Sunday, March 31, 2019

Our Family's Oxymoron

Today I drove the route that with one turn would have led me to your cemetery. The route is picturesque and especially so today with an early spring snow fall newly on the ground. I found my mind wondering to conversing with you, something I rarely do, and it inspired me to write this blog. It is March 31stand every turn around the sun I remember April as the month that I spent in and out of hospital as my body slowly and painfully failed to carry you. As I drove, I opened myself up to the conversation, the things I would have wanted you to know about the day you were born, the story I will never get to tell you.

You would be approaching seventeen in May; it is just unimaginable. I try to picture you, wondering if you would tower over me like your brothers or would you be smaller, more petite if you had survived? Survived… the word punctures my heart; it reminds me that there was nothing I could do to save you.

When I gave birth to you the pediatrician swept you away for the briefest of moments, knowing that our time was short, she measured your Apgar’s, the test that evaluates your ability to thrive. It was not long before you were placed back in my arms wrapped in the tiniest of quilts where you looked swallowed up in flannel. The doctor informing us that you scored ones and threes where we needed nines and tens. Nurses measured your beating heart, gently calling out numbers to a doctor recording them in the corner – “90 beats per minute.” Your warmth radiated through the blanket and although we were told you weighed one pound, six ounces, the weight of you lay heavy in my arms. 

I watched as your little mouth opened and closed, mimicking breathing. Maybe you were instinctively looking for food, but your movements were not quite the nuzzling of an infant looking for milk. I felt so confused, every instinct in me wanted to feed you, to believe that if I could simply give you nourishment our reality could change. I was starkly silent to my normal nature and yet my mind was on fire screaming “help me help him.” People moved alongside me, your dad and grandparents, weeping and holding me as I whispered my apologetic love to you.  

Where my body failed to carry you, I was now failing in my duty as your mother. I didn’t know how to fight for you or what to fight for.  I wished I could have asked you what you needed of me.  Would it have been the life you wanted if I had insisted you be rushed to a NICU? Would the choice to intervene and in turn barely touch you give you the resources to live? Should I have asked your tiny body to be responsible to fight for life, constantly trying to ward off death? Let me be clear mister, I would have taken you any way I could have had you and I realize that may be idealistic and selfish and a thought born out of this lifelong grief I bear without You. But that wasn’t what we chose because the grim realities were laid out before us while I was still struggling to grow you within me. 

I wanted to run, my arms and legs itched to flee the reality of that delivery room and only thirty minutes into your life the doctor told us that we had a window for the surgery that I needed, and we would be wise to take it. I decided to leave for surgery and not witness your last moments of living. I left that to your dad and not because I was thinking of him and what he needed but because it was unbearable to struggle with the fight or flight response raging in my body. Just writing this I can feel it awakening in me like a primal scream. 

Dear boy you were surrounded by so much love and you gave us an hour and a half to instill our message of gratitude and to cherish your life. We didn’t know in that moment how much your wee imprint on our souls would influence our lives and our family. We are about to acknowledge seventeen years with and without you in our lives, and I realize that you are the oxymoron of our family, you are the little giant that roots our family. Darling Boy, thank you.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Making Room

“Sometimes you just don’t know what you need until you need it.” 

While that can be true of anything, it was particularly true on Flynn’s last anniversary in May 2017.  I didn’t blog about the anniversary, the second time in 8 years. I thought that I had wanted Landy to observe the anniversary with me, in fact the year before I had asked that he spend the next anniversary with me and he agreed he would. That is what we did, we spent the day together and we both agreed it was awkward, anxious and disjointed. Admittedly, it was the third anniversary observed together in fifteen years and we didn’t really articulate our expectations; we would do it differently next time. However, this blog is not about May 3rd, it is actually about May 5th, the day we went for a visit with Landy’s grandma.

We haven’t often talked about Flynn with Landy’s grandma, he seemed off limits for her. When he was born and died she was in Winnipeg visiting her sister and so she did not make it home for the funeral. I don’t remember expecting her to be there and as anyone who has stood in the shock of death can attest, I didn’t even know who was there. It was approximately a month after the funeral before we had dinner with her and while I probably said Flynn’s name nearly twenty times, she would kindly and firmly change the subject and finally it was clear that he wasn’t going to be discussed further.

