It feels like it has been a full week, but it is only Wednesday night. There have been multiple moments of crisis that although tragic, have also reminded me of the sheer power of the human will to provide for others. I am continually humbled by the ability of others to support one another.
I am thankful for so many people who have joined me on my journey. As I mentioned in my last post, this blog is only a small portion of Joshua’s story. It was drafted over the past five years, but only became a unified text, during my final graduate school course when I was assigned to submit an original piece. The assignment gave me the excuse I needed to write, revisit, revise, edit as well as to reflect. Now, I am working to share Josh’s story with others with the hope that they will find strength and courage for their own lives through his story. I opened the original draft with the following acknowledgement:
“If you are reading this at this point in my drafting, it is because you have been a part of Josh’s story. Thank you for your continued love, support, and guidance.”
Today, that acknowledgement still holds true. September 12 is the National Day of Encouragement. I invited my students to write in response to Matt Hires’ “Hold You Up.” Each of his lines echos the way I have felt, the way I feel, as well as the doubt I have held attempting to not feel the way I have felt, as I stumble to find my way towards grace. Yet, his piece also draws me out of this doubt reminding me of all of the people who joined together to hold up Courtney and me when we needed it most. Hires’ upbeat acknowledgement of both pain and purpose pushes me to, as one of my National Writing Project friends says, “take the time for the conversations that matter.” At the end of the day, I want the people in my life to know how much they mean to me. Life can be taken so quickly.
This weekend, while grading papers at City Brew, I learned one of my past students had been killed in a car accident. She was 20. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what to say. There is no speaking at times like this. So, I opened my notebook and wrote about the life that should have been and the community that is left picking up the pieces of broken youth.
Each year I walk students through a cultural frames activity. I asked them to consider how each interaction and experience from their past has shaped and molded them into the individuals they are today. It is a hard exercise for me to model, because I know I am only allowing half my story to surface on the page as an example. Still, even now, I am critical of my story and its conflicts. I am aware that I can not unlearn what I know regardless of if it is a universal or personal truth. I am the person I am today because of both my life experiences and the people who have been influential in writing those experiences.
I write searching for warmth
I write to hold the moments
Our first home had a large picture window. Daily, at 4:30 PM, sunshine would pour through and onto my sofa. It was one of my favorite spots to sit with Josh. When I was pregnant, I would come home and sit there in the bright light and let the sunshine warm the springtime Montana chill out of me. I couldn’t have a beer, so instead, I drank in the light and colors outside the window. Months later, I would fall asleep with Josh on my chest in the middle of the night not wanting to wake the sleeping house for his late night nursing. When I was home during his final four months, and we desperately needed the sun, I would open the curtains and tell him about what was going on in our neighborhood. When we knew we needed to hold onto each moment together, this became our safe space. During our last two days with Josh, Courtney and I took turns holding him tight to us, fighting off the fear we knew was fatefully upon us, and watched the snow fall.
It is a strange gift to know our time with someone is limited. I think of my student’s family whose only warning came with the harsh news of loss.
I write to continue breathing
I write with empty arms
December 17, 2012: How can we let go when we love someone so much? Looking into his eyes, I couldn’t tell if he wanted to stay or wanted me to accept he needed to go.
He had been fighting to breathe for almost a full 24 hours, 12 of which he had been in one of our arms on the living room sofa. His breathing had increased to 90 breaths a minute. We increased the baby-sized oxygen mask to its max level.
Our families prayed. A friend had pizza and a basket of fruit delivered, prepaid, to our doorstep. Her friendship and support constant, necessary, and always timely.
We held onto each moment.
Seeing the same look I saw in our son’s eyes, Courtney asked,
“Should we give him a break from the oxygen?”
“Yeah, we probably should.”
We continued holding him for another twelve hours, our breathing slowing with his.
I write; I cannot teach experience.
I write; there is never enough time.
We sat together on the sofa and took turns calling family members. While on the phone, we were strong, trying to support the person on the other end of the line. However, each time one of us heard the other say he was gone, it felt like a punch in the stomach we couldn’t defend.
