill. I made the choice to step on that treadmill and allow Him to make decisions for me. It’s much easier to say that you’ll choose to do the difficult thing before you get there. To push those buttons picking a challenging program before you have started. Before you are sweaty and exhausted. Before you start doubting your ability to finish.

There are definitely days when I am positive that I can’t finish and I want to push that button to slow down my treadmill. This weekend feels this way. My feet are dragging. Sweat is getting in my eyes and my heart feels like it is going to burst out of my chest. Maybe I am over-reaching with this metaphor?

The weekend started with some rough news regarding Jen. Anyone who knows Jen knows why the docs won’t give us a timeframe. She is stubborn to a fault and if we try to tell her how much time she has, she will do anything to prove us wrong. We visited her at JHOP on Friday night and she slept most of the time we were there. She has wasted away to a fraction of her physical self and when she opens her eyes, I see a pain there I haven’t seen before. But I did get to see a glimpse of the typical Jen when someone asked her if she needed a nurse and she scoffed, “psh….NO.”

And as a kind of morbid bookend to my weekend, Monday is Luna’s due date. I am not really sure how I am going to feel on that day, but I have certainly been on edge all week leading up to it. There is this surreal feeling as though I have forgotten something or left someone somewhere. Instead of preparing sub plans for my maternity leave, I am lesson planning for the rest of the year. Instead of waiting to feel contractions, I am waiting to hear news about my sister. Instead of feeling excited anticipation, I feel grumpy, antisocial and impatient. Instead of being excited about going to the hospital to deliver a baby, I am hoping I don’t get the call to go to the hospital to be with my sister.

Maybe I would be a little more prepared to handle this if I hadn’t spent the last week going double-time and trying to keep up with everything while Patrick was out of commission with his back problems. Maybe I would be better prepared to handle this stuff with Luna if Jen was healthy and home with us.

But I am not pushing the button to slow down on this treadmill. God has chosen this “run” for me for a reason and He will be glorified through me; otherwise, all of these things would have happened for no reason. I chose a life that would shape me into the woman God wants me to be, and if this is what it takes to get there, then so be it. It is never easy to get our body to look the way we want it to, imagine how much harder it must be to shape a soul.

Father God, I trust you with my life. I hand it over to you completely and I know you will do what is best. Give me the strength to climb these hills and the determination to keep running. Be with Chris and Al and Will and comfort their aching hearts. Create in me a heart full of compassion for others who have experienced loss in their lifetime. Show me the way to use what you have allowed to happen to me to bring you glory and honor, for you are the only one worthy of our praise. Thank you for the time I had with Jake and the joy that Luna brought into my life and for the incredible relationship I have with Jen. I have learned so much from these people – these precious jewels – in my life and I continue to learn from them all. I pray I can be as selfless as Jake, as wise as Luna, as strong as Jen and as faithful as Chris when you need me to be. In all things, Lord, your will be done. In Jesus’ holy name, Amen.

Everybody’s Best Friend

Two years ago today was one of the most important days of my Christian life.

It was a Monday. I got up and got ready for work and woke my brother Jacob up at 6:50 to take care of baby Bo like always. He didn’t live with us, but stayed in our spare room during the week so that he could be our “manny” or man nanny. He grumbled a little and Patrick said something about how awful Mondays are. Jake says “Hey Bogus” and goes into the bathroom which is directly off the bedroom.

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One-year-old Bo and his best friend Jake

That is where it stopped being like a regular Monday.

I sat Bo up on the counter with a slice of peanut butter toast and got lunch together. I even remember which plate his toast was on. Patrick offered to wait for Jake so I could go to work. (He knows I hate to be late and we were driving separately anyway.) I go out to the car and try to back down the driveway which I have done a million times before but I keep riding up on the hill, so I throw my hands up and go back inside to ask Patrick for help. While he is out moving the car, my heart drops a little and I start to worry. Jake doesn’t take that long in the mornings…

I walk into his room and ask the closed bathroom door “Are you alright? Jake? For real…are you okay?” No answer. Patrick came back in and I pretend I am not flipping out and ask him to check on Jake. He knocked on the bathroom door and tried to open it. He had to force it open because Jake was leaning against the door, completely unresponsive.

Patrick yells for me to call 911 and starts CPR. I remember having to yell at the 911 operator because she was asking me stupid questions just to keep me on the line. “Do you need me on the line? Because you’re not really helping me anymore and I need to call my family!!!” I call my dad and don’t get an answer. My mom doesn’t answer her cell either. I run down the driveway to move the car so the ambulance can get up to the door. Finally I get a hold of my dad.

The rest is a blur of calling all my siblings and answering the EMTs questions. I accidentally say Jake is 24 when he’s really 25. The EMTs can’t get a heart rhythm and they scratch the wall with the gurney. We load Bo into the van and follow the ambulance to the hospital where my Aunt Mecky meets us and takes us to some secret waiting room for people with serious cases or something. The bereavement room. My mom is already with Jake. My dad shows up soon after us and my brother Jack joins us in the secret room. Too soon my aunt is back and she takes my hand and whispers like she can’t bear to be heard, “He didn’t make it.”

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Me and my little brother Jake cuddling on the couch.

My whole life changed that day. I can still hear my brother Joe screaming on the phone when I tell him Jake died. No…it was more like wailing. The way I imagine they wail and mourn in the Old Testament, ripping their clothes and throwing ashes on their heads. He was in the car with is fiancé and Jake was his best man. I remember saying something stupid to Jes about her trying to get off of work. Duh. Of course she would take off work and come to the hospital. No one had been able to get a hold of my brother Jimbo yet. Jen was in the hospital fighting off pneumonia and Chris was driving to Hopkins to tell her in person.

That morning was a mess, but in that morning I saw more clearly than ever that God is in charge.

If Jake had died ten minutes later, one-year-old Bo would have been by himself all day until I got home from work around 4. If he had died ten minutes earlier, he wouldn’t have seen Bo one last time and I wouldn’t have seen him. If I had backed down the driveway like I always do, I would have been on the way to work when Patrick found Jake. Since Jake died at our house and not at home, he was taken straight to the hospital where my mom was working. And my aunt was even at work at the hospital that morning too, so she could be there for my mom and for me.

If God had not crept into my heart that morning, I would have been impatient and angry that Jake was taking so long in the bathroom. I mean, that’s my natural frame of mind…my typical response to life. Anger. Impatience. Selfishness. But that morning, I wasn’t angry at all. Not one tiny bit. God even controlled my heart so that I wouldn’t live in regret for my attitude that morning.

God orchestrated every detail that morning. Right down to my heart. Right down to my sinful, angry, selfish heart.

I mean, it was Jake’s heart that gave out. He had his first heart attack at 16 and his last nine years later. Nine years we didn’t know we were going to get. Nine years God blessed us with.

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This photo was taken after Jake’s first heart attack at my high school graduation dinner

Don’t misunderstand me. That day was awful and every day since has felt incomplete because Jake isn’t here to share it with us, but I trust that God has got it all under control because HE managed to control even my temper that morning. It certainly wasn’t me. I have been fighting that thing for almost three decades now.

Even though I miss Jake more now than ever before, I get to see bits and pieces of him in my Bo and in my siblings. I can watch a movie and feel like he’s sitting right next to me because I have watched that movie with him so often. I can eat certain foods and feel close to him because the smell reminds me of him and I can see him standing by the stove with his pony tail down his back.

And I am certain that this peace I feel about losing Luna is totally God’s doing. But I blame Jake too.