For years I was unsure how to “be” around Landy’s grandma. She had experienced the death of two adult children, her son (Landy’s dad) and after Flynn, her daughter. While I felt like an outsider in my family, my friend group and in general, I wanted to feel connected with someone who understood and had knowledge on how to cope with grief. It was an undiscerning need to make meaning and find community in our loss and it became clear that would not be Grandma’s role. Following Flynn’s death, I would experience anxiety or panic about visiting with her and it would take me many more years to gain the perspective that stories of death and grief could co-exist without invalidating each other. To be clear she never said anything dissuading me from looking to her in grief, quite the opposite, she said nothing. In some ways her silence around grief and Flynn’s death became a source of shame and insecurity around my own identity as a bereaved parent.

2017 was different. Landy made plans for us to visit, 2 days after Flynn’s anniversary and I had vocalized that I did not think I could go. The year had been particularly difficult for me and I did not want to set Flynn aside to visit with Grandma. Landy asked me to reconsider, his grandma is in her mid 90s and while he understood I was struggling, he wanted me to be there. I agreed that it would be better if I went. Dinner was nice, we made casual conversation, caught up on extended family news and after we were finished Landy took the kids to play in the facility's game room. I sat with Grandma and talked about some recent work success including an upcoming presentation at the International Grief and Bereavement Conference. This is the conversation that followed:

“The What? Oh my, that is not something we would have had in my day!” She continued, “I know you counsel people {about grief} but we just didn’t go out and talk about this.”

“Well Grandma, you likely found support at church or in your community which may have helped. Today we live in a secular society where people do not always have a sense of community or they are not geographically able to access it.” Grandma nodded and I am unsure what spurred me to continue but I did, “when Flynn died I felt isolated and lonely and counselling really helped me.”

It was then that she said the thing that I will be eternally grateful for, “it must have been devastating to go through that, it is never easy to lose a child.”

Through tears I told Grandma that he would have been 15 just 2 days before, she looked at me and I felt extraordinarily vulnerable, she said “I often think about Flynn and wonder who he would have been. I wish he was here and we would have gladly made room for him in this family.” Even as I write these words, I do so through tears.

Sometimes you don’t know what you need or what your heart has been missing until that moment comes along to fill it. That short but meaningful moment with Landy’s grandma, Flynn’s great grandma was an act of kindness and grace that filled a tiny hole in my heart. She made room for Flynn in her family that day and for that I am so thankful.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

How I Know I am Strong

In the early days of grief people told me that I was so strong for how I reacted to Flynn`s death. Numb and unable to experience or express my emotions, I put my energy into tasks. I called friends and family and recited the facts of Flynn`s birth and death, I met with a funeral director to make funeral arrangements, talked with a florist about flowers for Flynn`s tiny casket, and chose cemetery plots and a plot marker.  I wrote Flynn`s funeral service and made the remembrance card that attendees would take with them.  Essentially I was finding a way to simply put one foot in front of the other not out of some sense of strength but merely as a way to survive. I wasn`t the only one being asked to muster strength in a time of grief; Landy was also told to be strong for me, Flynn`s mother, because I would need him and both of us were told that our responsibility was to focus on our oldest and let him bring us strength.

I often wonder if people would have told me I was weak if I had cried or even wailed and expressed my profound sadness that my tiny son was dead and I would have to somehow carry on without him.  I am curious why our society asks or even demands that grievers are "strong" in the face of such despair and heartbreak? What a disservice our language serves in the aftershock of death and how unfortunate that our discomfort with grief has us asking that people restrain themselves (an act of strength) rather then expose the depths of their pain (an act of vulnerability).

So here is how I know that I am strong. I allow myself to fall apart when I no longer want to hold myself together. I seek out relationships that support me in being vulnerable and exposing my pain. I courageously experience my feelings and share them through meaningful connections with those I love. I experience empathy and compassion from those around me and ensure that I am capable of showing it in return. I willingly share Flynn with friends and family so that his impact on our life leaves a legacy beyond the mere hours he spent alive. I don't ask people to be strong in the face of death and grief, I ask them to be kind and generous with their heart and soul and that I am there with love and compassion.