A few years before Josh’s birth, I lost a close friend at the young age of 26 to brain cancer. His best friend learned of his passing when it came across his Facebook feed. At the time, I pledged to never have it happen to those I love. When we learned of Josh’s diagnosis, we set up a phone tree in the hopes that our close friends and family would not learn of our son’s death on social media. One friend, who was traveling when she heard the news, activated her branch of the phone tree sitting in an airport. Our notification tree worked for about two hours until a random acquaintance posted “So sorry to hear of the loss of your son. Praying for you” on my Facebook page. Social media can be both a means of support or another punch to the stomach.
We waited for the on-call hospice worker to arrive to confirm Josh’s passing. There was a knock on the door. I answered assuming at 6:00 PM on a Monday night it was the on-call hospice worker, instead it was a door-to-door vacuum salesman. I am familiar with some of their pitches, but this man, young and seemingly new at his job, appeared nervous as he frantically spit out “Do you use Kleenex?” instantaneously as I opened the door. I said, “I do,” and he launched into his vacuum selling campaign. I soon stopped him with my unsteady “I am sorry, our child just died. We really aren’t interested, but yes, we have been using a lot of Kleenex.” He stared at me, then looked past me into our living room to see Courtney holding Josh. “I am so sorry. May I give you a hug?” I accepted his hug and said “thank you.” He left, and Courtney and I laughed a little wondering if the man would call it a night, after mistakenly thinking it was a good idea to knock on our door.
Three days earlier there had been a school shooting in Connecticut at Sandy Hook Elementary. When the on-call hospice worker arrived to confirm Josh was no longer with us, she told us we were fortunate since we knew our child would die. Within an hour and a half of our son’s passing, she told us we should be thankful because she couldn’t imagine how sad the 20 families were that night. The shooting was tragic, we agreed, but her comment caught us off guard because in that moment, all we could think of was our loss.
If you don’t know what to say,
Sometimes saying nothing is better.
Over time we have received hundreds of comments similar to hers. Sometimes I brush it off, other times I come unglued. I remind myself one can not compare loss, grief, or a level of sadness. Loss is loss.
To allow space for our grief, we went to the nursery and held Josh until the mortician arrived. We could hear the hospice worker playing games on her phone in the living room, each Angry Bird explosion echoed through our silent home. I still hear that sound when I think of that night.
While we waited, another friend arrived. She had heard the news and wanted to know if we needed anything. We thanked her for her support and asked to have a little more time alone as a family. Again, support came in the form of a friend.
When the mortician arrived, he introduced himself and said “I am so sorry for your loss. I am a grandfather and I can’t imagine what you are going through.” He waited for me to say goodbye and then ever so gently took Josh from my arms. He said “I have the heater going in the car and will seatbelt him in so that he will stay safe on the drive.” I handed him Josh’s blanket and waited as he carefully wrapped it around my son. It was a genuine gesture of kindness.
Courtney and I sat for a while in the living room and then decided we should go for a walk. The stars were out. The December air was the kind that burned our lungs. Christmas lights lit up in our neighborhood and we walked the half a mile to the post office, not really to check mail, but just to have a destination when we didn’t know where to go.
Sometimes when you don’t know where to go, you just have to keep going. But as you go, it is important to remember we are not alone on the road. Matt Hires’ writes:
“Out of sight
Out of mind
And the silence won’t break
All your signals in the sky
They go unnoticed
And it’s all you can take
When it’s all you can take
Let me be your escape
Oh and nothing’s gonna stop my love for you”
Courtney and I asked a friend to compile a slideshow to share during Josh’s service. It was a gift of true compassion. In almost every photo, our handsome man was in someone’s arms. He spent his entire life being literally held up by those who loved him. I believe there is grace to be found in our capacity to love.
I hope my love for my son is evident not only in the way I cared for him, but in my commitment to share the hard stories with others who may feel alone in the silence of grief.
This past weekend I completed my second marathon. My sister flew out for the weekend and left encouraging sticky-notes in my shoes and on my race bag. All along the 26.2 mile course, I had support and love from so many of my key supporters. It was still a long race, but I didn’t have to run it alone. Emma even gave me a high five before I crossed the finish line.
Grief, unlike a race, doesn’t have a finish line. I think of the family who is just beginning this race. Tonight my heart is heavy, but I know the morning will bring sunlight.