Love and joy are abundant during the Christmas season. This love also makes it a sentimentally-charged season. So many of us have lost loved ones. In remembering their lives, although full of joy, it is also painful to remember how much we have lost.
The first year was tough; an eternity of first-withouts. Our grief counselor encouraged us to not get attached to traditions or specific things we had to have on both Josh’s birthday and on the day he died. Her advice was simple: do not chose something you can not sustain because when you lose the ability to maintain it, you will feel the loss all over again. Instead, chose something that can be as flexible as your grief and will grow with you over the years. Her guidance continues to direct my decisions.
This year, I struggled with if I should take a personal day on the day Josh died. I have taken the day off for the past five years to allow myself space and time to grieve in whatever way I choose without societal pressures to be okay. I went back and forth on my decision to work this Monday. Shouldn’t I save my leave days for Emma? Was I being selfish for wanting a day to not have to pretend that his death doesn’t still effect me? Through all of my indecision, Courtney was supportive and patient. I teach in a district that prides itself on emphasizing staff self-care, but also know many of us feel guilty when we take time to do just that. After weeks of stressing about the right decision, I realized I was fooling myself if I though I was going to do anything but simply function that day.
Courtney suggested we spend the day fishing the Bighorn from our drift boat. This year has been unseasonably warm. We have had sunshine and 40-50 degrees most of December. Although not awesome for our potential summer fire season, most of us have enjoyed dry roads and leaving our snow shovels in the garage. As most of our friends and family know, Courtney is an avid year-round fisherman. As most of them also know, I am a warm weather fisherman often enjoying the sun more than the actual act of fishing. After a few dozen checks of the weather, I agreed to go.
A friend once shared with me a quote she heard in a mental health training, “People always say they would die for their child, so why would they not be willing to live for them.” I reflected on this quote a lot as Courtney and I worked our way down the water. We were one of a few boats on the water on a Monday morning so the majority of the day, we had views both up and downstream of nothing but the sunlight on the water. It was a beautiful day: no wind, relatively flew clouds, and almost sixty degrees. Multiple times I had to catch my breath and wipe tears from under my sunglasses. The day, the weather, and the time together were gifts. I was annoyed that I had mentally beaten myself up for weeks questioning how I should spend that day. Maybe other years I will feel differently, but this year, I was exactly where I needed to be with the only person I wanted to spend the day with to honor our son’s life.
One distinct day with Josh kept surfacing in my memory. He was only a few months old and we had not seen any indicators that he was terminally ill. It was a beautiful spring day for fishing. Courtney helped me load Josh into his Baby Bjorn and then pull my bib-style fishing waders over the top. The three of us and our dog Hoyt headed for the water. The candid snapshot I hold so close to my heart, Courtney captured from upstream. I have often wondered if it is because of the photo that I can remember so much about that moment. I have a fish on my line, Hoyt is in the water swimming upstream after the fish, and Josh is snug in his carrier on my chest. These kinds of moments are what flooded my memory as the sun caught the water just right on Monday.
As I have previously mentioned, numbers tend to haunt me. I hold onto dates that others forget and as awful as I am at math, I somehow always can calculate dates that torment me. Joshua was almost 21 months old when he died. A friend a few years after Josh’s death off-handedly mentioned that I should be over it. I rudely made a mental note to call her when her child turned 21 months old to see how she would feel if we swapped places. I, of course did not do this, but it cemented the 21 month date in my head. This week, Emma turned 21 months old. She is joy in its purest form. Her giggle is contagious. She loves shoes, her dogs, and being outside. I catch myself watching her learn new things: how to piece a puzzle together, how to yawn, and all of the tasks we take for granted that she soaks up daily to mimic. Courtney and I are learning alongside her how to parent a healthy child. The 21 months with Emma can not be compared to the 21 months with Josh. One is not more joyful than the other; both are blessings.
A student gave me a coffee cup for Christmas that reads, “Do more of what makes you happy.” Although I am not big on New Year’s resolutions, similar to searching for grace, this statement will stay on my mind to help me live my life more fully. I miss my handsome man everyday. I love my girl everyday. I love my husband everyday. I need to be gentle with my heart and myself, everyday.