This type of strength is a continuous and ever changing journey and just last week I cried. It was a loud, wet, messy sob that lasted for several minutes and did not in any way resemble the Hollywood version of crying~ one tear slowly trickling down the cheek. Tears pooled in my eyelids until they dumped down my cheeks, washing away the foundation and smudging the mascara I had so carefully applied to appear polished for the day.  The noises from my throat and mouth sounded like honks and grunts while my mouth curled into a grimace that simply opened and then closed again. Between sobs I gasped for breath, gulping whatever oxygen the slight pause in my crying would allow, chest heaving and empty inhalations wheezing through the silence. Every muscle in my body hardened and tensed while my emotions, suppressed until this moment, rushed forward escaping through the opportunity my crying had presented. There was grief, heartbreak, helplessness and frustration interwoven with tones of love and hope. On that day a week ago I was reminded that the earth had continued to turn and another 360 days had passed; soon I would be facing 15 years since I last held my tiny son kissing him and whispering I love you while simultaneously saying good bye. It has taken a great deal of strength to grieve, sometimes every fibre of my being, because while that was the first day without him, I now know that I will have to face every day for the rest of my life without him and that is more goodbyes then I can count.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

We All Lose - An Essay by my Very Talented Son

I want to start by saying that this is a very raw narrative that my oldest wrote for an assignment at school (not for the faint of heart). While I am very proud of him for his honest and at times heartbreaking look at his life, it was not easy to read.  The reality is that while he has lived this, so have we - beside him, at times feeling terribly powerless and afraid. If I could have written in the margins of this assignment I would have reminded him that his existence was me winning. Our family has experienced loss and his struggle is his to navigate but not alone and not by losing. Maybe we have a future writer on our hands (even though he says he hates english).

There are many things to lose, almost too many. Losing isn’t avoidable it is a part of life. Whether it be a game, a loved one or an opportunity, if we lose hope or motivation, we all lose. A born winner takes losing much harder than a born loser. Everyone deals with loss differently and for different reasons. For example, losing a game may be experienced differently then losing family or friends. In life we all lose, some just lose more than others.     

I am a born loser. I have managed a few lucky wins here and there but the rest of the time I am losing. I have lost members of my family, I have lost my motivation for success, I believe I am lost. My best friend is the complete opposite, he has been winning since day one. He had a small hiccup when his parents split, but for the most part he is winning. He is intelligent, athletic and has a drive to be successful; I believe he can’t lose.

When I was born I was diagnosed with cellulitis which lead to late onset group B strep.  I was hospitalized for two weeks and was at risk of contracting meningitis, that was when my losing started. At age two and a half my parents told me that I would be a big brother. I was almost three years old when my baby brother died just two hours after he was born. I don’t remember much from that time period other than the dramatic shift in our house from joyous anticipation to devastating despair. My mom became a shell of her former self, empty like the room he was supposed to fill.

It would be seven years later when the Grim Reaper would rear his ugly head again, this time taking my “uncle” away from me, from his family. This man who I aspired to be like. A father who had just welcomed his fifth child. He was the most caring man I knew. I became extremely aggressive in a futile attempt to suppress my pain, the feeling of losing, the feeling of emptiness I had only experienced once before. If a streak consists of three, then this is where my losing streak begins.

Four months later I was on my way home from Disney World with my family, when my mom got a phone call. She sunk deep into her seat, face slipping into a hollow frown as streams of tears flowed from her eyes. Those same awful streams from seven years earlier. It wouldn’t be until we were home that she would tell us that my Grandma died.  I lost control of all my emotions, experiencing endless fits of anger.  The loss of her felt like fuel had been thrown on the fires of an already burning fury.

I went two years without losing anyone.  At the end of grade six I lost my dog. Copper the only dog I ever knew. He was my confidant, he comforted and understood me, we grew up together. Suddenly he was gone and my heart was ripped from my chest. The hurt was immeasurable and the emptiness reached new levels.  I felt so empty like there was nothing left in me to be empty.  I began to slip away, just coasting through life trying not to get attached to people. I wanted to prevent myself from losing more than I already had.

My simmering anger now turned to rage and I blamed it all on my parents.  I tried to run away from everything, love, attachments, my home, but that didn't work because I was only thirteen. I resorted to thoughts of killing myself so I would never lose anyone ever again. I would be freed from the sadness, the anger, the emptiness, the loss. These thoughts were in my head for years; how to do it, when to do it, where to do it. This was how I spent my formative years of thirteen, fourteen and fifteen. At some point the thoughts stopped, I began to realize that if I died I would just become someone else's loss.
At sixteen I lost my great Aunt to lung cancer and my Uncle to a heart attack. I felt nothing. I wasn't affected by their passing and I was not sure if it was because we were not close or just because I was so empty that I had stopped caring. I don’t know. It scared me to think that I could not feel and maybe never would again.  How could I live without emotion, was that even living? For just a moment I wondered if I could bear to keep losing if that was what life was.

Just last month I lost another one of my uncles. We saw him two to three times a year and when we did, him and I would have long conversations about how I was doing and if I was still playing baseball?  He would tell me that he would like to come and watch me play and I would always say that he was welcome but I would never reach out and give him a schedule and so he never made it to a game. Then he was gone, gone forever and I cried.  There was sadness and pain which was followed by a profound joy at the realization that I was alive.

Some may say that I have been burdened by loss. From my earliest memory I was losing and it followed me throughout my life. At times it seemed unbearable and something that was suffered in silence and other times it seemed to scream through my anger derived from my emptiness.  Life can be a collection of losses or an accumulation of memories, I still trying to figure out which one is me. For now, I have lost. I am lost. I will lose, we all do.      

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

A Photo Journal of Another Anniversary that ended in Conversation

Long title to a blog, I know, however I did not want to misrepresent myself, it is not just photography and I plan on ending this blog with the conversation that I had with Landy as I think it was a really important one.
Today is the 14th anniversary of Flynn`s birth and death and this is how I spent my day.

I woke up this morning and it was kinda sunny. The type of day that is mostly cloudy (not the fluffy kind, more the gray rainy kind) with moments of sun poking through.  I dressed in layers for the day and as I left my house I noticed that Flynn`s tree, the weeping pea that we bought after he died and have transplanted 3 times, was budding it`s leaves.

I started the day with my children, whether getting them ready for school or daycare or sipping a coffee on the couch while they got themselves organized for the day.  I did not remind them of the significance of today, not in the morning, I wasn`t prepared to share it with them.

Then I was off to the floral shop where I confused a florist for ten minutes as I requested six, no seven blue orchids before changing my mind and asking for two blue, two purple, two yellow and one white orchid (one to represent each member of our family).  Then came the usual argument where the florist insists on putting water picks on the sprigs and if not that then orchid food and finally if not that, at least let them wrap it in paper.  I had to explain three times that the flowers were simply being placed on a gravestone and did not require any additional treatment.  Finally she tied a blue ribbon and let me leave.  When I arrived at the cemetery I noticed that I was one sprig short, how fitting.
Next, I was off to a favourite coffee spot where I could indulge in a "breakfast" of sorts and made use of free WiFi.  Getting lost in the project I was researching, the sound of the shop fell away and I was left in a tranquil quiet of my own making.

Lunch was spent in the company of care, nurture and friendship with a side of sushi!  I never tire of talking about Flynn or the stories that surrounded our life during that time and today was no exception.  Susan listened as I shared aspects of his story that she may have never heard before and I appreciated her sharing her own moments in time (past and present) where I could listen for her.  We ended on a note of enthusiasm as we discussed a potential project we would like to work on together!

My afternoon was spent watching my oldest play high school baseball, something I may not have another opportunity to do, given our crazy schedules.

I ended the afternoon with a friend pedicure alongside Tonya. I want to share the message she sent me today, as it meant a great deal (as did all the loving messages I received on Facebook, Blackberry Messenger and text).  It started when she asked me how the day was going and I told her that it felt like a heavy day, different than other years, this was her amazing response:

My day ended in a conversation with this guy.  A long time ago I called myself a grief pusher.  At the time I was learning about my own grief journey but was also pursuing an education in social work.  The concept of self determination and the unique and individual experience of grief was a theoretical underpinning to supportive social work practice in grief and I was taking it all to heart.  I took what I was learning and applied it to my marriage; Landy deserved space and appreciation for his own grief journey and I started to give that to him.  Consequently, this little label that I had created of a grief pusher had stood in my own way when it came to Flynn's anniversary.  While I love and appreciate the friends that surround me, the person I most wanted to spend his anniversary with was the one person who like me understands what Flynn's death felt like.  Today I told Landy how hard it is to do this day without him.  I told him I want to do this day together, that is how we experienced Flynn's life and death and I hope that is how we will honour his day.  It will not surprise anyone that it was met with love and kindness and an acknowledgement that next year will be different.
It was a good day.